Round 1 (continued):
13) Renee Michelle vs Candice LaRae **1/2
I’ve seen Renee Michelle only once, in a basic tag match at Marvelous USA’s first show. Candice LaRae is a mainstay in Shimmer and an all around solid performer, although I’ll admit I’m not quite as high on her work in general as most of indie fandom.
Michelle taking about being excited and having charisma in total monotone during her video isn’t the greatest way to make a strong impression. LaRae’s “high risk wrestler” self definition and acknowledgement of her marriage to Johnny Gargano (and stating she made it clear to him she wanted to get here totally on her own) was pitch perfect.
Michelle carries herself like a star out to the ring though, and matches Candice nicely in back and forth counter wrestling in the early going. Candice is the clear favorite, with “Candice Wrestling” chants from the crowd (riffing off her husband’s “Johnny Wrestling” chants, and Gargano’s ringside cheering right along with them).
Both made the most of the time they were given here, and playing them roughly even until Candice pulled away and hit “Ms. LaRae’s Wild Ride” (second rope neckbreaker) for the victory was the right approach. Although I’ve honestly never cared for that move as a finisher and wish she was using something else. Renee sold it beautifully though and made it convincing.
Renee seemed the tiniest bit hesitant at times, but not super noticeable nor to the detriment of the match, and looked fine overall. Decent match to establish LaRae, but could have used more time.
14) Lacey Evans vs Taynara Conti *
Evans’ video package can’t make up its mind whether it wants to tout her toughness and praise worthy Marine Core background or push her “Lady of NXT” diva like gimmick. The juxtaposition doesn’t give a clear idea what to expect from her. Conti’s succinctly highlights her 15 years of judo experience and being the first Brazilian woman in WWE.
Alexa Bliss shown in the front row, for some reason desperately trying to look and smile at absolutely anything except the camera pointed at her.
Conti out first carrying a Brazilian flag and wearing a gi and her black belt which is a striking image. Evans comes out in her “all American mom” outfit carrying an American flag. Gee, wonder who’s winning this? Oh, and it’s mentioned Lacey’s dedicated the match to her daughter…
They tried, but both were too green to make this cohesive. Conti’s throws were a highlight and both threw some nice kicks, but it was disjointed otherwise. Lacey gets the expected win with a (sloppy) Dudebuster in a match that felt too long at just a few minutes. Lacey needs a different gimmick, and I would have preferred to see Conti advance based on what little we saw from each here. Evans gets Storm in the next round.
15) Nicole Savoy vs Reina Gonzalez 1/4*
Reina gets a solid introduction focusing on her size, skills, and second generation status. Nicole Savoy is an incredible mat based wrestler with natural heel instincts and mannerisms. I’ve spotlighted her in the past as one to watch and really enjoyed her work in Shimmer. Not sure why she’s going with the “Queen of Suplexes” nickname, as there’s much more to her arsenal and they’re usually only a fraction of what she does in the ring.
Nicole bragged about her attitude and trash talk in her video but is apparently the face here as she offers a handshake and Reina refuses to start and it’s Reina pulling hair, etc throughout the match. Reina uses her strength to “block” Savoy’s moves in very odd ways that don’t look natural. After a couple of minutes of awkwardness Savoy counters a fireman’s carry into the cross armbreaker for the win. Suplexes thrown: ZERO. This was not good, which is a shame. Savoy gets LaRae in round 2.
16) Kairi Sane vs Tessa Blanchard ***3/4
Well, here’s the match the whole round’s been building towards. Second generation star against the most hyped participant. Kairi Sane (formerly Kairi Hojo of Stardom) is arguably both the most charismatic AND most technically proficient wrestler in the tournament. I’ve had the privilege of seeing her perform live and it’s always a treat. Tessa, currently one half of Shimmer’s tag team champions with Vanessa Kraven, is honestly better at promos and generating crowd reaction that in the ring, but is decent overall and continually improving all aspects of her craft.
“It’s my turn to make my own name.” Tessa’s video walks the line of being proud of her heritage but not wanting to get by on it well. Sane has presence that’s immediately engaging even though she really said nothing other than she’s the only Japanese competitor, has her own style and wants to win.
Nakamura ringside for Kairi’s WWE debut.
This matchup is interesting, as before the brackets were formed I’d have put money on both advancing past round 1. I actually expected Tessa to be signed long before now. Kairi out in full Pirate Princess garb, which the crowd goes wild for. Tessa waltzes out like she owns the place, and this immediately feels like a huge, main event confrontation.
Tentative handshake. Dueling chants from the crowd. JR’s awkward, bungled attempt to explain Kairi’s pirate persona makes me want to cry. Everything Kairi does is with speed and precision, and Tessa’s keeping up every step of the way. Great chain wrestling early and back and forth strikes.
Tessa lands a beautiful codebreaker out of the corner with Kairi on the middle rope to a big pop to take over, and follows with a sound, vicious looking abdominal stretch. Kairi strikes her way out but Tessa with some NASTY forearms to counter. She steps back for momentum though and when she heads back towards Kairi the latter LEVELS Tessa with a short spear. Looks so much better than what Belair finished her match with and (yet again) the agents should be more on top of different wrestlers using each others signatures/finishers. Hard chops from Kairi put Tessa down in the corner, and the Pirate Princess with a cry of “here we go!” and marches to the opposite corner, then charges back with a sliding forearm to Tessa.
She goes to the top for the elbow for Tessa’s up, so Kairi just levels her with a flying forearm instead for 2. Kairi locks in an octopus, but Tessa powers to the ropes to break. Tessa dodges a charge and chokes Kairi against the ropes for a brief advantage, then hits a dropkick and elbow with Kairi still against the ropes. The choking has finally turned this into a face / heel match instead of the even split so far. A pair of short clotheslines and a belly to back suplex get 2 for Tessa.
Tessa goes up and gets caught by Kairi, but the former knocks her opponent back to the mat and hits a nice senton for 2. Side note: I’m sick of JR talking about people “not getting everything they wanted” on moves as an explanation for their opponent kicking out. Sometimes things don’t connect perfect and it should be pointed out with that phrase. He’s used it far too often and in cases where the move looks fine, so instead of praising the resiliency of the person kicking out it casts shade on the wrestler on offense.
Moving on, Tessa drags Kairi up by the hair and grabs a hammerlock / front facelock combo, which Kairi tries to backdrop out of but Tessa hangs on for a sunset flip for 2. Kairi reverses for 2. Kairi back to her feet first, but the diving forearm is countered into a crucifix for 2. Tessa kick to the face attempt countered into a trip, and Kairi hits a big axe kick to Tessa’s back. Alabama Slam by Kairi in the corner, and that should mean the end is neigh. Sure enough, Kairi points to the elbow pad, goes up top, and hits her GORGEOUS top rope elbow for the win. Kairi’s nearly crying in elation over winning, and Tessa IS in devastation at losing. Tessa claps for Kairi after the announcement and gives her a hug and raises her hand out of respect.
“Anything can happen in the Mae Young Classic, as we saw tonight with Kairi Sane’s victory.” Uhm Lita, you presented her as the TOURNAMENT FAVORITE. Her victory should not be considered an upset. Sigh.
In addition to her general athleticism and excellent wrestling skills, it’s Kairi’s natural charisma and the little details of how she acts in the ring that set her apart as one of the greats. Tessa also looked PHENOMENAL here, easily the best I’ve ever seen from her. She’s putting it all together and constantly pushing herself and would be a tremendous pickup for WWE. This was great.
Well, they certainly chose the right match to close out the opening round. Overall things have been fun so far with some really good matches mixed in with the perfunctory ones, which is spot on for the early going in a tournament like this. There are people capable of more than they showed, things could have better with more time devoted, there were some curious eliminations, and the commentary was generally atrocious. But a nice variety of styles and competitors was showcased and these first four episodes set the stage nicely, making a good impression and building excitement for the later rounds.
While there’s plenty of praise deserved across the field, I’d like to single out a few wrestlers. Tessa, Jazzy, and Santana should be particularly proud of their performances among those not moving on. The continuing group is strong overall, but for me Piper and of course Kairi are the two to watch (based on round 1). Hoping Savoy, Storm, and Kai in particular get to show more in round 2.