It’s early days, but I think we may have just witnessed the two television matches of the year in a single night, a fact made even more impressive by the fact that Sheamus and Christian’s match with The Real Americans from last week’s Raw and Cesaro’s defeat of Randy Orton from Friday’s Smackdown were special bouts in their own right. As soon as Kane distracted Bryan for a distinctly heelish sneak attack from a pumped up Christian with a point to prove, something special was in the offing. The Canadian has, for me, always worked best as a heel, wrestled best as a heel actually, and this was no exception. The force and intent with which he swung D-Bry into the barrier was eye watering, and had the crowd turning on him in no time. There aren’t many performers who could pull off an out of nowhere heel turn like that, but Captain Charisma is certainly one of them.
As the bell rang, Christian immediately began to work the arm, an obvious psychological touch perhaps, but certainly one I appreciated. Equally impressive was the story they managed to weave through the early going of the match; brief Bryan rallies being disrupted by a wily veteran, for example the exquisitely timed open right hand which stopped a suicide dive dead in its tracks. One should also consider the American Dragon’s selling which was absolutely first rate throughout; hearing his anguished yell as Christian came off the ropes with a simple shoulder tackle demonstrated to all of us the commitment Bryan has for his craft. Ultimately, it is attention to detail that matters in suspending audience disbelief, and these two men gave a masterclass in cinema verité last night. Notice how Goat Face’s half crab reversal was halted by Captain Charisma kicking out at the injured arm; now that’s how to make a match look legitimate. Look closely also at the determined, focused expression on the Canadian’s face, at the way he wrestled the match more slowly and deliberately than he would have done if he were portraying a babyface, at the wince inducing impact of the tornado arm trap DDT off the second rope, the focus again on that arm…incidentally the arm needed for his opponent’s YES Lock finisher.
When the match finally began to turn in the bearded one’s favour, we got to see an expert tutorial in how to work a hot babyface comeback, from the high octane clotheslines to the stiff kicks that got the crowd chanting “YES” and yet as this rally progressed, Bryan never forgot to sell the arm, even to the extent of only extending one arm in his trademark pose when he ascended the top turnbuckle. In a spot which had me fondly reminiscing about the golden days of Gorilla Monsoon and Jesse Ventura berating wrestlers for “taking too long” and praising prone opponents for “playing possum”, Christian got the knees up on the splash attempt, again reminding us of his veteran smarts, and perhaps of Bryan’s hot headed risk taking. The three dimensional nature of both characters is well worth keeping in mind as you watch the match, which ended in thrilling fashion with a series of reversals (always a strong part of Captain Charisma’s ring game) that resulted in a roll up finish right out of Bret Hart’s mid 90s playbook. If you want to see great technical wrestling on television, and why that style of match is the ultimate pleasure for a discerning fan, have another look at Raw’s opening bout. Just brilliant, and even more so because it tied into all the plot lines heading into Sunday.
With the bar set that high, one could have forgiven Cena and Cesaro for being slightly trepidatious about matching that kind of quality, but lo and behold they went out there and cleared that bar by several inches. A year ago almost to the day, CM Punk and John Cena went out on Monday Night Raw and tore the house down in an instant classic. Last night’s second hour stormer belongs in the same bracket. I’ve had an inkling for a while now that the Franchise Player and the Swiss destroyer would turn out to have excellent chemistry and I’m pleased to say that the hunch proved correct. From the opening bell, Cesaro is all over Cena, not giving him a moment’s peace, going for roll ups, backing him into the corner, showing him in kayfabe terms that he is not one of these wrestlers Cena can just out power; in fact, the Real American is stronger and has great technical proficiency too, a fact immediately given credence by the distinctly old school arm ringer that somewhat reminded me of Jake Roberts in his pomp. Cena’s response was to go for some chain wrestling of his own, but unlike a lot of matches involving the company’s top star, there was no sense of contrivance about it; he was fighting throwback fire with fire, before gaining separation and hitting some more typically “Cena” offense.
However, if any casual observer were thinking that the senior athlete had an advantage in the explosiveness game, Cesaro takes the next ten minutes to dispel any such assumptions. Put simply, his strength is like nothing human, and the moves he puts together with that power are crisp, eye catching and crucially, look like they hurt. The brutally hard Irish whip to the buckle is designed in kayfabe to soften up the back, which Cesaro then assaults mercilessly. The fall away slam into a bridging cover had me jumping out of my seat, but the dead lift gutwrench and dead lift superplex from the apron over the ropes to the canvas were both genuine “make inarticulate sounds at the TV” moves. Given a showcase environment, Cesaro grabbed the chance to show what he could do in both the Orton match and this one. That bodes extremely well for his future, as I believe such “clutch players” are highly valued by top brass, particularly when they work a heel gimmick well, as the Swiss is beginning to under Colter’s tutelage. When you look at the up and comer’s ring style, you see elements of Regal, Angle, Benoit and even DiBiase, and that is exalted company to be in, particularly when top guys like Orton and Cena are selling and bumping for him.
That’s right dear reader, the somewhat maligned Franchise Player showed last night that when called upon to make an opponent look great, he can do a stand up job. I’m not denying that he’s failed at this task in the past, but last night, he played a crucial role in making his opponent seem a threat, and not in the “slow paced beat down but Cena wins” way that he is often called out for, either. This was a fast paced, competitive, back and forth affair between two powerhouses and its presentation was every bit as convincing and legitimate looking as the earlier bout between Daniel Bryan and Christian. Yes, Cena’s famed “resilience” was sold on commentary, but not to the detriment of Cesaro getting over. The famed adage of Paul Heyman “one guy goes over, the other gets over” was never more true for me than last night. This was particularly evident in the way Cesaro, like Punk in his matches with the company poster boy, often cut off signature passages of Cena offense with a reversal. I’m aware that some aren’t fond of Cena pulling out reversals to prove he can work, but I thought it meshed brilliantly in the context of what he and Cesaro were trying to achieve. The back and forth nature of the contest had been established from the beginning and was written through it as if it were a stick of rock. Seeing Cesaro hit his insane elevated European uppercut flush on the chin of his opponent only to see him kick out was a great use of the near fall, and the giant swing, when it inevitably came, had the crowd eating out of their hands. With their audience hyped to such an extent, the finish could not afford to be lacklustre, and like the previous match I discussed, the performers in this one came up with a beauty, involving a counter out of the AA and a big boot to the face from Cesaro, who then ran into a clothesline even JBL could be proud of and then a roll through dead lift AA for the three count.
I don’t usually cuss in columns. But it was fucking incredible.
These two feature matches encapsulate everything that is wonderful about professional wrestling. Like the bouts discussed by my esteemed colleagues in the art of the match review, they told magnificent stories, involved no little physical sacrifice and came across as entirely convincing to the extent that it was rather easy to suspend disbelief and live with them within the moment. If Monday Night Raw and Friday Night Smackdown continue to gift us free to air matches of that quality, we’re in for a hell of a year.