AJ Styles versus Dean Ambrose in a Tables, Ladders, And Chairs match for the WWE World Championship (Photo: WWE)

It’s only been two weeks since Survivor Series, a lumbering monster of a show that was defined by its dedication to big moments and brand warfare rather than the characters bringing them to life. And with that meaningless crossover event behind us and the venerable SmackDown! crew left to its own devices, the blue brand delivered a solid follow-up that stands in stark contrast to its bombastic predecessor. Even with its spectacle-minded conceit where nearly every match is based around some devastating weapon-based ruleset, TLC: Table, Ladders, And Chairs gave these performers the room to work and do what their characters do best. Unsurprisingly, the show was that much better for it.

That trend started as early as the Tag Team Championship match, which saw Bray Wyatt and his latest follower, Randy Orton, taking on the champs, Heath Slater and Rhyno. Aside from some early hoss-on-hoss action between Bray and Rhyno, this was a quick and easy win for the challengers. While it was an unceremonious way to go out for Beauty And The Man Beast, an odd couple of a team that rose to stardom on the back of Slater’s fantastic comedy work and the show’s willingness to run with it, the loss was anything but surprising. They were a pair who shocked the world when they won the belts and always felt like they were in over their heads. That’s never been more true than in this match, where they were pitted against a super-team of main-eventers. Of course Orton and Wyatt would make quick work of these Easy Cheese-eating goofs.

And speaking of in over their heads, that’s precisely the reality that came crashing down on Carmella in her no-disqualification match against Nikki Bella. Given Carmella’s inexperience and the fact that this was coming less than a week after a great no-DQ brawl between Sasha Banks and Charlotte, expectations for this match could not have been lower, but Nikki Bella put in one of her career’s best performances and turned this into a fight that was short, sweet, and stiff. Nikki was out for blood, and even when things got a little silly—the final stretch involved a whole lot of unloading a fire extinguisher at Carmella—it felt on point. Carmella had ruined Nikki’s return, hounded her for months, and even trash talked her loved ones. At this point, this match wasn’t just about hurting a loud-mouthed rookie; it was about humiliating her and putting her in her place.

Unfortunately, the other women’s match didn’t fare as well. We still got competitors playing to their roles—Becky Lynch, the wrestler, versus Alexa Bliss, the conniving scrapper in a tables match for the Women’s Championship—but in this case, the disparity led to a relatively flat, disjointed match. The finish was picture perfect, though. Bliss can’t outwrestle Becky, but she can outsmart her, so she took advantage of a slip up on the apron to send the champion crashing through a table with a great looking Powerbomb. The loss works well for Becky, too, who’ll be more fun to watch and root for as she chases down Bliss and tries to regain her title.

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By playing to their strengths as performers and characters, Baron Corbin and Kalisto delivered a genuinely great chairs match, a stipulation so dumb it’s usually enough to keep a match from being more than “barely watchable.” Kalisto is a creative and stupendously athletic luchador who’s been continually held down during his WWE run. He was finally given the time to shine and delivered in spades, putting together creative and painful looking moves, like a moonsault that ended with him driving his knees into a chair placed on Corbin’s chest. And Corbin deserves credit for being a fantastic dance partner. With a moveset that’s built around taking advantage of an opponent’s momentum, he’s uniquely suited to flinging around puny luchadores, and although Kalisto poured his heart out, unloading move after move, Corbin proved too tough and big for any of it to matter. With one slip up, he was able to capitalize, overpower, and end things. Sometimes the simplest stories work the best.

That said, no story in WWE is working better than that of The Miz and his eternal war of words with Daniel Bryan, the snobby wrestler’s wrestler turned backstage boss who attempts to give this cheating weasel of a champion a bit of comeuppance. Make no mistake: Dolph Ziggler has put in some great work as his feud with The Miz over the Intercontinental title drags on, including an emotional match at No Mercy that saw him putting his career on the line. But at this point, since Bryan can’t wrestle, Dolph is merely acting as his surrogate. This ladder match, which included some inventive use of ladders as weapons, was flecked with little references to the Dolph-as-Daniel Bryan story, the most obvious and novel of which saw Ziggler knocking The Miz off the top of the ladder after nailing him with a flurry of repeated headbutts, a la Dolph and Daniel at WrestleMania XXXI. The big difference? True to his nature as a softy who’ll avoid a fight as long as he can, The Miz didn’t headbutt back. He just kept reaching for the title while Ziggler attacked him. Of course, that wasn’t enough to stop The Miz from retaining. He took the low road, as he’s wont to do, dropping Dolph with a few brutal kicks to the junk and grabbing the belt.

AJ Styles versus Dean Ambrose in a Tables, Ladders, And Chairs match for the WWE World Championship (Photo: WWE)

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As is typical for these TLC shows, by virtue of going on after two hours of weaponized spectacle, the main event had its work cut out for it. But if anyone can get a crowd reenergized in a spot like this, it’s AJ Styles. He did what he always does: throw himself all over the place and make everything look like it’s breaking him in half. Ambrose, who in a former life cut his teeth in the hardcore matches of Combat Zone Wrestling, did his part, busting out wacky dives from ladders and going through at least three different tables.

While it started out slow, Styles and Ambrose—but mostly Styles—turned this into a nasty contest that reengaged the crowd and got them fired up for the return of James Ellsworth, who sent Dean flying just as he was about to grab the belt. LaToya Ferguson would tell you Dean deserved it for being a shitty friend to Ellsworth, and I’d have to agree. He’s been treating him more like an expendable pawn as he tries to get in Styles’ head, and that finally bit him in the ass as Ellsworth, now with an inflated ego after “defeating” Styles on three separate occasions, came down to help the champ retain because he thinks he can beat Styles in a one-on-one match. And yes, that championship match will be happening on this week’s SmackDown.

TLC wasn’t a blow-away show, but it was a consistent one. Even the matches that were most at risk of falling apart over-delivered. There were some amazing spots, particularly in the chair match and the main event, and clever uses of the weaponry at hand, but when it comes down to it, this was an example of how paying attention to characters and giving wrestlers a chance to perform can elevate a show.

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Stray observations:

  • RESULTS: The Wyatt Family (Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton) defeated Heath Slater and Rhyno (SmackDown! Tag Team Championship match); Nikki Bella defeated Carmella (no disqualification match); Baron Corbin defeated Kalisto (chairs match); The Miz defeated Dolph Ziggler (ladder match for the Intercontinental Championship); Alexa Bliss defeated Becky Lynch (tables match for the SmackDown! Women’s Championship); AJ Styles defeated Dean Ambrose (TLC match for the WWE World Championship).
  • Another example of characters just working out perfectly: Orton as a Wyatt Family member. The gimmick suits his predilection for methodical, predatory offense.
  • Orton and Bray were announced as the Wyatt family upon their victory, and Luke Harper got to partake in the celebration. Does this mean they’ll be doing the New Day/Freebirds shtick where three men share two titles? I hope that’s the case, because maybe it’ll finally give Harper, one of the best wrestlers in the company, something meaningful to do.
  • Did anybody really think it was anyone other than Natalya who beat up Nikki at Survivor Series? She already turned heel a few months back.
  • David Otunga: “Can the Biebs climb a ladder, Mauro?” Mauro Ranallo: “He’s climbed the ladder of superstar success.”
  • So if Daniel Bryan won’t be the one taking down The Miz, and Dolph is a failure, who is the surrogate that finally gets the job done?
  • Spot of the night goes to AJ Styles for that springboard 450 splash from the top rope to Ambrose lying on a table on the outside. That was one hell of a landing.

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