Mae Young Classic Predictions

As a longtime fan of women’s wrestling I’ve been hopeful and excited with some of the developments over the last few years. Another potentially huge breakthrough is the currently taping Mae Young Classic tournament in the vein of last year’s Cruiserweight Classic. The participants represent a wonderful variety of styles, countries, and experience levels. The assembled level of talent is incredible.

I’m familiar with a majority of the field, and nearly half of them have previously wrestled in Shimmer (a fantastic Chicago based women’s wrestling promotion – find more information here).

The participants were not fully revealed until just before the first round was taped. As such there were no matchups to consider nor brackets to analyze until now, when half the competitors have been eliminated. Based on results from that first round there are now apparent brackets, and I’d like to take a shot at predicting how it will all turn out for fun. Given the circumstances however doing so will contain spoilers for last night’s round 1 matches. Here’s the place to stop reading to avoid them.

 

maeyoungclassic

I’ll be trying to predict what I think they’ll do, not necessarily my preferred results (although there really are no bad choices here).

——–

Edit 7/15/17: I’m not going to get into later round spoilers, but I will say the apparent brackets were not correct, so in retrospect this post is largely fantasy booking. Still interesting to see what I expected vs what came about though, so I’m leaving this up.

——–

Round 2:

1) Princesa Sugehit vs. Serena Deeb

This is a really interesting matchup, with an international veteran against a former WWE superstar coming out of retirement for the tourney. Either one is a solid pick to make someone look strong later by putting them over. I’m expecting a mini Brian Kendrick in the CWC story for Deeb, so will go with her.

Prediction: Deeb

 

2) Shayna Baszler vs. Piper Niven

The conversion Baszler’s made from MMA to pro wrestling has been incredible (as I’ve talked about here), and she has a great opponent here in the perhaps underrated Niven (who I know as Viper). The former’s MMA skills against the latter power and size should be a lot of fun. Seems too early for the MMA star to exit, so I expect Niven will come up short after a solid showing.

Prediction: Baszler

 

3) Mia Yim vs. Mercedes Martinez

This indie main event is perhaps the hardest to call. Both are excellent, experienced competitors, with Mercedes in the business longer and really on a roll lately but Yim also putting on the performances of her career and having perhaps a slightly higher profile due to her extensive time in TNA. It’s a coin flip really, so I’ll go with my personal preference.

Prediction: Yim

 

4) Rhea Ripley vs. Abbey Laith

I was originally thinking this would be an easy call in the former Kimber Lee’s favor, but as I research the newcomer Ripley she seems like exactly the kind of underdog that could go far (especially with Dobson and Kay Lee Ray gone already). And the solid Laith is destined to make someone else look good on her way out at some point…

Prediction: Ripley

 

5) Toni Storm vs. Dakota Kai

The former Evie is under contract and could really make a splash with a win here, but Toni’s a big enough name that her taking this one and putting Candice over in a big way and into the semis next would be a big deal. There’ll be time to build Kai (and get a match between her and Sane) later.

Prediction: Storm
6) Candice LeRae vs. Rachel Evers

Another tough call here. Evers is regularly in NXT and the daughter of Paul Ellering (although they’ve obviously chosen not to play that up much given the name change), while Candice is an indy darling and seems to be the Cinderella story outsider pick. I think there’s more upside to continuing Candice’s run.

Prediction: LeRae

 

7) Bianca Belair vs. Lacey Evans

Honestly no idea. Both are under contract, I’m not familiar with either, and whoever wins is fodder for Sane in the next round either way. I’ve heard slightly more buzz about Evans, so will go with her. This is a case where I think the opportunity and spotlight on both will matter more than the result.

Prediction: Evans
8) Nicole Savoy vs. Kairi Sane

This was one of my dream matches for the tournament, particularly after seeing Savoy wrestle a variety of Joshi talent in Shimmer. Savoy is another wrestler I’ve written about as a rising star and the sky’s the limit for her. But Kairi’s already there and there’s no way she goes out in round 2. The match should be incredible.

Prediction: Sane

 

Quarter Finals:

So these matches are of course all theoretical based on my predictions above.

 

1) Serena Deeb vs Shayna Baszler

Deeb will eventually make someone look like a world beater, and I think it’s Baszler right here.

Prediction: Baszler

 

2) Mia Yim vs Rhea Ripley

My gut and preference says the indie veteran should go over, but I think the upsets continue and Ripley shocks her way into the semis.

Prediction: Ripley

 

3) Toni Storm vs Candice LeRae

I think this is about Candice overcoming the odds and advancing to face Sane.

Prediction: LeRae

 

4) Lacey Evans vs  Kairi Sane

Kairi’s run won’t end before the semis at the absolute earliest.

Prediction: Sane

 

Semi Finals:

1) Shayna Baszler vs Rhea Ripley

The overachievement ends here, as Ripley fights valiantly but falls to Baszler’s ground game.

Prediction: Baszler

 

2) Candice LaRae vs Kairi Sane

The first match it feels like Kairi could realistically lose, but she won’t. To the finals she goes.

Prediction: Sane

 

Final

Baszler vs Sane

This is the match it seems the brackets are set up to give us, and it would be an appropriately fantastic end to the tourney. Either would make a great inaugural winner. As much as I’d love to see Kairi take it, I think like with TJP in the CWC WWE will go with someone signed during / as a result of the tournament, with the already contracted Sane coming up just short (which honestly won’t hurt her at all).

Prediction: Baszler

 

It’ll be fun to watch the result roll in and see how incredibly wrong I end up being. Hope every one enjoys the tourney!

WWE at MSG 7/7/17 Live Thoughts

July 7, 2017 at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY

 

19748352_1753409421350912_7331777943199312670_n

 

Surprisingly enough this was both my first WWE House Show and first time ever in the main part of MSG (I went to The Theater for the first time for a NXT show in November).  The card looked pretty good, so I was looking forward to the show and several specific matches.

 

19748685_1753404591351395_5660507157797110084_n

 

Whoever set up the match order knew what they were doing, as the show opened with the vibrating sound of a violin and the crowd came unglued for Shinsuke Nakamura’s MSG debut. He went a good twenty minutes with Dolph Ziggler in one of the best matches of the night. They had time to tell a good story with strong action and Dolph looked better and more motivated than he has in a long time. Hopefully it wasn’t just for the one night. Shinsuke’s a superstar and had the crowd in the palm of his hand.

 

19884044_1753405514684636_6891008257955706825_n

 

Goldust vs R-Truth was kept short enough to be inoffensive, but I’ve never cared for Truth and this did nothing to win me over.

In light of Austin Aries being granted a release earlier in the day Neville defended his Cruiserweight Title against  Cedric Alexander instead. Great opportunity for Cedric, who wowed me in Evolve and is capable of much more than what he’s been allowed/able to show on Raw and 205 Live. Fun little encounter, with Neville cheating to win with a rope leveraged pin like a good heel.

 

19748671_1753404401351414_5380928134457326381_n

 

Miz was out next and my friend commented the match had oddly been announced as a tag encounter, not an Intercontinental title match (as advertised). Sure enough, Miz cut a promo explaining we don’t deserve a defense and goes into Rick Rude mode asking the “New York City Sweathogs” to keep the noise down for his partner, at which point  Samoa Joe came out and that’s two advertised matches we suddenly weren’t getting. Out come their advertised singles opponents Dean Ambrose & Seth Rollins in another mini-reunion for the Shield.

 

19748682_1753404651351389_6460476477972614068_n

 

Joe vs Rollins was one of the matches I was really looking forward to so this change was disappointing, but the resulting tag match was admittedly solid. They put on a good, old school house show tag match, working the crowd up with strong character work and timing. Several nice false finishes lead up to Ambrose eventually catching Miz with the Dirty Deeds for the feel good victory.

 

19756401_1753412031350651_2423142669212968770_n

 

The US Title match seeing Kevin Owens (c) defend against AJ Styles was my most anticipated of the night, but I had no idea of what was in store for us. The match was as good as to be expected from these two, but it also found a new gear late and started raising some flags when Owens kicked out of a Styles Clash and AJ returned the favor on a pop-up powerbomb.

 

19894929_1753406084684579_1768617899466240392_n

 

After that my friend pondered about it maybe being one of the few times a title would change hands at a house show, but we laughed it off not really believing it possible. Even when AJ nailed the Phenomenal Forearm and had Owens laid out in the center of the ring my first thought was “huh, odd that Kevin will be kicking out of both of AJ’s finishers.” Instead the ref counted 3 and the crowd erupted. Great choice to bring back a little unpredictability to the house shows, and MSG was of course a perfect venue for it.

 

 

Bayley, Mickie James, & Sasha Banks vs Nia Jax, Emma, & Alexa Bliss seemed like it was meant to be a thrown together six woman tag to slowly get the show restarted after intermission, but the six of them made the most of the small amount of time they were given to put on a well structured, action packed match that engaged the crowd nicely. I would like to see more done with Emma, as she’s better than being the person in the match obviously there to take the fall.  I’m a huge fan of Alexa Bliss, so was great to see her live for the first time.

 

19756819_1753412394683948_1329347634309387487_n

 

Karl Anderson is more than capable of tearing the house down with Finn Balor, but here his role was to be cannon fodder for his super popular opponent. Balor got the jump on Anderson and tossed him out onto his partner Gallows, then hit a gorgeous summersault dive over the top rope onto them.

 

19959132_1753409061350948_6895789486488254511_n

 

That seemed to indicate this would be a short one, and indeed once Balor rolled Anderson back in it was slingblade, shotgun dropkick, Coup de Grace, goodnight. Balor victorious in under a minute. Would have loved to get a real match between the two, but it was still fun to see all Balor’s signatures and this got a big reaction.

 

 

Cesaro & Sheamus are really gelling as a team and have been revitalized with the full heel turn (especially Sheamus, who looks consistently motivated and crisp for the first time in a while). As such I was excited to see them live to defend their RAW Tag Team Titles against The Hardy Boys (Matt & Jeff).  Good semi-main with a fantastic ending that saw blind tags on both sides leading to Jeff hitting the swanton on the no longer legal Sheamus only to be immediately rolled up by Cesaro for the pin. In a great touch Cesaro fireman’s carried his loopy partner up the ramp after the victory while Sheamus had just enough energy to clutch his title belt.

 

19894821_1753403411351513_8652589974032724118_n

 

Bray Wyatt vs Roman Reigns was a solid enough main event, hindered a bit by telling a standard face vs heel story when the NYC crowd was largely booing Reigns and cheering Wyatt. Good effort and action from both though. After Reign’s expected victory Braun Strowman made a surprise appearance to beat him down (with some help from Wyatt that provided great tentative interactions as Bray tried to subtly direct his former charge without angering him). Rollins made the save to a big pop and the former Shield allies cleared the ring.

 

 

With Reigns and Rollins alone in the ring celebrating the crowd got LOUD with a “we want Ambrose chant” to complete the reunion. After a few minutes with no Dean, Rollins got the mic and expertly handled the situation saying the bad news was Ambrose was probably already a few deep at a bar somewhere, but the good news is “we hear you NYC.” The acknowledgement, whether or not it leads to anything, that the crowd wanted to see the three of them together was a simple, perfect way to handle Dean not being able to come out without having the fans leave feeling disappointed. Nicely done.

 

 

Overall

I had a lot of fun at this show, and the surprise US Championship switch was icing on the cake.

NXT Takeover San Antonio IPPV Review (Live Thoughts)

January 28, 2016 in San Antonio, TX

 

nxtsanantonio

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.

 

diyaop

 

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.

 

fatal4way

 

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.

 

nakamuraroode

 

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.

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.

img_4714

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.

img_6527

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.

IMG_2214

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).

17546672_1620499277975261_860089135355272934_o

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.

IMG_2318_trim

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.” 😉

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.

tyebobby

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.

diyrevival

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.

 

asukamickie

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.

 

nakamurajoe

 

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.

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.

img_4665

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.

img_4653

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.

img_4673

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.

nxtdp1

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.

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.

img_2897

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.

img_9331

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.

img_3495_trim

Best of luck to Johnny Wrestling. 🙂