WrestleMania season begins now! The final pay-per-view of the WWE calendar for 2018 just might go down as its best overall main roster show of the year after a loaded card that delivered up to expectations and a main event which exceeded the lofty hopes for a bout featuring the three top women in the company. Emanating from San Jose, California, there were many performances threatening to steal the show at TLC: Tables, Ladders & Chairs. But undoubtedly, it was a trio of women in the triple threat TLC match for the SmackDown championship that opened the door for even more history to come at WrestleMania 35 in April.
There were two title changes on the show, though WWE saved the best for last. All in all, WWE closed 2018 with a bang -- at least from a PPV standpoint -- after a month of rough television. Elsewhere on the card were classic matches, settled rivalries and a few new ones that have been started with a couple weeks still left in the year. How will those resonate as the Road to WrestleMania begins in January 2019? That certainly remains to be seen. For now, let's see what went down Sunday at WWE TLC from the SAP Center.
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2018 WWE TLC recap, grades
Cruiserweight Championship -- Buddy Murphy (c) def. Cedric Alexander via pinfall to retain the title (Kickoff Show): For all of the potential these two performers have to put on a five-star classic, seeing them given only 10:35 felt like a cruel tease. Murphy and Alexander are the class of the division and among the most exciting wrestlers in the world. The duo did their best with the time given, including an exciting near fall late when Alexander connected with the Lumbar Check only for Murphy to extend his foot to the bottom rope to avoid a pin. Murphy followed with a running knee to the face before landing Murphy's Law for the win. Here's to hoping these two get 25 minutes at WrestleMania to find out how great their chemistry and athleticism can be. Grade: B+
Elias def. Bobby Lashley (Kickoff Show Ladder Match): Contrary to what was announced on Raw earlier in the week, the stipulation for this one turned out to be the first wrestler to climb the ladder and claim a guitar hanging above the ring would win. Lame rules aside, the best thing about this match turned out to be how short and digestible it was. Both men took part in a big spot in which they were slammed onto a ladder. But the finish came when Elias climbed up to prevent Lio Rush from retrieving the guitar by tossing him. After Elias brought it down to win the match, however, Rush snuck up from behind to stop him from using the guitar as a weapon. Lashley landed a uranage and Rush followed with a frog splash from the top rope before Lashley broke the guitar over Elias' back. Grade: C-
R-Truth & Carmella def. Jinder Mahal & Alicia Fox via submission to win the Mixed Match Challenge: In hindsight, this one probably belonged on the kickoff show. Still, the match presented just enough fun and corny hijinks to prevent an outright car wreck. R-Truth and Carmella will now be the 30th entrants in their respective Royal Rumble matches next month. They also captured "an expense-paid vacation to anywhere in the world," which we all know is kayfabe considering Vince McMahon's aversion to taking time off. The latter was used as a post-match skit with R-Truth revealing, to Carmella's dismay, that he preselected a trip to WWE headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, as their prize. The match was standard comedic fare with a fun dance break segment halfway through that saw the Singh Brothers join in until R-Truth turned on them and sent both over the top rope. Carmella tapped out Alicia Fox via Code of Silence for the victory. One thing this season accomplished was giving the always entertaining R-Truth a new platform to shine while allowing for newfound chemistry with Carmella. Grade: C-
SmackDown Tag Team Championship -- The Bar (c) def. New Day (via pinfall) and The Usos to retain the titles: Talk about a fun way to amp up the intensity early in the show. Not much was accomplished here in terms of storyline, but once in a while, that's just fine. The spot of the match may have come when Cesaro's suplex attempt on Kofi Kingston was interrupted by Jey Uso splashing Kingston off the top rope. The second half of the match featured a beautiful disaster of one dramatic near fall after another. Yet the only complaint (if there is one) came in the abruptness of the finish. Sheamus caught Xavier Woods with a Brogue Kick as he ducked through the ropes to get the pin. Grade: B+
Braun Strowman def. Baron Corbin via pinfall (TLC Match): With the victory, Strowman will receive a universal title shot against Brock Lesnar at the Royal Rumble, while Corbin will be removed from power as acting general manager on Raw. Despite the fact that he wasn't able to compete while his surgically repaired elbow remained in a sling, Strowman enlisted the help of all those who were wronged by Corbin recently: Apollo Crews, Bobby Roode, Chad Gable, Finn Balor, referee Heath Slater and even Kurt Angle showed up with chairs that they used on Corbin due to the no-disqualification rules. After Angle prevented Corbin from escaping with his surprise return, each man landed their finishing moves on Corbin before Strowman stood on Corbin with Slater counting the pin. A schmoz finish seemed a predictable outcome given Strowman's injury. Even so, the result still felt a bit cheesy, even if each babyface performer had storyline justification for their actions. Grade: C+
Natalya def. Ruby Riott (Tables Match): What a surprisingly good piece of business. From intensity and big spots to a legitimate storyline conclusion for Natalya to honor her late father, this one was fun. Liv Morgan took a hard bump off the apron and through a table early when she saved Riott by pushing her out of the way. Shortly after, Natalya slammed Sarah Logan through a separate table. The match seemed to tease toward PG-13 levels later on when Natalya exclaimed, "You want to mess with my family, bitch?!" before slapping Riott outside the ring. Riott countered by pushing Natalya's face into a table with her father's image on it while yelling, "He's ashamed of you!" Late in the match, Natalya pulled out a table with Riott's image on it and put on the late Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart's jacket. She went on to throw Riott through the table via powerbomb before putting on her dad's sunglasses -- the reason this feud originally started -- to celebrate the victory. Very rarely does a feud start this pathetically and pay off this well. Grade: B+
Finn Balor def. Drew McIntyre via pinfall: In what was presented by the announce team as an upset, Balor used help from a late-arriving Dolph Ziggler to get one over McIntyre. After McIntyre floored Balor with a headbutt outside the ring and mocked his "too sweet" hand gesture, Ziggler emerged from the crowd to land a superkick. Even though his follow-up attempt with a chair was instead met with a Claymore kick, the distraction opened the door for Balor. McIntyre threw Ziggler into he ring and Balor met his opponent with a missile dropkick before hitting his Coup de Grace finish for the win. The physical match saw McIntyre lose via pinfall for the second time in three weeks, though both losses included Balor and Ziggler helping one another. In the end, it was just nice to see Balor not have to job to another star. After the following match, Balor bristled at Ziggler's help backstage, so Ziggler took him out and threw him into a set of road cases. Grade: B
Rey Mysterio def. Randy Orton via pinfall (Chairs Match): Creative spots were aplenty in this one in what has turned into a fun feud. Mysterio used a chair as a makeshift boogie board to slide on his stomach under the bottom rope and onto Orton outside. The finish was just as fun as Orton set up four chairs next to each other inside the ring for an RKO until Mysterio broke free. After he spun Orton face first into the chairs, Mysterio climbed them to springboard off into a victory roll off a hurricanrana for the 1-2-3. This match may have been ultimately used as filler on this already deep card but this one between two legends was memorable. Grade: B+
Raw Women's Championship -- Ronda Rousey (c) def. Nia Jax via submission to retain the title: Lest we forgot, Rousey's PPV matches remain a thing of beauty. For as flat as this feud had become on Raw in recent weeks, particularly during their dual cringeworthy moments on the microphone, both women deserve credit for how physical and exciting the payoff turned out to be. This one was overflowing with stiff moves, particularly those delivered by Jax, including a sit-out power bomb after she reversed an armbar attempt by standing up. Rousey continued to showcase her supreme athleticism with a beautiful cross-body splash from the top rope onto the floor. She later packaged a step-up knee to the face and a spectacular step-up Superman punch for a two count on Jax. Her cross-body attempt was then intercepted by Jax into a Samoan Drop for a dramatic near fall. Rousey's physical tour de force also saw her lift Jax off the second rope into a power bomb for another near fall.
The finish was just as fun following a distraction from Tamina Snuka as Rousey blocked a knockout punch and hit a step-up judo toss into an armbar for a creative tap out. After the match, Jax refused an interview backstage and was attacked by Becky Lynch who said, "Remember when you broke my face? Keep my name out of your mouth." Needless to say, the crowd went wild." Grade: A-
WWE Championship -- Daniel Bryan (c) def. AJ Styles via pinfall to retain the title: Short of a more creative finish, Bryan and Styles nearly combined to pitch a perfect game, and they did so the old-fashioned way. A slow and deliberate build, using the sore ribs of Styles and the injured leg of Bryan as storyline fuel, gave way to a frantic second half. Along the way, both wrestlers kept the intensity high thanks to stiff offense. Bryan debuted his heel gear featuring dark colors and a tribute to his Ring of Honor days with dragons and flames. More importantly, he found the ideal dance partner to produce likely his best match since returning from a three-year retirement (just weeks removed from a mini-classic of its own against Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series).
Bryan continued to evolve his move set, using a cravat lock to land stiff knees before hitting a unique suplex for a dramatic near fall. Styles equaled him by nearly winning on a springboard 450 splash onto his sore ribs. The submission attempts from both, including Bryan ditching his Yes Lock to once again call it the Lebell Lock, were overflowing with drama. Styles hit a Phenomenal Forearm late in the match off the barrier wall outside the ring, but his attempt to follow up with one inside of the squared circle missed. The finish came immediately after when Bryan reversed Styles' rollup attempt for a sneaky pin. Grade: A
A challenge is laid out: Backstage celebrating with Natalya, Rousey was pulled aside and asked whether she planned on getting back at Charlotte Flair for her extreme attack at Survivor Series. "There's an old saying: 'Payback's a bitch.' And I'm the baddest one on the planet," she replied.
Intercontinental Championship -- Dean Ambrose def. Seth Rollins (c) via pinfall to win the title: Given tough placement on the card between the two most anticipated matches, this one was a whole heck of a lot better than the crowd seemed to realize. Despite "this is boring" chants breaking out, these former Shield members told a physical and compelling story in what was largely a brawl -- mostly because it had to be given the contempt between them. It was a story even better told using Ambrose's real-life wife Renee Young on commentary as Corey Graves repeatedly lured her into arguments about Ambrose's mindset. Not only did Michael Cole need to jump in and referee, Young did a strong job standing up for her husband within storyline by justifying his actions in what could become a quasi-heel turn.
While the match was a tad bit too long considering the length and depth of the card, the emotion and intensity was strong. Rollins sold an injured left knee throughout and called back to how he originally injured it in 2015 by feigning a reaggravation with the same exact spot. A key storyline development late saw Rollins pull up short on a super kick when Ambrose stuck out his fist to remind of their Shield days. As the crowd showered them in boos, Rollins thought about it at length before viciously attacking Ambrose. The finish came shortly after as Rollins talked trash to Ambrose, who was wounded on his knees. But Ambrose was playing possum and came alive at the right moment to hit Dirty Deeds for the pin. Grade: B+
SmackDown Women's Championship -- Asuka def. Becky Lynch (c) and Charlotte Flair vs. Asuka to win the title (TLC Match): The booking was darn near perfect. Somehow, the violence and execution was even better than that. In a finish that likely set the table for the main event of WrestleMania 35, Asuka saw a return to the top-shelf booking she deserves by winning her first main roster title while Rousey's run-in (and possible heel turn) only escalated what is the hottest angle in all of sports entertainment. WWE not only made the right call in allowing this trio of women headline the show, the match provided no greater advertisement as to why they should do the same once more in April.
How physical was this match? Flair's willingness to sacrifice her body for big spots and bounce back minutes later on nothing but pure adrenaline was inspiring (if not disconcerting). Flair saw the back of her head hit hard early on when Asuka power bombed her through a leaning table. Shortly after, Asuka rolled out of the way as Lynch landed a double leg drop off of a ladder and crashed through Flair on top of the announce table, appearing to injure Flair's ribs. Moments later, she came back to life to barbarically spear Asuka through the barrier wall and into the timekeeper's area, only the wall didn't fully give. Finally, after connecting on a moonsault onto the floor, Flair then laid Lynch prone on a table and hit an insane senton that destroyed yet another table outside the ring.
The finish saw a number of dramatic close calls atop the ladder until Rousey's music hit and she entered the ring to tip over a ladder holding Lynch and Flair as payback for their attacks over the past month. Asuka quickly ascended the ladder to retrieve the title and cap not only the match of the night but possibly the best PPV card of the year. This was the kind of booking fans deserve. Grade: A+
2018 WWE TLC coverage, highlights
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