Doctor's Orders: December 26-29, 2016 - WWE Match of the Year, PPV-Worthy Last Smackdown of 2016, and Options For AJ Styles at WrestleMania 33
By The Doc
Dec 29, 2016 - 6:05:57 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.
WrestleMania Options for AJ Styles
Smackdown Live Review
2016 WWE Match of the Year
QUESTION OF THE DAY: Does it affect your interest in Cena vs. Taker if Styles is downgraded to a much lesser WrestleMania match?
From almost the moment that John Cena stated on this week’s Smackdown that he would be challenging for the WWE Championship at the Royal Rumble, the speculation began that the Golden Boy would win the title for the record-tying 16th time and head into WrestleMania 33 for the long-awaited showdown with Undertaker. As that possibility has begun to sink in, we are beginning to see the early grumblings from AJ Styles fans that The Phenomenal One might be the odd man out at Mania despite being the consensus choice for 2016 WWE Wrestler of the Year.
It would certainly be a shame to see Styles in anything less than a prime position at The Show of Shows next year, which begs the question: is it too presumptuous to think that Cena vs. Undertaker for the WWE Championship is set in stone and, if that plan has been written by Vince McMahon’s pen, what does it mean for AJ Styles? Let’s explore some potential WrestleMania 33 scenarios for Styles, Cena, and Taker.
Scenario A: Cena defeats Styles to win the title at the Rumble
Starting with the armchair booking that many agree is the most likely, if Cena beats Styles in January and Taker emerges as the Mania challenger, Styles would presumably shift into a high profile secondary feud on Smackdown. Seeds were recently planted during a Miz TV segment for the current Intercontinental Champion to engage Styles in a rivalry that would essentially put 2016’s WOTY against one of the popular runner-ups for that award. Miz has been at his career best for several months and feuding with him could be the catalyst for the fans being able to fully embrace Styles as a protagonist again. Having been given the chance to broaden his character’s horizons via his late spring heel turn, AJ would return to the lighter side of the force in a potentially better situation and capitalize on such a great 2016 with fresh personic legs, poised for an even better 2017. Styles would essentially assume the role of Daniel Bryan’s proxy given the similarities between them as smaller wrestlers who made their names initially on the independent scene. There are some character dynamics that would have to be tweaked along the way, but there is intrigue in Miz vs. Styles.
Another option for AJ would be a match against Randy Orton. Styles has said outright in recent interviews that Orton is someone he considers a “dream opponent.” Orton has alluded to the fact that he feels similarly about Styles. Though an entire angle would need to play out between The Viper and The Wyatt Family in order to reach the point where he could move into a new storyline, the tension between Bray’s stablemates having already escalated just this week gives the impression that WWE views the Orton-Wyatt payoff as being more likely to happen in the near rather than distant future. Orton vs. Styles would have “classic Mania mid-card match” written all over it.
Scenario B: Styles defeats Cena to retain the title at the Rumble due to Undertaker’s interference
In this set-up, Taker vs. Cena would be stimulated by The Deadman as the aggressor and, given how motivated by the 16th title reign Cena’s character has been over the past several months when on TV, this seems like a perfect opportunity for someone to knock him off of his high horse to set-up a WrestleMania encounter. Cena showed an edgier attitude on Smackdown in Chicago; Taker is the conscience of WWE. Insert a few creative details and that could be the foundation for a heated clash of historic titans.
After all, one could certainly argue that Taker vs. Cena is not a match that needs the championship to maximize its potential; not to discount that the best case scenario for WWE’s surest bet to deliver in a huge match on a grand stage since Shawn Michaels retired is to have him carry the WWE Title into Mania. The above mentioned matches with Miz or Orton would each be far more intriguing if the World Championship was at stake. There are also the remote possibilities of a debuting NXT star like Samoa Joe coming to Smackdown to face Styles or a Rumble winner from Raw switching brands to challenge him, the former more interesting with and the latter absolutely essential for the involvement of the championship.
Scenario C: Styles defeats Cena to retain the title at the Rumble due to Baron Corbin’s interference
Back in November, very prominent news outlets reported that Styles was set to face Undertaker for the title at the Rumble. Once those rumors surfaced, additional tidbits from less reliable sources stated that there was a chance that Taker vs. Styles might instead happen at WrestleMania; if it did, the assumption would be that Taker intends to wrestle for at least one more year beyond WM33.
It would not be unprecedented for The Phenom to face someone like AJ at The Showcase of the Immortals; he battled CM Punk at WrestleMania 29 and he was rumored to have wanted to work with Bryan the year after. You be the judge of whether or not the possibility is distinct, but it is possible. In years gone by, it might have been a no-brainer to consider the hottest act in the game today against a legendary figure of Taker’s stature. We live in a time when only eight of the last thirty spots available for the top matches at Mania have been occupied by wrestlers who debuted after 2002, but they have said repeatedly since last year’s Mania that we have moved into a “New Era.”
The bottom line on AJ vs. Taker is that Styles may never be as well positioned as he presently is to go toe-to-toe with The Deadman given that, in this scenario, Styles would be the very rare superstar to have had a series of matches with Cena and come out the unquestioned top man; by then, he would have also been the reigning WWE Champion for eight months.
Around the same time as light was shed on the Taker-Styles at the Rumble rumors, it was suggested that Cena’s return opponent might be Corbin. It seems highly unlikely that Cena would drop another clean loss headed deeper into Mania Season. Combine that probable fact with The Lone Wolf’s recent push, how much he has excelled in recent opportunities, and his long-standing impatience for how slowly the main-event spotlight is traveling his way, it makes sense for Corbin to target Cena; it also makes sense looking at the pattern that Cena has followed at the last two WrestleManias on which he was able to wrestle, facing up-and-coming heels in Bray Wyatt and Rusev.
Pick one of the above scenarios and it can all go really well for Styles (and there are obviously other options too); clearly, putting AJ in a position of prominence should be a priority for WWE, not just because he is so beloved by the diehard fanbase, but also because it would be an incredible nod to his historic first year in WWE.
Smackdown Live did an admirable job of creating a year-end show that felt like a mini-PPV, with three championship matches dotting the card plus the return of John Cena and follow-up on the Renee Young and Miz incident from last week. While I still do not quite understand the concept of the Wild-Card Finals, it was an eventful night and the blue brand is back on track, after two months of running in quicksand with Ellsworth in the spotlight, as the unquestionable top week-to-week product ahead of Raw.
Cena's return promo was noteworthy for a couple of reasons, first because it set the stage for a third one-on-one PPV match between him and AJ Styles, this time for the WWE Championship, at the Royal Rumble. Speculation had run rampant over the past two months that Undertaker would face Styles at the Rumble in San Antonio, then that there was a chance that Taker might face Styles instead at WrestleMania, all the while conventional wisdom has continued to suggest that Cena vs. Taker would finally go down in Orlando; there has also been a rumor that Cena would soon be feuding with Baron Corbin, whose standout performance in the title match tonight surely reinforces any rumor of an impending push of that magnitude, at this time of the year especially. By running with Styles vs. Cena again, WWE has plenty of options on the table for Mania, pretty much all of them attractive Smackdown Live main-events for the Show of Shows. If you want to lay down some betting odds for who wins that match, feel free to share.
The other interesting aspect of Cena's monologue was his more scathing-than-usual tongue. He has prided himself for so long on being so respectful of his audience dynamic that even the slightest hint of showing attitude in defiance of his detractors comes across as a flashlight being turned on in a large, dark room. Should WWE want to maximize the intrigue of a Taker vs. Cena match, then surely an even temporary phase of more heelish tendencies from the Golden Boy would raise the stakes and profile of the clash of historic titans. Remember what it did for the Shawn Michaels vs. Hulk Hogan match that HBK superkick-started a brilliant two month run as an antagonist that stood as the only such run of his eight year post-comeback career? WWE feared it would be less interesting in a classic babyface vs. babyface scenario; maybe that logic translates in this situation? It could be tremendously engaging to see a new side of Cena and he would not even have to make anything more than a pit stop on the dark side of the force to accomplish it.
Overall, the interview felt like a big deal and, given the presentation of the entire program tonight, so too did the title matches feel very important. Championship matches on Smackdown have a distinct edge over their Raw counterparts for one typically simple reason: they announce them in advance. Had the Tag Team Championship Fatal 4-Way been booked seemingly on the fly as is often the case on Raw, then it would not have felt like nearly as big a deal. As such, we saw a title change in a match hyped for a week that, though a little monotonous until we reached the Wyatt Family vs. American Alpha pairing for the last ten minutes or so, delivered once it got moving toward its climax (***). The result was unexpected, as the Wyatts seemed to be gelling in their new role. What happens next with Orton and Bray seems to be more imminent than it did before the title switch and one has to wonder if the Tag Team Championships will continue to factor heavily into how that next chapter in the Wyatt saga unfolds. Gable and Jordan now have the responsibility of carrying a still-fledgling division; just give them twenty-minutes and let them go to work.
The Women's Championship match was not always perfectly timed, but the effort was strong. If there is one thing holding Alexa Bliss back from putting her reputation in the WWE women's scene on par with the Four Horsewomen, it would be her performance when the lights are on brightest. She is good and she is getting better, but she is still a step behind when the bell rings. Nevertheless, she and Becky Lynch deserve a lot of credit for crafting so much intricacy into their sequence list. They had a nicely layered title bout that moved swiftly through each stage before giving Lynch an out for another loss (*** ¼). Their feud will be an interesting one to follow as we get deeper into WrestleMania Season, as Smackdown's Women's Title scene is not clear at all when peering into the crystal ball to see the grandest stage.
Anyone who has gotten into the mode during the brand split of cutting back on WWE hours and maybe drifting into a PPV-only viewing schedule should understand this most of all about Smackdown: what they lack in roster depth, they make up for in attention to creative detail...and star-making is a natural result. The latest exhibit is Baron Corbin, who perhaps has not been utilized to his full potential since the July draft, but who has regularly maintained a presence, even if it has been an appearance or two on Talking Smack to say his peace in increasingly impressive fashion. The by-product of his consistent presence is that it does not shock anyone or defy credibility or necessarily even come out of nowhere when he goes from feuding with Kalisto to getting a WWE Title shot; in some ways it comes across as exactly as he says it does (like he is getting exactly what he deserves).
The main-event proved that Corbin is ready for prime time; all they have to do now is decide when they want to move forward with pushing him to the top. They will have to be careful not to completely backburner him and it is crucial that he maintain a slightly higher profile presence consistently from here on or risk the momentum completely stalling. He looked like a million bucks on Tuesday night and, unlike the new monster heel on Raw, he has shown capable of considerably stepping up his in-ring game – as important in this era for top flight stars as in any before it – to match the kind of push that he has gotten as of late. He combined with Styles and Dolph Ziggler to have a match that employed the Brock Lesnar “Beast Mode” formula to great success (****). Add the End of Days-Zig Zag tandem as a last ditch nomination for “Move of the Year” while celebrating a supreme display of the triple threat gimmick that stamped nicely a resurgent year for the Show Off and an all-time great year for Styles, while previewing what might come in 2017 for the Lone Wolf. Cheers to all three men.
When a wrestling promotion concentrates on making each of its championships meaningful and when it takes the time to carefully build characters, it is quite likely to thrive. Smackdown has had its ups and downs since brand split 2.0 began, but night's like tonight exemplify that the blue team is poised for a dynamic 2017 to reinforce a lot of its highlights from the last five months of 2016. Tuesday night was a night of thriving.
Rating wrestling matches is a challenging exercise, but it is possible to systematically break down greatness on the 20'X20' canvas into readily identifiable elements; such has been the basis of my studies of the in-ring performance over the last fifteen years. As mentioned in my recently updated-through-the-end-of-the-year star ratings list for the entirety of the WrestleMania Era, the rubric that shapes my general analysis of wrestling matches includes the level of engagement for the pre-match storyline and then, for the match itself, the selling, psychology, execution, time provided, quality of the false finishes, presentation of the climax, and the investment of the live audience. It is the wrestling subject on which I have spent more time over the years than any other.
Match of the Year is, thus, my favorite year-end award to examine, but one thing that I have found over the last decade and a half is that to categorically separate a handful or two of great matches requires a deeper level of investigation that goes beyond just the basic formula. There is simply much more to consider when it comes to contextualizing which match in WWE each year was the greatest. Admitting that many of the pure elements described above would be fairly equal upon comparison, it becomes important to account for qualities such as innovation, special entrances that enhance the atmosphere, the stage on which a match took place, and the historic nature of the performance.
There were an abundant ten matches that ultimately made it under the microscope once the field had been narrowed from the bouts that were named Match of the Month this year, all the more reason to more heavily scrutinize; of those ten, five became very obvious finalists.
Before we discuss the Top 5, let's quickly look back at the five Honorable Mentions. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Sami Zayn is sure to be the top choice for many enthusiasts; it shined as a standout exhibition match, of sorts, with inarguably the best crowd dynamic among the Top 10, but while it told a wonderful story during its run-time, it does not hold up particularly well against fellow 4-star efforts with more intangibles and more deeply engaging back stories. Team Raw vs. Team Smackdown, the co-headliner for Survivor Series, is also knocked down a peg by its limited pre-match story, as WWE's attempts to spark a true rivalry between brands will need to be consistently plentiful over a sustained period of time in order to be reflected by more definitive audience preference; that said, the match was fantastic sans for a few mistimed sequences. AJ Styles vs. Dean Ambrose at TLC is done no favors by a weak rivalry either and, though a brilliant example of its gimmick, it might have performed better in a different year's rankings. Neither The Miz vs. Dolph Ziggler at No Mercy nor Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens at Battleground have any such issues as two of the three best rivalries of 2016; both watch in hindsight, however, as decidedly mid-card affairs as compared to the more epic auras stimulated by their peers.
The Top 5 for 2016 each featured at least one thing that boosted its profile clearly ahead of the aforementioned Next 5. The Revival vs. DIY at NXT Takeover: Toronto is, from the standpoint of selling, psychology, and execution – the pure essentials of wrestling matches – the best match of the year and one of the best standard tag team matches of all-time. The pairings worked seamlessly with one another and reminded WWE and its fanbase of the value of tag team wrestling when handled with creative care and when treated like it matters.
Match of the Year is an evolving discussion sometimes dependent on the test of time being passed to confirm results somewhat shaped by the moment; in a tight race for the top spot, Revival vs. DIY is a match that could receive a considerable historical boost down the road if it manages to spark a resurgence in tag team wrestling on the main roster in even a fraction of the way similar to how the Four Horsewomen's success in NXT translated eventually to WWE proper. In a revised list in two or three years, it could retroactively be considered in a context analogous to last year's greatest match, Sasha Banks vs. Bayley, vaulting it to #1. We will see.
Speaking of the Four Horsewomen, Charlotte vs. Sasha at Hell in a Cell benefits from being such a key moment in women's (and overall) wrestling lore. That theirs is the Feud of the Year, that they are the inaugural women to main-event a PPV in WWE history, that the presentation of their entrances fit the theme of a momentous occasion, and that they rose to that occasion to tell an enrapturing story full of innovation – a better version of what Ambrose and Rollins did two years ago within the confines of the same stipulation – combined to make their second one-on-one PPV match the greatest (though perhaps not the best) in their classic series for the Women's Championship.
AJ Styles vs. John Cena at Summerslam tried very hard to be a classic and, for the most part, succeeded. It is not exactly a thinking fan's match, as it wasted but six minutes setting up its signature offense-fest that lasted for the remainder of the 23-minute duration. Make no mistake about how easily they placed the Brooklyn audience (and beyond) in the palms of their hands, though. On the second grandest stage WWE has to offer, Cena and Styles stole the show and exhausted the crowd for the rest of a long night; and of course there is something to be celebrated in that fact. If you wish to know why it is not #1, that truly boils down to a lack of drama on re-watch. The legitimacy of the near falls is not sustained, rendering it a lesser version of Cena's previous matches with others of the Styles-persuasion (an easy third behind his bouts with Bryan and Punk in the Golden Boy vs. Independent Darling pantheon); it definitely hurt Styles vs. Cena in the context of the Match of the Year analysis that it seemed like we had seen much more captivating versions of the same bout not that long ago.
For an updated version of the WWE guy vs. Indy guy recipe, look no further than the match that spent the majority of the year as the leader in the clubhouse for me as the favorite to take home the trophy in today's spotlight: AJ Styles vs. Roman Reigns at Extreme Rules. The bottom line is that Styles vs. Reigns was a better version of the Styles vs. Cena match, more dramatic in its demonstration of booking the underdog who “was never supposed to be at this level” in the minds of many against the prototypical WWE stalwart. It is Styles vs. Reigns, not Styles vs. Cena, that holds up so well against the likes of Cena vs. Bryan or Punk historically, thanks in large part to Roman's fresh take on the concept and AJ's brilliance working as the babyface in such a scenario. Reigns brought an attitude to the equation that Cena never has, heeling it up like his cousin would have and creating for him an opportunity to emote in a way that further fanned the flames of the audience toward a more organic crescendo as the match climaxed.
Unequivocally, Styles vs. Reigns might be the most purely rewatchable match of 2016, but it is not the greatest.
The 2016 Match of the Year sneaked up on me a little bit. No one talked about it as the year dragged on, the WWE discussion for greatest match in most circles centering primarily on Nakamura vs. Zayn, Cena vs. Styles, and the late addition of the DIY vs. Revival 2/3 Falls match in Toronto while I steadfastly presumed Styles vs. Reigns as the prohibitive frontrunner. Yet, 2016's greatest was named the mid-point Match of the Year in July during a panel discussion involving the hosts of our LOP Radio podcast network and it was a match that certainly struck a chord with me on the night that it happened.
Let me preface the following by stating that, when I study a match (or matches), I account for the entirety of the presentation within the context of the story told. For instance, with last year's Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar WrestleMania main-event, I saw no reason to separate Reigns vs. Lesnar from the triple threat situation that emerged toward the end of it, instead viewing the match pre-and-post Money in the Bank cash-in as one big story. I view 2016's Match of the Year the same way.
Mine will not be a pick you will likely see elsewhere, marking just the second time since I started doing my own match ratings in 2003 that my Match of the Year will not be among the popular candidates (Doc's notes – the other instance was 2012 with Rock vs. Cena; retroactively looking at all of the WrestleMania Era, the number is much higher than twice). So, allow me to tell you how I see it when I watch it.
The hype video package details the obvious: that Seth Rollins vs. Roman Reigns at Money in the Bank was truthfully the most historic match in all of 2016. It reminds us that this is the culmination of a two-year story that began in the build-up to Money in the Bank in 2014 with Rollins turning on Reigns and Dean Ambrose, famously destroying The Shield to join The Authority; it reminds that their fates had always been intertwined but that their paths to this point featured distinctly different themes. Rollins, via greed and guile, became “The Man,” but had to forfeit the symbol of his status when his knee buckled under the weight of carrying WWE in 2015; Reigns, via guts and determination, became “The Guy” and, thanks to his unwavering self-belief, came to hold the richest prize in the business.
As Rollins and Reigns make their entrances, it sets in fully that this is the first (and, to date, the only) one-on-one PPV match between the two stars most likely to carry WWE through the end of the decade and perhaps beyond, that this is a headliner that could easily be the main-event of WrestleMania.
After the introductions have been made, it becomes clear that Reigns has been waiting for this match for a long time and is prepared to unleash two years of pent-up aggression for Seth striking him down in June 2014, for Seth cashing in at his expense at WrestleMania 31, and for targeting him as the object of his ire during his recent return. Consistent with his irritation at the audience's response to him in the two prior PPV matches he had with AJ Styles, Roman lets his attitude show, trash-talking Rollins at every turn and exuding a supreme confidence that says via physical expression, “There is no way that you can beat me, Seth.”
The commentary team does well to make salient points that enhance the story, such as the fact that it was only the absence of Rollins due to injury that allowed Reigns to fully ascend to the zenith of the industry and that, while The Architect was rehabbing with the lone goal of regaining the title in mind, Reigns was becoming a battle-hardened champion by plowing through the challenges imposed by Seth's dastardly former Authority cohorts. These two really are intertwined, bound together as the superstars of their generation who have already grasped the brass ring and are trying to wrestle it away from each other instead of sharing it.
Rollins naturally assumes the role of the protagonist against the increasingly despised champion, far more organic in his actions than he is now that he has actually turned babyface. There is an added touch of acknowledgment to the people in the instances when he takes flight for aerial assaults and lands on his feet after connecting like it is as easy as ever, no mind paid to his reconstructed knee. His resiliency has already been tried and he feels like he could move mountains physically, a hypothesis tested and proven by his successful execution of the sunset flip (eventually) into a turnbuckle bomb (the move that obliterated his knee); all the while, he still maintains a psychological edge over his former stablemate. It takes awhile to wear down Roman but, once he we get deep into the match, there are mental mistakes for Rollins to exploit.
Throughout the run-time, the fluidity of the sequences, several of them very impressive, is complimented by the strength of both character performances. Reigns finds that Rollins might really be his Achilles heel, but his pride will not allow him to admit it. Rollins, meanwhile, has in his mind exposed that Roman's pride is more accurately hubris and, if anyone around here has the right to be ostentatious, it is “The Man.” Always the one springing the traps, The Architect has saved his best for last with an incredible Spear-into-Pedigree counter and, though Roman kicks out, all it takes is one more Pedigree to earn him back the title that he never lost.
Deservedly triumphant, Rollins celebrates with an appreciative crowd, which is both happy to see Rollins get his cleanly victorious moment and thrilled to see Reigns no longer holding the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, but the audience's appreciation turns to elation when Dean Ambrose, winner of the Money in the Bank Ladder Match earlier in the night, joins the party with a thunderous steel briefcase shot to Seth's cranium. Recall that it was Ambrose who initially targeted Rollins in June 2014 for revenge on both he and Roman's behalf; it was Ambrose who could not beat Rollins when the stakes were high, not at Money in the Bank 2014 when the contract was up for grabs or at Money in the Bank 2015 when the title was at stake. The Lunatic, long on the fringe of being knighted at the WWE roundtable alongside his former brethren from The Shield, cashes in his MITB contract and quickly becomes the WWE Champion at Seth's expense, proving to Rollins that, even if he wanted to put the past behind him, he would still have to pay for his many sins.
Reigns would have to seize a different day; Rollins would have to deal with his past catching up to him in his cathartic moment of glory; it was Ambrose's turn to bask in the glow of the main-event spotlight.
So, no, it may not be the most popular choice for Match of the Year, but analytical scrutiny suggests it is the right choice. Anyone who has paid close attention to the WWE product over the past few years surely can recognize, when and if they think this match through, that it was an overall magnificent conclusion to a two-year arc involving one of the greatest factions ever. Rollins vs. Reigns in and of itself was superb; it was a match that will presumably age quite gracefully given its strengths are based in character potential realized and long-term booking bearing the fruits of creative labor. Then, if you add in the Ambrose cash-in, it is just the complete WWE storytelling package.