For the second year in a row, I’m here to dish on what I saw and felt during WWE’s annual post-Christmas Live Tour show at Madison Square Garden. House shows have a deservedly good reputation of being fun, and not being filled with people trying to get themselves seen on TV.
And while I’d rate this show with a decent B, which it earned with a lot of fun and a great surprise, it had some clear and hard to ignore problems. So, let’s break down what worked and flopped at the Madison Square Garden stop of the 2018 WWE Holiday Tour.
Started off with a groan
Yep, WWE managed to find a way to disappoint me before I could get to my seat, selling a Hulkamania shirt in the lobby of Madison Square Garden.
Finn Bálor vs Dolph Ziggler vs Drew McIntyre
What worked: A fun match with a lot of near falls, and a lot of McIntyre making fun of the Too Sweet gesture. Even after Drew lost, he grabbed the mic and gave a good promo about how those guys keep stopping him from getting close to his Universal title aspirations, where he should be because of his body and look and how he’s sexy (Cageside’s Stella Cheeks agrees).
What didn’t work: Anyone who’s been watching WWE programming for the last month or so has seen this. That was the running issue with tonight’s events.
A Jobber battle royal with a former WWE Champ
What worked: Hey! Rhyno’s still actually employed! Apollo Crews with the win here, eliminating Jinder Mahal with an enziguiri. Crews may be getting a push and returning to his roots, as his reward for the win was an IC title shot and his trunks read Too Easy on his butt, which was apparently his indie gimmick.
What didn’t work: Remember when Jinder was the WWE Champion? Now he’s ... wrangling Konnor and Viktor to take out Titus and Apollo? This is weird, but I hope they can turn this into something great down the line.
An Elias concert, and another rematch.
What worked: Elias as a babyface, in the ring, is excellent. His lack of over exposure in too many matches has allowed his rising knee and Macho Man elbow to still feel fun and unique. After he won this match, the crowd was completely behind the sultan of the strings as he cracked a guitar — which popped so loud — over Lashley’s back.
Oh, and Lashley carrying Lio Rush (whom he speared by accident) to the back, on his own back, is both hilarious and adorable. Reminds me of the sights I saw later in the evening, near the end of the show, when parents were taking their sleeping kids home.
What didn’t work: This Guitar on a pole match ended when .... Elias pulled the guitar down. Yep, that same boring finish from the TLC PPV. Also, the MSG crowd, didn’t exactly take to cheering for Elias the same way they loved booing him last year. Even Elias’s bit when he talks about his opponent, saying Lashley was shit talking the Knicks, didn’t land well. Until that “What does WWE stand for?” bit, it was a little dicey.
Natalya and Ember Moon vs Ruby Riott and Liv Morgan
What worked: You know what’s great? Ever since Vince declared the upcoming existence of a Women’s Tag Team Championship, these matches actually kinda matter now!
Also, Ember Moon is fantastic and over with the audience, in that way Becky was before they tweaked her for a turn. Nattie’s no slouch either, as that “quickly runs over an opponent, stepping on their back” routine, done here with with Liv, always manages to surprise.
Lastly, I gotta say that Liv and Ruby are two of my favorites on the roster these days. Not only does Ruby give off that “could actually kill you” vibe, but Liv plays the annoying heel so damn well. After she was tossed out of the ring, she was practically acting like a fish out of water, trying to pull herself up on the ringside barrier, at that excellent level of comic brilliance.
What didn’t work: Natalya, ever the doting leader, kept starting “Ember! Ember!” chants, which felt ... odd. Maybe the match wasn’t getting the engagement it deserved, but the crowd reacted to all the right pops.
BRO! MSG Goes NXT
What worked: I’ll admit it, I’m biased, and this will be the most fan-heavy part of this piece.
I’ve followed Riddle’s indie career pretty closely over the last couple of years, and seeing him in the MSG ring, alongside other favorites like Cole and Dream and Dunne and Black? Amazing, just flat out all of the feels emotions, as I popped out of my seat, and felt like a kid again.
I wasn’t alone, either, as the BRO! chant started pretty early, and volume wise, they matched the chants for more established folks like the Brusierweight and Velveteen. Nobody’s more over than the Era, though, as the ADAM COLE BAYBAY call/response thrives to this day.
The last-second move of adding Gargano to the heel team, and sitting Bobby Fish, was a great play, as it allowed Johnny and Ciampa to (almost) hit their DIY finisher. When they did the pose to signal its start, the crowd’s energy went through the roof, and people remembered to boo midway into that moment.
And the match ended, naturally when Ricochet hit the 630 Senton on Cole, a move that even popped the guy sitting next to me, who doesn’t watch NXT anymore “since all of the talent got called up.” I told him that Full Sail is jam packed with phenoms, and that he needs to give it another shot.
What didn’t work: For the mass of talent in the ring, this was fairly simple, and by the books. And you could tell that the entire crowd wasn’t as knowledgable about these guys, since they’re all just on NXT and not TV.
So, when a particularly low lull set in as Gargano put Dunne in a headlock? I started a Johnny Failure chant, which both caught on and got Ricochet to point at me in salutation and thanks.
Rollins vs Ambrose: Caged Edition
What didn’t work: So, yeah. Where did this feud go wrong? I have nothing really nice to say about this match, other than Seth and Dean did a good job of recovering a nearly-botched Rana spot. But yeah, Seth almost wins by crawling out the door, but then a hatted mystery man — who turned out to be Baron Corbin, wearing a Knicks-branded track jacket — slammed the door in, preventing that, and getting heat.
Dean eventually wins, Rollins walks away slowly, looking dejected as heck, and we all realized this would have made a terrible way to send the crowd home, and that’s why this didn’t main event.
Raw Tag Titles Match: Robes vs Fists (Revival) vs Meat (AoPP)
What worked: I don’t know why it took so long, but until Roode and Gable hit the arena to GLORIOUS in their matching robes, I had been lukewarm on these dudes as a pair. But once that song hit, and I remembered the Glorious Bombs, I was all in.
It doesn’t hurt that Chad Gable’s enthusiasm and happiness is about as infectious as the common cold on someone who hasn’t gotten their annual vaccines.
What didn’t work: When it comes time to explain to someone how tag teams don’t survive the jump from from NXT to the main roster? Show them The Revival and Authors of Pain, who just seem to be stuck here.
This match was fun and all, and I loved Gable and Roode’s finisher, a neck-breaker hold from the latter that is finished with moonsault from the former, but it’s hard to say much here aside from that. Maybe AOP need Precious Paul after all? And maybe The Revival would do well on All Elite Wrestling?
Sasha and Bayley vs Alicia and Mickie
What worked: Again, this felt more important since the tag belts will be a thing, but Foxy’s so good she doesn’t need a belt to help with her relevance. Her yelling about her coat, for example, which Bayley got a hold of, was great, though I wish Bayley would have just handed it to back to her, but the main roster has even taken the niceness out of the Hugging One.
What didn’t work: Eh, this wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great, but it really could have used a line from Bayley and Banks about how they’ll be the first tag champs, but no mic work tonight.
A wild Vince appears to welcome back John Cena’s Hair
What worked: It seemed like none of the people who gripe online about Vince, myself included, were in attendance at the MSG show. When The Chairman’s music hit, to interrupt Baron Corbin who was looking for a victory by default, the Garden lost its mind with applause.
Then, Vince soaks in the adulation, watches as Corbin’s requested 10 count runs to completion, giving the lone wolf a W. But wait, Vinny Mac’s got a surprise up his tailored sleeve: “a man with more Madison Square Garden moments than Hulk Hogan or Bruno Sammartino.”
And out came (not really a) Surprise (he was advertised, after all) John Cena! And check out that hair, that wacky, floppy, balding hair. It even mystified our own Sean Reuter.
What didn’t work: The ring rust may be real for Cena. This was all Corbin, minus John’s finishing sequence. And that gave us a match that felt barely there, and a preview of a likely Royal Rumble moment.
Ronda vs Nia vs Time and Energy
What worked: And our main event was Nia Jax vs Ronda Rousey for the Raw Women’s Championship. Which ... well, it started off neat, with Ronda scaling Nia, like she was reenacting Shadow of the Colossus.
What didn’t work: But this match was a lot of attempted submission moves, and was lacking those blazing fisticuffs that have gotten Ronda so much hype from the crowd.
I don’t go to a wrestling show to crap on a match, but once this match (the third or fourth rematch on the card) became too slow to enjoy, I started a “We Want Becky” chant, which I didn’t feel bad about, as neither of the people in this match are squarely in the babyface role, following the end of TLC. It might have been in poor form for me to do so, but Ronda knows all about saying things she shouldn’t (just look at what she’s tweeted at Becky).
Then, I started to notice that around MSG, people were walking up most of the staircases, presumably leaving before the predicable finish. Then, right in front of me, I saw a dad walking out, with his napping daughter over his shoulder, too pooped to care about the so-called “baddest woman on the planet.”
At that moment, we were 3 hours and 23 minutes into the show, and people were just tired, and probably didn’t expect a show that runs longer than Raw.
The bigger issue, though, is that Raw doesn’t have a star big enough to fit in a main event with Ronda. Sorry Nia, but we all know your start and stop pushes have rendered you as less than effective. And the rest of the division is too busy with tag matches right now.
The elephant in the room
As I sat there throughout the night, plenty entertained for the most of the show, I kept flashing back to the 2017 house show, headlined by John Cena vs Roman Reigns. These matches were fun, and I especially loved the NXT tag, but nothing here felt huge or seriously important.
Which is when I realized something. Because Raw put all of its eggs in the Reigns basket, it’s screwed without Roman Reigns, or a superstar of his magnitude. And they haven’t found a new “made man” of his caliber yet, and thanks to injury and rapid-fire heel/face turns, Strowman ain’t it either.
But I’m not without hope. This photo, of the NXT babyface leaving the arena? One of those guys could step up huge in 2019. Imagine if Aleister Black is a Royal Rumble entrant, and then goes on to beat Lesnar at Mania? You’ve got gold. Heck, you could even do that with Matt Riddle, who’s been saying he wants to retire Lesnar for years.
This is all to say, we miss you, Big Dog. Hope you’re having a happy holiday and are feeling well.
By day, Henry T. Casey covers technology news and reviews as a senior writer at Tom’s Guide and Laptop Mag. When Henry clocks out, it’s all graps all the time. He podcasts about pro wrestling at The Ring Post.