GAME CHANGE: Did Axel and Ziggler Change Their Fates?
Raise your hand if you’ve ever found yourself talking to the TV while watching wrestling. Don't lie. You do it. I'll bet you did it if you watched Raw this week, when The Shield faced off against The Wyatts. Yes, that was freakin’ awesome, but I want to talk about an unexpected moment when I caught myself talking to the TV during Raw.
First, a little background. Dolph Ziggler has made no secret of his career frustrations. After a well-received cash-in for the World Heavyweight title in April, Dolph was soon thereafter concussed. Upon his return, he swiftly lost the title to Del Rio (arguably the high point of Del Rio's ho-hum year). Ziggler plummeted from hot commodity to enhancement talent, though his talent never wavered.
Last week, Dolph was thrown into a non-title match against Intercontinental Champion Curtis Axel. Coincidentally, Axel has fallen prey to the skeptics as well. He needs more coaching on the mic, and hasn't performed to the perceived standards of a "Paul Heyman Guy". Their match last week did nothing to change anyone’s minds. The announce team was far more interested in discussing Big Show's lawsuit against The Authority. They tried to position the match as a test for Axel, whose manager was convalescing in Europe. I guess he failed the test, because Ziggler pulled off a non-title victory. The only positive take-aways from this match were that 1) Ziggler got to wrestle on Raw against someone holding a title, and 2) It led to a re-match this week on Raw.
As this week’s match progressed, I found myself edging forward on the couch, nodding my head, clenching my fists, and saying "Yeah!" through gritted teeth (I am a person who gently picks up spiders and escorts them out to the front porch, but sometimes I'm spoiling for a good fake fight). Ziggler and Axel were giving me that, and it got me wondering: had both guys finally had enough? Was Ziggler sick of the shit-swallowing routine? Was Axel sick of everyone talking shit about his skills and his personality (or lack thereof)? Who's to say what was going through their heads leading up to this match, but I was all over it. Let's begin.
Thank you, guys in the production truck, for giving us a little split-screen action as Axel and Ziggler make their ways through the backstage area for the match. Axel's got his belt on his shoulder, and he looks appropriately confident and focused. For his part, Ziggler is strutting and finger-gunning his way down a hallway, as nature intended. A prelude to their entrances, proper thing for a title match!
When we come back from commercial, the bell rings to herald the competitors. Someone on twitter noted that Dolph hasn't lost an ounce of zest on his ring entrance, always giving 110% on the ass roll every damn time. That's professionalism right there. He gestures wildly around his waist for the belt, and points to the fans, yelling "Don't think I don't remember!" which (to me) refers to how jubilant the UK-heavy crowd was that night when he cashed in. It totally tugs at my heart strings, seeing him acknowledge the people who made that moment so special.
Michael Cole builds up the match by saying Dolph gave an emotional interview on WWE.com, saying he'd love to hold the prestigious Intercontinental title again. Cue Axel's music, one of the best parts about the guy. As a kid who grew up with Mr. Perfect, I think this majestic version of his theme is even better than the original. Gosh, I hate to break this down to such minute particles, but Curtis Axel looks so much better coming out on his own! Very confident, breaking into a casual little jog at the top of the ramp. Might it be better for his ego to stand alone, rather than in the dominant shadow of Paul Heyman? He represents the title really well in this moment.
Ding ding. A "Let's go Ziggler!" chant begins immediately, as the two men lock up. Dolph gets Curtis into a corner, and fakes him out with a smirk. Meanwhile, Cole lists the names of Intercontinental Champions past, a practiced ritual for IC Title matches that never gets old, and is a refreshing change from talk of The Authority.
They tussle around the ring. "Let's go Ziggler!" chant again. Both men take to criss-crossing the ropes. I really like the way Axel leapfrogs over Ziggler, more of a one-legged hurdle than a two-legged leapfrog. He follows up with a beautiful drop-kick as Ziggler comes off the ropes. THAT was the exact moment when I started paying attention. Two count.
Axel stands over Ziggler, laughter playing on his face as he screams, "That's why I'm the Intercontinental Champion!" Sometimes Axel comes off looking a bit crazy. He needs to tamp down his Inner Backlund. Dolph slowly gets back to his feet, his eyes never leaving Curtis. He looks angry, and for a split-second, vulnerable. He shakes it off and channels that anger into a renewed ferocity as they lock up again. "Let's go Ziggler!"
Now it's Ziggler's turn to leapfrog and dropkick his opponent, at least as beautifully as when it happened to him. Two count. Ziggler takes his turn to talk trash, thrusting his crotch at Axel and spitting, "Why don't you come and GET IT!" Axel charges into a hip toss, and another two count. Cole recounts the night that Axel won the title, on Father's Day to honor his Dad. JBL crows that Ziggler could steal the show tonight. I give Cole and JBL credit for their contributions to giving this a proper big-match feeling. Ziggler executes a standing suplex on Axel for two.
After the two count, Ziggler pauses briefly, his eyes gazing upward just long enough for the fans to holler in support. He drops repeated elbows as the fans count each one, and in between 9 and 10 he gestures for the belt around his waist. Big finish at 10, and the whole arena counts "1! 2!" with the referee.
Trying to send Axel into the corner, Ziggler is surprised by a reversal that sends him over the top rope to the outside. The announcers refer to Dolph's losing streak, and wonder if Axel needs to prove himself in Heyman's absence. JBL is brilliant, ranting "This is our Intercontinental Champion here, not some kid from the independent scene!" I like that they’re not shying away from Dolph’s reality, and they’re building Axel without the usual hyperbole.
After some elbow drops and a two count, Axel gets Ziggler into the ropes and starts hammering at him Wreck-It Ralph style. Dolph is struggling and winded, and while he’s down, Axel half-heartedly paintbrushes the back of his head as an insult to injury. "He's toying with him!" says Cole, as Ziggler gets to his feet and gives Axel a defiant shove. It throws Axel off just enough for Dolph to jump up for a DDT. I love this part, because there's a brief moment where Dolph kind of hangs up around Axel’s shoulder, possibly looking like Axel would counter. But no, this pause only serves to put a lot of extra torque on that DDT, and it's awesome. Both men are left lying flat.
The referee counts both men, the fans counting with him. People are into this match! By a count of 9, both men are back on their feet, and Ziggler throws Axel through the turnbuckles into the ring post. "Let's go Ziggler!" rings even more loudly through the arena. Ziggler starts striking more haphazardly, all fired up and tasting victory. Two count. "Don't slow down here, not if you wanna walk out of here Intercontinental Champion!" warns JBL.
Axel manages to catapult Dolph into the top turnbuckle, and rolls him up for a trunks-grabbing two count. I want to note here that every combination comes together in this match. It's so very different than their bout last week. It helps greatly that this is a hot crowd, and the announce team is present for a change. Ziggler sneaks in a Fameasser and the fans bemoan the two count. "Let's go Ziggler!"
After a strange and proving-me-wrong awkward series of holds, Axel throws Ziggler down for another two count. He's lost that cocky expression and now appears worried. He climbs to the middle turnbuckle and Ziggler springs up to meet him. Lawler's voice breaks as he wonders what's going to happen next. Dolph grabs Curtis by the head and takes them both for a ride through the air, smashing Curtis's face into the mat. Big two count.
"Let's go Ziggler!" as Dolph jumps Axel from behind, and Axel tosses him through the air (this looks too contrived, as does the ensuing throw that follows). Curtis Axel follows up with a half-assed swinging neckbreaker that immediately elicits boos from the crowd before the ref can even count to three (which he does).
"A statement victory for Curtis Axel," says JBL, and the table gives credit to Dolph as well.
These guys really needed this match. Ziggler was wallowing in mid-card purgatory, made all the more depressing by his recently-proven star power. And Curtis Axel had somehow managed to be circling the drain whilst holding a title belt. I don’t know what was going through their heads, and I don’t know why this match clicked for me the way it did. When I saw those drop-kicks, and the way they were responding to each other emotionally, it felt true. I don’t know if this is the Game Change that I’d like it to be, but bless them both for refusing to be played or marginalized by others (present company included).
No one chanted “This is awesome!” or “Holy shit!” and you know, it just wasn’t worthy of such praise. But guess what? In a night marked by crowd chants that ranged from self-indulgent to senseless, ONLY ONE rang out during the entire 12 minutes of this match:
“Let’s go Ziggler!”
Or please comment below! My apologies for not having the full match here. WWE has the last few minutes posted.