Doctor's Orders: November 29-December 2, 2016 - WWE Month-in-Review (November 2016), Raw & SD Facelift, 205 Debut Episode Review
By The Doc
Dec 2, 2016 - 11:08:30 AM
”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.
WWE Month-in-Review (November 2016)
Giving Raw and Smackdown a Much-Needed Facelift
Did 205 Live Resurrect The Passion From The Cruiserweight Classic?
QUESTION OF THE DAY: As we approach the turn of the calendar to 2017, who is your leading candidate for Wrestler of the Year and what is your leading candidate for Match of the Year?
The following is a case study of WWE’s product for the month of November 2016.
NXT Takeover: Toronto Review
Match of the Month: (Tie) AJ Styles, Dean Ambrose, Randy Orton, Bray Wyatt, and Shane McMahon vs. Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Roman Reigns, Chris Jericho, and Braun Strowman at Survivor Series
Simply put, it was one of the most thorough and intelligently executed Tag Team Elimination Matches of all-time, so packed with content that it promises to re-watch in future viewings like a classic movie. The Dark Knight and The Godfather come to mind as examples of movies that get better each time you watch, in part because you pick up on yet another wrinkle, be it something as subtle as a well-timed facial expression in an otherwise forgotten scene or something more significant like Morgan Freeman's character being so good, lost in the shuffle amidst so many great performances. It takes at least a handful of screenings to fully digest the brilliance of an awesome film.
Raw's best male wrestlers vs. Smackdown's best male wrestlers checked off every box necessary for a traditional Survivor Series Match to excel with the exception of considerable stakes. Everyone was given a chance to shine and everyone played an integral role throughout the run-time; there were no bit players whose job was limited to throwing a few blows and then getting quickly ousted. Angles were advanced, the paper-thin brand supremacy arc was pushed to the back-burner, and attention to detail was appreciatively strict. It was a masterpiece and, while not a favorite when taking into account all relevant criterion, it deserves to at least be considered in the 2016 Match of the Year discussion.
Match of the Month: (Tie) DIY vs. The Revival at NXT Takeover: Toronto
Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder are the best tag team in the world, with all due respect to any other pairing from any other promotion. It almost seems criminal that the Match of the Month discussions throughout this calendar year have, before now, been totally void of The Revival, especially considering that they probably have had the best year that any tag team has ever had in WWE. That may seem hyperbolic, but has any team in the WrestleMania Era – NWA's 1980s heyday included – ever had a better group of six matches than Dash and Dawson's Roadblock encounter with Enzo and Cass, their trio with American Alpha, and the two recent bouts with Gargano and Ciampa? Such a statement may insult an historian obsessed with the golden age of Jim Crockett Promotions but, even the fact that there is an argument to be made for Revival's 2016 in that all-time conversation speaks volumes about their body of work in an age when tag team wrestling is still very much trying to find its way in the post-TLC era.
The 2/3 Falls Match at Takeover: Toronto was near-perfect. More viewings may prove it to be definitively perfect. A comparison to the rest of The Revival library in 2016 may also prove it to be the best tag team match of the year. A comparison, then, to the rest of the Matches of the Month in 2016 may further prove it to be the overall Match of the Year. A comparison, later on down the road, to the rest of the best tag team matches in pro wrestling lore may end up proving it to be the best tag team match ever. There were two tag team matches roughly a half year apart in 1990 and 1991 – Midnight Express vs. Southern Boys at Great American Bash '90 and The Rockers vs. The Orient Express at Royal Rumble '91 – that changed the way that fans thought about tag team wrestling; one could posit that Edge/Christian, The Dudleys, and The Hardys did the same with TLC. The Revival vs. DIY (and perhaps the others too) might have done it again. It was that good, folks.
Previous winners: Ambrose vs. Owens at Royal Rumble (Jan), Ambrose vs. Reigns vs. Lesnar at Fast Lane (Feb), Dean Ambrose vs. Triple H at Roadblock (Mar), Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Sami Zayn at Takeover: Dallas (Apr), AJ Styles vs. Roman Reigns at Extreme Rules (May), Roman Reigns vs. Seth Rollins at Money in the Bank (Jun), Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens at Battleground (Jul), AJ Styles vs. John Cena at Summerslam (Aug), TJ Perkins vs. Kota Ibushi at the CWC Finale (Sept), and Sasha Banks vs. Charlotte at Hell in a Cell (Oct)
WWE Survivor Series 2016 Review
Wrestler of the Month: Kevin Owens
This was a month in which there were many good individual combinations of in-ring performing and character development, but no particularly great ones. With much of the top-tier roster committed to Survivor Series Elimination matches, which even when highly successful split credit among their various combatants, fewer opportunities existed for any one wrestler to truly stand out. It came down to Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens, who were undoubtedly the most entertaining personas on the WWE roster in November, their shenanigans reaching a comedic crescendo and their shift toward becoming rivals instead of best friends quite compelling. In the ring, though, their most impressive work came as parts of an ensemble cast. Weighing their collective resume – and it only seemed appropriate to consider naming Jeri-KO as Co-Wrestlers of the Month given how joined at the hip they were – against everyone else's, it was pretty obvious that either one of them would win the November award or both of them would. Owens pulled away on account of two very strong post-Survivor Series matches on Raw with Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns respectively; Jericho brought nothing comparable to the table in the ring.
Previous winners: Dean Ambrose (Jan and Feb), Chris Jericho (Mar), AJ Styles (Apr), AJ Styles and Roman Reigns (May), Seth Rollins (Jun), Dean Ambrose (Jul), AJ Styles (Aug), Kevin Owens (Sep), and Sasha Banks and Charlotte (Oct)
TLC is this weekend and I am expecting the WWE Champion to retain against Dean Ambrose. AJ Styles seems poised to go into WrestleMania Season with the gold, as rumors swirl about a possible match between him and Undertaker with the title on the line. What's next for Ambrose? Your guess is as good as mine, but barring a surprise return to his leadership role as champion, he is probably headed down the hierarchy for a bit.
The Miz retaining the Intercontinental Championship would be a smart bet, but the quality of the work that he has put on display since Brand Split 2.0 began makes me think that he might be headed back to the main-event soon. The IC Title doesn't necessarily fit that narrative, so maybe Ziggler wins it back? Wyatt and Orton will win the Tag Team Championships (I'm intrigued by that angle) and move the division forward and Becky Lynch will drop the title to Alexa Bliss in a moment similar to John Cena losing the WWE Title to Sheamus in 2009, but quickly regain it if not by December's end then by the time the Royal Rumble goes off the air in January. Bliss has earned a brief run as the lead female on Smackdown.
James Ellsworth will continue to take air-time from someone more deserving of it.
Over on Raw, do not be shocked if Roman Reigns wins the title. The Universal Championship scene has done well to build a variety of different possibilities heading into the New Year. Seth Rollins has yet to suffer an untainted defeat; Goldberg has made his title aspirations clear; Brock Lesnar is gunning for “Da Man” and by default could also get into the picture; and Jericho is lingering on the periphery with his eventual break-up with Owens nearing closer each week. The role that Reigns will play on the Road to WrestleMania is very unclear but, each of the past two years at this time of the year, he has been inserted into a leading role. Clarity could come in the form of a new Universal Champion at Roadblock.
The game of hot-potato with the Women's Championship between Sasha Banks and Charlotte may very well continue in December. Banks is 3-0 in title matches on TV against The Queen; Charlotte is undefeated in title matches on PPV, period. It looked as though Bayley was about to get her shot (and she may very well still get her shot), but another chapter in the Banks-Charlotte rivalry seems imminent for Roadblock.
Sitting at home watching the last hour of Monday’s Raw, a pair of skits piqued my interest. The two segments could not have been any more different, but the combination of the impressions that they left on me made it as clear as day what might be the biggest problem from which WWE’s flagship program currently suffers that nobody is talking about: that the entire program is still filmed LIVE.
Sasha Banks, in one of the aforementioned segments, had a live interaction with Bayley ahead of her Women’s Championship match with Charlotte. You could forgive anyone for spending as much time during the promo searching for the location of Sasha’s apparent cue cards as he/she spent engaging in the verbiage about the title’s meaning to her or the dedication of her victory to Ric Flair. Banks has few fans among the “Wrestling Media” bigger than yours truly, but her ability to do an interview has suffered mightily since she had to start doing them live. On the live microphone, she is the Roman Reigns of the women’s division, struggling to regurgitate the campy and/or catty dialogue written for her; fortunately, her diminutive size and role in the female revolution shield her from the same kind of criticism that her male counterpart has been subjected to, but that is another topic for another day.
Paul Heyman, in the other of the aforementioned segments, had a pre-taped sit-down interview with Michael Cole during which he emotionally outlined the failures of he and Brock Lesnar’s strategy toward wrestling Goldberg at Survivor Series. That he is Paul Heyman, one of the best stick men in pro wrestling lore and one of the few talents left in WWE who can cut a magical promo in front of a live crowd, matters not to this debate, for it was the pre-recorded nature of his words that puts it in the spotlight here. Pre-taping interviews affords even the likes of Heyman an opportunity to create a more complete and compelling segment, with an assist from WWE’s top-notch production team. Banks, in her final bit of Raw main-event hype, would have greatly benefited from taping her promo hours earlier, having a few takes to at least make it sound more organic and allowing the WWE film crew to work their magic with the presentation.
I think that begs the question: why exactly is Raw still 100% live? When Tony Schiavone was giving away on WCW Nitro the WWE results filmed weeks prior in the late 1990s, Vince McMahon had no other choice but to go live. In the most competitive period of the WrestleMania Era, stars emerged who could take a few bullet points and ad-lib their way to some of the greatest promos of all-time. That was an incredible time for wrestling on television, as the pressure was never higher to deliver and the emotion that rose to the forefront during talking segments was consequently palpable. Ever since WWE TV became so scripted, though, it could be argued that the 100% live format has hindered their creative ability to tell captivating stories of the quality that they once proved consistently capable of telling because an obvious downside to scripting is a reduction in authenticity, especially if the scripting is bad and the actors/actresses reciting the lines are untrained.
Of course, live TV still affords a lot of very important advantages, chief among them that fans are far more likely to watch the shows when they cannot get eyes on the spoilers ahead of time, but does it not seem more logical to play to the strengths of the performers you have by allowing those that are not as engaging in front of a live audience of thousands to simply emote the non-wrestling portion of the tale being woven on a sound stage to then be presented to the live crowd and live TV viewers after multiple takes and the support of the production team? If roughly a third of Monday Night Raw each week was dedicated to pre-taped segments carefully crafted to enhance rivalries, would not the show itself and the product as a whole be better?
“Macho Man” Randy Savage was famous for his charisma, but remember that the man behind the character was obsessive about detail and routinely asked for the chance to re-shoot his segments. The classic cream of the crop interview? That was not filmed live; he had the cameraman cut on numerous occasions so that he could get it the way that he wanted it. The end result was a masterpiece. Using a more current example, Brock Lesnar’s pre-taped interviews since 2012 are utterly fantastic and have at absolutely no point had their quality replicated in front of a live audience.
Each week, Michael Cole touts the flagship as the longest running weekly episodic show in TV history, but its longevity speaks more to the power of the WWE brand during the WrestleMania Era than it does to the must-see nature of Monday Night Raw. WWE ratings have been steadily declining for years and have been tanking since WWE Network caught on strong in 2015. The company-line is that they have dropped due to changes in the way that people consume television; and that is absolutely true and a major part of the decrease to be fair, but few would dare posit that Raw since the Attitude Era has been anything more than 20% can't miss. More honest executives have stated, in response to the question of how to stop ratings from crashing and burning at the bottom of the cliff they fell off of in the last 18 months, “We really don't know.”
Well, why not start by creating a better show?
What I would propose, then, is to keep the live show and obviously keep trying to create wrestling matches that actually have some meaning and purpose, but add a substantial amount of pre-taped content, be they interviews or vignettes, in support of the matches. Where in the WWE rule book does it state that talking segments all have to be filmed live? It was once a modern way to do wrestling programs on TV, but strict adherence to a formula that does not work anymore has become a post-modern albatross. The abundance of pitifully-dialogued and poorly acted live promos, which have become in the last decade so difficult for anyone with above a third grade reading level to relate to, is one of the many things weakening WWE's ability to make their weekly programming worthy of the time that they fans to commit to it. A few tweaks here and there, however, and they'd be headed in the direction of more creatively stimulating performance art every Monday and Tuesday nights. At this point, nobody should be expecting perfection, but wouldn't we all be happier with progress?
Anyone who followed my coverage from July to September of the inaugural Cruiserweight Classic should remember the enthusiasm with which I reviewed it. This has been a totally exhausting year and the CWC really gave me an outlet to survive that stretch of the year when basketball season was over, football hadn't started yet, and the biggest international soccer tournament had come and gone. Unequivocally, I loved it. Unfortunately, the cruiserweights debuted on Raw and quickly tumbled down the rabbit hole. It took 10 weeks for the stand-alone tournament to resurrect cruiserweight wrestling in WWE from the ashes of the original brand split; it has taken just 10 weeks from its Raw premiere in September to lose virtually all of that momentum and become borderline irrelevant.
So, it was with all of that in mind that I went into the first episode of 205 Live with a mixture of the high expectations born of the CWC and low expectations born of WWE's handling of the division since it returned to the flagship. How did it turn out? Keeping with CWC tradition, let's do an old school CMV1-style review.
205 Live November 29, 2016
The debut episode began with a surprising addition to the commentary team in the form of Austin Aries. (Doc's Notes - The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived went onto have a solid night and, while it may take him a few 205 Lives to get his bearings in the role, he showed a lot of potential as a third announcer who might actually add a unique dynamic to the audio portion of the program; presuming Corey Graves plays the traditional role of the heel commentator who likes the bad guys and Mauro Ranallo the prototypical babyface announcer who likes the good guys, Aries seems as though he might play the atypical member of the booth who loves only himself and hates everyone else. I dug it).
All members of the 205 Live roster were introduced, WWE Hall of Fame at Mania-style, on the entrance stage.
A video package for the Bollywood Boyz aired that detailed their road to WWE and showcased their Indian heritage. (Doc's Notes – This is the type of pre-taped segment that WWE should be utilizing so much more frequently on the main roster shows. Better than 95% of live interview segments, the mini-documentary introduced us to the Sihras and offered a reason for fans to develop a rooting interest with the story about their blind grandfather listening to their entrance after years of urging them onto their WWE dreams)
Match 1: The Bollywood Boyz defeated Drew Gulak and Tony Nese in 7:00 (Doc's Rating - * ¾) (Doc's Notes – A very uninspiring start to the in-ring portion of 205 Live based mostly on the mundane, run-of-the-mill, formulaic action that we could have seen from WWE Superstars or from Rhyno and Heath Slater. The hype video was a great way to introduce new characters, but the in-ring performances have to back up the special promotion. To be fair, it may simply be a Sihra problem, as neither impressed in the CWC. They seem to be a basic tag team with above average athleticism and a gimmick that might earn some easy pops, but they do not offer anything unique once the bell rings. Nese and Gulak, conversely, lack the personalities, but their wrestling styles stand out when given the chance to shine; they stand a greater chance of getting over on the merits of their specific skill sets. As The Bollywood Boyz were the focus, though, the action remained rather ho-hum throughout)
Nese and Gulak were interviewed after the match, proving why pre-taped segments are often better for inexperienced talkers.
A video package aired for Noam Dar that was shorter than the one featuring the Sihras, but still effective at introducing the newcomer.
Jack Gallagher defeated Ariya Daivari in 5:30 (Doc's rating - ** ½) (Doc's Notes – The fights on 205 Live would ideally feature wrestlers that can do things fans are unable to see throughout WWE proper, save for the occasional showcase on Raw; such is why Gallagher was such a treat to see for the first time since his second round ouster in the CWC. When CM Punk debuted on WWE's ECW in 2006, it felt like you were seeing someone special that could potentially go far some day. Gallagher, in an age of a shrunken roster, seems quite capable of overcoming his small stature to become a surprise hit in WWE. What he does will not be for everyone, but if you appreciate a creative take on how to execute pro wrestling holds like you might enjoy innovation in stunts off of ladders, then surely Gallagher will impress you. He has some fire to compliment his grappling too; he's just a blast to watch. I would be disappointed if he wasn't on the show every week)
Backstage, Tom Phillips caught up with Cruiserweight Champion, The Brian Kendrick, about his title match in the main-event against Rich Swann. TBK called it the night of his life and insinuated that 205 Live was created to be his platform. TJ Perkins interrupted and wished him luck, fearing that, should he lose to Swann, he himself would be out the title picture before he could cash in his contractually-obligated rematch. (Doc's Notes – Strong segment effective in its intent to remind of TJP's history with TBK and add depth to the title picture straight away)
A video package aired for Gran Metalik (Doc's Notes – Raw and Smackdown should spend at least 20% of their run-times showing things like this about its roster members and less time on meaningless matches)
A video package aired after The Brian Kendrick's entrance for the main-event and before Rich Swann's that put he who they are referring to as “Outlandish” squarely in the spotlight, talking about the loss of his mother and father at a young age and the dark place that wrestling helped him crawl out of (Doc's Notes – Like a lot of what we saw from these types of hype videos tonight, there was a heavy dose of repeat from the CWC, but it was really endearing prefatory information nonetheless)
Match 3: Rich Swann defeated The Brian Kendrick to win the WWE Cruiserweight Championship in 13:22 (Doc's Rating - *** ¼) (Doc's Notes – This match may prove a microcosm for the cruiserweight division should this show become successful moving forward. In the early stages, Swann and TBK suffered from a tired crowd, a rather introduction-heavy first episode that was never likely to get an audience already losing steam super hot again, and the issue alluded to in my introductory remarks that centers on the sharp decline in fan interest toward the cruiserweights generally. Yet, slowly but surely, they involved the people in attendance primarily for Smackdown Live and had them chanting the good 'ol “This is Awesome” chant by match's end. I personally went into it yawning and left it rather excited and, though I wouldn't call it “awesome,” I would call it “really good.” The turning point in the match was Swann's escape after a lengthy struggle in the Captain's Hook; and the escalation that elevated the entire presentation and got the crowd to recognize it for its efforts came in the form of Swann's kick out of the super-Sliced Bread #2. It might actually rate higher if I go back and watch it in a frame of mind not so influenced by the last 10 weeks of futility for the division. Some will criticize the move to Swann as champion given that Kendrick is the perhaps the show's most interesting character, but you almost had to do the title change tonight to set a tone moving forward that anything can happen on 205 Live and that you shouldn't miss it. To Swann's credit, he's equal parts entertaining, engaging, and empathetic. I already look forward to their rematch more than I did any CW title match since the CWC Final that crowned its first champion)
All in all...I enjoyed the show and its format. It felt to me, in many ways, like NXT Arrival back in February 2014. The first month should be structured like tonight in my opinion, allowing a profile on each member of the roster and using each featured match as an opportunity to gauge who can get over. If they have a plan in place and treat it more like a live NXT each Tuesday, then I see much more potential in 205 Live than I do in the cruiserweight division on Raw, which seemed hastily put together and without planning. I will be curiously following how Raw is used to hype 205 Live in the coming weeks. Also, we now already have a reason to watch next week's episode, if for no other reason than to see what Kendrick will try to do to win back the title; plus, what might TJP have to say about it? I needed some hope for the cruiserweights after 10 weeks of monotony and six-man tags on Raw; tonight gave me hope. A great situation for 205 Live would be for it to become something people genuinely go to Smackdown tapings excited to see