In the context of contemporary WWE PPVs, this year’s TLC was a success. Despite a relatively short build, taking place just three weeks after Survivor Series, an otherwise mediocre show was lifted by an exceptional opener and a noteworthy conclusion to the main event, which pitted WWE World Heavyweight Champion Sheamus against perennial challenger Roman Reigns. The event took place at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts, the successor to the old Boston Garden venue which was a regular home to WWE throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.
The Triple Threat Ladder Match for the WWE Tag Team Championships proved one of WWE’s matches of the year: a fitting close to 2015 for a tag division which has enjoyed something of a resurgence, first during the reign of Tyson Kidd and Cesaro, then for the best part of the year under the thumb of the extraordinarily entertaining trio The New Day.
The action sprawled outside the ring from the early stages, with Sin Cara and Kalisto landing moonsaults on Kofi Kingston and Big E, before The Usos ran the ropes and dived onto the gathered mass of their opponents. All three teams were afforded the chance to shine through the match, with The Lucha Dragons and The Usos clattering into ladders in the turnbuckle and on the floor, Big E playing the power role – including a nice spot where he managed to press the ladder despite being trapped underneath it by both Dragons – and Xavier Woods less of an addition to the announce team than a demonstration, hyping the activity in the ring, seamlessly incorporating plugs for WWE 2K16, and also finding the time to taunt The New Day’s title challengers with his trombone.
With Kofi and Big E down on the outside, The Lucha Dragons and The Usos fought it out and conjured a truly memorable moment when, with both men perched atop the ladder in the centre of the ring, Kalisto hooked Jey Uso and flipped over the ladder’s apex, crashing down with the Salida del Sol onto another ladder bridged between a middle rung and the ring ropes. The crowd gasped, by this point both engrossed with and inclined to celebrate what they were witnessing.
When Jimmy Uso took himself out of the equation with a splash onto a ladder covering Big E, it looked like Kalisto would be left alone to climb for the titles. But Xavier Woods climbed the ring apron and viciously tossed his trombone into Kalisto’s back, allowing Kofi to capitalise and retain the belts on behalf of his team.
Rusev vs. Ryback was a solid enough match between two powerhouses, but at this point in his career – after several stalled pushes, a lack of character development, and a fairly meaningless run earlier this year with the Intercontinental Championship – Ryback has no heat, while the angle marking Lana and Rusev’s return as a couple was grossly overwritten. Given their sordid history over the last year – breaking up following Rusev’s defeat at WrestleMania 31 to John Cena, then spending months mired alongside Dolph Ziggler and Summer Rae – they need a spell together without fanfare, recapturing the basic chemistry which makes them such an effective on-screen pairing.
Instead in the weeks leading up to TLC, Rusev again appeared to be using Lana for his own gain, on several occasions manoeuvring her dangerously into Ryback’s path in order to seize an advantage. Only this time, Lana seemed to be in on the strategy, and at TLC she helped her man towards victory, a distraction and a superkick allowing Rusev to gradually wear his opponent down courtesy of The Accolade.
If the excitement stirred by the opening tag match faded during Rusev vs. Ryback, the crowd was close to comatose come the conclusion of Albert Del Rio vs. Jack Swagger, a match for the United States Championship, only nobody was paying attention. Swagger’s ‘We The People!’ received a token response, but otherwise the MexAmerica angle and its wind down has been offensively awful, a tale of xenophobia with the xenophobes supposed to be the recipients of our sympathy.
And this match was a dud, ruined when Del Rio inexplicably refused to sell the ankle lock which Swagger had him locked in for several minutes. Del Rio eventually fell through the ropes and stood up unscathed, before taking the victory thanks to his diving double foot stomp, delivered on this occasion onto a pile of chairs.
Weeks after being buried by the Brothers of Destruction, a match against the ‘ECW Originals’ – The Dudleys, Tommy Dreamer, and Rhyno – was never going to resurrect The Wyatt Family, but this was an entertaining time filler for a group lacking direction. Structured as an Eight-Man Tag Team Elimination Tables Match, there were some clumsy moments in the early stages, as Bubba had to gesticulate with the garbage can held to his face before Braun Strowman came through with the punch.
Erick Rowan’s only role in the match was to be the first man eliminated, inconsequential until The Dudleys sent him through a table with the 3D, and whatever WWE has in store for him, it seems clear he is being extricated from the rest of the Wyatts. Rhyno was the next to go, but only after teasing his Gore, which is still the best in the business, and something the crowd were eager to see.
It was a similar story after Devon departed, chokeslammed through a table on the outside by Bray Wyatt: with two ECW Originals left to face three members of The Wyatt Family, the audience expected some sort of comeback, but were given instead a repeat of the lopsided elimination tag matches at Survivor Series last month. Bubba and Dreamer offered a brief flurry with the kendo sticks, but Dreamer was soon eliminated by Luke Harper. Then Bubba – after fighting out of Wyatt’s Sister Abigail – teased a flaming table spot, but though he doused a table with lighter fluid and held a ready flame, a superkick from Wyatt and a chokeslam delivered by Strowman saw an end to the match.
While the Wyatts were the obvious winners here, there is a fine line between getting heat and simply disappointing the fans’ hopes and expectations, and though this match was no more than a bit of fun in the middle of the card, the lack of a Gore, a meaningful comeback, and then a flaming table meant the line was crossed. It is curious how WWE have shunned comebacks in elimination tags this year, surely the basis in these sort of matches for giving a wrestler the rub.
Kevin Owens came out with a typically generic heel promo, the content this time poking fun at sports fans in Boston: a message which must have been relayed hundreds of times, with nothing about Owens’ delivery making it worth another listen. He faced Dean Ambrose for the Intercontinental Championship, and I wrote last month about the contrast in styles this presents: Ambrose a spontaneous wrestler who builds tension by small increments, whereas Owens tends to structure a match around big signature moves. Given the talents both men possess, this was still another disappointing match.
Following a fallaway slam into the barricade and a senton on the arena floor, Ambrose just managed to make it back into the ring before the count of ten. He fired back with chops and jabs, only for a senton splash from the top rope to afford Owens a near fall, but then a Dirty Deeds out of nowhere seemed set to give Ambrose his first Intercontinental title. However Owens managed to reach the ropes with a single finger, a strange escape which was either meant to appear desperate and heelish, or else simply owed to poor positioning. Owens looked for the Pop-up Powerbomb, but Ambrose countered with a hurricanrana, and held on for the 1-2-3. Despite the match never quite finding its stride, the ending and the title change resulted in a big pop.
The match for the WWE Divas Championship saw Charlotte and her father Ric Flair continue in their endeavour to become the dirtiest players in the game. Charlotte might be better off as a heel, but her turn in the middle of a feud with Paige has been awkward, and leaves the women’s division short of fan favourites.
This was another solid effort from both women, with plenty of taunting and physical offense, which concluded when the Flairs combined to send Paige into an exposed turnbuckle, allowing Charlotte to retain her belt. But the build towards an issue with Becky Lynch already feels laboured, and despite the depth of today’s roster, women’s wrestling on the main show still needs the spark of life which only Sasha Banks can provide.
The WWE World Heavyweight Champion Sheamus was out first for the main event: WWE intent on presenting Roman Reigns as the all-conquering star of the promotion before the work has been done to properly establish him in the role. There was no shortage of effort in this Table, Ladders, and Chairs match, with both men putting their bodies on the line faced with the difficult task of selling a title feud nobody wanted.
Sheamus received an early welt to the face, and the assorted weapons soon came into play, Reigns taking the action to the floor and brawling with the champion in the entrance way, before Sheamus seized the initiative with a White Noise from the steel steps through a table. But he was unable to keep Reigns down for long, and a tussle on the ring apron resulted in Reigns pulling himself and Sheamus down onto a ladder which had been propped between the ring and the announce table, the force of the impact breaking the ladder in two.
So there were some devastating bumps, but the crowd’s disinterest through it all was palpable, the product of rushed storytelling and a lack of investment in the characters involved. When Reigns looked ready to ascend the ladder for the belt, he was met with as many jeers as cheers. After a couple of Superman punches, the title was well within his grasp, only for the League of Nations – Rusev and Alberto Del Rio, with King Barrett a notable absentee – to interfere on their figurehead’s behalf. There can be no disqualification in a TLC match, but Reigns mustered the strength to overcome his two assailants, another sequence of Superman punches only halted when a Brogue Kick sent him tumbling to the outside. Even then he almost managed to recover, but Sheamus snatched the title just in the nick of time.
In the immediate aftermath, an agitated Reigns speared all three members of the celebrating League of Nations, and pounded on them with a steel chair, utterly exposing the group as second-rate. But the postscript went some way towards saving the show and Reigns’ prospects in the main event. Triple H and Stephanie McMahon hurried down to ringside, and Triple H unaccountably checked on Sheamus alone in the corner of the ring, with a gathering of WWE officials idly looking on.
Reigns had already speared Triple H at the close of Survivor Series, so it was no surprise when he belatedly opted to attack again, this time with a Superman punch. But the brutality which followed was something different, as Reigns wailed on WWE’s Chief Operating Officer with the chair, before a powerbomb and then an elbow drop through the trusty Spanish announce table. What really made the moment was that Reigns refused to stop there: as he posed in the entrance way, he spotted Triple H in the process of being helped to the back, and thus opted to strike again, storming ringside and spearing Triple H through a crowd of bodies to the floor as TLC reached its climax.
The following night on RAW, with Triple H purportedly hospitalised by the assault, and with his job on the line at the behest of a returning Vince McMahon, Reigns finally succeeded in securing the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. As an ambiguous warrior-assassin, who explodes in fits of physicality then disappears into the night, Reigns can get over with the WWE audience. His actions at TLC, after months of playing the grinning good guy, still require some rounding out, and it remains unclear whether his limited skillset will allow him to succeed as the face of the company in the long term. But the apparent change in his character’s direction is to be embraced, with hints of a more ruthless and realistic presentation to come.