The outbreak of a viral infection forced WWE to make key changes to its TLC pay-per-view, which resulted in the return of Kurt Angle and one of the best shows in recent memory.
Screen capture via WWE
The story heading into WWE's TLC pay-per-view—the TLC standing for Tables, Ladders, Chairs as a reference to the night's unifying motif—was a distinctly odd one, even by the standards of pro wrestling's perpetual drama machine. A viral infection, reportedly meningitis, had ravaged key parts of the roster. Bo Dallas wasn't a tremendous loss, but his brother Bray Wyatt and top of the card Roman Reigns, both of whom had major roles to play at TLC, definitely were.
Pro wrestling should be uniquely equipped to handle sudden changes to cards due to health issues, with its quasi-improvisational nature and theoretical ability to prove dramatically nimble. Often it is, but the modern WWE feels like too large ship to turn sharply, and the McMahons aren't exactly known for their willingness to change plans on a dime anyway. Losing two headliners only a few days ahead of a pay-per-view would've been all the excuse needed to put on a stinker.
As it turns out, TLC was a raucous, fun show and a large part of that was WWE's willingness to be flexible: AJ Styles replaced Wyatt for a match with Finn Balor, while Kurt Angle returned to a WWE ring for the first time in over a decade as a replacement for Reigns in the main event, a hectic reunion of the Shield versus the villainous fivesome of the Miz, Seamus, Cesaro, Braun Strowman, and Kane.
Ordinarily when I write a recap, there's some sort of thread to tug on, something good or bad which the rest of the show revolves around. Not so with TLC. It was an evenly good show, pretty much all of it (I'm allergic to Enzo matches), maybe the best pay-per-view since Great Balls of Fire and certainly the best "B" show since then.
Balor versus Styles was billed as an impromptu dream match, and it lived up to that billing. Balor isn't everyone's cup of tea—he's almost too clean and athletic, like a pro wrestling android whose code only shows imperfections through injury—but he's one of the best ten or so wrestlers in the world when he has a partner who can cater to his style. Styles, of course, is arguably the best pro wrestler of his generation, so he fulfilled his role perfectly. The match was nearly flawless, but just a touch rushed; Styles flew back from a WWE tour in Chile to fill in for Wyatt, leaving preparation time limited, but the beauty of pro wrestling is, again, that it can be balletic improv and that's what the match was.
The intrigue around the match was that Balor and Styles are the first two leaders of Bullet Club, that cross-promotional phenomenon which has WWE so exercised. It would, in the wake of WWE's cease and desist orders, be pretty silly for WWE to make direct reference to Bullet Club, so we were instead subject to Michael Cole croaking about the "notorious Club." It made for a surreal, slightly uncomfortable experience: the crowd knew the background and were white-hot the entire match, while WWE had to dance around the fact that a significant amount of the outside-the-ring emotion was about the very postmodern repurposing of pro wrestling tropes by Bullet Club they're trying to grind down via legal means. If irony wasn't dead before Balor and Styles gave each other the trademarked, inexplicably controversial only in the wake of the events of the past month Too Sweet gesture after the match, it is now.
Mostly, there was a sense of relief at being spared another match in the interminably dull Balor/Wyatt feud. Despite a couple decent matches, the feud has served to diminish Balor. This would be unexpected but every feud Wyatt is in diminishes his opponent, a sure sign that it might be time for a gimmick change or even a complete reshuffling of the card. It doesn't matter who's at fault for Wyatt's dullness, only that he sucks the life out of feuds like some sort of heat vampire. It would be unfair and (and very wrong) to say that it's good Wyatt was sick, but it would be fair to say that we got a superior match, and a possible rescue from the Doldrums for Balor (until he lost to Kane on Monday night, of course).
All of that also holds true for the main event. Roman Reigns's absence meant the long-awaited Shield reunion couldn't go on, but the surprise replacement by Kurt Angle, replete with a security vest to complete his ensemble, was the best of all worlds. His TLC appearance had almost no buildup. But in a match as stupidly, gloriously messy as a three-on-five in an arena filled with, well, tables, ladders, and chairs, there wasn't much needed.
It became abundantly clear early on that WWE wasn't going to allow Angle to bump much and that held true. But beyond that fact—and his leaving early after a slam through a table, his one big bump, as a means of setting up his return to save his partners—he plugged into what was clearly a carefully scripted match seamlessly. It was the sort of match you want to see once a quarter: Braun Strowman was buried by a cascade of metal chairs falling from the sky before being crushed by a garbage truck, Angle mostly looked ecstatic to be supporting two men 20 years his junior in beatific wrestle dad fashion, and extended beatdowns were the rule.
It was exactly the right amount of stupid, which is why it was so necessary to the balance of the show. Sometimes you need a little stupid. The expected matches, the ones unaffected by the veil of pestilence descending on WWE, were weighty affairs. We had a hotly anticipated debut in Asuka, who had a good match with Emma, albeit not the dominant one she needed. Alexa Bliss and Mickie James wrestled an extremely good title match which showcased both Bliss's burgeoning ability to capture a crowd as a cowardly but competent heel and James's late career in-ring gravitas. A scintillating cruiserweight tag match and a dash of comedy with Elias (who gets more heel heat than anyone else in the company just by showing up with a guitar). And Enzo.
Variety is good and flexibility is better. WWE showed that they're capable of both, creating a show which didn't have the greatest matches of the year but which hit exactly the right mix that the best of them have. There was something for everyone at TLC. It's a shame it took meningitis to force WWE's hand.