That it was expected to is a shame. With a decent undercard to support it that match could have been the centrepiece of a truly unmissable event. By embracing complacency WWE denied themselves and fans a genuinely special evening.
Let me be clear. I’m not arguing that the WWE versus World Heavyweight championship match should have been reserved for a more important show like Royal Rumble or WrestleMania. That may have been a preferable scenario but it wasn’t necessary. What I’m arguing is that WWE could have elevated the importance of an average B level pay-per-view by booking an undercard that meant something. Had every match meant something and had a story behind it the show as a whole would have been far stronger.
That they didn’t do this shows a disappointing lack of common sense from WWE. I’d ask why they feel it appropriate to settle for mediocrity but I already know the answer. It’s because their number one. They don’t feel compelled to push themselves outside of the Rumble to ‘Mania stretch.
The TLC pre-show was the usual blend of inoffensive expert panel mugging, video packages and forgettable match. Doing the honours in the latter were Dolph Ziggler and Faaaaaan… daaaaaan… goooooo. ‘The Ballroom Brute’ got the surprise win in a competent affair.
The expert panel was comprised of Mick Foley (wearing a Santa hat), The Miz, and Booker T. The show as being held in Houston, which made the inclusion of Booker completely natural. Less natural was the appearance of Kofi Kingston. He rocked up to slap Miz as a part of their continuing feud. Booker and Foley separated them. The highlight of this sequence was Booker T. Because he’s Booker T.
The pre-show ended with Triple H, Stephanie and Vince McMahon stepping out of a limo. That got the biggest pop of the entire pre-show. Vinnie Mac can still work wonders.
The PPV proper began with Trips and Steph strolling into the entranceway to talk up the importance of the night. It was, apparently, the biggest night in the history of the company and wrestling (yes, they said wrestling!). ‘The Game’ talked up the prestige of both titles and mentioned that there had been two world champions ever since Lou Thesz and Buddy Rogers fought to a split decision. I’ll get more into lineages below. Michael Cole talked up the title situation too, but it felt hollow and half-hearted. This was an event that really missed the involvement of Jim Ross. He’d have expressed the same sentiments as Cole, but he’d have done a better job of convincing viewers he was speaking the truth.
The opening match saw CM Punk take on The Shield. For the record the trio had to tag in and out. The match started slowly, with Punk outwrestling and outsmarting Ambrose and Rollins. He didn’t do so well when Reigns was tagged in: the big man floored him almost instantly.
A few minutes into their exchange the two headed to ringside. Reigns dove at Punk as ‘The Second City Saint’ lent on the commentary desk, apparently trying for a spear. Punk dodged out of the way, sending Reigns sailing over the table and into JBL’s chair. He made it back into the ring by the count of seven but spent several minutes being attended to by a medic as Ambrose and Rollins continued the battle with Punk. There was, we were told, something wrong with his eye. In truth it was part of the script to allow the match to continue credibly.
Punk fought back against the remaining ‘Hound of Justice’, holding his own like a true headline babyface. Several minutes went by before Rollins was taken out with a GTS and Reigns re-entered proceedings to attempt another spear. Punk sidestepped it again. This time it was Ambrose waiting in place of the announce desk. Punk quickly tossed the big man out of the ring and pinned Ambrose.
The story was that Reigns’ actions had cost The Shield the contest. It will presumably contribute to the breakup storyline that seems certain to come out way soon.
Backstage Divas champion AJ Lee told Renee Young that she was the only woman in the division that mattered and that nobody has her number. Presumably CM Punk's not included in that statement. Speaking of Punk, AJ channelled him in her promo when she said she's been the champ for 133 days.
The champion’s defence against Natalya was acceptable but nothing amazing. Both women countered their foe’s submission hold. Natty tried hers once too often, getting rolled up with a small package on her second attempt. She cried in the ring as AJ cavorted to the back with Tamina. Booking women to do that does them no favours. Kaitlyn did it earlier in the year and got booed. Guys don’t cry when the lose championships. Having women do it makes them look inferior. And if they look inferior they’re not going to be taken seriously.
Damien Sandow cut a promo on the Texas vernacular as he headed to the ring for his match with Intercontinental champion Big E Langston. It turned the audience against him but didn't convince them to significantly rally behind Big E (which is just as much the goal as having them boo the heel with this kind of promo). Big E didn’t talk as he came to the ring but he did bellow.
‘King’ compared the significance of Big E’s title reign to Bret Hart v Davey Boy Smith at Wembley during the introductions. That deserved an eye roll and it got one. The match was basic. Langston went over with the Big Ending. A welcome surprise was the loud reaction the crowd gave him when he pulled the straps on his singlet down. It bodes well.
Backstage Vince shook Randy's hand and had a verbal exchange that we couldn’t hear. The same thing would happen later with John Cena. It was all scintillating television!
Cole camped it up when throwing to the expert panel. They replayed the confrontation between Kofi and Miz from the pre-show. Booker tried to be serious but ended up laughing. It was lovely. Foley was still dressed as Santa and still looked awful. The purpose of the segment was to have Miz v Kingston announced. That was it.
The tag team title match was next. The Real Americans, Rey Mysterio and Big Show (the man who headlined the previous pay-per-view) and RybAxel all challenged the Rhodes bros in an elimination rules match. RybAxel were eliminated first when Goldust rolled up Ryback. Swagger immediately hit the ring and he and Cesaro successfully kept Goldy isolated for several minutes, tagging in and out between themselves. ‘The Bizarre One’ eventually managed to make a hot tag to Big Show (after one to Cody had been thwarted). ‘The Giant’ steamrolled Cesaro and then KOed both ultra-patriots with his WMD punch. That left MysteriShow to face the champs.
Goldust took the first stint against the challengers. He survived Show's large hands and finally tagged his brother, something which wasn’t milked at all and could have been. It didn't take long for a heavily winded Show to tag out to Rey, allowing the pace to quicken for a compelling finishing sequence. Rey countered a springboard into a power bomb in one of the best moments of the match, then leapt off the top rope only to be caught in a Cross Rhodes attempt. He escaped that and went for a 619, which was blocked and countered by Cody. That was countered too as Rey rolled Cody up for a believable near fall. Seconds later Rey went for some of his body twirling offence only to finally be caught with a Cross Rhodes for the three count.
The Rhodes boys retained the gold. As the four were all babyfaces there was plenty of handshaking after the match. Code of Honor style!
Backstage the Prime Time Players, The Great Khali, Los Matadores, Vickie Guerrero and Brad Maddox played with some Brawlin' Buddies (WWE toys, basically). Then the lighting turned red and Kane's music played. Kane walked in, intimidated everyone else away and then had a quiet play himself (not like that). The backstage music intro is great. It's another reason the current use of Kane is so enjoyable.
Back out in the ring Brodus Clay was upset (WWE's choice of phrase, not mine) by R-Truth after being distracted by a row he had with Tensai and the Funkadactyls. The match was instantly forgotten. It was on the card to help us all accept Brodus Clay as something more than the comedy performer he’s been for the best part of two years.
Match six was just as pointless and match five. Kofi Kingston and The Miz clashed in a no disqualification match. Kofi won a surprisingly sloppy and mistimed bout after ‘The Awesome One’s’ head collided with an exposed turnbuckle (which he himself had exposed earlier in the match). Moments before the finish came the crowd had been chanting "Boring!"
While it’s good that WWE are trying to give mid-carders something to do that chant should tell them that they have to do more than go through the motions when booking this stuff. Kofi and Miz should learn something from it too. Wrestling, particularly in WWE, is about more than having good matches. They should do everything they can to draw people into their dispute so that we care about the matches when they happen.
The penultimate match was the evening's second handicap affair. Daniel Bryan took on the three members of the Wyatt Family. Something that surprised me was how uninterested the crowd were when the Wyatts entered the arena. The trio can usually be relied on to get a strong reaction. Not so here. They warmed up as soon as the bell rang. Clearly they just wanted to see Bryan in action. That's got to be a positive for WWE and 'The Dazzler'.
The first several minutes saw Harper and Rowan flatten Bryan. Once he was with down Bray tagged in for the first time, yelling that he wanted to help and be friends with Bryan. 'The Eater of Worlds' floored Bryan with an impressive throwing suplex and then prompted a "That was creepy!" chant by rolling around giggling before doing his upside-down crab walk thing.
Bray offered Bryan a final chance to join the family and get the predictable negative response. That ultimately led to a comeback for ‘The King of Beards’, culminating with an attempted Yes Lock on Bray. The faction leader slipped out, pummelled Bryan with forearms to the face and then dropped him with Sister Abigail for the victory. The result wasn’t surprising, but the relative ease it was gained with was. The Wyatts posed over Bryan afterwards, with Bray cradling Bryan's head to his chest.
After a final, inconsequential check-in with the experts it was time for the evening’s world title unification match. The pre-match video focused on Orton and Cena's careers paralleling each other. It was very effective. It also went to great lengths to paint the World Heavyweight championship as a direct descendant of the NWA world championship. Even though the NWA title is still active elsewhere as a separate entity an argument can be made for WWE’s version of events being true. It was misleading though.
This isn't surprising. It's WWE at their hyperbolic best. Altering their own history to suit current plots is what they do. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that they weren’t entirely accurate though. The match was not, as was implied by the video and stated by JBL and Cole on commentary, fifty years in the making. As the WCW-slash-World championship was presented as an NWA continuation when unified with the WWF championship in 2001 the lineages had already been combined. That wasn’t mentioned once throughout the entire show. Obviously.
Much was made of the fact that Orton had never been in a tables, ladders, and chairs match as he strolled to the ring. Too much, in fact. Trying to paint Cena as an underdog was insulting. Everyone watching knew that Cena was the favourite, but not to the extent that Orton became an underdog. Both have been pushed heavily for years on end and that meant that the match was as even as a Cena match can be.
Orty and Cena both entered spirited performances, belting one another with chair shots and hurling themselves around ringside, and taking several big bumps. Clearly they wanted to have this match meet its hype and apparent status, and deserve credit for taking that attitude.
The booking didn't help them. 'The Viper' had to recover far too quickly after being dropped through a table (this happened twice). Cena was booked to sell blows from a microphone (yeah, those small things covered in plastic and foam) more. And a Jeff Hardy-like spot which saw Cena hanging from the belts probably sounded exciting when devised but was unimpressive in practice. It would have been better had the belts been hanging higher, but then this spot is the reason they were so low.
Then there were the handcuffs. They were introduced to allow for a win that didn’t weaken Cena too much. 'The Franchise' was locked to the central rope by his fiendish opponent and then smacked with a ladder (which he no-sold). Orty set up the ladder in the ring but he’d taken too long: Cena had wrenched the turnbuckle pad free and gained access to the centre of the ring. He sent Orton sprawling to the floor. Moments later he was pulled off the ladder using the ring rope and landed in the general vicinity of a table. He was probably meant to go through it because he sold as if he had.
Orton then very slowly clambered up the ladder and, after pausing a couple of times to stare at his fallen opponent, unhooked the belts. As he posed with his prize JBL said people will talk about the night in one hundred years. That nonsense was thankfully overshadowed by The Authority walking to the ring to Vince McMahon's music. All three congratulated him as Cena say at ringside staring and looking glum.
The finish makes sense. Cena can work programmes of interest without the belt. That’s not necessarily the case with Orton right now. His purpose has become to act as a paper champion for The Authority. Without that role he’d be back to drifting aimlessly. As he’s going to be on TV no matter it’s preferable for him to be doing something.
The win also sets up a potential match with CM Punk at Royal Rumble or WrestleMania. While that match isn’t fresh it’s one we haven’t seen for a while and something that could, if handled well, be fun to follow. What’s next for Cena is less clear but I wouldn’t be surprised if it involved him being denied a rematch and promising to win the Rumble, possibly being entered at number one by the heels. TLC may not have been the most entertaining show of the year for WWE but it delivered on its main event and, more importantly, has done a good job setting up an intriguing batch of storylines for the next month.
Just think of how different things would have been with a functioning mid-card.