WWE opened the year behind the 8 ball to a lot of hardcore fans. The constant terrible booking of babyfaces, over reliance on the authority figure angle, refusal to listen to what the fan base desires and over saturation of the market has led the WWE to become a chore to a number of fans, myself included. Even NXT, which had been a watchable show for a long time, seemed to be running in place. Who would have guessed that a short 19 year old and a tournament full of wrestlers no one had heard of before would actually help to kickstart the year for WWE?
The first major show for the WWE this year was the two night WWE UK Championship Tournament. Taking place live on the WWE Network, this was the type of programming that should dominate the network. Instead of airing old reality shows or awful prank shows, live in ring content is what people who subscribe to something like the WWE Network are looking for. Airing in the middle of the day was a huge benefit too, because you could watch the show live or catch the replay later in the day. I’m not going to say that these shows were packed with great matches or anything like that, because they weren’t, but they showed that even without **** matches up and down the card you can still craft a show that people who appreciate the in ring side of wrestling will love. This was two afternoons of easy to watch, easy to follow and easy to care about professional wrestling. The wins and losses mattered. You could get behind a guy like Wolfgang or Tyler Bates because you wanted them to beat Peter Dunne, who seemed to be cheating his way to the title. And when Bates and Dunne had the only **** plus match (****1/2 in my mind) of the tournament, you felt rewarded for sticking with the show.
I’m not going to get into the issues that have arisen since the tournament with the contracts and the potential stranglehold WWE has put on the British wrestling landscape, but for two nights WWE did something completely different and it culminated in a highly entertaining, highly regarded two days of wrestling. They came out of the show with at least four guys (Bates, Dunne, Wolfgang and Mark Andrews) who they could build that UK territory around and a handful of secondary guys (Jordan Devlin and Trent Seven chief among them) that could also be built to that level. Tyler Bates was the winner of the tournament in a multitude of ways. He won the belt, but he also was the most charismatic and marketable wrestler of the bunch and has already made his way to Florida to wrestle at the last NXT tapings. If WWE can get past their size issues, they might have a huge star on their hands.
It was on the heels of these fun shows that WWE descended upon San Antonio Texas for Royal Rumble weekend. The weekend started with NXT Takeover. Going in, this show did not have the buzz that a usual Takeover would have. NXT as a whole doesn’t have the buzz it used to, but it doesn’t help that the champion is a clearly coasting Shinsuke Nakamura and he was wrestling a theme song for the title. Also, strong women’s and tag team matches are usually a staple of these shows as well, and this show had neither. DIY is as good a tag team as anyone not named the Young Bucks, but getting a good match out of the Authors of Pain seemed like a task that no team would be capable of. At the end of the day, however, the Takeover show exceeded everyone’s expectations. The worst match on the show was probably the women’s match, which I had at right around **, and everything else I had between ***-**** with the main event actually reaching ****. I was shocked, as Bobby Roode is among my least favorite wrestlers in the world and someone I consider severely overrated. The surprise of the night was DIY carrying the Authors to a ***1/2 title match. I think that speaks to how great Gargano is and how much better Ciampa is than he used to be. Everything in that match clicked and all four guys put in a ton of effort to far exceed the expectations set for them.
However, for the first time in a long time, the main WWE show actually surpassed the NXT show from the night before. This is a rare occurrence these days, and was largely due to amazing performances in both the Universal and WWE championship matches. A majority of the focus going into this show was on the Rumble match itself, and unfortunately that was the match from the weekend that did not meet the expectations set. The modern Rumble structure requires surprises, whether they are legends or new signings, and this year there weren’t any. The big surprises were Tye Dillinger, who most people assumed was going to be the #10 guy in the Rumble, and Roman Reigns, who most people would not want to see in the Rumble. Every other non-announced guy was just a guy that is already on the roster. Regardless, the Rumble was still a fine match (once I watched it the following day after falling asleep during the initial airing) but it was a disappointment due to the high expectations coming in.
The good news is that the undercard over delivered on just about every level. The women’s title match was very good, in the *** range, and for the first time since the CWC there was a cruiserweight title match that felt like it belonged on a WWE PPV. Neville and Swann had a ***1/2 match that really helped cement Neville as the best guy in that division. The only downside to that match was the fact that it followed a wild match between Roman Reigns and Kevin Owens. Reigns and Owens had a tremendous match that was a little heavy on gimmicks and crowd brawling for my usual tastes, but I thought both guys did such a great job that I was interested in the match by the end. Reigns continues to deliver in the ring almost every time out, despite how people react to him, and Owens can still get it done regardless of how poorly he is portrayed. The only negative I saw was the finish. I am not one of these people who is on the Braun Strowman bandwagon. He is the worst male wrestler on the roster, easily, and shouldn’t be in as prominent position as he is. His inclusion took this from possibly being an all-time great match to being slightly less than that. Also, Jericho in the cage never really played into the finish. He dropped a gimmick, but that was used and the match just continued. For a stip that was the main focus of the build for the last month plus, it was surprisingly unimportant to the match. It was still a very good match, ****1/4 or so, but it was just under the level of a MOTYC thanks to the ending and the gimmick really not playing into the match.
A match that does crack my MOTYC list is the amazing WWE title match between John Cena and AJ Styles. I had this at ****1/2 to ****3/4 on first watch, as there were some noticeable botches and gaps in the match that prevented it from being at the same level as Okada vs. Omega, but it was easily the best WWE match in years and the best AJ Styles match since his match with Nakamura at last year’s Tokyo Dome. The story here, with Cena being unable to beat AJ Styles in their previous meeting, was a great story and one that WWE had never really told with John Cena before. Cena has been the top dog and the strongest guy in the company for over a decade and has never been portrayed as anything other than the strongest guy in any of his feuds. People wrestling him were the ones that had doubts, not him, or they were his equals. This was the first time where the story was blatantly “can John Cena keep up with AJ Styles and beat him?” There was an added layer of drama that isn’t usually there in John Cena matches.
That added drama and added storyline made the near falls mean more. The die-hard John Cena fans could see every big move Styles hit as the move that puts Cena away. Every die hard Cena hater felt the same way about the big moves that Cena hit. This wasn’t a perfect match, but it was an amazing match and really helped cement AJ Styles as one of the best workers not only today, but possibly of all time. If you haven’t seen this match yet, it’s well worth going out of your way to watch. I am going to rewatch it again this weekend to give a definitive star rating, but my gut says ****3/4 and the only thing in my mind keeping it from ***** was the few botches that took place. Not as good in the ring as Omega vs. Okada but right there from a drama standpoint.
That’s it for the WWE in January. Hopefully they can continue the positive momentum on the road to Wrestlemania. Join me later for a look at Evolve and a mini review of Beyond Wrestling! It’s time for me to continue to watch crappy wrestling, but I am happy to know that the industry continues to put on excellent shows as well. If there’s anything you think I missed that I need to see, hit me up on twitter @OMGlancy and let me know!