John: The annual post-WrestleMania PPV known as Extreme Rules takes place this Sunday night in Chicago. With no Brock Lesnar around due to a storyline suspension, the focus is on other stars and the new WWE Champion Seth Rollins, who defends the gold in a Steel Cage match against Randy Orton.
I’m in Chicago as I finish writing this because I’m heading to the PPV. I’ve been to Chicago one time before, but that was eight years ago and I wanted to make another trip. I figured Extreme Rules would be a good time to do it. It’s not the greatest card possible, but I feel like I’m going to enjoy being there live. I’ve never seen a WWE PPV in Chicago, so I’m excited about being a part of that crowd.
Joining me for the preview are Matty J. Douglas and Heather Hickey. Christian Michael was too busy to join us this month. As always, the match order isn’t the order that we necessarily think will happen on the show. It’s just a format to use for this preview.
(Note: All graphics are from WWE.com. The banner is courtesy of our friend Steve Melo.)
Tag Team Titles: Tyson Kidd & Cesaro vs. The New Day (Kickoff Show)
Matt: I love every guy in this match as talents and hope they get enough time and freedom to give us something kick-ass to watch. I loved how New Day won on Raw to get this title match, almost solely due to the sheer goofiness of seeing Xavier pop out from under the ring and grab Sin Cara’s leg causing the count out. Yet still when I see this match on paper, I’m not excited. There’s no story here, and somehow several unanswered questions about the participants, such as:
Why are Cesaro and Kidd babyfaces now?
What exactly are The New Day? Preachers? A Cult of Positivity?
Will Kidd and Cesaro’s team ever get a name? Matching gear? Better Music?
Will Big E and Cesaro ever recover their lost names (Langston and Antonio respectively)?
Notably none of the questions I have are who wins and what will happen next. Food for thought WWE.
Winners and Still Tag Team Champions: Kidd and Cesaro (because the timing isn’t right for New Day… but it will be eventually)
Heather: A title match has no business being on the Kick-Off Show. It diminishes the prestige of the title, and makes the champs look like a second-rate sideshow.
That said, the team of Kidd and Cesaro is [in Opera Voice] FABULOUUUUUUUS. They have so much talent, and they need to re-build the tag division so that the champs don’t appear so ridiculously overqualified for the position.
Meanwhile, the original incarnation of The New Day was pretty disconcerting, to put it mildly. I hope the recent snark is a sign of change. I love Big E freakin’ Langston, and with some adjustments to his naturally-joyful persona, Kofi could make for a cool villain. New Day has no choice but to go rogue. I would love a promo that ends with a super-intense Angry E snarling, “It’s a New Day.”
What if New Day wins the titles? It may seem premature, and I know I just sang the praises of the current champs, but what a way to make a change! Cesaro and Kidd could make a comeback thereafter, and chase those titles again. New Day has a surprise in them, don’t you think?
Winners: New Day
John: Whether Cesaro and Kidd are faces long term or just for this match, we don’t really know yet. I think it’s just for this match because WWE knows they are going to get cheered by the hardcore fans in Chicago.
The New Day have done an awesome job in acting as heels. They have cheated repeatedly for several weeks now, so WWE officials have to be impressed with how well they have done in that role. It wouldn’t be that surprising if they won the titles just to give them a little boost. It’s an instance where the challengers could really benefit from winning the titles.
I think WWE likes how things are going with The New Day, but they can wait on doing a title change for another month or two. Cesaro and Kidd are an awesome team that will get the win to continue their reign as the tag team champions. Being on the Kickoff Show isn’t bad either. They’ll get more time this way.
Winners: Cesaro and Tyson Kidd
Chicago Street Fight: Dean Ambrose vs. Luke Harper
Matt: This has a shot to steal the show, or at the very least be the most fun and brutal match on the card. This match is the most emblematic of the Extreme Rules PPV, and I’m looking forward to watching it because both of these guys are great in brawls. That being said I can’t help but ask, regardless of the outcome of this bout, what is next for these two superstars?
Seriously, what does Dean Ambrose move onto after this Street Fight? What about Luke Harper? I certainly don’t want to see them continue feuding with each other as one month is enough for me; but I have no idea who you make these guys clash with afterward that would make me care. In a sense, this match might be the saddest on the card. Treading water, with no real linear narrative thread. A far cry from the masterpieces that these guys were a part of just over a year ago when The Shield battled The Wyatt Family. Fond memories.
Winner: Dean Ambrose (because as much as the outcome doesn’t really change how directionless they are, Dean should win)
Heather: As much as they can both grapple, I don’t see many suplexes happening between these two on Sunday night. A street fight is a great stipulation for them, and Chicago has been home to many a good one. Will they come out wearing kneepads over their jeans, a la Punk/Jericho (because nothing says “street fight” like kneepads)?
Ambrose and Harper have the talent and grit to pull off an entertaining fight, but I think theirs is intended to be a filler match. No one’s going to come away from this thinking, “Wow!” or “I can’t wait to see what happens next between these two!” which is a damn shame, given their respective abilities. I anticipate a bit of goofiness from Ambrose; if anything, we’ll get to see some personality come out to play.
I truly think Harper belongs with Rowan. They’re like nachos and wine (at least at my house). They both need someone to play off of, and neither has really shone since their split. I know I shouldn’t complain – Ambrose and Harper could do worse than each other as opponents – but I really hope they both move on after this. Harper and Rowan could take the Usos’ spot in the tag division, and Ambrose could chase Sheamus.
Winner: Dean Ambrose
John: This might be the best match of the night because Ambrose and Harper are really good performers who are very capable of delivering quality matches when they are given time to do so. Since it’s not a loaded card in terms of long matches, it might be best if WWE puts this on as the PPV opener, gives them 15-20 minutes and watch as they brawl all around the arena.
Ambrose needs to get some momentum going, so he should get the win. I’m not sure where he goes from here, but putting him in a feud he can win is a good thing for him. I have high expectations for this match. Just give them a chance. It will be a lot of fun.
Winner: Dean Ambrose
Divas Title: Nikki Bella vs. Naomi
Matt: I’ve really liked Naomi’s heel turn. Like I really, really like it. It’s without question working for her, in part due to the fact that it makes sense. All her gripes, especially the one about having to compete in a Divas Battle Royal despite having beaten Nikki on multiple occasions, are legit complaints anybody in a company that thrives on competition should have.
Conversely, you have The Bellas, who are the second pair of heels on this show to inexplicably turn babyface out of nowhere. Why exactly are we supposed to cheer these two women who have been nothing but awful to everybody (including each other) over the course of the last year, as opposed to Naomi whose only crime is growing a backbone and becoming an active character as opposed to a passive one? WWE logic is confusing.
Winner and New Divas Champion: Naomi (because I’m assuming her feud with Paige in June will be about the Divas Title)
Heather: If they do nothing but stinkfaces and hairmares for 10 minutes, I will call it a mat classic – as long as Brie isn’t on commentary. Her voice is like psychological warfare.
In all seriousness, I want a kick-ass match, but I don’t see Nikki relinquishing the title anytime soon. The Divas division is in a rut in terms of creativity, and the Bellas have settled in for the long haul. While I think every match at Extreme Rules should have a stipulation, I’m happy to see this as a traditional match. With such illogical churn in the division already, I want to see a logical win after a hard-fought battle. Naomi and Nikki have it in them, for sure. I would love to see Nikki pick up the pace. She has developed quite a toolkit; now she needs to add a bit more flow and intensity. Naomi is so athletic, she can handle a quicker match, and the fans will get a lot more engaged if the action demands their attention.
Winner: Nikki Bella (though I see Naomi attacking her post-match to continue the feud)
John: The face turn of the Bella Twins was so random and unwarranted that this match is going to have a dead crowd. There’s barely a story here although Naomi has done pretty well as a heel in terms of showing more personality than she did as a face.
It may be the right time to do a title change because if Nikki’s going to be a face then it’s better if Naomi wins the Divas Title for the first time and then has that feud with Paige, which was set up when she “injured” her to send Paige away for a WWE Films role. It will probably get the standard 7-10 minutes that diva PPV matches usually get and I feel like Naomi will win the Divas Title for the first time.
Intercontinental Title: Daniel Bryan vs. Bad News Barrett
Matt: If reports are true and Daniel Bryan won’t be cleared to go at Extreme Rules, that’s unfortunate for everyone. Sadly there isn’t much to say about this match because there hasn’t really been a build up for it. Bryan has been mostly absent and the WWE hasn’t mentioned much about this match or its implications on their programming.
I assume there’ll be an angle to explain Bryan’s absence and Barrett will end up wrestling Neville. I hope Bryan’s ailments aren’t too serious and he can get back in the ring sooner than later. Definitely wishing him a speedy recovery.
Heather: (I know they may not wrestle at all, but I wrote this preview on Monday…)
Will the recent news of Bryan being sidelined from action mean that he will be further protected by dropping the title to Barrett? WWE has shown a continual lack of faith in Barrett, trying this-and-that with his gimmicks and cutting him short whenever he starts to get some traction. That said, I wouldn’t be disappointed if they need to put the title on Barrett in order to continue the IC Title storytelling.
The match itself is curious to me, given their wrestling styles. While one can claim that they’re both “strikers”, I will be bored to tears if that is all that they do. Bryan is so much fun to watch when he’s mat wrestling and trying different holds and submissions, but Barrett (while there’s much to love) doesn’t strike me as amenable to much of Bryan’s style. He seems too inflexible.
The ideal situation would be another ladder match, this time just the two men vying for the belt. It would be an homage to the match where Barrett lost the title, and fulfil the Extreme Rules theme. That said, I understand that Bryan’s well-being may prevent such a stipulation.
Winner: Wade Barrett (opening the door for a new champion shortly thereafter)
John: It sucks that the match probably won’t happen. Bryan is out of action for about one month according to various reports. WWE may not strip him of the IC Title now, so Barrett will probably have a different match against a guy like Neville. There’s nothing to predict. I just hope Bryan’s not injured too seriously and that he can be back in action soon.
Kiss Me Arse: Dolph Ziggler vs. Sheamus
Matt: Coming from a guy who never really likes Sheamus ever, I’ve done a complete 180 on him. Who knew all he needed to do was cut his hair into a mohawk, braid his beard with beads and change his music? Truth be told he looks ridiculous, and I love it so much!
I want to love this match too. I like the story of Sheamus picking on all the small fan favourites. It makes sense that he resents guys like Bryan and Ziggler, given that he’s a big dude who the fans did nothing but crap on during his babyface run. It should be a great match, but the stipulation has completely taken me out of it. It just doesn’t fit.
Why would Sheamus, a grown man, want another grown man to kiss his arse on camera? There’s nothing that has ever been presented about the character that makes me believe this is something he’d want. Ziggler even less. The stipulation just feels contrived; straight from the infantile mind of Mr. McMahon. This match makes sense with Vince, or Mr. Ass, or even Rikishi… not with Dolph Ziggler and Sheamus. Also, why is this stipulation Extreme exactly?
Winner: Sheamus (because it’s his first PPV back)
Heather: Because of the Irish undertones, I am reminded of the Dublin Street fight between Sheamus and Sandow on Smackdown in 2013. I will never forget it, because Sheamus kept eating from the sack of raw potatoes being used as a weapon. GROSS. And if that was gross, just wait until we see Dolph’s chiseled kisser puckering up to the palest arse this side of the moon.
Sheamus has to win, because a) Dolph Ziggler has made a career out of losing well, and b) Sheamus is being built as the Irish-Punk Braveheart. I do like it; sometimes a change is better than a rest, and in this case, Sheamus should benefit from both. Babyface Sheamus acted like a dick all the time. Let’s hope Heel Sheamus follows suit.
But wait, will they actually allow Ziggler to kiss his arse? I suspect Ziggler will get the last laugh by substituting the lips of an unsuspecting ref, or the heel of his boot. Prior to that, we’ll see a fun match punctuated by some of Dolph’s finest bumps.
John: I really like both guys, but I don’t like the stipulation and I think that WWE has done a poor job of building up to it. The “extreme” aspect of it is that the loser will be extremely humiliated if they have to kiss the ass of the winner. Will they really have a guy kiss ass? Probably not.
Sheamus should win since he’s fresh as a heel. Ziggler definitely needs wins, but in this case it makes sense to put Sheamus over. They will probably do something where Sheamus tries to make Ziggler kiss his ass in a humiliating way and then somebody either saves Ziggler or he attacks Sheamus to prevent it from happening. They could also have another babyface come out to “save” Ziggler. I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to go, but Sheamus winning the match makes the most sense to me.
Last Man Standing: Roman Reigns vs. Big Show
Matt: The battle of punches! Whose punch is the punchiest in the land of punching things! That’s what this match is about. If I never see Big Show vs. Roman Reigns again, I’ll be the happiest lad in all the town. Who loves seeing this for the 800th time? There’s only so many times I can watch somebody overcome the sheer size of Big Show and be impressed by it. So many guys have done it, including Roman Reigns, that I just feel insulted by the announcers trying to tell me that Big Show has no equal.
I’m just not excited for this at all, and really hope they have something better planned for Roman on the horizon. Maybe this is the match that Bray Wyatt interferes in to start his next program?
Winner: Roman Reigns (because Big Show winning would probably extend this feud)
Heather: This is going to be so boring.
Winner: Roman Reigns
John: I’m very tired of this feud. They’ve wrestled way too many times in the past four months and Reigns has won nearly every time. WWE tries to put Show over as this dominant heel, but we’ve seen Reigns beat him far too many times. The positive thing about it is that using weapons for the match will help them tell a story where Reigns has to come back to beat the big, bad giant.
Reigns should win in a decisive manner. He’s probably going to get a WWE Title match at the next PPV whether it’s the rumored triple threat also including Orton or if it’s just Reigns vs. Rollins. Biggest lock of the show.
Winner: Roman Reigns
United States Title: John Cena vs. Rusev (Russian Chain Match)
Matt: A brutish Bulgarian representing Russia vs. All American white hip hop artist in a Tug of War (and there will be Tug of War!) over the United States Championship. It’s like the WWE enlisted the writers of Fox’s Empire to write Rocky IV with a hip hop twist.
Chain/strap matches can be fun I guess. They’ve done very little for me in the past, and I don’t expect that to change here. I’m kind of over this feud to be honest. I’m way more into John Cena open challenges (except when Kane answers the call), and kind of wish we were getting one of those here instead.
I guess I’m excited to see if the chain in question will connect them at the wrist, or by the neck. Who am I kidding? The WWE fired a guy for choking somebody with a neck tie, they’d never do a match where guys have chains wrapped around their necks. I guess I’m not excited about this match.
Winner and Still United States Champion: John Cena (because they have booked this match not to be won by pinfall so the loss doesn’t hurt Rusev too much)
Heather: WWE.com used to be a fairly well-written site, but lately it has devolved into a heavy-handed mess. First they refer to this chain match as a “lethal stipulation”. Okay. So Cena and Rusev are going to be tethered at the wrist by a chain, and the man to touch all four corners in succession will win the match. Does the fourth successive corner shoot a lethal dart at the person at the end of the chain??? Because unless “Russian Chain Match” means “match that ends when someone dies”, it is not a lethal stipulation! Sheesh.
Secondly, they refer to John Cena being the leader of the Chain Gang as his “salad days”, which means his youth, but it sounds so bloody high-horse on a wrestling website. Is Shakespeare blogging for them now? Maybe Lanny Poffo.
I am easily distracted. John Cena will win this match, because…
And they’ve been painting Rusev as a ferocious chain-wielding threat to the title. Because they’ve made Rusev look so menacing, it means Cena’s going to win. I think their version of reverse psychology has been so overused by this point that it’s come right back round again to being Forward Psychology.
Winner: John Cena (though I suspect we’ll get to see a lot of his ugly muggin’ with a chain wrapped around his face).
John: Cena will win. Anything other than that would be a major surprise. They’re not going to take the US Title off Cena after only one month. He’s done well as the US Champion too, so it’s good that he’s holding the title. It also keeps him out of the WWE Title picture, which is a positive.
What I’m interested in is the quality of the match. It’s not that easy to have a really good strap match or in this case a Russian Chain match. There’s just not as much drama in trying to touch the turnbuckle four times in a row compared to a regular match.
We all know why WWE is doing this too. They don’t want Rusev to get pinned for the second straight PPV, so this way they can book him in a competitive match and lose only because Cena touched the turnbuckles first. My feeling is Cena wins a close match rather than something where he dominates at the end for the win. Second biggest lock of the show.
Winner: John Cena
WWE Title Steel Cage Match: Seth Rollins vs. Randy Orton (No RKO for Orton)
Matt: Let me start off by saying how insulting it is for the WWE to tell me that Cage Matches keep outside interference away. In literally almost every Cage Match I’ve seen over the last couple years, including Hell In A Cells, somebody has interfered. Cages do nothing to quell interference, and for them to pretend I’m a moron who doesn’t notice these things is a bit insulting.
With that said, this should be a pretty solid match. I’m not totally invested in it, but I’m into it enough. At least this time their match has a build up and a story that make sense. It also helps that they’re fighting over something (it’s great having the WWE World Heavyweight Championship back on all the PPVs).
Randy Orton is probably doing the best babyface work of his career right now (even though I still don’t really connect with his character, but that’s just me). Seth’s run as the weasel-like Champ has worked out perfectly to this point. That being said, the impending match between he and Kane has me wishing that Seth Rollins and Randy Orton never stop feuding, something I never thought I’d say.
I will say that other than the Roman Reigns/Big Show match, this match is most likely to feature some Bray Wyatt shenanigans that set up his next feud. He will interfere in one of these bouts, mark my words (or forget them if I’m wrong)!
Winner and Still WWE World Heavyweight Champion: Seth Rollins (because his Championship run is just beginning)
Heather: I would like to see Orton sneak his way around the stipulation, like he gives Rollins an RKO on top of the cage, or even cooler: he leapfrogs over Rollins as Rollins makes his way out the door of the cage, and RKO’s him “outside the cage”.
Fantasy RKO’ing aside, I don’t see Orton winning the title. However, he is on such a hot streak since his return that I hope they don’t throw cold water on it. Orton needs to have some sort of compelling spotlight on him, or he’ll lose interest. If he’s not engaged in what he’s doing, he just phones that sh-t in. I enjoy Randy Orton enjoying things.
Though a cage match doesn’t really suit these guys’ repertoires, neither wrestler is a stranger to a good old fashioned brawl – which is the only way to go in the cage. I want to see a spectacular, vicious showing from Rollins and Orton before the schmozz goes down – which it will, given the recent Authority-related shenanigans. Look for some cruiserweight bumps from the hapless sidekicks, and I imagine, unfortunately, something from Kane.
Winner: Randy Orton (somehow by DQ)
John: The winner of this match is going to be Seth Rollins because we know that he is likely going to have a four month reign at least leading to a SummerSlam match with Brock Lesnar. The question is, how will he retain the title?
It’s a tough one to guess. Based on the last few weeks, the best guess is that Kane is going to act like he’s not really on Rollins’ side as the “guardian of the gate” in the match and then in the end when Rollins wants him to cheat, Kane will do it to show that he’s still on the same page with Rollins. They can save the Kane face turn for another time, but I think he’s going to remain a heel here.
As for the match, I expect it to be really good because their other matches have been. The WrestleMania match only went 15 minutes. This one should get about 20-25 minutes. The no-RKO thing will be weird for them to work around because it’s such a huge spot for Orton and without it there might be less crowd interest in what he does. Most likely we’ll see Orton hit a RKO or two after the match after he’s screwed out of the win.
Rollins will retain thanks to Kane’s help when Orton is about to escape the cage. Poor Orton is booked like an idiot thinking that there won’t be interference because there’s a cage. It’s not like Rollins is going to win clean, so that’s the way it has to go.
Winner: Seth Rollins
John: The top three matches are predictable because we all know Rollins, Cena and Reigns are going to win. Everything else has a chance for less predictable finishes. It’s one of those shows where if the right matches get a lot of time then they have a shot to deliver a better than average show. The Chicago crowd will certainly help.
Since I will be at Extreme Rules I won’t write about it live TJRWrestling.net on Sunday night although Matty J. Douglas said that he can post about it live, so he will do that. My review will be up a day or two after the show.
Follow us on Twitter at the following places.
Matt – @MJDP_GSE
Heather – @kickyhick
John – @johnreport
If you want to send an email, send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org as well. Thanks for reading.
If at the beginning of 2015 the disgruntled wrestling fan had been told that John Cena would fail to get his hands on the WWE World Heavyweight Championship once over the proceeding twelve months, that Seth Rollins instead would reign with the belt for much of the year, that Dean Ambrose would main event PPVs, Kevin Owens receive a main roster push, and 2015 also see a ‘Divas Revolution’ inspired by the women from NXT, that discontented fan may well have rejoiced and salivated, needing napkins or chicken wings to sop up or satiate the excess moistness.
All of the above occurred, but still 2015 was a disappointing and frustrating year for WWE. It started in the worst possible way at the Royal Rumble, where for the second year in a row fans left their seats and switched off their television sets in anger, after an untimely Rumble victory for Roman Reigns. The fallout lasted until WrestleMania 31, where Seth Rollins cashed in his Money in the Bank contract to snatch the title from Brock Lesnar and temporarily halt Reigns’ pursuit.
While it would be unfair to suggest that the spectre of Reigns’ stalled push hung over the main event, Rollins seemed to make a success of his lengthy title run in spite rather than because of the booking, producing some fantastic matches with Dean Ambrose but having to endure convoluted finishes and meandering feuds against Randy Orton, Lesnar, Cena, Sting, and Kane, until a knee injury in November ruled him out of action and paved the way for a new imperium. An insipid title tournament and a squabble with Sheamus were hardly the ways to endear Reigns to the crowd, and while excitement built towards the end of the year, there was still the sense that an all-conquering Roman will not prove sustainable, neither for the sake of his opponents nor in terms of compelling character development.
Meanwhile John Cena was meant to bring prestige to a secondary title in the United States Championship, but while his open challenges on RAW received plenty of acclaim, by the end of the year both the US and the Intercontinental belts had stagnated as WWE continued to fail to elevate new stars. There were plenty of chances to set this right. But Dolph Ziggler never came close to recapturing the high of 2014’s Survivor Series, Rusev slumbered after Cena forced him to absentmindedly shout ‘I quit!’, Ambrose waned when he couldn’t best Rollins, and Cesaro was worked to the point of injury just as it seemed he might swing his way to the top. When Bray Wyatt accosted The Undertaker in October at Hell in a Cell, his natural progression as the face of darkness for a new generation seemed assured. Alas he and his Wyatt family were annihilated by an ageing Brothers of Destruction, and had to scamper back to their barn with their tails firmly between their legs.
We had to turn to NXT for the best of wrestling in 2015, and it delivered on every front. A personal issue between Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens brought the NXT Championship sizzling into the Floridian new year, and following a tournament in memory of Dusty Rhodes, by the year’s end at TakeOver: London the tag division was hotter than ever. Yet for much of 2015 it was the women who blazed the trail for NXT. After Sasha Banks finally overcame Charlotte and Becky Lynch to earn the NXT Women’s Championship, Bayley’s efforts to realise a lifelong goal culminated in two breathtaking bouts against Banks, with the remainder of the year bearing witness to the rise of Asuka.
Of course on the main show, Charlotte, Becky, and Sasha were thrown into loosely drawn factions as the ‘Divas’ continued to play second fiddle. But 2015 ought nevertheless to be remembered as a vital year for women’s wrestling. And whatever ups and downs WWE as a whole enjoyed and endured, there was no shortage of great matches. Here are ten or so of the year’s best.
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Asuka vs. Emma (with Dana Brooke) | NXT TakeOver: London
After making her NXT debut in September, London was the site of Asuka’s second TakeOver, and against a resurgent Emma she faced arguably her sternest test to date. Following a blistering start to the match, which featured a running hip attack off the ring apron, Emma attempted to wear her opponent down with elbows, kicks, and submission holds, stifling an Asuka flurry with a double underhook suplex into the turnbuckle and a low splash. But a German suplex turned the tide in Asuka’s favour, and though underhand tactics and Dana Brooke’s meddling twice interrupted the Asuka Lock – and briefly threatened Asuka with disqualification, when a foreign object introduced by Brooke ended up in her hands – a stiff kick gave Asuka the 1-2-3.
While a couple of months earlier Sasha Banks and Bayley had been given the more obvious honour of headlining TakeOver: Respect, Asuka vs. Emma was the first time two women had opened an NXT special. Spurred by Asuka’s popularity and a sometimes frenetic pace, they proved more than capable of firing up a crowd. The match furthered Asuka’s rise, while showing a new side to her character, forced to recover after sustained aggression from the impressive Emma.
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Randy Orton vs. Sheamus | WWE Battleground
Sometimes surprises can come where you least expect them: as the opener to Battleground, Randy Orton vs. Sheamus seemed a solid bet, but also something thrown together and unlikely to provide much in the way of excitement, a match we had surely already seen too many times before. Yet the two men put on a fantastic display aided by the support of the crowd in Orton’s wrestling hometown of St. Louis, backbreakers and big knees allowing Sheamus to dictate the middle of a long match, which lasted more than sixteen minutes. Sheamus twice escaped the RKO, and looked to put Orton away with a Brogue Kick, but when Orton rolled out of trouble then escaped the Texas Cloverleaf, an RKO out of nothing made for a happy homecoming.
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Dash Wilder and Scott Dawson (c) vs. Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady (with Carmella) (for the NXT Tag Team Championships) | NXT TakeOver: London
It might seem unfair that of the various NXT matches to make this list, none come from the main event, but in one sense this is really a compliment. We already expect a high standard from the likes of Finn Balor, Samoa Joe, Kevin Owens, and Sami Zayn – all luminaries on the independent circuit and in other promotions before their arrivals in NXT – and in truth 2015 was a transitional year for the NXT Championship, Balor seizing the belt after Owens and Neville had been promoted to the main roster, and Zayn and Hideo Itami had suffered long-term injuries. Balor’s title bouts against Apollo Crows on weekly television and against Joe at TakeOver: London could easily have made this list.
But Dash and Dawson vs. Enzo and Big Cass was something different, an exciting showcase for an emergent tag division, whose depth had only been discovered a couple of months previously during the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic memorial tournament. Enzo and Cass’s earnest delivery of their charismatic New York City catchphrases had the overseas crowd enraptured even before the two teams locked up. A hot tag allowed Cass to unload before Dawson targeted his injured knee, and though a Rocket Launcher – with Cass propelling Enzo off the top rope onto a fallen Wilder – left Enzo a fraction of a second from victory when he was rudely pulled from the ring, the Shatter Machine flapjack into a double-knee facebreaker meant Dash and Dawson retained their belts. The match offered some excellent back and forth, and Dash and Dawson were classic heels while encouraging the crowd’s sympathies towards an eventual Enzo and Cass title run.
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Brock Lesnar (with Paul Heyman) vs. The Undertaker (Hell in a Cell match) | WWE Hell in a Cell
The third and decisive match in the series between Brock Lesnar and The Undertaker was the best by some margin, a bloody battle whose realism was only enhanced by the intrusion of a doctor, who twice sought to wipe away Lesnar’s blood, only to be sent sprawling from the ring. Lesnar laid waste to The Undertaker with chair shots to the back, with a chair driven rudely into his gullet, and with a series of German suplexes. Taker survived two F5s, but Lesnar faded sharply when locked in the Hell’s Gate, eventually managing to pummel his way out of danger.
The finish to the match was slightly surreal, a creative shift that pulled in the audience as Lesnar tore the canvas open from its centre, exposing the wooden boards underneath. Taker was the first to capitalise with a chokeslam and a Tombstone, but a low blow – fair payback for events at SummerSlam – and a third F5 gave Lesnar the pinfall victory. After the match the cell was raised and Taker acknowledged his opponent, but then the lights went out: a thrilling end to Hell in a Cell and a shift in the order of WWE which seemed set to establish Bray Wyatt, only for the opportunity to be squandered.
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Dean Ambrose vs. Dolph Ziggler (WWE World Heavyweight Championship tournament match) | RAW 16.11.15
Perhaps on paper it is unclear whether these two fit: both rely on spurts of momentum, and as faces spend much of their time on the back foot, while Ambrose does not boast a brand of offence which requires Ziggler’s sometimes overzealous selling, and wrestles an unorthodox style that not everyone suits. There were some excellent matches across November as part of the world title tournament – Cesaro and Sheamus had been fantastic the week before – and it would have been easy to expect a frenzied attempt to compete. Instead Ambrose and Ziggler took their tournament match as the opportunity for something unique, excelling in a slow paced, catch-style encounter, replete with steady holds, swift reversals, narrow evasions, and brief forays to the outside, Ambrose eventually progressing by means of a Dirty Deeds.
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The New Day (Big E and Kofi Kingston with Xavier Woods) (c) vs. Tyson Kidd and Cesaro (with Natalya) (2-out-of-3 falls match for the WWE Tag Team Championships) | WWE Payback
It is no exaggeration to suggest that for a large part of 2015, at least as far as entertainment goes, The New Day carried WWE. But they were given the best possible base thanks to a series of matches for the tag titles with Tyson Kidd and Cesaro. If The New Day cover all the talents – Big E’s strength complementing Kofi Kingston’s speed and agility, with Xavier Woods more methodical in the ring and the key figure on the mic – while harking back to three-man teams of old like The Freebirds, Tyson Kidd and Cesaro were – before Kidd’s devastating spinal injury – a traditional little man/big man combo with a twist, Kidd relying more on technical wrestling than flights through the air, while Cesaro is remarkably agile for a powerhouse of 6 feet and 5 inches.
With Kidd and Cesaro the reigning champions, The New Day had been in the title mix from the turn of the year, but only grabbed the belts at Extreme Rules at the end of April. The following month at Payback they defended in a 2-out-of-3 falls match which stole the show. The teams traded two high energy falls via their double-team finishers, the Cesaro Swing into a dropkick and facebuster into a diving DDT, before Woods stole the victory for his team. Sneaking into the ring in the guise of Kofi, he rolled Cesaro up in a small package and hastily escaped with the gold.
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Roman Reigns vs. Daniel Bryan (to determine the number one contender for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship) | WWE Fastlane
Roman Reigns may be overly reliant on his Superman punch and spear, but wrestling is the least of his problems: his in-ring work always shows plenty of commitment, and alongside Daniel Bryan at Fastlane he achieved one of the matches of the year. It was only moderately successful as an attempt to mollify the crowd after the Royal Rumble, but aside from demonstrating some of Reigns’ better attributes, it afforded us an all-too-rare opportunity in 2015 to see Daniel Bryan in action, which is enough to warrant the match its place high up on this list.
In the early going Reigns sought to overpower his opponent, but when Bryan took control and cinched in the Yes Lock Reigns barely managed to make it to the ropes. Rolling to the outside, Bryan performed two suicide dives in succession, but Reigns caught a third and delivered a big suplex as both men struggled to return to the ring. They kicked out of each other’s finishing moves – Reigns becoming in the process the first man to kick out of Bryan’s running knee – and when Bryan looked to follow up a flurry of stiff kicks with a second knee strike, Reigns surprised him with a spear, which proved enough to secure the pinfall and his place in the main event of WrestleMania 31.
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Sasha Banks (c) vs. Becky Lynch (for the NXT Women’s Championship) | NXT TakeOver: Unstoppable
This mat-based war of attrition, with chokeholds and armbars punctuated by high spots in the form of Lynch’s numerous suplex variations and a Banks dive to the outside, could not compete on an emotional level with Sasha’s later bouts against Bayley, but on its own terms, it was an equally accomplished wrestling match. At the end of this gruelling affair, Sasha prevailed with a superplex and a Bank Statement, her bridging crossface forcing Lynch to submit. Sasha embodies her character like few others in the history of wrestling, and as the keenest of storytellers, she continued to sell Lynch’s work on her left arm even as the referee went to raise it in victory.
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Seth Rollins (c) vs. Dean Ambrose (Ladder match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship) | WWE Money in the Bank
Rollins squeaked through Elimination Chamber with the world title belt, only retaining when he was disqualified for pulling together Ambrose and the referee: an absurdity in so far as the official’s decision only punished Ambrose, who in the meantime had secured the pinfall after a Dirty Deeds. The sequel a month later at Money in the Bank was more convincing all round, a freewheeling epic which lasted more than thirty-five minutes and seemed a clear case of two wrestlers being given a bit of leeway and showing an overwhelming desire to impress.
Rollins consistently worked over Ambrose’s left knee, and as the challenger struggled for movement, the match became increasingly vicious. Ambrose threw a chair at Rollins’ head as the champion climbed the turnbuckle, then took to the announce table where he nailed a Dirty Deeds, but Rollins recovered with a trio of running powerbombs, the last of which saw both men crash down onto the cold of a ladder atop concrete. Back in the ring another ladder was set up, and as they climbed and fell in harmony it was Rollins who held on, clutching in mid air for possession of the strap.
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Sasha Banks (c) vs. Bayley (for the NXT Women’s Championship) | NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn
Bayley (c) vs. Sasha Banks (30-minute Iron Man Match for the NXT Women’s Championship) | NXT TakeOver: Respect
The history between Sasha Banks and Bayley extended back a tumultuous two years by the time they came face to face in Brooklyn in August. They had exchanged victories from the outset of their careers in NXT, with the manipulative Banks occasionally trying to woo Bayley, but more often resorting to surprise attacks. Yet beyond Banks’ ruthless will to win and Bayley’s relentless optimism, the two share in more areas than they differ: both underdogs, initially contending outside of the NXT limelight, who have sheltered hopes of bringing the best to women’s wrestling ever since their early teens. All of their hopes, dreams, and moments of professional anguish came to bear in their two matches for the NXT Women’s Championship.
Objectively perhaps the Brooklyn bout was the better match, but both were nigh on perfect, ruggedly detailed, expertly constructed from start to finish, and emotionally whole. Inside the capacity Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Banks and Bayley brawled and grappled on the mat and in the turnbuckle, with Sasha landing her diving double-knee drop from the top rope, before pinching Bayley’s injured hand between the ring apron and steel steps. With every stride and step both women showed remarkable nuance, levering for position, stamping on hands and clawing at faces as they attempted to lock in submission holds. Finally Bayley fought her way back, reversing the Bank Statement to wild cheers, and grasping the gold with an explosive modified hurricanrana followed by a Bayley-to-Belly suplex for the 1-2-3.
At the right time in Brooklyn, with the meaning the match held for both competitors plain to see, Sasha let down her guard, embracing Bayley after the bell. Their follow up at TakeOver: Respect was a consolidation of Bayley’s success and a fond farewell to NXT from Banks – though as WWE’s consummate stylist, she marked the occasion with some of her finest work as a heel, refusing any show of friendship, and reducing Bayley’s young fan Izzy to tears when she tossed her idol into a video board, stole Izzy’s headband, and mockingly wore it before flinging it back, full of spite, towards the front row. The climax of years of mutual endeavour, this match also brought a series of firsts: for the first time two women headlined a major WWE event, and as the first women’s match to carry an Iron Man stipulation, its thirty-minute duration would inevitably make it also the longest women’s match in the history of WWE.
The length meant that the match proceeded in phases, an early sequence of catch wrestling culminating in quick pinfalls after an eye poke and a Bayley-to-Belly. A vicious brawl on the arena floor saw Sasha regain the advantage, when Bayley was left strewn in the entryway as the referee counted to ten. But when Sasha looked for a second Boston crab in the centre of the ring after working Bayley’s back, Bayley flipped her over and held on to tie the match at 2-2 with twelve minutes remaining.
Both athletes upped the aggression, and just as their energies appeared to be spent, Sasha took a hurricanrana but landed on her feet, delivering a belly-to-belly suplex of her own and seguing swiftly into the Bank Statement. Yet the strains of the match, and a targeted attack on the hand by Bayley, left Sasha unable to exert full pressure on her opponent’s neck. When Bayley slammed her fingers into the canvas, she was belatedly forced to break the submission, and the two women rose to their feet with just thirty seconds left on the clock. Sasha went once more for the Bank Statement, but Bayley reversed, and wrenched on Sasha’s shoulder and tore at her injured hand, compelling Sash to tap in the final seconds of this groundbreaking, supremely memorable match, easily fit to stand alongside the best that any wrestling promotion has ever offered. If WWE has enough sense to repeat the adventure, we should be in for an epochal main event come WrestleMania 33.