Thursday 29 December 2011

Year End Awards 2011

Wrestling attracts lists. Most fans, at one time or another, will make a list of favourite wrestlers, matches or cards. Wrestling lends itself to their creation. The end of a year is a particularly strong time for such an activity, and I thought I’d get in on the action. Below are top five lists for Character of the Year, Match of the Year, Show of the Year, Tag Team of the Year and Feud of the Year. I’ve pushed the boat out a little when it comes to the best wrestlers of the year and gone for twenty. Five seemed too slight when you consider how many wrestlers there are in the world.

I should mention my criteria before you begin reading. There was, broadly speaking, a criteria but there was nothing hard and fast set out. The way I’ve attempted to rank people in each of the six fields is by taking into consideration what the promotion they work for requires of them in their position on the card. Very different things are required from someone headlining a Ring of Honor show to someone working in a mid-card spot for WWE. I’ve tried to look at how well people are using their spots and how successful they are within the parameters of the company they work for.

I’ve also made my decisions based on the matches, personalities and shows that I’ve watched throughout the year. I enjoy what little Japanese wrestling I watch but I know nowhere near enough about it to try ranking any of it. Similarly I don’t watch much TNA so their shows and performers may seem underrepresented. I rationalise by saying that if TNA put on a better product I’d watch more regularly and would be likelier to look on them favourably when I did things like this.

I’ll kick off with the top five characters of the year. These are the most entertaining and consistent wrestling personae of the year. Wrestling ability does not play a factor here (which has helped at least one man get onto the list) as it’s all about how well the men in question have done establishing their character. All the other categories should be very self-explanatory.

Top Five Characters of the Year

5. Zack Ryder
‘Long Island Iced Z’ was given very little to do for the majority of the year but got himself over using YouTube and by fleshing out the basic gimmick WWE’s writing team had furnished him with. He went from being a nobody tagging with Primo on Superstars to United States champion on the power of his charisma and savvy use of YouTube.

4. Austin Aries
Aries is easily the most entertaining thing about TNA and a large part of the reason for that is his believable and relatable gimmick. ‘The Greatest Man That Ever Lived’ has carried charisma vacuums such as Brian Kendrick and Kid Kash to enjoyable in-ring promos and displayed so much charisma that fans have taken to cheering him. TNA are incredibly lucky to have secured the services of ‘A Double’.

3. CM Punk
Despite turning face halfway through the year Punk has been a consistent character for WWE. He joined the Nexus to try and bring change to WWE, which was later his reasoning behind his famous worked shoot promo on the June 27th RAW. That’s the sort of approach that makes wrestling believable. Punk’s naturally kept the straight edge gimmick going too, another reason he deserves to be thought of as one of 2011’s best wrestling characters.

2. Mark Henry
Yes, flabby old Mark Henry has made it into a top five for something. His wrestling has been as awful as ever but when it comes to his character Henry has done a surprisingly good job. He is very easy to accept as a guy with a chip on his shoulder and the whole ‘Hall of Pain’ thing is inspired. There’s no way anybody would have predicted Mark Henry would be as over as he currently is as the year began. The booking team deserves a lot of the credit but it couldn’t have worked without Henry’s intense promos and threatening demeanour. Who’d have thought it?

It took fifteen years but Mark Henry is finally over as a monster heel.

1. R-Truth
C’mon... can anybody else be considered as good a character as R-Truth? He’s been a revelation as a heel and made a name for himself as a paranoid schizophrenic convinced that WWE management are conspiring against him. His vast array of phrases (“Us’ta is a rooster from Brewster”, “You gonna get got”, and, of course, “Little Jimmy”) are memorable, quotable and ought to be available on T-shirts for people to buy. That they’re not could mean Truth was right about the conspiracy after all...

Top Five Feuds of the Year

5. R-Truth v John Cena
When you consider Cena's limitations (namely that he doesn't know how to make mid-card guys look like his equals or provide interviews that engage older fans) it's astonishing to think that R-Truth, a man who'd never been given a genuine chance to excel at the top, managed to engage him in a feud that interested people. But he did. Truth's schizophrenic gimmick proved a good match for Cena's valiant superhero routine and the two did a good job of preparing for their Capitol Punishment showdown. The rivalry was the launching pad for a popular character and got Cena to do some work. Very few feuds can make those boasts.
4. Randy Orton v Cody Rhodes
What I liked about this feud is that it was booked to capitalise on a real life occurrence: namely Randy Orton busting 'The Dashing One' open during a match on SmackDown. Rhodes cut believable promos against 'The Apex Predator', was granted victories over him and was generally permitted to look like a main event star. The two had a worthwhile clash at Hell in a Cell and tangled on various episodes of RAW and SmackDown, never producing anything less than entertaining.
3. Kevin Steen v Ring of Honor
ROH's lead storyline of the year was Kevin Steen's hatred of the promotion. He returned for "one night only" at Best in the World and teased a face turn, only to swerve turn on Steve Corino and get carted out of the building by security. From there he waged a one man war to get himself reinstated to the promotion, which he achieved at Final Battle.
It was an interesting, well planned feud that gave several people on the regular roster something to do and created a match people wanted to see in Corino v Steen. Steen's powerful mic work and convincing madman character were what made this feud succeed. The program has also allowed work to begin on a Steen v Richards feud, which ought to be a highlight of 2012.
2. Rey Mysterio v Cody Rhodes
Rhodes' second entry in the top five feuds of 2011. A logically booked, well-paced feud that saw a talented, established star do everything he could to get over his opponent. The promos and character development this feud gave us were superb and it provided us with several solid matches, most notably at WrestleMania and Extreme Rules.
1. Randy Orton v Christian
It's rare for WWE to allow two performers to go to the ring and tell a story through their match these days. It's rarer still for an entire feud to be based around competition. But that's exactly what WWE did with the Randy Orton v Christian feud. They were given the chance to produce classic wrestling matches and they did so many times. The feud eventually progressed to become more personal and took in various gimmick matches, all of which were equally as thrilling as the technical encounters between the two.
It was a believable and engaging feud that brought out the best in both men, portrayed them as equals and gave fans great matches and a reason to tune in. That's exactly what a headline feud should do. Orton v Christian may end being classed as a highlight of both men's careers.

Top Five Shows of the Year

5. WWE Elimination Chamber
This year's Chamber show was probably one of the most underrated cards of the year. It featured a cracking opener between Alberto Del Rio and Kofi Kingston (in which Kingston was allowed to look competitive before his inevitable loss), Edge's last great performance in the SmackDown Elimination Chamber, and an impressive RAW Chamber bout too. Even Miz v Jerry 'The King' Lawler exceeded expectations and provided something worthwhile.
4. ROH Best in the World
Best in the World is a boast that's thrown around a lot in wrestling these days. CM Punk, Davey Richards and Roderick Strong have all laid claim to the moniker this year while Ring of Honor went as far as to promote a show using the name.
It may not have been the best show of the year (it didn't rank number one did it?) but it was a solid card that didn't feature any matches that were less than enjoyable. Rhino v Homicide was a particular favourite for me, and it was great to see the promotion's top four tag teams (WGTT, KoW, the Briscoes and ANX) finally get to show what they could do in a four-way collision. Davey Richards' world title win over partner Eddie Edwards in the main event was not only the best match of the night but one of the best matches of the year, and showed why Ring of Honor has the reputation for great action that it does.
3. ROH Final Battle
Ring of Honor always gives its fans great action on its shows but is sometimes lacking when it comes to worthwhile storylines. When they get it right they get it very right, and Final Battle was a perfect example if that. Kevin Steen v Steve Corino and the return of both Chris Hero and Jimmy Rave gave fans something to get excited about in addition to the tremendous action provided in the ring. The highlights were the tag team gauntlet match, Strong v Hero, Elgin v Perkins and, predictably, Davey Richards v Eddie Edwards. A great show from top to bottom and definitely one worth checking out if you're unaware of ROH.
Any show that sees Daniel Bryan win a WWE world championship is always going to be seen in a positive light. The cash-in took everbody by surprise and became one of those memorable moments that WWE does so well. Other highlights of the show included Dolph Ziggler v Zack Ryder, Cody Rhodes v Booker T, and the CM Punk v Miz v Alberto Del Rio TLC match. The undercard matches such as Sheamus v Swagger and Orton v Barrett were kept short and sweet while the show's one dud (Big Show v Mark Henry) was more of an angle than a match. A great end to the year for WWE's PPV output.
1. WWE Money in the Bank
Mark Henry v Big Show took place on the best two wrestling shows of the year. How on Earth did that happen?! 

This show will always be remembered for its Punk v Cena WWE title main event but it had a solid undercard too. Two impactful multi-man ladder matches, both of which set up title wins for new stars later in the year and another excellent entry into the Orton v Christian Feud of the Year ensured this wasn't a one match show. On July 17th everything cane together for WWE and they put on their most entertaining show of 2011.

Top Five Matches of the Year
(There’s no analysis here. If you want to know why these matches are in the top five just go and watch them...)

5. Christian v Randy Orton – WWE Over the Limit (22.05.11)

4. Undertaker v Triple H – WWE WrestleMania (03.04.11)

3. Davey Richards v Eddie Edwards – ROH Final Battle (23.12.11)

2. CM Punk v John Cena – WWE Money in the Bank (17.07.11)

1. Davey Richards v Eddie Edwards – ROH Best in the World (26.06.11)

Top Five Tag Teams of the Year

5. Awesome Truth
They may not have won many matches but they won enough and were massively entertaining doing it. The pairing of Miz and R-Truth showed that acts can gain fresh life by being used as part of a team. Were WWE to take this approach with more of their established (and un-established, for that matter) stars they could get a good doubles division going and get more people over.
4. Air Boom
Air Boom have made it onto this list for achieving the Herculean task of making WWE's tag team scene relevant after years of downtrodden obscurity. Evan Bourne's Wellness suspension meant that it didn't last long but while it did 'The Legion of Boom' had solid matches against Dolph Ziggler and Jack Swagger, Awesome Truth, and (surprisingly) the Usos. If WWE were smart they'd renew the push Kingston and Bourne were getting back in the autumn and build a new tag division around them.
3. The Briscoe Brothers
Mark and Jay had a year of ups and downs. At times it didn't seem as though ROH knew what to do with them and they were left treading water. Things picked up for them in a grizzly feud with the All-Night Express, which took in a multitude of bloody gimmick matches, and with a win over WGTT at Final Battle, providing 'Dem Boys' with their seventh run as ROH tag champs.
Character-wise they have been one of the most enjoyable acts in ROH. Hopefully that won't change as we move into 2012 because ROH needs all the characters it can get.
2. Kings of Wrestling
Chris Hero and Claudio Castagnoli started 2011 as the reigning ROH world tag team champions and brought their epic, year-long run at the top to a close in April when they dropped the gold to Wrestling's Greatest Tag Team. Haas and Benjamin proved to be the only tandem the Kings didn't enjoy success against as they beat everyone else in their path, taking in awesome matches against the American Wolves at Revolution: USA and Future Shock at Honor Takes Center Stage Chapter 2.
With Castagnoli having joined WWE and Hero recently having returned to Ring of Honor at Final Battle we're unlikely to see the Kings together in 2012. It's a real shame because over the last couple of years they've been one of the most consistent teams in the business.
1. Wrestling's Greatest Tag Team
Ring of Honor was easily the best promotion for fans of tag team wrestling in 2011 and Haas and Benjamin were the standout team there. They enjoyed wins over many impressive duos, including the Kings of Wrestling, the American Wolves, the Briscoes, the House of Truth and the All-Night Express. They gave the young teams of Future Shock and the Bravado Brothers some of the best matches of their young careers. They held the ROH tag team titles for eight months, one of the longest reigns in the near ten year history of the belts, before dropping them to 'Dem Boy's in a great match at Final Battle. 

Charlie Haas and Shelton Benjamin have finally found the success they deserve thanks to Ring of Honor.

Haas and Benjamin have slotted into Ring of Honor incredibly well. They've finally found the success in wrestling that they've deserved for many years and I hope it continues throughout 2012.

Top Twenty Wrestlers of the Year

20. Jay Lethal
After wasting the first half of the year in TNA Lethal returned to ROH and received a healthy push that saw him capture the TV title from El Generico and drag Mike Bennett to his most enjoyable outings of the year. If he keeps hold of the gold for a while he could make it a meaningful championship. Expect to see him at the top of the card throughout 2012, but don't look for a world title win from 'Black Machismo' any time soon.

19. Kenny Omega
He worked brilliant matches against a nine-year-old girl and a sex doll. What more do you need?!

18. Tommasso Ciampa
The Embassy's new 'Crown Jewel' is undefeated in Ring of Honor. That's a streak (there's a somewhat overused wrestling term) that includes victories over Colt Cabana, former world champion Homicide and former Embassy centrepiece Jimmy Rave. Pairing Ciampa with heat magnet Prince Nana is a great move by ROH: it allows him to become a prominent heel in the organisation without exposing his inexperience.

17. Michael Elgin
The House of Truth’s resident monster has had an impressive first year on the Ring of Honor main roster. He’s been a part of impressive matches against the likes of Chris Daniels, El Generico, Andy Ridge and ROH world champion Davey Richards. He’s been particularly impressive in tag bouts alongside stablemate Roderick Strong, facing the likes of WGTT and the American Wolves. As the winner of the 2011 Survival of the Fittest tournament Elgin will challenge Richards for the world championship at some point during 2012. He’s not likely to win but it’ll be another chance to elevate Elgin towards the top of the card.

16. Austin Aries
‘A Double’ spent the first half of the year working for a handful of independent promotions and contemplating his future in the wrestling business. In June he resurfaced in TNA as part of their short-lived attempt to reenergise the X Division. While Bischoff and company quickly lost interest in that venture Aries secured himself a job with impressive showings on IMPACT Wrestling and at Destination X. He’s been the X Division champ for the past four months and would be the ideal candidate to spearhead a resurgence of the Division should TNA decide to give it another shot.

15. Claudio Castagnoli
The man now wrestling as Antonio Cesaro in Florida Championship Wrestling was one half of the longest ROH tag team title reign ever. That came to an end on April 1st, 364 days after the Kings had beaten the Briscoes to become two time champions. In addition to that prestigious accolade Claudio worked multiple matches against Wrestling’s Greatest Tag Team and the American Wolves, and had memorable singles clashes with Davey Richards (at Defy or Deny) and Shelton Benjamin (at Supercard of Honor VI).

Claudio Castagnoli, currently uppercutting his way through the FCW roster as Antonio Cesaro.

It would be great to see him on WWE television in 2012 but the treatment of Tyler Black makes that look unlikely.

14. Chris Hero
In addition to the Kings of Wrestling’s accomplishments listed for above the duo also beat Homicide and Hernandez in an action packed battle at Manhattan Mayhem IV and successfully retained their gold against the All-Night Express at the 9th Anniversary Show. As a singles wrestler Hero’s biggest matches were both losses: he was the first man to challenge Eddie Edwards for the world title at Revolution: Canada and he came up short in his return bout opposite Roderick Strong at Final Battle.

The rumoured move to WWE appears to be off the cards for now, but that’s not all bad. At least we still get to see ‘That Young Knockout Kid’ in ROH.

13. Kofi Kingston
Kofi accomplished a deceptive amount this year. Not only did he capture the tag team titles alongside Air Boom partner Evan Bourne but he also beat Dolph Ziggler for the Intercontinental strap, Sheamus for the United States gold and had a memorable clash with Alberto Del Rio at Elimination Chamber.

12. Roderick Strong
‘The Messiah of the Backbreaker’ begun 2011 as the ROH world champion, embroiled in a forgettable feud with Homicide. He held the belt until dropping it to Eddie Edwards in an amazing match on March 19th, having defended it against Jay Briscoe and El Generico during the spring. He was involved in very good matches with Edwards and Davey Richards throughout the rest of the year, sometimes alongside Michael Elgin in tag matches. After a few unfocused months Strong ended the year on a high by picking up a win over the returning Chris Hero at Final Battle.

11. El Generico
'The Generic Luchador' was one of Ring of Honor's most reliable stars throughout 2011. He was called on to put over Roderick Strong in energetic clashes early in the year, which ultimately led to a feud with the House of Truth. He toppled Christopher Daniels at Best in the World to become the Television champion and dropped the belt in a great match to Jay Lethal a few months later. With 'Mr Wrestling' Kevin Steen back in ROH 2012 should provide Generico with a renewed focus and perhaps a renewed rivalry.

10. Kurt Angle
Angle’s professionalism and ability shone through during 2011 despite TNA’s utterly inept booking. He did a solid job of elevating both members of Beer Money Inc. into the main event scene, worked entertaining matches with fellow veterans Sting and Jeff Jarrett and was generally TNA’s most dependable worker.

9. Eddie Edwards
In my opinion the title reign of ‘Die Hard’ Eddie Edwards should have lasted far longer than it did. He has far more personality than Davey Richards and fans seemed genuinely happy to see him as champion, whereas I think some feel that they should support the Richards title run because ROH did such a good job preparing for it. ROH wants to build around Richards though. I can understand that, I just don’t agree with it.

Edwards wrestled superior singles matches against the likes of Chris Daniels, Roderick Strong and Chris Hero, as well as excellent tag matches against the Kings of Wrestling, House of Truth and Future Shock as the American Wolves. His best matches of the year were against Davey Richards at Best in the World and Final Battle. If there were any justice in ROH Edwards would be a two time world champion right now. But there’s not.

8. Daniel Bryan
The originator of the ‘Best in the World’ moniker started the year with a top notch showing in the Royal Rumble match and then... disappeared. Between January and July Bryan didn’t do much worthy of note besides drop the US title to Sheamus and get bumped from the WrestleMania card into a pre-show battle royal.

When July rolled around Bryan made a triumphant return to pay-per-view by snatching the dangling briefcase in the SmackDown Money in the Bank match. He wrestled a good but ultimately pointless match against Wade Barrett at SummerSlam and then disappeared again, resurfacing a couple of months later to become a part of the Big Show v Mark Henry feud. At TLC he cashed in his title shot and beat Big Show for the World Heavyweight title under a minute after the ‘World’s Largest Athlete’ had won it.

Did anyone ever think we’d see a year ending with both Bryan Danielson and CM Punk wearing WWE world titles?

7. Cody Rhodes
This was 'The Dashing One's' breakout year. He started with a memorable feud against Rey Mysterio, which provided him with a more serious gimmick and a chance to show what he could do with the spotlight. Later in the year he captured the IC title from charisma vacuum Ezekiel Jackson in a surprisingly good encounter. As 2011 draws to a close WWE management clearly see a bright future for Rhodes. He was booked strongly in his program with Randy Orton (see Feuds of the Year) and has recently wrestled great matches with the semi-retired Booker T. Still the reigning Intercontinental champ 2012 is expected to be a huge year for Rhodes.

6. Alberto Del Rio
ADR had one of the strongest years of any WWE wrestler ever. He was consistently good all year and wrestled in the main event of multiple pay-per-views. He won the Royal Rumble (the biggest ever, if such things mean anything to you) and RAW's Money in the Bank. He wrestled for the World Heavyweight championship at WrestleMania XXVII. He won the WWE title. Twice. Imagine how good his year would have been if WWE hadn't taken the stop-start approach with his push.

5. Davey Richards
The current Ring of Honor world champion is lucky he isn't relied upon to produce sterling promos. His intense diatribes about prestige and the importance of training fit right in in ROH but would be out of place in either of North America's other major promotions. Davey Richards is good at one thing: wrestling. 

The man Ring of Honor will be built around throughout 2012.

 ‘The American Wolf’ has enjoyed cracking matches all year long. From his bouts against Colt Cabana, Claudio Castagnoli, Roderick Strong, Christopher Daniels and the Kings of Wrestling (alongside American Wolves partner Eddie Edwards) in the spring to his matches later in the year against Michael Elgin, Future Shock (again alongside Eddie Edwards) and the House of Truth. That's without mentioning his two amazing outings opposing Edwards for the ROH world championship. Each match was phenomenal and has cemented Richards as the most dominant ROH champ since Nigel McGuinness.

4. CM Punk
2011 was a year of two very distinct halves for 'The Second City Saint'.
Up until the end of June Punk was killing time as a mid-card heel and leading the forgettable New Nexus faction. Aside from a memorable performance in the Royal Rumble match and above average pay-per-view showings against Randy Orton he did little of note.
Then he cut his famous worked shoot promo on the June 26th RAW and quickly morphed into a babyface. From there he won the WWE championship from John Cena in an electrifying match at Money in the Bank, briefly left the company (supposedly), returned to beat Cena in a slightly-less-impressive SummerSlam outing and bombarded us with promos about how he wanted change for the better while behaving like every other WWE headliner of the past decade. He got it done where it matters though: in the ring. He wrestled enjoyable bouts against Triple H, Alberto Del Rio, Miz, Dolph Ziggler and R-Truth and established himself as one of the company's most reliable main event stars.

3. Christian
Christian returned from an injury in February and became World Heavyweight champion in May. Would that have happened if his childhood friend Edge hadn’t retired? We’ll never know but I have my doubts. I suspect the original plan was to have ‘The Rated R Superstar’ drop the title to Alberto Del Rio at Extreme Rules or Over the Limit after interference from ‘Captain Charisma’, which would have set up an Edge v Christian feud. That feud never got the run it deserved.

Instead Christian was chosen as the lead heel of SmackDown for the summer and enjoyed an epic run against mega-face Randy Orton. ‘The Viper’ and ‘The Instant Classic’ provided WWE fans with some of the best matches of the year during their rivalry and told a great tale during their four months working with one another. Christian’s follow-up program with Sheamus was never going to top the title feud but it was enjoyable enough for what it was.

Sadly the year will end with Christian benched due to another injury but he should be back in early 2012. Maybe he’ll get “one more match” then.

2. Randy Orton
2011 has probably been the best year of 'The Viper's' in ring career. He's had enjoyable feuds with CM Punk, Cody Rhodes and Wade Barrett as well as a scorching Feud of the Year with Christian. He even dragged two passable matches out of Mark 'The Shark' Henry. You know someone's good if they can do that.
'The Apex Predator' has also displayed the ability to beat wrestlers lower down the card without making them look weak. It's a rare skill in WWE and something Orton deserves much praise for. It could be said that his promos aren't what they could be. It's a fair point: for a main event talent in WWE Orton doesn't talk much. But that's part of his gimmick and when he is required to cut a promo he can handle himself well enough.

1. Dolph Ziggler
Ziggler started the year strong with a World Heavyweight championship victory over Edge and improved as the year progressed. He captured the US title from Kofi Kingston in one of the highlights of the otherwise dull Capitol Punishment in June and held it for an impressive (by modern WWE standards) six months before dropping it to Zack Ryder in the red hot opener of TLC. 

Best in the World. Ziggler is the best wrestler of 2011.
Over the last several months Ziggler has become one of the company's premier workers, making a success of every opportunity sent his way. His verbal skills are fine for his spot on the roster, he takes the best bumps in the promotion and he can work an enjoyable match just as easily against super workers Randy Orton and CM Punk as he can against lumps like Mason Ryan. Having become number one contender to CM Punk’s WWE title on the final RAW of the year it looks as though Ziggler could to start off 2012 in the same way he did 2011. That would be no bad thing.

Forget Davey Richards, Eddie Edwards, CM Punk, and Daniel Bryan, right now it's Dolph Ziggler who's 'Best in the World'.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

That RAW Recap 26.12.11

The last time WWE visited Chicago was for the Money in the Bank pay-per-view in July, which saw hometown hero CM Punk topple John Cena for the WWE championship in a gripping main event. Five months later WWE returned for a Boxing Day edition of RAW, headlined by the now two-time WWE champion hometown hero. Could WWE put on another show that flattered ‘The Second City Saint’ and gave the always raucous Chi-town something to shout about? Let’s find out...

The show kicked off with John Laurinaitis coming out to CM Punk’s music and wearing a CM Punk T-shirt. The pop was tremendous at first, and turned into solid heat when the people realised they’d been duped by the dastardly GM. Laurinaitis said that’s the sort of excitement that’s become the norm since he became RAW GM. Yes, he thinks people walking out to music to fool an audience is exciting. So do the writing team. It didn’t take long for the music to hit again, this time signalling the true arrival of the WWE champion. The crowd gave a huge pop and ‘The Straight Edge Superstar’ was permitted to play up to it for longer than is normal. That was nice to see. They had a little back and forth which included the strange moment of Laurinaitis telling Punk he had the night off, only to laugh and reveal that he was joking. “Who says I can’t be unpredictable?” asked the Marty Funkhouser-esque GM. It was painfully unfunny, but that’s what Laurinaitis does best .

Laurinaitis revealed that Punk would wrestle a gauntlet match against three opponents. If Punk got beaten then whoever scored the pinfall would get a WWE title match on next week’s RAW. If Punk beat all three men he’d receive a fourth match against John Laurinaitis. This prompted a “You can’t wrestle” chant from the audience. Punk made a joke about how they’d been watching All Japan tapes. It was a nice touch, but would have sailed over the head of most viewers.

The segment ended with Punk posing on the turnbuckle, encouraging fans to cheer for him. We were then treated to another one of the “It Begins” promos. Creepy kids, swings in a children’s play area and a minimalistic schoolroom. They’re weird videos alright. The general consensus seems to be that they’re for Chris Jericho. I think he or the Undertaker are the likeliest candidates (and I’ll remind you that ‘Taker returns have often been accompanied by videos of creepy kids). The promo reminded us (as if we could forget) that the mystery returnee will appear next week.

After the break we got the first match of the night: Booker T v Cody Rhodes in a TLC rematch. The two men got an impressive amount of time for a non-main event match on RAW and put on a good show. It’s another example of how much Cody has improved this year and how talented Booker T is. He’d be a great addition to the full time roster again, and could easily have one more full time run before retiring. The former King of the Ring picked up the clean win with a Scissor Kick and celebrated with his trademark random-point-to-someone-sitting-in-the-bleachers and a Spineroonie.

Backstage Ryder and Cena had a chat with one another about how ‘Long Island Iced Z’ has gotten himself over and how Cena wants to deal with Kane. It was one of those painfully unnatural backstage conversations that WWE does so well.

Back at ringside Jerry Lawler announced that Punk’s gauntlet match opponents would be Jack Swagger, Dolph Ziggler and Mark Henry. All three men got booed by the Chicago crowd as they were shown on the Titantron. Backstage in a hallway we saw Kelly Kelly giving Big Show beauty tips. Why and how this situation had come about was left unexplained. That’s probably for the best. Show was told by a ref that Laurinaitis wanted to see him in his office so Big Show lumbered off to see him.

Laurinaitis was shown in his office with David Otunga, talking to Brodus Clay on the phone. His re-debut will now happen next week apparently. The storyline is still that Laurinaitis keeps postponing Clay’s return to keep him keen. The reality is that the writing team change their minds on a weekly basis with regards to Clay, who has a lot of positives and deserves to be on weekly TV. Show wandered in and bickered with Otunga about what happened on last week’s SmackDown (Show knocked out Otunga with a punch to the face), with Laurinaitis eventually booking the two in a match. The obligatory whacky stipulation? Show would have a hand tied behind his back.

Following an amusing Ziggler and Swagger argument session the new United States champion Zack Ryder teamed up with Eve Torres to take on Tyson Kidd and Natalya. Yes, that’s Tyson Kidd on RAW. How often do we get to see that? Ryder won via Broski Boot and Rough Ryder. It was a decent filler bout.

Cena was up next, receiving his usual anti-pop from Chicago. As ‘The Doctor of Thuganomics’ made his way to the ring a graphic came up of the latest WWE Magazine, with a Team Bring It v Team CeNation article being highlighted. Cole mispronounced “CeNation” as “Cena Nation”. It’s not a big thing, but it is a simple thing, and a mistake WWE’s lead announcer shouldn’t be making.

Cena acknowledged that he’s been to Chicago many times and he often receives a “salty” reception. Salty is a word I’ve not really heard before in that particular context. That’s Cena for you: he’s an educator. He rambled on about Chicago for a while, failing to make any sort of point, before calling out Kane. Instead he got The Miz.

Miz told us that 2011 has been the year of The Miz but that one thing bothered him. He’d beaten Cena at WrestleMania but it was a tainted victory because of The Rock’s interference. Miz challenged Cena to a match to prove that he could beat him by himself and Cena accepted. After a few minutes of duelling chants directed at Cena and some lacklustre exchanges Miz rolled to the outside (which was loudly called by Cena in the ring) and told the fans they were chanting for the wrong guy. As Miz wittered on about beating Cena at WrestleMania (despite having just admitted it was a tainted win) he got counted out and was then set upon by a returning R-Truth.

Truth, still working the schizophrenia gimmick, smashed Miz into the commentary table and the ringside steps before telling him he could finish him right then and there but that wouldn’t be fun. Truth told Miz he’d take his time getting to him, because Little Jimmy said it would be okay. “This New Year, may old acquaintance be forgot? Naw... they gonna get got” was Truth’s best line.

I think R-Truth could enjoy great success as a babyface if he’s booked correctly. His gimmick has been making people laugh  since its introduction (and being able to make fans laugh is rarely a bad thing for a babyface) and if Truth’s booked sympathetically and his opponents chosen wisely he could be a big star. It’s not a gimmick that will ever take him to the WWE championship, but I don’t think that was likely anyway. We’ll probably get a Miz v Truth match on RAW in the next few weeks and then see them go after one another in the Royal Rumble match. Booked correctly that could be good.

Where did Cena go during all of this? I’ve no idea. I don’t really care either.

After the break it was time for the gimmicked up Otunga v Big Show bout. Show made his trademark Smiley Babyface Entrance while Otunga changed it up by wearing Harvard colour trunks and having himself announced as “a graduate of Harvard law school.” That was a nice touch. I like the Otunga character more every week. There’s a lot of potential there for heel heat. He could be an asset to WWE programming if used to make unpopular decisions and work occasional gimmick matches on RAW and SmackDown. It’s a character with a very ECW feel to it. That’s a good thing.

Big Show was easily handling Otunga until Mark Henry waddled to ringside. The crowd immediately broke into a “Sexual Chocolate” chant. That will plague Henry for the rest of his career. ‘The World’s Lardiest Man’ barged Show to the ground before Daniel Bryan showed up at ringside to provide a distraction. That allowed Show to get back to his feet to attempt a choke slam on Henry, only to be thwarted by Otunga. Show blasted the lawyer with a choke slam as Henry rolled to the outside. My guess is that we’re going to get a Bryan v Show v Henry triple threat match at the Royal Rumble. If that’s kept relatively short and Bryan’s allowed to do most of the work I think that could be a good match.

Alberto Del Rio made his first and last appearance of the night riding in a stylish gold plated wheelchair, pushed by Ricardo Rodriguez. ‘The Essence of Excellence’ told us he tore his groin but that he’d come back stronger than ever. The Bella twins randomly came out to argue with one another over who would throw ADR a party once he’s recovered but Del Rio ordered them to the back before vowing that he’d be back stronger than ever and that he would recapture the WWE championship. I can’t see that happening for a considerable amount of time: WWE appear to have lost faith in him over the last few months and he doesn’t appear to be under consideration for a prominent spot at WrestleMania. That could change over the next few weeks but I doubt it.

Main event time. Swagger was out first, Punk second. They worked a brief but enjoyable match, with Punk going over following a roundhouse kick to the head of ‘The All American American’. Next up: Dolph Ziggler!

Swagger chop blocked Punk before Ziggler was in the ring so the story of Punk’s second match of the night became an injured ankle. Ziggler went after the leg with punches, single leg crabs and stomps. Punk sold well. The finish came when Vickie grabbed Punk’s leg as he went for a GTS on ‘The Show Off’, which brought out Laurinaitis to eject her from ringside (the ref had missed her interference because he was distracted by Swagger). Laurinaitis’s presence distracted Punk (mainly because the GM directly addressed Punk as the match was ongoing), which allowed Ziggler to connect with the Zig Zag and win the match.

Ziggler ran around ringside with the championship and posed at the top of the ramp. He looked elated and Punk looked irked, both of them really put over the importance of the victory well. Next week’s RAW will play host to a WWE championship match between Ziggler and CM Punk. That is a great main event to kick off the year.

Is this a sign of things to come for 2012?

Just when you thought the fun was over Cole and Lawler reminded us that Kane would be out next to explain exactly what his problem is with John Cena. ‘The Big Red Machine’ begun to tell us that we’re the ones wearing masks (metaphorical ones presumably) but was interrupted by ‘The Leader of the Chain Gang’. Kane stopped him with a fireball to the ramp. Yes, he can still do that stuff apparently.

Apparently Kane’s problem is with Cena’s “Rise Above Hate” slogan rather than Cena himself. Kane did a lot of talking, basically telling us that hate is a natural emotion and should be embraced. I remember the days when he was a mute character. The crowd, clearly bored, amused themselves with duelling chants of “Let’s go Cena” and “Cena sucks”. That even a deliberately boring and depressing promo couldn’t get fans to rally behind Cena should tell WWE that they need to do something with the Cena character, not his opponents.

Kane ended his nonsense by trying to start a “Cena sucks” chant but couldn’t get it going. Instead the fans talked amongst themselves for a bit before returning to the duelling chants. Cena didn’t say anything. He simply stood on the stage looking thoughtful and depressed (or how he imagines these emotions look, at any rate) as the show went off the air.

And that was the final RAW of the year. It was a slightly depressing ending (especially when you remember that WWE is supposed to be escapist television) but the overall show was good. They did a surprisingly good job of building up next week’s episode. With the Brodus Clay debut (they really mean it this time, I’m sure), the revelation of the “It Begins” videos, and Ziggler v Punk all happening the first RAW of 2012 looks promising.

Monday 26 December 2011

The Big Fish

I’ve mentioned many times before that WWE seems to have trouble elevating new talent to the main event level. It’s a big problem that is affected by a number of factors, and the longer it stays unaddressed the worse it gets. The wrestling business is constantly transitioning from the present to the future. Today’s stars need to put over new talent to ensure new stars are created who can keep drawing money. That’s how wrestling has always survived and how it always will.

A large part of WWE’s dilemma is their obsession with John Cena. He has been pushed as the promotion’s number one star since 2005 and was in a prominent spot for some time before that. He has his merits: he elicits loud reactions from fans; he possesses impressive verbal skills and can cut logical, coherent promos; and he sells a lot of merchandise. None of these things are bad. They all contribute to making money in some way and as that’s the ultimate goal of any wrestling company Cena cannot be considered totally worthless.

Unfortunately Cena’s bad points outweigh these positives. He is notable as one of the worst workers in wrestling history, his ridiculous punches and inability to sell making it impossible for anybody over the age of eight to suspend their disbelief during his matches. He routinely cuts promos that make most grown men cringe (and grown men form the majority of WWE’s fanbase remember), which has a negative effect on viewing figures and attendance. Easily his worst offense is that he seems incapable of doing what I said needs doing in my opening paragraph: creating new stars.

It is part of Cena’s job as the company’s leading man to help prepare the stars of tomorrow. He may only be 34-years-old but he can’t wrestle continuously. Sooner or later, whether it’s in 2012 or 2032, ‘The Doctor of Thuganomics’ will need to retire. If he hasn’t helped create a new batch of stars before that then he will have left an employer who’s been very good to him and fans that have been very loyal to him in a bad situation.

There’s the possibility of injury to consider too. If Cena breaks a leg or tears a muscle who does WWE have that can step into his shoes? What if he suffered the same fate as Edge did in the year and had to suddenly draw his career to a close? There are promising guys on WWE’s roster but it would take time to turn them into legitimate main event stars, and it would be a much tougher process without Cena there to aid in the process by making losing to them.

Cena’s feud with Alberto Del Rio a few months ago illustrated that he doesn’t know how to get people over perfectly. ‘The Leader of the Chain Gang’ undid over a year’s hard work in just a few short weeks, pointing out that ADR doesn’t own the cars he drives into arenas, belittling him on a weekly basis in promos by telling him he “[was] not a worthy champion”, and failing to sell the cross arm breaker finisher, which had been built up as a devastatingly painful hold.

A worthy champion? Not according to John Cena...

The cars were obviously not ADR’s but it was part of his aristocrat gimmick. Why Cena was allowed to trash the gimmick while it was still in use (and as it’s still an ongoing part of Del Rio’s act there clearly weren’t plans to discontinue it, making it odder still) is a mystery. All it did was make ‘The Essence of Excellence’ look like an idiot at the beginning of his first WWE title reign. That harmed his perception with fans. It didn’t do the WWE championship any favours either. The same goes for Cena being permitted to routinely state that Del Rio was not a worthy champ. ADR was a sneaky heel who’d cashed in Money in the Bank to win the title: he wasn’t meant to be worthy, he was meant to be a scheming cheat. Cena didn’t help the cause there either.

Changes need to be made in Cena’s attitude. He cannot be allowed to continue burying anybody who threatens to get over at the top level and join him in WWE’s metaphorical main event penthouse. While I’m on the subject, CM Punk could use a little work in this area too. He buried Del Rio almost as badly as Cena did, and has harmed other performers with his inside jokes and smarmy putdowns. He’s still not operating on the level of Cena though. He can at least make his opponents look good in the ring.

Heel opponents need to be treated as genuine threats by established headline babyfaces. If a rising heel is treated poorly they will be perceived poorly. That means when Cena and Punk attain their inevitable victories over these opponents all they’ll have done is beaten a poor opponent. And who wants to pay to see that?

Thursday 22 December 2011

Final Battle 2011 preview

Final Battle is always one of the biggest ROH shows of the year. As the first pay-per-view offering since the launch of the SBG TV show the 2011 instalment should be particularly noteworthy. Two returning names plus the second world title contest between American Wolves partners Davey Richards and Eddie Edwards should provide the highlights.
The first of the returnees is Kevin Steen, who was forced to leave ROH after a loss to El Generico in the main event of last year's Final Battle. 'Mr Wrestling's' journey back to the company has taken place over the intervening twelve months. You can catch up on the story here and here.
The match itself will probably be decent but nothing especially memorable. This is more about characters and storylines than it is about wrestling. That it's one of the hottest feuds in wrestling right now should tell ROH something about their approach: namely that sometimes fans do want more storylines and less wrestling.
I'll be very surprised if Steen loses this one. He's massively popular with fans (despite technically being a heel) and not someone ROH can afford not to use. He's returning for good. A swerve turn by Cornette, who will be at ringside, or Jimmy Jacobs, who'll be the special guest referee for the match, seems likely. How else is Steen going to win? Jacobs is probably the likelier to turn because it would allow ROH to book Corino alongside mid-card babyfaces against the dastardly "invading" heels. It would make sense from a storyline point of view.
The second man making his ROH return is Jimmy Rave. After several years away (a substantial amount of that time was spent in TNA doing not very much) Rave will return to Ring of Honor in a match against 'The Dominant Male' Tommasso Ciampa. I have mixed feelings about this match. I've been a huge fan of Rave since I first watched ROH, but his best work has always come as a heel associated with Prince Nana. Ciampa v Rave should be enjoyable but I'm not convinced fans will rally behind the former 'Crown Jewel'. Fans used to chant "Die, Jimmy, die" at him so I'll believe Rave can get over as a face when I see it.
I imagine Ciampa's undefeated streak will continue into 2012 to build him up as an opponent for the world champion, which necessitates a Rave loss. I'd love to see this match become some sort of angle with Rave returning to the Embassy but I doubt that’s going to happen.

Speaking of returns, Roderick Strong has an open challenge to be accepted at Final Battle. I think it will be answered by ‘That Young Knockout Kid’ Chris Hero. Hero last appeared for ROH back in August at the inaugural SBG TV tapings, losing a tag team match to Wrestling’s Greatest Tag Team alongside Claudio Castagnoli (now Antonio Cesaro in FCW). Hero was originally rumoured to be heading to WWE but medical checks revealed a problem that led to them not signing him. Hero would make a great addition to the ROH main event scene, ideally as a babyface.

Hero v Strong would be my ideal match for the open challenge. It’s not confirmed and it’s entirely possible somebody else will be facing the House of Truth member but if it does go ahead I’ll pick Hero to win, hopefully setting him up as a major title contender for 2012. Nothing against Strong, but he’s faced Richards and Edwards multiple times. I’d like a change.
The rest of the undercard looks enjoyable for the most part. Michael Elgin v TJ Perkins will likely be a short and sweet showcase designed to further the Elgin push and give TJP some exposure. The tag team gauntlet match involving the Young Bucks, Future Shock, the Bravado Brothers, the All-Night Express and Caprice Coleman and Cedric Alexander should be a fun, fast-paced affair, and it will be nice to see Alexander, Coleman and the Bravados get a chance to wrestle on internet pay-per-view. It’s a match that could go to anybody, but I’ll pick Future Shock as they’re clearly seen as the future (no pun intended) of the tag division.

Haas and Benjamin defending the ROH world tag team championship against the Briscoes has the potential to be good, though the teams have wrestled quite a few times this year and I prefer the Briscoes’ characters to their wrestling. New champions? I doubt it. I think Haas and Benjamin are going to have the titles for a while yet.

The three-way match for the TV title should provide a culmination to several months of seemingly on-and-off storyline between Mike Bennett, El Generico and defending champion Jay Lethal. Lethal and Generico could have a great singles match but Bennett’s involvement will inevitably slow the pace and put a sports entertainment spin on proceedings. I have a feeling ‘The Prodigy’ will walk out as the new ROH world television champion: he’s been built up as a hot young prospect all year and I think the company will want to follow through on the hype fairly soon. What better way than by putting the mid-card championship on him?

The main event will see Davey Richards face off against his American Wolves tag team partner for only the third time in ROH history. This time it’s Richards who will be the defending champion, having dethroned Edwards in their first clash at Best in the World in June. This will be a match of the year contender, as was their BITW encounter, and should provide a fitting end to the year (something ROH takes more seriously than some companies I could mention).

 Look at the intensity!

Edwards has been trained by Dan ‘The Beast’ Severn for this match, which means we’re going to see more submission holds from ‘Die Hard’ than would normally be the case. Severn will apparently be at ringside, as will Team Richards members Kozina and O’Reilly. That should add a big match feel to the fight, similar to what you’d see in boxing, MMA or Japanese wrestling. This being ROH it’s not a guarantee that all the seconds will end up brawling around ringside. I’d say we’ll either see nothing much from them until after the match or Severn will take out Team Richards and allow Edwards to win back the title by either interfering or providing a distraction for Edwards to capitalise on.

I’m not actually predicting an Edwards victory. I think that if he does win it will be in the nature described above but I think it’s more likely Richards will retain the gold and hold onto it well into 2012. I’m still upset Edwards’ reign only lasted three months because he made a great babyface champion and is a far better all-rounder than Richards. The switch was made for a reason though, and that reason is that ROH wants to build the promotion around ‘The American Wolf’. They traditionally keep titles on guys for lengthy periods of time and as Richards has only been champion for six months (not a huge amount compared with some previous title reigns) I think he’ll retain. Of course ROH could now be heading in a new direction with the booking of their champions and Eddie Edwards becoming a two time champion could be a part of that, which would make my reasoning wrong. So be it. I’m still picking Richards.

I also think a heel turn is on the cards. Edwards could easily be booked to lose and then turn on Richards in a fit of anger after the match. The storyline so far has been that Edwards wanted to prove he was better than Richards and couldn’t, which cost him the title. That one-upmanship has carried over into the American Wolves’ tag team matches resulted in several high profile losses for the former tag team champions. Edwards turning heel would be a natural progression to the story and create some fresh feuds for 2012. Babyface Chris Hero versus heel Eddie Edwards, anyone?

ROH shows are rarely disappointing, even the ones that don’t have amazing line-ups on paper. As this one has several matches confirmed for it I think it ought to be a highlight of 2011 wrestling. The return of Kevin Steen and Jimmy Rave, as well as the second meeting between the American Wolves, have put ROH in a very good position to end 2011, and begin 2012, with a bang.

Predictions summary:
Davey Richards to defeat Eddie Edwards
Kevin Steen to defeat Steve Corino
Chris Hero to answer and win Roderick Strong’s open challenge
Tommasso Ciampa to defeat Jimmy Rave
Wrestling’s Greatest Tag Team to defeat the Briscoes
Mike Bennett to defeat El Generico and Jay Lethal to become the new TV champion
Future Shock to win the tag team gauntlet
Michael Elgin to defeat TJ Perkins

Monday 19 December 2011

The Newest Main Event Star

The World Heavyweight title picture received a shakeup at Sunday's TLC pay-per-view. First, Big Show made light work (if such a thing is possible) of 'The World's Strongest Man' Mark Henry and pinned him to become the new World Heavyweight champion. Show's celebration was cut short by a chair shot from the former champion, which brought out 'Mr Money in the Bank' Daniel Bryan to cash-in briefcase. Seconds later there was another new World Heavyweight champion crowned.
Is Daniel Bryan 'Best in the World' again now that he's the World Heavyweight champion?

The elevation of Bryan to the main event comes out of nowhere but that's the nature of Money in the Bank cash-ins. The aim is to create a main event star overnight, bypassing the building process that should be a regular occurrence. If WWE follows through on this title switch by booking the new champion strongly they should have a new bona fide main eventer on their hands.

I've said before that having Bryan cash in his title shot before WrestleMania, which is where he originally claimed he'd challenge for gold, would be the perfect way to turn him heel. Right now it's too early to tell whether or not that's going to happen. I think there’s a good chance it will.

A lot of people seem to think a Show heel turn is the way WWE are going to take things but I think that looks unlikely. Throughout his feud with Henry, and association with Bryan, 'The World's Largest Athlete' has been portrayed as the typical babyface: he's stood up to a bully and gotten the better of him, all while slapping hands and smiling at the cameras. It would be a big leap to suddenly turn him heel. With Bryan's size Show would essentially be taking on Henry's bully role, which we’ve already seen done. It's not impossible to imagine that happening but it’s not likely.
A Daniel Bryan heel turn would be far easier to pull off. In an ideal world it would be a slow process that culminates at or around the Royal Rumble. He can be accused of being a poor sportsman for cashing in on an injured opponent (that others have done this is irrelevant, mainly because everybody does it and it’s become the accepted cash-in method) and a liar for falsely stating he'd wait until WrestleMania. A slow turn in which Bryan gradually exhibits progressively more heelish tendencies would draw viewers in and provide an easy to follow storyline.
I think Big Show v Daniel Bryan could work well, especially if it's built up strongly and they don’t wrestle too often. Bryan is such a talented worker that he could not only work a believable match with a much larger, limited opponent but do so from the bad guy side of the face-heel divide too. It's not a feud I want to see run for months but one or two matches before WrestleMania season would be appealing.
The reason ‘D-Bryan’ got the belt is that Mark Henry suffered a pulled groin in his recent RAW match with John Cena and requires time off to recover. The original plan was apparently for 'The World's Strongest Man' to remain champion for several more months. That fact could work in Bryan's favour: WWE have had to alter their plans at the last minute and clearly see Bryan as someone who can step up to replace an established heel at the top of the card. It’s a vote of confidence and he’ll have time in the spotlight to show exactly what he can do.
Longer term what could be in store for the new champion? Should Bryan stay a babyface he'll have a good number of heel challengers. Wade Barrett and Cody Rhodes are guys that have been on the rise for a while now and would be fresh faces to the World title scene. A rematch with Mark Henry would probably be in store when he's back from his injury (but if we don't mention it much maybe it won't happen). Christian would be a great opponent for ‘The American Dragon’ too, and Brodus Clay could easily be moved from RAW to work with Bryan.
A heel turn would provide the best matches though. Established main event hands Sheamus and Randy Orton would be potential WrestleMania opponents. Either match would be a good addition to the show. The 'Dragon's' reign could even provide Ezekiel Jackson with something to do again, though that's probably something that would need limiting to a TV feud after 'Mania.
The best thing WWE could do with Bryan is have him become the most arrogant, conceited man in the company and pit him against CM Punk in a title unification feud. People who have only seen his WWE work may be understandably dubious about him being able to pull such a role off, but he could do it with ease. He proved many times during his time in Ring of Honor that he makes a fantastic antagonist.
Punk and Bryan are two of the promotion's best all-rounders. They can work five star matches and give scintillating promos. I can easily imagine a champion versus champion program between the two kicking off with Bryan taking exception to Punk's relatively recently acquired 'Best in the World' moniker. Promos on that topic alone would be highlights of RAW and SmackDown. They could even work around the Rumble-winner-gets-a-title-shot-at-WrestleMania clause by having Punk and Bryan both agree to face the winner separately in order to prove they’re “the best.” Two title matches could be used to improve TV ratings or both take place on one night at Elimination Chamber, giving fans a great pay-per-view and a reason to watch.
A feud with CM Punk would be the best case scenario. That it's not very likely isn't a huge issue. With Barrett, Orton, Rhodes, Sheamus and Big Show around WWE is spoilt for choice when it comes to booking Daniel Bryan’s title reign. Even they can't mess this up.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

TLC preview

It's December 2011 and WWE are promoting a pay-per-view that includes a Kevin Nash v Triple H match. That's a feud we last saw in 2003, and it didn't excite fans then.
Someone in WWE (probably Vince) apparently thinks it's time to give the two another run together. 'Big Sexy' is in great shape but he's also in his fifties. Triple H is in his forties and has been focusing on his backstage career for several years now. The promotion should be making a concerted effort to elevate guys in their twenties and early thirties yet it’s offering a match between these two on a pay-per-view event. At the very least guys like Nash and Triple H should be working against younger guys rather than each other, giving viewers something fresh and helping to build up guys for the future.
The two will clash in a ladder match with a sledgehammer suspended above the ring. The fact it’s not a straight wrestling match should make it easier to sit through as there will be more shortcuts available. It's still not likely to be pleasant viewing though. I have a feeling that ‘Big Sexy’ is going to be used as an opponent for WWE champion CM Punk early next year (possibly at the Royal Rumble) so I’m predicting he’ll get the win.

What’s not been made clear is how the sledgehammer will be involved in the match. Do you win by grabbing the hammer, smashing your opponent up as your reward for winning? Or do you grab the hammer to help you incapacitate your opponent in order to pin them? It’s probably the former, but WWE haven’t made it clear.   
On a more positive note we can expect another show stealing performance from Dolph Ziggler. He's been involved in match of the night contenders for the last three pay-per-views on the trot and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make it four in a row at TLC. He's one of the best antagonists WWE currently has and has great chemistry with the white hot Zack Ryder. That means the crowd should be loud throughout the match and make it feel like a big event.
The big question is: will this finally be 'Long Island Iced Z's' night? He’s been chasing the United States championship for several months now and I think TLC is the right time to finally give him the win. I expect Guerrero and Swagger will be thrown out after a few minutes, with the story then being that Ryder is determined to take advantage of the rare level playing field.

Both men deserve the chance to move up the card, and switching the belt is going to allow ‘The Heel’ to slot into the main event picture whilst giving Ryder the chance to prove to management he’s worth their continued attention.
Speaking of men that deserve to be elevated, Wade Barrett will face Randy Orton in a tables match. Does it need to be a tables match? Of course not. It's been done because of the name of the show. Barrett and 'The Viper' are talented enough to make a needless stipulation work so I think this could be a highlight of the show. Barrett deserves the win but Orton's been losing a lot lately so I think Barrett will take the loss here and get the win back in the inevitable rematch, whenever that turns out to be.
Adding to the list of gimmick matches is World Heavyweight champion Mark Henry defending his title in a chairs match against Big Show. This feud really needs to end soon. I thought Survivor Series would put it to rest but that didn't happen. Hopefully TLC will get the job done.
What I don't understand is why their program has lasted so long. Henry is finally over, for the first time in his career, as a monster heel. So why has the decision been made to pit him against the only man in the company bigger than him and why are they being portrayed as equals? If used very occasionally this approach isn't a problem but over time it diminishes the monster heel’s aura as they’re shown to be fallible on a regular basis. Had the feud been kept brief it would have had more impact and then Henry could have been moved onto programs with smaller workers that allow him to dominant more.
Cody Rhodes v Booker T is a match I have high hopes for. Sadly it means Booker is unlikely to be on commentary for the show (I expect a three man unit of Lawler and Cole with either JR or Josh Mathews will call the action). I may be one of the few people in the world who don’t think he’s a complete waste in the role. He's not the greatest colour commentator ever but he's not the worst either and he’s at least amusing.
The build-up over the last few weeks has been enjoyable and has highlighted what a nasty fella 'The Dashing One' is. I imagine Booker will spend the majority of the bout selling, probably after an offensive flurry at the bell. That will allow the two to tell the story of Booker trying to battle back and prove he still has “it”. The match has to end with Cody getting the win. Anything else would feel wrong after the storyline of the last few weeks.
Ultimately I think this could be leading to a Booker T retirement match at WrestleMania XXVIII. I'd like to see Booker lose a rematch to Cody in a few weeks, then say that he's going to enter and win the Royal Rumble to prove he can still go. He could be booked to last to the final four or five and be eliminated by whoever his WrestleMania opponent is going to be. Ziggler would be a good choice, but Miz, Swagger or even Rhodes could work in the role too. Cole would come into his own by antagonising his fellow commentator on a weekly basis. They could even do something interesting like having Booker say he wants to face the Undertaker and being told (by Cole, Teddy Long or Triple H, or even ‘The Dead Man’ himself) that’s he’s not in that league anymore. There’s a lot of potential there and if done right it could give Booker a really nice send-off form his active career.

The final confirmed match is a three-way tables, ladders and chairs match for the WWE title.
Champion CM Punk will defend against Alberto Del Rio and Miz. During its decade long existence the TLC match has seen some of the craziest stunts in wrestling history, usually thanks to men such as Jeff Hardy and Edge, who were willing to take some incredible risks in order to give fans lasting memories.

Will CM Punk ever see the return of his beloved WWE ice cream bars?

CM Punk’s previous TLC match (versus Jeff Hardy at SummerSlam 2009) featured far more wrestling than is the norm and as neither Del Rio or Miz are known as big bump men so I suspect  this match will revolve more around wrestling than weaponry. An alliance between ‘The Awesome One’ and ‘The Essence of Excellence’ has been teased and as they’re both heels it’ll likely happen for the early part of the match. It won’t last though. I predict a Punk victory with ‘The Voice of the Voiceless’ holding onto the gold until the Royal Rumble at least.

You’ll have noticed the words John Cena haven’t appeared so far. That’s because ‘The CeNation Commander-in-Chief’ has not been announced for a match. That’s not something that happens often. Considering the events of Monday’s RAW I’m expecting a singles match to take place between Cena and Kane. Why else would they have had Kane return to TV and assault John Cena right before a pay-per-view if not to start up a feud with him? If that match does happen I predict Kane will get the victory: Cena can afford to do the occasional job and only tends to do so for established characters like Kane. Younger men would benefit from the exposure of working with him and beating him more but it’s not something WWE seem keen on doing.

Mark Henry v Big Show and Kevin Nash v Triple H aside TLC looks like a solid show. With Royal Rumble next on the pay-per-view calendar there’s a good chance we’ll some pieces fall into place for WrestleMania season. That always makes a show interesting.

Predictions summary:
CM Punk to defeat Miz and Alberto Del Rio
Mark Henry to defeat Big Show
Kevin Nash to defeat Triple H
Randy Orton to defeat Wade Barrett
Cody Rhodes to defeat Booker T
Zack Ryder to defeat Dolph Ziggler
Kane to defeat John Cena