The Best of NXT in 2018

Fan Reviews

This review of NXT from 2018 comes from more of a fangirl perspective than an academic one, and it is meant to reflect only my own preferences for the best part of the WWE Universe. I would love to hear any other NXT fan’s reactions to this past year, and for a second opinion, and a focus just on NXT matches, see https://uproxx.com/prowrestling/wwe-nxt-matches-of-the-year-2018.

Now, I am not going to talk about specific matches here. I don’t remember specific matches well enough to comment on them. What I am doing instead is reflecting on my favorite parts of NXT from this past year. Those parts may be story lines, characters, or moments, but they are all the parts that I think demonstrate why NXT outshines either Raw or SmackDown and why I always hope/dread that my precious NXT babies will be called up to the main roster.

Each entry on this list made me squee in some way this year, starting with the first one, which is basically just one long, sustained SQUEE at the moment (like, seriously, alternating between squeeing and crying).

The Ciampa/Gargano Story, with special guest star Aleister Black

I legit love these men.

After his heel turn at NXT TakeOver: Chicago in 2017, Tommaso Ciampa went out with a knee injury and left Johnny Gargano to rise as the main babyface of NXT. On Twitter, Ciampa changed his handle from Project Ciampa to Blackheart and began foreshadowing his return with a tweet on Dec 31, 2017. In it he retweeted Gargano’s tweet expressing hope for 2018 by just saying “Happy New Year, man.” He had been playing the Twitter game a little in the second half of 2017 but turned it up in the beginning of 2018 when he was prepping to return.

 

Meanwhile, Gargano secured his first NXT title championship opportunity against Andrade Cien Almas at NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia but failed to capitalize on it. Instead of interfering in the match, Ciampa showed up after a disappointed Gargano left the ring with the help of Candice LeRae — and attacked Gargano with his crutch.

Thus began a year-long story arc that is still going! And technically was the latest chapter in their entire NXT storyline.

Ciampa and Gargano went back and forth at each other, both directly and indirectly. Ciampa caused Gargano to be released from NXT on Feb 21, but Gargano was allowed back in after he beat Ciampa bloody at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. From there, Gargano quickly challenged Black for the championship in an attempt to get back on track, while Ciampa continued to cement his status as uber-heel; for a time, he even entered to the crowd booing instead of any entrance music. Their “anniversary” Chicago street fight match at NXT TakeOver: Chicago II this year was brutal, both physically and emotionally.

When they brought Aleister Black into the storyline, things really took a dark turn. Gargano started to feel that he could not defeat Ciampa without becoming a heel himself. He tried to cost Ciampa the championship title during a match against Black, only to end up giving the title to Ciampa during a regular NXT show that aired on July 25, shocking and surprising everyone — including Black.

Bringing Black in was a masterstroke — but more so for how they responded to a legit injury Black sustained at a house show that prevented him from fully participating in the story.  The idea had been to stage a triple threat match between Black, Ciampa, and Gargano at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn IV for the championship, but Black’s injury derailed that storyline. Instead, NXT went full steam ahead with Gargano’s turn to the dark side by setting up a mystery that started Aug 8 with Black being attacked outside the Full Sail arena.

General Manager William Regal focused on investigating the attack after NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn IV until just before NXT TakeOver: WarGames II. During this investigation, Nikki Cross claimed to know who attacked Black and told Regal (more on that below). Yet we the fans never knew the identity of the perpetrator until just before WarGames, when Gargano revealed he attacked Black, setting up a brutal match at WarGames between Black and Gargano and leaving Ciampa to continue to successfully defend his championship.

After absolving Gargano of his sins at WarGames, Black returned looking for a rematch with Ciampa, only for Gargano to demand a rematch with Black. On the Dec 5 show, Ciampa deftly manipulated both Black and Gargano into wanting a steel cage match to end things between them.

That match happened on Dec 19 — ending with a possible DIY reunion.

Throughout 2018, Ciampa demonstrated an amazing ability to play the heel in matches, in promos, and on Twitter. He seems so natural in his Psycho Killer persona and adeptly fitted it into the requirements of NXT/WWE storytelling. Meanwhile, Gargano demonstrated a natural ability to emote and connect with fans, whether as a face or a tweener. His slide to the dark side has been both logical and delicious, allowing him to flesh out his performance skills and show the world why he is Johnny Freakin’ Wrestling.

It is simply stunning that Ciampa and Gargano have built this story line on the basis of their amazing chemistry since their emergence as a put-together tag team for the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic back in 2015. It has been over three years now, and their arc is the best storyline in professional wrestling right now. If they can keep it up, it may become the best storyline ever in professional wrestling. There are simply too many moments to recount in this post, and I am already fangirling too much in this entry.

Just do yourself a favor: go back to their beginning and follow their story. The journey is well worth it, and I wait with high anticipation for where the story goes in 2019. I know I am not the only one hoping for a complete DIY heel team, especially if TM61 is kaput, and I would love to see a point where DIY holds the tag team title, Ciampa has the main title, Gargano gets the North American title (even Ciampa wants that!), and LeRae gets the women’s title. Please, WWE, just let this amazing trio hold all the belts before you call them up after this year’s WrestleMania or SummerSlam and ruin them — please!?!

Shayna Baszler Can Legit Kill You (Or Me, At Least)

The Jan 10th episode started 2018’s run of new episodes, and Sahyna Baszler was there to usher in the new era of NXT. This opening match positioned her to dominate the women’s division throughout the year by showing both backstage and in-ring prowess on being able to legit kill people.

After debuting in the inaugural Mae Young Classic, Baszler made her NXT in-ring debut on this episode against Dakota Kai, who would become one of her long-running opponents after receiving a (kayfabe) broken arm after a stomp from Baszler that led to the match being called due to injury.

Not content to let the match end there, Baszler locked Kai in a coquina clutch that brought out champion Ember Moon. Baszler was thus established as the biggest heel in NXT women’s — and perhaps all of NXT — and she has played the role to a T. Every time she smiles, I worry that someone is going to die.

Throughout 2018, Baszler caused bodily harm throughout the women’s division with various opponents like Ember Moon, Nikki Cross, and Kairi Sane, who she battled with for the Women’s Championship title, leading Baszler to end the year as a two-time women’s champion. With her fellow MMA call-ups, the trio is being polished to eventually join Ronda Rousey on the main roster and complete the new Four Horsewomen stable (although Bayley, Sasha, Becky and Charlotte will always hold that title in my heart).

If Shayna goes up this year, I fear for the women of Raw and SmackDown. Heck, I would fear for the men, too, if WWE would get off their duff and let real intergender wrestling happen. She legit scares me, even though in shoot interviews she seems like a nice person I could hang with (thanks to Up Up Down Down).

The Est Becomes Established

Bianca Belair was a minor player in 2017, and even appeared in the inaugural Mae Young Classic to be defeated by the eventual winner Kairi Sane. But she really began to shine in 2018, appearing in the WrestleMania Women’s Battle Royal at WrestleMania 34, and then experiencing a winning streak that saw her tear through the women’s roster at NXT. She won the NXT Universe over with her athleticism, charisma, and hair whip.

Bianca’s year ended with a win in a fatal four-way, giving her a shot at the Women’s Championship against Shayna Baszler. The whip versus the clutch. Should be quite the stiff title match.

What I like about Belair is how natural she seems at this pro wrestling thing. She has amazing power and skill, as her backstory promos have told us about her history of sports competition. But if she couldn’t actually, you know, dead lift other women and toss them aside without a thought, no amount of backstory would matter. The fact that she can do that — as well as all the other moves seen in the video above — effortlessly, and give us a great gimmick with that bullwhip of a braid means she is destined for great things in WWE. I cannot wait to see her and Naomi have a day-glo dance-off, and a triple threat of her, Becky and Charlotte would be amazing.

Just let her run with the title awhile in NXT, because she deserves to shine the bright-EST.

Nikki Cross’ Secret

As mentioned, Nikki Cross played an integral role in the Aleister Black injury angle. She knew who did it (or, per Nikki’s accent, who DEDDIT), and for weeks she stalked the ring and backstage area of NXT’s Full Sail letting everyone know she had a secret, without revealing what she knew. Not even William Regal, P.I., could get the truth out of her. This agent of chaos apparently just wanted to see what would happen when Black got back.

Cross has been a fan favorite since her arrival as part of Sanity, but when they got called up, she got left behind, allowing her to further develop her character and really shine away from their shadow. Now that she is main roster bound, hopefully they don’t dull the crazy from her character, as this wild child is a truly unique example of what women can do in professional wrestling — and by that I mean she shows women can do anything, just like men.

Anything You Can Do, the Dream Can Do Better

At the end of 2017, Velveteen Dream won the NXT Year-End Award for Rivalry of the Year with Aleister Black. This was the “Say My Name” storyline that culminated at NXT TakeOver: WarGames, when Black finally said his name.

His first appearance on May 24, 2017 confused some people (myself included — was he riffing on Prince, who wasn’t that long dead?), but he very quickly became a fan favorite after entering the feud with Black that fall. Their rivalry set the foundation for Velveteen’s elevation to superstardom in 2018 when he feuded with different people and even had a title shot against Ciampa at NXT TakeOver: WarGames II.

However, perhaps his most impressive match was against Richochet at NXT TakeOver: Chicago II. From coming out in his Hulk Hogan meets Prince Puma gear to his attempts to keep pace with and one-up Ricochet, Dream demonstrated that he can have a dream match with anyone.

Two reasons why Velveteen had a breakout year. One, he knows how to perform inside the ring. This match demonstrated that, as he went toe-to-toe with one of the best acrobatic-style wrestlers in the world. In this match it was his undoing, but his power and athleticism will serve him well throughout his career.

Two, as seen from the video, his character work is also amazing, and it shows through his mannerisms and his ring gear. The man went from being a weak contender in Tough Enough to coming up with a gender-defying gimmick that he got over thanks to his performance and costuming. The man borrows from different wrestlers, from Hogan to Rick Rude, but is wholly unique in what he creates from the pastiche.

Side note: I could seriously see him becoming the new Wesley Snipes if he wanted a job in Hollywood.

The Impossible Ricochet

I was sad to see Ricochet leave Prince Puma and Lucha Underground behind, but I am so happy to have him in the WWE Universe, as I hope it helps him earn the oodles of money he deserves.

Ricochet’s in-ring debut for NXT occurred during the ladder match to determine first ever North American Champion at NXT TakeOver: New Orleans. While he failed to come away with the gold — because of course Adam Cole would — he still demonstrated that everything everyone loved about him from the indies would translate to the big show — or at least the NXT version of the big show.

Throughout 2018 Ricochet would have some seriously great matches in which he did some very superhuman things. Yet it was his feud with Velveteen Dream that really cemented who he was in NXT by creating several spectacular moments and an amazing match at NXT TakeOver: Chicago II.

And this is just a sampling of it all:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-F0TPRLEMi8

I first saw that as a GIF on Twitter. My jaw dropped open upon seeing it. It still drops open with every repeat viewing. Because, seriously…how can anyone be that good!?!

Ricochet then defeated Adam Cole for North American Championship at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn IV and participated in NXT TakeOver: WarGames II with the NXT Avengers of War Machine and Pete Dunne. His high flying moves have quickly made him an NXT favorite.

Hopefully he is not shoehorned with a stupid gimmick on the main roster like Adrian Neville was, taking away that man’s brilliance. Ricochet is another of those men who gravity forgot, and I would hate for him to be as forgotten by WWE creative as they did Neville.

Kyle O’Reilly’s Expressions

I am not an Undisputed Era fangirl, although I do prefer Roderick Strong as a heel than as a babyface (oh man, was he vanilla!). But I do love Kyle O’Reilly’s facial expressions.

O’Reilly is my favorite part of UE. I am always looking at him whenever another of the faction (usually Adam Cole) is speaking. When O’Reilly is in the ring, I worry for the other wrestlers, as his attacks to people’s hamstrings and knees makes my own legs buckle.

I am glad that Bobby Fish has returned so that ReDRagon can continue to have amazing tag matches in NXT. If they are called up, I hope The Revival can be revived and set up against them. Those two teams would be able to redefine WWE tag team wrestling if creative gave them half a chance.

Matt Riddle’s Flip Flops

The King of Bros made his NXT in-ring debut on Oct 31 against Luke Menzies. I like Matt Riddle,  but I am never really excited by him. I’ve seen him live and up-close at AAW, and his matches are stiff and fun, but as a character the “bro” persona leaves me cold.

But I love his entrance into the ring where he flips off his flip-flops. That little touch could make him a big WWE star because it both encapsulates everything he is as a professional wrestler — both in terms of his move set and character — while also just being so damn cool I could see fans being willing to pay just to see it.

Plus, how can WWE not capitalize on it by selling Bro Flip-Flops in 2019?

Come Back Any Time, Prince Pretty

On Dec 12, Richochet held an open call to defend his North American Championship. In the weeks leading up to the match, people wondered which new NXT recruit it could be.

Then Prince Pretty’s entrance music started and Tyler Breeze returned to Full Sail to meet Ricochet in the ring.

Everyone in attendance was so happy to see their favorite wrestler/supermodel return — including me. Breeze and Tye Dillinger are those two NXT favorites who just haven’t gotten enough attention on the main roster. At least Breeze was able to make magic with Fandango by creating the Fashion Police, and his regular appearances on Up Up Down Down further cement him as a cult favorite.

But damn was it nice to see him wrestle again. This match with Ricochet helped remind everyone that there was a time when we loved to watch Breeze wrestle, and that Prince Pretty was not just a gimmick character but a highly skilled in-ring performer.

It also helped to highlight the fears of many NXT fan, to see a favorite return from the doldrums of WWE. I hope WWE creative was watching this match, to be reminded of what Breeze can do in-ring. This man can shine if only you let him. Until then, just let him come back to NXT every now and then to work out the ring rust. We will always be glad to see him. And have him bring along Dillinger, too.

Steaks and Weights

Two big burly men: Otis Dozovic and Tucker Knight. These two guys should not be able to do the things they can do, and yet they do every time they enter the ring together as Heavy Machinery. And I love them for it. I hope they don’t go the way of all the other great NXT tag teams that I loved when they get to the main roster.

Heavy Machinery encapsulates everything that is great about NXT. Two exciting characters who seem like they are always having fun, both in the ring and in their promos, who also have great wrestling skills and matches that get the fans behind them. They are, to my understanding, what WWE has always tried to have: great sports entertainers, in every facet of the industry.

So when they get to the main roster, don’t waste them, WWE.

And That Is That

I loved NXT in 2018. But I also loved NXT in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. It always brightens my week to watch the show, and they always seem to find some way to make my heart sing. I look forward to what, and who, they bring in 2019.

For now, just let Ciampa and Gargano form heel DIY — and then call them up as a way to reset them back to faces.

WrestleMania 34: A Travelogue

Fan Reviews, Travelogue

In recent years, WrestleMania weekend has become an opportunity for numerous domestic and international wrestling promotions to converge on the host city in order to capitalize on the presence of tens of thousands of wrestling fans from around the world. I have attended three previous WrestleManias (XXV in Houston, 2009, XXVII in Atlanta, 2011, and XXX in New Orleans, 2014), but limited myself, with the exception of a Ring of Honor (ROH) television taping in 2014, to WWE events, particularly the Hall of Fame ceremony and WrestleMania itself. This year, however, I resolved to take full advantage of the presence of numerous independent promotions in New Orleans, resulting in one of the most tiring and enjoyable experiences in my long history of attending wrestling events. In total, I attended ten events in four days, from April 5-8, culminating with WrestleMania 34. With so many events, a match-by-match evaluation would be infeasible, so instead, I will offer an event-by-event travelogue, with my (admittedly subjective) summaries and observations.

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Image credit: https://latestmovietrailerz.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/matt-riddle-s-bloodsport-1004.jpg

Event 1: Matt Riddle’s Bloodsport (Pontchartrain Center, 3pm CT, 4/5/18)

I drove to New Orleans Thursday morning, in time to attend my first event, Matt Riddle’s Bloodsport. Matt Riddle (“King of the Bros”) is a former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter who wrestles primarily for the New Jersey-based EVOLVE promotion, and this event was based around a rare, if not unique, premise in modern pro wrestling: realistic, Mixed Martial Art (MMA)-style matches that could only end in knockouts or submissions. As an MMA fan since the early days of the sport, I was curious not only to see how these matches would be worked, but also how fans would react to a very different presentation of pro wrestling. For the event, the ropes had been removed from the ring, evidently to emphasize that, as in MMA, there would be no rope breaks to escape submissions. As one might expect, these matches featured extensive mat-based grappling sequences and mostly-believable stiff strikes, and, to my surprise, fans did not appear at any time to be bored with this style, reacting to and cheering even the most minor transitions from one hold or position to another. To be fair, it’s safe to assume that most of the fans present were of the “smart” variety, and therefore more likely to appreciate mat-based technical wrestling than mainstream fans accustomed to near-constant action. With the exception of hardcore wrestler Nick Gage, who attempted to use a table against his opponent in their bout, practically every match featured entirely plausible, realistic action, akin to what one might have seen in early twentieth-century matches featuring Frank Gotch or Ed “Strangler” Lewis. Upon arrival, I was especially thrilled to learn that Riddle’s original main event opponent, indie legend Low Ki, had been replaced by Minoru Suzuki, the current IWGP Intercontinental Champion in New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) and a legit MMA pioneer from the Japanese Pancrase promotion. As in Japan, fans belted out the climactic “Kaze ni Nare” from Suzuki’s entrance theme, and he received the biggest pop of the show. After the show, Riddle announced that he planned to organize another Bloodsport event for next year’s WrestleMania weekend, and I would certainly not hesitate to attend another one. This style is not for everyone, but the fans in attendance largely enjoyed this unique and unusual presentation of pro wrestling.

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Event 2: EVOLVE 102 (Pontchartrain Center, 8pm CT, 4/5/18)

Although held in the same venue, the crowd for this event was smaller than for the earlier Bloodsport show. I’m fairly certain that this show’s attendance was greatly affected by the WrestleCon Supershow, held at 9:30pm at the Sugar Mill in downtown New Orleans, featuring the “Golden Lovers” tag team of Kenny Omega and Kota Ibushii. This was a solid show overall, and featured an excellent EVOLVE championship match between recent New Japan Cup winner Zack Sabre Jr., champion for over 400 days, and Matt Riddle. The two had a fantastic, largely mat-based match that saw Riddle wrest the title from Sabre, who recently signed a new contract with NJPW. This show featured plenty of solid action, but the diminished crowd meant that there wasn’t quite as much heat as in many of the other events I attended.

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Event 3: The Crash (Sugar Mill, 12pm CT, 4/6/18)

The following day, I headed downtown for a couple of events at the Sugar Mill, which is directly across from the convention center where WWE’s WrestleMania Axxess events were being held, beginning with The Crash, a Tijuana-based lucha libre promotion, at noon. This show featured many recognizable indie and lucha stars, including Joey Ryan, known largely for performing spots involving using his penis to flip opponents, as well as a fun main event featuring Austin Aries versus Penta El Zero M. LA Park (formerly La Parka), Psicosis, and Damián 666 received a huge nostalgia pop when they entered to Eddie Guerrero’s old World Championship Wrestling (WCW) theme, clad in LWO (Latino World Order, from a brief WCW angle) shirts. Throughout the show, the mostly Anglo-American fans chanted “uno mas” (one more) when encouraging various luchadors to repeat a strike or move, Penta’s catchphrase “cero miedo” (zero fear), and counted turnbuckle punches in Spanish. This minor, though not insignificant, embrace of Spanish, if only in the context of a Mexican lucha event, was a welcome reminder of the increasingly global character of pro wrestling. As we move further and further from the days of oversimplified national stereotypes in wrestling, American fans seem more willing than ever to embrace international stars, from Shinsuke Nakamura and Rusev in WWE to LA Park and Penta 0M at The Crash. Attendance for this show was decent, though a bit underwhelming.

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Event 4: Revolution Pro Wrestling (Sugar Mill, 4pm CT, 4/6/18)

It was fortunate that I was already present for The Crash, as this Revolution Pro show was absolutely packed, undoubtedly due to the presence of various NJPW stars on the show. As soon as the doors opened, I wisely planted my proverbial flag at a good vantage point in the general admission bleachers; by the time the show began, there was absolutely no space to be had. Once again, the fans eagerly belted out “Kaze ni Nare” for Suzuki’s entrance, and cheered wildly for Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kota Ibushii, Tomohiro Ishii, and Zack Sabre Jr. Of the four shows I’d attended so far, this one’s fans were the most energetic and animated. The main event saw Sabre lose the RevPro championship to Ishii, making him 0-for-2 in title defenses at this weekend’s events.

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Event 5: WWN “Mercury Rising 2018” Supershow (Pontchartrain Center, 8pm CT, 4/6/18)

This show was much better attended than the previous evening’s EVOLVE 102 at the same venue. This show featured Daisuke Sekimoto and Munenori Sawa, a pair of stars from Big Japan Pro Wrestling, a promotion that used to feature mostly hardcore matches with crazy weapons such as fluorescent light tubes and scorpion-filled tanks. Sekimoto had an excellent, hard-hitting match with Keith Lee, while Sawa faced Zack Sabre Jr. This show’s main event, between Matt Riddle and IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion Will Ospreay, featured the scariest bump I have ever seen live. With Riddle on his back in a rear-naked choke position, Ospreay did a backflip off the top rope, landing both of them on the back of their necks. Ospreay appeared legitimately injured, as several referees and officials rushed to the ring to attend to him. A hushed silence came over the crowd, as we collectively realized the potential gravity of the situation. After a couple of minutes, the match resumed, and at the time I assumed this was merely an elaborate attempt to work fans into believing Ospreay had been severely hurt. At the next day’s PROGRESS event, Ospreay told fans that he had indeed been injured, and had proceeded directly to the hospital for x-rays following the match. He then proceeded to wrestle in a mixed-tag match that saw him take only a handful of safe bumps. Many fans around me were making comments about how they wished Ospreay, known for his high-flying and extremely dangerous style (taking neck bumps on the ring apron, for example), would wrestle more safely, lest he end up like “Dynamite Kid” Tom Billington, whose reckless (albeit entertaining) style eventually made him wheelchair-bound, and I couldn’t agree more. There is an inherent risk of injury in pro wrestling, but taking numerous bumps to one’s neck in every match is a recipe for disaster. I’m certain that most fans would prefer Ospreay and others perform fewer dangerous moves in the interest of their long-term health.

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Image credit: https://www.voicesofwrestling.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/DYmrGwoVwAAcZF6-1024×640.jpg

Event 6: Joey Janela’s Spring Break 2 (Pontchartrain Center, 11:55pm CT, 4/6/18)

This event was both unusual and extremely fun. I have very eclectic tastes in pro wrestling; on the one hand, I love extremely realistic, hard-hitting “old school” matches, and on the other end of the spectrum, I enjoy wacky absurdity as featured in Japan’s Hustle and DDT promotions. Joey Janela’s Spring Break most definitely fell into the second category. The crowd for this was massive (for the venue), with roughly 1,500 fans in attendance. There was a party/club/rave atmosphere, with lots of drinking and chanting throughout the show, even as we passed the 3:00 am mark. Having already bought tickets for three other shows on this day, I was primarily drawn to this show because I wanted to see The Great Sasuke in the main event against Joey Janela. Sasuke, a masked wrestler who helped, along with Ultimo Dragon, popularize the so-called “lucharesu” blend of Mexican and Japanese styles in Japan, was also the founder and top star of the Michinoku Pro promotion from 1993 to 2003. The crowd was hot for their match, which began around 3:00 am, and saw the 48-year-old Sasuke take several crazy bumps onto tables, ladders, and chairs. The card also featured a random, mostly-incoherent promo from Virgil, former bodyguard to Ted DiBiase and a staple at seemingly all wrestling and comic conventions, a Clusterfuck Battle Royal won by an invisible man, a great match between 50-year-old Pierre Carl Oulette (who wrestled for the WWF and WCW in the mid-to-late ’90s) and Austrian giant WALTER, and a squash match in which Matt Riddle quickly defeated former WWE talent James Ellsworth. More than anything I attended during this trip, this event reminded me of the old Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) arena crowd, with their constant (and occasionally obscene) chants and energy. Some of the matches on this card were not what I would call “good” in a technical sense, but the fans’ constant engagement with the wrestlers created a wild and enjoyable atmosphere for those willing, like myself, to sacrifice sleep for the show.

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Image credit: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/x5dnoNa5Q_Q/maxresdefault.jpg

Event 7: PROGRESS Wrestling (Pontchartrain Center, 12pm CT, 4/7/18)

PROGRESS is, arguably, the hottest wrestling promotion in Britain at the moment, and this show did not disappoint. Several fans around me said that this show’s crowd was smaller than the previous day’s show (also held at noon), due at least in part to hangovers and fatigue from the previous night/morning’s Spring Break event. This show featured solid wrestling up and down the card, including the aforementioned mixed-tag match featuring Will Ospreay and Kay Lee Ray (a Mae Young Classic participant) versus Austin Theory and Jinny. The match was originally a singles bout between Ospreay and Theory, but was changed due to the former’s injury against Matt Riddle at the WWN Supershow.

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Event 8: SHIMMER 100 (Pontchartrain Center, 4pm CT, 4/7/18)

SHIMMER is a women’s wrestling promotion whose alums include numerous current WWE women’s stars, including Becky Lynch, Bayley, and Paige. The crowd was smaller than for PROGRESS, but enthusiastic. The match that stole the show for me, and for many others, saw 6’1″ Madison Eagles win a back-and-forth grappling contest with Deonna Purrazzo. As with Bloodsport, I was a bit surprised that a match featuring mostly mat wrestling had engaged fans so thoroughly. All things being equal, I would expect to see Eagles in an NXT ring in the near future, given her imposing stature and solid technical skills, provided she is interested and willing to sign with WWE.

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Event 9: Ring of Honor Supercard of Honor XII (UNO Lakefront Arena, 7:30pm CT, 4/7/18)

This was probably my most-anticipated show of the trip. This event was attended by nearly 6,000 fans, making it the largest crowd in ROH history, due largely to the featured main event of Cody (Rhodes) vs. Kenny Omega. By the time I arrived, the parking lots were already filling up, and I missed the first “pre-show” match, a Women of Honor Championship semifinal between Kelly Klein and Mayu Iwutani. The crowd was hot for most of the show, and the ladder match for the six-man tag titles between the Young Bucks, SoCal Uncensored, and The Kingdom was an epic spotfest from start to finish. Kenny Omega received the biggest pop I’d heard on the entire trip for his entrance, and the crowd was extremely engaged in his match with Cody, which saw the latter prevail after he ducked a pair of Young Bucks superkicks that hit Omega instead. Unfortunately, this show suffered from a glaring pacing issue, as would WrestleMania the following day. The Cody-Omega match had featured prominently in the promotion for this event, including on the main jumbotron graphic for the show, and therefore should have gone on last. The emotional peak of the Cody-Omega contest was instead followed by the ROH world title match between Dalton Castle and “The Villain” Marty Scurll, a match that was technically sound, but couldn’t manage to elicit much interest from the exhausted crowd, who had already sat through nearly five hours of wrestling. I was baffled about this choice of match order, as were many around me, and some people began leaving right after the Cody-Omega match. Like WrestleMania, this show would have benefited from being shorter, as its length and match placement led to a championship match that felt flat despite featuring solid in-ring performances from Castle and Scurll. The match that drew the fans should always go on last, building fans’ anticipation and excitement to a crescendo. As it happened, there was simply no way that Castle and Scurll could have engaged the fans after the emotionally-draining experience of the previous match.

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Event 10: WrestleMania 34 (Mercedes-Benz Superdome, 4:30pm CT, 4/8/18)

As this was my fourth time attending WrestleMania, including XXX at the Superdome, I knew I was in for a long and exhausting show. The card was, on paper at least, potentially one of the best WrestleMania events of all time, but in the event, it fell short of expectations. The early matches featured solid action that mostly held fans’ interest, but the surprise of the night was Ronda Rousey’s debut, tagging with Kurt Angle against Triple H and Stephanie McMahon. This match could not have been more perfectly booked to protect Rousey in her debut and to minimize the performers’ limitations (Angle’s due to a career’s worth of injuries, Stephanie’s as a non-wrestler). The match, built largely around Rousey’s attempts to ensnare Stephanie, and the latter’s infuriating escapes, held the fans’ attention and excitement from start to finish. Rousey played her part well, including a fun sequence in which she pummeled Triple H when the two were left alone together in the ring. When she finally forced Stephanie to tap to an armbar, fans erupted in what was arguably the biggest pop of the night. In retrospect, the match probably should have gone on last, because it represented an emotional peak for fans that later matches would fail to reach.

As for other matches, I loved Charlotte Flair’s entrance, which reversed her father Ric’s habit of entering arenas accompanied by a seeming “harem” of women when she entered surrounded by scantily-clad men in gladiator costumes. Perhaps more significantly, it also served as a nice inversion of Triple H’s “King of Kings” entrance from four years earlier at WrestleMania XXX, which featured a pre-stardom Charlotte as one of three scantily-clad fantasy slave women (the other two being Alexa Bliss and Sasha Banks). Her match with Asuka was fantastic, possibly the best of the entire show from a technical perspective, but I was baffled by the booking decision to have Asuka lose the match, as the first-ever women’s Royal Rumble winner. When Nakamura, the men’s winner, lost to AJ Styles, I was even more perplexed. After watching the Rumble in January, I came away impressed that two Japanese wrestlers not only won the Rumbles, but would potentially win major titles at WrestleMania. I can understand one or the other losing, but it was quite disappointing that both lost their matches.

Daniel Bryan’s return garnered a massive pop, though the booking was, yet again, confusing. He was attacked before the match, and spent the first ten minutes or so laying outside the ring, an element that completely drained the match of its heat until he managed to “revive” in time to save partner Shane McMahon from Kevin Owens’ and Sami Zayn’s assault. I suppose the idea was to play upon the possibility of him being re-injured immediately, but the crowd was completely dead for the first part of this match as a result.

The Braun Strowman match, which saw him choose a seemingly random child from the audience as his tag partner, was fun for what it was, and at least it was kept short. The main event, however, was another story. For the fourth year in a row, Roman Reigns was featured in WrestleMania’s main event, in Vince McMahon’s seemingly unwavering resolve to make him the company’s next top star. As in the previous three years, Reigns was heavily booed during his entrance, as fans continue to refuse to accept him as a top babyface. Reigns’ opponent Brock Lesnar received modest cheers, but a fair share of boos as well. The pervasive feeling that this was little more than a long-planned coronation for Reigns meant that, from the opening bell, fans were determined to defy McMahon’s intended narrative and sabotage the match. Throughout the contest, fans ignored the match in favor of various chants, including “CM Punk,” “this is awful,” “we want Nicholas (the kid from the Strowman match),” “you both suck,” and the classic standby, “boring.” Numerous beach balls were passed around, with fans booing security guards as they confiscated them. Absurdly, Reigns kicked out of five F5s from Lesnar, after the move had been built over the past year as the definitive end for any wrestler. Rather than cheering Reigns for his perseverance, fans booed every time he kicked out, and numerous people began heading for the exits during the match. Not even a nasty blade job by Reigns could elicit sympathy from the unforgiving (and mostly disinterested) crowd, though there was a decent pop when Lesnar surprisingly won the match.

This bizarre match is, unfortunately, part of a recurring trend at WWE’s biggest show of the year. Fans largely were disinterested in Reigns’ other main events, from WrestleManias 31-33, which should have been a clear signs for Vince McMahon and the creative team to go in a different direction, and yet, for the fourth year in a row, a Reigns who has largely failed to connect with fans was shoehorned into the main event. When there is a pervasive feeling among fans that they are being “told” who to like, there often is a tendency to do the exact opposite, or, worse yet, simply to stop caring. As I filed out of the Superdome alongside thousands of other departing fans, I heard several variations of “that was awful.” I would compare the mood among fans leaving the Superdome with the depressed emotional atmosphere after a home team’s (such as the New Orleans Saints) loss in team sports. As with the ROH show, fans’ engagement peaked with an earlier match (the Rousey tag), and later bouts failed to reach those emotional heights.

Conclusion

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this trip, though I would not want to do it (at least not to this extent) every year. Probably the most fun show for me was Joey Janela’s Spring Break, as the insanely hot crowd kept the energy and excitement going until 3:30 am, and I saw one of my all-time Japanese favorites, The Great Sasuke, live for the first time. In general, it was great to see several Mexican, European, Japanese, and other international wrestlers in person, especially since many of them make few, if any, other appearances in the United States. I strongly suspect that some of them, including WALTER, Madison Eagles, and Zack Sabre Jr., will likely end up in WWE at some point or another. Ring of Honor wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped, but that was mostly due to their decision to have the world title match go on after Cody and Omega. Until the final match, the crowd was consistently lively, but simply couldn’t maintain their enthusiasm after the emotional heights of the show’s “true” main event. As usual, WrestleMania had its positives and negatives, the latter of which could probably have been mitigated by a different match order.

AAW Windy City Classic XIII

Reflections on AAW, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

Before the dawn of 2018, AAW Pro Wrestling had one more show to put on.

Every year, the Windy City Classic (WCC) is AAW’s crowning show. It is meant to be their WrestleMania. Their Wrestle Kingdom. Their top notch show with big matches. The first AAW show I ever went to was Windy City Classic XI — heck, that was the first live wrestling show I ever went to! I haven’t been to too many AAW shows this year after moving away from their Berwyn home, but the sentimental value the WCC holds for me was too much to let me pass up this show.

So, on a freezing Chicago night on December 30th, 2017, Chris Olson and I trekked to 115 Bourbon Street, the larger venue that AAW uses for its big Chicago shows. We were excited for the show — not just because it had been six months since our last one, or because we were seeing some of our favorites like Dezmond Xavier and Penta el Zero Miedo. WCC13 would also be the AAW debut for WWE Legend X-Pac, aka Sean Waltman. Another stellar night of indie wrestling seemed guaranteed.

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However, things got off to a rocky start before the night began, and they remained tense throughout the show.

When WCC13 was announced, Michael Elgin was slated to take on Rey Fenix for the AAW Heavyweight Championship. Elgin had won the Jim Lynam Memorial Tournament, which meant he had earned the championship title shot. However, the story broke in early December that Elgin was involved in a sexual harassment scandal. Because of this scandal, AAW withdrew the title shot for Elgin:

The opportunity was then offered to Jeff Cobb:

Thus, even before the night began, tension existed between AAW and Elgin fans, who felt cheated out of a chance to see their favorite possibly win the title. Additionally, the story the promoters had wanted to tell suddenly went away — which may explain some of the weird booking for the night.

WCC started out great with a non-championship tag-team match between Keith Lee (who had just been named one of the top 10 pro wrestlers for 2017, along with Matt Riddle) and Shane Strickland taking on Zachary Wentz and Dezmond Xavier.

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The match was a great showing for all four wrestlers, who landed great spots throughout but, more importantly, interacted really well with the crowd. Xavier in particular did a great job as a heel against the crowd favorite Lee. Lee demonstrated why he deserved to be SI’s #10 pro wrestler, pulling off moves not expected for a man of his size. The crowd was hot for the match, and the energy of Bourbon Street was buzzing by the time they were done, with Strickland and Lee, naturally, victorious — and showing respect for their smaller competitors.

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The buzz kept going with the introduction of Riddle to take on ACH for a chance to be the number one contender for the Heavyweight Championship. The crowd began chanting “Bro!” as Riddle’s entrance music began. Clearly Riddle was the fan favorite, and ACH cemented himself as the heel by refusing to hug Riddle before the match began. The match began slow, with Riddle going after ACH’s injuries, clearly marked with the tape on his chest. However, around the 15-minute mark, the wrestlers were clearly energized, and their energy sparked the audience to come alive. A series of near pins furthered the frenzy, between the wrestlers and the fans — and then the bell rang.

Yes, that is correct: the match had been given a 20-minute time limit, and the time had run out.

Now, AAW prides itself on being different — especially different from the WWE. Their tagline has been “Professional wrestling, redefined,” which usually translates into no DQs and no count-outs. And this match was for a title shot, meaning it was supposedly an important match.

So when the bell rang and the match was announced a draw, the audience turned. They started booing ferociously. A “let them fight!” chant broke out. When the ring announcer said that both men would be getting title shots, the boos came back even louder, joined by a chant of “bull-shit bull-shit.” The wrestlers themselves were also visibly upset by what was happening.

And nothing seemed to go right after that.

Right after this match, the only woman to set foot in the ring that night, Scarlett Bordeaux (a manager cum wrestler), said she wanted a shot at the new women’s championship title. She was clearly not wearing a shirt (or bra) under her jacket, making me wonder if she was intended to pacify the male fans after what had just transpired with the Riddle/ACH match. And then — in an era of intense focus on sexual harassment, and with the Elgin situation having changed the night’s main event — she said “Who do I have to do to get a championship match?”

It’s almost as if the AAW promoters decided they would be the biggest heels during the night.

Now, the “joke” was that after she said that, Davey Vega’s music hit, and he emerged. As I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, Vega is a heel the AAW fans love to hate. Rather than suggest anything sexual to her, he wants to take her on as a manager to help his career, thereby perhaps undercutting the sexual tone of Scarlett’s question and turning it into a business proposition based on her successful managerial skills. Perhaps that helped undercut the problematic portrayal, but overall the optics and messaging just didn’t feel right for the situation.

Furthermore, it brought out the challengers for the Tag Team Championship without a proper introduction for their match against the Besties in the World.

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Seriously, I had no idea who the challengers were, why they were mad with Vega, and why they were demanding a chance for the championship. I know I haven’t kept up with the shows since this past summer, but usually AAW does video promos to help explain all of it. The “skit” with Scarlett did nothing to help me understand what was happening. And after what happened with Riddle/ACH, the crowd was not having any of this match. The crowd was barely paying attention, often only voicing displeasure with Brubaker (I never knew which one he was during the match), and it was the shortest of the three opening matches. For a championship match, the challengers were little more than jobbers, and the match didn’t seem to have the respect (from promoters or fans) it deserved.

The return of the ring announcer brought back the boos — every time he stepped into the ring, he was booed, as if it was his fault that Riddle/ACH ended in a draw. He weathered it well, even making a joke of it later in the night, but at this point in time he was there to announce the street fight between David Starr and Eddie Kingston, reminding the crowd that the match could very well spill out into the crowd. When Kingston fights at AAW, the chance is pretty high he will take it past the barriers — he particularly likes the bar at Bourbon Street.

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The match had a couple good spots involving thumb tacks and a barb wire-festooned chair, but they never did leave the safety of the barriers and turn it into a real street fight. At one point Starr teased it, and then took it away as the heel he was. The ending itself was weak. Jeff Cobb came out to help Starr and held a weakened Kingston in a submission hold. Starr then brandished a metal bat and monologued about how he was going to end Kingston’s life — only to barely touch him with the bat’s handle. We were expecting him to try to hit a home run on Kingston’s head, and we got a somewhat whiffed handle shot to the jaw.

Add to that a fan behind me shouting anti-Semitic taunts at Starr throughout the match. Things like “circumcise him!” and “send him to the concentration camp!” and “get him to the gas chamber!” and shrugging off when another fan and I tried to get him to stop, saying that the Holocaust was 70 years ago and he was “just joking.”

Yeah. It was one of those nights.

The crowd really wanted Kingston/Starr to spill out on the floor. While not the main event of the night, that hasn’t stopped previous shows from such a brawl earlier in the show. Well, perhaps not this early — this match should’ve come later in the night, so that it could have been more extension, more brutal, more unconstrained. As with the Riddle/ACH match, it seemed like the promoters were bent on not giving the fans what they wanted. Which is completely fine, and is an angle that the promoters can play up by making themselves part of the problem — think the Authority or Vince McMahon’s entire persona at WWE.

But, again, AAW has tried to position itself as different.

The next match was a fatal fourway that again had the potential for some amazing spots.

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And, overall, it did. The talent in the ring was top notch, but the crowd was still slow to get into it. The energy was there in the ring, but the fans were just not having it. Except for one spot, where Joey Janela seemingly attempted suicide with a dive off the balcony onto all the other competitors on the floor. Those who saw him ascending the balcony either called you for him to stop, or they cheered him on. After his dive, the crowd broke into a “holy shit” chant and called out his name, until he popped up to say “I’m okay!”. Then the match ended, perhaps too quickly, given what had happened — and Janela didn’t even win.

More confusingly, however, was what happened after the match. Teddy Hart, of the Hart family, got on the mic and gave a rambling promo, in which he praised all the fans for being there, saying “Your money, your time, our bodies.” All of which was very nice. What was more nice was how he praised Penta, who remained in the ring, and said he really wanted to wrestle the luchador. Penta, for his part, praised Hart, and said he really wanted to wrestle the Canadian. The fans all wanted the match to happen. And then it seemed like it was going to happen, right there and then, as Hart and Penta made the moves to start the match — all of which the fans were really in to.

And then a ref and the ring announcer came out and put the kibosh on the whole idea, prompting boos from the audience. So, now, the crowd didn’t have a definitive first contender, didn’t see a real street fight, and were robbed of a Penta/Hart match.

The night really never recovered after that.

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Fan favorites the Killer Kult were next, but the crowd was essentially dead throughout it. Wrestlers kept trying to call on the audience for a call-and-response participation, but it was either weak or nonexistent. Which was a shame, because the talent in the ring was great, and Sami Callihan continued to show how wonderful of a heel he has become.

After intermission, the ring announcer came back to introduce the Waltman match, again to a chorus of boos when he stepped in the ring.

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The match itself served more of a nostalgia purpose than anything else. Waltman got in some of his signature offense, and after words gave the crowd the chance to yell “suck it!” in a crotch-chop call-and-response move. But that was about it. At one point, after tagging out, Waltman nearly collapsed in his team’s corner, clearly winded after the exertion. The match itself was short, and saw Braxton/Something winning — which brought the boos back from the crowd. The horrible fan behind me spent the match shouting “We want Chyna!” and “One more night in Chyna!”, referencing the Degeneration X team member Chyna, who died in 2016. That didn’t help matters.

Then it was the final match, the main event for the Heavyweight Championship that had to be changed because of controversy.

downloadI had wondered how the fans would respond when Cobb came out instead of Elgin. For the most part, there didn’t seem to be any Elgin supporters there: I heard no chanting in support of him take hold. I did hear a brief “Fuck Big Mike” chant. The match itself was fine, with Starr coming out to heel it up and try to help Cobb win. The big surprise came after Fenix won, when Cobb and Starr started beating up on Fenix. That brought out the Killer Kult, who defended Fenix.

This twist is weird because Callihan dropped the title to Fenix, and had spent basically a year tormenting the luchador, even having stolen Fenix’s mask. Callihan’s reasoning was that after what they went through, Fenix was family, and he wasn’t going to let Cobb and Starr hurt his family. Twisted logic, but Callihan has been a twisted heel in AAW. More than that, he has always been a fan favorite, so this sorta face move makes sense in aligning him with the fans’ adoration.

But it was definitely the capper to a weird show. Which overall was perhaps exactly what it needed to be, given how downright bizarre 2017 proved to be as a year.

Aside from the altercation with the anti-Semite drunk fan behind me, I loved it. It was fascinating to see how the whole thing unfolded in ways designed not to please the fans, and how the fans responded when they did not get the matches they wanted. Sometimes you have to upset your fans, and not give them what they think they want, so that you can give them something better down the line. Now AAW fans have more Riddle and ACH to look forward to — and perhaps even a Riddle/ACH championship match where they have more time and can really let lose. And they have a Killer Kult vs. Cobb/Starr match to witness — that could be very bloody given the natures of the wrestlers involved.

So maybe to prepare them for a great 2018, AAW had to give the fans one more night of 2017’s aggravation.

Besides, Tetsuya Naito is coming to take on Callihan as part of his February tour. 2018 is gonna be great for indie wrestling.