Doctor's Orders: December 6-8, 2016 - WWE Wrestler of the Year, The Foundational Flaw of Rollins vs. HHH, WWE TLC 2016 Review
By The Doc
Dec 8, 2016 - 3:31:27 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.
The 2016 WWE Wrestler of the Year
The Foundational Flaw of Seth Rollins vs. Triple H
WWE TLC 2016 Review
QUESTION OF THE DAY: In order, who are the Top 5 wrestlers of 2016 in WWE?
The race for 2016 WWE Wrestler of the Year is over, folks. It was closer than many might have expected when all relevant data points were compiled and compared but, in the end, the results were fairly predictable. That seems like a strange word choice – “predictable” – given that Mr. WWE this year was not a member of the roster when the 2015 award was given. By all accounts, this was the first year in the WrestleMania Era that a superstar won the award in his debut year. Brock Lesnar, Kurt Angle, and Diesel all had fantastic debut years too, but none were generally regarded as the best in the industry that quickly. It is a phenomenal accomplishment for the 2016 winner.
Before discussing the #1 star in WWE for 2016, let’s take a few minutes to praise the other candidates. Considering that the award encompasses the totality of a superstar’s in-ring achievements, his/her ability to connect to the audience via interviews, and the profile that he/she has built through headlining matches and historical moments, The Miz certainly deserves recognition for carrying the Intercontinental Championship division for the final three quarters of the year, raising the status of the title in the process and producing the most compelling series of IC Title matches of this entire decade from September to December with Dolph Ziggler; no predominantly mid-card wrestler elevated himself this year more than he did and, accordingly, he seems poised for the biggest year of his career in 2017.
Some would say that Miz is the best pure heel in the business, the rare talent who is still too good at being bad to get cheered. Perhaps his only challenger for that moniker in WWE is Charlotte, who had one of the five best individual years of any WWE star. The Queen’s ability to grate on the nerves of wrestling enthusiasts young and old, casual and diehard is second-to-none. She steadily improved on the microphone throughout 2016 and led the way to the “Women’s Revolution” being an actual thing on the main roster this year instead of just a tagline as it was in 2015. Becky Lynch and especially Sasha Banks deserve credit too, but Charlotte’s combination of carrying her division as a personality and having the caliber of matches on a consistent basis that raised the Women’s Championship all the way to the PPV main-event level gives her an edge over the rest of her female contemporaries. That she routinely headlined special events from January to December, won the newly anointed title at WrestleMania in the greatest women’s wrestling match in “Show of Shows” history, and was undefeated on pay-per-view through Survivor Series also elevates her above the vast majority of her male counterparts as well.
Charlotte, who shared the October Wrestler of the Month award with Sasha Banks for their top quality Hell in a Cell match and combining to become the first women ever to main-event a WWE PPV, is the second member of the 2016 Top 5 to have won just a single Wrestler of the Month distinction; the other is Roman Reigns, who continued throughout the year to struggle as a personality despite his three Match of the Month honors (February vs. Dean Ambrose and Brock Lesnar, May vs. AJ Styles, and June vs. Seth Rollins) and his key involvement in the November Match of the Month (Raw vs. Smackdown Elimination match at Survivor Series). It may take a drastic shift in his character dynamic to allow him to truly be “The Guy.” In the ring, he is one of the best (honestly) and his look will continue to afford him opportunities to have big moments on grand stages, but his persona will work against him until something changes.
If only Kevin Owens looked like Roman Reigns; then we would have the perfect wrestler, would we not? The Prizefighter has done an amazing job in his short WWE career overcoming the perception that comes with his rotund frame en route to a 2016 that may be as well-rounded as any wrestler’s. Not only has he won two Wrestler of the Month awards in the final third of the year (September and November) on the back of his headlining run as the Universal Champion on Raw, but he began the year elevating the much-maligned Intercontinental Championship and spent the spring and early summer having arguably the rivalry of the year with Sami Zayn, culminating in a leading candidate for Match of the Year at Battleground. In all, KO’s resume also included two Match of the Month honors (January vs. Ambrose and July vs. Zayn), plus his contribution to the November Match of the Month.
Dean Ambrose is the 2016 runner-up, but when equally evaluating all parts of the year, he sure did come close to being #1. He owned the first quarter of the year. His excellent January MOTM with KO at the Rumble, followed by his run in the Rumble match later in the same night sparked the best few months of his career to date, during which he rose back to World Title-contender status in the February MOTM, had the year’s most underrated classic against Triple H in the March MOTM (at Roadblock), and joined Brock Lesnar on the marquee at WrestleMania. He proceeded to win Money in the Bank and cash-in on the same night to win the World Championship for the first time in his career, collect another Wrestler of the Month award for July thanks to defeating his former Shield mates in an historic triple threat match, tear the house down at two PPVs in September and December with AJ Styles, and play a vital role in the November MOTM. This was the year that Ambrose evened the playing field in what is sure to be a long-running competition with Reigns and Seth Rollins for who is the leader of this generation.
The Lunatic was right on the fringe, but AJ Styles was the man to accomplish the phenomenal. They are likely to finish the year with equal numbers of Wrestler of the Month awards, equal numbers of Match of the Month awards, and near-equal amounts of time spent vying for or holding the WWE Championship. However, there has been something about Styles, especially since April’s post-Mania Raw, that has put him on another level. He became that which Shawn Michaels, Kurt Angle, Bret Hart, and other awesome wrestlers used to be for WWE – one half of a guaranteed classic match in a big match situation; provided the opportunity to steal the show or validate his status as the top guy on the show, he never failed to deliver. Against Roman Reigns in May, against John Cena in June and August, and against Ambrose in September and December, Styles produced the majority of the leading candidates for WWE Match of the Year; and his WOTM honors in April, May, and August reflect not just his in-ring accolades, but also his surprisingly engaging character work.
Styles has been the complete package; he has been a cut above his peers as a performer. That he debuted at the Royal Rumble and has arguably been WWE’s most over star the entire year in addition to his other accolades is just incredible. So, cheers to you, AJ. The chant has become over-utilized, but the sentiment is very appropriate right now, sir: “YOU DESERVE IT.”
Rewind the clock back to 2004
WWE had just crowned the youngest World Heavyweight Champion in its history. That confident new cornerstone, Randy Orton, was as heel as a heel could be, oozing arrogance through his pores to the point that, if self-importance was a fragrance, it would have smelled like The Legend Killer. Then, out of nowhere, the most dastardly villain of them all, Triple H, turned on him and, all of a sudden, wrestling enthusiasts were expected to ignore the totality of evil on display for years by Orton and buy into him as a sympathetic figure. The ensuing rivalry between Orton and Triple H failed so magnificently that it nearly derailed what would prove to be a future Hall of Fame career and acted as little more than a stain on the reputation of The Game.
Why it did not work, the feud between Orton and Trips twelve years ago, was both simple and an important historical landmark that WWE would be wise to pay attention to in the present and near future. The storyline was botched because you cannot showcase a superstar as one of the ultimate representations of villainy for two years and then expect that superstar to turn on a dime and be welcomed with open arms like a hero the next week, the next month, or in some cases even the next year. Life does not work that way; if your best friend stabbed you in the back and talked down to you every week, it really would not matter if he one day had an epiphany and, through his actions more so than his words, started treating you better. Unless you are a fool, it would take a long time for him to win you over. By August 2004, Orton had already been painted as one of the most disgusting wrestling characters in WWE lore, particularly by modern standards. It would have taken an act of God to get the majority of people to suddenly start cheering him; certainly more than a mere thumbs down from Triple H.
Lightning has struck twice in an eerily similar spot. Here we are in 2016 and, to date, WWE have seemingly expected its fanbase to embrace Seth Rollins for the same inept reason that they expected people to gravitate toward the Orton camp over a decade ago: a presumed greater evil committed a treacherous act toward a presumed lesser evil. “Now, clap for Seth, monkeys!” To date, the success has been as middling as it was in 2004.
The Architect emerged two years ago as arguably the heir to the top heel throne previously occupied by Triple H and Orton, who eventually did rebound, drop the silly, ill-suited heroic tendencies and become the greatest antagonist of his generation. He had an opportunity to make a triumphant return from injury and switch allegiances organically earlier this year, did Rollins, but WWE chose to hold off. The problem is that they picked a catalyst for his becoming a protagonist that was far less authentic and has come across more often than not as forced, not necessarily because he is doing a bad job in his role – he seems capable of being a far more engaging babyface than Orton was at similar stages in their respective WWE tenures – but more so because the people are not connecting to him en masse. And why would they have been expected to? It is the law of averages; a man who is despicable for 90% of his career should not be deemed a likeable persona based primarily on being positioned opposite more despicable characters for 10% of his career.
On Raw this week, Rollins brought his simmering conflict with The COO back to the forefront after a multi-month absence of acknowledgement. It got a reaction. The question is whether or not it got the caliber of reaction that one might expect. On paper, Rollins vs. Triple H is a huge match between mentor and protégé, of the star perhaps most likely to become his generation’s alpha male and one of the Top 10 overall stars of the WrestleMania Era. It should work, but presently something is missing.
The best rivalries have strong foundations and one of the key building blocks in that foundation is the dynamic for who plays the protagonist and who plays the antagonist; it has already been proven that a very bad guy turning on another very bad guy does not equate to a successful feud or payoff. Unfortunately, the road we appear to be heading down has a foundation built on a formula that does not work; and it is very difficult to build a story on a faulty foundation. Fortunately, there is still time to fix the foundation, but it is going to take some masterful creative in an age not particularly well known for creative mastery.
Rollins has to click for this to work and it remains to be seen what can be done to get him to click with the audience as a protagonist. Otherwise, it's Triple H who might have to audible; and that is not one of his historical strengths – in fact, it might be one his greatest weaknesses, especially this decade. Among the various downsides with Triple H over the years has been that WWE marries itself creatively to the story that they want to tell with him and, even if signs are clearly pointing toward a change in plans, they push forward full steam ahead as if there were no issue at all; the end result has typically been a heatless payoff match. The WrestleMania 29 match with Brock Lesnar was case-in-point; the record-setting crowd cared so little and was accordingly so quiet that, live in attendance, you could hear the heaters above the ring used to warm the performers on a cold New Jersey night. The WrestleMania 32 match with Roman Reigns was proof positive as well; another record-setting crowd pronounced its indifference throughout the run-time, starting waves, chanting for women yet to debut on the main roster, and generally not giving a hoot.
At this point, it might be best to paint Triple H as the cunning legend – in his “father of NXT” role maybe – who did what he felt was best for business by removing from championship position the diabolical egotist that he helped create; an admission of his own failure if you will. It would leave a gap in terms of why he chose Kevin Owens, granted, yet it would, in the process, paint Rollins as the bad guy in all of this. Many are claiming that the main problem with Rollins is that we do not know why Triple H attacked him; short of anything extraordinary, however, little he can say that fits the narrative presumably set-in-motion three months ago will fix the defective foundation. It would be an about face for Trips to assume the sympathetic role, but there are a lot more reasons to think he can get over in that role than Rollins has to date and it would allow The Architect to get back into his comfort zone, where he has proven that he can thrive.
Do not mistake this as an indictment on the potential of this rivalry, which is unmistakably vast. Something needs to happen, though, to give Rollins a bigger spark for the shift in his character dynamic. WWE wants him to be loved like Peyton Manning; right now he is loved like Ryan Tannehill. Triple H can cut a few of the best promos of his career when he comes back and it still may not matter unless something drastically changes for Rollins. Bobby Heenan, twenty years ago, uttered the immortal phrase, “Two ugly people staring at each other...that's nice.” Well, this is a case of two degenerates hating each other...so what?
WrestleMania 33 is the likely destination for the Triple H vs. Seth Rollins clash. WWE has four months to get people invested and their best bet to accomplish that feat may be to tear down the fundamental premise upon which this feud was originally planned and start anew.
TLC has traditionally been a solid pay-per-view offering from WWE since its 2009 inception, but the 2016 edition might very well have been the best of the lot. The Smackdown brand needed to deliver in a big way after a lackluster two months of television and they knocked it out of the park.
The opener that saw the Wyatts win the Tag Team Championships from Rhyno and Heath Slater was exactly what it needed to be. It was perhaps, in hindsight, not a mistake to capitalize in the moment on Slater’s surprising post-draft popularity, but it was quite evident that keeping the brand new titles on the one-trick comedic act for three months may have been problematic. The Dallas crowd was dead all night, granted, yet they barely made a sound louder than breaking wind for Rhyno and Slater; so, just as their success should remind WWE of how to go with the flow of what’s working with the audience, in the future WWE would be wise to also use them as a reminder that, once the punch-line has been delivered, the joke is over. Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt won convincingly as they should have and we now have more relevant champions (* ¾). The developing story with the Wyatt Family is very intriguing.
Carmella vs. Nikki Bella was okay for what it was in following the Tag Title switch. It did, however, expose Carmella as still very much a work-in-progress and bring to the forefront a question regarding Nikki’s ability to both work successful matches when opposite less seasoned women and elevate less established stars. The basic psychology of the match was fine; they fought each other like one might expect of their better than average tertiary blue brand feud. Yet, it began to unravel when Nikki completely no sold the leg that Carmella had spent several minutes attacking; that effectively killed the match. As stated on last week’s “The Doc Says” podcast, this was an opportunity for Carmella to get to the next level; she was unable to take advantage, making it likely that her next step is backward while Nikki, deserving or not, inches closer to the title picture (* ½).
Bray Wyatt’s first championship victory was a nice way to start TLC, but it felt like the show did not really get going until Dolph Ziggler unsuccessfully challenged Miz for the Intercontinental Championship. The audience was basically just going through the motions by then and you wonder if perhaps moving the Ladder Match to the opener might have changed the crowd dynamic for the rest of the night or if the people in attendance were just determined to sit on their hands. Had Miz and Ziggler performed a stunt brawl-style Ladder Match, the lack of loud pops might have been far more detrimental to the presentation but, seeing as they went with a story-driven version of the gimmick, the lack of fan enthusiasm was nearly moot.
It was an outstanding, fitting final chapter to one of the year’s best (and least expected) rivalries. The manner in which they teased so frequently one spot before switching gears to another was the kind of approach that reminds why the story-driven Ladder Match can be so effective. Reminiscent of Chris Jericho vs. Chris Benoit at the 2001 Royal Rumble, Miz vs. Ziggler did not make gratuitous use of the ladder simply for climbs toward the gold that clearly would have proven ineffective; they used the ladder as a weapon to incapacitate one another as best they could before finally trying to retrieve the title hanging above. In a word, the match was very “smart.” Add “great” to the list of descriptors (**** ¼).
The legacy of their story is already historically significant. Ziggler vs. Miz produced three of the best Intercontinental Championship matches of the decade and their rivalry which helped renew the prestige of the title was the best since Jericho vs. Rey Mysterio in 2009.
Unenviable was the task of trying to follow the frequent show-stealing pair, but the Chairs Match between Baron Corbin and Kalisto was the surprise hit of the night. Every year, we see the latest sequel to the groaning over the Chairs Match concept; almost every year, the combatants involved with the annual December stipulation make creative use of the no-rules environment and produce an enjoyable addition to the card. When will the dislike of the gimmick pass? Batista vs. Undertaker, Cena vs. Barrett, Sheamus vs. Show, Del Rio vs. Swagger, and now Corbin vs. Kalisto makes for a solid group of examples for the Chair Match library’s overall achievement. Corbin and Kalisto had the best matches of their respective careers; the Lone Wolf previewed what he could become if he builds on his TLC effort, while Kalisto showcased what he is capable of bringing to the table when he stays within himself (*** ¼).
The Chairs Match offers a lot more freedom of physical expression than the Tables Match, at least as it has become since the TLC PPV came to be. Since the Attitude Era gave rise to the abundant occurrence of wrestlers going through tables, fans have heard the word “table” and expected carnage as a result. The modern Tables Match, particularly the one-on-one version, does not offer carnage itself, but merely the continued teasing of it. Becky Lynch and Alexa Bliss were, therefore, at the same fundamental disadvantage as have been their peers at TLCs ’09 through ’15, responsible for investing an audience in the payoff of one crash-bang moment when said audience not-so-secretly desires more than a few. Most gimmicks today do not ask fans to think, but the Tables Match has become a “thinking fan’s” genre. The only way to change that would be to merely make tables the one legal foreign object (see Chairs matches) and allow pinfalls and submissions for achieving victory.
All that having been stated, Lynch and Bliss had a good match. They did well to build drama around the possibilities on numerous occasions that one of them might get put through the table. In the end, Bliss becoming champion is another good example of going with the flow. Babyface titleholders are better on the chase and Bliss has emerged as an opportunistic, legitimately devious character; the existing dynamic was working just fine, but there is plenty of reason to think that this new wrinkle will work just as well if not better (*** ¼).
Speaking of new wrinkles, the last match of the night certainly added one when James Ellsworth turned on his buddy to help the WWE World Champion retain his title. On “The Doc Says” last week, Ellsworth was compared to a bruised rib – an aggravating, slow-healing injury to Smackdown that has already happened and that there is nothing that can be done about except wait until the damage he has done slowly fades away. His role in the main-event last night signals that his run at the top of Smackdown and his tendency to drag down an otherwise engaging pro wrestling program is not over. His turn the dark side, on a positive note, likely means that his time as a focal point is nearing an end because it strips away that which made him endearing and allowed his t-shirt to sell – seemingly the only thing that his supporters can substantiate as valid reasons for his prominent presence.
Anyhow, the main-event was just tremendous. Ziggler and Miz were a tough act to follow, just as they were at Backlash in September. Yet again, though, Dean Ambrose and AJ Styles called their performance, so to speak, and raised the bar that much higher. In a Tables, Ladders, and Chairs Match for the ages, Styles and Ambrose took a similar, story-driven approach as their IC Title counterparts, only they unleashed the kind of carnage that, when combined with intelligent wrestling, creates for sure-fire Match of the Year candidates. Harkening to memories of Edge vs. John Cena in 2006, Styles and Ambrose had an epic TLC Match that could one day go down as the greatest achievement in genre lore. The spot innovation paid dividends, creating several memorable moments that will not easily be forgotten; and the character work from both was spot on, exemplifying just how comfortable both of them are in their own skin. You get the sense that both men believe with every fiber of their being that they are the top wrestler on the planet; it is a palpable aura that they both give off and it is one of the reasons why they are the two leading candidates for WWE Wrestler of the Year (**** ½).
All in all….TLC flat out delivered. Smackdown needed new Tag Team Champions and got them; Smackdown needed a great night of wrestling and got it. The Ellsworth problem is still a major issue, but hopefully that bruised rib will heal soon and the bright spots of that roster will be given carte blanche to return the blue brand to its previously undisputed spot as the top show in WWE.