WWE's Survivor Series, one of the promotion's big four pay-per-views (the others being Wrestlemania, Royal Rumble, and SummerSlam), is an odd beast. It started as a gimmick event, with the narrative conceit being that teams of five (or, more rarely, four) people would face off in elimination tag matches. As a person was pinned, disqualified, submitted, or counted out, the math would change; five on five became five on four, or three on one, or one on one.
Usually, the matches kind of sucked, particularly as the importance of the tag matches faded in favor of big title bouts in the 1990s. The Survivor Series tag matches, so integral to the early format and little self-contained spectacles of good versus evil, took a back seat to the more traditional matches on the card. And, of course, Survivor Series 1997 looms large for the famous Montreal Screwjob, the most famous single moment in modern wrestling history, in which Vince McMahon legitimately screwed over Bret Hart in order to keep the WWE title out of rival WCW's hands.
Given that they've languished as filler for years, it's easy to ask: why have the Survivor Series tag matches at all? But there's always been a strange allure to them, in that they allow WWE to throw together weird, mismatched teams and concentrate on the storytelling in the moment, letting the broader ramifications fade to the background for one night only. That a match should sometimes just be a self-contained thing seems really obvious, but a lot of the time it's simply not. We get so wrapped up in the yearlong narrative of Wrestlemania and the backstage politics that it's not enough to just get a fun, simple, physically-told story.
Survivor Series 2016 did just that, establishing a strange alternate universe in which anything could happen because nothing was germane to WWE's canon. The brand split allowed for Raw versus Smackdown five-on-five matches and the entire event reveled in the utterly nonsensical sense of joy it found within itself.
It was more fun than good, though it was good, too. Witness the tag-team elimination match (it was five teams versus five teams, so ten on ten, but a whole team was eliminated if one member was—there's no elegant way to describe it, but it worked). Cesaro is one of the most overlooked men on the roster, a legitimate physical freak of nature who's one of the best four or five athletes to ever come into WWE and who, despite how good he is, can't negotiate the creative team's demands for more natural promos, preferably without his Swiss accent.
In the ten-on-ten match, he was allowed to run absolutely riot on everyone around him. He threw other men around like ragdolls. He did standing dropkicks to opponents and hovered in the air. He did one of the longest giant swings he's pulled off since his arrival in WWE and never paused to catch his breath.
He could do this because the writers' discomfort with him didn't matter for one night. The elimination matches, by necessity, involve a story apart from the main narrative, demanding as they do teams of wrestlers who hate each other in story terms having to make peace for the sake of one match.
Right down the line, there were things which were so fun, funny, endearing, and unexpected that it almost seemed like another federation entirely. The Shining Stars outlasted the New Day in the same match Cesaro took over. Tiny, chinless James Ellsworth helped eliminate Braun Strowman, Raw's resident unstoppable leviathan. That was in a match that went nearly an hour and never dragged for all its length. The opener was a women's elimination match that was the equal to any of the men's; not unexpected anymore, but WWE's booking it first was further confirmation that they trust that part of the roster to get the crowd going. It was all, simply, a succession of fun matches which simply were.
And nothing was more unexpected than Bill Goldberg destroying Brock Lesnar in a minute and a half.
Goldberg's return after over a decade away from wrestling has been handled perfectly, but prior to Survivor Series it was just promos and posturing. All the good will was supposed to dissipate when the match actually happened, the expectation being that WWE would have Lesnar throw Goldberg around for ten minutes, pin him, and keep the status quo.
Instead, Goldberg delivered two spears, a jackhammer, and squashed the former UFC champion. It was stunning. And confusing. It wasn't supposed to happen. The wrestling logic of decades has followed thusly: you build up a monster like Lesnar in order to have a rising star beat him, thereby transferring some of the legitimacy and heat to your new star. That's part of how Goldberg became Goldberg—Hulk Hogan put him over to cement the younger man's ascent.
What was left of that system was obliterated at Survivor Series. Goldberg is 50 years old. He's definitely going to be in the Royal Rumble (it was confirmed), and maybe Wrestlemania (probably in a rematch with Lesnar), but that's it. WWE can't build a company around him given his age and charmingly homebody dotage. The squash of Lesnar was about the moment and the event, a signal that anything might happen on WWE pay-per-views.
For a long time, it has been wrestling fans, more than the actual wrestlers and writers, who seem to obsess over the "right" way of handling the wrestling business. It's not that wrestlers don't want their pushes or crowd reactions, but the old way of doing things, with its mythical transference of star power from wrestler to wrestler based on who beats who and when, hasn't been the way WWE has conducted business in a long time. We pretend like it's a version of The Highlander without swords, and it's simply not.
Plenty of people will say that has been to WWE's detriment, but it's tough to find many wrestlers who became the white-hot stars we crave simply through the right win here or there. The ones who lorded over the form during its peak periods—Hogan, Austin, the Rock, Flair, Goldberg—have been men who were certainly aided by important wins but never created by them. They already had the unquantifiable "it" and, often, were stymied on the way up, tapping into snippets of their personalities and athletic styles in ways the writers never intended in order to break through.
WWE is now selling events. It isn't selling stars, or it won't be until someone breaks through, something that will happen quite independently of whether a given wrestler beats Brock Lesnar or not. That the company hasn't given that extra little nudge to someone, not even Roman Reigns, is an indication that nobody there has the full confidence of management.
Given all that, sometimes a wrestling show is simply a wrestling show, and that's precisely what Survivor Series was. It was fun, with a dash of the unexpected coming from a parallel universe where nothing is predictable, and capped off with a truly shocking main event. Given just how much filler is crammed into WWE's programming—by necessity, it must be stated—there are way worse ways to spend an evening than watching such a show.
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