To casual wrestling fans, there’s only really four Pay-Per-View shows in the year that they care about: Royal Rumble at the start of the year, Wrestlemania in April, Summerslam in the well…summer and maybe, maybe Survivor Series in the Autumn.
Even hardcore fans of the sport will tell you that the other 12 events throughout the year are hit-and-miss at best, and aren’t worth getting up at bleary o’clock to sit through what amounts to Raw with less talking.
So was the case with this Sunday’s TLC (Tables, Ladders & Chairs), a yearly event which ties up loose story threads and lingering feuds before Survivor Series in November begins lining out the chess pieces that pave the long, convoluted road to Wrestlemania.
It was all set to be a standard, humdrum PPV with only the main event worth dragging yourself out of bed for, maybe… until a sudden and violent bout of illness hit the locker room and turned it into the must-see wrestling event of the year.
— WWE (@WWE) October 20, 2017
Viral infection 3:16 says I just kicked your ass
With days to go to the TLC event, reports began to leak from sources close to WWE that several key members of the roster were due to take a break from active duty due to illness.
The rumour mill went sped up to 619, with talk that the illness excuse was a cover for a number of high-profile walkouts over pay and conditions in recent weeks, most notably by female superstar Nia Jax and gravity-shunning Newcastle cruiserweight Neville (and for non-fans reading, yes, there’s a wrestler called Neville. Not Notorious Neville, not Nev-kill, just Neville).
However, the scuttlebutt proved to be untrue. This wasn’t a powerplay by wrestlers for better pay, this was viral infection, ravaging the talent and throwing the card for Sunday’s PPV into utter disarray.
Superstars confirmed to be stricken with the serious illness include the ‘Duck Dynasty meets David Koresh’ heavyweight Bray Wyatt, and company golden boy Roman Reigns, a cross between The Rock and someone that nobody likes.
Unfortunately, both men featured heavily in the most high-profile matches on the card.
Shield your eyes!
Leaving Wyatt’s match aside for a moment, Roman Reigns’ match was about the only reason that casual wrestling fans would have to tune in. Having headlined Wrestlemania for the past three years as a good guy or ‘face’.
Reigns was hated and booed by pretty much everyone in the crowd (WWE had to resort to lowering the arena audio on broadcasts to let Reigns be heard on live TV).
In fact, fans hadn’t cheered for Roman since the glory days of The Shield. The trio of wrestlers who ran roughshod over the industry from 2012 to 2014, consisting of shick brithouse Reigns, the permanently soaking-wet Seth Rollins, and Dean Ambrose, a man who spent the early years of his wrestling career taking Bosch strimmers to the back for 20 dollars at time in backyard promotions before ascending to the upper level of wrestling superstardom, effectively nullifying those ‘don’t try this a t home’ warnings forever.
Having split in 2014, all three enjoyed success as singles wrestlers, but even their greatest fans all wanted the same thing… they wanted The Shield to reunite. And this month, they got their wish – the three Hounds of Justice reformed to take on their greatest threat yet – The Miz, a man who looks like someone covered a weasel in Pritt Stick and got it to run through Debenhams.
But it wasn’t just The Miz, it was Sheamus and Cesaro – a tag team also known as The Bar (possibly because Cesaro loves bench pressing and Sheamus is Irish). And why not, throw in Braun Strowman, a man who looks like he first appeared on an episode of Rick & Morty where the guys visit a dimension made entirely of beef and hair.
It must be noted at this point, these men had no previous connections to each other. They just all glommed together for no, AND THE ROCK MEANS NO, apparent reason.
— WWE (@WWE) October 21, 2017
The bout was scheduled to take place as the main event of TLC, and crazy as it sounded, someone in the back thought it wasn’t crazy enough. The match became 5-on-3, with the fifth man being the returning Kane, who hadn’t been seen in a WWE ring since last November because Glenn Jacobs took some time off from wrestling to, and it may sound like we’re just mashing random keys here, run for mayor in Knox County, Tennessee.
Returning on Monday from beneath the ring, the Big Red Machine put aside his fight for lower taxes and more STOP signs outside schools in favour of a fight that made no sense to begin with and made less sense now. Still, it was shaping up to a spectacular, if perhaps macabre main event to an otherwise dour event… until the news came that Reigns was ruled out after succumbing to illness.
With postponing the event out of the question (and having Rollins and Ambrose heroically face the insurmountable odds of a 5-on-2 bout making too much sense from a storytelling point of view), the matchmakers behind the curtain were forced to go through their line-up and find someone who could fill Reigns’ boots…
Shirley you can’t be serious
In the movie Airplane!, the crew of a flight all fall victim to food poisoning, leaving air traffic with no choice but to place the safety of everyone on board in the hands of Ted Stryker, a former war pilot who hadn’t flown in years. Well, someone in gorilla must have been watching that movie when the news came about Reigns.
When the call came for one more man to stand up and take the place alongside the remaining members of The Shield, they looked through the long list of talented, in-need-of-the-airtime wrestlers who could step in, and then chose Kurt Angle.
— WWE (@WWE) October 21, 2017
Legitimate Olympic wrestling gold medallist Kurt Angle left the WWE 11 years ago after a successful run with the company, having clocked up a laundry list of atrocious injuries that wore him out.
Over the last decade, Angle put himself through hell in other promotions around the world as well as picking up (and defeating) a nasty case of alcohol and painkiller dependency.
Welcomed back into the WWE fold as a manager, fans knew it was only a matter of time before a now-healthy and healed Angle would step back into the ring in his blue and red togs to ankle-lock some fools, with perhaps a program of antagonisation with some punk starting in January that would lead to a triumphant return at Wrestlemania.
Instead, he’s being thrown in to the main event mix in a match that he has no stakes in with just three days’ notice.
This is like NBC announcing a Friends reunion, and replacing David Schwimmer with Niles from Fraiser the day before it goes on air. This is like Wayne Rooney lining out for Ireland against Denmark because Robbie Brady pulled a hamstring.
The graphic for the bout looks ridiculous – on one side you have Sheamus, Cesaro, The Miz, Strowman, and Kane, and on the other side you have Rollins, Ambrose and Kurt milk-drinkin’ Angle. It looks like a match you’d make on the WWE 2K18 videogame just to sit back and watch unfold while you did your homework.
It looks like a match that would take place on the bedroom floor of a kid who only owned those eight action figures and had to make them all fight together because it made no sense to leave one on the side-lines, like how you used to have to come up with some reason as to why three of the less popular Thundercats had to team up with Ram-Man from He-Man to defeat Skeletor and a BA Baracus that only had one arm.
And the match Angle is getting dumped into? A 5-on-3 handicap tag match, surely… something that he can tag in and out of at his own pace, right? Let the youngsters take the strain, then get the hot tag with three minutes to go, slap on an ankle lock and win the day, right?
Of course not! The TLC stands for Table, Ladders and Chairs, one of the most vibrantly violent and batshit crazy matches that WWE has to offer. Although the structure of the match was born out of the classic climb-ladder-to-retrieve-thing rules, it has long-since devolved into pure madness, nothing more than a regular match that involves a higher number of people falling off high things onto pointy things that would normally happen.
Angle is 48. Kane is 50. Rollins has taken out more wrestlers than Sunny. Ambrose is a crash test dummy. Strowman just pawn in game of life.
The whole thing is so ghoulishly delirious that it has transformed TLC from ‘meh’ to MY GOD ALMIGHTY HE’S BROKEN IN HALF. Literally anything could happen in the next half hour.
It’s either going to be a thrilling speed run of finishing moves and near falls somehow synchronising itself together by the grace of some unseen greater power, or it’s going to be the most spectacular train crash since the finale of Back To The Future 3. There is no middle ground here.
Kick-out on two
But aside from the main event, there was one more match that was had to be changed ahead of Sunday. Wicklow native Finn Balor was set to go one-on-one with Bray Wyatt, for the third time, in a summer-long feud that people stopped caring about after the first week, before Wyatt was forced to pull out due to illness.
The match had been shaping up to be cringe-fest: Wyatt was scheduled to dress in drag as he was invoking the spirit of his long-dead sister, and Balor was going to eschew his usual demon facepaint for that of a pumpkin, because no matter how much wrestling changes, some things always stay the same.
— Finn Bálor (@FinnBalor) October 21, 2017
With no dance partner for the Raw-based Balor, WWE opted to draft over AJ Styles from Smackdown for the night, answering the dream-match prayers of fans ever since the two men were signed to the company.
No goofy back-story. No gimmicks, no weird match stipulations. Just the two best wrestlers on the planet, going head-to-head in what will be an absolute classic, the type of wrestling match that wrestling fans show their non-wrestling friends, who in turn begrudgingly admit that ok, this is awesome.
— WWE (@WWE) October 20, 2017
And then this will be followed by the main event, which we’ve already established is going to be incredibly memorable for one reason or another.
Either way, TLC just became unmissable.