Craig Wilson, Brian Damage, John Carbery, Jamie Lithgow & Earl Marx
As we approach the end of 2016, it is only right that in the penultimate Sunday Sermon of the year we cast our eyes on the last twelve months and discuss our highlights and our low-lights. Next week’s we’ll look ahead to 2017 but today’s Sunday Sermon is all about 2016.
Craig: As ever, a mixed wrestling bag, right? Personally speaking, one of my highlights was undoubtedly the WWE coming to Scotland for Raw and Smackdown meaning I got to see both shows live for the first time. Two nights that were really great, for me, for a number of reasons.
NXT has continued to be the best show, in terms of consistency, the WWE produces. But for me, in terms of ‘Most Improved’, it’s very difficult to look beyond Smackdown Live.
Whilst Raw continues to have well-documented issues – the length of the show staying right at the top of most people’s lists – Smackdown has been a breath of fresh air. The pairing of Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan has helped but the different sound, as created by the new commentary team, has helped as has less reliance on promos kicking off the show.
But it has been the emergence of a host of new stars that has really set the show apart. Am looking right at you here, Heath Slater. A man that hadn’t even previously been in the ‘there or there about’s’ category quickly shot to prominence during the brand split and was more than deserving of his tag team title reign. Add in that the Smackdown PPVs have been the strongest, then the blue team have a lot to rejoice about.
Low-lights? It was disappointing to see Finn Balor’s injury rob us of such a good news tale. But I’m sure he’ll bounce back and be a big deal in 2017 – more of that, though, next weekend.
So, comrades, what are your highlights and low-lights of 2016?
Brian: It has been a yo-yo type of year in pro wrestling no doubt. NXT to me was great but inconsistent at the same time. They lost momentum with all of the call-ups to the main roster but the emergence Shinsuke Nakamura certainly helped them a great deal. Smackdown Live is a solid show and has vastly improved now that it is a live broadcast. Raw is just simply too long to hold my complete attention for 3 hours every week.
I know a lot of people have crapped on TNA wrestling and deservedly so. But the Impact show has improved a bit with all the “Broken” Matt Hardy stuff and the influx of new talents. The show has become much more watchable and at times even enjoyable. I will continue to root for TNA’s continued progression as a viable #2 promotion here in the states.
New Japan wrestling on AXS tv has been such a delight. Seeing wrestlers that I would not normally see like Okada, Tanahashi, Kushida, the Bullet Club etc is a treat. It also is a bonus to hear good Ol’ Jim Ross call all the action.
John: For me personally, 2016 was a pretty great wrestling year. In June I was lucky enough to go to an NXT house show in Dublin. Looking back it was something of a transitory event. American Alpha who were on their way up to SD faced off a yet to debut Alexander Wolfe and Sawyer Fulton. Shinsuke Nakamura (who rivalled Balor in the popularity stakes) had a great match with a yet to debut and pre-glorious Bobby Roode. In the main event, Finn Balor lost a blinder to Samoa Joe. It was kind of fitting for me. The last time I’d seen Balor wrestle he was under his previous moniker, Prince Devitt as he embarked on a low-key farewell tour of small town Ireland. This time he was clearly finishing up his NXT tour of duty before heading to RAW. I’ve a feeling at this rate I’ll see him retire here too.
Another thing that happened at home was the emergence of Over the Top Wrestling. Even though we’ve produced three WWE champions, Ireland has never really had a strong independent wrestling scene. This year though Dublin’s OTT put Ireland on the wrestling map. As a fan, I’d been burned by many promotions in the past who’d start strong with a show full of imports and then fizzle out a few weeks later without any great follow up so I was actually quite reticent to give OTT a go. I was relieved, then, when I attended my first show in October to find a vibrant, professional and forward looking company running shows all over my homeland. The best part of attending OTT shows has been my introduction to the Birmingham’s Bruiserweight Pete Dunne who’s quickly becoming one of the best wrestlers in the world and the man I’ll be backing in the WWE UK championship tourney. Dunne has had incredible main event matches with Chris Hero, Jordan Devlin, Marty Scurll and Fabian Aichner. I’m very excited to follow his career in 2017.
There were plenty of other high points. Watching AJ Styles take his rightful place at the top of WWE and seeing Shinsuke Nakamura debut and form an instant connection with a worldwide audience was really special. Seeing a focus put back on tag team wrestling in WWE was very welcome even if they didn’t get everything right overall. Watching the Cruiserweight Classic every week was a real treat too while it lasted. I was blown away by the match between Kota Ibushi and Cedric Alexander and was brought to tears by the performance of Brian Kendrick. To a lesser extent Daniel Bryan also, it was really moving seeing what pro wrestling meant to both of these veterans.
The low points, unfortunately, start with the Cruiserweight division. WWE has made every wrong decision they could with the Cruiserweights. From putting them on RAW instead of Smackdown to giving them awful booking and putting their matches in the death spot of both TV tapings. The Cruiserweight experiment on the main roster has been a failure so far and it breaks my heart to say it because I have lot of love for all involved. Same goes with the women’s division. While the women of the main rosters have certainly made strides, the likes of Charlotte, Banks, Bayley and Lynch haven’t come anywhere close to replicating the kind of greatness they produced with NXT. I hope that the new year brings them better fortune. It’s also really disheartening to see Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson flounder in WWE, they were a really special act in Japan that I had high hopes for.
Craig: It’s difficult to disagree with John’s low-lights, to be fair. I think the booking of both the cruiserweight and women’s division has been pretty terrible. The WWE cannot simply throw together multi-person matches for the cruiserweights and hope that’s enough – it’s not been. I’d like to see that end and be replaced with more focus on getting the actual characters over and for the women’s title to stop changing so much. But that’s more a topic for next week’s Sermon.
On to home-grown stuff, this year saw Insane Championship Wrestling play the Hydro – the venue that had, week’s earlier, played host to Raw and Smackdown Live. The addition of the likes of Kurt Angle, the Dudleys certainly helped but there’s little doubt that ICW is right at the top of the best promotions the British wrestling scene has on offer. I’m glad that several of their mainstays will be taking part in the UK WWE shows in early 2017.
Another guy deserving of our attention is Chris Jericho. I’m minded to suggest that if you disagree then you’re a stupid idiot… But his latest reinvention has been hugely entertaining and has pushed him into the main event picture, or thereabouts, as a result. His ‘list’ is hugely entertaining as is his best friendship with Kevin Owens. Jericho, even has his years in the business advance, remains a hugely over superstar.
Jamie: Like John and Craig, the Cruiserweight Division is most certainly a lowlight for me, although I also hold the actual Cruiserweight Classic Tournament as one my highlights of the year.
NXT is a constant highlight for me, and the only WWE produced show I routinely watch every week. Taking into account the mass exodus of talent to the main roster earlier in the year, my highlight from NXT in 2016 has been the feud between The Rival and DIY (Ciampa and Gargano). It was such a simplistic story of two hard working guys trying to overcome the all-conquering champions and finally accomplishing it a few weeks ago at Takeover Toronto.
Another highlight for me has been Corey Graves. He’s an absolute natural on commentary and well deserving of his seat on Raw. His talent and chemistry with Tom Phillips on NXT has only been exemplified in recent weeks with the addition of Percy Watson, who has been terrible. The only bright side Watson has brought is an even greater appreciation for Graves, and to a lesser extent Phillips.
A big low-light for me continues to be the brand split. It was not a conscious decision, but thinking back it was around this time when I stopped watching WWE on a weekly basis. I thought it would make following WWE easier, but for me personally it has been a big turn off. Instead of one stream of stories across two shows we now have two streams. In order to stay up to date I’d have to follow both Raw and Smackdown (5 hours), instead of just Raw (3 hours) and having any significant events from Smackdown recapped. The solution is obviously to pick a brand and follow that, which I have done to a degree. When I do sit down to watch WWE it’s usually Smackdown. The problem is, Smackdown is clearly not a distinct brand and I doubt Raw is too. Granted many fans will watch both shows, but this is an assumption WWE clearly make. It’s a big turn off for me. When I watch Smackdown that’s all I want. I don’t want to hear about what’s happening on Raw or the lame rivalry between the two brands.
Craig: I agree, the pretence that there is a team red and a team blue amongst the fan base was rightly ridiculed in the lead-up to this year’s Survivor Series. Personally, I tend to mostly watch Smackdown but that’s because it’s easier to take in. When you creep into 3 hours it’s much more of a commitment than a two-hour show.
Completely agree with you, Jamie, regarding Corey Graves and also find myself nodding along as I read your bit about Percy Watson. Austin Aries is deserving of some credit for his commentary on 205 Live when I’ve bothered to watch it, as it’s one of the few highlights of that show. I just can’t fathom why a cruiserweight show has so many guys that compete with a ‘mat based style’. More high flyers would at least make the show look and feel different rather than smaller guys wrestling matches like the ones you see on Raw, Smackdown and NXT. But hey ho.
Brian: Another low light that I think needs broaching is the fall of WWE anti-diva Paige. This was a woman who doesn’t nearly get the credit she deserves for helping spearhead the eventual “Women’s Revolution” with her feud against AJ Lee. Since that time, Paige has suffered some injuries, failed a drug test and has seemingly gone off the deep end following her now fiancee Alberto Del Rio all around the world.
Her own mother even joined in by tweeting to Vince Russo that she has all this “dirt” on the WWE. Not exactly a way to ingratiate yourself with the company. At this point, I don’t see how Paige can ever fully recover her WWE career from all of this or if she even cares.
John: Not to be complaining the whole time, but I have to say Brock Lesnar was a bit of a let down in 2016. His Wrestlemania, SummerSlam and Survivor Series matches were all disappointments for me and he didn’t deliver a single classic match unlike the previous two years where he was on top form quality wise.
Cena on the other hand continues to go from strength to strength which is a shame as he’s on the way out. While their first encounter was a bit of a disaster all his subsequent matches vs AJ Styles were great and Cena has really grown a lot as a performer in the last three years. A cynic could say it took him long enough.
On another positive note, I have to give a thumbs up again to the WWE Network. It never feels like a waste of money and it helps that WWE are constantly adding new content. It was a real treat to see some of the matches featuring Bruno Sammartino and Pedro Morales that they’d unearthed this year along with the long thought lost “Last Battle of Atlanta” cage match between Tommy Rich and Buzz Sawyer. While their original content is hit and miss, the hits are usually great stuff like Rivalries and The Cruiserweight Classic.
Craig: I’m jumping back up in an entirely consensual way – Brian is right about his thoughts on Paige and John is bang on about the value of the WWE Network. It has been a tragic fall from grace for Paige. I thought she had the world at her feet when she first won the then divas title and right now should be slap bang in the midst of feuds with some of the female talent the WWE has to offer now. Instead, she is making appearances with Alberto Del Rio and continuing to do herself no favours with her behaviour.
As for the WWE Network, I’m minded to suggest, and keep it quiet, that we are being under-charged by only paying $9.99 a month. The craziest thing is undoubtedly the fact that we have barely scrapped the surface in terms of the amount of content there is available, there is so, so much still to come in terms of the company’s tape library.
Brian: I agree 100% on the network stuff. It is well worth the $9.99 we pay to view it. I mean the pay per views alone make it worth the price, not to mention NXT, documentaries and everything else they have to offer.
Another bright spot for me pertaining to the WWE is the pushing of new talent and giving that talent an opportunity to succeed or fail. I respect the hard work that John Cena did for the company for all these years, but having him shift to a part-time wrestler is a good thing for new talent to shine.
Earl: Oh, I’ve been aching to get in and now is the time! Ha. I’ve been reading such good points and now verbal emesis must occur. 🙂
Highlights: I had the pleasure of attending WM32 this year. Hands down, as a lifelong fan, this was literally a dream come true. I realize the show was fairly long, but, while I was sitting in the crowd, it didn’t seem that long. I was truly caught in the magic!
I agree that the CWC was also a highlight of my year. What I cherished so much about it was the difference in pace from main roster happenings. Raw and SD are heavily story driven…almost to the point of ad nauseam. The CWC stripped that away for a moment in time. There was the right amount of action with one purpose that made sense – everyone was there to be crowned best in the world. They weren’t looking for hotel hookups, placement on products, and other things that can be deterrents to watching. I think there were at least 2-3 MOTY contenders there.
Another highlight for me was the “reemergence” of what I consider “true” heels. I am speaking of guys and gals drawing heat and NOT caring about being cool or having any cool factor about it. To this, I commend the work of Jericho, Charlotte, The Miz, and AJ Styles. They have really done well this year. Charlotte has cemented herself to me as not only the top women’s heel, but easily one of the most hated members of the entire roster. The Miz has probably had the best year of his career. The stars have aligned for him and I think it’s an old, but true formula – he doesn’t want you to like him and refuses to do things that you will like. Jericho knows what he’s doing…just when you think he’ll say “stupid idiot”, he’ll switch it up just to keep it fresh and irritate you. Great work in today’s landscape.
I also absolutely agree with the Network value. On one hand, I have a friend who says we’re getting too much and he was not interested in the CWC, not interested in the UK tourney, etc. He feels the WWE is just throwing things out and seeing what works. While I can see his view, he knows I VEHEMENTLY disagree! Ha! The value just keeps rising to me and I look forward to all of these new happenings. Do I watch all of this stuff when it comes out? No!!! Does one watch all of Netflix’s content? No! You watch it over time! This is the Network. In due time, I’ll go back and pick up on what I want. I am thoroughly looking forward to the UK tourney (although I am not familiar with any of the talent) and I am also interested in the rumored women’s tourney. It gives alternatives to what we see weekly.
Turn down the lights here. Here we go
Apollo Crews and Baron Corbin – I know some may argue bad booking here, but I have yet to see anything in these two. Even when I try. I am just not getting the connection and their callups were random and too early for me.
The Universal Title – Needless to say, I agree with Jim Ross “the belt has turned heel before our very eyes”. lol.
The Raw Brand – As stated by others, this show is too long. I do not watch it live, but I do watch it weekly with the help of DVR. Between commercials and just baffling segments, it almost amazes me that they still don’t seem to have unlocked the key to making it work. This is truly why SD feels “fresher” to me. Now I admit – it must be hard on the writers to come up with content that can fill the time, but what can you do when the time itself is the problem? Anybody ever watch a whole Raw and feel like nothing happened at the end of it? I have.Or even that you watched and didn’t really feel any POSITIVE story progression?
Finally, the cruiserweight handling. I actually see why they went to Raw. They did it to fill the time. I’ll give them that as being an ok thing to think. The problem I see is that they are being treated as filler. We want to fill time, but make it meaningful. The random cruiser matches are not meaningful. I do look for this to change with 205 taking off. We need to see a little personality in these characters to make them standout, but don’t overdo it because their magic is not in their personalities necessarily – their magic is in the in ring action. When they get the right mix, the cruisers will make more sense. Perhaps these are growing pains. I tend to try to keep a positive outlook. Ha.
Craig: And with that, we end our year in review. We hope you all have a happy Christmas. Leave your highs and lows in the comments below and next week we’ll list our hopes for 2017.
You can read all previous Sunday Sermons here.