Last night, we learned that the WWE’s biggest heel isn’t the Miz or Braun Strowman – it’s viral meningitis. The illness has incapacitated some of the Raw Brand’s biggest stars (and Bo Dallas) resulting in some monumental changes to the event card at the 11th hour. Now in the case of the proposed Sister Abigail vs. The Demon match, this could only be seen as an improvement. No one was excited to see Bray Wyatt in a dress fight Finn Balor in Pumpkin King makeup, but the late substitution of AJ Styles for the dreadlocked drag queen created quite a battle of the former Bullet Club leaders that had the internet abuzz. Roman Reigns going down with illness was a bigger deal however. The entire show had essentially been built around the Shield reunion, and the loss of the Big Dog meant Seth and Dean were seemingly SOL in a 5 on 2 handicap TLC match. To right that ship, however, the WWE gave away what was almost assuredly meant to be a WrestleMania moment on only two days notice when Kurt Angle came out of retirement to aid the tag champs in their fight against the Alliance to End Romania…or the Mizanin Family, I’m not sure which name I like better. Could a 48-year old retiree stand up to the brand’s top heels (and Kane) in one of the most physical match types with a two man disadvantage?
- As you may imagine, most of the pre-show is spent reinforcing the news about Wyatt and Reigns’s illnesses and the substitutions that had to be made because of it. There are interviews with Miz and the remaining Shield bros talking about Kurt’s involvement in their match, and Peter Rosenburg absolutely gushes over the bout between AJ and Finn. The real obnoxious part of it, however, is that the WWE clearly gave the announce teams a list of talking points for each match and they absolutely run them into the ground. Did you know that it’s been 11 years since Angle was last in a WWE ring? Well get ready to hear it about a thousand times. Did you know Styles vs. The Demon is a dream match? Well you’re about to. I mean, they won’t say WHY it’s a dream match (though Renee Young does mention that both were leaders of “the notorious Club” in the pre-show and nowhere else.). I know the WWE loves to brand its commentary, but Jesus, give the talking points a rest.
- They show another hype package for Asuka then cut to a backstage interview with Emma who gets all huffy as she asks “How many vignettes is Asuka gonna get?” Now I love Emma as much as the next guy, but after 17 weeks of “Emmalina is coming” promos, she has no right to complain about video packages.
- Jason Jordan goes to pep talk his pops in his office, when Elias rolls in and claims that the people deserve a concert from the Drifter. Angle eventually accepts, to which JJ says “Wow, thanks for saving the pay-per-view.” Only for Elias to respond “At least I’m on the pay-per-view.” This sets up a running gag throughout the show where Elias tries to start a song (dropping several Prince references in the process since the show is in Minneapolis) only for Jordan to pop out and…pelt him with vegetables? Really? Man, they do not know what to do with this kid. Anyway, it culminates in a match later in the card.
- Drew Gulak’s PowerPoint presentation is bumped for time, but the dude still goes on to the panel with his megaphone to complain about being “kept down by the man.” Yes, WWE. In today’s modern climate, what we need is a bland white guy in a suit carrying a placard and a megaphone complaining about the “man” keeping him down. Way to capture the cultural zeitgeist of the moment.
- Our pre-show match has Sasha Banks take on Alicia Fox in a nothing match that goes on way too long. At least half of the run time sees one of the competitors on the outside of the ring while the other gloats inside of it. It’s a boring way to pad out the match that kills most of its momentum in the process. Sasha eventually wins with a Bank Statement and no one gains anything from this, even with Cole suggesting that this could have “championship ramifications.”
Emma vs. Asuka
Going into this match there was a lot of concern for how the WWE were going to handle the bout. Would they aggressively swerve fans by having Asuka lose? Would it be a boring squash since burying Emma appears to be the company’s favorite past time? Or would they allow these two to put on a competitive match that makes both competitors look good, as they had previously at NXT Takeover: London? Fortunately for everyone involved, especially Emma (for whom this was the first solo PPV match on the main roster. Yes, really.), it was the latter. The two competitors put on a crisp, well-paced match that allowed both women to get in some great offense and look strong in this showing.
Obviously the big story is Asuka, who debuted to a big, not huge pop, but worked the crowd into the match with her snap offense, including the nastiest looking German suplex since Chris Benoit was expunged from the WWE’s collective memory. Emma does well to build heat too, as she slaps or pie-faces Asuka like five times throughout the match. If this were Full Sail, the crowd would be chanting “Asuka’s gonna kill you,” but the Minneapolis crowd does get a “Let’s go Asuka” chant going, so I guess they’ll learn in time. After a good amount of back and forth, Asuka rocks Emma with a head kick, snaps on the Asuka Lock for the tapout victory.
I’m glad this got time to breathe, as WWE casuals got a chance to see a bit of what they’re getting with the Empress of Tomorrow, without giving away the whole kit and caboodle. The time to work was especially helpful for Emma, who looked better in this match than she has since her NXT days. She was compelling, vicious and competent, even managing to avoid several of Asuka’s big moves during the early parts of the match. I’m sure she’s tumbling back down the card as of tonight’s Raw, but at least Emma got to look like a badass for one night.
The Brian Kendrick and Jack Gallagher vs. Cedric Alexander and Rich Swann
So this PPV has three women’s matches and two cruiserweight matches on the card, and while part of me views that as progressive, it’s more accurately a representation of the Raw brand’s depth issues…or maybe it’s a result of having an absentee champion, putting your seven top guys (and Kane) in a single match, and dumping your sole remaining main eventer in a garbage feud with a man whose body is inhabited by the ghost of a dead swamp nun. Maybe that’s harsh, but this is a match that would be filler on an episode of 205 Live, so what’s it doing on the card of a PPV that has historically been one of the stronger B shows (barring 2014’s laughable Stairs match)?
That shouldn’t suggest that this wasn’t a fun match. Cedric and Swann make a fun team, and part of me felt like this bout was their demo tape for escaping the cruiserweight-only 205 Live and entering the regular main roster tag division. They had matching trunks, a group taunt…give these guys more tandem offense and I could see them scoring wins over the likes of Gallows & Anderson in the future. In a way, it’s almost a shame they were on the same team as Rich and Ced were by far the biggest highlights of this match. Swann is a great babyface in peril, and Alexander is the truth as the fired up hot tag. As for their opponents…I mean I like Gallagher’s new persona. The suit looks great, and I enjoy his new theme song (as Explain Like I’m Kayfabe author, Brian Clements, put it: “He was an Englishman coming out to a theme from an opera by a Frenchman about a Spanish murder.”) but his partnership with The Brian Kendrick makes no sense to me. Yes they’re both bad guys who aren’t down with the “Zo Train,” but what is their connection? Maybe if Kendrick started wrestling in suits too…
Anyway, the ending is pretty exciting. Kendrick has Ced in the Captain’s Hook but dude wriggles free, allowing Swann to land a Phoenix Splash on the Man with The Plan. When Gentleman Jack runs in to break up the pin, he eats a superkick but still gets off a headbutt to take Swann out of the fight. This opening allows Cedric to hit the Lumbar Check on Kendrick for the pin and the win. Fine match, but nothing too special. The WWE just doesn’t invest in these guys enough for me to care about this matchup. I’m glad they got a spot on the card (conceptually at least), and Rich and Cedric should be brought up to the tag division to get away from the dumping ground that is 205 Live, but this match definitely felt like a way to pass time more than a bout that higher-ups can get behind.
Mickie James vs. Alexa Bliss (c) for the Raw Women’s Championship
For a match that had an absolute shit build (it’s 2017, why are we still doing ageism angles and calling women “biscuit butt?”), this bout managed to surprise me between the ropes. Yes, Mickie came out rocking a Canadian Tuxedo with flares that haven’t been cool since the ’70s, and yes Bliss has like 20 pounds of extensions in her hair making it look like a lion’s mane dipped in red Kool Aid, but both women looked good out there. James especially, as she hasn’t really had a chance to shine since her tilt with Asuka back at NXT Takeover: Toronto. She dominates most of the match, hitting a lot of her signature offense including a diving seated senton and the Mick Kick in a weird double KO spot with a simple Bliss forearm shot. The action isn’t always crisp, however, with some spots looking rather sloppy — even dangerous at points. Midway through the match, Bliss busts out a code red that dumps James on her head in a shudder-inducing moment.
I take more issue, however, with the end sequence — more specifically how it started. Bliss gets the win of course, but her path to victory began how all Alexa Bliss victories seem to start: with her tricking her opponent into smacking the turnbuckle with their face/shoulder before hitting her DDT for the pin. Like, once or twice is fine, but that exact sequence is how she’s beat Naomi, Becky, Bayley, Sasha and now Mickie. It’s completely overused and something her opponents should have well scouted at this point. I’d say it’s as bad as Jinder Mahal’s finisher “Singh interference into the Khallas,” but at least Alexa’s doing it on her own. And likeable. And a competent pro–you know what, let’s move on.
After the match, James gave a brief in-ring interview where she thanked the fans for their support and said she wasn’t done yet. Perhaps she’s taking time off too, which I hope isn’t tied to any health concerns, but it felt like a strange interview all the same. For Alexa, there are two potential paths ahead of her: Either she holds the belt until Asuka gets the greenlight to dominate the Raw Women’s division (most likely around WrestleMania) or we get another Bliss vs. Banks feud that leads to Sasha/Asuka at the biggest show of the year. Either way, all roads lead to Asuka, and as the Empress is so fond of reminding us:
Enzo Amore vs. Kalisto (c) for the Cruiserweight Championship
I may have had some issues with the looks on display in the Women’s title match, but OH MAN are the outfits on the Cruiserweight competitors worse. Enzo comes out wearing baby blue boxing trunks over leopard print leggings and a Gucci headband, while Kalisto’s rocking his ugly gold skirt and what looks like his Big Brother’s hand me down armor, but a mask that looks like the shitty old Rellik mask spray painted gold. Enzo also evidently lost his voice because his normally raspy tone was replaced with what sounded like his muppet cousin Super Grover if his throat had been plunged by a toilet snake. Listo gets the better entrance, though, because they’ve seemingly done away with his awful techno remix that was universally reviled.
This match is really similar to the bout they had on Raw a few weeks back, with Kalisto running the show until Enzo trips him off the rope and ground and pounds until we go to the finish. Enzo’s offense still looks like shit, especially that stupid baseball punch he’s started throwing, but at least he knows how to work the crowd. At one point, Zo climbs to the top rope as if he were about to do a dive, but instead flips off the crowd and hops off the turnbuckle. Eventually Kalisto gets the upper hand and Enzo starts crawling out of the ring, but when Listo tries to drag him back to the middle Zo holds on to the ring skirt. This somehow distracts the ref long enough for Enzo to thumb Kalisto in the eye and hit the Eat Defeat (I know he calls it something else, but that name is stupid as hell, and so I’ve chosen to keep it as Gail Kim’s finisher) for the pin and the win.
Amore cuts a heel promo after the match and dances backstage with the belt. It was an odd choice to put the title on Kalisto for two weeks. I’m not sure if they just lost faith in the luchador’s ability to get the title over (at which he failed miserably), or if Vince’s love of shock title changes outweighed any legitimate attempt at creating a division people care about, but what was the point here? Much like Tozawa’s flukey title win earlier this year, this hotshotting of the title did nothing for its prestige or any of the performers involved in these matches. Hopefully, Enzo’s hostilities with Mustafa Ali mean he’s next in line for the title — though it’s far more likely that he’d fail to capture the belt and ruin his credibility, so it’s hard to say what I want here.
The Demon Finn Balor Vs. AJ Styles
Unsurprisingly, the Dream Match® between the first two leaders of Bullet Club was probably the match of the evening from a workrate perspective. The fact that this bout was a last minute addition rushed to save a card plagued by illness, however, was a bit of a blessing and a curse. I don’t really have any complaints about the match, but I did leave the show feeling a little underwhelmed. Yes, it was a well wrestled match (despite a few sloppy moments here and there), but I can’t help but feel it was hampered by AJ Styles’ hectic travel schedule. You see, the SmackDown brand is currently touring South America, so to get AJ to Minneapolis in time for the show meant the Phenomenal one spent about 14 hours in the air going from Chile to Minnesota. Dude was understandably tired. Now, tired AJ Styles is still one of the, like, five best wrestlers in the world, and he’s in there with Finn (who is at least in the top 10) so it’s still a really good match — it just doesn’t meet the lofty expectations fans may have had for the first ever meeting between two such accomplished performers. As such, it’s probably for the best that they didn’t get to do a ton of build to this match — something I do anticipate for the inevitable rematch, maybe as early as Survivor Series.
I’m also a little disappointed that The Club never got involved or did a backstage skit for this match, and it turns out I’m far from the only one:
Hey thanks for inviting us guys..
— Karl Anderson (@KarlAndersonWWE) October 23, 2017
AJ is out first in his SmackDown blues, and Finn comes out in BC white, which is a nice touch considering lots of us thought we’d be getting the Pumpkin King vs. Bray Wyatt in mosquito netting on this show. It should be said that, though they had been shitty for earlier matches, the crowd was nuclear hot for this match. The chants for both men rang throughout and this was definitely a match where the fans didn’t know who to root for, so they rooted for both men. I feel like a lot of that was rooted in hype, however, as this was a good match that was low on highlights. Yes, both men got in a lot of their signature offense and hit some good counters to their famous spots, but there weren’t many stand out moments in the match. The ending came after a series of reversals led to Finn hitting the shotgun dropkick into a stall Coup de Grace (Balor seemed to literally stand on on Styles’ stomach when he landed) for the clean win after about 15 minutes of action. After the match, Styles and Finn share a Too Sweet in the ring, and the crowd goes wild. I was hoping for a “cease and desist” chant, but it never came.
That’s kind of it, sadly. It was a good, not great match with a clean ending between two of the best wrestlers out there and it was fine. I honestly do hope that they get a rematch at Survivor Series, because I think these two with time to establish a roadmap for their match (and a well-rested Styles) could burn the house down. As for Bray, I hope he (A) gets better and (B) stays off TV until Royal Rumble, where he can wash off the yolk of this embarrassing program by costing Finn his title match with Brock Lesnar. They can then have a single blowoff match and then let us never speak of this unpleasantness again.
Elias vs. Jason Jordan
The Produce Aisle Punch up! The Fruit Fracas! Violence with Vegetables! Yes, this match started because JJ pelted the Drifter with produce several times throughout the night. At least they’re not fighting over shampoo. JJ is now rocking these awful lime green booty shorts, which not only looks bad, it actually prevents him from dropping the straps, which was one of the few crowd appeals he uses that garners a response. The match itself is nothing special — it’s something we could easily see on any Raw, and JJ wins with a questionable rollup that will clearly set up a rematch between these two in the not too distant future. Probably on tonight’s Raw.
The real story of this event is the commentary of Booker T, who not only gives zero fucks, but can barely be asked to remember his own opinions even within the same conversation. He claims Elias has done nothing but win since he got to the main roster, (Graves: “He lost last week!”). He starts ragging on Jordan by claiming JJ’s only in the WWE because of Kurt Angle (Cole: “He was actually already an established athlete before Kurt became GM.”). Book then flip flops on that opinion, but Cole refuses to drop it, saying that Corey only got his job because he’s friends with JJ. My man, Gravy, then says “I’d like to thank Stevie Ray for all of your success, Book.” It degenerates into a bit of a dogpile on the five time champ throughout the rest of the match, but they drop it in time to agree with Book when he claims that Elias got his shoulder up before the 3 count.
Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins and Kurt Angle Vs. The Miz, Cesaro & Sheamus, Braun Strowman and Kane (TLC match)
What a cacophonous mess this was. There was no need to include every male champion on the brand tall enough to ride the bumper cars at the fair in the same fight, and it’s even weirder that this is the only specialty match on a PPV built around specialty matches. That being said, I faced a real dilemma watching this match. On the one hand I was super excited to see Kurt Angle back in the ring. The dude was one of the greatest performers of all time, a natural on the mic and in the ring, and I’d love to see him “go out on his shield” as Dean Ambrose said about five times over the course of the night. On the other hand, I do not want to see this version of Kurt Angle in a TLC match. The man is 48 years old, which in wrestling years may as well be 70, and has seen his body ravaged by injuries and drugs over the years. The guy we see now, who looks a bit like a blue-eyed turtle in an ill-fitting Don Johnson suit, is not the same guy who was putting on amazing performances against the Rock and Stone Cold in the early 2000s. So much of this match was spent gritting my teeth and hoping to god that I don’t see a man die out there. Admittedly it looks like the active performers took it easy on Kurt (and Kane actually) and protected him from the shakier spots (which mostly fell to Ambrose), but it was scary all the same. To quote AiPT!’s own Nathaniel Muir, “Never thought I would say this, but I would rather Roman Reigns was in there instead of Kurt Angle.” Now, as I said, this was more car crash than match, so let’s bullet some of the important moments of the match.
- Earlier in the show there’s a backstage segment where Kurt is approached by Ambrollins, who thank him for working with them and, yes, “going out on their shield,” Dean. We get it, you’re very clever. To hype him up further, they give Kurt his own flak jacket. Sure enough, all three make their way to the ring as the Shield…well, I guess with Kurt along for the ride, I’ll call them the SHIIIELD, including the music and crowd walk. The crowd is pretty hype for this too, even finding a way to get Kurt’s famous “You Suck” chant into the song that doesn’t really match.
- Before the parade of heels makes its way to the ring, they stand in the back for another of Miz’s motivational speeches. This time Miz takes a cue from Braun and says their opponents tonight are garbage. Sure enough this pays off later when Miz calls for an actual garbage truck to come to the stage, but I’ll touch on that later.
- Speaking of the abominable Strowman, Braun’s boots must have caught meningitis as well, because he’s out here in some dope ass Timbs. You get used to looking at them eventually, but they look a little goofy at first.
- Funnilyy enough, Kurt is out here filling in for Roman Reigns more ways than one. My man Strow hits a (fairly gentle) running powerslam to send Kurt through a table, and your Olympic hero is brought to the back for about 15 minutes of this nearly 40-minute match. Eventually, Angle makes his triumphant return to save Ambrollins from being literally murdered by the heels, and plays the Roman role in the Cerberus Bomb (again, I know Cole is calling it the “Shield Bomb,” but that’s a shit name.) that wins the match, so who needs Roman?
- Early in the match, Kane accidentally hits Braun with a chair and the two have a little face off where Strow pushes the would-be mayor of Knox-County, Tennessee, on his demonic butt. Ambrose and Rollins attack the two monsters before they can come to blows, but like 20 minutes later Kane just arbitrarily decides to go rogue and attack his own tag team partner. This includes a moment where he chokeslams the monster among men “through the stage,” which appears to be made of those reflective sun shades people put in their cars. Kane then tears down the stack of chairs dangling above the hole in the Wade Barrett memorial spot from TLC 2010.
- Taking cues from the night’s other big television event, Braun rises from the dead to wreak unholy revenge on the Devil’s favorite (non-Irish) demon. Miz and Yhe Bar try to stop him, but Braun knocks through them and starts beating up Kane. That doesn’t last, of course, as BarMizvah comes to rescue Kane, and the four of them dump Strow in the garbage truck then turn on the compactor, which takes him out of the rest of the match. So…like…Braun’s a face now? That’s…not ideal. I get that Braun gets a good reaction from the crowd, but he’s a heel through and through.
- Toward the end, Ambrollins hits a double spear on Kane to activate barrier breaker, because the two of them together are about as good as Roman. Way to keep your tag champs feeling important, WWE.
- Ambrose takes a number of crazy bumps throughout the match, most notably eating a double Razor’s Edge from The Bar into a table. I say into because he fails to actually go through the table. Braun, refusing to let that shit fly, tosses Deano through the table for good measure.
The ending here sees the Shield trap Miz in the ring by…surrounding him on three sides… then hitting all of their finishers on the A-Lister before putting him down with the triple power bomb. That finish is hella problematic to me. I would have expected The Shield to pull through, as I imagine the Braun turn was always intended and Kane shouldn’t be enough to swing things away from a full-force Shield, but the SHIIIELD? Ambrollins are tough dudes, sure, but they struggled with just The Bar. With Miz and Kane in the mix, two shouldn’t beat four. Then there’s Angle — who, yes, is one of the best wrestlers of all time, but is also a nearly 50-year old retiree with a bad neck and a year or so of ring rust. He shouldn’t be enough to overcome such overwhelming odds, even with Braun getting taken out midway through. This really buries Miz, The Bar and Kane, as even with all the crazy advantages they had, they couldn’t beat the tag champs and an old man who literally had two days to prepare for the match. Also, not to be pedantic, but this isn’t really a TLC match. Those have ladder match stipulations. This was a hardcore match. This PPV titled TLC had no actual TLC matches. Weak.