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Clash of Champions: Full of Surprises, One of them Good - by Big Vin Vader

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It's been hard to get excited about WWE for a while now.  Jinder Mahal's world title reign was interminable, sacrificing Shinsuke Nakamura and delivering the exact same title match every PPV.  They brought back the Punjabi Prison match, for God's sake, not to mention the Great Khali himself.  Those were just a few bad moments over a six-month run, and these things can really wear you down as a fan.  Even with quality matches on most of this year's PPVs, the late-season shows just seemed to pass by, with little that happened after SummerSlam feeling exciting or worthwhile.  It’s been an open secret all year that SmackDown was the superior program, but having Jinder in the top role for so long showed blatant disregard for the fan base and really hurt the product.  Things were so bad that even having AJ Styles beat Jinder and regain the world title didn't quite solve the problem.  And that brings us to Clash of Champions.

This is strictly a B-level show, and there wasn’t much to get excited over, even with the "every title on the line" theme of the PPV.  There never seems to be a real risk of any titles actually changing hands, and that was true for all but the US title.  Instead, the show's undercard looked to deliver the most quality-wise.  As always, Kevin Owens looked to be the MVP of the night, partnering with Sami Zayn to take on Randy Orton and Shinsuke Nakamura.  The stakes were high, with Owens and Zayn risking being "fired" from the company if they lost, continuing the Owens/Shane McMahon feud.  Even more interesting was the opportunity to further develop the storyline, as both Shane and Daniel Bryan acted as special referees, and there seemed to be a divide brewing between the two.  Unfortunately, that match kind of sucked, with Bryan and Shane hogging the attention and leaving us with a mess.  That match, on paper potentially the most entertaining, was the only truly bad thing on the show.  Clash on a whole was just another case of WWE underperforming, delivering a handful of matches that were just fine, nothing more.  Only the US title match really delivered anything in terms of above-average quality, and that would hardly have stood out on a more stacked card.  Keeping things brief with only six matches on the show was a good call, even if several overstayed their welcomes, but it was hard to take much offense at the way the majority of things played out.  Overall, it was a quiet, not-too unsatisfying end to WWE's overstuffed PPV calendar.

One plus on WWE shows this year is that they generally started off on a strong note.  The US title match between Baron Corbin, Dolph Ziggler, and Bobby Roode was a great opener, all the more exciting because it looked so bland going into the show.  Ziggler has stumbled around for most of the year, having no chance to show the fire he did during last year's career-saving feud with the Miz.  Instead, he's been floundering as a heel, mocking other wrestlers' entrances, and feuding with Roode since the summer, which is a shame because is such a well-rounded worker who really knows how to get the fans invested.  Corbin's year has been rocky as well, being stripped of his MITB briefcase shortly after winning it as punishment for a backstage incident.  He regained some of the company's faith, winning the US Title in a very solid match at Hell in a Cell.  Roode has always been a solid in-ring performer, but has done little of note since his call-up from NXT, and his matches with Ziggler delivered middling to fair results.  In theory, this was the same as that series: full of potential but likely to be bogged down due to poor match planning and layout.  Instead, the three delivered an action-heavy, fast-paced match with a compelling story and which built on the existing rivalries between each man.  Roode wrestles like it's still 1986, methodical, NWA-styled work, pulls it off against the high-speed modern WWE product. Corbin is a decent, but unexceptional powerhouse, and Ziggler brings an exciting athletic style to the mix, which has failed to mesh well with Roode's style in the past.  This time around, everything clicked and the match delivered the sort of action that's been missing from all of their work for quite some time.  Definitely the highlight of the show, and even more notable for Ziggler hitting a double Zig Zag to steal the title from under Corbin.  Oddly enough, on the SmackDown following the show, Dolph seemed to vacate the title and possibly quit the company, so who knows what’s going on.  Still, it was a great moment of surprise to see him win since he was the dark horse of the match by a long stretch.

Some of WWE's best matches of the year have been tag team contests, and a number of those were part of the New Day/Usos feud.  The Usos are some of the most convincing heels on the roster currently, and their newfound ruthlessness has put them at the top of SmackDown’s tag division.  The New Day are always to be over with fans, and this feud has brought their in-ring work up several notches, showing their all-around potential.  All three members are putting in some of their best performances in a long while, and their natural chemistry with the Usos has kept the rivalry fresh far longer than expected.  That said, their great match at HIAC should have put an end to the feud, and it would have felt stale to offer that same pairing yet again.  Of course, a four-team match for the titles isn't the solution I would have personally suggested.  Having that many bodies in and around the ring at one time is distracting and confusing, and half of the time I wonder where I should be focusing.  It was also puzzling to include two teams who are pretty much cobbled together in the other two corners, and at no point did it really seem like the Usos were at risk of losing their titles.  Rusev is one of WWE's most underrated wrestlers, and he was my pick for MVP in the match, showing off his surprising athleticism and begging for another singles title run.  It's funny how pairing him with the obnoxious Aiden English has practically turned Rusev face for the crowd.  Chad Gable and Shelton Benjamin are both amazing wrestlers, but are both somewhat lacking on the mic.  They clearly were paired with one another for those similarities, and also because creative has no other plans for them at the moment.  Much as I enjoy watching them work, they never seemed like credible threats to the Usos, and did nothing extraordinary in this match.  The whole thing was about as exciting and predictable as I've made it sound, and there were no surprises, especially when it came to the Usos retaining.  Again, this wasn't a bad match, and the wrestling itself was very solid and dependable.  Something was just missing though, and it was hard to get too excited when it seemed like WWE was treading water.

Up there with the let-down of the Owens/Zayn match, another big disappointment was the underwhelming Women's Title Lumberjack Match between Charlotte and Natalya.  Lumberjack matches are kind of useless, and I don't think I've seen one I truly enjoyed.  In the end, you know that the competitors are going to try and get their opponent out of the ring and waste match time by having them beat down by the lumberjacks.  Charlotte and Natty can flat-out go in the ring when they're given the opportunity, and they have all the potential in the world to deliver a technical classic.  They've done it on a number of occasions in the past.  This particular iteration of their rivalry, however, has been anything but a success, and I really miss the days when smiling babyface Natalya tried and failed to best ruthless heel Charlotte.  Their last PPV match at HIAC was a mess, a one-sided beatdown that saw Natty get herself disqualified after several unsatisfying minutes.  For some reason, each of the lumberjacks got their own entrance, which ate up even more unnecessary time.  As expected, it seemed like more than half of the match had either of the wrestlers being tossed out of the ring and getting stomped on the floor by the crowd of lumberjacks.  All of that stop-and-start action kept them from putting on any sort of cohesive clinic in the ring, and the focus seemed to be on the lumberjacks as much as the two in the match itself.  Probably the weirdest point was when Naomi, one of the lumberjacks, hit a flying cross body to break up a scuffle.  I didn't know lumberjacks were allowed to hit high flying moves.  In the end, after maybe five total minutes in-ring, Natty tapped to the figure eight and Charlotte retained the title.  That was the right call, Charlotte is the sort of wrestler who adds to the prestige of a championship while she holds it, and she was definitely in worse shape the majority of this year when she didn’t have a title around her waist.  If only they would turn her heel once again, and let her put on serious matches unfettered by ridiculous stipulations, she could easily return to her former place as the best female wrestler in the company (Asuka's booking will determine if she can claim that spot).
The squash match between Breezango and the Bludgeon Brothers was everything it needed to be: a quick, decisive win for the newest incarnation of Luke Harper and Erick Rowan, allowing them to look dominant.  Luke Harper is even more underrated than Rusev, a big man who can move fast and keep pace with nearly anyone on the roster.  His year has been very up-and-down, barely appearing in the earliest and middle months, while also looking like a serious potential challenger for Bray Wyatt's world title at WrestleMania.  This current repackaging is hardly flattering, and the name is pretty godawful, but he and Rowan seem to be getting a somewhat decent push as monster heels, so I can't complain as far as that goes.  No sub-two- minute match is going to be a classic, and this was no exception, but it was perfectly to the point.  Breezango lost nothing in their defeat, especially since they're one of the few exceptions who actually thrive more as entertainers than athletes, and they have their roles down.  There wasn't a whole lot of substance to this match, and that's fine.  It accomplished what it needed to and didn't overstay its welcome.

Instead of a fast-paced classic, the Zayn/Owens vs. Orton/Nakamura "firing" match was a sprawling twenty-minute mess bogged down by stupid antics from special refs Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan.  Given the talent of the wrestlers involved (it's not a bad thing when Randy Orton is the weakest link in a match), this one should have been the easy match-of-the-night winner.  Instead, it was on the lesser end of the spectrum by far, grouped in with the women's title match because its goofy stipulation got in the way of telling a satisfying story in the ring.  Owens and Zayn are the best heels on the SmackDown roster, the perfect team to spit in the face of SmackDown's establishment and shake the brand up.  Nakamura has been terribly mishandled since debuting, wasted in weak feuds and sacrificed to the Jinder Mahal experiment.  That said, he’s still the most uniquely charismatic star on the roster, and the crowd has taken to him like nobody else, so he can still be salvaged.  Beyond that, he and Zayn had a barn-burner of a match last year in NXT, and Owens showed himself to be equally as compatible with Shinsuke on last week’s SmackDown Live.  Given all of that, the action that took place in the ring was perfectly fine, smooth and professional with a number of pleasing spots and exchanges.  But it was all touch and go, and Shane and Bryan kept getting in the way as they teased out their tense relationship.  McMahon was firmly against Owens and Zayn, and Bryan was reluctantly in their corner for the sake of fairness.  They argued constantly and got in the competitors’ ways as they bickered over whether something really was a three count and complained about one another’s calls.  The finish was the low point, as Shane refused to count a pin from Zayn beyond two, so Bryan took it upon himself to fast count it an instant later.  A cheap ending that had nothing to do with the people actually wrestling the match, and made everything that came before it feel like a major waste of time.

Jinder Mahal winning the title was as terrible a moment as AJ Styles finally beating him for it was a great one.  Thing is, as ill-advised as the whole Jinder experiment turned out to be, it wasn't necessarily a creative train wreck as far as the wrestling itself went.  Sure, there were racist promos against Shinsuke, and way too many Singh brothers interference spots, but for a former enhancement talent Jinder did fine.  Not world champion fine, but none of his matches have been outright duds (save maybe his SummerSlam match with Shinsuke).  They've just been plodding, overlong, and uninteresting contests, repeating the same formula time and again, making the predictable outcome even more frustrating each time.  As amazing as he may be, AJ Styles does not share Bret Hart's gift of being able to carry far lesser workers to great matches, or at least not in Jinder's case he doesn't.  I don't really have much to say about this match, other than it felt incredibly long, and was worse to watch live than it actually was when considered as a whole.  The Singh brothers interfered, dispelling the notion that Jinder had severed ties with them, and AJ took them out quickly.  Styles was pretty much flawless, as he always is, but that was all his own doing, and even such sterling work couldn't turn this into anything memorable.  The only positive thing I can really say is that they gave AJ the win and kept the world title on him.  Hopefully this marks the end of the Jinder experiment and he finds himself shunted back down to the undercard.

Frankly, Clash of Champions was kind of a mirror of Jinder's world title reign itself: seemingly a lot on the line, but no real risks posed to anyone.  Even more reflective, it was neither good nor horribly bad, just underwhelming and fine.  It was just kind of there, unassuming and inoffensive.  It really wasn't a bad end to the PPV year, especially considering the Royal Rumble was one of the stronger shows at the very top of the year.  The quality was consistent throughout 2017, although there were a number of depressing lows that really made me question why I was watching.  Nothing on Clash was quite that bad, although large portions of the women's and Zayn/Owens match had me scratching my head.  Maybe I'm just burned out by so much content this year, and 2018's reduced PPV calendar is the solution I need.  I’m excited for the Royal Rumble, if nothing else.

Big Vin Vader cover WWE for Pencilstorm. Follow @bigvinvader