We have, at last, reached the final major event of 2020 in the world of WWE:
TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs.
Through the fall, WWE programming settled into a familiar pattern: inconsistency on a week-to-week basis on Raw and SmackDown, and then when it came to pay-per-view shows, the bar was elevated considerably.
The lead-up to TLC has followed that same pattern. Drew McIntyre’s complicated friendship with Sheamus has offered a fresh look at the face/heel dynamic, and the champion dealing with threats from so many different directions — including his challenger on Sunday, AJ Styles, Mr. Money in the Bank The Miz and John Morrison — has added another layer of intrigue. There’s no doubt that a first-ever match between McIntyre and Styles under TLC rules will be a highlight.
— WWE (@WWE) December 17, 2020
Roman Reigns and Kevin Owens have built up tremendous tension and interest in a matter of weeks, and their TLC match also seems likely to be a hit. Sasha Banks and Carmella offered a preview of what their clash on Sunday will look like on SmackDown, making it clear that Carmella won’t just be a walkover in Banks’ first post-Bayley rivalry.
Each of those stories have had their own ups and down, and we’ll get there, but the remainder of the TLC card is a clear example of the ways WWE is struggling. The story surrounding the women’s tag team titles once again has interlocked itself with one of the women’s titles — in this case Asuka and the Raw women’s championship — and a satisfying endgame feels unlikely. The Hurt Business and New Day are still locked up in a battle for the Raw tag team championships, and despite the overall quality of their matches, the story is starting to feel as dragged out and repetitive as every other tag team rivalry of note in recent memory.
In rounding out the card, the WWE has decided to dig back into a rivalry — Randy Orton vs. Bray Wyatt — that led to one of the most universally panned WrestleMania matches in history, with a similarly heavy-handed and clunky vision this time around.
While Friday’s edition of SmackDown will likely add a few finishing touches to the show, it’s unlikely to change in a significant way. With just over a month to go before the Royal Rumble and full steam ahead toward the WrestleMania season, let’s dig into three of the biggest issues heading into TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs.
Kevin Owens’ long journey back to the Universal title
Since Owens unceremoniously lost the Universal championship to Goldberg at Fastlane in March 2017, he has had a grand total of three world title matches in the past 3½ years. Twice on the anniversary of that title change, which ultimately added almost nothing to the subsequent Goldberg-Brock Lesnar match at WrestleMania 33, Owens challenged for the WWE championship — in a six-way match at Fastlane 2018 and in a triple threat featuring Daniel Bryan and Mustafa Ali at Fastlane 2019.
Owens’ lone one-on-one title opportunity came against Kofi Kingston at Money in the Bank 2019. Owens has been the ultimate utility player for WWE, often finding his way into No. 1 contender’s matches before falling short, winning the United States championship, and generally putting on good matches against everyone on the roster.
But Sunday’s match against Roman Reigns is different. After all this time, it’s the first Universal title match for Owens since he lost that belt in 22 seconds. He has kept himself relevant through good and bad stories, and big loss after big loss. As he steps into this TLC match, it’s hard to resolve why Owens hasn’t had another run as a world champion, let alone many opportunities.
Is Owens likely to win this match? No. Reigns has been firing on all cylinders and the overarching story of this match has been his complex, ever-changing relationship with his cousin Jey Uso. Uso is likely to get involved in this match as well, and Owens, taking yet another loss on his long ledger of them, will return to his in-between status.
But as we think about the future and ways to infuse creative energy into a WWE storytelling ecosystem that can be described as stagnant, at best, maybe it shouldn’t take another three years for Owens’ next shot — and maybe he could even win the big one the next time around. He’s proved many times over he can carry that weight.
Let the women’s tag team titles stand or fall on their own
Nia Jax spent months putting Lana through the commentary table, and laughing about it. That’s been the creative masterstroke serving as the centerpiece of Jax and Shayna Baszler’s women’s tag team title reign, which started in late August when they beat Bayley and Sasha Banks. They’ve defended those titles all of three times since that night but not since the Nov. 2 edition of Monday Night Raw.
Lana was the unlikely sole survivor of the women’s 5-on-5 elimination match at Survivor Series, and her success in a new partnership with Raw women’s champion Asuka was seemingly lined up to get them a women’s tag team title shot at TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs. But after Lana pinned Jax on Monday, an injury angle forced Lana out of the match, seemingly scuttling her momentum and randomly injecting Mandy Rose and Dana Brooke into the equation.
Now, the issue for most of 2020 (and even further back on occasion) is that the tag titles — ostensibly created to give more creative opportunities in the women’s division — are locked up with one of the women’s singles titles and not doing any additional good. The past four months haven’t really done much good for Jax or Baszler, who are spinning their wheels, and Asuka has taken a back seat to Lana, only for Lana not to actually benefit from a title shot of any kind.
As titles meant to be defended on Raw, SmackDown and NXT, it’s time for the titles to be freed up for wrestlers who can actually benefit from them, and tell stories independent of the top singles champions on Raw and SmackDown. Imagine a team like Dakota Kai and Candice LeRae in NXT pulling off a shock win and using that momentum to make an impression on Raw and SmackDown, infusing new blood and depth into those divisions. Or Bayley finding a protégé and proving that she was the real star of her team with Sasha Banks to build herself back up.
The general lack of attention tag team wrestling overall has received of late is disappointing. When stagnation and tired tropes along the lines of what we’ve seen with both the Raw and SmackDown men’s tag team titles feel like they’re light years ahead of what’s going on in the women’s division, it’s a problem.
Sometimes it’s best to leave the past in the past
That brings us to the match weighing down the TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs card the most — Randy Orton vs. “The Fiend” Bray Wyatt. The pair showed tremendous chemistry on the road to WrestleMania 33, but the match was sabotaged by an overwhelming effort to shoehorn cheesy special effects into the process.
At present, Orton is coming off of a tremendous world title rivalry with McIntyre, while Wyatt still hasn’t gotten his feet underneath him since winning the Universal championship at SummerSlam and losing it to Reigns one week later at Payback. The addition of Alexa Bliss has been an interesting wrinkle, but everything about the buildup to this match with Orton has exposed all of the flaws with The Fiend and the way WWE has handled the character since his initial debut.
Clearly hoping to forge a character with the staying power of The Undertaker, WWE has tried to jump the gun and give Wyatt a modernized version of Undertaker’s supernatural abilities. It sounds good in theory, but in an era far more based in reality than when The Undertaker debuted in the early 1990s, it’s not an easy needle to thread.
There has never really been an explanation, or any effort put into even trying to explain the source and origin of The Fiend’s powers. With The Undertaker, even though his abilities strained suspension of disbelief to its limits, that power was established, grew and evolved over many years with fans getting used to the quirks. Add in the swings in vulnerability — from unstoppable despite dozens of chair shots to being defeated by a 50-something Goldberg and back — and it’s tough to get a lock on the long-term trajectory of The Fiend.
The specific conflict between Orton and Wyatt reached new levels of absurdity on Monday, as the pair engaged in a strange game of “hide-and-seek,” culminating in Orton trapping Wyatt in a box and lighting it on fire. The Fiend then popped out of the box, in a very Undertaker-esque fashion, and choked Orton out.
That sets the stage for an Inferno match on Sunday. Historically, they’ve been a disaster in WWE history. There is some hope that a cinematic style could help, but considering all of the hurdles this match is facing, there’s one through line — sometimes it’s best to leave the past in the past.
It’s all a ⭕️
One ending was just another beginning
The Angel with the burnt wings is waving you on home.
— Bray Wyatt (@WWEBrayWyatt) December 17, 2020