Posted in: Just Business
Just Business – The Highs and Lows of Another Year in the Ring with WWE: The Matches Part I
By Samuel 'Plan
Dec 20, 2017 - 9:52:02 PM

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Just Business – The Highs and Lows of Another Year in the Ring with WWE: The Matches Part I

From the Author

In my final 2017 retrospective, I’m going to be taking a look at the matches that I feel are among the best offerings WWE provided these last 12 months.

As discussed in my The Preview Side of the Pond column last Friday, rather than try and distil WWE’s in-ring action into a single set of criteria and picking the best of the lot, I instead prefer to account for the context of matches by placing them into five categories, and I’ll be covering the first three of those five today.

The Network category consists of any non-tag team match having taken place on Network exclusive programming; this includes NXT, considering their move to television came so late in the year.

The Television category consists of any non-tag team match having taken place on either of WWE’s two major televised brands: Monday Night Raw (MNR) or Smackdown Live (SDL).

The Tag Team category consists of any tag team match, or any variant of a tag team match, to have taken place on any WWE programming of any kind in 2017.

In each category, I made one pick myself for automatic short-listing, asked the readership on social media and other platforms to vote for a second and then picked a third from everything else.

My name is Samuel ‘Plan, and these are some of what I believe were the best matches of WWE’s 2017!

Network Match of the Year

Nominee #1: Pete Dunne vs. Tyler Bate for the UK Championship, Takeover: Chicago

As the reader’s pick for this first category, the showdown between Dunne and Bate in the Windy City was a run-away vote winner, and for good reason. It stands as a remarkable hybrid of styles, clamouring with the melodrama of American wrestling, bruising with the working class brutality of British wrestling and shuddering with the strong strikes of Japanese wrestling.

Dunne and Bate proudly wear their escapologist World of Sport influence on their sleeves, consciously building upon their previous encounter in the finals of the UK Championship tournament some months prior, while crafting an utterly charming piece of work that’s so fun to watch it is easy to ignore any of its imperfections. Any lack of storyline is considerably made up for by its sheer exhilaration.

Nominee #2: Hideo Itami vs. Alistair Black, Takeover: Brooklyn III

Many prefer the more recent Velveteen Dream match, of course; another heavy vote winner among readers. Nonetheless, my own preference is for the more restrained Itami / Black encounter of the summer, that possesses a similar theme; simply replace the “Say my name!” refrain with “Show me respect!”

A match of contradictions, it indulges both contrasts and similarities between opponents. Itami is a firebrand, demanding respect while showing nothing but the opposite, and Black is the opposing iceman; though both possess wince-inducing martial prowess, as expressed through ‘educated feet’ in brutally physical fashion. It’s simple, tightly-woven story of balance never forgets the narrative it’s concluding either, with “Show me respect!” referred back to on multiple occasions. It is, all in all, a quietly accomplished piece of work worthy of the recognition its fiction obsesses over.

But for me, the Network Match of the Year had to be…

Winner: Bobby Roode vs. Shinsuke Nakamura for the NXT Championship, Takeover: San Antonio

The concluding action of the first encounter between Nakamura and Roode is what elevates it above their perhaps more widely adored sequel for me; that and its confidence.

No match has carried itself quite as successfully with the swagger of this, what was billed as the “Biggest Money Match in NXT History” – a moniker that might not hold true literally, but that is certainly propagated by the ingenious fatalistic hype package that plays before the match itself.

Nakamura and Roode consciously wrestle their match like the blockbuster it should be, striving actively to be seen as a big time main event and, mostly, succeeding. NXT can often feel ingratiating when acting this self-important; because of the unbridled charisma of both performers, and the intoxicating urgency of its bespoke conclusion, this match would prove quite different. It’s an infinitely re-watchable beauty.

Television Match of the Year

Nominee #1: Dean Ambrose vs. AJ Styles, Smackdown Live 31/01/17

No single match garnered more votes than any other from readers with this second category, so I’ve called an audible. Initially slated for this spot was the Strowman / Reigns / Joe Triple Threat Match from an episode of MNR in the build up to Summerslam; a number of readers voted for one of a combination of those three, often praising the build to Summerslam in particular.

Upon re-watching that match, I found it to be sorely lacking. By contrast, when I re-watched this first nomination – itself a reader’s suggestion – I was blown away.

Best watched with the volume turned way down because of an awful commentary track, even by WWE’s standards, Styles and Ambrose put together one of the best demonstrations of wrestling a sequel I can remember seeing in recent years. Both men exhibit familiarity with the other throughout with an endless stream of counters and counters to counters, and counters beyond even that, all of which helps to eventually transform this otherwise throwaway TV match into a breathless, riveting and borderline Epic chess game. By the final moments, it feels like a genuine clash of long-time rivals and in-ring equals – which, of course, it is - and also takes the time to weave in some shared universe storytelling (even if it’s a little misguided in design) courtesy of The Miz and Baron Corbin.

Nominee #2: Seth Rollins vs. Bray Wyatt, Monday Night Raw 10/07/17

This was my automatic short-listing pick, because when I re-watched this match, I was simply stunned; it’s ripe for performance art interpretation thanks to a Bray Wyatt promo beforehand that, once again, frames him as the physical embodiment of Seth Rollins’ fears and insecurities. Lines like, “You can’t change who you are Seth” and “You will never deny me again,” frame the Eater of Worlds as the manifestation of Rollins’ demons: his obsession with success that led him into the manipulative, destructive hands of The Authority from which he was only just beginning to recover.

What follows is a beautiful piece of work that plays to that idea. Wyatt repeatedly goes after Rollins’ injured eye; a metaphor for how blind Rollins became when surrendering to his worst impulses. In retaliation, Rollins goes after Wyatt’s hand; a metaphor for his desperate plight to weaken the grip his worst self holds over him. Add in a truly vicious aesthetic and a clean conclusion and you’ve a recipe for a television classic that works equally well as interpretive performance art and as traditional sports entertainment.

It was a close call picking a winner, though in the end I had to go for….

Winner: Sami Zayn vs. Seth Rollins for Seth Rollins’ Royal Rumble Spot, Monday Night Raw 23/01/17

Early on, Byron Saxton comments that both men will approach this match with a championship mentality; a rare ingenious call, for that is exactly what best defines this impressive over-achiever: it’s wrestled like a World Championship Match, and unassumingly so.

From its opening scientific exchanges, the whole match is a showcase of mastery over the art form. The connection on every move is beautiful; the manipulation of pace is hypnotic; the sense of movement is transfixing; and the protection of finishers is refreshing. It carries an extremely subtle but compelling sense of upward aspiration for Sami Zayn, who at times evokes the spirit of the 1-2-3 Kid’s 1994 televised plight for World gold, while Seth Rollins isn’t afraid to tow a morally dubious Hitman-like line, denigrating a well-spirited sporting contest early with a bitter, frustrated closed fist. The action simply escalates from there, right on to the shocking Pedigree on the ring edge and the obvious but effective use of Triple H’s looming presence to inform the surprise ending.

If you want a match that isn’t for a title but needs to feel like it means something, you’ll find few better examples.

Tag Team Match of the Year

Nominee #1: The Shield vs. New Day, Survivor Series

I was surprised this match didn’t receive more plaudits when it first occurred, honestly; my love for it was such that I had to ensure it was automatically short-listed here. The real ingenious stroke was its decision to actively embrace the obvious differences between the two teams and utilise that to inform its story. When New Day jokes or brags, The Shield simply knock them down: a simple refrain that succinctly expresses the key characteristic of both stables.

Similarly admirable was the open recognition and use of the fact that The Shield are a more individually spirited group than the unbreakable New Day. Not only is this used by Big E to brilliantly weave in continuity references in his opening promo, it also informs the real difference maker in the exhaustive, multi-faceted action – the New Day only gain and maintain advantages together; The Shield survive by virtue of their greater malleability. A little symmetry and a few passing characters references later, and you have, to my mind, another Shield classic.

Nominee #2: The Usos vs. The New Day in a Hell in a Cell Match for the SDL Tag Team Championships, Hell in a Cell

Thank god for the readers speaking their mind and picking this unique affair, because otherwise it wouldn’t have gotten a look in. Honestly, I cared little for it; thankfully, when I re-watched it, I found a way to make it work for me: its jailhouse themes.

The visuals of the Cell, the references to the Uso penitentiary and the commentary team’s metaphors bring this post-post-modern match into vibrant and colourful life so that it comes to feel quite like a 1960s pulp prison riot. There’s a lot I dislike about it; but there’s also a lot of comic book style fun I have while I watch it, so that no foul taste lingers. Nor should any viewer be deceived. There is character growth throughout the run time, as the environment gradually brings out the increasingly feral instincts of both sides, escalating the animosity and seeing the match play out as a perfect microcosm of the wider feud.

Consider me a convert; just not enough to name it Tag Team Match of the Year. For me, that goes to….

Winner: Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose vs. The Bar for the MNR Tag Team Championships, Summerslam

The reason for the first match between these two teams being selected over their No Mercy sequel more popular among the readers is simple: it is this first outing that carries the greatest emotional punch of the classic on-again, off-again storyline that is the evolving relationship of the brothers Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose.

This is the story of a well-oiled and polished unit going against two dysfunctional and beautifully imperfect brothers rediscovering their unity. The Bar take advantage of that dysfunction, constantly catching Ambrose or Rollins out of position; but, like any brother, Rollins and Ambrose are always around to make the final save for the other. Such endearingly messy synergy speaks to the freshness of their reunion and the believability of their characters and their relationship. That their performances are so agitated and passionately giddy – bouncing off the ropes, leaning in the ring, avenging attacks on one another – in turn speaks to the undying bond of brotherhood they share.

In the end, their victory is an air-punching moment of victory occurring at the end of a complex match dense with action and story; one that features worthy, convincing adversaries, protagonists that can be truly related to by the audience and rushes of genuinely real emotion. At the risk of sounding too much like Michael Cole, it is “vintage WWE.”

In Closing

There you have it folks; the first three categories are in the bag! I realise some of these choices may be a bit of a head-scratcher for some readers, so do please let me know your thoughts about any and all of mine and my readers’ picks – as well as what you’d pick yourself - down in the comments below or over on social media! Better yet, alternatively, why not sign up to LOPForums and have a crack at writing your own column in response?!

I’ll be back in a couple of days with the second and final part of this final column in my retrospectives, where I’ll be covering Undercard and Main Event Matches of the Year. Until then, thanks for reading!

If you fancy reading about some non-WWE oriented Match of the Year style thoughts, head on over to our Column’s Forum and check out this preview of a series set to share just such a thing in the coming weeks, courtesy of resident legend Mizfan: The Bright Side: Match of the Year 2017 Countdown Preview!

Don’t forget to pick up your copy of my book, 101 WWE Matches To See Before You Die, from the LOP Store or Amazon today! Simply click here to find mine and a host of other books and merchandise on offer, all courtesy of LOP, or on the icon to the left to be taken directly to Amazon!

Click here to add me on Facebook!