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Five WWE Highlights of 2017 by Max Grieve

Season’s greetings, dear reader! Here we are at the end of 2017 and, as you may know, I’ve spent much of it oscillating wildly between pessimism and optimism on Mondays when I come to write the WWE Week In Preview on this site (thanks for bearing with me through this cheap and fairly unnecessary plug). On balance, I’d say my pessimism usually tended to win out and – again on balance – tended to result in me being pleasantly surprised more often than I was disappointed.

Nobody would argue that WWE’s output is without fault, but the company, its writers, producers and executives and the talent who go out to work in front of the cameras every week remain at the forefront of their craft.

Not every idea can turn out a winner. However, for every House of Horrors match, Kalisto promo, release of Emma or Jinder Mahal title run, WWE delivers many more bright points and it’s to our benefit as viewers that they continue to take those gambles. So to end the year on a positive note, I’ve picked out five things that happened on WWE programming in 2017 that put a smile on my face.

Is it a definitive list of the best things that happened this year? No. It’s a subjective list of things I look back on fondly. Have I forgotten something? Probably. But that’s what the comments section is for; tell me what you think I’ve missed! With that in mind, and in chronological order…..

The Festival of Friendship (Raw, February 13th)

Chris Jericho matures like a fine wine. Here at the end of 2017, he’s preparing for a Wrestle Kingdom match with Kenny Omega that few people who aren’t Chris Jericho could’ve swaggered into as an outsider, commanding the attention of the wider wrestling world. He has a wrestling cruise (yes, a cruise) planned. A second season of his sitcom, But I’m Chris Jericho!, has just been released. He still has the podcast and the touring schedule with Fozzy, who are going from strength to strength. Hollywood movies as a measure of crossover success for wrestlers are becoming a bit of a lazy trope (even before Roman Reigns was drawing parallels between John Cena and Dwayne Johnson), and doesn’t take guys like Jericho into account who a) can seemingly turn his hand to whatever he wants and b) is enormously successful in doing so.

At the beginning of 2017, Jericho was reinventing himself again in another vintage run with WWE. The blunt instrument in its success may have been a clipboard and a catchphrase, but the fine art came with the storyline friendship between Jericho and Kevin Owens (a fellow Canadian who, 14 years Jericho’s junior, shares some of his gifts for character work). The climax and pivot point of the journey was this segment on Raw, which felt like a hard-earned sandbox for the two men to tell the story of Owens’ betrayal without compromise of narrative or style.

This was gorgeous. The goofy excesses of the dancers and magician, the reimagined ‘Kevin and Chris’ version of The Creation of Adam (which later had a fingertip-themed payoff in their WrestleMania match), the way they sold Owens’ turn with the replacement List gimmick, the suspicious legitimacy with which Jericho thanks his partner for their time working together. I know you’ve probably rewatched this already at John’s behest in this year’s Johnny Awards, but go ahead and watch it again. In time, it’ll stand comparison with any and all of the much-loved similarly-goofy segments of the Attitude Era – and I hope we see Chris Jericho back on WWE programming at some point later in 2018.

“Lost” Total Bellas Footage (SmackDown Live, March 21st & 28th)

Different folks will have different perspectives, but in my opinion it’s hard to look beyond The Miz as WWE’s MVP in 2017. AJ Styles and Braun Strowman would be among the other contenders for that accolade, but once Brock Lesnar had become Universal Champion, Miz effectively spent the majority of the year as Raw’s major-titleholder-in-residence. He’s carried the gold through house shows, narrated some of Raw’s other stories on television via MizTV and borne the weight of both responsibilities with consistency and style. A mark of a great performer is an ability to make average material appear good, or good material appear great, and The Miz has spent the year making everything he’s been offered shine.

A prime example of this was the WrestleMania program between Miz, his wife Maryse and the pair of John Cena and Nikki Bella, which was designed for a very specific purpose and offered zero intrigue. The happily-married Miz and Maryse would rub their relationship in the faces of Cena and Bella before doing the job for them in Orlando, and then John Cena would go down on one knee in the spotlight and pop the question. Everyone knew that was the plan, and if it came as a surprise to Nikki Bella there can be only two possible explanations: One, Total Bellas is heavily scripted. Two, Nikki Bella is thick as mince.

Without wanting to influence whatever conclusions you’re drawing there, it was the heavily-scripted Total Bellas that unwittingly provided the highlight of the feud, when The Miz and Maryse presented pre-recorded parody vignettes over two episodes of SmackDown Live. Maryse displayed a passable knack for character comedy (and the hottest Nikki Bella cosplay you’ll ever see), but it was Miz who made this far, far better than it should’ve been with a fierce John Cena caricature, mercilessly skewering little automaton mannerisms for comic effect. The icing on the cake, at the end of the final vignette, was Miz dropping the act in favor of a wonderfully old-school pro wrestling heel promo, delivered right down the camera and selling a blowoff match many fans didn’t believe they wanted. Miz for Universal Champion in 2018.

The Authors of Pain vs DIY vs The Revival (NXT TakeOver: Orlando, April 1st)

This year has seen a revival (pun slightly intended, although Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder have sadly had little to do with it through injury) in tag team wrestling on WWE’s main roster. Matt and Jeff Hardy returned to the company and wrestled an outstanding feud with Sheamus & Cesaro, before the latter pairing went on to an even more epic program with Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins which started at SummerSlam and is still going. Meanwhile, over on SmackDown, The New Day and The Usos were wrestling a series of matches worthy of the future Hall of Famers both teams will surely end up being.

But all of this only started happening after WrestleMania. Was there a spark somewhere that lit the fire?

Enter NXT, whose tag division was already delivering in spades and which had produced at least four serious contenders for ‘best matches’ lists in 2016. The night before WrestleMania, in the same city and no doubt with influential eyes in the company watching, the three-way elimination match for the NXT Tag Team Championships stole the entire weekend. Leaning as much on crazy multi-man set-pieces as it was callbacks to previous matches between DIY and The Revival, this was a showcase of everything a WWE tag division could be in 2017 and the crowd were red hot for everything the six men did from the first bell. This match was absolutely bonkers and still entertains with every rewatch.

When this year’s ‘best of’ lists come out, the chances are most people will find WWE matches that were better. But it’s possible that this one was the most influential. It’s often been noted how, when NXT’s women’s division broke the mold a couple of years ago, the main roster was forced to up its game in order to fulfill that potential. Tag wrestling, understandably, isn’t as hot a social topic by comparison, but the improvement in WWE’s main roster tag bouts this year may well be down to NXT matches like this one.

Mae Young Classic (WWE Network, August 28th Premiere)

The headlines (WWE’s own headlines) will tell you it was another historic year in the Women’s Evolution – which officially speaking is no longer a ‘Revolution’ and certainly doesn’t have anything to do with ‘Divas’ anymore either. Underneath the corporate gloss and corporate glossary, however, there have been flaws. Yes, there was a women’s Money in the Bank match; to all intents and purposes it was won by a man. Yes, there were three women’s singles matches at Elimination Chamber; a match inside the Chamber still eludes. Yes, the women are main eventing Raw and SmackDown often enough for us to stop mentioning it; that’s usually the only functional women’s storyline on the show. Yes, Alexa Bliss is still awesome and has got the booking she deserves; unfortunately the same hasn’t been true for most of her championship opponents.

Until the Royal Rumble comes around in January, let’s bask in the last thing WWE did for women’s wrestling that was critically endorsed without any major caveats – the Mae Young Classic.

Following on from the format of the Cruiserweight Classic the previous year, WWE’s knockout tournament for women – a combination of promising Performance Center talent and notable workers from the independent scene – gave its female wrestling offerings a shot in the arm at the grassroots. It should be noted this has worked before; the last step-change in women’s wrestling at the top of WWE was forced by the weight of talent that had emerged through NXT, starting with Paige and continuing through the Four Horsewomen. And although Absolution and (particularly) The Riott Squad haven’t so far been used with much attention paid to their strengths and weaknesses, the lightening of an NXT roster that still boasts Ember Moon, Peyton Royce, Billie Kay, Nikki Cross and now both Mae Young finalists, Kairi Sane and Shayna Baszler, makes room for more talent who have already cut their teeth on WWE programming and ensures the next two generations of call-ups at least should push the main roster forward even further.

Were the Mae Young Classic matches as good as the Cruiserweight Classic matches? No. But the legacy may prove to be much more valuable in time.

Kurt Angle Wrestles in WWE Again (TLC, October 22nd)

Kurt Angle returning to WWE at the start of the year, as the headline name for this year’s Hall of Fame class, would’ve been one of this list’s five things (and no doubt would make a lot of other people’s), but for me that got trumped by his slightly bizarre and equally sudden return to the ring at Raw’s Tables, Ladders & Chairs pay-per-view in October.

To recap, TLC became a weird but largely enjoyable mess thanks to a viral infection in the WWE roster that took out two men – Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt – who were featured in headline matches until shortly before the event. WWE’s remedial measure was to ship in AJ Styles from a SmackDown tour of South America, to face Demon Without A Cause Finn Balor in a standalone dream match, and for General Manager Angle to pull on his boots and replace Reigns in The Shield for the night. Understandably given the circumstances, Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins carried the majority of The Shield’s work in the main event, but it was a welcome blast of nostalgia. And while, if Angle was due to return to a WWE ring, it would’ve been nicer to have a bit more build, seeing him in there came as a welcome relief.

Kurt Angle is nearing 50. His broken freakin’ necks are well-documented, as are his past struggles with intoxicants and the like; he’s got some mileage on his clock. When he returned for the Hall of Fame and was subsequently made Raw General Manager, both parties (himself and WWE) were very guarded about noting it was to give him his due, do a bit of character work and after that we would have to see. Perhaps especially given the non-wrestling status of his opposite number on SmackDown Live, it was easy to believe that WWE really had no need to clear Angle to wrestle again. Against that background, TLC was a wonderful surprise. As someone who loved watching him in his original WWE run (and was sad to see it hit the skids as his life became more difficult), it’s great to see him back healthy and happy in his life, and able to step back into a WWE ring a few more times while his body allows. Welcome back, Kurt. Welcome back properly.

What were your highlights of the year? Let us know in the comments below. And let’s hope there’ll be plenty more to look forward to in 2018.