Monday, 18 December 2017

Clash of Champions 2017 Review // AJ Styles vs. Jinder Mahal // WWE Championship

The final WWE PPV of the year had come around with very little fanfare, as the Clash of Champions card read more like a standard house show line-up, full of feuds that appeared to have ended and very little else. The SmackDown branded event saw Jinder Mahal receive his expected WWE Championship rematch against AJ Styles, desperately seeking a match that would be described with brighter terms than "average" in the main event. The upper end of the card featured Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn tagging up to face Randy Orton & Shinsuke Nakamura in a match piled high with gimmicks and stipulations as Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan operated as dual special guest referees and a potential loss for Owens & Zayn would result in their WWE contracts being terminated, whilst Charlotte Flair put the SmackDown Women's title up against Natalya in an oddly balanced Lumberjack Match. Could Clash of Champions recover from it's half-arsed build? Lets take a freaking look, hen.

WWE Championship // AJ Styles (C) def. Jinder Mahal // Submission 

As always we begin our review with the main event, a contest which saw Jinder Mahal provide a career best performance, opposite the superlative AJ Styles. I'm not going to go overboard, but this was a good match and, considering Mahal's previous PPV efforts against Randy Orton and Shinsuke Nakamura, should be considered a Christmas miracle and further prove that Styles is the best professional wrestler in WWE right now. The bout's story was the cliche "simple, told well" situation, with Styles locking in a Calf Crusher early, before a limping Mahal turned the tide by dropping the champion midriff first across the top rope. Mahal would focus on the ribs for the rest of the match, before Styles was once again able to lock in his signature submission, when Mahal abandoned his game-plan and went for a Styles Clash and, after a sustained period in the hold, Jinder was finally forced to submit. Mahal did a solid job of selling his right leg just enough to keep the injury in the back of the viewer's mind, whilst I felt Styles was on fine form when fighting from underneath.

The contest was maybe a little long (making up for a six match card), coming in as Mahal's longest non-gimmick PPV bout, but there was good feeling of momentum throughout, even during the Canadian's lengthy periods in control. Mahal bought a good intensity, that was missing from some of his earlier matches, whilst also mixing up his moveset, pulling out a double knee gutbuster and a variation on Ryback's Shellshocked, as he continued to work over Styles' ribs. I also got a kick out of the little touches from Styles as he tried to fight through the injury, highlighted by the creative Ushigoroshi where the Phenomenal One bounced Mahal off the ropes first in order to be able to get him up for the Fireman's carry part of the move. After playing a big part in the build up, the Singh Brothers' involvement was kept to a minimum and whilst the bumping bad boys have generally been the best element of any Mahal main event, it allowed for a much more satisfying contest and meant Jinder's intensity could come through. They did however provide the bouts best near fall after getting battered by the WWE Champ on the floor and allowing Mahal to land a Khallas for a long two, calling back to every Jinder match since May. 

After the match, my main feeling was that AJ Styles had looked like an absolute star throughout the event. Following back to back losses on PPV to Finn Balor and Brock Lesnar (as well as dropping the US title to Baron Corbin in a three way), his performance here, both in and out of kayfabe, was a pleasing sight. In story he took an arse-kicking, dug deep and used his technical prowess to outsmart an act who'd got the better of Randy Orton and Shinsuke Nakamura on multiple occasions and out of it, he helped a limited performer to the best bout of his career. His interview on Talking Smack added to Styles aura as a special talent, as he put over Mahal's effort, bought up some interesting points about the Singh Brothers' involvement and just generally came across as a star. After a disappointing feud with Kevin Owens cooled Styles' summer, his form in the last three months of 2017 has been outstanding, putting on top tier matches with Balor and Lesnar in October and November, before seeing the year out by pulling a talent to a match that many thought he was incapable of achieving, even with the companies best.  

Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn WWE Contracts on the Line // Special Guest Referees: Daniel Bryan & Shane McMahon // Kevin Owens & Sami Zayn def. Randy Orton & Shinsuke Nakamura // Pinfall 

What seemed like a needlessly overbooked match heading into the show ended up being just that as Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Shinsuke Nakamura and Randy Orton went through the motions, whilst Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan pissed around as special guest referees. Despite previously mentioning in a backstage segment that they would discuss how they would deal with the match "in private", Bryan and McMahon almost instantly began arguing over who should be counting the falls. What the fuck did they talk about? Dad things, probs. Whilst Orton was busy looking like he'd rather be anywhere else for most of the match and Nakamura was running through a tepid tag (like a hot tag, but not...that hot?), we were treated to McMahon and Bryan splitting the ring in half to decide who should count the pinfalls. This took way way too long to achieve, meant there was very little meaningful action and didn't amount to much anyway. 

The bout was saved from being a complete dud by a fun closing section. This featured some decent near falls for both sides and a number of soap-opera style moments, even if there was a lack of anything genuinely surprising. Saying that, Daniel Bryan did kind of take a bump in WWE in 2017, almost certainly leading to a thousand opinion pieces predicting an imminent 2018 return, as Owens pushed him on McMahon to deny Orton the win after an RKO on Zayn. Shane flatout refusing to count the pinfall for the heel team got a strong reaction, whilst the fast-count from Bryan should lead to some interest surrounding Tuesday's SmackDown. There was also a cool highspot where Zayn aided Owens in hitting Nakamura with a running splash from one announce table to another. However, two minutes of quirky back and forth, doesn't a good twenty minute match make. 

I'll let it be known that I'm not interested in seeing a Shane McMahon vs. Daniel Bryan feud on SmackDown, perhaps if I was then I'd have enjoyed this clash a little bit more and be more hyped following it's conclusion. McMahon has been featured way too heavy for my liking on SD Live in 2017 and whilst I'll give him some leeway for having a very good match with AJ Styles at WrestleMania 33, it's been a case of diminishing returns when he's been pushed into storylines with other top talents. If WWE are willing to let Bryan compete again, it will definitely be on a limited basis and when you have a roster packed with better in-ring talent than WWE has ever had, it would be extremely wasteful to put The American Dragon in their with the boss' son. That being said I'd take McMahon vs. Bryan over the rumoured Bryan vs. Cody (Rhodes) contest on the indies! (Just realised I've barely talked about any of that actual competitors in the match, but that's pretty much how the match was put together, so there) 

SmackDown Women's Championship // Lumberjack Match // Charlotte Flair (C) def. Natalya // Submission

A hot mess of a Lumberjack match, that was dominated by it's gimmick and featured very little of anything else. Beyond the finish, I couldn't name one sequence that Natalya and Charlotte Flair had with each other, as most the bout's action was one throwing the other to the outside and that person either getting beaten up by the rag tag Riott Squad and the rag tag bunch of Carmella, Lana and Tamina or the bout's sole babyface lumberjack Naomi. Mixed into the generic lumberjack antics we had whomever put the match together throwing shit at the wall and seeing what stuck as we got the two heel groups squabbling over who got to beat up Flair leading to a springboard crossbody from Naomi to take everyone out, a teased Money in the Bank cash-in from Carmella before the Lumberjacks stormed the ring for no particular reason and then Flair nailing a beautiful moonsault to the floor onto everyone but Lana, who bumped anyway, seemingly out of sheer FOMO.

With the entire Women's division involved (and bizarrely every Lumberjack getting their own entrance), one would've expected an element of storyline progression or something to justify everyone being involved. Unfortunately, that wasn't present, with most of the match simply...just kind of happening. I'm not quite sure what Natalya's promo was all about after the match, but maybe Lana has a point on Total Divas (seriously, that might be my favourite feud in all of WWE right now). On the other side of the coin, Charlotte Flair owned her appearance on Talking Smack, once again making me sad that the show is no longer a weekly affair, as even with notorious dweeb Sam Roberts hosting this was a fun watch. With a visible mark on her face from her scrap and real emotion in her voice throughout, Flair talked about wanting to become an irreplaceable attraction in WWE and it was wonderful. Real emotion is so important for driving professional wrestling television and WWE needs to be harnessing this more often, as Flair came across as a relateable and likeable human being, something which isn't always the case on SmackDown.

SmackDown Tag Team Championships // The Usos (C) def. Big E & Kofi Kingston and Shelton Benjamin & Chad Gable and Rusev & Aiden English // Pinfall

Standing out amongst the pack, the four way tag bout was my favourite contest of the night. Following two entertaining promos from Rusev & Aiden English and The Usos, the match kept the crowd hot with multiple spills to the floor in the early goings, before settling down and then launching into a great closing stretch. Rusev and English might not be the Best Boys, but their probably in the top twelve and their extended period of near falls and Accolades was handled nicely, with the live crowd hot for every moment. Chad Gable looked like the Gable we chanted about during that first UK NXT tour (remember that?) and just kept hitting Chaos Theories on anyone in sight, including one that appeared to have straight up murdered English. Those last three, four or five minutes was some of the most fun I've had watching WWE this year. The bout wasn't without it's own problems however, as having four lads in at one time lead to a little clunkiness, seen notably with an awkward double faces in peril sequence transitioning into an Uso and Big E simultaneous hot tag that didn't come across as well as I think it could have. 

In a night where AJ Styles seemed to be finally cemented in a top role in WWE, I got a similar feeling when The Usos overcame significant challenges to walk out with the blue and silver belts once again. Considering the breakout performance from Chad Gable and how many near falls the popular Rusev and Aiden English tandem got, it felt like The Usos had come up against a significant threat, faced kayfabe career best performances and walked out with the tag titles anyway, making the most of an slip-up by Gable and, perhaps most importantly, winning with their finishing sequence. It would have been easy to hot shot the belts onto Rusev and English, who are riding a wave of Rusev Day-based euphoria, but Jimmy and Jey have had a magnificent 2017, in the ring and on the microphone, winning fans over with their Uso Penitentiary gimmick and completely earned this showpiece victory. It would seem like the duo will work a programme with the Bludgeon Brothers in early 2018 (a team they had two good matches with back in the summer of 2014), with this being hinted at during Talking Smack.

United States Championship // Dolph Ziggler def. "The Glorious" Bobby Roode and Baron Corbin (C) // Pinfall

Whilst the match came together for seemingly no reason, Dolph Ziggler, Bobby Roode and Baron Corbin outworked the prior booking, putting on a good opener with a surprising ending. The early stages weren't doing much for me and whilst the one in, one out style was okay, it lacked pace and any real story to get my teeth into. Then seemingly out of nowhere the three were all in the ring together and put together a flowing back and forth sequence including a Ziggler dropkick and concluding with a lovely Deep Six from Corbin. After that we were off to the races, with a classic tower of doom spot and a very good near fall for Roode off a Glorious DDT to Ziggler. The finish was a difficult-looking spot, timed to perfection, as Corbin got Roode up for an End of Days, only for Ziggler to slide in from behind and hit the then US Champion with a Zig Zag for an unanticipated victory. Perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised that The Show-Off finally regained the belt he lost to Zack Ryder six years ago as WWE has developed a habit of having guys who have no right to be in multi-man contests walk out with the win over the last couple of years. Ryder's Intercontinental Championship win at WrestleMania 32 and Jinder Mahal becoming #1 Contender to the WWE title in April spring to mind.

Side note: Later on, we'd see Corbin launch a plastic bin at a door. 

Mojo Rawley def. Zack Ryder // Pinfall

My expectations weren't high for this one, but you know what it was exactly what it needed to be. Zack Ryder worked hard and Mojo Rawley looked like a bastard. Ryder starting proceedings by furiously going after his former tag team partner got over the personal issue between the two arguably better than any other match on the card, with the clothesline over the top rope punctuating things well. The bump from the top rope to the floor that Ryder took was well placed just before the break as well. The finish seemingly coming out of nowhere put over Rawley's explosive power, as he cut short a Ryder comeback with a chop block to the knee that had cost the team a tag title shot, before twatting his old pal with a running forearm shot in the corner to seal the deal. Rawley has potential as a heel, after years as a dull blue-eye, but not everyone will bump around for him like Ryder did here and not every match will hide his weaknesses so well.

The Bludgeon Brothers def. Breezango // Pinfall 

A pretty straight-forward squash match with Harper and Rowan having a counter for everything and anything that Tyler Breeze and Fandango had to offer, before winning with the double crucifix powerbomb.


Looking down the card and having watched the build, it was difficult to remember that Clash of Champions was even taking place. Yet, when I finished watching the show I realised I'd had a much better time watching it than I was expecting to. Whilst the Owens & Zayn vs. Nakkers & Orton and the Women's Lumberjack match were booked to death, almost everything else delivered above expectations. The Four Way tag was top of the pile, but Jinder Mahal pulling a good main event out made me bizarrely happy and fuzzy inside, as well. Yes, it could have been booked better and the time could have been used better (two Women's matches, surely?), but I spent more time thinking "Oh that was quite nice" than thinking "What the fuck is this happening for?" which hasn't always been the case with WWE this year. 

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