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WWE's latest ham-fisted attempt at reigniting the importance of Survivor Series were presented on Monday when Shane McMahon led a SmackDown "invasion" of RAW. The rivalry between the two brands is always presented as being a real thing between the Commissioners and the General Managers; and occasionally the talent, but Survivor Series is the only time of the year WWE really commits hard to the idea that SmackDown and RAW actually hate each other the way real sports teams, (Red Sox/Yankees, Alabama/Auburn, Barcelona/Real Madrid, etc.) have rivalries.
As far as the segment on RAW went; I thought it was executed pretty well. The SmackDown group roaming around backstage and laying waste to everyone was cool and the mannerisms of guys like The New Day and Rusev, helped sell the idea of a blue brand solidarity. It was unexpected and while traditionally the SmackDown guys should be heels; in modern wrestling they are actually likely to be the babyfaces because they went out and did something exciting.
However, there are two issues I see with the build for Survivor Series. The first is that I'm not really sure there is a large separation between SmackDown fans and RAW fans. I assume there are some fans who watch SmackDown and do not watch RAW, and we know from the ratings that there are RAW fans who don't watch SmackDown, but I'm not sure there is an overall sense of brand identity when it comes to the fans. This isn't the late 90s where there were WCW fans, WWF fans and ECW fans. Since the two brands are part of the same company, frequently trade talent, and often appear on the same shows together, there isn't a broad divide between the two brands. The wrestling may end up being very good on the show; but I don't expect the fans to really be invested in the outcome of the matches because honestly, what do they get out of a SmackDown overall victory and a RAW defeat, or vice versa?
The other issue is that at least so far, there does not seem to be any stakes or motivation for the matches; other than the false idea of brand superiority. The only explanation Shane McMahon gave when he was questioned about why he led the invasion of RAW was that he was annoyed that Kurt Angle had guaranteed victory for Team RAW. That is pretty lame, and since Angle didn't say that until a few hours before Shane and the SmackDown crew arrived, it doesn't seem realistic. If Shane had instead said that he was sick of RAW getting the first class treatment; getting three hours every week, the first pick of talent from NXT, all the key sponsorships, etc. and that SmackDown was going to take what RAW had, then there would be more motivation for the SmackDown team to rally around the cause and attack RAW. It almost seems like WWE doesn't really care that much about why SmackDown would be attacking RAW and why a rivalry would be important to the fans; they just assume at Survivor Series they have to do this kind of gimmick and people will buy into it.
The current main event for the show looks like it is going to be Jinder Mahal vs Brock Lesnar in a non-title, champion vs champion match. As always, the issue here is which champion is going to go over and which one is going to job. Lesnar has been the protected star for years and most fans assume he will destroy Mahal in a similar way to how he destroyed Braun Strowman last month. It is hard to see a scenario where Mahal goes over; unless it is to simply shock the fans. Of course it would only shock the fans because nobody would think WWE would be so stupid to have Mahal go over Lesnar, but they've ignored that logic before. I think they could do a screwjob finish where nobody loses; maybe AJ Styles or someone from RAW gets involved and ruins the match. That would be a cheap end to a hyped match, but most fans already basically reject the idea of the match anyway since it is ridiculous that Mahal is presented at the same level as Lesnar.
The rest of the matches on the card should be pretty good. Over the last few years the multi-man elimination tag matches have generally been pretty strong, as long as they are given adequate time. I do like they are doing more personal one-on-one matches as well as the team matches. The Usos vs Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins should be really good; although The Miz vs Baron Corbin doesn't necessarily get the heart racing. I think Survivor Series will be a fine show with some good wrestling; but I find it hard for fans to really feel like it is going to be extremely important unless there are some real stakes on the line. What if they did a scenario where if SmackDown wins, they move to Monday nights and they get three hours a week? Obviously RAW would end up winning at the end of the night, but wouldn't that at least get people talking?
At TLC, WWE was given a pretty rough hand. Two of their top matches had to be altered due to a viral illness, which would put any wrestling company in the hole right before a big show. To their credit, the alterations WWE made turned out to be wise moves and arguably made the show more interesting than if Bray Wyatt and Roman Reigns had appeared on the show in the first place. It wasn't a blow-away show, but WWE deserves a lot of credit for thinking on their feet.
Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins and Kurt Angle vs The Miz, Kane, Sheamus, Cesaro and Braun Strowman: ***½
A lengthy match that never really dragged, Rollins and Ambrose worked their ass off in the absence of Reigns and the match never really exposed any of Angle's weaknesses. I figured that the heels would win, even before Reigns was scratched from the match, and with Angle filling in I assumed that the babyfaces had an easy out if they lost, since The Shield wasn't really in the match. However, with the heels turning on Strowman, the babyfaces were able to win without completely exposing the heels as incompetent, only that they lacked the ability to collectively work together.
Given the short window of notice, I thought Angle was great in this match. He got in all of his trademark spots and the crowd popped huge. When he returned to the ring after getting helped out by medical personnel (great selling by Angle by the way) and gave Sheamus and Cesaro a pair of Olympic slams on the ramp, the crowd went crazy and he really did feel like the Angle of old. I also think that they didn't really spoil the idea of a big Angle return match; since it came at the last minute and was a multi-man match that had a lot of other stuff happening at the same time; a big singles match at WrestleMania would still be just as a appealing now as it was before TLC.
My only complaint was the disposal of Strowman. I don't hate the idea of the heels turning on Strowman, but the fact that they compacted him in the back of a garbage truck came across as so hokey. As wrestling fans, at this point I think we are beyond suspending our disbelief when something happens to someone that would legit kill them. If they just threw him in the back and the truck drove away it would be fine, but to simulate a murder and then have Michael Cole say the next night "Braun Strowman got compacted so he is going to be out for a couple weeks" just destroys any credibility the feud between him and Kane is going to have.
Finn Balor vs AJ Styles: ****¼
I don't think it can really be properly summarized how big of a difference getting a clean win after a great match with AJ Styles, compared to having to sell for Bray Wyatt's Sister Abigail character, truly is. Balor went from having to sell the idea that he was terrified of a character the crowd would likely be laughing at, to getting a clean win over someone the fans respect as a top talent. It was a huge break for Balor, and it felt like he was beginning to get a big push that would have him in the title picture.
Of course, WWE then ruined that the next night by having Balor squashed by Kane to help build Kane towards Braun Strowman. If the goal is to one day have Balor be a top guy in the company, then it is going to be really difficult for him to build momentum when he is beating a top guy one night and then looking no better than Curt Hawkins the following night. The idea I suppose is they need to get Kane over, and that when they need to push Balor again nobody will remember he was squashed by Kane. That is part of the problem with WWE though; wins and losses are not valued at all so that the result of the match is forgotten soon after it happened, which limits the amount of investment WWE is going to get from fans during each and every match.
Mickie James vs Alexa Bliss: **½
I thought Mickie James was really good in this match as the babyface; and considering her strong promos headed into this match, I think she is capable of more in the division than she is currently doing. Bliss reminds me a bit of The Miz in that her character is popular and her mannerisms are strong, but her in-ring work is just kind of there. I'd say she is slightly below-average by WWE's standards when it comes to their women; but as long as her character stays over they can work around that.
Kalisto vs Enzo Amore: **
Not much to this match as Enzo won quickly after a short bout. Kalisto clearly was only made champion so they could stick it to Neville and to have RAW close with a title change. The division continues to revolve around Enzo for better or for worse.
Asuka vs Emma: **¼
A lot of people had a negative reaction to this match because Emma got in some offense and Asuka didn't quickly squash her. Since Asuka originally got over in NXT by going on a Goldberg-esque run of dominance, it would be logical she would have a quick win in her main roster debut. Instead they had a basic match you would see on RAW. I think allowing Emma to at least look competitive isn't that big of a mistake; the division needs depth and if you can avoid making Emma look like a complete loser, then you may decide to go that route. As long as Asuka avoids clean losses and continues to be pushed, she is going to be fine.
Jack Gallagher and Brian Kendrick vs Cedric Alexander and Rich Swann: ***
On paper this match didn't mean a whole lot, but all of the guys worked hard and ended up being a nice little match on the PPV. Alexander and Swann are great working babyfaces and can do some really exciting stuff in the ring; and Gallagher and Kendrick have a contrasting style that works well with the high-flyers. Crowd got into a bit more than they normally do for a random cruiserweight match, which was a positive sign.
Jason Jordan vs Elias: **
This is starting to look like a feud between two guys that creative doesn't have a lot for, so they keep having unexciting matches over and over again. There is potential here; Jordan goes on his suplex rampage and can get the crowd going and Elias has refined his guitar act, but it hasn't translated into any interesting matchups.