Although much has been irretrievably lost to the ongoing, global COVID 19 pandemic, in many ways our world is trying as best we collectively can to reclaim the traditions that have long sustained us, and enjoy the experiences that delight and bond us. Major sporting events, like pro wrestling shows, are among the facets of life that have been trying tenaciously to return to the live audiences that have missed the normalcy they represent. WWE returned to live shows and touring in summer 2021, and on November 14 a live crowd at Toyota Arena in Ontario, California was present for WWE’s 19th annual Tribute to the Troops.
The brainchild of WWE Hall of Famer John “Bradshaw” Layfield, the annual exhibition of WWE Superstars pays tribute to all branches of the U.S. armed forces, and military families. 2020’s event was broadcast from the ThunderDome at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, like most of WWE’s television programming going forward after the onslaught of the pandemic. This year’s program represented another return to normalcy as the world continues to grapple with the pandemic, as members of the Armed Forces shared their stories interspliced with matches from some of WWE’s most popular performers.
Big E vs Dolph Ziggler
After a performance of the national anthem, the action opened with Big E facing off against Dolph Ziggler. The two have history, as allies in Big E’s earliest days in WWE prior to his time in The New Day. Although Big E’s championship run has somewhat flailed in search of a storyline to ground it, pitting him against his former comrade Ziggler would make good sense on regular WWE programming. Grappling on foot, Ziggler struggled to get hold of Big E, who easily turned Ziggler’s loose grasp around on him, lifted and launched him into an overhead throw. The two ran the ropes, E leap frogged over Ziggler and then trapped him in an abdominal stretch, delivering blows to the stomach. Ziggler escaped narrowly, E knocked him down and dragged him to the edge of the ring, standing outside the apron and raining blows on Ziggler’s chest before delivering a splash to Ziggler prone on the apron. Ziggler countered E’s attempt to set up a suplex with punches, and his tag partner Robert Roode snuck into the action with a superkick to Big E.
Ziggler attempted to neutralize E with a sleeper hold, but E countered by launching Ziggler to the canvas with a series of belly-to-belly throws, then a big splash, pausing at times to taunt Ziggler and lead the crowd in rousing chants of “New Day Rocks.” Ziggler rallied, however, landing a famouser on E, planting him, and getting a cover-E kicked out. The two struggled for dominance, and Ziggler landed his “Zig Zag” finisher for another cover, which E escaped. Big E put Ziggler away with a “Big Ending” and a cover for a pinfall win, and fended off an attack from Roode. A Ziggler/Big E singles feud on regular programming would be refreshing: both have engaging comedic chops; the two have history, Ziggler makes E look like a powerhouse, and E makes Ziggler look tenacious, in the Shawn Michaels mode he so often strives for. It could be good fun.
Bianca Belair vs Liv Morgan
Since losing her SmackDown women’s championship to Becky Lynch at SummerSlam 2021, Bianca Belair has continued to be a top babyface in untelevised WWE matches. Her Tribute to the Troops appearance followed in this vein, with Belair being presented as a top star despite her many losses to Lynch on SmackDown, Raw, and pay per view. Paired off against Liv Morgan, before locking up with her Belair paused to drink in the Ontario’s ardent cheers of “EST”. Wrestling in a more catch-as-catch-can style, She focused on wearing Morgan down with some submission maneuvers to her arms and fingers before a rolling tussle for dominance ensued between the two, showing off Belair’s exceptional strength and Morgan’s liquid grace. Belair hit Morgan with a shoulder tackle, getting her down into a shoulders down cover. Morgan escaped, and led Belair on a merry chase as they ran the ropes and traded leap frogs over each other.
The ebullience of the two performers was engaging-Morgan and Belair, God willing, are both the present and future of the WWE women’s division, and both have a lot to give and energy to spare. Morgan, who recently won a championship opportunity against Lynch for the Raw women’s title, showed off some in-ring endurance and acumen. After eating a spinebuster, she recovered and escaped Belair’s powerbomb attempt to roll Belair through into a shoulder’s down cover. Belair stayed alive, but was hit by an enziguiri from Morgan. Morgan attempted to hit a hurricanrana on Belair, but Belair caught hold of Morgan, folded and dumped her into a breadbasket into the post. After hitting her “Kiss of Death” finisher on Morgan and getting a cover, Bianca earned a-rare, these days-television victory.
Shinsuke Nakamura vs Roman Reigns
The main event pit Intercontinental Champion Shinsuke Nakamura against Universal Champion Roman Reigns. Reigns enjoyed a 600+ day undefeated streak in the WWE universe until his November 12 Friday Night SmackDown encounter with Xavier Woods, which ended in a no-contest. The “King of Strong Style”, Nakamura dominated the opening minutes of the encounter, trapping Reigns in the corner with blows to his upper body and a foot to his neck. Reigns escaped, and used the momentum of the ropes to launch a Superman punch on Nakamura, laying him sprawled out on the canvas. Nakamura recovered and landed a kick on Reigns, to the accompaniment of Rick Boogs’s guitar. Jey and Jimmy Uso attacked the distracting Boogs, and Reigns went on the attack, following up another Superman punch with a spear, getting a cover and a win over Nakamura. Nakamura expressed interest in facing Reigns again, to Sports Illustrated. The 3x IWGP heavyweight champion more than deserves a true shot at the “Tribal Chief.”
With some critically panned creative directions and the gobsmacking releases of several beloved Superstars from its roster, 2021 has been a troubled year for WWE. However, events such as Tribute to the Troops are reminders that at their best, WWE is capable and quite effective at putting smiles on faces, on a large scale, when the world most needs joy.
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