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Amidst growing concerns that the audience is becoming increasingly disillusioned with the product, WWE's final PPV of the year, TLC, delivered what was ultimately an enjoyable, east-to-watch show. While the show was good, it also highlighted a gap, both in the ring and creatively, between the two brands. While the main RAW matches ended up disappointing (outside of the women's title match) while the SmackDown matches managed to carry the show.
WWE seems keenly aware that RAW is lagging behind; they heavily promoted Monday's show, especially the return of Vince McMahon who vows to "shake things up" coming off a record low audience last week. It's unclear if the problems that plague RAW can be easily remedied through one Vince McMahon appearances. The major issues; a lack of star power and inconsistent or nonsensical storytelling, have been a problem for years and are only just manifesting themselves at a higher level thanks to injuries and fan fatigue. SmackDown, while not perfect, does a better job in both departments and that is why their matches were hotter (and better) than RAW's this evening.
Becky Lynch vs Asuka vs Charlotte: ****1/4
Really good main event. In the past it may have felt like WWE was putting the women in the main event as a publicity stunt, but that wasn't the case tonight; the women earned their rightful spot in the main event by being the hottest thing on the card. The TLC match was exciting but rough; poor Charlotte can't seem to ever go through a table cleanly and took a beating throughout the match. The crowd was more into this match than anything else on the card by far, and all three women were really over, with Lynch being the biggest star of the bunch.
I'm not sure about Rousey's involvement; she's already kind of crushed all her natural rivals on RAW and it's more interesting for her to be on SmackDown. However, there still seems to be a lot left unexplored between Lynch and Charlotte, and now Asuka is involved as well. Inserting Rousey into the mix kind of feels like WWE shoehorning their big investment into what is already a hot feud. I also thought the final ladder bump was kind of lame; Becky and Charlotte fell a short distance and I guess that was enough to knock them out of the match; it probably could have been more spectacular.
Seth Rollins vs Dean Ambrose: **½
So this was bizarre. For starters, this match was promoted as being an intensely personal rivalry, especially with WWE unabashedly using Roman Reigns' cancer diagnosis as a prop to make Ambrose appear more sinister. So what do they do in their first match against each other? They have a simple, basic wrestling match that killed the audience. This was arguably the least intense match on the show, I just don't know what they were thinking when putting this together.
On TV, the commentary didn't help. Putting Renee Young into the position of having to openly navigat kayfabe and the reality of being married to Ambrose, is awkward and they really leaned into tonight, which hurt the match. I had high expectations for Ambrose's heel run, but between the exploitation of Reigns' cancer, his awkward promos and this boring match, it's off to a really tough start and I think the crowd's interest reflected that.
AJ Styles vs Daniel Bryan: ****1/4
This was an excellent, fundamentally perfect match. They didn't do anything crazy, but the execution of everything, such as Bryan's counter to the reverse DDT, or the Phenomenal Forearm spot on the outside, was crisp and effective. The crowd got into it, but I can't help but think that this match would have felt like a bigger deal if it was in the main event and not the third match from top of the card. That isn't a knock against the main event, which was great, but it's disappointing that Styles hasn't been able to crack the main event on any PPV in 2018 despite the fact that he has been WWE Champion or in the title picture the entire time.
The finish was interesting; Bryan rolling up Styles is a clean win but it's not that decisive. I do like that Styles has the reputation of being a master, technical wrestler, and tonight he ran into a better one in Bryan who outwrestled him to win. They can do another match at the Royal Rumble and it'll be great, although I hope they don't make it a gimmick match.
Braun Strowman vs Baron Corbin: No Rating
Obviously there wasn't much to this match, hence the lack of rating. The goal here looked to be to bury Corbin and that is exactly what they did. I can't imagine things getting much better for him tomorrow on RAW. I'm not sure how interesting Strowman vs Lesnar is; we've already seen it and it wasn't like it was that great.
Ronda Rousey vs Nia Jax: ***
This match was laid out very well; Jax controlled most of the match but Rousey never sold for that long, and would bounce back with a cool spot which kept the crowd engaged and kept the shine on her. With Jax in her rear view mirror, I'm not sure what is next for her at the Royal Rumble. The three most interesting opponents for her are all on SmackDown in Asuka, Charlotte and Becky Lynch; which is probably why she got involved in the main event tonight.
Randy Orton vs Rey Mysterio: ***
This was a fun match that didn't get the greatest reaction from the audience, but was well-worked and had a neat finish with Rey running across the chairs and then rolling up Orton for the win. These guys are true professionals and it showed, especially with Orton's selling of the chair shots. Moving forward, I would really like to see Mysterio challenge Bryan for the title; Bryan actually being bigger than his opponent for once would be a fun wrinkle to go along with his heel character.
Finn Balor vs Drew McIntyre: **½
This was a perfectly fine match, but it didn't move the needle that much. I guess Drew probably should have won this match considering he's been protected so well since coming to RAW, especially because it looks like moving forward WWE is going with a Balor vs Ziggler feud. With that being said, wouldn't it have made more sense for Ziggler to cost Balor the match, instead of helping him win? That way Drew doesn't have to lose and Balor has a better reason for clashing with Ziggler.
Natalya vs Ruby Riott: **¼
I'm not a huge fan of working a real-life death into a storyline. In 2018, it comes across as a cheap and lacks authenticity. The match tonight was decent, they had a story to tell and they did tell it; although I think that Riott and Natalya are good enough to have a great match on their own without the gimmick of it being a tables match. Also, it kind of buried the Riott Squad since most fans see them as an ineffective group...and losing what essentially was a 3-on-1 handicap match is going to help with that perception.
The Bar vs The Usos vs The New Day: **¼
We all like these three teams, but there is some fatigue here watching them wrestle each other endlessly. They also didn't get a ton of time, when realistically a three-way title match between these guys could easily go 20 minutes. One of these teams should probably be loaned out to RAW given the pathetic depth of that brand's tag team division.