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Reviews Wrestling

NXT Takeover San Antonio IPPV Review (Live Thoughts)

January 28, 2016 in San Antonio, TX

 

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1) Tye Dillinger vs Eric Young (w/ Alexander Wolfe & Killian Dain) **

Always a solid choice to open with the crowd pleasing Dillinger. Sanity has an odd dynamic, as they seem to be protecting (or limiting the ring action of) the big men, so it’s their leader who gets into the singles matches. It would have made more sense for Dillinger to have to work his way through the minions to get his hands on Eric.

Eric tosses a jacket at Tye and gives him one last chance to join. Dillinger picks up the jacket, but then nails Young instead of putting it on. The dynamic is Dillinger doing his best to outclass Young and stay one step ahead of the monsters on the outside, but occasionally succumbing which is when Young takes over. It was well done for the most part, but went too long with too many instances of interference. In particular, I hate when people come into ring but don’t get DQ’d. Even given Tye hit them instead of getting hit, Dain came into the ring on his own in full view of ref.

Sanity’s numbers would figure into the finish as well, as the Tye-breaker was foiled by Wolfe putting Young’s foot on rope. Tye then performed a tope to Wolfe & Dain to finally take them out, but got caught with Young’s wheelbarrow into a neckbreaker when he goes back in to give Young the win.

 

2) Roderick Strong vs Andrade Cien Almas ***

The heel turn has done Cien a lot of  good. He seems more comfortable and confident, and the aggressive edge to his character gives him the hook he was previously lacking. It’s odd to see Strong as a face, as before Aries’ injury he was set up as his partner, but he’s making it work. Solid story conveyed by the announcers of two guys with chips on their shoulders.

This was the best I’ve seen from Almas so far, and Roddy’s looking motivated and sharp. Was surprised by Strong’s win, as I expected Cien to go over to justify the new attitude. Both needed it though, and Strong being built up makes more sense given what was to come.

 

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3) NXT Tag Team Championship: DIY (Johnny Gargano & Tommaso Ciampa) (c) vs The Authors of Pain (Akam & Rezar w/ Paul Ellering) ***1/2

The challengers were dominant early, but DIY fought back and lit things up to the crowd’s delight. This was all about AoP’s power against DIY’s perseverance and experience. The match was better than I expected. AoP showed just a little vulnerability, which made all the difference and helped DIY make it believable that they could beat their larger challengers.

Gargano and Ciampa were clearly bouncing all over and working their asses off to make their opponents look devastating so it’ll be interesting to see what AoP can do against other teams, but the big men held up their end of things and this was by far their best outing to date. There were several nice end teases, including a variation on how DIY won the titles with AoP powering out of what the Revival couldn’t escape.

In the end AoP were too much and the Supercollider set up the Last Chapter for the titles. Exactly as I as expected (and feared) here, but it makes sense. Defeating the monster heels for the first time will mean more with them being beaten for the titles.

 

As the announcers discuss what just happened behind them in the ring Rollins invades Takeover to call out HHH!!! Nice surprise to add unpredictability and finally address HHH “hiding” in NXT. HHH comes out of the back, but sends security after Rollins instead of facing him. Rollins dispatches them and tries to storm the back, but another group swarm him and force him out (to a big “bullshit” chant from crowd).

I liked this a lot and it adds much needed heat to the Rollins/HHH program, but I hope it doesn’t kill the crowd for the Women’s match.

 

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4) NXT Women’s Title: Asuka (c) vs Peyton Royce vs Billie Kay vs Nikki Cross **3/4

The video package explaining the match unusually misses important context in not really conveying that it looked like Cross was going to save Asuka from the Aussies when she attacked the champ instead. Makes Cross’ presence in the match less logical.

This was a real mixed bag. All four athletes were showing tremendous effort and there were some great highlights like Asuka’s double German on the Aussies, a straightjacket neckbreaker from Cross (that should become a trademark move of hers), Cross taking the double suplex through a table, etc.

On the other hand even with three opponents, Asuka never felt like she was in any jeopardy of losing the championship. And the underlying story with Kay and Royce was incredibly stupid. If they don’t care who wins the belt, why did they never cover each other while both Asuka and Cross were down? Or submit to one another, which could’ve given one of them the title in under a second before Asuka could do anything about it? There needed to be a moment where one of them revealed she really did care about getting the belt for herself to make the lack of those things acceptable. They didn’t need to turn on each other, just show enough selfishness (even behind the other’s back if need be) to help the story make sense.

None of the above is the fault of the wrestlers (as I’m certain Takeover is booked down to the tiniest details), but it did take away from their ability to engage the crowd and tell a compelling story. There were also pacing issues, such as Asuka having to be down for a ridiculously long time on the outside after nothing major while the Aussies and Cross brawled to the announcers’ area for the big table spot.

After said destruction of Nikki, Royce and Kay went back to attack Asuka but the champ eventually fought them both off and nailed Peyton with a big kick for the win. On her way out a still incapacitated Cross smiles at her.

This was flashes of great action with nothing connecting it together, and ended up feeling like a placeholder to stall the singles match between Asuka and Cross. I recently wrote about Asuka’s time in NXT so far and said I didn’t feel like she was a division killer, but if NXT continues to be unable to shake the forgone conclusion feel of her matches even when it’s 3 on 1 I may have to reconsider that opinion.

 

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5) NXT Championship: Shinsuke Nakamura (c) vs Bobby Roode ****1/2

Roode thinks he’s Ric Flair now, doing the four women on each arm entrance. It suits him, and is much better for a heel than the choir (although that was admittedly a fantastic spectacle). Not to outdone, Nakamura rides strobe light to the ring.

The atmosphere is electric, not only from the big fight feel of the matchup but the incredible charisma of both men. “This is Glorious” chant from the crowd just from the pre-match staredown.

The story and pacing of this match were pitch perfect. From highly amusing pose offs and mindgames  (“Glorious vibrations” was hilarious without breaking the flow/tension of the match) to wonderful old school heel stuff from Roode to excellent character work and action from both.

They built drama throughout the match, including a FANTASTIC false fall from Roode playing dead to foil Shinsuke’s first Kinshasa attempt. The endgame done incredibly well (despite my dislike for getting trainers involved in angles). They had the crowd going insane when Shinsuke nailed the Kinshasa but couldn’t cover, then decided to fight through the knee injury just to have Roode spike him with the DDT. The kickout there shocked everyone. Roode then continued his heel clinic by applying a half crab and punching the injured knee in the hold. Nakamura kicked his way out but another DDT gave the Glorious One the NXT title. Just WOW. They pulled the trigger on Roode in big way here without making turning him face or making Nakamura look weak. Brilliantly done.

Overall

This was one of the weaker NXT Takeovers on paper, but commitment and effort up and down the card meant even when thing didn’t quite come together there were bright spots to enjoy. Also, the main event was phenomenal. Recommended.

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Japan Wrestling

The NXT Step for a Legend II: A Great Year for the Empress of Tomorrow

Last year I wrote about my favorite wrestler’s impending signing with WWE in NXT Step for a Legend. A year and a half later and I’m back to look back on her impressive initial period during this new phase of her career.

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At NXT Takeover Brooklyn in August 2015, somewhat in the shadow of the great Sasha vs Bayley NXT Women’s Title match that was about to start, the camera cut to show superstars in the front row and next to Ric Flair was the “World Famous” Kana.  There had been speculation that her announced “hiatus” from wrestling could be foreshadowing a move the the WWE, but surprisingly there had been no real information or clues, so seeing her on camera at a NXT/WWE event was a legitimate shock to most.

At the September 10 NXT tapings Kana made her debut (air date September 23), and took the name Asuka.  Interestingly while WWE announcers themselves have repeatedly pushed the fan speculated theory that the name is an homage to Lioness Asuka, Kana herself stated on Twitter that it wasn’t the case. She said she chose the name for its meaning of “tomorrow/future” and it had nothing to do with the legendary Crush Girl.

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Asuka’s trademark kabuki masks worn during her entrances have become a huge part of WWE’s merchandise efforts for her, with three worn so far and subsequently turned into plastic masks for the fans.

Dana Brooke and Emma crashed her initial interview,  leading to Asuka’s in ring debut for NXT against the former on October 7. She pretty well destroyed Brooke, with a surprising amount of her pre-WWE look, character, and style kept intact which allowed her to make an immediate strong impression on the crowd.

From that strong start Asuka’s continued to dominate and never looked back. About 50 matches and 6 months after her debut match the undefeated Asuka defeated likewise fan favorite Bayley to claim the NXT Women’s Championship. During her title reign she’s continued her string of impressive victories, including a rematch against Bayley and defenses against Nia Jax, Micke James, etc.

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She’s excellent at playing up her mystique, and the choice to keep her undefeated (at over 140 matches and counting) has amplified that advantage considerably. Long term some care will need to be taken to make sure she keeps getting her opponents over as well as herself. In that respect there has been talk among some fans of her as a “division killer,” but I personally haven’t felt that to be the case thus far. People don’t necessarily look bad getting dominated because she’s portrayed as such a insurmountable obstacle, and often her opponents get to hang in with her just enough to look impressive despite the defeat.

Also, there’s potential in varying the formula, such as when Mickie James returned to challenge Asuka at NXT Takeover Toronto and was portrayed as one of the first real threats to the champion to great effect. And whenever someone does finally get a pinfall on her an instant star will be made (as long as it’s not booked in a flukeish manner).

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A sample of the WWE trading and “relic” cards available featuring Asuka.

Having been a big fan of Kana before she signed with WWE (particularly in Shimmer, where among other accomplishments her match with Ayako Hamada was the best in the promotion’s history), it’s been intriguing to watch her evolution in NXT. From things like her improving English to the effect on her ring style.

In interviews and other public statements she’s shared significant insight into the challenges and personal growth that has come with it, such as needing to engage American crowds more fully faster when pacing a match than with Japanese crowds. She’s also talked about her initial reluctance to speak in Japanese at all during matches, only to later realize conveying emotion was more important and even if the crowd couldn’t understand her words yelling at her opponent in Japanese could still be a useful tool to connect with the crowd and tell the needed story.

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I was lucky enough to see her wrestle live at NXT Takeover Brooklyn II and later at an NXT show at Madison Square Garden. Takeover was almost two years after the last time I had seen her live at Shimmer, and in addition to just having the opportunity in general it was a treat to see how things have changed for her during her time in NXT.

It will be interesting to see what the future has in store for the Empress of Tomorrow, as the WWE’s eventual direction with her could go several ways. Her mastery of her craft and uniqueness as an attraction begs a spot on the main roster, but there are huge benefits to having her in NXT to expand the breadth of training of others in addition to the general advantages of having her on those shows.

Although whatever Asuka’s path holds going forward one thing’s for sure: for her opponents, “tomorrow brings danger.” 😉

Categories
Reviews Wrestling

NXT Takeover Toronto IPPV Live Thoughts

November 19, 2016 in Toronto, Canada

Lot of anticipation going into this one, with DIY’s last shot at the Rivial and the NXT Tag Team Championships, Mickie James’ return to WWE to face Asuka for the NXT Women’s Championship, and a huge rematch between Samoa Joe and Shinsuke Nakamura for the NXT Championship.

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Bobby Roode continues to get amazing entrances (that aren’t exactly discouraging the crowd from cheering him, at least on the way to the ring) and a here a full choir sings along with his theme (and the crowd) live. Once the song ends about half the crowd remembers he’s a heel and is firmly behind “The Perfect 10” Tye Dillinger as he comes out for his grudge match with Roode.

Crowd’s certainly hot, as Tye and Bobby get an “this is awesome” chant for their opening staredown. Roode circles Dillinger as the latter just stares a hole through the Glorious one. Finally Roode approaches and Dillinger unloads on him, getting the better of an exchange of punches and taking things outside the ring. Tye showing an appropriate edge here given the story and totally controls the match in the early going.

Roode eventually takes advantage of Tye’s aggressiveness and catches him charging with a backdrop to the outside, and then just grinds at him for a while. Towards the end they go back and forth until Roode decides to mock his opponent too much (like a good heel) leading to a surge for Dillinger. Lots of teases of a Tye victory – ref catching Roode’s feet on the ropes during a pin, Tye with a superkick, finisher teases, a Sharpshooter spot, small package exchange, etc.

Solid win for Bobby after sending Tye into a ringpost and then hitting an implant DDT (nice change from pump handle slam – still no nonsense finisher & appropriate for heel, but has more oomph).

This went much longer than I expected, to good effect. It dragged only a little during Bobby’s initial heat segment, and overall was a great opener and elevated Tye to where he looked like he was on Bobby’s level even in defeat.

 

In the finals of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic Tournament, TM61 (Shane Thorne & Nick Miller)faced The Authors of Pain (Akam & Rezar). The old school stipulation of having AoP’s manager suspended in a cage above the ring is mixed with a strange supporting scaffolding in one corner of the ring (which has already been revealed as a new toy inspiration). The scaffolding seemed to be there primarily for someone to dive off of, and sure enough TM61 made use of it for that purpose.

Both teams tried and there were some nice moments, like TM61’s dual headscissors counter out of AoP’s double powerbomb, but these were two of the more bland teams in the tournament and the crowd was tepid for this outside of the big spots. I wonder if the ending was botched. The heels tried to cheat in the classic, expected fashion given the stip (with Elering dropping a chain to help them from the very cage meant to prevent his interference), but the chain went flying into crowd on the first attempted hit. It looked like it might have been planned, but if so it was an unnecessary and pointless swerve with the heels winning cleanly with their finish moments later.

The AoP victory was unsurprising, but did make me second guess my expectation of DIY losing and imploding during the tag title match.

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Speaking of which, next we would find out if DIY (Johnny Gargano & Tomaso Ciampa) finally unseat The Revival (Dash Wilder and Scott Dawson) for the NXT Tag Team Championships in a 2 out of 3 falls match or if they’d come up short leading to Ciampa going nuts and turning on Gargano in emphatic fashion.

Nice showcase here for DIY in the early going, until Revival cheats for the advantage. Classic formulas are classic for a reason. Speaking of classic formulas, the heels get the first fall with their finisher (Shatter Machine in a beautiful reversal of Gargano’s slingshot spear) to put faces behind the 8-ball.

During the second fall Johnny and the Revival just played the crowd like a fiddle building up to a false tag that had the arena ready to riot.  Later a smooth back and forth sequence lead to a Heart Attack and a believable “Revival could sweep” moment.

After Ciampa finally got the hot tag he fought the Revival off by himself for an extended time, further teasing a possible DIY loss at the end with him blaming Gargano. Eventually DIY hit their double strike combo to even things up.

The third fall was just a non-stop parade of believable false finishes and callbacks to the two teams’ previous encounter. The excellent work from all four throughout the match combined with a few totally plausible reasons for the match going either way led to a dramatic finish with the crowd ERUPTING for DIY’s win. Two of the best teams in the business putting on an instant classic. Seek this one out right away.

 

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Asuka’s a favorite of mine and after seeing Mickie James wrestle in Shimmer the previous weekend I was quite excited to see how her return against NXT’s wrecking ball for the NXT Women’s Title would turn out.

During the introductions Mickie did a good job of selling confidence mixed with caution in her expressions. The pace built nicely, with some mind games and Mickie actually putting Asuka on the defensive a bit in the early going. James’ matches at Shimmer certainly helped her eliminate any potential ring rust issues. There were some great exchanges of both holds and explosive strikes early on, a great choice to help re-engage the crowd after the roller coaster ride of the Tag Title match.

It felt more even than I expected to start, which I thought was a good way to portray James as a legitimate threat before Asuka destroyed her. The longer the match went however, it became more and more clear Mickie was being shown as Asuka’s equal and challenging her in ways the Empress of Tomorrow hadn’t been during her time in NXT.

Both wrestlers are extremely charismatic and the match was structured to play to Mickie’s strengths. They kept this reasonably brisk and exciting, and after Mickie having Asuka on the ropes a few times and having unexpected answers to a lot of the champ’s offense, Asuka persevered in fighting for the Asukalock and forcing Mickie to tap.

Asuka’s building delight in dominating opponents is a nice direction to allow her to take the character. She’s always at her best when allowing almost heelish, bullying mannerisms into her ringwork. The taunting refusal of Mickie’s handshake offer after the match not only continues in that vein nicely, but also gives Mickie a storyline reason of disrespect to stick around if that’s what she decides to do.

 

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Several live violins for NXT Champion Shinsuke Nakamura’s entrance for his defense against Samoa Joe, which was awesome. This was built as a bitter grudge match, and both combatants sold it perfectly. Each brought great intensity during the staredown, and really conveyed the idea that they just wanted to get their hands on each other.

Joe was unexpectedly dominant early on, and I adored the psychology of him going after Nakamura’s knee. They really laid into each other as things built up throughout the match. Great match for Joe to pull out the tope, and on the other side of things seeing someone give Joe a German is always amazing. The STRAIGHTJACKET GERMAN made me pop big time, although I do question Joe starting to make regular use of it now considering Akira Tozawa’s in talks and it’s his centerpiece finisher.

Joe’s cheapshot low blow and subsequent Muscle Buster to retake the title just STUNNED the crowd. No one was really expecting the invasion of 50-50 booking here, but it does make a certain amount of sense in that Nakamura’s first loss is now out of the way, meaning they aren’t telling the same undefeated champion story with both him and Asuka, and it seems they’re setting up for a big win and retaking of the title for him in Japan.

 

Overall

Great show, with everything really being exceptional outside the tourney finals, and a tag title match that could be a match of the year contender.

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Reviews Wrestling

NXT at MSG 11/16/16 Live Thoughts

November 16, 2016 at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY

In addition to the general high quality of NXT’s in ring action, it is currently populated with numerous wrestlers I’ve followed for years before they came to NXT. Add in the fact that in all my time in the NYC area I’ve never been to a show at MSG, and I was beyond excited for NXT’s debut at The Theater at MSG.

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Just days away from NXT Takeover Toronto, WWE presented an NXT show that foreshadowed that event nicely and had great matchups that built throughout the night. The Theater is a good venue, with no bad seats and a fun feel.

The show opened with crowd favorite No Way Jose against Roderick Strong. As I’ll say about several others on this show, the crowd was obviously quite familiar with Roddy from his time at ROH, Evolve, etc. Jose has improved quite a bit since I first saw him, and had the crowd suitably fired up all match. These two had good chemistry and put on a fun opener leading to a feel good win for the crowd by Jose. Shane McMahon (who was watching from the front row) danced with Jose on his way out to a big pop.

Tag action from the women’s division was next as  Peyton Royce & Billie Kay faced Liv Morgan & Daria. I think the heel gimmick / persona is really working well for the former Jessie McKay. The Jersey team got a hometown-like reception (including to Liv coming out eating pizza), leading to good crowd involvement for this one. The more established heel duo picked up the win.

Elias Samson came out to sing and man did he get booed. Hard to tell if it was entirely “we want someone to come out and shut you up” heat or “we just want you to go away” heat, but I can see why NXT is trying to run with it. After a couple of verses insulting NY, he’s interrupted by Oney Lorcan to a big reaction. In addition to just wanting Samson shut down I again bet a good portion of the crowd was familiar with Lorcan from his indie days as Biff Busick.  Best match I’ve seen from Samson, as he and Lorcan had a decent, hard hitting encounter which the later come out on top of to please the crowd.

TM61 vs SAnitY (Alexander Wolfe and Sawyer Fulton). The SAnitY gimmick certainly has impact and presence. Not really familliar with Sawyer and Fulton, but they looked fine here as slightly psychotic bruisers. TM61 did some of their trademark high flying to keep the energy high here, and got a quick rollup in the end for the expected victory given they’re in the Dusty Classic finals.

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Eric Young joined his proteges for a beatdown of TM61 after the match, but was interrupted by Tye Dillinger making the save. The members of the tag match all bailed to the back while Young warned Tye about getting into their business and challenged him for “later tonight.” As the advertised lineup order would have it, Tye instead insisted it happen immediately.

Dillinger’s really coming along in refinement of both his ringwork and character and the audience was strongly behind him against SAnitY’s demented leader. The “10” chants were in full effect, including the audience taking over every count the ref did with “10” in place of whatever number was appropriate. I felt it was fine/amusing for this match, but when it continued later in the crowd it was wearing out its welcome. Like Daniel Bryan’s “Yes!” chants, when the crowd chants “10” when Tye’s not involved it could make it seem like the crowd likes only the chant, not Tye. Another feel good victory for the house show attendance here with Tye beating Eric.

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After intermission the show resumed with a surprise appearance by NXT General Manager William Regal who made a short statement thanking everyone for coming.

Cedric Alexander is a fantastic wrestler and received quite the ovation coming out, but it was admittedly dwarfed by the crowd’s explosion when the first notes of Bobby Roode’s theme hit. Roode’s act is odd, as he’s fantastic at making people boo during certain spots in his match with his commitment to his heel work, but at all other points in time the audience just eats his act up and cheers him like crazy.  A loud accompanying serenade of his theme from the crowd brought him to the ring, then in a … ahem… glorious moment when the song cut out just before the third repetition of the verses the crowd SANG THEM ANYWAY without the music. Roode was just looking around in wonder as our voices echoed through the venue.

The match itself was great, and right up with the two title matches for potential match of the night. Roode’s at his best with a fast, explosive babyface to play off of, and Cedric certainly fits the bill. Roode sneaks in a low blow before hitting his finisher to put away the upstart. Would love to see an extended program between these two at some point.

Asuka (c) defended her NXT Women’s Championship in a triple threat against Ember Moon and Nikki Cross. Always a joy to see my favorite wrestler ply her craft, and this was a particular treat as she faced two other Shimmer alumni in Athena (Moon) and Nikki Storm (Cross). Weird seeing Cross in a gimmick where she doesn’t speak much given her incredible promo skills, but she’s doing well giving an unhinged, dangerous vibe for her character. This was the expected solid work from the exceptional level of talent involved.

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The champion triumphant. Photo by David Powers.

Speaking of Shimmer, I coincidentally saw Asuka’s Takeover Toronto opponent Mickie James’ return to the ring the weekend right before this show at Shimmer 86. It will be an awesome end to the week to watch them face off after getting to see each live in preparation.

The main event was a star studded 6-man tag featuring Shinsuke Nakamura & DIY (Johnny Gargano & Tomasso Ciampa) vs Samoa Joe & The Revival (Dash Wilder & Scott Dawson). NYC loves it some Samoa Joe. Once the match started the crowd was firmly behind the babyfaces, but during entrances Joe got a pop equal to DIY and Nakamura. Speaking of entrances and Shinsuke, the audience did the Bobby Roode trick again and hummed Nakamura’s theme for another round after the music stopped.

All six men are excellent in their roles, and with “Johnny Wrestling’s” firm fanbase and Nakamura’s one of a kind presence this was an electric main event. Both pairs of Joe and Shinsuke and DIY and Revival interacted in ways that whet appetites for their big matches this Sat. The faces prevailed here to cap off the night on a high note. DIY doing Nakamura’s pose with him afterwards was highly amusing.

Overall

Really good, fun show from top to bottom. Hope they did well enough to run The Theater again sometime, because it provided a great atmosphere.

*Thanks to David Powers for additional photos as marked.

Categories
Wrestling

The NXT Step for an Icon

This isn’t the surprise Kana’s signing was when I wrote NXT Step for a Legend, as Johnny Gargano has been working freelance for NXT for a while. But having had the privilege of attending his last appearance at Evolve this is a good time to look back on my experience with his career and wish him well in the coming phase of his career.

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As I mentioned then, it’s slightly bittersweet to see independent wrestlers moving on, as there are less opportunities to see them wrestle live and interact with them, but overall it great to see performers who have worked so hard for so long achieve success and have an opportunity to show their craft on a larger stage. Kana, Bryan Danielson, Claudio Castagnoli, Kevin Steen, Tyler Black, and John Moxley are just some of the athletes I’ve been lucky enough to see live on the indies and follow as they received an opportunity to work for the biggest pro-wrestling company there is.

Gargano’s journey has been particularly interesting, because I’ve watched him grow throughout over half of his career via his time in Dragongate USA and Evolve. I believe the first time I saw him wrestle live was at DGUSA Freedom Fight 2010 at the Rahway Recreation Center in NJ. This is the night after the formation of Ronin and it was already interesting to see how the young man who went to a tryout at DGUSA’s first show had changed. Seeing the new stable team for the first time as a group determined to take its future into its own hands was a treat.

They would do just that, particularly Gargano. For a year both success and tension would increase among the members of Ronin, and at Freedom Fight 2011 he’d become the first non-DG Japan talent to hold the Open the Freedom Gate Championship (and third champion overall). This would be a record setting reign that would forever establish Gargano as the backbone of DGUSA/Evolve, giving him the “Icon” nickname.

It lasted 873 days and saw Johnny go from beloved conquering hero trying to fend off his former Ronin stablemate Chuck Taylor who turned his back on Gargano and Swann to an insincere, despise heel champion who thought he was better than everyone else but ducked from any legit challenge presented. Gargano’s success and commitment to playing both versions of himself help illustrate his depth of mastery over professional wrestling as an art form beyond just his (equally impressive) physical skills. He would defend the title 22 times in both DGUSA and it’s parallel promotion Evolve before losing it to fellow competitor from Evolve’s early days Ricochet once Gargano could duck him no longer.

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My personal favorite memory of watching Gargano came during the heel portion of that reign, at Dragon Gate USA’s 4th Anniversary show on 7/28/13 at the Highline Ballroom in NYC. Gargano was set to defend the title against the winner of a four-way freestyle on the same show featuring CIMA vs Akira Tozawa vs EITA vs Tomahawk TT. Tozawa was both a huge crowd favorite and a perceived long shot, with DG ace CIMA in the match as well as two new up and comers who had never wrestled for the title, so when he pulled off a surprise pin on CIMA the crowd ERUPTED in delight, only to have their heart ripped out moments later as the cowardly Gargano ambushed Tozawa, declared the title match to be happening right then, then locked in the Gargano escape on the lifeless challenger for a successful defense.

Honestly those events upset the crowd so much we were beyond grumpy for the Evolve and United Gate title defenses that followed, but it paid off in spades as Gargano came out to gloat at the end of the show and Tozawa came back out to force him into a real defense. The atmosphere was UNBELIEVABLE, and Johnny’s antics and attitude had the audience rabid for a Tozawa victory. As much fun as I’ve had cheering for Gargano, that evening of cheering against him is a perfect example of how much devotion he has to whatever role he’s in and the expert level of his craft.

After eventually losing the title Gargano would win the crowd back over and fully become the beloved face of WWNLive that he would be for the remainder of his time there, and when he reclaimed the Open the Freedom Gate title from Ricochet 7 months after dropping it to him the audience was once again fully behind the Icon. He reveled in their support and always gave his all to entertain them though a alliances and feuds with Ethan Page and Drew Galloway, along with a lot of other captivating stories, a tag title reign with his best friend, and a multitude of incredible matches.

During 2016 Gargano would also start laying in the groundwork for the next stage of his career, as he started wrestling for WWE NXT in a per appearance roll. During this time he was teamed with fellow independent wrestling star Tomaso Ciampa, and the two have perhaps surprisingly fantastic chemistry as a team. They’ve been an increasingly integral part of NXT and were featured in WWE’s excellent CWC over the summer, having one of the best matches in the tourney during the first round against each other. It’s lead to even more success for Gargano, as he’s wrapping up his independent dates in preparation for becoming a full time part of NXT/WWE. They’ve also continued the recent trend of acknowledging Gargano’s (and others’) experience and time spent in wrestling pre-WWE, which is not only well deserved but also gives context to new viewers of the high level of performer they’re seeing.

Which all brings us to my farewell to Gargano as an indie star this past Sunday at Evolve 69 in Queens. It was a fantastic, emotional show during which Gargano bid his goodbye by being involved in on of the hottest angles in the company’s history and making TWO gigantic stars for Evolve going forward with Ethan Page’s cruel betrayal of Garagno and the latter endorsement of Matt Riddle as Evolve’s future when Riddle came out to save Gargano. Honored to have experienced the moment live, and been there to bid Johnny all the luck in the world in WWE.

Of course there’s much more to Johnny’s career than what I’ve been able to relate here and even than I’ve experienced myself, with Johnny being important parts of Chikara, AIW, etc in addition the Evolve. I look forward to hearing other’s stories of his incredible journey to this point, as well as seeing what lies ahead of him in this exciting next step.

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Best of luck to Johnny Wrestling. 🙂

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Reviews Wrestling

SummerSlam Weekend 2016 Top 6 Matches

SummerSlam weekend is starting to feel like Wrestlemania with increased length and hype for WWE’s second biggest show of the year, and numerous wrestling events surrounding it.

I saw Evolve 67 and NXT Takeover Brooklyn II live and also watched SummerSlam, so it was a weekend of 24 matches featuring 63 wrestlers for me, and I wanted to spotlight the best here. This would normally be a top 5, but 6 matches stood out against the rest so rather than arbitrarily eliminate one I’ll feature a “bonus.” 😉

Too close to rank, so in chronological order:

Evolve 67

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1) Matt Riddle vs Tommy End  

Riddle is INSANELY good for his level of experience and in particular showed how far his selling has come during this match. His full commitment to the intricacies of pro-wrestling and his dedication to improve are on constant display. He and End beat the high holy hell out of each other and if this was in fact End’s goodbye to Evolve it was a perfectly fitting one. Would love to see a rematch later in these two men’s careers.

2) Zach Sabre Jr. vs Cedric Alexander

Apologies for the cliche, but Sabre and Alexander put on a clinic, and just edged out Riddle vs End for best match of the show. Sabre showing signs of a cocky bastard personality (which is new for him in Evolve) was amusing and excellently integrated into the flow of the match. Zach’s really taken it up to another level recently and is the most consistently near-flawless performer in the business. Everything he does has precision and meaning, and the crowd was enthralled both by the excruciating looking pretzels he kept tying Cedric up in as well as the vicious strikes he delivered once he turned it up late match. Alexander has also been on the roll of his life since debuting in Evolve and working in the CWC. He looks faster and crisper than ever, and more than held up his part of the bargain in there with the greatest technician in the world. Just incredible work from these two.

 

NXT Takeover Brooklyn II

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3) NXT Tag Title Match: The Revival (Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder) (c) vs Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa 

Gargano and Ciampa have been given a lot to work with recently and have been consistently knocking it out of the park. I was a big fan of both on the indies and it great not only to see them gets these opportunities but also to see their incredible chemistry as a team. The arena was fairly rabid in support as the duo came out for the  against  The Revival are the best old school style team I’ve seen in ages, and I get a total Arn Anderson and <insert random AA partner name here 😉 > vibe whenever they wrestle.

The match was fantastic, with natural babyfaces Gargano and Ciampa constantly getting the better of the champs until Dash and Dawson would cheat for the advantage and then grind away at the “upstarts.” Finish could have been a touch better executed, but overall this was excellently built and performed and was neck and neck with the other two title matches for best of the show.

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4) NXT Women’s Title Match: Asuka (c) vs Bayley

Kana (Asuka) has long been my favorite wrestler in the world, and as I wrote about after Takeover Brooklyn last year her surprise appearance there left me floored and intensely curious about her future. So with all due respect to all the other amazing athletes on this show and the equally great other two title matches, this is the match I went to see.

It delivered. 🙂 Maybe not quite up to last years Bayley vs Banks title match due to a lack of believable points at which Bayley looked like she could have defeated the champion, this was still an incredible back and forth contest that I enjoyed a touch more than their first encounter. The buildup was great and the continued story of Bayley now knowing what she was getting into and being determined to use that knowledge to defeat the undefeated provide a compelling backbone to the match. The crowd was appropriately split and behind both competitors, and while Asuka showed a bit of her bullying tactics neither really worked heel.

I would have reversed the order of them kicking out / escaping each other’s finishers, as Bayley being the first person to ever break the Asuka Lock without getting to the ropes made it quite obvious Asuka was kicking out of the Bayley-to-Belly she received seconds later. Still it’s an appropriate way to show toughness and determination in big matches and worked brilliantly in that respect. I know there have been some complaint about Asuka steamrolling the division, but Bayley got to push her further than ever and Asuka’s win here was the right call. Her long, dominant reign will eventually make a star when someone unseats her (like say, Ember Moon down the line).

Show of respect between Asuka and Bayley after the match, then the champion left first to allow Bayley some spotlight to hug her compatriots at ringside and essentially say goodbye to NXT. Great stuff. Was such a treat to see Asuka wrestle live again.

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5) NXT Title Match: Samoa Joe (c) vs Shisuke Nakamura

Nakamura coming out to a live violin version of his theme song provided a fantastic atmosphere. The presentation was top notch, with numerous rotating spotlights on the violinist giving way to red lights when Nakamura came out. As with Bobby Roode’s entrance the entire crowd was singing along. Was incredible to be there live.

The no nonsense champ glared his way out to the ring as normal, providing a nice contrast to the flamboyant and charismatic challenger. As good as Joe is, there was no split crowd here. They built the story and tension between the two perfectly leading up to this, and Nakamura’s eccentric charm had the audience FIRMLY behind him.

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I’d never seen Nakamura wrestle live before, and it was a privilege. This was two professionals holding the crowd in the palm of their hand and beating on each other until one fell. Worthy main event, and the title change was a HUGE moment. NXT now has two undefeated champions reigning over their singles divisions.

 

 

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SummerSlam

6) AJ Styles vs John Cena

This was the one SummerSlam match I was excited for, and it proved as good as I hoped. Cena can still put on a classic against the right opponent, and Styles is quite likely the best overall performer in the business right now. So great to see how leaving TNA and going to NJPW revitalized his career in the long run. This was extremely well wrestled and built, with a clear story underlying excellent action. Despite being a heel, Styles going over clean was 100% the right move to establish him at the top level in WWE and his wonderful attitude and arrogant mannerisms conveyed that despite being able to win on his own merits he’s still someone to resent. Topped their first encounter and was great from start to finish. Well done to both.

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While some of the weekend was hit or miss, each show had something special to share and the best matches of the weekend were… well, phenomenal. 😉 These 6 are all worth seeking out immediately if you haven’t seen them.

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Reviews Wrestling

NXT Takeover Brooklyn II Live Thoughts

August 20, 2016 in Brooklyn, NY

Last year’s NXT Takeover Brooklyn was a great show and an incredible experience overall. Add in an opportunity to see my favorite wrestler live for the first time since she was signed, and possibly the most charismatic wrestler in the world for the first time ever, and I was beyond excited for NXT’s return to Brooklyn.

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Small fortuitous moment on the way in, as the location of our seats took us right by the announcers table for the pre-show. Was neat to see them so close.

The pre-show portion was a decent enough way to kick off the festivities. As with last year whoever was in charge of match order was spot on and made the wise choice to send out surprising crowd favorite “Perfect 10” Tye Dillinger out to open against Wesley Blake. Dillinger has been gaining steam and the soft face turn of simply booking him against heels is the right way to go with him. “Murphy’s Better” chants greeted Blake alongside constant cries of “TEN” for Dillinger from the loud crowd, and while basic this match was a great start to the show.

The Authors of Pain are a bit plodding for my tastes, but they have some impressive power spots and bring something new to the division, and TM61 at least got to show a little life against them before being squashed like pancakes.

Moving on to the show proper, No Way Jose vs Austin Aries was again a perfect choice to start with. Aries is always crazy over in NYC and looked sharp and motivated, and Jose somewhat surprisingly hang in nicely and had a good portion of the crowd behind him by the end. I personally don’t really care for the gimmick, but Jose’s coming along very well and is clearly putting in a lot of effort to be the best wrestler he can be. That’s all I ever ask from anyone, and kudos to him. Despite the cheers he received Aries stayed well within his heel persona and mannerisms, which paid off big time when Hideo Itami (KENTA) saved Jose from a post match attack to a huge reception and loud boos for Aries (again, a huge accomplishment in Aries friendly NYC). Even better, Hideo was allowed to break out the GTS, which had the crowd going WILD.

Speaking of the crowd going wild, I had maintained before the show that while Ember Moon (Athena) is a phenomenal athlete in general, if they wanted to get her over instantly all they had to do is let her keep her finisher. Sure enough, she ended a short debut contest against Billie Kay with her “diving corkscrew stunner” (the obviously-was-always-going-to-be-renamed “O-Face”) to send the fans into an absolute frenzy. Decent enough match before that too, although the finish is all anyone will remember. I like Kay’s new look and heel tendencies, which should bring fresh life into her character, and Ember’s entrance and red contacts add a nice distinctive feel to her presentation. And as a huge fan of Shimmer it was a special treat for me to have two matches on this card exclusively featuring Shimmer alumni.

The almost Wrestlemania-like pageantry  done with NXT Brooklyn entrances is awesome in general, and one of the best was next as Bobby Roode practically descended from the heavens on an elevated platform as his AWESOME theme music echoed throughout the stadium as nearly everyone sang along. Perhaps not great for a heel, but it certainly adds to his presence and made him look like an immediate star.

On the other hand, poor Andrade “Cien” Almas was totally sent out to die in his ridiculous getup trying to work face against Roode. He tried, but NYC’s pre-established bias combined with Cien being a little sloppy at times made the task impossible and Roode was the clear favorite no matter what dastardly things he did. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Roode using the pump handle slam as a finish, but while it’s not one of my favorites either a derisive heel like Roode is better served by a no nonsense finisher than something flashy, so I don’t mind it that much. Great debut for Roode in terms of presence and being memorable, but match was nothing and their going to have a hard time getting him over as a heel instead of being cheered.

 

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Between the CWC first round match and their ascension up the tag ranks in NXT, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa have been given a lot to work with recently and have been consistently knocking it out of the park. I was a big fan of both on the indies and it great not only to see them gets these opportunities but also to see their incredible chemistry as a team. The arena was fairly rabid in support as the duo came out for the NXT Tag Title match against The Revival (Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder) (c). The Revival are the best old school style team I’ve seen in ages, and I get a total Arn Anderson and <insert random AA partner name here 😉 > vibe whenever they wrestle.

The match was fantastic, with natural babyfaces Gargano and Ciampa constantly getting the better of the champs until Dash and Dawson would cheat for the advantage and then grind away at the “upstarts.” Finish could have been a touch better executed, but overall this was excellently built and performed and was neck and neck with the other two title matches for best of the night.

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Time to show my bias: Kana (Asuka) has long been my favorite wrestler in the world, and as I wrote about after Takeover Brooklyn last year her surprise appearance there left me floored and intensely curious about her future. So with all due respect to all the other amazing athletes on this show, Asuka (c) defending her NXT Women’s title against Bayley is the match I went to see.

 

It delivered. 🙂 Maybe not quite up to last years Bayley vs Banks title match due to a lack of believable points at which Bayley looked like she could have defeated the champion, this was still an incredible back and forth contest that I enjoyed a touch more than their first encounter. The buildup was great and the continued story of Bayley now knowing what she was getting into and being determined to use that knowledge to defeat the undefeated provide a compelling backbone to the match. The crowd was appropriately split and behind both competitors, and while Asuka showed a bit of her bullying tactics neither really worked heel.

 

I would have reversed the order of them kicking out / escaping each other’s finishers, as Bayley being the first person to ever break the Asuka Lock without getting to the ropes made it quite obvious Asuka was kicking out of the Bayley-to-Belly she received seconds later. Still it’s an appropriate way to show toughness and determination in big matches and worked brilliantly in that respect. I know there have been some complaint about Asuka steamrolling the division, but Bayley got to push her further than ever and Asuka’s win here was the right call. Her long, dominant reign will eventually make a star when someone unseats her (like say, Ember Moon down the line).

 

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Show of respect between Asuka and Bayley after the match, then the champion left first to allow Bayley some spotlight to hug her compatriots at ringside and essentially say goodbye to NXT. Great stuff. Was such a treat to see Asuka wrestle live again.

As I previously mentioned Roode’s entrance was fantastic, and Asuka, Bayley and Ember all had impressive ones as well, but NOTHING was going to top Shisuke Nakamura coming out to a live violin version of his theme song. before his NXT title match against Samoa Joe (c). The presentation was top notch, with numerous rotating spotlights on the violinist giving way to red lights when Nakamura came out. As with Roode the entire crowd was singing along. Was incredible to be there live.

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The no nonsense champ glared his way out to the ring as normal, providing a nice contrast to the flamboyant and charismatic challenger. As good as Joe is, there was no split crowd here. They built the story and tension between the two perfectly leading up to this, and Nakamura’s eccentric charm had the audience FIRMLY behind him.

I’d never seen Nakamura wrestle live before, and it was a privilege. This was two professionals holding the crowd in the palm of their hand and beating on each other until one fell. Worthy main event, and the title change was a HUGE moment. NXT now has two undefeated champions reigning over their singles divisions.

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Overall

What a follow up to last year’s historic show. This was possibly a touch better, featuring three incredible matches on top and a strong undercard with big debuts. Not as many surprises as last year, but sometimes things should be predictable because they are logical and appropriate. The atmosphere live was absolutely electric and a joy to be a part of.

I said it last year and am happy to say it again: shows like this are why I watch wrestling.

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Reviews Wrestling

NXT Takeover Dallas IPPV Live Thoughts

April 1, 2016 in Dallas, TX

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Great looking card overall, but even more than Nakamura’s debut or Joe’s or American Alpha’s title opportunities I’m most looking forward to the Women’s Title match. Asuka has been my favorite wrestler for years (as Kana) and I’m beyond excited to see her first title shot in WWE against an equally excellent wrestler. Should be an incredible night all around.

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Starting out with one of the three huge title matches: The Revival (Dash Wilder and Scott Dawson) (c) vs American Alpha (Chad Gable and Jason Jordan) for the NXT Tag Team Championships. Unsurprisingly, the crowd is pumped for American Alpha. Disrespect from Dawson right away. He and Dash are great heels. Classic tag formula here. Alpha keep taking over with athleticism, and Revival cheats to reverse. Simple, effective storytelling. Alpha are so much fun to watch. They really need to be called up to the main roster while they’re still red-hot. Stereo German suplexes by Alpha pops the crowd huge. Blind tag and ambush by the champs and they finally establish some extended offense.

They keep Gamble grounded for a while, then he hits a double ddt for a hope spot. Jordan gets taken out by Dash to prevent the tag though. While Jordan objects Dash and Dawson unfortunately botch a double team, derailing the match for a bit. They get back on track once Gable gets the hot tag for real and Jordan destroys the Revival until he becomes the victim of a double team  and an illegal pin attempt. He survives though and keeps fighting through every dirty trick the champs have. Gable comes in and the near falls are fast and furious. He and Dawson are putting on a great display here. Jordan with an amazing blind tag leading to a spear on Dawson. Another tag and Alpha hit their finish for the titles!!!

Fantastic opener.

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Surreal to see Austin Aries on WWE tv. The result here will tell a lot about their plans for Aries. Baron Corbin could use the win, but if Aries is staying for a while no way he loses his debut. Aries charges right for Corbin to start, exactly the right move considering how Corbin attacked him previously. Good display of psychology as Aries finds ways to get the advantage despite Corbin’s size. It eventually backfires though as Corbin elevates him into a stun gun to take over. Corbin mauls Aries for a while, playing a cocky, bruising heel well. He’s improved by leaps and bounds during his time in NXT.

Though as I say that this has slowed down a little too much. Corbin is crossing the line from deliberate pace to stalling. Aries should be showing more in his debut. Aries takes back over and begins flying around, which is more like it. Corbin hits a big spinning belly to back (called Deep Six by the announcers) on the outside and Aries just makes it back into the ring before being counted out. Corbin beats Aries down after  a taunt and goes for the End of Days, but Aries counters and gets a tight roll up for the win. Feels like it could have been better, but still a good debut for Aries with a strong story of the veteran being a step ahead.

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Speaking of surreal moments, here comes Shinsuke Nakamura to the WWE. Watching Sami Zahn bounce around like a pinball for the King of Strong Style should be incredible. Nakamura’s presence and charisma is off the charts. Crowd is electric. Dueling chants start as soon as Nakamura reaches the ring. Beautiful exchange of chain wrestling and agility early on. After Zayn starts to get ahead a bit with arm drags, Makamura pull outs the strikes and knocks Sami right down. Every time Sami tries to counter a hold or push back, boom another crazy kick. Sami finally gets the advantage with a big suplex and extends it with his own strikes. Then Nakamura goes outside and blindsides Zayn with more innovative kicks and knee strikes. Sami eventually goes to high flying antics to swing the momentum back his way. This is a total chess match: constant move and counter move in the most impactful ways possible.

Forearm strike exchange in the center of the ring and instead of “yay-boo” from the fans we get “yay-yay.” Glorious. Nakamura’s nose is bleeding, so he… keeps the forearm exchange going for another ten or so iterations. Nakamura gets the better of it and just beats Sami down against the ropes. King of Strong Style chant and Nakamura goes for running knee, but Sami hits a huge clothesline. They fight over a hold then Sami decides to deliver some of Shisuke’s own medicine and just kicks him down in brutal fashion. Koji clutch(!) by Zahn in center of the ring. Nakamura rolls back into a pin attempt and Zahn has to break. Nakamura with a big enzugiri and the crowd chants “fight forever.” Works for me.

Some more back and forth the Sami goes for the diving DDT through the turnbuckles outside and Nakamura counters with a kick to the face! My lord. Nakamura blocks the exploder in the corner, goes up top, and hits a knee to the back of the head. Bomb Ye and that’s it! As awesome as expected. Nakamura is here, emphatically. Show of respect after the match and well deserved chants for both men.

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And here we are. The undefeated streak against the title. Great video package emphasizing Bayley’s never quit attitude and ability to overcome the odds against Asuka’s path of destruction.

NXT Women’s Title: Bayley (c) vs Asuka

Big ovation for both. Asuka with a spin kick right away to make sure Bayley’s paying attention. Lockup and quick feeling out period of counter wrestling, but Asuka with a hard right hand to break. Bit of back and forth and Asuka misses taking her head off again by inches. Asuka starts to pull ahead with strikes and hits the hip attack, but misses a second and gets hung up in the ropes allowing Bayley’s first real advantage of the match. She presses the advantage a little, showing she can hang with the dominate challenger, until Asuka counters into a Fugiwara armbar out of nowhere. Bayley makes the ropes, then hangs Asuka up in the corner. Asuka fights out, but gets caught in another corner for a top rope hurricanrana. Bayley with a guillotine, but Asuka eventually counters with an anklelock. Bayley fights and fights and eventually rolls forward to send Asuka outside. Bayley dives outside feet first into another hurricanrana.

Back in and her forearms are just making Asuka mad. She takes over with a dropkick and begins unloading the strikes. Sliding kick gets two. Bayley catches Asuka out of a hip attack attempt, Asuka tries to fight out, but Bayley eventually hits the belly to back. Asuka with a kick to the head and they’re both down. Dual dropkick attempts leads to a strike exchange, Asuka gets the better of it but Bayley counters a kick into an ankle lock. Asuka selling AGONY until she gets the ropes. Bayley viciously going after the legs. Asuka with the flying armbar, into a cross armbreaker attempt, into a Fujiwara armbar, escaped by Bayley. Beautiful sequence.

Asuka lock countered. Sliding clothesline by Bayley for two. Baylay looking for the submission that beat Sasha. Asuka tries to fight out, so Bayley converts to a pin attempt for two. Kick to the head and Bayley’s out on her feet. Cross armbreaker, into the Asukalock!!! Bayley fights to her feet, but Asuka takes her back down… and Bayley passes out! NEW NXT WOMEN’S CHAMPION! YES!!! Great performance from both, and Bayley never gave up. Asuka stares at the fallen Bayley and then walks away. I have a feeling we’re not done with this…

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Well, if anyone was going to be able to follow that last match Joe and Balor are certainly the right choices to try.

NXT Championship: Finn Balor (c) vs Samoa Joe

Last time Jack the Ripper, this time the Demon is out with a chainsaw. RUN JOE RUN! Finn thankfully leaves it in the aisle. Joe looks like he’s ready to kill Finn during the introduction / stare down. Going straight at each other. Joe keeps tossing Balor out, but Balor returns the favor and then catches Joe with a dive. Joe bleeding profusely already. Looks like he was just caught wrong by one of Finn’s punches. He tosses Balor into the crowd hard, but Finn eventually comes back with a flying forearm off the railing. Ref tries to check on Joe, but Finn won’t let up, and their just laying into each other. Balor back outside, and here’s Joe with a dive through the ropes to wipe him out.

Dr trying to tend to Joe’s cut and Joe wants none of it. He finally lets them treat it for a minute then runs straight back to go after Balor. Big STO into a hold on Finn. He fights out, but gets caught with a big kick from Joe just as Finn tried to build momentum. And the refs are treating the cut again, to the crowds dismay. Balor up and taunting Joe. Drs out of ring and Joe resumes beating the tar out of Balor. Setting up for the Muscle Buster, Finn fights out, but gets caught diving from the turnbuckle and Joe wipes him out with a kick again.

Challenger is dominating at the moment, but Finn with a dropkick and both are down. Both up before ten and now the champ strings together a series of strikes to take over. Joe knocked outside, sliding dropkick from Balor, then the ring apron running kick to Joe’s face. Back in, but Joe counters the slingblade and the challenger is in firm control again. Joe swats away a dropkick and hits the senton in a great sequence.

Joe with the powerbomb, and transitions into his Boston Crab variation on the kickout. Transitions into a crossface, but Finn rolls out and hits a double stomp. Slingblade, dropkick into the corner, but Joe catches him when he goes up. Enzugiri, muscle buster, but Finn kicks out at two! And Joe is ANGRY. They fire away on each other, leading to the pele kick by Finn and both are down again. Slingblade and dropkick again. Coup de Grace connects, but the Bloody Sunday is countered into the Coquina Clutch. Finn with the Bret Hart sleeper counter … for three! Surprising loss for Joe in an excellent war. Great finishing sequence in particular.

 

Overall

This show looked insane on paper, and it was just as incredible as expected. WATCH IT!

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Reviews Wrestling

Top 5 Matches of 2015 (so far): Live

I have a fair bit of wrestling to watch remaining on the 2015 calendar, but mid-December still seems like a good time to look back at the best 2015 had to offer. Here I’ll list the Top 5 matches I was lucky enough to see live, in chronological order. This was a great year and this was a tough list to make. There’s a LOT of great stuff that just missed the cut.

Match reviews copied from my show specific blogs when possible.

1. Aja Kong, Dynamite Kansai, Kyoko Kimura, and Mayumi Ozaki vs. 3G (Kellie Skater and Tomoka Nakagawa) and 3S (Misaki Ohata and Hiroyo Matsumoto)

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This match is not available on dvd yet and I will in no way be able to do it justice from memory. Legitimate legends making their Shimmer debuts, eight amazing athletes, and a bitter sweet goodbye weekend for Tomoka Nakagawa made this an amazing experience. I consider myself honored to have been there.

 

I just barely picked this over Nakagawa’s final match (with Skater) against the Canadian Ninjas, because while both were great this match was a touch better, where the aftermath and  Tomoka’s farewell were the larger part of the atmosphere for the Ninjas match.

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2. Evolve Title Match: Timothy Thatcher (c) vs Zack Sabre Jr.

This is the match I went to Evolve 47 to see, and it was everything I hope for. Thatcher is my favorite wrestler at the moment and what I’ve seen of Sabre so far has been extremely impressive, so to say I was psyched for this match would be a vast understatement.

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I think the term “wrestling clinic” is thrown around too much, but if ever it was appropriate it’s here. Thatcher and Sabre spent the entire match fighting over holds and reversals trying to get an advantage. And that was the key: they FOUGHT for everything. Nothing looked like a “sequence,” it always looked like two guys desperately trying to gain an advantage over one another and win the match.

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It’s extremely difficult to keep an entirely grappling based match gripping throughout and never lose the crowd, especially in the main event of a card that featured high flying, strikefests, and no-DQ savagery. It’s an accomplishment that speaks volumes about the skills of both men. I remember a particularly great stretch that featured an exchange of strangleholds for several minutes, and there were tons of innovative reversals and holds that had the fans oohing and aahing.

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Sabre added some stiff kicks late in the match and Thatcher some suplexes, but it came back down to the grappling with Sabre focusing on Thatcher’s arm and Thatcher going after Sabre’s legs. In the end Thatcher reversed into a heel hook Sabre couldn’t get out of. Phenomenal match I’m ecstatic I got to see live.

3. Sasha Banks (c) vs Bailey was next for the NXT Women’s Championship. It’s weird how HHH comes across as supportive and important to NXT while Steph seems to be trying to make the spotlight rub off on her and claim credit for other’s success when their promos really aren’t that different. Still, I’ll take the extra attention for the women’s division and having her declare the women’s title match a co-main event was pretty cool.

Again the video package summarizing the feud was excellent and effectively conveyed Banks’ dominating, bullying persona and Bailey’s struggle to prove herself and prove herself while being outpaced by her compatriots. Bailey’s another former member of the Shimmer roster, but didn’t get too much time to shine there before being signed to WWE developmental. Both wrestlers were phenomenal here, and this easily took match of the night on a card filled with more established superstars and great performances.

Everything was pitch perfect. The in-ring story built move by move and had the crowd captivated the whole way. Banks is so good she had to work insanely hard to get booed by the New York crowd, and still managed it well enough to give the key moments extra impact. The meta-story of Bailey’s struggle and hard fought victory finally proving her legitimacy was amazing, and the crowd erupted for her win. And I’ll be damned if I ever thought someone could make a bell-to-belly suplex a believable finisher in 2015. The “curtain call” moment with Charlotte, Becky, Banks and Bailey was just right.

4. No DQ Shimmer Title Match: Nicole Matthews (c) vs Madison Eagles

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This had been building for quite a while, as layers for the feud between Eagles and Matthews were being established even before Matthews threw a fireball into Eagles face to win the title. Given their history this Shimmer Title match was no-DQ. This was the appropriate war we all wanted, and they threw everything they could at each other (including Kay Lee Ray at one point). Eagles defeated Matthews with a Hellbound to a chair to become two-time Shimmer Champion and provide the perfect finish to the first day of tapings for 10th Anniversary weekend.

 

5. Shimmer Title Match: Madison Eagles (c) vs. Nicole Savoy

 

I really just wanted to put “every match I saw Nicole Savoy in” for this last entry. She is INCREDIBLE, both in the ring and with her heel mannerisms, particularly for her relatively short amount of experience. Promoters have certainly noticed, as she’s been given matches against several of the best in the world. Half of her Berwyn Shimmer matches this year were against visiting Joshi talent, including a huge victory over Hiroyo Matsumoto and great outings against Misaki Ohata, Yumi Ohka, and Sonoko Kato. She more than held her own in the ring with the veterans.

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And the greatest example of that was her first Shimmer title shot against recently crowned 2-time champion Madison Eagles. It was fantastic, highlighting Savoy’s potential and ability to hang with the very best. Besides the expected brutal strike exchanges, the grappling was excellent, and really felt like both combatants were constantly trying to gain/press the advantage and win the match. I actually found parts extremely reminiscent of Timothy Thatcher vs Zach Sabre Jr from Evolve 47 mentioned previously. Great stuff.

 

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It’s been a great year for pro-wrestling and I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at some of the best I’ve been lucky enough to catch personally.

Categories
Japan Wrestling

The NXT Step for a Legend

It’s been a little bittersweet over the last few years as more and more wrestlers I’ve watched on the indies go to the WWE. It means less opportunities to see them wrestle live, but I’m always thrilled for their success and what being signed means for their careers. Bryan Danielson, Claudio Castagnoli, Kevin Steen, Sara Del Rey, Uhaa Nation, and several others were all favorites of mine that got noticed for their excellent work and received an opportunity to work for the biggest pro-wrestling company there is.

But none of these announcements has excited and surprised me quite like the unexpected appearance of Kana during NXT Takeover Brooklyn.

 

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The World Famous Kana at Shimmer 68.

 

I was unfamiliar with Kana before her Shimmer debut on volumes 41-44, but she made a lasting impression fast. With a unique look and aura and incredible ringwork, she went toe-to-toe with some of Shimmer’s best that weekend (Sara Del Rey, Cheerleader Melissa, Mia Yim, and Lufisto) and beat most of them. It was a fantastic first impression and instantly made her one of my favorites, a status that only grew stronger over time. Her match against Ayako Hamada at Volume 50 is still my favorite Shimmer match ever.

 

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Kana and Lufisto get ready for a four team tag title match at Shimmer 53.

 

My first opportunity to see her (and a lot of other phenomenal athletes) live was Shimmer 53 as part of all the wrestling hoopla surrounding Wrestlemania in NJ in 2013. As part of a four-team tag title match she didn’t get a big spotlight but still managed to shine during her exchanges. It’s always an amazing feeling to get to meet one of your favorites and I was also able to get a beautiful piece of commissioned art of done by Rob Schamberger signed by her.

 

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A goofy looking fan meets a world traveled wrestler at the top of her game.
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Incredible rendition of Kana by Rob Schamberger, signed by both. 🙂

 

My first trip out to Berwyn, IL for a Shimmer taping weekend was in April 2014 and I can’t recommend the experience enough. Two full days of incredible wrestling featuring some of the best on the planet. It was again a thrill to get to see Kana live and her singles matches against a variety of up-and-comers (particularly the Galaxy Famous Nikki Storm) were a joy.

 

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Kana exhausted and likely a bit dazed moments after her hard hitting Shimmer Title match, but still friendly and cheerful with the fans.

 

My second Shimmer weekend in October 2014 now looks like it may have been Kana’s last, as she missed this past April and is likely headed to the WWE. If it was she had a great showing to finish up on. She had her first shot at the Shimmer title in an excellent rematch I’d been waiting a long time for against Cheerleader Melissa in the main event of Volume 67. On Volume 68 she and regular tag partner Lufisto wrestled Saraya Knight and Mayumi Ozaki in a no-DQ match that spilled around the arena a bit.

The next day another great wrestler with a bright future, Kay Lee Ray, faced Kana in a fantastic contest. Kana finished the weekend with another solid match against Courtney Rush.

 

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Kana in some trouble vs another favorite of mine, Kay Lee Ray.

 

A couple months ago Kana announced a “hiatus” from wrestling. There was a lot of speculation without much info, and while WWE’s recent visit to Japan certainly presented the possibility of her being involved in negotiations, nothing was confirmed so it was just one more theory in the pile. Her appearance at NXT was a complete shock and I did a double take when I saw her up on the screen next to Flair and Slaughter. It was another awesome moment for me as a wrestling fan at a show absolutely filled with them.

While nothing’s been announced, WWE having Kana travel for NXT Takeover and showing her as part of the broadcast points heavily towards her being signed. The fact that she was named (with their standard slight spelling tweak for copyright) indicates if so her background and experience would likely be (rightfully) acknowledged instead of treating her like a rookie.

 

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Kana was gracious enough to agree to a pic at the Shimmer afterparty during Shimmer 63-66 weekend.

 

It will be a very different chapter of her career, but I’m extremely happy for her and excited about all the possibilities. Best of luck to a true superstar.