REQUESTING FLYBY: The Complete 2015 Mid Year MOTY Round Up
Jul 5, 2015 - 4:57:42 PM
The 2015 Mid Year MOTY Round Up
Well, we’re six months and seven pay-per-views into 2015, and although we haven’t had quite the in-ring year that we had in 2014, we’ve still had a great deal of excellent in-ring action to cherish thus far. Given that we’re at the half way point in the wrestling calendar, I’m going to take a look at the best matches to have taken place in five categories: on television, in PPV midcard action, in a PPV tag match, on NXT, and in a PPV main event.
Headlining (and overall) MOTY: Seth Rollins vs Dean Ambrose in a ladder match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Money In The Bank, June 2015
In their series of matches together, Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose had already redefined or put a highly postmodern spin on a whole host of degraded match types even before they got to Money In The Bank. Their bitter rivalry anchored the titular ladder match of that pay-per-view a year earlier, carrying their fellow participants to one of the better modern incarnations of that well worn gimmick. Booked in a regular singles match at Battleground, the kayfabe volcanic fury of Ambrose ensured that it was thrown out before it even happened, with the two instead engaging in a night long cat and mouse brawl that nodded slyly at the Attitude Era influence, with its tongue firmly in its cheek. At Summerslam, the highly anticipated stipulation pick by Ambrose was drowned out by mockery when it transpired that WWE intended for them to have a lumberjack match, but people really should have known better, as the two of them had a lurid, kamikaze battle that entirely redefined the genre. Not long after the summer classic, The Lunatic Fringe was written off TV in a falls count anywhere that is probably the forgotten masterpiece of their oeuvre, whilst the return of Dean in October precipitated the end of the first act of their rivalry as they had the best Hell in a Cell in many a year, filling it with knowing tributes to classics past. By 2015, they were back at it again, wrestling a TV classic to reignite Ambrose’s main event push, then a fatal fourway (another match type that often disappoints, but was revived by the brilliance of the ex-Shield men) and then a PPV singles match that worked a cerebral dimension and a Dusty finish into the equation.
All of this preamble is meant to illustrate the fact that it should not surprise anyone that Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose took an overwrought match type and turned it upside down. For long years, the psychological dimension to ladder matches had been sadly ignored, with illogical spots and boneheaded risk taking ruling the day. Ambrose and Rollins shut out that white noise of the past decade and looked to far better role models; Jericho and Michaels from 2009, Benoit and Jericho from 2001, The Rock and Triple H from 1998 and the classic pair of matches from Razor and Shawn in 1994. Even so, I make the comparison with those matches for one reason and one reason only: all of them were wrestling matches that just so happened to contain a ladder, matches where the gimmick did not obnoxiously dominate the action. What Dean and Seth did, for me, eclipses all of those great bouts I just mentioned. What they achieved at Money In The Bank is nothing short of remarkable, a completely immersive wrestling match which does not let the viewer take their eyes from the screen. It sucks you into their world and keeps you there, inside one of the most epic stories WWE/F have ever put together.
The restraint shown by the two men in wrestling a straight singles match at the outset is commendable, and psychologically sound too, as one needs to incapacitate one’s opponent before the climb to the gold is possible, and in an interesting storytelling touch, Ambrose stares up at the gold even as he tortures Rollins in a submission, demonstrating the evolution of a character who once lived out of a desperate need for revenge, but now desires the title, as if he realises that his stablemate might have been right about placing ambition over brotherhood. Interestingly, many critics have retro-fitted an idea that these first ten minutes are too slow, but this is, in fact, nonsense, as even a cursory rewatch illustrates that they wrestle crisply at quite a fast clip. What they don’t do is go for the ladder, a daring subversion of the gimmick’s recent history, which some may have been unprepared to see the value of. However, it is this patience, this restraint, this cerebral approach, that, in my opinion, makes it a masterpiece. I suppose one could see it as the type of match Owen and Bret would have had at Summerslam ‘94 had they been given a ladder match rather than a steel cage match, another masterpiece which sometimes gets scant credit for its brilliance. Even when they go for the ladder, the two are constantly stopping each other from getting near the instrument of success; we are made to wait for the first climb and it’s all the better for that. Equally, the first big ladder spot only occurs after multiple reversals and teases, and is all the more effective as a result.
Seth Rollins’ vicious assault on Ambrose’s knee with a steel chair takes the bout to the next level, cribbing from his onscreen mentor Triple H’s playbook, isolating a body part and showing the insecurity of the character after he had been instructed by The Authority to prove himself. The Lunatic Fringe’s desperate clawing at his enemy recalls the spit and sawdust feel of Chuck Palahniuk’s ‘Fight Club’ as the ring post figure four is locked on by Rollins, letting the audience fear for the safety and career of the man from Cincinnati. The way that the two men resolve to embrace pain is entirely realistic and believable, as the selling of Ambrose is consistent, and gradually less energetic as the assault develops. As ever in their matches, the storytelling that results from the two men knowing each other so well allows them to be constantly innovative in their counters, as the rebound clothesline attempt from Dean is met by a face full of ladder. The two never forget that The Lunatic Fringe has a mangled knee in kayfabe, as the game changing clothesline over the top rope back into the ring is not followed up, as his knee prevents him from making it across the ring. We could almost see Dean as a zombie that won’t die no matter how many body parts are taken away, and the increasing disbelief of Rollins as his foe refuses to lay down forces him to employ ever more desperate tactics, luring Ambrose into an ambush in the aisle and dashing to climb the ladder, only to find that his former partner is not done yet.
The third act of the bout begins with a brawl through the crowd that Trips and Rocky themselves would be proud of, and the subtle and cunning Rollins clearly uses this battle as a means of running a more under the radar route to the ladder, but again, he’s cut off by Ambrose, who runs across the table in a tribute to the later Shield matches; there are just so many moments that are sly nods to past events. As Seth takes an insane backdrop onto the propped up ladder, Dean attempts another climb, with tortuous slowness, practically crying with exhaustion and pain as he drags his mutilated leg up the steel, only to be denied. At this point, you wonder what on earth they have left to do to each other, and of course, the answer quickly comes with a Dirty Deeds into an announce table that refuses to break. Even now, there is still no sign that either man is any closer to winning the match, as a TV monitor wipes Ambrose off the ladder, and even after a Pedigree, he’s still crawling after Rollins, holding onto his leg so The Architect can’t take that title down. Frustrated and in a battle fury, the champ’s reaction is to try to destroy Ambrose once and for all, with a series of hard powerbombs, culminating into one on a huge pile of steel furniture. Even then though, Dean is not done, dragging himself one armed into the ring; now, any complaints about this are ridiculous in my view, as Ambrose is fuelled by hate and adrenaline in storyline terms, and Seth has to climb slowly due to the beating he’s taken during a 35 minute epic. The finish is, for me, both innovative and keeps The Lunatic Fringe strong in defeat. Just as in the NFL, whoever comes up with the ball (well, belt) at the end of the play, is the person that owns it. Now, anyone complaining that this was never a rule before needs to remember the Rumble in 1995, when only one of Shawn Michaels’ feet hit the floor. The disappointment on Ambrose’s face, juxtaposed with the joy on Rollins’ as he celebrates with Triple H, is an incredibly fitting ending to an incredible five star plus all time classic.
In all seriousness, when we talk about match of the decade, this match will be at the forefront of the conversation. Unlike CM Punk vs John Cena or Triple H vs Daniel Bryan, it was not a bout which caught the zeitgeist. Unlike Brock Lesnar vs CM Punk, it was not a tale of one man burning down the world and risking immolation to get to a former friend protected by a beast. Unlike Brock Lesnar vs John Cena, it was not a shocking blurring of the lines between pro wrestling and MMA, and unlike Daniel Bryan vs John Cena, it was not about “wrestler” vs “sports entertainer”. However, what this match did do, and quite brilliantly too, was to take an existing rivalry and take it to storytelling levels even the greatest fans of Rollins and Ambrose could have imagined. In terms of psychology, storytelling, selling and pacing, this match was arguably superior to any of its rivals. We still have four and a half years to go, but this match will be in the running. I guarantee it.
Honourable Mentions: Until May, it seemed obvious that John Cena vs Brock Lesnar vs Seth Rollins from the Royal Rumble would take the honours, a fast paced and athletically absurd redefinition of the triple threat with an incredible performance from our resident Beast. Meanwhile, Daniel Bryan vs Roman Reigns from Fast Lane was the coming out party for the badass Samoan, who turned out to have great chemistry with a tweener Yes Man. The first match between Kevin Owens and John Cena at Elimination Chamber was the popcorn match to end all popcorn matches, and I mean that as a huge compliment. The second one from Money In The Bank wasn’t bad either!
NXT MOTY: Sami Zayn vs Kevin Owens for the NXT Title at NXT Takeover: Rival, February 2015
The early part of the year in particular saw a flurry of fantastic matches on WWE’s developmental television show, but ultimately, none can match the sheer storytelling power and ballsy booking of the main event from Takeover: Rival. WWE are adept at utilising history when they choose to, and in invoking the fifteen year friendship of the two Canadians, they made sure of emotional dynamite, particularly when allied to the previous story Zayn was involved in on the yellow brand, a year long quest to prize the NXT Championshio out of the fingers of Adrian Neville. Having finally climbed to the top of the mountain in a heart stopping career vs title match in December, Zayn was on cloud nine, until hjs old friend arrived and ruthlessly destroyed him, beginning a two month mind games campaign that culminated in this match.
In terms of character acting, both men are at the top of their game; the smug, cool, piratical antagonist Owens against the impassioned, wronged, vengeful Zayn. This contrast is played up immediately in the semantic thread of the match, with the prize fighter choosing to slide out of the ring and tease getting back in several times, planning on dousing the righteous fury of his opponent, who can barely suppress his desire to get his hands on the man who betrayed him; the resultant somersault plancha to the outside that takes KO down for the first time is therefore brilliantly cathartic. This energetic assault is doomed, however, as Owens soon picks his spot by dropping Zayn head first onto the bottom turnbuckle, putting himself in the driver’s seat and allowing him to methodically grind his countryman into the mat. It’s the way that Owens does everything at a pace that suits him that impresses, his utter refusal to get drawn into anyone’s match but his own, in kayfabe terms. Zayn, for his part, bumps like 1994 Shawn Michaels and sells the assault to perfection. The visceral power of the match lies in the shock we feel at seeing a beloved champion dismantled in front of our eyes.
The second act of the contest thus begins with an impassioned comeback from our desperate hero, throwing a trio of unhinged clotheslines that takes the bullying challenger out of his gameplan and to the floor, whereupon the pace quickens and the adrenaline fuelled Sami hits an impressive Blue Thunder Bomb for a close near fall. The inherent drama of professional wrestling is very well illustrated by the undulating tempo of this bout, the switches of momentum which are handled so subtly here, and with such aplomb; when Zayn inevitably gets caught, Owens raises his game to quickly underscore his theft of the advantage, nailing a cannonbal in the corner and a huge shoulderbreaker, but Zayn remains unbowed and unbroken and counters the Pop Up Powerbomb with a dropkick, following up with the Half and Half Suplex for a near fall of his own. The hope spots for Sami are so well handled here that the organic feel of the match is never compromised, and the way that the champ’s all or nothing plancha to the outside results in his downfall is entirely in keeping with the story the two men have been telling, as is the kick out of the Pop Up Powerbomb. With the doctors surrounding ringside, Owens’ series of powerbombs is disturbing to witness and leads to that least used of finishes; the referee stoppage, and the award of the title to Owens validates the character’s entire methodology and pattern of behaviour since the turn at Takeover: R-Evolution. It’s fantastic wrestling television of the highest order, capped off by the emotional celebrations of the new champion.
Having watched the match again to write this piece, I have to say that it was even better with a few months distance. It’s a storytelling masterclass which remains compelling, even more so because the vengeance fuelled comeback of Zayn some time at the end of 2015 will give us yet more can’t miss television.
Honourable Mentions: The same NXT special brought us Finn Balor vs Adrian Neville, a fascinating race to the top rope that showcased the incredible athletic gifts of both men in an admirably restrained manner. A couple of weeks later, Kevin Owens vs Adrian Neville was a terrific contrast of styles and a nice farewell to NXT for the main roster bound Englishman. Finally, we should mention Becky Lynch vs Sasha Banks for the NXT Women’s Championship at NXT Takeover: Unstoppable, a thrilling match which lived up to the hype it gathered in the immediate aftermath of the show, unlike most of the other ladies matches of recent NXT times.
PPV Tag MOTY: A New Day vs Tyson Kidd and Cesaro in a two out of three falls match at Payback, May 2015
This year has seen a mini-renaissance in the tag division, as a group of teams have emerged from the shadow of the injury hit Usos to battle over an increasingly meaningful pair of bronze gladiator belts. No team has stepped up more than New Day, whose embrace of the heat they got as faces echoes the Rocky Maivia situation of late 1997 as they turned heel with great effect. Their feud with the elite workers of the division, Kidd and Cesaro, was hugely creditable and brought some fantastic action to several pay-per-views in a row.
In this two out of three falls encounter, A New Day were as entertaining as ever in their pre-match burial of Baltimore and its baseball team. They’re taking a lot of pages out of the Edge and Christian playbook, and that is always a good thing when it comes to being goofy heel tag champs. Cesaro was in outrageous form in the initial face shine portion of the match, which actually took up the entirety of the first fall, with the Swiss Superman pulling out mid air catch and slams on Big E and a series of double foot stomps on both Kofi and Langston before the Cesaro Swing took care of Kingston for the lead. The beginning of the second fall belonged to A New Day in kayfabe, despite Woods’ inability to convince the referee that he should be subbed in under Freebird Rules, as Kidd was thrown all the way to the outside by Big E and then worked over by the champions as Xavier pulled off his best Jimmy Hart impersonation at ringside. I particularly enjoyed the spear to the outside on Cesaro to take him out of the equation, as it put Tyson in a position to make a game fightback which was ultimately unsuccessful as New Day evened matters up with their double team finish. It was interesting to me that they basically had the first two falls be dominated by only one team; that was a different approach to the majority of these matches, where you essentially get three mini bouts. I enjoyed the variation with this one. Cesaro’s outrageous in ring form continued when he got a hot tag and hit a flurry of those running uppercuts; gosh what a sight that is. Kofi showed some resilience when he kicked out of the Kidd springboard elbow and escaped the Sharpshooter. A flurry of run ins and near falls kept the referee busy, and Woods ran in to steal a decisive roll up off a kind of “twin magic” with Kingston. Funnily enough, Mazza and myself had predicted that as a possible outcome on The Right Side Of The Pond on Friday. It certainly played into the sneaky gimmick the trio have developed, though maybe a bit dodgy from a racial point of view. An excellent two out of three tag match, which as many predicted, came very close to completely stealing the show and would have done had they gotten another ten minutes to really tear it up; these two teams have off the charts chemistry, just as The Usos and Wyatts did this time last year.
It’s a pity that Kidd’s injury has denied us the possibility of further battles between the teams, but The Prime Time Players have stepped up and seamlessly maintained the high profile the tag division has had since ‘Mania. I honestly doubt we’ll see a tag match to live up to this one in the remaining six months of 2015.
Honourable Mentions: The previous installment in the above feud, Kidd and Cesaro vs A New Day at Extreme Rules was a high octane tag bout with high enjoyability factor, whilst the tag team elimination chamber was absolutely all over the place but a whole heap of fun even so.
PPV Midcard Mid Year MOTY: Seth Rollins vs Randy Orton at Wrestlemania XXXI, March 2015
Before I get started here, I should probably point out that the likes of Owens/Cena and Rusev/Cena were not eligible for this award. I was thinking of true midcard matches in spirit and execution rather than ones which could really be considered part of a double main event.
After seeing them carry Monday Night Raw all the way to the big dance, I had such sky high expectations of Orton and Rollins going into Wrestlemania XXXI that the fact that they wrestled an understated midcard classic rather than a “steal the show” barnburner took a while to process, but once it had, their creative decision to work a “less is more” type of style made perfect sense; Orton got his revenge despite the interference of The Architect’s team of goons, and the simplicity of the story helped the match feel like a palate cleanser ahead of the more overblown affairs that inevitably follow at the Showcase of the Immortals.
The psychology was strong from the get go, as a conniving and cowardly Rollins tried to take the heat out of Orton with a headlock and shoulder tackle, however, his cockiness almost got the best of him as he was almost caught in the RKO early. It’s something I have loved about Seth’s character ever since last summer; he walks that line between over-confident and cerebral perfectly. He is the smartest player in the game, but his arrogance often comes back to bite him; it’s a compelling combination. J&J Security’s interference played a key role in the ascendancy of their employer and although they took a double drape DDT to the outside, a HUGE suicide dive from Rollins put The Architect conclusively in the driving seat, as he worked over Orton with stomps and chokes, nailing an STO into the bottom turnbuckle when a Orton threatened a brief comeback. However, as always, The Viper was the king of counters and hit a powerslam off a Curb Stomp attempt and a backdrop from the top rope after a superplex was countered. A crossbody off the top recalled the very first match Randy ever had on the main roster, but Rollins rolled through into a pin attempt for a near fall. From there, the run up to the finish was ever more frenetic, as Seth was caught in the rope assisted DDT, but countered the RKO into a roll up and then came up first to nail Avada Kedavra. A pair of false finishes followed in a bid to amp the crowd to fever pitch, building to the awesome second RKO, where The Apex Predator tossed Seth into the air off a third Curb Stomp attempt to land a picture perfect RKO; I mean really, that spot is still absolutely insane to watch. The height and hang time that Rollins gets and the crispness and timing of Randall’s finish is jaw dropping. What a finish.
One of the most compelling things in pro wrestling is the night long story, and this match scores highly not just as an entity in an of itself but as the down stage in a classic tribute to Bret Hart’s wildly contrasting opening and closing matches at Wrestlemania X. Rollins’ arrogance sees him fall to the man who he manoeuvred out of The Authority, but that same arrogance allows him to pick his opportunity and cash in Money In The Bank later that evening. Fantastic work by all.
Honourable Mentions: The year has not necessarily been that rich in singles midcard classics on pay-per-view, but Roman Reigns vs The Big Show in a Last Man Standing Match at Extreme Rules was a nicely executed version of the gimmick with an exciting last ten minutes. Meanwhile, Bray Wyatt vs Ryback at Payback was a well choreographed brawl that didn’t try to be too clever; it was two rough, tough dudes beating each other up and was all the better for that fact.
Television Mid Year MOTY: Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns in Tag Team Turmoil, Smackdown, February 2015
My scepticism about the Roman Reigns vs Daniel Bryan scenario first began to change into intrigue and enjoyment when they were booked as odd couple tag team partners against the entire tag roster by a scheming Authority a few weeks before Fast Lane. With the time afforded them by being placed on Smackdown to wrestle a much underused gimmick, Bryan and Reigns each put in a masterful ironman performance while creating a compelling story of tension and mistrust turning first into one-upmanship and finally into a nascent mutual respect. Every team inserted into the bout played their role to perfection too, making for one of the most enjoyable TV matches of the past few years.
In a fascinating twist, two tag teams with personal issues start off the match, and somehow, the dysfunction of the Miz and Mizdow pairing is completely outdone by that of the two main eventers, who slap each other in lieu of a more traditional tag, and talk trash to each other as they wail on The Miz; the body language is absolutely on point and immediately establishes the story for the match; how can they survive the entire tag division if they can’t co-operate? This difficult relationship progresses further as they “steal” tags from each other in order to get the glory of pinning the vulnerable Miz, a battle that Bryan ultimately wins as he dispatches the former reality star with his running knee and looks straight at Roman as the referee counts to three.
The next challenge for the feuding partners is much stiffer, as the tag champs of the time, The Usos, come out to replace the fallen former champs, Miz and Mizdow. Here, we have continuity and effortless teamwork against the polar opposite, and after a fantastic display of mat wrestling from Bryan and Jey Uso, the superior co-operation of The Usos puts them in charge, drawing a sarcastic look from Reigns, who Bryan promptly tags in. Another fascinating side story is taken advantage of here, as Roman faces off against his cousin Jimmy Uso, whereupon his superior power puts him on the front foot to begin with, but he too soon falls prey to the almost telepathic continuity of The Usos, much to Bryan’s amusement. After The American Dragon once again fails to dim the fire of tag champs, the former Shield man tries again, but when he starts to make headway, D Bry steals another tag. However, out of this damaging game of one-upmanship comes a slowly growing seed of mutual respect, as witnessed by the fact that the two men finally begin to work as a team with continuity tags, staying fresh and keeping their Uso victim isolated. This does not last long in its initial form, however, as Bryan’s outside the ring assault on his cousin offends Reigns, who insists his partner put their opponent back in the ring and then refuses to tag back in. What I like about this is the organic nature of the storytelling; their growing ability to team with each other is not a straight upward curve; it has dips commensurate with two egos learning to live together in one unit.
Roman shows that he is indeed more interested in winning than pleasing his family when he saves the match by dragging Jey off of Bryan after a top rope crossbody, causing a brawl to break out between he and Jimmy and then a full scale tornado segment which is fantastically executed as Reigns and Bryan are almost forced to be a good team by the sheer nature of the threat exhibited by the twins, resistance that finally ends when Bryan gets the Yes Lock in and The Usos are eliminated. Even there, Roman believes that Daniel held onto the submission hold too long, allowing the tension between them to remain in the air as Los Matadores enter. It’s worth noting that almost half the match was given over to the tag champs vs the number one contender duo, and that the strong booking of the tag specialists was one of the best things about the bout; The Usos really did look a million dollars. Los Matadores are swiftly disposed of by Bryan, meaning that every elimination so far has been chalked up to him, and he finally relinquishes control by tagging in Reigns to face Slater Gator who are obliterated by the third generation star in short order, who looks right at his partner as he pins Slater.
Things take a really interesting storytelling turn with the entry of The Ascension into the match, who essentially act as hitters for The Authority, getting themselves deliberately disqualified in an epic beatdown outside the ring, taking both Reigns and Bryan out with a variety of high impact, weaponised moves in preparation for Big Show and Kane, who have been fixed to come out last and pick the bones of the two babyfaces. In all honesty, it was the best The Ascension ever looked, and I truly wish that they’d been booked like that more, and that they’d been taken on as full time Authority members, as they really fit the role like a glove. The two giants look particularly monstrous as they take on the exhausted ironmen, and they methodically take Bryan apart, keeping him grounded and unable to fight back. It’s classic tag team psychology, as Reigns waits on the apron, getting increasingly riled up and desperate to enter the fray. The hot tag is denied us several times before it finally happens, with a crawling D Bry splashed by Show, Reigns getting knocked off the apron, and the submission specialist twice slapping on the Yes Lock rather than going for the tag only for the hold to be broken up by the other giant. However, Bryan’s resilience causes dissension between Kane and Big Show, leading to the World’s Largest Athlete knocking his partner out, only to turn around into a spear from Reigns, setting up the knee from Bryan to win the match and survive tag team turmoil. And at the end of the battle, the two men have learnt to respect each other, as shown by their knowing look as Smackdown closes.
As an exercise in long form storytelling, this match was an unqualified success. It advanced the angle between Bryan and Reigns, gave the tag division some excellent exposure, and entertained with a huge variety of in ring action. If you’ve not seen it, I urge you to track it down at your earliest convenience.
Honourable Mentions:A few other interesting TV matches this year; Daniel Bryan vs Dolph Ziggler and John Cena vs Dean Ambrose from the post-Wrestlemania edition of Raw were both excellent back and forth matches, whilst Neville vs John Cena from the build to Elimination Chamber told a brilliant story, with the Owens interruption putting the cherry on top. Finally, Dean Ambrose vs Seth Rollins featured Ambrose unexpectedly winning his way into the Payback Fatal Four Way, which was just super.
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This is Maverick, requesting flyby!