At Hell in a Cell just last month, after a string of PPVs boasting mediocre undercards and slapdash main events, there were finally some signs of life in the wheezing machine that is WWE. Inside the cell Brock Lesnar and The Undertaker put on the strongest match of their three-match series, a physical bout with an inventive finish which managed to wrap some of the angst of their feud into a neat narrative of in-ring cunning and professional respect. And with such a prestigious main event, elsewhere on the card some of WWE’s younger or more marginal talents were given their due.
First there was the surprise return of Alberto Del Rio, who defeated John Cena for the United States Championship. Roman Reigns vs. Bray Wyatt and Charlotte vs. Nikki Bella proved compelling showcases for four tough competitors. Seth Rollins and The New Day, the best things about WWE in 2015, achieved convincing title defences, belated but well deserved. And most startling of all at Hell in a Cell, and apparently most indicative of a real desire to make new stars, at the end of Brock Lesnar vs. The Undertaker, The Wyatt Family emerged and beat down the Deadman before carrying him away from the ring.
The momentum continued on to the following night’s RAW. A tournament took place to determine the number one contender for Seth Rollins’ World Heavyweight Championship, and it was packed with promise: Dolph Ziggler, Cesaro, Roman Reigns, Alberto Del Rio, Neville, Kevin Owens, Kofi Kingston, and Big E. Ziggler, Reigns, Del Rio, and Owens made the final four, with Reigns emerging triumphant – and despite his hazardous journey towards the title picture, an issue between Reigns and Rollins was something the WWE audience were willing to buy into, given their shared history as members of The Shield.
On RAW Paige also completed her turn on Charlotte, positing a feisty new feud for the Divas Championship. And The Wyatt Family consolidated their assault on The Undertaker by beating and capturing Kane. Not everything was a success. The new alliance of Del Rio and Zeb Colter rambled something about ‘MexAmerica’, apparently conceiving an expanded nation without borders, and as Colter spoke Del Rio’s second stint in WWE shrunk before our very eyes. By making the MexAmericans heels, WWE were perilously close to a celebration of anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant sentiment. And if the analysis is unfair, it is only because the angle seemed so barely thought out.
MexAmerica already stands as a failure, one of the clumsiest ideas WWE has ever conjured, and so clumsy that it has made Zeb Colter, one of the company’s best talkers, sound incoherent and confused. Still the trend on this post-Hell in a Cell RAW was overwhelmingly positive, a shake-up in the absence of John Cena, the crucial first steps towards the elevation of new superstars.
Then everything went to the devil. Little more than a week later, Seth Rollins suffered a devastating injury to his right knee at a house show in Dublin. Tearing his anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament, and meniscus, after undergoing surgery he will be out of action for between 6-9 months. Now another tournament had to be devised, with the aim of crowning a new champion come Survivor Series. Beyond WWE’s year-long endeavour to establish Roman Reigns, this at least presented the opportunity for a more radical restructuring of the main event. But despite some excellent matches along the way, the chance was squandered at the behest of predictability: Reigns, Del Rio, and Owens again made up three of the final four, and left the final match at Survivor Series in little doubt.
If the title tournament always risked being compromised by WWE’s determination – at the expense of more rounded and organically popular superstars – to persist with a one-dimensional push of Roman Reigns, the angle between The Brothers of Destruction and The Wyatt Family felt like a sure thing. The Undertaker and Bray Wyatt fought at WrestleMania 31 back in March, but then Wyatt was alone, and left to carry a minor feud in The Undertaker’s absence. Now with an expanded Wyatt Family – Braun Strowman, a physical match for The Undertaker and Kane, added to the original pairing of Luke Harper and Erick Rowan – and looking dominant after the climax to Hell in a Cell, Wyatt seemed ready to command the world’s attention as the heir to The Brothers of Destruction’s peculiar brand of darkness.
For this storyline to work, The Wyatt Family simply had to look strong going into Survivor Series. But WWE couldn’t get any of the details right. With four members, it made sense for Wyatts to face The Undertaker and Kane in a traditional Survivor Series elimination tag match. This would have allowed a role for all of the Wyatts, as well as a high-profile spot for two additions to the Brothers of Destruction team. Finn Balor seemed an obvious candidate, given his ‘Demon’ entrance attire, and he would have gained substantially from a main-roster debut on the side of two legends. Instead, WWE booked a standard two-on-two tag match. This didn’t bode well, and it became increasingly apparent that the Wyatts’ numerical superiority would count for naught.
On the RAW after Hell in a Cell, we had seen The Wyatt Family carry Kane not only off the arena floor, but through the backstage and out of the stadium entirely. Logic dictated that he and The Undertaker were being held somewhere by the Wyatts, presumably in the dilapidated barn of their vignettes. Instead, on the same RAW that saw the inauguration of the title tournament, The Brothers of Destruction blithely returned and laid the Wyatts to waste. Amid overly contrived special effects and the brazenly silly onslaught of midget druids, the Wyatts never recovered from the beating all four members received at the hands of the rejuvenated Undertaker and Kane, and they went into Survivor Series looking distinctly second best.
As for the other matches on the Survivor Series card, Dolph Ziggler vs. Tyler Breeze received too little screen time and felt underdeveloped, and the same was true for Charlotte vs. Paige until they were shoved into the ‘go home’ segment at the close of the pre-Survivor Series RAW. Paige’s reference to the death of Charlotte’s brother Reid jolted the feud, but the off-screen reaction – with WWE foisting responsibility for the remark on to Charlotte, and showing a familiar lack of respect by apparently failing to discuss the matter first with Ric Flair – had the perverse result of fostering sympathy for Paige, who was supposed to be playing the ruthless heel.
* * *
More than anything, it was the routine feel of the title tournament which left viewers underwhelmed and uninspired going into Survivor Series. The 14,000-strong crowd at the Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia were quiet from the start. The PPV opened with Roman Reigns vs. Alberto Del Rio in the first title tournament semi-final, and their match was solid enough, but with Del Rio’s MexAmerica fiasco and the ambivalence which remains towards Reigns, it received little response.
After some action on the outside, back in the ring a nice spot saw Del Rio take his time getting up from a Superman punch, playing possum before preventing a spear with a stiff kick. But when Reigns escaped from the cross armbreaker, Del Rio missed a double foot stomp and succumbed to the spear for the 1-2-3. Throughout the match Reigns shook at the ropes and rocked his head back and forth in an aping of the Ultimate Warrior, but he is a straight and stern figure who achieves none of these excesses with much conviction.
Dean Ambrose is one of WWE’s most compelling figures, but also one whose ‘Lunatic Fringe’ persona is most hamstrung by the product’s PG rating. He is an exceptional wrestler, but his style is free-form, a sort of oral narration that doesn’t always fit with the WWE house style. Ambrose has put on some great matches this year, not least with Seth Rollins in their unconventional and highly destructive 35-minute ladder match at Money in the Bank; and with Dolph Ziggler in their quarter-final match on RAW, where they wrestled in a slow-paced, methodical catch style.
On the other hand Kevin Owens suits the WWE house style to a tee, boasting a series of signature moves that transition seamlessly into near-falls: the cannonball in the corner, the senton splash, the neckbreaker, the moonsault, the fisherman suplex from the top rope. Whether these different styles resulted in a lack of chemistry or some other issue was at fault, Ambrose and Owens failed to click in the second title tournament semi-final. Ambrose managed little offense until a seamless conclusion to the match. Slipping out the back of a pop-up powerbomb attempt only to turn into a superkick, he received another stiff kick as he sought to come off the ropes with a clothesline. But when Owens went for the pop-up powerbomb once more, a hurricanrana followed by the Dirty Deeds saw Ambrose progress to meet his friend Reigns in the final.
The third match on the card was unannounced prior to the show itself, and featured a traditional Survivor Series elimination tag – the match that should have been given to The Brothers of Destruction and The Wyatt Family. In fact this was the second unannounced Survivor Series match on the night: another five-on-five affair, which told a similar story, had appeared on the pre-show, involving Neville, The Dudleys, Titus O’Neill, and Goldust vs. Stardust, The Ascension, Bo Dallas, and The Miz. The Dudleys, O’Neill, and Goldust ended the winners after Stardust, the heel team’s only remaining participant, attempted to flee.
On the PPV proper your tag team champions The New Day – Big E, Kofi Kingston, and Xavier Woods left without a storyline heading into the event – aligned with Sheamus and King Barrett against Ryback, The Usos, and The Lucha Dragons. The New Day provided the night’s only entertainment, with Sheamus playing the fool during his team’s collective entrance, briefly attempting to dance and becoming irate when he lacked rhythm.
Xavier Woods’ hair was a delight, in a pompadour reminiscent of Little Richard. Otherwise this match was a bit of a mess. The Usos and the Lucha Dragons collaborated with nice dives out onto the floor, and then Ryback too came crashing down from the top turnbuckle onto all the standing competitors. Barrett, Jimmy Uso, Sin Cara, and Big E were quickly eliminated. And with their teammate gone, The New Day took the opportunity to depart altogether, citing a potential injury. This left Sheamus up against Ryback, Jey Uso, and Kalisto.
This was hardly a heel situation for the Celtic Warrior, but as far as the crowd were concerned, the match was dead as soon as The New Day absconded. The remainder was too long and did nothing to change their opinion, as Sheamus managed little substantial offense and failed to mount anything resembling a comeback, merely persisting until a triple-tag culminated in a Shell Shocked to give Ryback the pinfall for his team. This felt like a waste of time and a misuse of talent, but it became especially ridiculous given what was to transpire in little over an hour.
Much like the opening two singles bouts, Charlotte vs. Paige for the Divas Championship wasn’t short on effort, but it failed to engage the crowd and build any tangible suspense. A physical match featuring plenty of strikes inside the ring, and outside slams into the announce table and ring apron – with Paige adopting a peculiar posture, as though always attempting to toss her opponent head first – it impressed in spurts but was spoiled by the finish. As Paige stood posing atop the fan barrier, Charlotte mustered enough strength to jump up and spear her onto the arena floor. But when she rolled Paige into the ring and applied her Figure Eight leglock, Paige was in the corner surrounded by ropes, and struggled in vain before meekly submitting.
The angle that developed out of this on RAW on Monday – with Paige successfully calling for a rematch on the basis that Charlotte’s arm had been under the ropes during the hold – did nothing to rectify the error. It made no sense that Paige failed to grab a rope to break the submission. More, the announce team of Michael Cole, JBL, and Jerry Lawler did little to sell Charlotte’s spear, so that the audience watching at home had no appreciation that the match was reaching its climax. In all the lack of selling and the senseless submission meant a damp ending to this title fight.
Dolph Ziggler vs. Tyler Breeze was the only match of the night which managed to effect its own energy, but it was given barely any time, a meagre six minutes. Breeze is an accomplished wrestler who developed an appealing personality in NXT, and he needs wins: he rather than Alberto Del Rio should have taken John Cena’s United States title. At the same time Ziggler’s defeat at Survivor Series – courtesy of Breeze’s Unprettier – only emphasises how far he has fallen since this time last year, when he prevailed against The Authority and finally seemed destined for a push to the top.
Lacklustre up until this point, Survivor Series descended into abject farce with the two final matches of the night. There is not much worth saying about The Undertaker and Kane vs. Bray Wyatt and Luke Harper, because the whole affair was so depressingly and destructively one-sided. Instead of establishing Bray Wyatt at the top table of WWE, it served only as a victory lap for The Undertaker, who was given an especially unwieldy entrance.
Some might have expected that Braun Strowman’s build over the last couple of months was leading to something: a match at the very least, if not a career. Instead he was double-chokeslammed through the announce table and instantly lost all of his mystique. Erick Rowan had already disappeared after taking an early double-chokeslam, and now Wyatt was chokeslammed by The Undertaker and Harper by Kane, with Taker dropping Harper with the Tombstone Piledriver for the easy victory. The Wyatt Family – and Bray in particular – did not need to win this match, an outcome which was never likely on The Undertaker’s 25th birthday. But they needed to look as though they were worth something, and instead they were utterly squashed.
The in-ring action of the main event proved similarly unworthy: it was only getting started when Roman Reigns beat Dean Ambrose with a spear. We have seen too many curtailed and thrown away World title matches this year: The Undertaker interfering during Seth Rollins vs. Brock Lesnar at Battleground, Jon Stewart costing John Cena at SummerSlam, and Kane providing the conclusion after Seth Rollins vs. Sting at Night of Champions. Reigns vs. Ambrose was the final we all knew were were getting from the outset, but it still had the potential to make for an enthralling match, and with a heel turn could have stirred up an interesting period for WWE. When it ended after nine minutes, and with twenty minutes of Survivor Series to spare, it made a mockery of the title tournament, and it was abundantly clear that we were going to see a Money in the Bank cash-in.
So when Triple H and then Sheamus came down to the ring, there was no sense of surprise, only irritation at the remarkably stubborn and backward decision to give the World Championship to someone labouring without fan interest in the midcard. Sheamus has a great look and he is one of WWE’s best workers, but as World Champion he is a failed experiment, tried several times before without success because the fans do not buy in to the Irishman at such a high level. Nor will they get behind Roman Reigns as a contrived underdog against the corporate machine, because Reigns has no wealth of organic support, and most observers realise that behind the scenes he is the decidedly corporate choice to follow in the footsteps of John Cena’s bland and childish heroics.
Reigns winning the World Heavyweight Championship cleanly and then quickly losing it to Sheamus amounted to a death knell for many longtime followers of wrestling. Comforting themselves with sure failures and their myopic and self-important points of view, those who lead today’s WWE continue to dismiss the fans as intelligent beings capable of making their own decisions. Favourites like Cesaro, Dean Ambrose, Dolph Ziggler, Bray Wyatt, Rusev, and Sasha Banks – like Daniel Bryan and to some extent CM Punk before them – are continually slapped down and held back in favour of lesser talents who have friends at the top, or are deemed to possess a commercial appearance.
Some of these superstars have enjoyed long spells of overwhelming support, but they will become unsalvageable if they keep playing a distant second fiddle, entered into senseless and meandering storylines and always coming up short in meaningful matches. Now an overworked Cesaro, in truth WWE’s top babyface, has joined Seth Rollins on the injury list, a torn left shoulder rotator cuff likely to keep him away from the ring for between 4-6 months. In the meantime WWE have tossed away a golden opportunity: in a few years, they won’t be able to wheel out old legends to spur a sentimental interest in the product, and they will have created nobody to stand in their place.
There continues to be so much wrong with WWE in 2015. An astounding lack of attention to detail when it comes to storytelling, wins and losses which are traded back and forth to nobody’s benefit, the utter refusal to trust in new talent, a women’s division still not taken seriously and undermined by the very name ‘Divas’, a contemptuous insistence on attempting to outthink the audience, an inability to move with the times and appreciate just how stale their show has become. And this goes on and on with only Mick Foley in the entire WWE Universe a voice of reason: an outrageously bad product is ruled with an iron fist, and few people connected to the company dare to speak up.
For all the acclaim Triple H receives for NXT, he and Stephanie McMahon are arrogant and unhelpful presences on television. While other talents face punishment for having lives outside of the ring, these two will shift between face and heel several times on a single broadcast. Under their leadership The Authority is played out, and even a new-look lineup of Sheamus, King Barrett, and Rusev will prove insufficient when it comes to the almighty task of getting Roman Reigns over. On the night and for all it suggests about WWE’s future, Survivor Series had nothing in its favour. In twenty years, I cannot remember a worse or a more thoroughly disappointing PPV.