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Written for PORTSMOUTH NEWS.

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Lissie (Photo by Joe Giddens/PA Wire)

Removing electricity from rock to leave behind only the voices and guitars, beckons assumptions that only a raw, atmospheric gloom will remain. On her acoustic tour, Lissie backs this up at least to begin with, during the profane ‘Shameless’ – its erratic rhythm built from knocking on the wood of her guitar.

Her chaotic movement escalate from tapping to stomping during ‘Further Away’, and while ‘Sun Keeps Risin’’ might normally be peacefully layered, its lost volume is compensated for by impressive belting. It is all a great twist on the country singer’s repertoire.

However, the the mood quickly takes a turn. Proposing a toast, wine aloft, Lissie seems to be the friendliest soloist around. With a beaming grin, she tells fans how she holds the UK dear, having found her international break here. Now an independent musician, she feels that she has a “cozy old friendship” with everyone.

The fans clearly agree when they are drawn in to discuss roast dinner and Lissie’s nastiest tour story of her guitar smelling unusual. Brilliantly, tonight feels as much like a performance as it does a Sunday evening family get-together.


 

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If at the end of 2015, somebody were to show you this image, and told you that it would be happening in 2016, odds are that you almost definitely wouldn’t believe then.

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SmackDown is live? AJ Styles is WWE Champ? And OH MY GOD James Ellsworth is… who’s James Ellsworth?

Looping best-of-three-PPVs feuds are so formulaic that it is easy for some to shrug proceedings off as boring. Has booking really been that uninteresting though? Of course not.

2016 sought to prove otherwise, and for better or for worse, did a great job. Over the last twelve months, WWE have dreamt up things that comedy sites like Kayfabe News wouldn’t have done. This is less about just devestating moments (for example, the retirement of Daniel Bryan caused massive upset), and more about the surprises. Here are some 100% true headlines surrounding booking choices that would have seriously confused any wrestling fan just one year ago.

CHRIS JERICHO (AT PEAK OF HIS CAREER) DEFEATS A.J. STYLES
(WrestleMania 32, April 3rd) 

Fans have been drinking in the Gift of Jericho. 2016 has been incredible for him, and he has been revered for his role in the top-tier, alongside Kevin Owens. He has been incredibly in touch with fans’ desires, even if it is wearing a scarf, growing a moustache and calling everyone “stupid idiots”. With such popularity, a victory for him might forgiven on most days. But this wasn’t ‘most days’. His opponent was A.J. Styles, who had arrived in Royal Rumble 2016.

The match itself was great, but the result angered many. Jericho had stated that he would be leaving WWE (liar!), and did not need this win. Regardless of the result, a lot of spectacular rare signature moves by Styles were wasted (such as Styles’ 450 Splash) and weakened in reputation by the 45-year-old Jericho kicking out. Looking back now, the result did no harm, and Styles is WWE Champion.

 THE ROCK DEFEATS ERICK ROWAN AT WRESTLEMANIA 32, TO MIXED RECEPTION
(WrestleMania 32, April 3rd)

This would have caused a lot of confusion, and disappointment when actually explained. This, for me, was the most infuriating part of WrestleMania – The Rock’s surprise appearance. It turned out that the disaster of his appearance at Royal Rumble ’15 was a one-off. Rocky came out to address the crowd for over twenty-minutes, reeling off (disproved) info on the record-breaking attendance, and the standard checklist of catchphrases.

The Wyatt Family arrived to face-off with The Rock. The Wyatts got a far more positive reaction than WWE had probably hoped, considering how The Rock insulted absolutely everything about their demeanour, rendering them obsolete. The last nail came when The Rock challenged Erick Rowan to a match, which lasted for six-seconds. Then a still injured John Cena helped take out the rest of The Wyatts.

Fans have wanted The Wyatts to catch their break forever. This segment was the epitome of booking stupidity.

SHANE MCMAHON’S WWE OWNERSHIP DREAMS REVIVED, AFTER HIS HIAC LOSS AGAINST THE UNDERTAKER, AT WRESTLEMANIA
(Raw, April 4th)

Where on earth does one begin with this one? How about at the end of the story. Shane McMahon was shockingly back and Vince McMahon welcomed him on the Raw after WrestleMania. However, the second half of the above statement shows that the journey to this point had been a ridiculous and messy one. Under what circumstance would Shane-o-Mac be booked to face The Undertaker at WrestleMania, in a Hell in a Cell match? As it turned out, according to his statement live on Raw, to give Shane “another fucking beating”. There really was little-to-no substance to Shane’s presence. Although this match started the road to the brand split, there is nothing to add to that headline, and nothing else to say.

The match itself was nothing to write home about. It was a show of Shane’s signature moves, leading to him throwing himself off of the cell, onto Taker. Fans had joked for a long time about one last jump, and said that it would never happened. Well now we’ve seen it. Sadly, too much of it, as the producers backstage screwed up and we got a full look at the airbag that he really landed on. And hilariously, you can also see Michael Cole reading his big “as God is my witness, he is broken in half speech” directly from a clipboard.

Looking back now, the end result was OK, but was a waste of a year for Taker, whose days are clearly numbered, and has a few dream opponents left who will never get their Taker at WM match.

AFTER CLEANLY DEFEATING ROLLINS AND REIGNS, FINN BALOR IS FORCED TO VACATE WWE UNIVERSAL CHAMPIONSHIP DUE TO INJURY
(SummerSlam, August 21st)

This really was a moment that took some people a while to comprehend. Finn Balor had been drafted to RAW, having graduated from NXT. On his first match on the main roster, Balor became the first man to cleanly pin the overly protected Roman Reigns, in four years. And what on earth is this WWE Universal Championship? It might sound like a really daft writing idea, belonging in the same canon as Broken Matt Hardy, but is (luckily) just RAW’s humourously desperate attempt at one-upping SmackDown’s World Championship. Hopefully neither brand will create a Galactic Championship, but it wouldn’t be of any surprise.

Of course, this closes on the sadder note as straight after Balor vs Rollins at SummerSlam, Balor was forced to vacate the title, due to a shoulder injury. One noteworthy moment of the match was Rollins unleashing the very dangerous God’s Last Gift move on Balor, which Rollins hasn’t performed since actually being ‘Seth Rollins’. It’s a pity that it was done so unceremoniously, and kicked out of afterwards. Speaking of which…

KOTA IBUSHI KICKS OUT OF BURNING HAMMER IN MATCH AGAINST BRIAN KENDRICK, FOR THE WWE CRUISERWEIGHT TITLE
(Cruiserweight Classic Quarterfinals, August 26th)

Impressed by the new WWE Universal Championship? You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Absolutely everything about the sentence above is completely mind-boggling. To start with there are the wrestlers – the presence of Japanese legend Kota Ibushi in a WWE tournament, and the return of The Brian Kendrick (who would later become the WWE Cruiserweight World Champion). Oh, and there is the fact that there is even such a thing as a WWE Cruiserweight World Championship – brilliant news, however purple the belt is.

The cherry on the cake here though is the use of a ‘Burning Hammer’, commonly considered one of, if not the most dangerous manoeuvres in wrestling. Considering the dark cloud surrounding the dreaded and forbidden piledriver, this was stunning. Sadly, Ibushi was booked to kick out of the move – a bigger waste than Jericho kicking out of Styles’ 450 Splash, and Finn Balor kicking out of Seth Rollins’ God’s Last Gift. It’s a disappointing ongoing policy of WWE – ever match that ends with a pin, can’t end with anything that isn’t a finishing move.

AFTER THE SPIRIT SQUAD ARE REMOVED FROM RINGSIDE, THE MIZ LOSES WWE INTERCONTINENTAL CHAMPIONSHIP IN A TITLE VS CAREER MATCH, AGAINST DOLPH ZIGGLER
(No Mercy, October 9th)

Welcome to probably the best feud of 2016 – The Miz vs Dolph Ziggler. Considering Ziggler’s reputation as a fan favourite who is booked mostly as filler in the mid-card, it would have been baffling to even see Ziggler on the brink of becoming a champion once again. The fact that it would be booked as important enough to warrant a stipulation like ‘Title vs Career’ brings the highest degree of importance to the mid-card title. Oh, and who could ever expected the appearance of The Spirit Squad?

This feud was absolutely incredible, as it acknowledged the on-off history of Ziggler’s booking, and made The Miz the most horrid villain in the WWE. As top-tier heels have been misguidedly booked and perhaps been too likeable (for example, Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho are too entertaining that nobody wants to see defeated. And AJ Styles is… AJ Styles). However, The Miz has been the most incredible man on the mic this year (peaking during his shocking segment in Talking Smack). The feud took the best possible route, as Ziggler won in a massive feel good moment at No Mercy, and lost the title weeks later in a brilliant ladder match with The Miz. With The Miz champion again, he is destined for another amazing feud in 2017.

CHARLOTTE DEFEATS SASHA BANKS TO BECOME THREE TIMES RAW WOMEN’S DIVISION CHAMPION, HEADLINING HELL IN A CELL
(Hell in a Cell, October 30th)

There is a RAW Women’s Championship? Charlotte has won the title three times already? And the women have finally been allowed into the cell? And they headlined the event? It sounds like a dream come true, although some have since argued that this was not the monumental occasion that it should have been. To a point, I agree.

To start with, is the number of times that the title has changed hands. While there is no reason why it couldn’t happen, it probably shouldn’t have happened for two reasons: 1. Too much attention had been drawn to these two women over anybody else in the division, and 2. Having held the title three times in less than a year, somewhat dilutes its importance. As for the match, it was definitely styled to look like an important event – for example Sasha Banks being stretchered off having been put through a table, styled like a lighter version of Mankind’s famous fall from the cell in 1998. It wasn’t perfect, and as of December 2016, the title still seems to be fought for by only these two wrestlers. Hopefully, with the list of matches happening for the first time in the Women’s Division, is shrinking, more wrestlers will become involved.

ASUKA DEFEATS MICKIE JAMES, TO RETAIN THE NXT WOMEN’S CHAMPIONSHIP AT NXT TAKEOVER: TORONTO
(NXT TakeOver: Toronto, November 19th)

On the other end of the scale, NXT really have opened up when it has come to opportunities. Look no further than the decision to bring Mickie James in for her first WWE match in six years, to take on Asuka – new champion in 2016. This could have been a very poor decision, and considering how one of the primary talking points of her career was when she grabbed Trish Stratus’ crotch at WrestleMania, one could be forgiven for being pessimistic. However, there was no need. While NXT has seen a few superior women’s matches, Mickie did not disappoint, delivering what some have called the greatest match of her career.

Looking back on this, I am in two minds about this event. I’m very positive due to the quality of the match itself, however I was admittedly quite disappointed when this match was first announced. This was the first women’s TakeOver match to be more novel that a standard singles match, since TakeOver: Respect (headlined by Sasha Banks and Bayley’s Iron Man match), and NXT decided that the twist would be from bringing in another veteran. This to me indicates the confirmation that NXT has well and truly lost the agenda of being developmental territory, and has grown to a scale that it can never step back from. Fingers crossed that this doesn’t jeopardise the progress of talent such as Peyton Royce and Liv Morgan.

GOLDBERG CLEANLY DEFEATS BROCK LESNAR AT SURVIVOR SERIES, IN EIGHTY-SIX SECONDS
(Survivor Series, November 20th)

For the most part when writing these, it has been a matter of shoehorning as much unlikely information into the space of one sentence. In this instance, there is no point. Bill Goldberg showed up, was signed up for a match against the unstoppable Brock Lesnar, and he won. This is perfectly representative of WWE being so painfully formulaic that something so barmy as a 49-year-old wrestler, turning up for his first match in twelve years and defeating Lesnar in eighty-six seconds, is accepted.

Fans even surprised themselves, pondering “why am I so happy about this?”. Venturing a guess, this was the opposite of the upset surround The Rock and The Wyatts at WrestleMania – neither side needed a victory, so the most ridiculous enjoyable result was allowed to happen. If Lesnar had done the same thing, groans would resume about the pointlessness of the match.

While it’s confirmed that Lesnar and Goldberg will be in the 2017 Royal Rumble, we can’t be entirely sure what comes next. The novelty might wear off quickly, but for the time being? Wow.

SHINSUKE NAKAMURA BECOMES FIRST TWO-TIME NXT CHAMPION IN MATCH WITH SAMOA JOE, AT OSAKA HOUSE SHOW (NXT, December 3rd)

The NXT singles championship has changed hands at a house show before – Samoa Joe won his title at a house show Lowell, Massachusetts in April 2016. However, this is not what makes the matter especially shocking. It is the fact that the title was taken by SHINSUKE NAKAMURA!

His shocking arrival in 2016 was great, debuting in-person (having challenged Sami Zayn to a match on the screen in the Full Sail studio) at NXT TakeOver: Dallas, in what might be my favourite match of 2016 – Nakamura vs. Zayn. NXT promoted his arrival as though it was the most important moment in the history of NXT. If the promotion has decided that it isn’t developmental any more, it may as well do things properly, and man they are.

And most surprising of all? Considering how the company have changed names to mononyms, such as (Adrian) Neville, Big E (Langston) and (Alexander) Rusev, Shinsuke Nakamura is at least as of December 2016, still called Shinsuke Nakamura. Will it last?

Which other WWE moments of 2016 would have sounded outrageous in 2015, and what is the most outrageous thing that you think is actually possible in 2017? Post below.


 

WWE’s kayfabe talk show Talking Smack at first seemed to be home for more promos that couldn’t fit in the main SmackDown show. Famously, The Miz threw a massive tantrum, and it was the first big shock to take place there. It became apparent that the very ‘ordinary’ setting meant that moments like that would really stand out. Since then though, the ‘ordinary’ 90% has turned out to be just as important.

This week, the fantastic 27th December 2016 episode of SmackDown Live was the first episode to have a higher viewership than WWE’s flagship RAW. There is still bickering about the figures (RAW had a higher peak, SmackDown had a higher average), but either way, ratings for WWE’s B-show, are going up. Today, I want to discuss a little what has intrigued fans far more about SmackDown since the draft, beyond the terrific matches – deeper characters that are more difficult than ever, to tell from the real people.
SmackDown has got the idea of a wrestler as a ‘person’ rather than a ‘character’, down perfectly and kayfabe shows such as Talking Smack have had more positive effect on programming than one could imagine for less than an hour. On this week’s episode of Talking Smack, long time heel commentator John “Bradshaw” Layfield joined Renee Young as a presenter, filling the spot left by usual presenter Daniel Bryan. JBL showed in respectful conversation with John Cena and American Alpha that heels are not obliged to despise everybody. On the SmackDown roster, only Baron Corbin makes a point of standing alone, as “The Lone Wolf”. Not even The Miz, possibly the most arrogant and obnoxious wrestler in the WWE, has been upset by everyone, even having kinder words for his opponents, briefly praising the talent of Dolph Ziggler.

On the other hand, there is RAW, which rarely bothers to make the slightest attempts at intertwining storylines. A wrestler’s nearest friend and his opponent are the only thing of interest. For example, Roman Reigns is in an awkward partnership with Seth Rollins. He doesn’t like Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens. And that’s it. Does that mean that Reigns never speaks to anybody else backstage? Ever? Bizarrely, the closest that they have come to making overlapping divisions work has been Bayley giving people impromptu hugs backstage, and giving Goldust a Dusty Rhodes teddy bear.

WHAT RAW GETS WRONG: STILL TRYING TO BE OUTRAGEOUS (BUT NOT OUTRAGEOUS ENOUGH)

At one point, wrestlers being treated as a one-dimensional character, rather than as a person, actually worked. One has to look no further than the revered Attitude Era of 1997-2001. At the time, pre-social media, fans cared less about any extensions beyond what they saw on the main programming. There was little-to-no depth to anybody, whether they be a one-trick-pony novelty act such as Vel Venis or The Godfather, or even figureheads such as Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock. Unfortunately, to get this format to work properly, the show needed to be outrageous, chaotic and deliberately made to be taken at face value. WWF managed this perfectly, in creating a show that was a solid block of entertainment, and the outcome of matches really didn’t matter much. One doesn’t have to look much further than Chyna winning the Intercontinental Championship more than she did the Women’s Championship.

WWE is now no longer in a state to be booking this way, most infamously for the step back of the ‘PG era’. However, without the outrageousness of the Attitude Era, RAW has lost entertainment value. Now that WWE is a bit more withdrawn, and presumably will not return to TV-14, the madness needs to be compensated for. Much to the world’s surprise, this was achieved by the rise of NXT, which filled in the blanks with more natural emotion.

WHAT NXT GOT RIGHT: INCORPORATING A SEMI-KAYFABE LOOK AT NEW TALENT, AS THE LINE BETWEEN THE “ACTOR” AND THE “CHARACTER” WAS BLURRED

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Becky and Alexa have been bickering since ever. Aspiration to improve and to “graduate” was a situation that fans could expect genuine tension between the two backstage when at NXT.

In the knowledge that NXT talent was under development, thus being the ‘developmental centre’, the show was given far more of a human touch. Viewers knew that the wrestlers were in training, and the booking was built around. The shows themselves were relatively generic as viewers watched as much for watching the person’s training as they did their character’s progress. When the matter of training was dramatised, and “rising to the top” was ever mentioned, it blurred the line between real life and kayfabe, and fans wanted to know what would happen next – because of attachment to the people, rather than the explosive mischief of characters. This was also naturally helped by the intimate setting of Full Sail, and consciously watching the divisions grow. This was presumably why wrestlers were so adored and fans got behind causes such as the ‘Women’s Revolution’. Making wrestlers more human makes a massive difference.

At least up until the arrival of Shinsuke Nakamura (or perhaps even as early as NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn), and its purpose has changed substantially, NXT exploited this perfectly. Now that it’s changed it agenda, it is a format that SmackDown have used, and run with it.

HOW SMACKDOWN TOOK THIS TO A NEW LEVEL

Instead of making the mistake that RAW has made in its venture for Attitude-lite, SmackDown took a step back and created a very tidy format: Two hours of sport-like coverage on SmackDown, and one hour of casual discussion with the wrestlers in a different manner, which seems very natural. For example John Cena, on the 27th December episode, discussed the crowd being negative towards him because he had taken a hiatus because of interest in other things, such as acting and presenting on Saturday Night Live. His testimonial on the matter could either have been scripted for kayfabe, or a genuine plea, but it is virtually impossible to figure out.

Talking Smack blurs the line between the SmackDown show, and out of character shows like UpUpDownDown. In spite of the programming’s simplicity, it has created its own little universe which resembles authentic sport more than it does a ridiculous pantomime. It is the closest to “sports entertainment” that WWE has ever been. In fact, if somebody unfamiliar with SmackDownTalking Smack and UpUpDownDown, could probably be convinced that all three were kayfabe. It seemed impossible, but WWE has managed to recreate an element of uncertainty because of the richness of the booking.

RAW on the other hand, with its faux-outrageous characters, are forced to admit that nothing outside of the main show and PPVs is of any relevance or importance. It seems daft, but look at this clip of various RAW wrestlers backstage

At the time of upload, there was no reason why any of those men couldn’t have been in the same room, talking amicably. Seth Rollins might have been booked as a heel, but that doesn’t mean that he mustn’t be good at playing Madden. It is a moment that it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see exploited and shown on Talking Smack were they on the SmackDown side.

RAW can’t build its own universe, not until it is all realistically human, or all outrageous and making no secret of it.