Like most fans of professional wrestling, my enthusiasm for it has ebbed and flowed quite a bit ever since I got hooked on watching Hulk Hogan, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, and the Ultimate Warrior toss people around in the late ’80s. I was a weekly TV watcher during childhood, drifted away around middle school, came back around again in the late ’90s, ignored it during college, then became mildly obsessed again around 2005. Oddly, though I no longer watch any of the weekly WWE TV shows with any sort of regularity, I’m more invested than I have ever been, thanks to the Internet.
But no matter what the state of WWE Raw has been, I have always enjoyed the live experience of going to a wrestling show. So when WWE rolled into Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for the first time for the TLC pay-per-view, I couldn’t pass it up.
For anybody who hasn’t been, the live experience is significantly different than watching on television. TV sometimes does a disservice to the size and scope of the performers. Everybody accepts that Ryback is a giant human being, but he’s a ridiculous specimen up close. Oddly, the scale has the reverse effect on the ring, which always looks smaller in real life than it does during broadcasts. Because of those two shifted perspectives, from my vantage point it appeared as though the Big Show took up half the ring.
Last night’s show (whose acronym stands for Tables, Ladders, and Chairs because of the several matches that incorporated those objects/weapons) also drove home how intricate and dangerous some of the matches can be. In the evening’s highlight, a group of interlopers calling themselves the Shield (Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns) squared off against Ryback, Kane, and Daniel Bryan (the latter two of whom refer to themselves as Team Hell No) in a TLC match. Considering the relative greenness of four of the six participants (only Team Hell No have logged veteran levels of ring time), it had the potential to be a total trainwreck. But it ended up being wildly entertaining, though not without some scary moments: In one of the most dramatic moments of the match, Ryback pulled Rollins off of a ladder and sent him crashing through a handful of tables. Rollins was slow to get up, though it’s possible he’s just really good at selling the intensity of the fall. (Masked wrestler Sin Cara also took a tumble through a table in the closing spot of a tag match earlier in the night, and he had a similarly difficult time getting up.)
But the best reason to go to a WWE show is the crowd, which is always a fascinating cross-section of humanity: Super-hyped kids and their parents, lifelong fans, jaded smarks, and people like myself who fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. The Brooklyn crowd was hot all night, and probably posed some problems for the broadcast team who had to explain why storyline bad guys like Daniel Bryan, CM Punk, and Wade Barrett were cheered as heroes. Part of that comes from the more devoted fans’ understanding of the excellence of their work, and part of that comes from a deep-running contrarian streak that fuels a lot of wrestling fandom on the Internet.
That split sentiment ran deepest during the main event, which saw WWE poster boy John Cena take on upstart Dolph Ziggler in a ladder match. Up until that point, the monstrous Ryback had received the greatest crowd reaction of the evening, and I didn’t think anybody would be able to top it (people adore chanting Ryback’s catchphrase “Feed Me More!”). But for the duration of Cena and Ziggler’s fantastic match, the Brooklyn crowd laid in dueling chants of “Let’s Go Cena!” and “Let’s Go Ziggler!” (with the steadfast “Cena Sucks!” thrown in there for good measure). And it was loud – despite my proximity to the indoor pyro, my ears only rang during the final showdown. To his credit, Cena has been booed a lot despite his status as the promotion’s top hero for the better part of seven years, and he took everything in stride, even going as far as baiting the crowd with a curtsey after a particularly electric comeback spot. And when Cena paramour AJ Lee turned on her man, knocking him off a ladder that allowed Ziggler to win the match, the place absolutely erupted. It was a tremendous bit of high drama that capped off a largely electric evening.
The show wasn’t perfect – the middle hour sagged a bit with the Miz’s interview segment (I love that guy, but I’ve always thought WWE’s talk shows were a waste of time), and Barrett’s match against Kofi Kingston didn’t have as much heat on it as I expected. But TLC was a great victory for WWE: the in-ring action was exceptional (in addition to the main event and the six-man TLC match, the chairs match between Big Show and Sheamus was also top-shelf), and the show also did a nice job of setting up and elevating a lot of new characters for the coming year. One of the common complaints is that WWE doesn’t do a good enough job of creating new stars, but the TLC show not only established the Shield as a charismatic new force (Ambrose is a particularly dynamic performer), but also elevated Ryback, United States Champion Antonio Cesaro, faux intellectual Damien Sandow, and even Naomi, who had previously only been seen as a dancer next to the Funkasaurus but who put on a nice show against WWE Divas Champion Eve Torres after winning a pre-show battle royal. All these characters are unique and compelling, and they made a strong case for checking in on their weekly adventures.
What did you think of WWE’s TLC show? Did it play differently on TV than it did live? Let me know in the comments!