There was a time when the Survivor Series really meant something. Sure, it was conceived to cash in on the Hulk Hogan–Andre the Giant feud at WrestleMania III and the burgeoning pay-per-view market. And sure, the WWF avoided resolution of the meatier feuds in favor of count-outs and disqualifications, saving the real resolutions for WrestleMania. The multiperson tag-team format made the show a playground for big moments followed by metaphorical To Be Continueds. But resolution is a scarce commodity in pro wrestling in general, at least compared to expectations.
But in those halcyon days, you used to see stare-downs that teased future superfeuds and team-ups that had happened only among Wrestling Buddies. More importantly, though, you got a handle on the WWF’s internal power rankings: who led the teams, who stood closest to the leader in group photos, and where the match went on the card.
In recent years, the matches have been subservient to title matches, and have been populated with the roster’s functional afterthoughts. The first Survivor Series featured Hogan’s team versus Andre the Giant’s. The entire card of the second one was four gigantic matches — three five-on-fives and one 10-on-10 tag-team blowout. In 2011, for reference, there was only one traditional Survivor Series match, Wade Barrett’s team versus Randy Orton’s, and it happened midway through the show.
This year, though, the Survivor Series teams really mean something again. The megamatch between Brock Lesnar and Goldberg might be headlining, but it exists in a parallel universe, a timeline with only incidental consequence for the real world. The five-on-five men’s Survivor Series match pitches the best competitors that Raw has to offer with the upper crust of SmackDown, and for the first time since my childhood, we can see WWE delineating its hierarchy. (And with the upstart Baron Corbin written off the squad in favor of SmackDown GM Shane McMahon, the only player I can get snarky about is Raw’s Braun Strowman — and I’m not going to snark too loudly about him.) There are three Survivor Series matches, featuring the best that the men’s, women’s, and tag divisions have to offer. And for the first time in ages, it seems like we’re getting a window into the brain of WWE decision-makers — who they value, who matters, and who will matter going forward.
It’s impossible to predict who’s going to win on Sunday, since there are too many permutations that would get the story lines to the same endpoint, and WWE has a vested interest in surprising fans to drive online discussion and media attention. But we can still get a feel for the internal hierarchy, and that really means something. So in honor of the event’s return to past glory, let’s stage our own Survivor Series — a symbolic one — to see who gets eliminated and when. In three massive, fantasy-booked matches, I’ll break down who means the most to WWE (and its fans) and who will lead the company into a promising but uncertain new year. Welcome to the 2016 Symbolic Survivor Series.
The Tag Team Survivor Series Match
The Shining Stars: They got the last slot in this match by tricking R-Truth into trading his team’s spot for a week at the Stars’ Puerto Rican timeshare. This tells you all you need to know about WWE creative’s plans for this duo. But look on the bright side: At least you’re not the Golden Truth. A quick pinfall and they’re gone.
Breezango: Tyler Breeze and Fandango are both talented workers saddled with comedic fancy-boy gimmicks: Breeze the male model and Fandango the dancer. And while they were separately over at one point — Breeze in NXT and Fandango upon his beautifully silly debut — comic acts have a strict sell-by date in WWE. Putting them together into a team has given them each a small spark, but the creative team hasn’t given them, well, anything. Count-out due to excessive primping.
The Hype Bros: The Hype Bros are half expired fad (Zack Ryder) and half fizzled blue-chipper (Mojo Rawley), and they’ll be employed by WWE forever because of the fans’ undying loyalty to Ryder and Rob Gronkowski’s undying loyalty to Rawley. They’ll get a few seconds to pop the crowd, then they’re done.
The Usos: In five years, we’ll be surprised they lasted this long.
Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson: Gallows and Anderson were huge stars in Japan and on the indies before they were brought on by WWE to be the tag team equivalent of Kevin Owens or AJ Styles. But aside from a moment working as Styles’s muscle, they haven’t really caught on. WWE briefly tried to cast them as stand-up urologists, but saw the error of their ways and reverted them back to tough guys, which, unfortunately for everyone, is the hardest role for WWE to write. They’re out.
Sheamus and Cesaro: These are two upper-midcard enemies who were forced to team up and stay together in an emotionally abusive relationship because, well, what else are they going to do? They get a nice showing, then they’ll fight their way out of the ring to a double count-out.
American Alpha: These two have all the potential in the world — the little charismatic guy and the big guy with "future star" written all over him, both of them legit amateur wrestlers. Fans (and announcers) salivate over them, and next year they’re probably in the final four. But for now, they get tossed.
Heath Slater and Rhyno: A classic odd-couple pairing, the redneck loudmouth and the man-beast of ECW (who just lost an election), Slater and Rhyno are wonderful because they’re the crown jewels of SmackDown’s rehabilitation system and because they’re the exact mix of comedy and ring skill that pro wrestling should be about. The crowd will go wild for their last stand, but they’ll understand that they’re not around for the endgame.
Enzo Amore and Big Cass: When they’re on, it’s easy to convince yourself that either of these guys could be a future world champion, Cass for his size and Enzo for his nuclear promo skills. Then there are the times when it feels like they’re one giant catchphrase, a two-man nostalgia trip to the Attitude Era, for better and worse. They could be the headliners of the 2017 Symbolic Survivor Series, but for now they can’t dethrone the champs:
The New Day: It’s rare to watch any wrestler at the height of his or her powers for an extended period of time, and it’s even rarer to see a group do it. The New Day is often compared to the Fabulous Freebirds because they’re a title-sharing trio, but the model for them going forward should be the Four Horsemen. Please, WWE, don’t fall into the easy path of splitting them up. Keep them together and let them achieve some individual success. They’ve defied crappy gimmicks and the specter of staleness. Your winners of the 2016 Symbolic Survivor Series match are the New Day, and they’ve earned every bit of it.
The Women’s Survivor Series Match
Alicia Fox: Listen, I love Alicia Fox. She’s an underrated wrestler and underutilized talent all around. But in the Symbolic Survivor Series, she doesn’t last 30 seconds.
Carmella: On Breaking Ground, when Triple H told Enzo and Cass they were getting called up to the main roster, the downside was that their valet (and Cass’s real-life girlfriend), Carmella, was staying in NXT, because to fulfill her potential she had to carve her own path. Since she came aboard the SmackDown brand, the results have been mixed. Tossed out of the ring and counted out, and better luck next year.
Naomi: She’s the unrivaled women’s champion of ring entrances and gear, but with little gold to show for it. Enough of a perennial threat that she stays in the match for a while, but not enough legitimacy to last.
Nia Jax: Jax may be WWE’s first attempt at slow-burning a monster heel, and so far it’s having a subtly positive effect. She’s not achieving her potential, but if she’s sometimes invisible at least she’s not getting stale. She can play an integral role in a robust women’s division, and despite the dilution that the brand split has incurred, it’s getting there — why else would someone with Jax’s potential be eliminated so early? The remainder of the roster teams up on her and she submits to five simultaneous submissions.
Bayley: Bayley has the chance to be the women’s division’s New Day (or early Kurt Angle) — a package of solid ringwork, massive crowd appeal, and cloying optimism. She’ll have to find a second gear to last on the main roster, but the very fact that WWE is getting behind her bodes well for her longevity. For now, though, she goes down.
Nikki Bella: If we’re going to judge on longevity, Nikki Bella’s already there, and as long as she’s around she’s a viable (and marketable) star. She may not have the ability to go full indie in the ring like her beau John Cena can, but she’s made the transition into the Women’s Revolution era better than anyone could have predicted. Still: loss via pin at 11:35.
Alexa Bliss: The most pleasant surprise of the post-brand-split era, Bliss has outperformed her admirable NXT run by becoming the kind of pure heel that the SmackDown brand sorely needed. She’s got a long way to go, but she’s got the skill set to carry the division. Thankfully they don’t need her to just yet, because she’s eliminated.
Becky Lynch: Maybe the biggest pure babyface in the company, Lynch is a burgeoning five-tool performer, and an anchor of SmackDown, but she’s slightly hamstrung by being in the lesser women’s division. If she can be the rock that allows that scene — and performers like Bliss and Carmella — to develop, she’ll have done more than anyone could have hoped of her. But the large-scale glory that her crowd reaction deserves is still a ways off. She’s right here next to her Divas Revolutions cohorts, but she’s the first elimination of the trio.
Sasha Banks: Nobody has the talent, the upside, and the big-match capabilities of Sasha, but nobody has such an EKG shape to their career arc either. WWE seems to know what it has in Banks — which is to say, a lot — but it’s reluctant to pull the trigger, either because the company is going to tease out her underdog story for the next six months, or because it has other reasons to pull the trigger. In a vacuum, Sasha would win this match, but in reality — even symbolic reality — she takes the pin.
Charlotte Flair: Charlotte recaptured the Women’s title in the main-event cage match at Hell in a Cell last month, solidifying her place in WWE highlight packages for years. As big as Sasha and Becky have been over the past months, as much as Paige helped segue to the new era, and as integral as Nikki Bella has been in the transfer of power, Charlote has been the rock — and the face — of women’s wrestling in WWE since she showed up on Raw. She’s no. 1, and there might not be anybody else in the company with a more important role.
The Men’s Survivor Series Match
Braun Strowman: As much fun as Braun has been since he left the Wyatt Family, this is something of a hopeful pick. There’s every reason to imagine he’ll be in a main event at some point in the next year, but he’s got a long way to go if he’s going to have the staying power of any of the other guys in this match, so they all team up and dump him out of the ring.
Randy Orton: Orton is a weird one — he’s in one of the most interesting story lines he’s been in for a while, as a full-fledged, brainwashed member of the Wyatt Family, but that gimmick coinciding with Survivor Series leaves Orton as a subordinate in the team of main eventers. For all we know he could headline WrestleMania, but right now he’s a rich man’s version of Earthquake joining the Dungeon of Doom.
Bray Wyatt: Bray is one of my favorite wrestlers on the roster, but every time it seems like he’s about to break out, WWE sticks him with corny, pretaped backstage bits. Or they do what they did on Monday and put the company’s unstable cult leader in a goddamned SmackDown T-shirt to promote show unity. To borrow a phrase: Sheesh.
Chris Jericho: To borrow another one: Never … eeeeever have I been this impressed by a late-career rejuvenation, and that’s including Bob Backlund, Bubba Dudley in TNA, and Hulk Hogan’s sex tape. Jericho has gone from Old Guy Who Loses To Up-And-Coming Stars to legit headline act almost overnight, by dint of a gauzy all-weather scarf and an inspired enemies list. As much as Kevin Owens has reshaped the company in the past two months, his running buddy Jericho might be Raw’s MVP.
Dean Ambrose: Before the brand split, Ambrose spent most of his time in the shadow of his former Shield teammates Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns. Now he’s the top babyface on SmackDown (during John Cena’s frequent absences, anyway), where he’s thriving on a show that exists entirely in Raw’s shadow. The bigger the moment, the more Ambrose shines, so Survivor Series could be a big night for him, but in the Symbolic Survivor Series, he’s not in the top five.
Shane McMahon: This is Shane Freakin McMahon. So what if he’s a talking head 99 percent of the time and not a real wrestler in the first place. He’s Shane McMahon, and he’ll be coheadlining WrestleMania, and he’ll kind of deserve it.
Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins (double elimination): These two will probably be fighting for the top Raw babyface slot until the end of time. It’s a very modern matchup: the cookie-cutter hero who’s been rejected by "smart" fans because of the appearance of a rigged system, and the smart-fan icon who, either because of bad timing or a too-successful heel run, can’t quite catch on with the mainstream fans. Rumors have it that Reigns is getting the title shot at the next PPV after a couple of months with Rollins in pole position. And that’s fine — as long as WWE is equivocating between the two of them, the main-event scene is healthier.
AJ Styles: Styles is a prime example of the benefits of the hands-off approach to character development. When WWE signed him, they threw him right into the Royal Rumble without changing his name or gimmick or giving him a run in NXT — and without, seemingly, any real idea of how he’d go over with the crowd. The crowd loved him, cheered for him louder than anybody else on the roster for months, and even when he turned heel to feud with John Cena, he didn’t lose his mojo. It’s too easy to argue that if WWE really got behind him he could be an all-time star. If WWE had ever "really" gotten behind AJ, it probably would have spoiled him.
Kevin Owens: Despite his massive success in the Symbolic WWE, Styles gets tossed by Owens, who’s been playing hurt for the entire match. Owens sneak-attacks the competition — and the fans — like an ’80s heel manager, relishing in the assumptions about him based on his look and his history and then grabbing a mic or getting in the ring and defying every one of them. He does it to other wrestlers, too — he comfortably rides in second place, drafting on the success of others like John Cena and Sami Zayn before he stomps the gas pedal for the home stretch. When Daniel Bryan won the WWE title back in 2014, it felt like a matter of time before WWE would take it away. When Owens won, it felt right, even if it felt like it would never happen. Kevin Owens is your Sole Survivor.
Now, there are a couple of caveats, and they’re named Brock Lesnar, John Cena, and Finn Balor. Brock is in the alternate dimension that’s held together by the magical forces of a minimal number of workdays and a PED bust in the UFC. But he could, theoretically, come back at any time. Cena is off filming a reality show or a movie and isn’t expected back until next month — and if "Cena isn’t expected back until next month" doesn’t set off your alarm bells, you haven’t been watching wrestling for the last decade. Balor — who was the first Universal champ, before he suffered a shoulder injury in the title-winning match that caused him to relinquish it — is due back next year and will presumably pick up where he left off. There’s the Undertaker, too, just back from his annual stint in the cryo lab, though it remains to be seen how vital he’ll be going forward.
And let’s not cry for Dolph Ziggler, the Miz, and Sami Zayn, who are sidebarred in the Intercontinental title picture. They would have been eliminated in the early goings just because of the talent above them, and they’ll be in a better place in the 2017 Symbolic Survivor Series for being on the periphery of this one.
But the real Survivor Series is Sunday, and the Symbolic Survivor Series is being booked based on the here and now. Kevin Owens, Charlotte Flair, and the New Day are your sole survivors. And the crowd goes wild. Symbolically, anyway.