Well, Survivor Series happened. One of the most highly anticipated matches in the past ten years took place last night. A match fans wanted so badly, they forever deemed Roman Reigns unworthy of their gratitude when he stood in the way of it happening three years ago. I am of course talking about the match between Daniel Bryan and Brock Lesnar.
As we expected, Brock Lesnar won. As we expected, it started out with Lesnar dominating, but then Bryan found a way to mount offense and turn the tide in his favor. And thankfully, Bryan did not sustain any concussions, as far as we know anyways.
After the match was over, I saw a lot of comparisons to the match Lesnar had last year at the same event, with AJ Styles, the man Bryan took the WWE Championship away from to be in this match. And there was some debate among whether or not this match was better. So I decided to take a look and compare the two matches, since I think this makes for an interesting discussion.
Before I begin, as I've said numerous times on this site, in-ring storytelling is the construction of the match from the beginning, to the middle, to the end, with regard to the story, the two wrestlers, and the atmosphere. I'm just pointing this out now because that's how I'm going to judge and compare these two matches. I will discuss the beginning, the middle, and the end. Simple as that.
So, lets get started.
But first, Disclaimer!
Alright so yeah, there's a couple things I want to point out. And I think you guys should read them before we move on.
1. I think it needs to be pointed out right away that AJ Styles vs Brock Lesnar had an advantage over Daniel Bryan vs Brock Lesnar as far as match potential went. AJ's match had more time to be built up, more anticipation, and less predictability as far as how the match would turn out. There were actually people on this website who thought the match would be a squash. And I actually didn't rule that out as a possibility. But I don't think anyone really expected that from the Bryan match. The only thing that made me suspicious that it would turn out that way was the clowning around by Bryan at the beginning, but once I saw that it wouldn't end right away, that suspicion quickly went away. Another advantage was AJ's position as far as being a face and the clear cut top guy of Smackdown. His title change was sudden and close to Survivor Series, but welcomed by many fans, and was considered the better option. It was a change fans desperately wanted. Bryan's title win came on the go home show of Smackdown. And he was a heel going up against Lesnar.
One more advantage is just the dynamic of what was going on with the event at that point. Smackdown had a 3-2 lead before their match (hard to believe given what happened this year). Now I'm not saying it made the match more unpredictable. But it did give more meaning and purpose to the match itself. If Brock lost, then Raw lost. There was something on the line. With Bryan's match, Smackdown winning the event was already out of the question, since by that point Raw had a 5-0 lead (not counting the 10 man match, which Smackdown won and for some reason it being on the pre-show means it doesn't count. Whatever). So win or lose, Raw was the superior brand. It's a small but very important detail.
2. With that said, I should point out that I don't think as highly of AJ Styles as an in-ring performer as many others do. If I were to choose between the two, Bryan would be my pick as the better in-ring performer, and I would debate anyone on it. I still think AJ Styles is without a doubt a great in-ring performer. He's just not someone I consider to be one of the best WWE has at the moment, hell I wouldn't even put him in the top five in all of WWE, or even top three on his own brand. Bryan, on the other hand, is the best in-ring performer WWE has at the moment in my opinion. So yeah, I hold Bryan to a much higher standard when it comes to in-ring work than I do AJ. To me, they are by no means equals in that department.
So with that said...
A lot of people have pointed out that both matches start out in similar fashion. Styles and Bryan are both dominated. But some have mentioned that both starts are different, since Bryan could have been finished had Lesnar not wanted to prolong the match. This is true. But there's a lot more to it than just that, and that's where I want to point out the differences.
Lesnar begins the beatdown right away, kicking Styles into the corner and unleashing his fury on him. Lesnar throws Styles around like he's a child, and there's already some notable things about the offense. First, Lesnar isn't spamming suplex's. Instead, he's changing up his offense. Tossing AJ by the hair, shoulder blocks into the corner, clotheslines, knee to the face in the corner. He even throws AJ shoulder first into the announcers table. At one point, Lesnar mocks AJ, and AJ eventually responds with a variety of punches and a couple chops and even manages to back Brock into the corner, before Lesnar quickly defuses it. I think this is a good time to stop covering the beginning, since the middle is so dramatically different. It definitely started a lot earlier from a story perspective, but for purposes of momentum and offense of these wrestlers, I've included Lesnar's domination in the beginning.
Even though the beginning of the match is extremely one sided, everything is done to perfection. One of AJ's best attributes as an in-ring performer is his selling and bumping, and he does a wonderful job of selling Lesnar's offense. And although watching Lesnar ragdoll AJ is hilarious, it's also an important aspect of the match and really adds to it in my opinion. It showcases the strength disparity. One of the aspects that I like as well is Lesnar using his speed to get the best of AJ at times. It makes Lesnar look even more dangerous as an opponent while also giving you an idea of how fucked AJ probably is. But even then, AJ still manages to get a couple shots here and there and even gets a moment where he throws some rights on Lesnar, to the point where he backs him in the corner. It makes sense given the fact that AJ is a face so you want to showcase that heart and determination.
So I really like the way the match starts out. The story that they're trying to tell is very clear. The psychology, the pacing, the execution, all are on point. And they have the crowd in the palm of their hands. AJ throwing hay-makers at Lesnar got the crowd all fired up. So they're firing on all cylinders.
When the match officially begins, Bryan charges at Lesnar, dropkicks him in the leg and then spends the next few minutes running around the ring toying with Lesnar to test his patience. His offense is based on mind games more than anything. And that's to be expected, given Bryan's recent heel turn to get to this point. Lesnar however quickly goes to work on Bryan with a nasty clothesline, and quickly follows up with a series of germans. His approach is more casual and slow, building up the tension and atmosphere, while letting the story tell itself. Bryan is getting decimated and Lesnar is having fun with it. He does two more belly to belly's, puts Bryan in the bear hug, and then just slams him on the ground. There is no fight from Bryan. None.
I have mixed feelings on the start of the match. On one end, there's some really beautiful and symbolic storytelling being told here that I really wish the commentary would have made note of (although I'm not sure if this was unintentional). Smackdown already lost. They have no wins and the situation at this point was hopeless. Even if Bryan wins, Raw still has the bragging rights. That kind of feels like what's going on here. Bryan has no chance, Lesnar is better, he's just toying around with him. It's symbolic to the situation at hand. That's incredible storytelling. Again, I don't know if that's what they had in mind, but your intention isn't what's relevant. It's what we saw being produced as a result of the work at hand. An accidental gem is still a gem. And that's what we're seeing here right now from that perspective.
The only problem is, it's very repetitive. And I'm not necessarily talking about the "Lesnar dominates" formula, but the way they go out doing it. At one point, Lesnar hits a belly to belly, puts Bryan in a bearhug, lets go of him and follows it up with a german. Okay. Nothing wrong with that. Except after all of that, he goes on to do the exact same thing. No, I am not kidding. He hits Bryan with a belly to belly, puts him in another bearhug, lets go and then hits a german.
That's lazy. And it's uninspiring. The message is clear, but the execution is sloppy. That's not to say that the actual execution of the moves weren't great. Those germans and belly to belly's to Bryan were excellent. But stuff like that just takes you out of a match very quickly. A rinse and repeat doesn't add to a match. It just makes it look like you're stalling for time.
The pacing, and selling for that matter, are all over the place too. Bryan is basically dead after taking one german suplex. You feel like he's dead after every move Lesnar gives him. From a psychology standpoint, this doesn't work. It makes sense after it happens nonstop, but from the first set of moves? That's a lot to buy.
What they are going for is correct. And at times, the execution, selling, and psychology are good. But it's not consistent. And the pacing is just random. So they really need to start changing things up to make it work.
In terms of the beginning, AJ's match is far superior. Better in-ring action, selling, pacing, psychology, everything. It starts off a lot better. Now we'll see how things go from here.
Lesnar tries an F-5, but AJ fights it off and goes into a corner. Lesnar tries the knee into the corner but AJ gets out of the way and hits his knee on the turnbuckle pad. AJ follows this up with a dropkick to that knee, and a DDT. He works out the leg with numerous kicks, and the crowd is suddenly really into it. What would have been a really nice sequence instead is very sloppy and botched. Styles goes for the reverse DDT, but Lesnar catches him (but almost falls backwards). He tries a powerslam but AJ slides off and pushes Lesnar into the corner. He tries to do a tornado DDT but the move is botched and it looks like AJ is just slammed down onto the ground instead. Maybe it was intentional, but the execution was bad and it took the audience out of it.
But they're able to quickly recover. AJ does a pele kick to the back of Lesnar's neck as he's down on the ground. He goes for the Phenomenal Forearm but Lesnar counters with a beautiful German that makes Styles flip onto his stomach. Another somewhat sloppy moment occurs when Lesnar goes for a punch on Styles, but Styles sends him over the top rope. It just looks weird, I'll leave it at that. Phenomenal Forearm to the outside on Brock, followed by AJ pushing Lesnar knee first into the steel steps. AJ then does the diving forearm again off the steps on to Lesnar. He now has full control here. Even when Lesnar hits a forearm shot on AJ, he counters immediately with an enziguri, followed by a springboard moonsault, and then a 450 Splash from the other side of the ring. I think this is a good spot to end the middle portion of the match as we get ready to transition to the end.
A couple sloppy moments, including one botched move, are the only complaints that I really have about this portion of the match. The way they are able to transition into AJ's comeback, as well as the way he is able to execute his offense, is done wonderfully. And Brock does just as good of a job as AJ did selling the offense. But that doesn't surprise me, since there's very little Brock doesn't do well in the ring when he's focused and, you know, gives a shit. There's a lot more emphasis on high flying moves from AJ here, and I think that makes sense given the size difference. CM Punk did the same thing with Lesnar in their match, so I wouldn't expect anything less. The springboard moonsault by Styles was pretty random, but he's cut back big time on the random nonsense since his TNA days, and I normally give an exception to things like that as long as they don't get out of hand with it. Here, Styles doesn't do that, so the move doesn't bother me too much. And it still makes sense.
What I really like however is that this entire portion isn't all Styles. Lesnar does have his moments. The only big move he hits is the german, but even then he has other moments where he counters Style's offense. It's a shame the sequence I mentioned before was done in sloppy fashion, because that was a really nice moment they were going for there. The main thing to take away from here is that Lesnar still fought back, but Styles had an answer for everything. He had all the momentum at this point.
At this point, those two sloppy moments including the botch are the only complaints I have. This is a nitpick session and it's really impressive that I have no complaints about how the match has been structured as far as storytelling is concerned. They've done a phenomenal (no pun intended) job in that department.
Lesnar hits the F-5 on Bryan and goes for the pin. But he lifts Bryan up before the ref can count the three, prolonging the match. I guess he wants to have some more fun, which makes sense. In a very odd moment, Lesnar walks around Bryan, and then moves him to the center of the ring, and then walks behind him AGAIN, stalling for time until he decides to finally pick Bryan up. Before he can do that, Bryan hits Brock twice in the face. Brock gets irritated, tries to F-5 Bryan, but hits the ref and Bryan lands on his feet. Bryan low blows Brock, hits the running knee and almost pins the champion. Now, it's Bryan's turn. Bryan works on Lesnar's hamstring with numerous kicks. Lesnar tries another F-5 but Bryan escapes and gets Lesnar sent to the outside. He tries a crossbody over the top rope but gets caught by Lesanr. He slides off and sends Lesnar into the ring post. He then hits the running knee off the apron. In one of my favorite moments, he tries the suicide dive but gets caught in mid air by Lesnar. Lesnar then drives him twice into the ring post.
Here's where things get odd. For some reason, Lesnar picks up the steel steps and tries to hit Bryan with them. Bryan moves out of the way, which makes Lesnar hit the ringpost instead, and his face hits the steel steps too. Bryan follows this up with another running knee off the apron. Bryan tries sending him in the ring, but Lesnar kicks Bryan and sends him back in the ring instead, all while still feeling the effects of the steel steps. Lesnar is backed into a corner as a result, and Bryan hits the running knee again but gets a very close two count. This is where we'll stop for the middle portion of the match.
Like the beginning, I have mixed feelings on the middle of this match, although they learn towards the good. Lesnar walking around aimlessly for what felt like an hour was annoying, but after that, things really took off. The near fall after the first running knee was incredible and it woke the crowd up. From this point on they were really into it. Bryan's offense was really great and the pacing was on point. Things were really starting to pick back up. Bryan's kicks on Lesnar looked great. And at one point, after Bryan stomped the living fuck out of Lesnar's face, you could see Bryan's footprints planted on Brock's face. Brutal stuff. And I LOVED Brock catching Bryan in mid air when he went for the suicide dive. That shit looked incredible. And it's amazing they were able to execute it as well as they did.
But then...things got weird again. I don't mind random occurrences in matches. Sometimes people want to go outside the box and try something different. I get that. But if you're gonna do it, try not to make a habit of it. And when you do it, make sure it makes sense.
Lesnar grabbing the steel steps and trying to drive them into Bryan made no sense. For starters it would have gotten him DQ'd if he had done it. And the commentators even pointed that out. Granted, it wouldn't have mattered at this point since Raw already won the event. If that's what they were going for, I still don't like it. Bryan had been driven twice into the ring post. He was hurt and easy pickings. I don't see the reason for Lesnar to go to these lengths. He doesn't need that and it doesn't fit his character. And as I mentioned before, I don't like spots being repeated unless there's a reason for it. And here, Bryan does the diving knee off the apron after Lesnar got hurt in the corner. Keep in mind, before all of this, Lesnar caught Bryan as he was trying to do a suicide dive. Remember what had just happened before? Bryan tried a crossbody over the top rope, Lesnar caught him, but then he got sent into the ringpost and Bryan hit the running knee off the ring apron. Once again, the exact same thing occurred, only this time the moves were switched up a bit. It's still the same circumstances however. Again, that's lazy.
But still, I like what I see here for the most part. Great action, some really nice moments, the pacing and selling got a lot better and the match is flowing a lot more nicely now. The crowd is really into it as well.
Now on to the end.
AJ goes for the Styles Clash, but Lesnar counters and goes for the F-5, but AJ beautifully counters and gets the Calf Crusher in. Lesnar sells this wonderfully, and the crowd is losing their mind. Lesnar gets out of this by slamming AJ's head into the mat repeatedly (Dean Ambrose did that already Brock, you aren't special). Brock goes for the F-5 but his leg is giving him problems. AJ gets off of him and is on the ring apron, and delivers a NASTY elbow shot to Lesnar. He hits the Phenomenal Forearm and gets a near count. AJ tries the Phenomenal Forearm again, this time removing his elbow pad. But Lesnar is able to catch him, and hits the F-5 for the win.
This sounds pretty quick, but this all goes on for about a few or so minutes. The ending here is pretty well done for the most part. A lot more incredible selling from Lesnar, and some really nice sequences as well. The last few minutes of this match flow incredibly well and a lot of that has to do with how they set everything up. A simple finisher counter into another finisher counter into the submission was really well done. The way Lesnar broke out of it was cool, and although it had been done before by Ambrose, it made perfect sense given Lesnar being a powerhouse. I've never had an issue with it only taking one F-5 for Lesnar to beat someone. In my opinion that's the way it should be. And I really wish WWE wasn't lazy and made Lesnar waste five F-5's just to beat Strowman. To me it makes Styles look weak in moments like these where he loses to one F-5. In reality, you couldn't have made Styles look any better as a performer.
One thing I will say however is that I don't like Styles going for the Phenomenal Forearm right away again after he had just failed beforehand. I guess it just happens too soon for my liking, but that's just me. But here's the thing: that's the first complaint I've made through out this entire match. And it's literally at the very end. And I'm a picky person. So that says a lot.
I'll get into overall match thoughts in a moment. Lets finish up Bryan's match.
Bryan chopblocks Lesnar and continues to work on the damaged leg. He goes to the outside for a moment, and slams Lesnar's leg into the ring post, causing further damage to it. He sends Lesnar back in the ring, goes to the top rope and hits a missle dropkick. Bryan follows this up with two corner dropkick, but gets caught in the third. Lesnar goes for the F-5 but his leg gives out on him. Bryan falls over the top of his head, and he gets the yes-lock in. Lesnar's selling here once again is on point. Lesnar breaks Bryan's grip, but Bryan hits Lesnar across the side of the face a couple of times and resumes the hold. Eventually, Lesnar transitions out, but Bryan tries locking in a triangle submission. Lesnar is able to lift Bryan up, and quickly hit an F-5 and pins Bryan.
This was an excellent way to finish out the match. If I had anything to complain about, it's that I wish Lesnar would have had a little more offense in these final few minutes rather than it literally be all Bryan. But the way they went about doing it made sense. When Lesnar had Bryan in an F-5, the injury to his leg made him lose his footing and it allowed Bryan to use his yes-lock finisher. He was in the finisher hold for quite some time and even teased that he was going to tap out a few times. And he really had me going there for a moment. The way he was selling the move was downright incredible. It amazes me how great Lesnar is in that department when he is giving full effort. He can make anyone look great. And he does that here with Bryan.
Bryan deserves a lot of credit as well, staying true to his character while still showing signs of being a different person with the heel turn and what not. His character work here is great, and it's a reason to look forward to seeing what he has to offer as he starts into his new role as the top heel on Smackdown.
The pacing and execution of the ending portion of the match is great, as is the psychology. The ending definitely made up for the earlier portions of the match.
Overall Thoughts and Ratings
So if I had to give match ratings right now for these, it would go as follows:
AJ Styles vs Brock Lesnar: ****1/2
Daniel Bryan vs Brock Lesnar: ***1/2
So AJ Styles vs Brock Lesnar wins.
And here is why.
As I said before, Styles vs Lesnar had a significant advantage over Bryan vs Lesnar. But Bryan is a guy who is able to bring great matches out of anyone, regardless of the circumstances. His second match with Big Cass is an example of this. In this case however, even despite that, I'm giving AJ's match a full star difference, because he did a much better job doing what he needed to do to make his match work.
From start to finish, the match between AJ and Brock is very clear. Brock is dominating, but when AJ finds his opening, he takes full advantage of it. He sticks to his strengths, uses his athleticism to his advantage to create a chance of winning. The match is beautifully paced, and the action is well balanced. There's actual variety instead of spamming suplex's and constant flips, which any ignorant fan would say is what you're gonna expect from these two when they have a match (I would know, I was that ignorant fan).
But what helps this stand out more is the flow of the match. Everything falls into place, and because it's a face vs heel match, what happens feels a lot more natural. Seeing Daniel Bryan, a heel, dominate Lesnar in the fashion he did feels...weird. Because of the fact that he is a heel now, it's hard at times to make sense of what you are seeing because your view of him is supposed to be different. You're supposed to expect him to be on the receiving end of the punishment, making the opponent look better. It's hard for me to see it as such, and it's a conflicting thing to have in Pro Wrestling.
But more than anything, Styles vs Lesnar feels like an actual Champion vs Champion match. Both men are there giving it all, battered and bruised, pulling out all the stops, but also taking it to each other in ways you wouldn't expect from...well, someone who isn't the top champion from another brand. You wouldn't expect someone from Raw to fight back in this kind of fashion after Lesnar's been doing this for this long. Usually when he gains that advantage, you're fucked. With Bryan's situation, it only happened in the first place because Lesnar let it happen. And that takes away from what they're trying to do here. Yeah, Bryan put up a great fight, but that's because Lesnar let it get to that point.
The first match between Daniel Bryan and Brock Lesnar should not have been a heel vs heel match. But then again, that's irrelevant. There's still more they could have done with the time given to make this a more compelling match. Instead, a lot of it feels like a lesser version of AJ's match, but this time with more repeated spots, a lot of time stalling and some straight up strange moments that made little sense. The last few minutes are wonderful, but it's not enough to put it on the level of AJ/Brock.
This isn't to say that Bryan vs Lesnar wasn't a very good match. It was. Did it live up to expectations? In my opinion, no, but that's because it's Bryan and Lesnar. Two absolute legends in the ring, two of the best in-ring performers on the planet when they were both in their primes. There were circumstances such as timing and character alignments that didn't work in their favor, but none the less, I think they could have done more with what they were given. They're both good enough to create matches of legendary status even in limited circumstances. They're that good.
Even on equal grounds, AJ/Brock I feel just did a lot more, and went beyond expectations. And AJ played his part unbelievably well, deserves loads of credit for making this match as great as it was. And thus, his match with Lesnar is, to me, the better match.
Let me know if you guys think differently, as well as if you have anything you'd like to add that you think I missed.