On the Triumph of Neville vs. Zayn, the Corporatization of Ladders, and the Blah of RAW

I have precious little to say about TLC which is a shame, because I think so fondly of the days when tables, ladders, and chairs meant something huge. A ladder match used to fill me with fearful excitement, and the crunch of a split table would stir in me a primal thrill. I used to try to write poetry about the iconography of hardcore, hardcore being a kind of revolution, a period of anarchy in which all bets are off. Tables, ladders and chairs grew out of this paradigm, in which the mundane elements of our working class lives become tools of violence in a metaphoric conflict that was ultimately about freedom and self-determination. It was decidedly anti-corporate.

Now it has all begun to look like careful stunt work. Don’t get me wrong, I admire the hell out of our wrestlers’ mad skills. You don’t see me jumping off of ladders or throwing my body through a folding table. And Ziggler, Harper, Ambrose and Wyatt were of course excellent at TLC. It’s just that those the mind-boggling tables or ladder matches from, say, ten years ago set standards so high, there’s no way for them to be replicated or improved upon in a PG era. TLC matches are simply a dying art. Stairs was a worthy experiment and a novel way to pin somebody, but too clunky and obtuse to be exciting. The TLC paradigm has become corporate, and I’m not sure that can succeed. Whereas ladder matches used to be a cutting-edge method for breaking our ladder safety taboos, now they represent a course on which eager employees can “step it up”. Step it up as you climb the corporate ladder and maybe get to decorate your cubicle with a shiny award for a few weeks. If it’s going to be this way, the veneer of hardcore must fall away completely and the corporate story must somehow find a way to own the genre it has sanitized. I’m not sure that’s possible in the current risk-averse, corporate environment in decline.

And RAW was mostly filler, though I will admit I was intrigued by the main event cage match between Cena and Rollins. The evolution of Seth Rollins — from protected corporate weasel to desperate outlaw to Heyman ally — has been the most successful storyline development in the lawless environment that has taken hold in this post-Authority period. I’m left with questions, like what will become of J&J Security? Is Seth Rollins evolving toward a more likeable character? What might come of a Rollins-Heyman-Lesnar alliance? A successful story is the one that leaves me pondering the future. If WWE would get smart and play up this period as one of Wild West anarcho-capitalism with all its possible triumphs and perils, including Sting as a true vigilante, J&J Security as a proper posse, epic Mexican stand-offs, raids by armed bandits, and other spaghetti western motifs, that would be an awesome direction for the company. I’m not holding my breath, though.

But this post is not supposed to be about RAW or TLC. It is about a match that reminded me why I love wrestling, and it wasn’t in WWE proper: Adrian Neville vs. Sami Zayn, the main event of NXT Takeover: R Evolution. I need to digress for a moment to unpack the title of this pay-per-view: it made for a cumbersome hashtag, but it seems to me loaded with meaning. Is this meant to be the revolution we have all been waiting for? Is it also an evolution back toward a wrestling that is rated “R” instead of PG? This may be a coded message from Triple H, who I now must apologize for ever getting snide about. and who still can’t speak freely about his vision for the future in the larger company’s current snarl of corporate and crony politics.

So anyway, every match in the NXT pay-per-view was memorable, perfect even, but wrestling is evolving at such a rapid clip these days I can really only pause long enough to comment on the show’s main event, Neville vs. Zayn. This match was so well put together it’s hard to know where to begin!

Neville vs. Zayn represented the final chapter of a story that has been laid out with patience over the the entirety of Sami Zayn’s NXT career. It was a classic underdog story about a necessary loss of innocence, about Sami Zayn’s education in the dirty ways of professional wrestling. It was a perfect story for a developmental wrestling promotion. The match’s own  story came at just the right stage in the larger feud story, with Sami threatening to quit if he couldn’t overcome his inner-nice guy and finally win the championship belt from his best friend. In a rather unusual twist for a wrestling conflict, Adrian Neville played not an antagonist but a teacher, a dear friend aware of Sami’s deadly weakness, which is how sweet (and somewhat gullible) a guy he is. There was precious little gimmick and instead, fully developed characters laying out a perfect drama with their athletic moves and holds. The story unfolded at a perfect pace: every moment was utilized and nothing was forced, there was rising action, the conflict thickened and deepened, there were highs and lows for both players, and ultimately a well-earned triumph that satisfied both the dynamics of the story and the audience who had committed to it with such heart. There was no sudden brawl, no deus ex machina, no other random shenanigans, the cheap methods with which the WWE has come to handle its plot when it constantly paints into a corner with it deference to corporate interest. There was simply wrestling for wrestling’s sake, and a story told not by  costumes, props, and gimmicks but allowed to tell itself.

Neville was of course spectacular all around, but for the most part this match was a showcase for Zayn’s character and wrestling. The stakes were high here: in the story, Sami had put his entire career on the line if he didn’t win the championship. He was presented as the wrestler who feeds off the crowd, and his living up to this billing was a large part of what made this match so memorable. Sami is, I’m sure, a nice guy, but he also plays a nice guy with the skill and broad brush gestures of a silent film star. His honest expressions, even though they are rooted in melodrama, are so effective it’s a little hard to fathom that he’s acting, especially since he’s the kind of wrestler whose character is based in his own personality. But if you watch this match again, look for his nervous eyes during Neville’s entrance and his small smile when he realizes the crowd is still singing his song after Neville’s music fades. Watch for the largeness of his concerned expressions when the ref gets knocked in the head and his doe-eyed stares in moments of doubt. Don’t miss the flourishing sweep of sweat from his face when he goes in for his final kick and pin, and the deliberate way he rubs his eyes when he finally gazes at the belt as his own. And what a moment, when Sami had the opportunity to knock Neville out with the belt, battled his internal conflict, and almost lost the match before emerging with an honest win! It is a wrestler like this with whom the audience can develop a genuine personal relationship. We can let ourselves believe every thing he sells us. After months of laying the groundwork for the depths heroic character, Sami didn’t even need to rouse the crowd to cheer. The crowed cheered for him without any prompting because he is just that good.

The wrestling itself in this match was also a sight to behold.  These two showed their mad skills as they cycled through so many wrestling motifs: the quick sequences of hold reversals, classic submission holds, a wild moonsault and tilt-a-whirl backbreaker, the specal treat of a series of German suplexes, and even a straightforward stretch of angry punching. We also got the thrill of a lawless period when the ref is knocked out and all bets are off (complete with slower counting from the ref when he came to). The moments of pause for rest were filled with the drama of the conflict, and every attempt at a pin was a nail-biting moment to hold our breaths. The wrestling was so good because each move, hold, and maneuver was used at just the right moment to further the story with its emotional impact. And even after all of Neville’s breathtaking acrobatics, I can’t recall quite as impressive a move as Sami ambushing Neville with a diving DDT thingy through the corner of the ropes! Holy shit! How did he not hurt himself?

This match, and really the entire pay-per-view, can and should be used as an example to argue that wrestling can ascend to a level of serious art, even as it maintains its populist appeal. NXT makes us feel as if we’re watching an awesome indy promotion, something people drive for hours to watch so they lose themselves in a deeply satisfying story told through an athletic exhibition. It gives them the opportunity to exchange energies with heroes, who in turn feed off their admiration. (For further reading on this, check out my theories on wrestling’s exchange of energies in this post about a Rob Schamberger painting of Daniel Bryan.)

As much as I loved the match itself, the shocking betrayal in the end has me positively giddy for the next episode of NXT. The surprise heel turn of Kevin Owens after even the appearance of the copyright on the screen had an old-school surprise ending feel about it. We were led to believe that the victory celebration was a break in kayfabe, a celebration of a wrestling achievement outside the confines of the show’s fiction, so for Owens to turn on his best friend in the final seconds left our heads spinning! That powerbomb off the apron — that’s what it was called, right? thowing Sami’s neck against the ring like that? — was brilliantly shocking. It was a move that made me truly concerned Sami might have a concussion. He doesn’t, right? That’s how well they got me.

I am excited about Kevin Owens to a degree that would alarm a non-believer in wrestling. Here is a wrestling character type we have been lacking for a while in the WWE: a genuine backyard heel. To me, the “KO” styled like duct tape on his T-shirt marks the Kevin Owens character as an homage to backyard wrestling. I knew backyard boys who looked just like him in Las Vegas. He’s also a big guy flyer! How kick ass is that? His wrestling and the shock of his heel turn set a tone that Kevin Owens is going to be a handful, and will test our champion Sami Zayn in ways he has yet to be tested. It was eerie to watch Kevin Owens in second and third viewings of this match. He seemed truly overcome with emotion when he gave Sami hugs, but what if it was premeditated? What if what I took for best friend emotion was actually a freakout of internal conflict as he worked up the nerve to jump his friend? And then, his seething after he finally did the deed — it had a white hotness about it, a kind of no regrets pathology, an embracing of his inner heel. What on earth will this young man have to say for himself this Thursday?

Look at how this entire story has kept me thinking about it and gotten me eager to watch NXT this week. Meanwhile, I’m avoiding vast swaths of RAW and Smackdown with increasing regularity.

I also want to write about a Sexy Star vs. Ivelisse match I caught on Lucha Underground, but I’m going to need time to study it a bit more. I actually think the Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks match in the NXT pay-per-view may have been influenced by it. Until then, I bid you adieu.

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