As Randy Orton prepared for his match against Dolph Ziggler at Sunday’s Night of Champions Pay-Per-View, guest commentator JBL pointed out that Orton was unique in that he was a prodigy who met and exceeded expectations. Orton lived up to that plaudit by winning an excellent match as part of a show that also met its considerable potential. The Night of Champions card looked impressive on paper, filled with well-built feuds between athletic rivals who work well together. The result was a show where the worst matches were entertaining and the best matches may go down as legendary. Rather than breaking them down in a top five, I am going to run down each match individually.
JBL sits in on commentary
With Jerry Lawler recovering from his heart attack at a hospital in Montreal, there was internet speculation that Jim Ross might surface to join Michael Cole on commentary. Instead, Cole’s old Smackdown broadcast partner JBL joined him for the evening. JBL poses a stark contrast to Lawler’s vanilla commentary. At his best, he puts over matches and wrestlers by focusing on their particular attributes and the matches at hand. He also excels at articulating wrestlers’ motivations in a realistic way, whether they are heels or faces. At his worst, his bombastic personality overwhelms those around him- it did not take long for Cole to revert to the buttoned-down doofus we all hated for a decade. JBL’s character is also a bit outdated, as it relies heavily on the schticky business tycoon motivation in an era where most of the top wrestlers portray personalities that are more true to life. Nonetheless, I think the positives outweigh the negatives on a short-term basis, and I enjoyed JBL on commentary last night. I especially liked his transformation with regard to the Miz, who he famously trashed years ago. He gave Miz credit for working hard to overcome the presumptions associated with being a reality TV personality and said he has earned his success. It was the type of compliment that a heel announcer can pay to a heel wrestler to simultaneously put him over and anger fans.
Miz def. Rey Mysterio, Cody Rhodes, Sin Cara to retain Intercontinental title
I thought that this match had the most potential for in-ring entertainment. Fatal Four-way matches allow for combinations and innovation that could never happen in a traditional matchup. Moreover, Rhodes and Mysterio have established themselves as particularly adept at creating interesting stories within matches. Perhaps the most interesting development within this match was the head-to-head work between Mysterio and Sin Cara. As JBL pointed out, both are wildly popular Mexican wrestlers who held the AAA title years apart but have not had the opportunity to spend much time working against one another. Early in the match, Sin Cara lifted Mysterio onto his shoulders and Rey countered with a highly athletic spinning hurricanrana. There were other impressive spots as the match went on, including a combination powerbomb-superplex that sent Mysterio into a hard bump, and Rhodes simply throwing Mysterio under the bottom rope hard enough that he landed like a stone skipping across a lake. The low point of the match was when Sin Cara arrived late to break up a pin, creating an awkward late kick-out. Near the end, the odd story about Rhodes’s obsession with masks reemerged, but ended with Sin Cara putting a mask partially over Miz’s face and blinding him. Purely on instinct, Miz reached out and ran into Rhodes, then hit him with the Skull Crushing Finale and got the pin without being able to see. Afterwards, Miz sold his confusion at the fact that it was Rhodes he pinned while Rhodes stormed off angrily, teasing a potential feud between two dynamic young wrestlers and personalities. It was a creative and unexpected ending to the fastest-paced match of the night, and it disproved the Roberts-Martel Hypothesis that blindfolds inherently ruin wrestling matches.
Kane and Daniel Bryan def. R-Truth and Kofi Kingston to win the WWE Tag Team titles
Going into this match, the only storyline that made sense was to sell that the champions were demonstrably better as a team so the attention on the challengers would be about their constant squabbling. JBL sold that idea early on, saying that Kingston and R-Truth have developed into a cohesive unit in their time as champions. Naturally, Kane and Bryan started fighting with one another, which led to a drawn-out portion of the match when they hugged in the ring. It was silly that the champions laid unconscious for so long in the middle of the match, but this match was more about comedy than wrestling anyway. The challengers continued to feud outside the ring, which got them hit with a baseball slide and a 360 out of the ring. The disagreement spilled over into the match when Bryan shoved Kane off the top rope, which conveniently turned into a splash on Kingston that won them the match and the titles. After the win, Kane and Bryan yelled at each other “I am the tag team champions!” and continued the solipsism backstage, where AJ and Dr. Shelby intervened, only to get a Gatorade bath from Kane. As long as this team and angle is not taken too seriously, it is highly enjoyable.
Antonio Cesaro def. Zack Ryder to retain the U.S. title
Ryder earned this title shot by winning an 18-man battle royal on the Night of Champions Youtube preshow, last eliminating Tensai with a hurricanrana over the top rope. The preshow was actually more entertaining than the one-sided match itself. Cesaro was so dominant early in the match that it almost seemed inevitable that Ryder would somehow get a fluke win. Instead, he fought back into the match, hitting a nice swinging neckbreaker as a counter to a Cesaro suplex attempt. Shortly after, Aksana helped pull Cesaro out of the ring to avoid the Rough Ryder. When Ryder chased Cesaro out of and back into the ring, Cesaro hit a stiff European uppercut, then the Neutralizer for the pin. The match was not a classic by any means, but it continued to establish Cesaro’s bona fides while earning him some heel heat due to Aksana’s assistance.
Randy Orton def. Dolph Ziggler
Of all the matches on the PPV card, this one may have had the most potential outcomes. It would make sense for Ziggler to win the match after they split the first two pins on free television. It would make sense for Orton to win and Ziggler to cash in his Money in the Bank contract later in the show, setting up a title feud between the two. It would even make sense for Orton to win and Ziggler to get his heat back in the near future, setting up a continuation of the feud. The third option appears to be the way the feud is going as Orton won a physical match that included lots of offense that has developed through the feud. For instance, Orton went for his middle-rope DDT early in the match, but Ziggler rolled through to counter. Later in the match, Orton set up the same move on the barricade outside the ring and hit the DDT on the floor. For much of the match, Ziggler used a mat-based style that he usually has to keep out of his arsenal in shorter TV matches, but the slow build and the back-and-forth nature of this longer match built significant tension. After Ziggler kicked out of several near pins, he applied the sleeper hold to Orton, but Orton escaped, hoisted Ziggler into the air with a judo throw, then hit the RKO in midair for the win. To this point, it was the most dramatic match of the night, and would have made a solid Match of the Night on most PPVs.
Eve Torres def. Layla to win the Divas title
Booker T placed Eve in this match as a substitute for Kaitlyn after Kaitlyn was injured backstage. For me, the storyline of Kaitlyn’s injury was the low point of the PPV. Early in the show, Eve was rushed to see Kaitlyn writing in pain due to a backstage attack. Kaitlyn’s acting in the segment was poor and left most of the relevant questions unanswered. She said she did not recognize her attacker because “their face was covered.” It is implausible, at least, that a face covering would prevent her from ascertaining the attacker’s gender. Additionally, since when does one shot incapacitate a wrestler? The whole point of wrestling matches is that it takes time to wear down an opponent. The implication of the story is obviously that Eve had a role in the attack on Kaitlyn, but the fact that Kaitlyn, Booker T, Teddy Long, and Layla did not consider that possibility made them look stupid. When Cole suggested that there may be malfeasance afoot, JBL humorously compared him to Jesse Ventura looking for black helicopter conspiracies. Even that explanation was off base because suspicion of an individual’s dishonesty is not equivalent to an accusation of a conspiracy between several parties. In any case, Eve won a slow-paced match with a swinging neckbreaker that should probably be called the Untwist of Fate.
Sheamus def. Alberto Del Rio to retain the World Heavyweight title
Before the bell rang for the night’s penultimate match, Booker T emerged to overturn his previous ban on the Brogue Kick. In real life and kayfabe, his timing could not have been worse. By making the announcement immediately before the match, he telegraphed that the ending would likely come via Brogue Kick. And, as JBL pointed out, he could have made the announcement at any time and given Del Rio proper notice of the match’s rules.
In spite of the inauspicious start, the match developed well. Del Rio spent the early part of the match wearing down Sheamus’s arm with various moves we do not usually see, including a tarantula-like arm bar in the ropes and an arm-breaker on the announce table. Sheamus fought back and teased a Brogue Kick that Del Rio was able to avoid. He regained the momentum and hit a solid enziguri in the corner for a near fall. Shortly after, Sheamus got his arm stuck between the ropes, and Del Rio took advantage by kicking it repeatedly until he dislodged it. Sheamus fought back and attempted White Noise, but Del Rio again countered into an arm-breaker, then locked in his Cross Arm-Breaker submission, which Sheamus escaped by lifting Del Rio and slamming him. After a second missed Brogue Kick, Del Rio locked in his submission hold again, and I briefly thought Sheamus tapped out while he shook in pain. Instead, he reached the ropes and immediately hit the Brogue Kick for the win. Despite the telegraphed finish and the fact that Del Rio’s previously solid finisher was made to look weak, this match told a compelling story and built significant tension. If there was more suspense, it may have topped the Orton-Ziggler match. As it was, the only real suspense was whether Ziggler would emerge to cash in his contract. He did not, so Sheamus lives to fight another day as champion.
CM Punk and John Cena fight to a draw, Punk retains WWE title
If there was ever any question about whether last summer’s Punk-Cena feud was great chemistry or lightning in a bottle, last night’s monumental showdown resolved the issue once and for all. The match began ominously for Punk, who emerged wearing a plain hoodie with no WWE logo on it, which contrasted with Cena’s Rise Above Cancer get-up that dovetailed with the company’s philanthropic venture. That isolated instance demonstrates Cena’s place in the company’s pecking order better than any match or promo ever could.
Still, there was good news for Punk, as Paul Heyman stood ringside as an ace-in-the-hole. The start of the match also favored Punk. He dominated Cena for about ten minutes, alternating between styles with various submission holds and high impact moves in and out of the ring. Punk used this stretch as an opportunity to prove his claim on Monday that he is the best at every aspect that makes a wrestler great. When Cena finally started to mount a comeback, Punk repeatedly countered Cena’s moves of doom, first by escaping Cena’s side slam, then by avoiding the Five Knuckle Shuffle. Later in the match, Punk used his leg to get leverage as Cena again attempted the Five Knuckle Shuffle and rolled through to an Anaconda Vice. Unfortunately, the submission hold did not build much suspense because Cena’s character will never submit in a match. Nonetheless, the sequence featured good wrestling- Cena fought out of the Anaconda Vice to apply the STF, which Punk countered into a crossface. The constant one-upping between Punk and Cena was a microcosm for the feud between two large egos that want to be the top dog.
From that point, the match turned into a highly dramatic spot-fest. Cena countered a Go To Sleep into another STF. After Punk reached the ropes, he hit a clean GTS and Cena kicked out. Cena then finally hit the Five Knuckle Shuffle and an Attitude Adjustment and Punk kicked out. Cena kicked out of a second GTS, and Punk dug deeper, trying a Rock Bottom, but Cena kicked out again. When Cena hit another AA, I thought the match was over, but Punk kicked out. When Cena and Punk climbed the ropes, I started to wonder if Punk would revert to his Pepsi Plunge finisher from his indy days, but Cena hit a second-rope German Suplex and bridged for the pin. As Cena’s music hit and he celebrated with the belt, the referee intervened and explained that Cena’s shoulders were also down, so the match ended in a draw. Punk, who had just gathered his wits, started cackling in his corner, then hit Cena with the belt and stood over him triumphantly. There is obviously more to come between these two, but I am glad to see that the feud is not over. This chapter will go down as another one that exceeded expectations in a rivalry for the ages.