Sunday, September 19, 2021

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TLC in Review: Playing Dirty


Last night at TLC, the future became a bit clearer. As we exited the fog of the booking that turned the Divas Title picture on its head, we saw a champion’s character finally take shape and a possible new challenger step up.

Though her initial heel turn was woefully under-explained, Charlotte managed to make the most of it in her third title defense against Paige, finally putting the seemingly constant Ric Flair references to use in a way that enhanced her instead of just propping her up.

Meanwhile, thanks to a last minute spot on TLC Kickoff, Sasha Banks used a victory over Becky Lynch to stake her claim on the title, positioning herself to step in to the challenger’s spot. That is, unless Becky’s failing friendship with Charlotte takes narrative priority…

First up on the agenda is that very match, which took place late in the Kickoff show:

Sasha heads to the ring united, as always, with her Team B.A.D. partners Naomi and Tamina Snuka. The bust out a harmonica and a chorus binder to sing their own version of “12 Days of Christmas”, which has plenty of TLC references. Okay.

Becky then enters, completely alone, as the P and C to her B are too busy getting ready to fight each other.

Off the bell, the Divas circle and tie up, Sasha taking control with a side headlock. Becky twists out and locks in one of her own before taking Sasha to the mat. She pulls her to her feet slowly, Sasha twisting out and sending Becky into the corner. Sasha hits her with a monkey flip and goes for the pin, but Becky rolls it into a pin attempt of her own. Sasha kicks out and tries to pull Becky up by the leg, but Becky blocks it, locking in a side headlock.

The Divas runs the ropes and slip by one another until Sasha wins the exchange with a shoulder block. Sasha goes for the pin, but Becky bridges out. She runs the ropes and takes a flying Sasha down to the mat face first by grabbing her boot. She goes for an armbar, but Sasha finds refuge in the ropes.

Becky pulls Sasha away from the ropes, but she hangs on, hitting Becky in the face to fend her off. Still, Becky manages to latch on to Sasha’s arm and try for an armbar, but Sasha slips free. Becky takes back control quickly, taking Sasha down with a series of armdrags. She locks in an armbar. Sasha slowly gets to her feet and tries to toss Becky away, but Becky hangs on.

Sasha again get to her feet, but her attack is ducked, and Becky rolls her into a pin. Sasha kicks out, but Becky tries for another pin. Sasha kicks out again, but Becky answers with another armdrag into an armbar. Again, Sasha gets to her feet, but Becky hangs on to her arm. Sasha finally frees herself with a right hand and sends becky into the corner. Becky leaps over Sasha, though, and again takes her down to the mat for another armbar.

Sasha gets vertical and backs Becky into the corner, forcing her to break the hold. Becky dodges Sasha’s follow up attack and hits her in the chest with a springboard kick. A distraction from Naomi costs her, and Sasha set her up in the corner for a double knee drop. With that, we head to a commercial.

When we return, Sasha’s still in control, choking Becky against the ropes. Becky shoves her away, though, and she sends Sasha in the corner. On the return, though, Sasha flips and takes control, hitting a backstabber into a straightjacket hold! Becky manages to get to her feet, but Sasha gets her back on her knees, maintaining the hold. She bangs Becky chest-first into the mat and flattens her out. Slowly, Becky gets to her feet again, lifting Sasha into an electric chair position. Sasha rolls forward, though, and attempts a pin. The Divas trade pins before Becky sends Sasha into the turnbuckle and hits a string of offense that puts Sasha on the defense.

Becky hits a legdrop, but misses her second one, and Sasha hits a neckbreaker. She goes for the pin, but Becky kicks out. Sasha attempts two more pins, but neither get the job done. Sasha looks frustrated , and pulls Becky up by her chin. She slaps her in the face, and Becky answers with some uppercuts. She sends Sasha into the ropes, but the two trade control rapidly before Becky hits an explosive suplex! She goes for the pin, but Sasha breaks it by grabbing the bottom rope.

Sasha backs in to the corner and kicks Becky away. Sasha then charges at Becky, but is taken down with an armdrag! Becky locks in the Dis-arm-her! Sasha rolls Becky into a pin attempt, but Becky manages to shift back into the submission! Sasha again rolsl into a pin, but Becky won’t let go!

Tamina hops up onto the ring apron, distracting the referee as Naomi kicks Becky off of Sasha. Sasha then hits the backstabber and locks in the Bank Statement. Becky taps out!

In a post-match interview, Team B.A.D. talked to Tom Phillips about Sasha’s hometown win:

Sasha accepts Tom’s congratulations, saying her winning isn’t anything new. The trio’s good mood is dented, a bit, when Tom says the Boston crowd wasn’t thrilled to hear Team B.A.D.’s Christmas carol. They defend their carol, talking about how much time they put into crafting it. They dismiss Tom and continue chatting amongst themselves, patting themselves on the back and busting out a “UNITY!!!!” call.

Also on the Kickoff show was a confrontation between Ric Flair and Paige:

Paige says she’s not surprised that Ric is going to be at ringside for the Divas Title match, because this isn’t Charlotte’s night: it’s Ric. She accuses him of stealing Charlotte’s spotlight. Ric runs down both he and Charlotte’s accomplishments, and Paige reminds him that they’re both dirty players, which kind of undercuts their achievements.

Paige says it’s strange that he wants to be at ringside, especially after she slapped the taste out of his mouth on Raw. She says he’ll finally get a chance to “be there” for Charlotte when she loses the title.

Before she departs, Paige takes a swing at Ric, but he blocks it. He laughs at her, saying, “Not tonight, sister.”

Well, that was interesting. It’s nice to see the writing acknowledge that Ric’s involvement steals the spotlight from Charlotte, but the heel/face alignments here are still all wonky. Maybe the match can help clear things up…

On to the main show! Before we can get to the Divas Title match, it’s time to check in with Lana, who accompanies Rusev to the ring for his match against Ryback:

Thanks to some trickery and classic over-selling by Lana, Rusev eventually defeats Ryback.

After the introductions, Charlotte extends her hand, but Paige bats it away. Charlotte then attacks Paige, kicking her in the corner. When she tries to send Paige into a neighboring corner, Paige turns the tables, slamming Charlotte face first into the turnbuckle. She stomps on Charlotte until she’s taken to the mat. Charlotte crawls to the ropes, where Paige hits her with a barrage of knees. Paige mocking Ric, blowing him a kiss before reentering the ring.

Paige sends Charlotte into the ropes, but Charlotte kicks her on the return, running the ropes and going for a big boot that Paige ducks. Paige hits a kick of her own, sending Charlotte dropping to the mat, Ric Flair style. Paige tries to go for the pin, but Charlotte slips free, leaving the ring for a breather.

Paige taunts Charlotte before exiting the ring and following her. Ric stops her in her tracks, allowing Charlotte to run back ot the ring. When Paige tries to reenter the ring. Charlotte strikes, taking control. She hits a series of knee drops and goes for a pin, but Paige kicks out.

Charlotte chokes Paige against the bottom rope. Paige gets to her feet and backs into the corner, attempting to fend Charlotte off but only getting a neckbreaker for her troubles. Charlotte goes for the pin twice, both covers resulting in a near fall. Charlotte latches on a modified headlock, kneeing Paige to keep her weak.

Paige struggles, but Charlotte hangs on to the hold. When Paige gets to her feet, Charlotte slams her back to the mat and covers her, resulting in another kickout by Paige. Charlotte hits a knee drop to Paige and does the Flair strut before trying for another pin. Paige kicks out. Charlotte lifts up Paige for a bodyslam, but Paige slips free, latching onto Charlotte’s back and locking in a headlock.

After a few moments of agony, Charlotte drops Paige to the mat, freeing herself. Charlotte grabs Paige by the leg and goes for a Figure Four, but Paige kicks Charlotte away. Her momentum is short lived, though, as Charlotte takes her out at the knees and drags her to the corner, wrapping her legs around it and slamming her knee against the steel post. After one blow, Paige manages to fend Charlotte off, sending her into the post and laying her out.

After checking on Charlotte, Ric starts to mess with the turnbuckle cover in another corner. He’s caught by the referee, though, and stops. Charlotte gets back into the ring, and Paige is ready for her, taking her out with a series of kicks. When Charlotte backs into the corner, Paige nails her with a running knee. She drags Charlotte to the middle of the ring and locks in the Figure Four!

Charlotte rolls onto her stomach and reverses the hold! Paige makes it to the ropes quickly, though, breaking the hold. Paige fends off Charlotte momentarily, but is quickly met with a boot to the face, which flattens her. Charlotte climbs to the top rope, taking out Paige with a dive! She covers Paige, but it’s not enough for the pin.

Charlotte hits Paige with chops to the chest and goes for a neckbreaker, but it’s reversed into a fisherman’s suplex! Paige pins Charlotte, but the champ kicks out! Paige goes for a running knee, but Charlotte catches her, hitting her with a sick DDT. Charlotte goes for three consecutive pins, but Paige kicks out of each one.

Paige sneaks up behind Charlotte for a roll-up, but Charlotte kicks out. Both spring to their feet, but Paige strikes first, blocking a spear attempt with a knee. Paige mocks Ric as she pulls Charlotte to her feet, hitting the RamPaige! Ric grabs Charlotte’s boot, though, breaking up Paige’s follow-up pin attempt.

As Paige argues with the referee and Ric, Charlotte backs into the corner and finishes Ric’s turnbuckle tactic, removing the cover from the middle turnbuckle and smashing Paige’s face into it. She pins Paige immediately, earning the pin and the win. Charlotte it still your Divas Champion!

The father/daughter celebration commences and continues backstage, where they run into Becky Lynch. Becky says she’s happy Charlotte won, but she’s not happy about the tactics she used to do it. Ric says everything went down exactly as they planned it.

Charlotte invites Becky to celebrate with them, but she doesn’t seem to keen on it. Ric and Charlotte depart together, with Becky looking as confused as ever.

Lastly, Stephanie McMahon made a rather memorable appearance at the end of the show, witnessing the decimation of her husband, Triple H, at the hands of Roman Reigns:

You better watch your back, Roman. I mean…

Thoughts: Becky vs. Sasha was a pleasant surprise, to say the least. I wasn’t as crazy about the opening segment with Team B.A.D., though. I understand the temptation to make them into the female New Day, since that schtick really took off, and they’ve bonded behind the scenes, but I can’t help but see it as anything other than writers’ laziness. Let Team B.A.D. do their own thing. Don’t put them in skits that are outside their skill set. Let them be cocky and cool, not goofy and try-hard. Needless to say, I’d much rather see them carve out their own niche than be New Day Lite.

I really enjoyed Becky and Sasha’s match, especially for something announced at the last minute. These two proved that a match can be compelling without a story attached. It’s not the preferred scenario, but it’s always nice to know that we have Divas who can pull out a fantastic match with little to draw on. I’m not sure the WWE has an excuse not to put at least one of these women in the title picture.

Charlotte and Paige’s match was surprisingly entertaining. I was let down by their Survivor Series match and the rematch the next night on Raw, but this managed to breathe some life into their feud, Charlotte playing a full heel here and using Ric in every way she could. It wasn’t the smoothest match, and it wasn’t a mat classic, especially compared to what Becky and Sasha put on on the Kickoff show, but it served its purpose in a way their previous matches didn’t. Using the old turnbuckle trick was a great way for a heel to retain a title, showing both her craftiness and complete lack of integrity. If you didn’t think she was a heel yet, you do now. I came out of the match satisfied, but still wishing that the booking leading up to this didn’t feel so disjointed and muddy.

Just a few weeks ago, Paige was practically the devil incarnate, having invoked Charlotte’s dead brother to get inside her head. Real life backlash ensued, and their Survivor Series match was flat as a result, so the WWE decided to go another route with it, turning Charlotte heel. In the grand scheme of things, I’m glad they did, because this is the best way to use Ric, if they must insert him into this. He serves his purpose by influencing his daughter to use dirty tricks and come into her own as a heel. Looking at this storyline, though, it makes no sense. Charlotte never experienced a moment that would prompt her to throw away her golden girl persona in favor of playing a trickster. Paige never had her up against the ropes, so to speak. If she had, I could understand why Charlotte would regroup and change tactics. As it is, she had no reason to turn over a new leaf other than the writers’ apparent desperation to not let her title reign go to waste.

Paige, meanwhile, looks to be back as a babyface, which sucks, but is probably necessary, given how Becky is one of the only babyfaces left, unless you count Team Bella – with their mood ring-style alignment – as babyfaces. I can live with her being a babyface if she sticks to the edgier side of the spectrum.

The bright side is, once we move on from the Paige/Charlotte feud (hopefully starting on tonight’s Raw), the nonsensical side of Charlotte’s turn can be forgotten. Whoever challenges her next will see her as the heir to the throne of “dirtiest player in the game”, so there will no confusion as to who stands where. There will be no contradictions as glaring as Paige going from evil to sympathetic in a matter of weeks. I’m not sure exactly who that next challenger will be, though. Sasha seems to be set up for a title shot, having defeated Becky on the Kickoff show and being virtually unbeatable on the main roster, but Becky is the one who is positioned for a collision with Charlotte, as their friendship is gradually disintegrating. Maybe Becky’s being held off for later, with Sasha taking the challenger spot in the meantime. That would be extremely disappointing, because Sasha deserves better than a filler feud. Hopefully the WWE has other plans.

Regardless of what Charlotte’s next feud will be, I know this: each side’s motivations will be a lot clearer and, mercifully, not twisted beyond recognition based on the writers’ wills, as they were in the Paige/Charlotte feud. With Charlotte starting to own this new attitude, perhaps her Divas Title reign still has a chance of leaving a mark. She found a niche she can work with. Now she just needs a partner to dance with.

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