Doctor's Orders: January 10-12, 2017 - Pros and Cons From WWE This Week, Time For Taker To Say Goodbye
By The Doc
Jan 12, 2017 - 9:49:21 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.
Pros and Cons for WWE This Week
Review of Okada vs. Omega at Wrestle Kingdom 11
It's Time For The Undertaker To Say Goodbye
QUESTION OF THE DAY: What did you think of John Cena doing his old Superman routine at Baron Corbin's expense this week on Smackdown?
Monday Night Raw: Two Pros
-Stephanie McMahon’s recent interactions with Bayley and Sasha Banks have given her a purpose again after becoming a largely irrelevant, repetitive presence on Raw. She is at her best playing the evil boss and it would be a fresh take on her old Authority-based story if she were to lend her heelish ways to the women’s division. The line she threw at Sasha this week, “The only real boss in this room is me,” was heel promo 101 material. Perhaps the biggest problem for Steph, pre-Women’s Revolution, was that the best thing that could come of all her excellent work on the microphone was a feud and match with Brie Bella. Imagine, instead, Ms. McMahon stepping in the ring with Banks or Bayley? Now that is gold.
-Chris Jericho becoming United States Champion was good for that title and, hopefully by proxy, good for the product as a whole. Roman Reigns winning the US Title had potential, but it went unrealized. A top guy holding a mid-card title only works if the top guy actively talks up the importance of being the champion and backs it up with title defenses that enhance its reputation. If the man makes the title, then Reigns being US Champion made it merely a belt. Jericho has a chance to do something with it, perhaps even defend it at WrestleMania in a high profile situation. 2016 was a rough year for the US Championship that did little to capitalize on its 2015 resurgence, but things are looking up for it in 2017 now that it is around Jericho’s waist.
Monday Night Raw: The Con
-Raw, overall, was just a prime example of why the wrestling world has generally agreed that, so long as James Ellsworth is not wasting everyone’s time in the main-events on Smackdown, the red brand is clearly the B-show. Part-timers and guest hosts continue to distract the Raw creative team; it has been that way for years on end and it is extremely detrimental to the show’s quality. HBK’s segment did nothing for anyone involved but, in your mind’s eye, can’t you see Vince and Co. coming up with all those lousy jokes that made the babyfaces completely unrelatable idiots while everything else but Taker’s comeback received virtually no focus? The performance review-hoopla surrounding The Deadman’s appearance was arguably even worse and the payoff of Taker merely entering the Rumble (and the tease of a Strowman-Taker match that nobody wants to see to top it off) was unable to save it from feeling like a colossal misuse of time.
Smackdown Live: Three Pros
-The rivalry between Dean Ambrose and The Miz has taken two characters that had very strong feuds with other wrestlers to close out 2016 and provided them with an outlet to continue their momentum into one of the most important stretches of the New Year. Doubt set in as to where Ambrose stood in the fan hierarchy when he was engaged in a battle over the top spot on Smackdown with AJ Styles, but working with Miz has reminded the wrestling world that The Lunatic Fringe is still very over with the audience (albeit just not as over as Styles). Also, rather than it feel like Ambrose dropped down to the Intercontinental Championship scene, it has instead seemed like The Miz and the IC Title rose to Ambrose’s level. The dynamic between them works well.
-Round 3 between The Wyatt Family and American Alpha, counting the #1 contender’s match prior to TLC as Round 1, was another successful outing. Love or hate Bray’s booking in recent years, he has a name that, when combined with Randy Orton’s, creates a formidable modern duo against whom Gable and Jordan can benefit from both wrestling and defeating. It is always nice to see a good match for the Tag Team Championships that matters, but it has also been nice to see this version of the Wyatt Family-implosion play out a little more methodically than the previous version involving an outsider with Daniel Bryan three years ago. For anyone who says the Orton-Wyatt saga is a re-run, need I remind you that Bryan joining the Wyatts lasted all of two weeks? Orton becoming ingratiated into the Wyatt customs has been an enjoyable change of pace and what once was a ho-hum, uninspired singles storyline is now full of intrigue and possibility.
-Smackdown’s Women’s division is a microcosm of what makes the blue brand superior to Raw. It cannot match the star power of its red-hued counterpart, but its creative attention to detail naturally lends itself to moments like Nikki and Nattie’s brawl coming as the result of a pair of heated, organic talking segments in weeks prior and a Cage Match being booked for the Women’s Championship that makes all the sense in the world given recent events were filled with outside interference from a third party that needs to be kept out. If you are not noticing these subtle things, then you must not be looking; because they are obvious.
Smackdown Live: One Con
-John Cena doing his old Superman routine at the expense of Baron Corbin was off-putting. Though it was in some way nice to see the Attitude Adjustment actually earn a pinfall instead of being a guaranteed kick out-catalyst for everyone on the roster on down to borderline jobbers, the manner in which the match was booked prior to it was the problem. It was the age-old formula born of Hulk Hogan’s dominant stretch in the 1980s that Cena infamously brought back in the mid-2000s, during which he takes his opponent’s best shots and basically gets creamed, only to quickly Hustle-Up, perform a quick comeback, and win decisively with his finisher. It brought Corbin, flying so high after a fantastic month of December that made him look like a candidate to face Cena at WrestleMania, crashing back to Earth with a thud.
205 Live: Two Pros
-Perhaps the best thing about the Cruiserweight-only program is that it has afforded the stars of the division a chance to build character, which practically none of them were doing before December when subjected to the creative sterility of Raw. Kevin Nash once said that there are only five or six concepts that storylines can revolve around, but if you have no story than you have a nothing match without meaning. The Noam Dar-Cedric Alexander feud is a great example; it centers on Alicia Fox as Cedric's girlfriend and Dar's desire to woo her to his corner. Remove Foooooooohx (I love the way Dar says her name, by the way) from the equation and you have an exhibition bout; her presence has given them a reason to have a WWE match and, on Tuesday night, they had a really good one.
-Who else is a card-carrying member of the Jack Gallagher fan club? The guy was outstanding in the Cruiserweight Classic last summer and his transition to regular 205 Live featured performer has been one of the best things to have happened to the division since the tournament. In another perfect example of why 205 Live is so beneficial to the cruisers, Gallagher's segment to set-up an “I Forfeit” Match with Ariya Daivari gave them both the chance to emote their personic motivations on the microphone in a simple but effective contract signing, turning what easily could have been a total bathroom break on Raw into something to pay attention to each week. Put the “I Forfeit” Match on Raw, I say! It's the gentlemanly thing to do!
205 Live: No Cons
-It would be a stretch to come up with something to complain about, so why bother to try? 205 Live is like my really nice friend about whom I'd feel bad saying anything derogatory....at least for this week. I've become a fan.
I've been covering wrestling in column or review form for the better part of fifteen years and, during that time, I have regularly been intrigued by promotions beyond WWE. Back in the day, I used to watch TNA's weekly pay-per-views, kept up with them through their transition to national cable television and the monthly PPV format, and dabbled in classic Ring of Honor matches that friends and colleagues would recommend such as the CM Punk-Samoa Joe series; I also frequently re-watched old WWE and NWA/WCW matches. Years and years as a single student afforded me the number of hours in my week to be able to do whatever I wanted when I was free and, being the total wrestling addict that I am, I spent a huge amount of free time watching wrestling. My extracurricular time since getting married, opening a health clinic in my hometown at the turn of the decade, and having kids has simply been limited, naturally curbing my desire to watch wrestling to stricter-viewing habits (and mainly limiting them to WWE).
Still, when parts of the wrestling media call a match outside of WWE “Six-stars,” I cannot help but take notice. My interest was admittedly peaked by Wrestle Kingdom 11 well in advance of its January 4th air date, based mostly on the reputation of the last two Wrestle Kingdoms but, to be honest, New Japan Pro Wrestling has not been on my radar since the mid-1990s and, as such, I had no immediate intention of watching WK11. With all the glowing reviews this year, I eventually made a decision that, after WrestleMania Season is over, I'm going to order NJPW World and become more familiar with their product. The buzz never died down though, particularly for the main-event, and as a result I sat down on Monday to watch Kenny Omega challenge Kazuchika Okada for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship to see what all the hype was about.
Needless to say that I get it. Anyone that has yet to see it certainly should make time to do so; take my word for it...
Forget the art of star-ratings for a moment, folks. After I finished my first viewing, I struggled to contextualize that which I had just witnessed. My knowledge of Okada was limited to the things I had heard about his last two WK matches and, unfortunately, Omega had started making his early name in the United States long after I had ceased my occasional independent binges. So, I knew virtually nothing about the two wrestlers going in. That said, I felt like I knew everything that I needed to know about them by the time the exhausting match was over. It had been awhile since I had experienced that, probably since AJ Styles and Low-Ki blew my mind in the late summer of 2003 during my first experience with TNA. Styles, in particular, was perception-altering to me. I have called Seth Rollins the “Evolutionary Shawn Michaels,” citing the athletic gifts that he brings to the Heavyweight Title scene; that moniker might have always been a better fit for Styles.
Styles vs. Low-Ki in August 2003 was for the same NWA World Championship that I had watched Ric Flair famously defend in my youth, but the manner in which they wrestled redefined what I knew main-event wrestling could be. Of course, this has been a decade that has seen WWE bring a lot of the key elements of independent headliners to their product, meshing them with their own classic main-event formula. My first thought after finishing Omega vs. Okada was that my perception of what main-event wrestling could be had yet again been altered – or had at least been reminded that it could be altered.
Still, I could not come up with a description that I felt adequately captured its essence. I watched it about eight hours prior to the College Football National Championship game here in the States and it did not dawn on me until after the classic Clemson-Alabama rematch was over that part of what I enjoyed so much about Omega vs. Okada was that it was wrestling as sport. While certainly not lacking storytelling or entertainment, it was perhaps the best example I've seen in quite some time that sport is entertainment; if WWE is sports entertainment, then Okada vs. Omega is the embodiment of sports entertainment. One of my favorite aspects of sport is the psychological swings in momentum that occur as one team or player endures the early game plan of its opposition, adjusts, and counters to take control (and vice-versa). The Wrestle Kingdom main-event was a 46-minute chess match and, much like 'Bama vs. Clemson, it was presented as the two best in the game trying to out-duel one another. It featured long stretches of Omega putting Okada on the back foot, then similarly lengthy stretches of Okada seizing control, slowly building toward their respective kill shots. The culmination of their supreme efforts was a riveting, lengthy finishing sequence akin to the three touchdown spree in the last third of the final stanza in the national title game.
There was so much to digest within its run-time, not the least of which was the Japanese modus-operandi for how to wrestle a main-event of this magnitude, particularly the climax that featured palpable selling from the combatants in the midst of its bursts of action that carried with them a Hollywood feel; Omega's finisher was protected, while Okada's was utilized continually, the response to which was Omega coming back at the champion like the titular character of his Terminator-inspired entrance gear (I absolutely loved, by the way, the Young Bucks on the outside re-creating the Terminator theme with their hand slaps against the apron – dum dum – dum dum, dum dum). The totality of the final five minutes made Okada look like the ultimate warrior and Omega the near-unstoppable villain – the Arnold-T101 against the T1000 if you will.
It was brilliant and athletic; and it reminded me that pro wrestling should by all rights be a young man's game. Kazuchika Okada, at 29 years old, is in the prime of his athletic life, while Kenny Omega, at 33 years old, is in the prime of his pro wrestling career; their match was a three quarter of an hour marathon that loudly stated that pro wrestlers are among the most gifted athletes on earth. The English commentary, which I really enjoyed, put the focus on the in-ring abilities of the performers involved and on the logical place that the IWGP Champion should maintain as the face of the brand. Stakes were clear and high, revolving around a title that both men desperately fought to hold.
Wise, I would call it, to avoid comparisons of Omega vs. Okada to anything that WWE will offer this year, but I admittedly could not help but feel a sense of longing toward that kind of pro wrestling becoming the narrative drive of WWE programming, which has spent so many years devaluing its top championship to the point where holding it today makes you less “The Man” than arguably at any other time in the WrestleMania Era; for instance, if Undertaker were to wrestle John Cena at WrestleMania this year and AJ Styles was defending the WWE Championship in a match half-way down the card, it would be quite obvious that the titleholder was not actually the #1 guy. From his reputation to the way that the commentators spoke of him to his performance in the ring, Okada came across to me as the #1 guy in Japan; with all that he had accomplished in 2016 to his pre-match presentation to his performance in the ring, Omega came across to me as the unmistakable #1 contender. It seems like we're making excuses for WWE if we don't admit that the top guy versus the most likely challenger to unseat him and become the new top guy should be the yearly focus of the WrestleMania main-event each year with very rare exception.
So, six-stars? I wouldn't dare make that call after one viewing, but there should be no questioning that it was a special match deserving of the incredible reputation it has managed to build in merely a week. I've personally not watched a better match in a few years and, by viewing it, I feel like my wrestling fandom has been considerably enhanced.
Recent reflection regarding the year that was flashed the image of a broken-bodied Peyton Manning reduced to a shell of the awesome player he once was, a mere game-manager in his final outing. Mercifully, he put his career out of its final two season-misery and retired in 2016.
Few things in professional athletic endeavors are sadder than watching the once greatest of the great kneel before Father Time. Stripped of a large percentage of their gifts, they are still borderline Gods among men, but to see the overt signs of their mortality is to at least partially convert myth into man. In the end, Halls of Fame and video highlights prevail over fading memories of physical breakdown and the consequent lesser performance level that follows it. Watching the decline is nevertheless challenging as fans because we ideally want to see the best go out as the best; to avoid situations like watching Manning struggle to throw a 15-yard pass or Tim Duncan, another 2016 retiree, sit the bench in a high stakes playoff game.
As wrestling enthusiasts, did we ever care to see Shawn Michaels be anything less than Mr. WrestleMania? Absolutely not. Fortunately, we never had to witness his decline. The wrestling equivalent of Michael Jordan, HBK gave us one last classic for the ages on the grandest of stages in 2010, then exited stage left to make nothing more than advertised guest appearances from then on; if only MJ himself had spared the basketball world of pseudo-Jordan with the Washington Wizards, constantly battling nagging injuries and never getting the chance to acquit his comeback with a little post-season magic. Michaels did it the best way possible for a pro athlete.
Of course, Michaels is the exception and just about everyone else, in wrestling and beyond, represent the rule. In WWE especially, it has become quite commonplace for wrestlers to headline pay-per-views into their fifties as they hold on for dear life to the spotlight and the paychecks that come from WWE's willingness to keep putting them in it. Ric Flair (in)famously wrestled his last (historically relevant) match at WrestleMania 24 at almost 60 years old; Hulk Hogan wrestled for the final (historically relevant) time at Summerslam 2006 at 53 years of age; Goldberg, who just turned 50, will get back into the ring at the Royal Rumble; and 51 year old Undertaker, whose amusing “old man” photos confuse fans about his status a few times per year, is coming back for yet another run too.
Far be it for anyone to begrudge a superstar for continuing to cash in on his legendary name, but it is worth discussing whether or not these categorical old-timers are having detrimental effects on their legacies, not to mention the age old argument regarding their adverse effect on the present and future of the product. Though it is fortunate that pro wrestling has a very important verbal aspect that largely builds the hype for a match – something that Goldberg's legacy was actually enhanced by considerably in the run-up to Survivor Series last fall – a man's body ages much faster than his voice; the bell is going to ring and a high quality payoff is going to be expected. With rare exception, once the physical gifts deteriorate past a certain level, the in-ring performance exemplifies the law of diminishing returns.
Undertaker is the most high profile old-timer, conveniently replaced in WWE TV vernacular with the word “legend,” that WWE regularly utilizes. His past five matches, beginning with the loss to Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania XXX, have shown a sharp decline in overall quality, though the Hell in a Cell Match with Lesnar in October 2015 was near-universally praised. Taker’s previous five high profile matches were all classics. What happened? Basically, even though he was in the best shape of his life well into his fifth decade, time caught up with him at some point in 2013. When he came back for WrestleMania in 2014, his gimmick nickname pretty well described his literal appearance: he looked like a Deadman. Rumors of numerous surgeries have abounded ever since, complimenting the pictures that characterize him as nearly handicapped. It conjures thoughts of Randy “The Ram” Robinson from The Wrestler standing in front of his mirror dying his gray hair in preparation for one more gig; and they are unpleasant.
Steve Austin, another of the HBK-types who went out on top (albeit due to injury), once described the WWE as a machine with replaceable gears; if one gets worn out, they take it off, and put a new one on. If only that were true then we would not be subjected to the decline that wrestlers inevitably endure through advancing age. WWE is past due to implement a proactive policy that identifies the signs of physical decay in its performers and transitions them out of in-ring competition accordingly, maybe with a clause that allows for a one-off to properly endorse a farewell.
With age comes wisdom and it is true that some of the best work of a wrestler’s career often comes in his forties, when decreased athleticism gives way to heightened psychological awareness but, at the end of the day, pro wrestling is still a young man’s game and it makes little sense, neither from the perspective of the superstar or the promotion, to allow a wrestler to compete into his late forties or beyond. Sure, money talks, and that will continue to be the justification for 20 and 30-year veterans of WWE headlining their Big Four pay-per-views. However, we are talking about WWE, one of the world’s foremost promotional juggernauts; they are more than capable of throwing their creative attention elsewhere and replenishing the cupboard with a whole host of next generational icons who can draw the next big gate and reinvigorate the Network subscriber count, allowing their legends to age gracefully in the process.
Last night on Monday Night Raw, The Phenom made his most recent return and announced his intention to win the Royal Rumble Match and main-event WrestleMania again. If he makes good on it, then hopefully it will finally be goodbye. Undertaker is the closest wrestler we may ever again see to Andre the Giant, in terms of the respect that he has earned from his peers and of the status that he has built among wrestling fans. It is time, though, for The Last Outlaw to ride off into the sunset.
All good things must come to an end after all…