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Gimmick Some Lovin': The Survivor Series Match

At least 25 different championship reigns in one picture (and if you count Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling, far more).
At least 25 WWE world championship reigns are represented in this one picture (and, if you count NXT, Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling, far more)
Justin Hofstetter
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In each edition of Gimmick Some Lovin', we take a look at one iteration of a gimmick match available on the WWE Network. Some are iconic for their success, others for the extent to which they flopped, and some just... happened.

We defined a "gimmick match" as, in any way, adding a rule/stipulation to or removing a rule from a match, changing the physical environment of a match, changing the conditions which define a "win", or in any way moving past the simple requirement of two men/women/teams whose contest must end via a single pinfall, submission, count out, or disqualification.

We took a look at the first men's singles Survivor Series Match of the current brand split era, last year's semi-main event pitting Team Raw versus Team Smackdown! Live.

It's the Most Wonderful Match of the Year

Pictured: my pro wrestling gateway drug.
Pictured: my pro wrestling gateway drug.

Full disclosure: it's very difficult for me to be an impartial reviewer where this match type is concerned, because Survivor Series is my absolute favourite gimmick match-centred pay-per-view event (with the Royal Rumble a close second).

This is due, mostly, to the fact that the first wrestling VHS tape I ever purchased was the above 1990 edition of this event, which I bought for $2 in 1996 from a clearance bin at a video store in suburban Maryland. I'd only been a fan since the fall of 1995, and in my 11-year-old value-conscious mind, I couldn't possibly pass up that many amazing wrestlers appearing on the same tape.

That event is remembered for everything from the regrettable Gobbledygooker, to the unforgettable television debut of The Undertaker (in the immortal words of "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, "Lookit da size a' dat ham hock!"), to the unique Ultimate Survivor match, wherein the survivors of each of the night's preceding elimination contests teamed up for one last match so that Hulk Hogan could close out the show to determine who was truly the Ultimate Survivor.

It's a card that is difficult to watch now, as is a lot of WWF wrestling from the era, because it lacks both the gritty punch of WCW/NWA wrasslin' of the era (like the War Games match we discussed yesterday) and the stellar moves of later years. It was an era of flash and style over substance (which defined the World Wrestling Federation for most of Vince K. McMahon's leadership) but, for sentimental reasons, it made the Survivor Series match type my favorite variation.

As a Shawn Michaels mark for my entire wrestling life, I couldn't help but love the end of 2002's Survivor Series, while still deeply lamenting the lack of team elimination contests.
As a Shawn Michaels mark for my entire wrestling life, I couldn't help but love the end of 2002's Survivor Series, while still deeply lamenting the lack of team elimination contests

Apparently, though, this is one way in which Mr. McMahon and I differ wildly, as, since its incarnation, Vince soured greatly on the concept, gradually phasing it out from Survivor Series cards (like in 2002, where the closest thing to a true Survivor Series math was an elimination tables match, or the previously discussed 1998 Deadly Game edition, which featured a WWF Championship tournament but not a single elimination-style matchup).

2016's Wild Wrestling Year

Because, clearly, every great wrestling idea has to have a McMahon directly involved, for some reason.
Because, clearly, every great wrestling idea has to have a McMahon directly involved, for some reason

This match was the culmination of a pretty big turning point year for World Wrestling Entertainment.

After a 2015 which was pretty disappointing for a lot of fans, and which limped into the new year with a string of high-profile injuries that devastated the company's active roster, 2016 dawned with a semi-retired executive taking the World Heavyweight Championship in the Royal Rumble match and beginning a lackluster feud with former champ Roman Reigns, blown off in the plodding main event of a marathon Wrestlemania.

That show cobbled together its best attempt at a high-profile spectacular but, outside of the opening ladder match, women's match, and Wrestlemania debut of high-profile signee AJ Styles, the injury bug very clearly held the show back from greatness.

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As Mania season passed, though, the myriad strains, sprains, tears, and breaks which doomed that show seemed to all heal nearly simultaneously which, combined with the annual call-ups from NXT, took the company from attempting to fill shows with a threadbare main event scene to having an embarrassment of roster riches.

Early in the spring, WWE announced first through entertainment industry trade publication Variety, then through its own traditional sources, that a relaunch of the brand extension would take place that summer. RAW and Smackdown! would once again become distinct brands, whose rosters would travel, wrestle, and exist totally separately (except at the Big Four).

Additionally, Smackdown, long the neglected and pre-taped B-show that often featured enjoyable-but-meaningless matches, was getting a significant upgrade: rather than taping Tuesdays and airing Thursdays, the show would be broadcast 100% live on Tuesday nights.

Only a few times in the show's history had Smackdown! broadcast live (the shows immediately after the 9/11 attacks and after the 2015 blizzard which cancelled Monday Night Raw, for instance), but the program was going fully live every week for a much-needed shot of importance.

It took months of destroying enhancement talent, but the brand split let WWE rebuild a Wyatt Family also-ran into a Monster Among Men.
It took months of destroying enhancement talent, but the brand split let WWE rebuild a Wyatt Family also-ran into a Monster Among Men

The shows would receive their own separate rosters, championships, and leadership teams, each one helmed by a McMahon (Shane for Smackdown and Stephanie for RAW) and insanely popular retiree (Daniel Bryan and Mick Foley, respectively).

Despite being another instance of 'McMeddling', early returns on the brand split gave mid-card stars like The Miz a new chance to shine, misused talent like Breezango and Braun Strowman time to reboot, and fan favourites like Kevin Owens and AJ Styles their first taste of main event championship gold.

Survivor Series

As show-defining moments go, Survivor Series 2015 had one of the oddest.
As show-defining moments go, Survivor Series 2015 had one of the oddest.

Outside of SummerSlam's main event of Randy Orton vs. Brock Lesnar, which was marred by controversy due to the slapdash nature of the feud and the brutal ending which left many fans wondering whether it was a work, shoot, or Lesnar simply taking liberties with Orton's skull, Survivor Series represented the first cross-brand competition since July's draft.

Yes, WWE had ten tag teams in the fall of 2016. Well, nine tag teams and The Shining Stars.
Yes, WWE had ten tag teams in the fall of 2016. Well, nine tag teams and The Shining Stars.

Three Raw versus Smackdown! elimination contests were announced, with a five-on-five women's contest, ten-on-ten tag team competition, and five-on-five men's singles contests giving fans far more, far more interesting, and far better elimination action than they got in both 2015 and 2014. Teams would be assembled from the rosters of the two shows and fight for absolutely nothing but our enjoyment bragging rights.

Past Survivor Series teams were defined by common themes; there were clear heel/face alignments, and teams often had similar or shared costumes, characters, or managers (teams like Roddy's Rowdies or The Heenan Family in 1989, or the Hart Family in 1993 come to mind).

2016's teams were united only by the show on which their members performed, and brought a fun dynamic of individual rivalries and alliances within and between the two squads affecting the outcome of the match.

Many of 2015 and 2016's most memorable programs were represented here, including feuds between teammates (Styles and Dean Ambrose, Strowman versus everyone not named Strowman) and connections between Superstars drafted to different shows (like Jericho and Ambrose's 2016 feud or the ongoing saga between former Shield teammates Reigns, Ambrose, and Seth Rollins).

A world title blood feud, sleeper agent cult invasion, and billionaire heir all under the same umbrella.
A world title blood feud, sleeper agent cult invasion, and billionaire heir all under the same umbrella.

Seven men in 2016's contest were current or former WWE Champions, with an eighth (Bray Wyatt) added to that illustrious list months later. Fans might not have been as ardently loyal to one team or the other, but the match carried a high level of anticipation for 10 of the biggest stars in sports entertainment preparing to do battle.

The Rules

Referee John Cone (who owns a fantastic donut shop a mile from my house) struggles to maintain control.
Referee John Cone (who owns a fantastic donut shop a mile from my house) struggles to maintain control

Originating in 1987 as a way to prevent cable companies from carrying Starrcade as a way to get as many performers as possible, a pay-per-view bonus before the holiday shopping season, Survivor Series is defined by a series of multi-man elimination bouts.

Originally with the tagline "Teams of five fight to stay alive," the size of the teams would fluctuate, but the concept of the match would remain the same: using traditional tag-in-tag-out rules, two teams would battle until every member of a given team has been eliminated. Eliminations could occur via pinfall, submission, countout, or disqualification, and, when a performer was eliminated, he had to leave the immediate ringside area.

The Match

Prior to this match, Strowman had battled exclusively with local enhancement talent and forgotten undercarders like Sin Cara; here he is pinning a former WWE US, Intercontinental, and World Champion for the match's first elimination.
Prior to this match, Strowman had battled exclusively with local enhancement talent and forgotten undercarders like Sin Cara; here he is pinning a former WWE US, Intercontinental, and World Champion for the match's first elimination

It's tough to figure out how to cover this match for two main reasons.

First, this match is long, but that's one of its biggest virtues. Past Survivor Series matches had attempted to squeeze as many as nine eliminations into the timeslot of a standard one-on-one contest, resulting in sequences where a wrestler's night might be ended by a clothesline, or by receiving a single finisher (and no other moves) from an opponent.

This match, including entrances, clocks in at over 64 minutes, and manages to not feel bloated in doing so. Storylines are given the opportunity to breathe, and no elimination feels pointless or out of place. They fit together nicely to tell a very well-built story throughout the match.

The other thing which makes this match hard to cover is the sheer amount of action it contains; like with the War Games contest, there are very few times when men aren't battling or a story isn't being told (the fans, however, do not let Roman Reigns forget when he's not actively participating, chanting "Roman's sleeping" and "Wake up, Roman!" during a rest spot). Trying to play-by-play this match is like trying to describe a piranha feeding frenzy at times.

It's a good problem to have; as a self-contained contest, this match features so much quality action that the best way to parse it all out is to look at each individual elimination in order.

The Eliminations

This clash between teammates certainly won't lead either man to regret his actions, right?
This clash between teammates certainly won't lead either man to regret his actions, right?

Dean Ambrose

Continuing his rivalry with once-and-future World Championship opponent AJ Styles, Ambrose and Styles clashed often throughout the match; when their confrontation became physical, Strowman took advantage with a powerslam and pin that Styles did nothing to prevent.

Braun Strowman

Strowman was on a rampage, stopped only temporarily by a Shane McMahon signature elbowdrop to the announce table; the monster recovered early, but couldn't return to the ring because Smackdown "mascot" James Ellsworth held on to Strowman's leg from under the ring (for which Ellsworth paid dearly).

Kevin Owens

Desperate to prove his friendship with fellow Canadian Chris Jericho, Universal Champion Owens found himself eliminated when he attempted to save Jericho from AJ Styles' Styles Clash by striking The Phenomenal One with The List of Jericho.

Do you know what happens, Kevin? Do you know what happens when you strike an opponent with the List of Jericho? You get disqualified.

Not bad, but Orton would do far better later on.
Not bad, but Orton would do far better later on.

Chris Jericho

Distraught over the destruction of his list, Jericho attempted to recoup the papers strewn about the ring, allowing Randy Orton to hit an RKO outta somewhere for a three-count and a Smackdown advantage.

*record scratch*
*record scratch* "I bet you're wondering how I got here."

Shane McMahon

At this point, the match is 4-2 in favour of the Blue Brand, but the fans at home and in Toronto are none-too-pleased that one of the two remaining for Team Red was Roman Reigns, seemingly signifying to them a victory for the Samoan.

He does little to dispel that notion, interrupting Shane McMahon's coast-to-coast turnbuckle dropkick with a spear that presented legitimate injury concern for McMahon.

AJ Styles

The aforementioned spats between Ambrose and Styles reared their ugly heads again, as Reigns, Rollins, and Ambrose fought through an army of referees and security officers to show how fickle the Toronto crowd is reunite The Shield for a huge crowd reaction and deliver a signature triple powerbomb to the announce table; Rollins would roll Styles back into the squared circle for three.

Never get involved in a land war in Asia, and never EVER make yourself horizontal and airborne when Randy Orton is present.
Never get involved in a land war in Asia, and never EVER make yourself horizontal and airborne when Randy Orton is present.

Seth Rollins

The teams now numerically even, Wyatt Family member Luke Harper appears ringside to help Family members Orton and Wyatt intimidate the former Shield-mates.

Harper's distractions seemed to be effectively negated when Rollins climbed the turnbuckle to deliver his frog splash to Wyatt, but The Viper would pop up for an impressive RKO OUTTA NOWHERE for the elimination.

In WWE storytelling, this is the equivalent of stepping in front of a speeding Mack truck driven by an armor-piercing bullet.
In WWE storytelling, this is the equivalent of stepping in front of a speeding Mack truck driven by an armor-piercing bullet

Roman Reigns

If fans were worried before, they were terrified now: boos began to cascade as it looked like Reigns might make the Superman comeback and singlehandedly win the day for Team Raw. Orton, however, showed his loyalty to the Wyatt Family commitment to his sleeper agent role by stepping in front of a Reigns spear attempt on Wyatt, allowing Wyatt (the legal man in the match) to hit his Sister Abigail finisher for a Blue Team victory.

The crowd showered the heels with applause as a signature Wyatt jump cut ends the segment.

My Rating

This move is almost a surefire way to add an extra star to any match's rating.
This move is almost a surefire way to add an extra star to any match's rating.

In the case of January 4, 1999 No Disqualification Match, I gave two different ratings, one for the action of the match itself and one for the match's place in storytelling and professional wrestling canon as a whole.

I'll be doing the same here, as the match means very different things on those two levels.

As a match, a self-contained demonstration of bell-to-bell storytelling, this one is stellar; it features incredible action (like the McMahon elbow drop or Strowman's manhandling of his smaller opponents), well-paced and well-planned eliminations, and some of Corey Graves' best commentary to date (I nearly fell off the treadmill on rewatching this one when he referred to David Otunga as "Jennifer Husband"). As an individual worked match, this one goes 9/10.

WWE would sadly never live up to the potential this picture shows.
WWE would sadly never live up to the potential this picture shows.

However, this one doesn't exist in a vacuum, and its place in the overall WWE stories of 2016 and 2017 is problematic, to say the least.

Wyatt and Orton win the match for Smackdown, and celebrate with Harper as a united Family; the story was interesting at the time, and growing tension between Orton and Harper would only intensify the following month when the trio captured the blue brand's Tag Team Championships.

The story grew throughout the rest of the winter, with Orton outing himself as a double agent after Wyatt's World Championship victory in February, meaning that, ultimately, the finish of this contest was only a means to help set up, at best, the second-worst match at Wrestlemania 33.

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Regardless of what the internet revolt would have been at the time, a Reigns victory would have worked far better with long-term storytelling, and at least would have been consistent with the character's story arc; ever since Mania, neither Orton nor Wyatt have done much of note, and their characters have not lived up to the boost this match's finish supposedly bestowed.

That wasted opportunity, in my mind, lowers this match's score to 6.5/10; it's still good by itself, but ultimately its aftermath squanders 54 minutes of fantastic wrestling.

Meltzer Says

Meltzer bestows a near-perfect 4.5 stars to this contest, but I'd be interested to see if his opinion is soured by current context as well. Another interesting aspect is that both men's elimination matches on this show (the match covered here and the ten-on-ten tag team contest) received four stars and change from wrestling's Roger Ebert.

Edited by Nishant Jayaram
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