Thursday 16 March 2017

The Best of WWE RAW And SmackDown 2016 DVD Review By Tim Ricketts

This is a mammoth set for a mammoth year in the WWE, and trying to represent five hours of TV output per week, 52 weeks a year in only nine hours of DVD space is a mammoth task.  In that samespirit of brevity and summary, I will get stuck into the content.

The DVD opens with Jerry 'The King' Lawler introducing this archive of an important year for both brands, and the first match, with a cheap shot at the butterfly Divas belt of the women's old title.  Charlotte versus Becky Lynch is a solid technical match with the champion's father, Ric Flair, heavily involved with the finish.  An appropriate pick as this would be a theme for Charlotte's matches in the first part of this year.

Kalisto's improbable victory for the US title over the recently returned Alberto Del Rio is a true underdog treat, despite being brutalised from the first moment and having his high-flying devastatingly countered.  January highlights follow, including Roman Reign's shot at 'Special [biased] Ref' Vince McMahon that set up the Royal Rumble match for the WWE Championship.

It might be an unpopular opinion, but Daniel Bryan's retirement speech - included here in full - is too long for a summary DVD of an entire year. I'm not doubting Bryan's impact on WWE and wrestling in general, but it slowed the flow of the DVD significantly.  Thankfully, it is followed by Chris Jericho versus AJ Styles from SmackDown. A 'dream match' that would have been fantasy booking a few years ago, although Jericho is marginally off his prime athleticism now. It doesn't suffer for that, as the beautiful clash of similar styles leads to a knife-edge match of precision technique.

The Vincent J McMahon Legacy of Excellence award ceremony gets interrupted to the crowd's (and my) delight. Just as Stephanie McMahon is being presented by her father, brother Shane makes a stunning return after almost a decade. With notions of blackmail and backstabbing, this segment leads in to the upcoming battle for control over Monday Night RAW. Unsurprisingly, this subject also features in the February highlights.

After Chris Jericho acted as WWE's gatekeeper to the incoming AJ Styles, they ended up together as a Tag team - Y2AJ. The title-match against The New Day didn't go according to plan however, leading to Jericho's turn on AJ.  Triple H versus Dolph Ziggler started as a good match, but not as good as the ending: Roman Reigns interrupting and brawling with HHH throughout the entire arena, excellently invoking the spirit of the old Hardcore championship. A game of move-set one-upmanship between Kevin Owens and AJ Styles is followed by the March Highlights which continue the Roman/HHH feud on the road to Wrestlemania.

The King begins Disc Two with a preamble about the new faces of the 'New Era' beginning with RAW the night after Wrestlemania, which is immediately backed up with a serviceable bout between NXT alumni Apollo Crews and Tyler Breeze.  The Styles versus Zayn number one contender match puts us back on the World Class level though, an absolute throw-down. April's Highlights: a New Women's title, Zack Ryder's criminally short Intercontinental reign and AJ allying with Gallows and Anderson.

Cesaro and Zayn tag against Kevin Owens and The Miz in an astoundingly athletic tag match that is a brilliant snap-shot of the Intercontinental title scene, with the sauce of schadenfreude-inducing squabbles.  This disc also has a massive change-of-pace discourse in the middle, John Cena providing the mid-ring monologue for this one.  Back after some time out, he sets himself up as some kind of guard or gatekeeper against the 'New Era' superstars.  Cue AJ Styles' entrance for a surprising bit of returned respect, interrupted by The Club threatening him. It's just a ruse to beat up John Cena though, setting up the Summer's hottest programme of matches.  The May Highlight package focuses on the McMahon sibling rivalry and associated New Era brand positioning.

A couple of tag matches have been chosen to represent June, The New Day and Enzo & Cass versus The Club and The Vaudevillains is an epic Promo battle only matched by the excellent in ring product, while Ambrose, Zayn & Cesaro against Owens, Jericho & Del Rio is a prelude to Money in the Bank, a 6-man tag that isn't just on here for the storyline narrative.  With the Brand Extension draft looming, the highlights are densely packed: Ambrose 'the Dude' now WWE Champion, The Styles/Club versus Cena feud continues, some posturing cameos for a potential SmackDown GM and the Wyatt’s compound match against New Day.  Shane and Daniel Bryan end up in charge of SmackDown, whilst Steph and Mick Foley get Monday nights.

Draft Day itself gets an introduction from Lawler as well as its own highlights, throwing up all of the seismic changes that this kind of structural shift brings.  Subsequently, we have four decisive matches to put the top-order of each brand into some kind of perspective.

Firstly, there's the Ambrose/Rollins WWE Championship match in which Ambrose needs to retain to go to into the Battleground Main event, with RAW's Rollins plus Roman Reigns confirmed, and keep Smackdown's hopes alive of holding the historic title.  It should be noted that he does in both instances.  Then comes Charlotte versus Sasha Banks for the (RAW) Women's Championship where Banks finally gets the gold, ending Flair's interminable run.

Balor makes a huge impact on RAW after the former NXT champion drafted highly, and gives himself a huge birthday treat by beating the big-dog Roman Reigns. This sets up the Summerslam finale crowning a new 'Universal' heavyweight champion, against #1 draft pick Seth Rollins, to headline the red brand.  Over on the blue side, AJ Styles wins an action-packed 6-Pack Challenge against Cena, Ziggler, Crews, Corbin and Bray Wyatt for contendership to the traditional title.  Stylistically, these go to demonstrate the initial general differences between the brands; RAW with the traditional in-ring storytelling psychology but Smackdown high-paced and heavy on spectacular spots.  July's highlights mostly cover what we've just seen.

The King's back again at the start of Disc Three, seemingly to put in a good word for NXT's American Alpha (Chad Gable & Jason Jordan) before the segment segues into a Charlotte Flair in-ring promo. She regained the title at the previous night's PPV so wants the night off, but Foley has other ideas. After mentioning Finn Balor's relinquishment of the Universal Title due to injury, he introduces Bayley for her RAW d├ębut. Charlotte refuses her challenge, so she gives Dana Brooke a solid striking fight, and defeat, instead.

Lawler's mention of American Alpha makes sense as they take on Breezango (Tyler Breeze & Fandango) in a 1st round tournament match. It demonstrates the potency and agility of the patriotic Alpha as they progress.  Next up is the Roman Reigns vs Kevin Owens vs Seth Rollins vs Big Cass (w/Enzo) fatal four way for the Universal Title after Balor's injury.  A gruelling visceral match is concluded with a screw-job and swerve of legendary proportions. Triple H turns on his former chosen one, Seth Rollins, to surprisingly set up Owens for the win.

Another fatal four-way follows. This time a fast-paced submission victory for Kendrick as he makes Alexander tap to become number-one contender, in RAW's first cruiserweight division match, also including Rich Swann and Gran Metalik.  A Miz TV segment begins with a retrospective of the Intercontinental champion's career, but after The Miz starts running down Dolph Ziggler he comes out to put his WWE career on the line for one last shot at the title.  Subtle as a sledge-hammer in my opinion, but it goes over well with the crowd. The month's highlights follow.

Goldberg, the former WCW star, makes his return to WWE on Monday Night RAW after a 12-year absence.  Tying in with the 2K17 video game release, he challenges Brock Lesnar (his last opponent) to one more fight.  I wasn't a big fan of the former World Heavyweight champion the first time around, and less so a good stride into middle age, especially when there's so much fresh talent coming through from NXT.

James Ellsworth, the sympathetically engaging recipient of a Braun Strowman squash on RAW, has become embroiled in the feud between Ambrose and Styles for the SmackDown World Championship in the next match.  Some quality comedy antics and classic JBL commentary are mixed with deceptively crisp in-ring action, making it a bit of an unexpected hit for me.  It's followed by yet more monthly highlights.

Two Women's matches finish this set off incredibly nicely. Becky Lynch defends the newly-minted SmackDown Women's title against the diminutive but highly aggressive Alexa Bliss, and Sasha Banks nearly breaks Charlotte in half to regain the RAW championship during their Falls-count-anywhere match.  Both of these only go to highlight the strides that female WWE competitors have taken in the past few years. A final load of November highlights round out the DVD set.

And Finally...

These 'Best of RAW and Smackdown' DVD sets have a superbly unique point to them: ease of access to the most significant TV matches of the year.  Even on the Network, it can be a major pain in the posterior to track down one match in an odd episode for reference.  If you combine it with the recent Best of PPV Matches collection too, then you get a sum greater than its parts, a chronicle of the WWE year.
What a year it has been too! The Second Brand Extension, the rise of the New Era, NXT and Women's wrestling, just to name a few. It has been a year to challenge preconceptions and the Status Quo, a year to remember.

Direct link to BUY the DVD HERE

Friday 10 March 2017

WWE Roadblock: End of the Line DVD Review By Tim Ricketts

Welcome to another DVD-packaged PPV review on Wrestling's Last Hope, this time December 2016's Roadblock: End of the Line, a RAW exclusive event.  The main story-lines from the Monday night brand coming into this event involve a mess of nepotism behind Universal champion Kevin Owens' reign, a see-saw battle for the RAW Women's title between Charlotte's PPV dominance and Sasha Banks' TV glory, and The New Day's record tag-title run.

The DVD 'Special Feature' is the pre-show match, so I shall tackle that first, as it makes chronological sense.

 Big Cass (w/Enzo Amore) vs Rusev (w/Lana) - Special Feature

An unfortunate recent clothing and communication mix-up between Enzo Amore and Lana in a hotel has led to this match, where Big Cass and Rusev are essentially fighting as seconds for their partners' honour.  A typically long entrance promo speech from Enzo and Cass, with plenty of audience participation, preceded the lock-up.  The fight quickly spilled over the barrier and into the crowd with Big Cass in the ascendancy, but as the Referee's count approached double-digits Lana shoved Enzo.  Cass showed his inexperience by checking on his team-mate, allowing the Bulgarian brute to roll in the ring with a second to go and claim the count-out victory.  Good ruse to claim a spurious victory, however the pre-match promo was longer than the fight.  It was a good promo though.

RAW Tag Team Champions The New Day (Kofi Kingston & Big E w/Xavier Woods) vs Sheamus & Cesaro

After recently surpassing the record for longest tag team title reign, which now stands at 483 days, The New Day come to the ring crowing and dismissive of their squabbling odd-couple opponents. "Pride comes before a fall," as the saying goes, and New Day's complacency is evident by their reliance on the usual numbers-game tactics.  The extra man is neutralised by the ingenious tactics of the European team though, as Sheamus patrols the ringside area in an enforcer role while Cesaro makes long imperious stands in the ring, more often than not against Kofi Kingston.

The New Day are successful in distracting the ref from a Kofi tap-out, but that is just a portent of the result. In one last blast of tactical genius, the Swiss Superman feigned a tag and allowed himself to be taken down by the resurgent Kingston.  A beautiful move that leaves the surprised Kofi susceptible to Sheamus' roll-up.  This match had everything, action, pace, tactics, psychology... except a particularly surprising result. How they got there was slick though.

10 Minute Survival Match - Sami Zayn vs Braun Strowman

Whilst I accept the might and prowess of Strowman, I don't entirely understand how Sami Zayn has gone from a hair's-breadth rivalry with the now Universal Champion Kevin Owens to being a squash-match whipping-boy in the space of six months.  Rather than engendering my sympathy, it made me feel rather more pitiful.  Whether this conveys a genuine sense of "David and Goliath" or not, Zayn must fulfil the stipulation and survive ten minutes to win.

The first six and a half minutes is pretty much filled with Braun beating down and grandstanding above the hapless Zayn, turning down multiple pin opportunities before GM Mick Foley intercedes carrying a towel - the corner-man’s traditional method of signifying submission.  Sami rejects this token of weakness and dodges Strowman's charge, sending the giant into the corner-post.  With only a couple of minutes left, we get what this match should have been from the get-go: Sami using his speed, skill and experience as an effective foil to Strowman's size and strength.  Unsurprisingly, Zayn sees out the 10 minutes to claim 'victory'.

Seth Rollins vs Chris Jericho

The usual highlight reel conveys the basis of this grudge: Rollins jilted as the 'favoured face' of WWE by Triple H in favour of Jericho's friend Owens Universal Champion, Jericho's interference in their follow-up bouts, and Seth's subsequent parking lot ambush.  Some good, old-school, alliance-based feuding.

The match opens with some good mat work and striking from Rollins, but as soon as Jericho gains a foothold he begins to take control. When Rollins starts to look bright again, Jericho drops down to ringside to slow him back down. Rollins uses one of his favourite barricade attacks, so Jericho rolls back in and utilises a traditionally nefarious thumb in the eye.  Quite literally, he uses his current low morals and canny knowledge to stop any Rollins' momentum in classic Y2J style.

Seth recovers only to be kicked off the ring apron, but beats the Ref's count out.  Chris continues grinding work on the mat and ropes, Rollins only making his comeback when he painfully foils Jericho's Bulldog, and starts building toward a finish.  That's when the inevitable Kevin Owens appearance and interference occurs, despite 'BFF' Jericho's previous pleading, but spectacularly backfires. The disoriented Jericho succumbs to a pedigree and a pin-fall.  I suspect that this breach of trust will have an effect on the Main Event.

Cruiserweight TJP vs The Brian Kendrick vs Rich Swann (c)

A triple threat is the classic match format for the high-kicking and high-flying cruiser-weights, their fast pace and spectacular counter moves always underlines the 'threat'.  This is a superb example of that, the opening minutes flowing excellently between the current and two former title holders demonstrating their pedigree.  The exhausting pace quickly takes it's toll, as first Kendrick, then Perkins, attempt to force a submission from the champ.

Swann battles back and takes advantage of his momentary alliance with TJP, dual-kicking a recovering Brian Kendrick to the floor, to quickly roll the CWC winner into a successful pin.  This is a solid, action-packed match that establishes Swann's dominance of the division and over his predecessors.  The '205-live' colour-commentators provide a quality soundtrack, their lively banter contrasting with the often stayed and steady flow of their Raw counterparts on the other matches.

Neville, Swann's tag-partner of yore, makes a surprise appearance, kicking and beating the living hell out of TJP and Rich, who's face is a picture of pain and betrayal.  A shocking about-face from the former fan-favourite.  With that mention of betrayal, there's a little back-stage segment involving Kevin Owens ranting at Chris Jericho's locker-room door.  It seems like it's a case of 'Sorry, not sorry' from the Universal champion, about the involvement in his friend's match.

30-min Iron-man match - Raw Women's Champion Sasha Banks vs Charlotte Flair

These two have feuded, and traded the title, consistently over the previous few months, with Flair's unbeaten streak at Pay-per-Views always seeing the championship return to her hands.  These often brutal matches have established the women at the top of the card, and following October's record-making Hell-in-a-Cell fight, this Iron-man match looks to continue the rivalry.

The first ten minutes are an absolute grapple-fest, trading and chaining holds, strikes, locks and pin attempts, before the match descends into ringside brutality.  Sasha can't regain a foothold after she gets bounced, headfirst, off the ring-steps, eventually leading to the first pin-fall.  Charlotte nails the 'Natural Selection' from the top turn-buckle to break the deadlock with a third of the match left, and immediately presses her advantage.  Banks is dynamite though, with an acrobatic detonation she takes a feint at a rana and comes down in control of Flair's arm, rolling her up to level at eight minutes remaining. Two minutes later, she's in the lead, Charlotte tapping to the Bank Statement.

Flair fixates on Banks' knee, softening it up effectively for a Figure-four leg-lock, pummelling it and laying in her wrenching submission. With seconds to go, Sasha taps, levelling the score.  Ref Chad Patton sanctions sudden-death overtime, playing into the hands of the fresher Flair, but it's The Boss who makes a couple of quick pin attempts.  That's as far as her rally gets, as she taps, blood streaming from a facial wound, to the bridged Figure-Eight.  Flair's PPV run continues, as does the resurgence of female wrestling in the WWE. Bravo to these athletes on such a gruelling rivalry.

WWE US Champion Roman Reigns vs Universal Champion Kevin Owens

Following his earlier appearance and backstage rant, Owens looks to be dealing with this fight without his former 'Best Friend Forever'.  He launches into it, and it spills quickly to ringside.  Owens seems determined to Frog-Splash the imposing Reigns wherever possible, off the barricade, through an announce table or even in the ring. 

As he starts to lose dominance, Kevin becomes increasingly desperate; he grabs the title belt, only to be speared by Roman.  It's at this point Jericho runs-in and puts the Code-breaker to his ex-BFF in an apparent attack of spite, handing him the DQ victory.  Seconds later the ruse is revealed, Y2J handing Owens the belt.  A good twist to keep the narrative going, but one that was far too easy to telegraph.

The action doesn't finish there though, as Seth Rollins follows his earlier opponent out and forms a mini-reunion with former SHIELD team-mate Roman Reigns to dish-out double-power-bombs to Jeri-KO through the remaining announce-tables.  This adds a little more intrigue to the mix, and satisfaction for the ending.

And Finally...

This is a very worthy PPV offering from WWE, with the landmark Tag Title and Women's matches living up to their historic significance and the main-event narrative thread providing plenty of amusement, however predictable.  The Cruiserweight effort is good support too, though the Zayn-Strowman and Pre-show matches left me distinctly uninspired.

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