Doctor's Orders: December 12-16, 2016 - WWE Feud of the Year, The Line Between Fandom and Cynicism, and New Day's Place in the Tag Team Pantheon
By The Doc
Dec 16, 2016 - 12:01:19 PM
”The Doc” Chad Matthews has been a featured writer for LOP since 2004. Initially offering detailed recaps and reviews for WWE's top programs, he transitioned to writing columns in 2010. In addition to his discussion-provoking current event pieces, he has written many acclaimed series about WrestleMania, as well as a popular short story chronicle. The Doc has also penned a book, The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment, published in 2013. It has been called “the best wrestling book I have ever read” and holds a 5-star rating on Amazon, where it peaked at #3 on the wrestling charts.
A Revolutionary 2016 WWE Feud of the Year
The Line Between Pure Wrestling Fandom And Endless Cynicism And How Not To Cross It
Are The New Day Among The Greatest Tag Teams Of All-Time?
QUESTION OF THE DAY: What do you think has been the best feud in WWE this year?
In 2016, several rivalries were noteworthy and deserving of inclusion in the Feud of the Year discussion for their combination of memorable matches, historic moments, and engaging television segments. Five were strong enough across each of the aforementioned three criteria to be considered finalists: John Cena vs. AJ Styles, Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte, Dolph Ziggler vs. The Miz, and Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn from the main roster and The Revival vs. Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa from NXT.
Let us begin the analytical recap with Styles vs. Cena. When they first interacted on Raw in the spring, it felt like one of those moments when time stood still that we could only see in a new era. Styles, the most decorated independent star never to sign with WWE, coming face-to-face with Vince McMahon’s Golden Boy was one of the most compelling segments in WWE all year. Though the ensuing heel turn from AJ was strange and the content of the consequent promos was little more than rehash from Cena’s past rivalries with the likes of CM Punk and Kevin Owens, the narrative that took shape in the ring was unique. Styles totally dominated Cena at Money in the Bank but, unlike many who came before him, he still defeated him (even if by nefarious means); it broke the traditional, Hogan-esque formula for Cena. Then at Summerslam, in a trendy Match of the Year pick, Styles beat him 100% clean and would go onto pin him at No Mercy (in a triple threat match) to boot; again a break from tradition. Styles immediately capitalized on it, ascending to heights few thought he ever would in WWE, and now seems poised to factor heavily into the WrestleMania main-event picture.
Other than its unusual results that as well as anything else this year give meaning to the constant talk of this being a “new era,” there is not a lot of meat on the bones of the Styles-Cena feud like there is with Owens vs. Zayn, which carried over their 2014/2015 storyline from NXT into Royal Rumble 2016, where Zayn returned from a lengthy injury hiatus to eliminate Owens during the titular battle royal. After WrestleMania, their renewed rivalry earned a more specific focus from WWE creative, pitting them against each other in a fantastic mid-card match at Payback that was higher octane than their story-driven bouts for the NXT Championship last year. Though their involvement in an excellent Fatal Four-way at Extreme Rules should not be discounted, the crowning achievement of their main roster work together came at Battleground; there they put together one of the ten best matches of a year rife with 4-star encounters. Overall, they were nearly inseparable on pay-per-view through the first seven months of the year, fighting in some fashion at every normally scheduled special event from January to July with the exception of Fast Lane.
The strength of the back-story for Zayn vs. Owens, as was also the case with Seth Rollins vs. Roman Reigns by the way, was its ties to previous years, so while it may not be strong enough to warrant putting solely their 2016 feud at the top of the list, the prior year tie-ins surely will make Zayn vs. Owens (and Rollins vs. Reigns alike) more attractive when comparing the totality of their angles for projects that extend beyond examinations of the 2016 calendar year. Based only on what happened this year, Ziggler vs. Miz was stronger than Zayn vs. Owens. The long-time WWE veterans, of course, have a lengthy history of their own, but taking into consideration that Miz has been on rare form as arguably the best heel in the business over the past four months and that Ziggler has finally begun fulfilling the promise he showed earlier in the decade, the latest chapter in their saga holds an intangible advantage. The promos between Miz and Ziggler were at times captivating and the matches between them were 4-star caliber across three PPVs, allowing the Intercontinental Championship its highest profile in nearly ten years; the last IC Title match with comparable aura and stakes to their Career vs. Title match at No Mercy was the 2009 Mask vs. Title match between Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio.
On the topic of history and championships, these were areas in which two other rivalries stood out in 2016. Tag Team wrestling saw a resurgence to a “top guy” level down in NXT thanks to The Revival. The caliber of the tag team matches that they had throughout the year was the most impressive body of tag team work under the WWE umbrella in at least 15 years and maybe ever – they were THAT great. As top notch as were their matches with American Alpha in the first half of the year, their pair of NXT Takeover bouts with DIY were that much better and quite possibly the two most incredible standard tag team matches of the WrestleMania Era (or are at least in that conversation) – again, they were THAT great. With the Cruiserweight Classic tie-in for Gargano and Ciampa fueling their run to Takeover: Brooklyn 2 and the clever use of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic to advance the emotional investment in the NXT Tag Team Title rematch at Takeover: Toronto, the extraordinary duos complimented their historically great in-ring performances with better than solid storytelling in the lead-ups too.
There is an argument to be made that, in the event of Revival vs. DIY catalyzing a tag team renaissance on the main roster in the near future, their matches together would take on a substantial historical context. Time will tell. No further time is needed, though, to contextualize Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte Flair as the most historically significant main roster women's feud of all-time, eclipsing already even that of Trish Stratus vs. Lita. If you have not previously, allow for a few minutes the gravity of what Sasha and Charlotte have achieved together this year to weigh on you. They began feuding at the Royal Rumble and will be one of the headlining attractions at yet another PPV this Sunday. In between, they have eliminated the stain of the Divas Championship by ushering in the use of a title belt designed to mirror the image of the men's World and Universal gold; they stole the show at the biggest WrestleMania ever, wrestling the best main roster women's match in WWE lore to that point; they had one of the top candidates for TV Match of the Year at least twice, including a match that helped take the sting off the downside of the brand split; their match at Summerslam was gripping for a variety of reasons and kick-started the game of championship hot potato that has continued ever since; they became the first women to main-event Raw in twelve years and the first women to ever main-event a PPV period; and their Hell in a Cell match is a dark-horse candidate for WWE Match of the Year.
Despite Banks playing a somewhat unnatural role (for her on-screen personality anyway) and being forced into somewhat generally catty dialogue for a protagonist, her diminutive stature and wrestling style has made her a perfect foil for Charlotte, who has grown into her role so well as an antagonist that she might actually be the best heel in WWE right now. Watching the Four Horsewomen start the Women's Revolution in NXT was fascinating, but for Charlotte and Sasha to spearhead the main roster equivalent, making it less a promotional tagline and more an actual movement...that's been incredible to witness.
No other WWE feud in 2016 can quite match that which Banks vs. Flair has brought to the table. Cena vs. Styles was a microcosm of the new era, Owens vs. Zayn was a great mid-card rivalry, Ziggler vs. Miz was an ever greater mid-card rivalry, and DIY vs. The Revival may well be reviewed as the stimulus for tag team wrestling’s return to glory in WWE, but Charlotte vs. Sasha put forth performances on par with their male counterparts and Ronda Rousey-ed the WWE, raising women in wrestling to the main-event level. It is a brave new wrestling world that we are living in, folks; revolutionaries like Banks and Flair are as much a part of that as anyone.
Every single one of us began watching wrestling for similar reasons; we were pulled in by its unique mixture of theater and sport, by the pomp and circumstance of the personalities and/or the athleticism of the in-ring performances. It brought something to our lives that non-members of our enthusiast fraternity struggled to understand (and still do). You could say that, once upon a time, we were all innocent fans unconcerned with the minutiae of booking or rumors and were, conversely, consumed by a purer passion that offered us a respite.
What happens to us?
Statistically speaking, if we were to investigate the time that diehard wrestling fans of middle-to-high school age or older spent questioning the direction of the WWE product versus the time that diehard wrestling fans spent enjoying the WWE product, do you think it unreasonable to suspect that the ratio is likely to be around 3:1? And even if the percentage of complaint to content hovered closer to 50-50, can you see the inherent irony in critiquing something to such a degree when its original role in our lives was uncomplicated, unadulterated escape from the real world?
In a day and age of instant access to the most intimate details regarding just about everything, the line between pure enjoyment and faultfinding is thinner than ever before – for sports, entertainment, and sports entertainment – but what makes us so prone to crossing it? When does the wonderment dissipate and the vitriol toward someone like Roman Reigns, the disdain for a red leather championship belt, the borderline blind desire to see Brock Lesnar “make” a new star, or the litany of similar objections consume us?
Psychologically, the reasoning may be very simple: we live in a world in which the biggest things going on often seem beyond our control and, thus, we seek to exert more control over less important things as a natural response. Healthcare for many industrialized countries, especially in the United States, is a mess; the number of mass shootings continues to rise; domestic and global politics are chaotic to say the least. Being one among the billions on Earth can be daunting when faced with the question of what to do about the world’s many issues. It is a feeling of borderline helplessness at times and it trickles down from problems affecting massive populations to those that affect us individually. Be it in school with teachers and fellow students, at work with superiors and clients and colleagues, or at home with loved ones, there is so much going on that we have so little control over; so we turn to professional wrestling for a diversion.
Wrestling is interesting animal because it is offers us more influence. An outfit as large as WWE gives us a measure of control by pushing the talents to whom we offer our visual, vocal, and monetary support and, perhaps because we are collectively starved of control over other things in our lives, we take to their offering like a fish in a bowl waiting for a few pellets of food. Somewhere along the way, though, frustration sets in when we sub-consciously realize that sports entertainment is just another thing in our lives about which we have little control.
When you have kids, you go into the experience of parenting often thinking that you are going to do things so much differently than your parents because you think you are in control and then, low and behold, your kids turn out to be these dynamic individuals with minds of their own who, despite your best efforts, sometimes go off the reservation from that which you thought you had taught them well and do things in their own way. Stripped of the power you thought that you had, it can become a volatile situation wrought with frenetic emotions like anger and righteousness, which ironically cause you to spiral further away from even the simplest form of control – that of the control that you have over yourself.
Are our relationships with wrestling much different? Like that between parent and child, the wrestling fan and the wrestling promotion go through various stages of development together. Innocence is inevitably lost and cynicism attempts to envelope it completely. For example, Rock vs. Hogan sadly morphs from an unforgettable spectacle to a match between a broken down fifty year old struggling to keep up with a star in his prime and about which people say, “It's terrible if you watch it on mute.” It is rather sad, but the nice thing about wrestling is that when the relationship between WWE and its “Universe” becomes more complicated, social media – as did forums and chat rooms before it – enables us with a safe environment to become more emotional with very limited repercussions. Lash out with your parents, your spouse, your boss, your clients, or your kids and the effects can be deleterious to the immediate and long-term future of those relationships, but lash out on Twitter or even in column form about wrestling and it is basically no harm, no foul; we can rant until we are blue in the face and no one cares.
However, among the various downsides to our instant gratification society and the various advances that, like social media, have grown to support it is that, whenever we lose control online, some of us have a tendency to become very legitimately angry about it, lashing out accordingly in a variety of destructive ways that are probably fueled by the pent-up irritation from other parts of life. That caliber of emotion does not go away so easily. Think of the negativity we are prone to spew as so-termed “internet wrestling fans” on social media; we can be some serious Debbie Downers. Are you familiar with the Law of Attraction? What you think about, you bring about? If you constantly gravitate toward displeasure, you are unlikely find much pleasure in it. If wrestling becomes only 25% your escape and 75% the medium through which you vent about the things you are so angry about not being able to control – if “You Can't Wrestle” is actually code for “I hate the President Elect” or “I hate Brexit” or “I hate my job” etc. - then it has ceased to serve the constructive purpose that it once occupied in life.
We are all guilty of being arm-chair bookers. Between Shane McMahon's threat to wrestle another prominent match, WrestleMania's alteration into a “Showcase of Old Mortals,” James Ellsworth, and the one to beat the “1” in “23-1” being Goldberg, there are plenty of things that I personally dislike about WWE right now. What we all have to remember, though, is that analyzing the product and criticizing it endlessly are two different things; that is the line, when we reach our present states of wrestling fandom, that we have to guard ourselves against crossing. To analyze pro wrestling is to keep ourselves grounded in the knowledge that the only thing that we have control over is ourselves, examining the product while still allowing ourselves to be positively lost in it, embracing the escapism minus the neediness to exert more control over it than we have. To criticize endlessly, on the other hand, is to take personal that which is not personal, to allow wrestling's place in our lives to become another source of disgruntlement.
Day by day, our reality is shaped by our mindsets; we can choose to be overwhelmed by the grade we struggle to make or the kid who won't stay in his/her bed all night or the under-compensation for the hard work that we do; we can also set our intent to achieve and, one day at a time, move forward toward our goals. That is what the marathon of life is all about. We long, borderline beg, for the moments in wrestling that allow us to give up our need for control, that inspire awe, and that return us to that purer form of fandom. That is what wrestling is all about, right? A lot of us have crossed that aforementioned line, but any of us who have can simply cross back over it once we remember that we can.
“Think of all the things that you could do in 16 months. With 478 days, you could go to 68 Saturday matinees at the movie theater, watch your favorite team play 243 Major League Baseball games, or sail around the world six times.” – From The WrestleMania Era: The Book of Sports Entertainment chapter on Demolition
As of tomorrow, The New Day will have broken the longest Tag Team Championship reign in WWE history and, if it was not up for debate before the popular trio hit 479 days, then surely it is now: is the combination of Kofi Kingston, Xavier Woods, and Big E among the greatest tag teams of all-time?
It is certainly worth discussing, if for no other reason than the fact that statistical records are important for creating historical separation among a pool of candidates. A lot has happened since New Day walked out for a television segment without the bronze-plated belts. For those of you that have young children, reflect on the milestones that they have reached since Summerslam 2015; for those of you that are students, you are three semesters closer to graduation than you were when New Day started their current reign; some of you may have found new careers or met the love of your life since last August. A year and a third is long time during which a lot happens in life (and in wrestling) and one of the constants throughout the last 1.33 years has been New Day as Tag Team Champions. That is a historically great achievement.
Greatness, though, is not just defined by championships. The reason why The WrestleMania Era was written was to create a more specific criteria for what constituted pro wrestling “greatness.” If you narrowly define it by the vastness of a title reign, then New Day is the greatest tag team ever, but even if you just compare them to the team whose reign they just surpassed – Demolition – Kofi, Woods, and E still might not move ahead on the overall greatest list. Ax and Smash, recall, were more than just an entertaining segment; they were the focal points of a stacked tag team division that included the likes of The Hart Foundation, The British Bulldogs, The Brain Busters, and The Rockers. In what was quite possibly the most competitive era for tag team wrestling in WWE lore, Demolition ruled the roost and were significant players for three straight WrestleMania cycles, amassing during their illustrious careers a still-record 700 days total as champions in WWE across their three reigns. So, if we are ranking New Day and Demolition by their golden trophy cases alone, Ax and Smash still soundly defeat the new single reign record-holders.
The area in which New Day gains ground on Demolition overall is the financial boost that they have provided WWE during their reign, which by all accounts has very if any tag team peers. They are on a New Age Outlaws-level as merchandise sellers if not even a level above Road Dogg and Billy Gunn given the variety of items that they have been able to sell; The Outlaws certainly never got anyone to buy unicorn horns in bulk or prompted WWE to have a cereal created from one of their catchphrases. New Day have moved so much merchandise, in fact, they are in a class traditionally reserved for main-event singles stars. Former LOP column writer, Zuma, put it nicely and succinctly in a social media chat on the subject that New Day’s legacy is the financial impact that they have had. It is also the driving force behind the argument for their inclusion in greatest tag teams of all-time conversations; simply put, without it, they have no leg to stand on.
With their immense popularity at the merchandise stand and their record title reign, New Day likely does move ahead of Demolition and The New Age Outlaws. Working against them when comparisons are made to Rock ‘n Wrestling teams or the TLC Era tandems or the incredible duos from NWA/WCW lore, however, is their complete and utter lack of a memorable rivalry; they mowed through their competition, consistently engaging the audience with promos that elicited thunderous ovations while never once having a standout title feud.
Granted, you could argue that it is not New Day’s fault that they have lacked competition at the top of their division, that they are very much, like The New Age Outlaws, a team that excelled during a weak era in tag team wrestling. Is that really true, though? They did, after all, defeat The Dudleys, The Usos, and two prominent members of The Bullet Club. Meanwhile, down in NXT, running parallel to the timeline of New Day’s 479+ days as champions on the main roster, a tag team revolution (of sorts), born of incredible in-ring performances, began in earnest and was spearheaded by The Revival, who pulled tag team wrestling away from its requisite remaining-scraps-of-special event-space status and made it a feature attraction under the WWE umbrella. Many would posit that what Dawson and Dash have done for tag team wrestling in the ring is equally as impressive to what New Day have done for tag team wrestling as bankable personalities.
One thing is for certain: The Rock ‘n Roll Express, The Russians, The Midnight Express, The Road Warriors, The Hardys, The Dudleys, and Edge & Christian all historically benefitted from being pushed in the ring to pull off memorable matches and accordingly reach greater heights as headlining acts on pay-per-view; New Day, to present date, have not been afforded those same benefits. As great as they are at the merch-stand and as impressive as their title reign is on paper, they are nowhere near the aforementioned teams in regards to performance or to pushing tag team wrestling to main-event heights.
What would really benefit New Day are a few more months with the titles culminating in a loss on a big stage to a team with whom they engaged in a lengthy, back and forth dispute; they have just not had that, even with teams that on the surface would have provided more legitimate foils. Enzo and Cass seem primed for that role opposite the Trio of Positivity and, should a rivalry form between them that escalates at the Royal Rumble and hits its crescendo with New Day dropping the belts to The Realest Guys in the Room at WrestleMania, maybe then Woods, Kofi, and E will be the complete package and leave no room for debate.
Being one of the greatest in wrestling requires a thorough analysis of all relevant data points. That New Day have held the Tag Team Championships approximately 400 days longer than the average reign during this decade is absolutely impressive; that they are one of the biggest merchandise cash cows of the decade is a phenomenal accomplishment; that they could intangibly be viewed as a barrier-breaking black trio being positioned to have a voice in the advancement of race-relations, while a topic for another day, cannot be ignored. Yet, despite all of that, they are missing the two elements of greatness that leave the most indelible memories. Who would Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson be without Ole and Arn Anderson and their match against them at Starrcade ’86? Who would Edge and Christian be without the Hardys and Dudleys and Tables, Ladders, and Chairs?
The New Day is unquestionably great. Only time will tell if they can move up the list to definitively become one of the unquestionably greatest.