Review – All In

Fan Reviews, Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

For those unaware, All In, which took place at the Sears Centre Arena just outside Chicago, IL on September 1, 2018, came about because of a tweet posted on May 16, 2017 by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer. In the tweet, Meltzer denied that an independent wrestling promotion like Ring of Honor (ROH) could ever sell out a large arena like Madison Square Garden. Former World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Superstar turned indie darling Cody Rhodes decided to prove Meltzer wrong, teaming with Matt and Nick Jackson (collectively known as The Young Bucks) to organize the biggest independent wrestling show in at least 20 years, if not more. Cody and the Bucks took a huge chance on this show, because it held the potential to be a disaster of epic proportions, especially if the trio failed to fill the venue as promised. Luckily for them, a reported 11,263 rabid wrestling fans heeded the call, filling the Sears Centre to capacity and making All In both a resounding success and a historic (not to mention potentially game-changing) event that took the professional wrestling world by storm.

As Uproxx’s Brandon Stroud pointed out, Cody and the Bucks put together a show that celebrated the past, present, and future of professional wrestling. They made sure to book matches and performers that offered a little something for everyone, from casual fans to the smarkiest of smarks to the curmudgeonly old school types who lament the death of kayfabe and feel that people like Joey Ryan (who practically stole the show with his brief appearance) are “killing the business.” Over the course of five hours, All In turned the National Wrestling Alliance’s (NWA) World’s Heavyweight Championship into the most important title in wrestling, showcased some of the best professional wrestlers in the world, provided a platform for several young up-and-coming wrestlers who deserve wider recognition, paid homage to the stars of the past, and entertained fans with some incredible wrestling. In other words, it was a great show from top to bottom, serving as a nice antidote to the homogenized—and frankly stale—product offered by WWE (though even that has its place in the world of professional wrestling).

The show itself was preceded by All In: Zero Hour, an hour-long preshow event that aired live on WGN America and kicked off with a quick but brutal match between Southern California Uncensored or SCU (comprised of Frankie Kazarian and Scorpio Sky) and The Briscoe Brothers (Jay Briscoe and Mark Briscoe). Though somewhat sloppy at times, the match was fast-paced and entertaining, and it served as a good way to start the whole event because it perfectly encapsulated the feeling of All In: exciting, fun, hard-hitting, different, and not always pretty (the Briscoes were famously deemed too ugly for WWE). SCU picked up the win after Kazarian reversed a springboard doomsday device and hit Mark Briscoe with a vicious powerslam before successfully pinning him.

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This was followed by the Over Budget Battle Royal, which featured some of the top stars from ROH, Impact Wrestling, and the indie circuit. The match was characterized by fast and furious action, but every single participant got a spotlight thanks to some great storytelling. Indeed, the frantic and fun battle royal showcased the friendship between Chuck Taylor and Trent Barretta, the tenacity of newcomer Marko Stunt, the power of Jordynn Grace (the only woman in the match), and more. Of course, the match’s ultimate purpose was to get Flip Gordon (repeatedly excluded from participating in All In by Rhodes) onto the main show. ROH mainstay Bully Ray (aka Bubba Ray Dudley) appeared to win the match but was ultimately eliminated by Gordon, who was disguised as masked wrestler Chico El Luchador. Thus, Gordon earned a title shot against ROH champion Jay Lethal later in the night (more on that in a bit).

All In proper began with three preliminary matches, starting with a thrilling singles match between MJF and veteran indie wrestler Matt Cross, who also portrays fan-favorite character Son of Havoc on Lucha Underground. After some exciting back-and-forth action, Cross hit MJF with a pitch-perfect shooting star press and emerged victorious. After that, Arrow star Stephen Amell faced “The Fallen Angel” Christopher Daniels (the third member of SCU) in a brutal contest that saw Amell jump from the top rope only to crash through a table on the floor. Despite some minor botches here and there, Amell acquitted himself well and delivered a respectable performance. It helped that he was in the ring with a knowledgeable veteran like Daniels, one of the best wrestlers of the past 20 years. Following the table spot, Daniels rolled Amell back into the ring and nailed him with the Best Moonsault Ever to win the match. Next up, Chelsea Green, Madison Rayne, Britt Baker, and Tessa Blanchard competed in a four-corner survival match that constituted the only women’s match on the card. All four women gave it their all throughout the match, and the crowd responded to their efforts by cheering wildly and chanting “This is awesome!” more than once. Blanchard eventually won the match after hitting a hammerlock DDT on Green, and while this was the absolute right choice, the ending still felt somewhat off (it seemed like either Rayne or Baker were supposed to break up the pin but missed the cue). Nevertheless, this was a truly exhilarating match that culminated with all four women celebrating together in the ring.

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The crowd was still buzzing as a video package played to set up the next contest, which saw Cody Rhodes challenge Nick Aldis for the NWA World’s Heavyweight Championship. Rhodes made his way to the ring accompanied by an entourage that included his wife Brandi, his dog Pharoah, and coaches Diamond Dallas Page, Glacier, and Tommy Dreamer. Aldis, meanwhile, walked to the ring alongside Sam Shaw, Shawn Daivari, and Jeff Jarrett (who received a cool reception from the crowd). The match felt like an extended homage to the NWA matches of the past, complete with an injury angle, a blade job by Cody, a run-in by Daivari (who ran straight into a Diamond Cutter delivered by DDP), and a lot of old school grappling from bother performers. It also featured plenty of drama and powerful storytelling. For instance, near the end of the match, Aldis climbed to the top rope to deliver a diving elbow drop on an unconscious Cody, only for Brandi to throw herself on top of her husband’s prone body and take the brunt of the move. This sacrifice allowed Cody to recover and hit Aldis with a Disaster Kick followed by a Cross Rhodes for the win. The post-match celebration was possibly the most emotionally powerful moment of the night, as a tearful Cody clutched the belt that his father, Dusty, helped make famous.

The next match wrapped up one of the longest-running storylines on the Bucks’ YouTube series Being the Elite and led to All In’s funniest (and possibly best) moment. “Hangman” Adam Page faced “Bad Boy” Joey Janela in a Chicago Street Fight that remained mostly confined to the ring and the surrounding area but still managed to be both vicious and innovative. Each man unleashed and endured brutal punishment during the encounter, though Janela absorbed most of it and was visibly bruised and battered by the end of the match. At one point, Janela’s valet, Penelope Ford, entered the ring and showed off her impressive athletic skills as she tried to save her man from Page’s devastating assault. However, even this was not enough to stop Page’s rampage as he continued to pummel Janela throughout the match, which ended when Page laid out Janela with a Rite of Passage off the top of a ladder through a table in the middle of the ring. After the match, in a moment that recalled The Undertaker’s entrance, the arena lights went out and a video of Joey Ryan, killed by Page several months earlier (watch Being the Elite for the full story), appeared on the screen. A bloody and seemingly deceased Ryan lay in a hotel bed, but then his penis started moving, indicating there was still life in the body (seriously, watch Being the Elite). At that point, a procession of men dressed in inflatable penis costumes solemnly marched to the ring followed by Ryan, who emerged to thunderous applause. Ryan performed his patented YouPorn Plex on a stunned Page, who was then carried from the arena by the Dick Druids (for lack of a better term) while the crowd cheered. Side note: Professional wrestling is amazing.

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Up next was the ROH title match between Gordon and Lethal, who wrestled as Black Machismo, a gimmick centered around Lethal’s spot-on “Macho Man” Randy Savage impersonation. Savage’s brother, Lanny Poffo (who previously wrestled for WWE as “Leapin’” Lanny Poffo and The Genius), even accompanied Lethal to the ring. The match started with Lethal and Gordon performing an extended homage to the Savage/Steamboat match from WrestleMania III via a sequence of moves that recalled that seminal match. It was an impressive performance from both men, who managed to balance the wackiness and the drama almost perfectly. About halfway through the match, Lethal “woke up” from his daze and wrestled the rest of the match as himself. From that point on, the action ramped up as both men hit big moves on their opponent and, in true ROH style, kicked out of multiple finishers. Gordon showed a lot of heart and was clearly the crowd favorite, but nonetheless he failed to earn the victory. After an intense battle, Lethal hit his signature move, the Lethal Injection, to defeat Gordon and retain the ROH title. After the match, the two competitors shook hands in a show of mutual respect but were interrupted by a returning Bully Ray who was looking for a measure of revenge against Gordon. Bully Ray beat down both men, but thankfully Chicago’s own Colt Cabana came out to make the save, teaming with Gordon and Lethal to put Bully Ray through a table via a triple powerbomb.

This triumphant moment was followed by two dream matches, starting with “The Cleaner” Kenny Omega taking on Penta El Zero M (aka AAA and Lucha Underground star, Pentagon, Jr.). Back in 2017, during a six-man tag team match that took place at PWG’s Battle of Los Angeles (BOLA), Omega squared off against Penta for the first time ever in a brief confrontation that only left fans wanting more. Thankfully, Cody and the Bucks were more than willing to give the people what they wanted, and they booked Omega vs. Penta in a singles match at All In. The two competitors faced off in a thrilling encounter marked by some truly hard-hitting action, with each man throwing their most devastating moves at the other throughout the nearly 20-minute match. Omega hit Penta with several V Triggers (one of his signature moves), while Penta retaliated with several wicked chops and a devastating package piledriver on the ring apron. Yet, despite their best efforts, neither man could put the other away. That changed, however, when Omega managed to finally hit Penta with One-Winged Angel after repeated failed attempts. This allowed Omega to come out on top, much to the delight of the fans in attendance, who remained loud and rowdy throughout the entire encounter.

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The next dream match saw “The Villain” Marty Scurll battle “The Rainmaker” Kazuchika Okada one-on-one. The story of the match was that Scurll wanted to prove he was main event talent by beating one of the very best wrestlers in the entire world. Okada, meanwhile, abandoned his recent crazy gimmick (which he adopted after losing the IWGP Heavyweight Championship to Omega) in favor of his seemingly unstoppable “Rainmaker” persona for the match at All In. Even with this development, the match proved grueling for both men, who hit each other with everything they had as they struggled to pick up the win. Scurll looked like a top contender throughout the contest, holding his own against a massively overpowered opponent. At the same time, Okada demonstrated exactly why he is considered one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, appearing charismatic and tough while executing some of the most exciting moves ever seen in a professional wrestling ring. The match also featured some excellent storytelling, as each man got to strut their stuff and bust out their signature moves in some exhilarating ways. For instance, Scurll has recently been dogged by chants of “205,” a reference to WWE’s 205 Live and his less-than-heavyweight stature. At one point, Okada made “205” gestures with his right hand as a prelude to hitting Scurll with his finisher, the Rainmaker, but this momentary act of hubris allowed Scurll to grab Okada’s fingers and “break” them using one of his own signature moves. Ultimately, Okada came out on top after nailing Scurll with two consecutive Rainmakers, but Scurll left the ring looking like a main-event-caliber performer.

The show concluded with a chaotic six-man tag team match in which New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) star Kota Ibushi teamed with the Bucks against Rey Fénix, Bandido, and legendary luchador Rey Mysterio (who came to the ring dressed like Wolverine of the X-Men). Sadly, the match was pressed for time and the performers had to hurry to hit all their spots, marring the flow of the contest somewhat. Nevertheless, it was a fun encounter that featured a couple of fantastic sequences, most notably a one-on-one face-off between Ibushi and Mysterio that, like Omega/Penta at BOLA, left the crowd wanting more. Everyone else got a moment to shine, though Bandido benefited the most from the match; it was a perfect venue for him to strut his stuff and show the crowd exactly why he is currently one of the most buzzworthy wrestlers around. The match ended when the Bucks hit Bandido with the Meltzer Driver and pinned him for the win. Afterward, all the performers embraced and celebrated together while the crowd roared their approval. As the luchadors walked to the back, Cody, Brandi, Omega, and Matt and Nick’s families came to the ring. Cody and the Bucks then delivered an impassioned speech about how All In represented a revolution in professional wrestling, and they credited the massive crowd with helping to make it happen. After some concluding remarks from Omega, the performers retreated backstage to a standing ovation from the rowdy crowd.

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It remains to be seen if the show is indeed the game changer that Cody and the Bucks claim, but one thing is certain: All In felt like something different, something that absolutely has the potential to alter the professional wrestling landscape, long dominated by WWE and its brand of sports entertainment. That Cody and the Bucks managed to book an independent wrestling show that sold out a large arena and attracted 11,263 people suggests that wrestling fans are hungry for a change and want something more than what they get from WWE programming. Indeed, the crowd responded enthusiastically when Matt and Nick teased the possibility of a second All In (title suggestion: “All In – Too Sweet”), suggesting that any potential follow-up show would likely draw as many people as the first. The runaway triumph of All In also demonstrates the power of social media holds over professional wrestling because Cody and the Bucks accomplished this historic feat largely due to their savvy use of platforms like YouTube and Twitter.

Ultimately, All In shined a light on the larger professional wrestling world beyond the confines of WWE, which was always at its best when facing competition from other companies (such as WCW). This is why it is ultimately pointless to compare what Cody and the Bucks did to what Vince and company do on a weekly basis (a comparison that forms the basis of many All In reviews). There is room for both because they each appeal to different audiences. In the end, All In demonstrates the need for someone that can compete with WWE rather than replace it, because healthy competition brings out the best in everyone involved, which benefits wrestling fans. Regardless of whether a second show ever materializes, All In will stand as a great independent wrestling show, as well as a historic moment in the history of the professional wrestling industry.

War Games Revisited

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

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My first encounter with a War Games match came back in the early nineties.  I can remember it well, even after all these years. I’d ensconced myself in the little attic bedroom at the top of the house, gathered around me a generous supply of feasting materials, and settled down to watch something new and exotic – The 1989 Great American Bash.

I can’t begin to tell you how excited I was. This wasn’t WWF; it was WCW[1], and all I knew about WCW was that it wasn’t WWF. Tearing open my first bag of Space Raiders, I crammed the borrowed videotape in to the VCR player I had surreptitiously liberated from the downstairs living room, pressed play, and hunkered down for a three-hour escape into the world of professional wrestling.

At first, though, I was confused. Was the friend who’d lent me the tape having a laugh? Was this a documentary? Why was I looking at a field – with horses – and why did the outside of the arena bear more than a passing resemblance to a factory? Suddenly, I was worried. Was this all going to end in disappointment? Had I got my hopes up for nothing? I thought I might have, until the opening video package kicked in to reveal some well-trodden territory, and just like that, I was back on track.

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Pulling the ring on can of Diet Coke, I revelled in the graphically rendered stars and stripes that crisscrossed the screen and peered hard at the little floating parallelograms of wrestling action that whizzed on by to the rousing wail of guitar based rock. This was what I’d expected. A world of professional wrestling, with it’s larger than life denizens, who inhabited such distant lands as Baltimore, Maryland[2].

Yet, for all that was familiar to me from my regular WWF viewing, already so much seemed so different. Everything was less colorful somehow – muted almost – although, to be fair, I was watching on a fourteen-inch black and white portable TV, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that from the get go, things appeared less vibrant, more, dare I say it, raw. Then it was into the arena and down to the rings.

Wait, rings?

While the two rings were certainly surprising, surprisingly, this wasn’t what surprised me most. What surprised me most was the gloom. It seemed to wrap everything up in a shroud of mystery. All that I could see clearly were the rings, and maybe the first few rows of fans opposite the hard-cam. Everything else was composed of, at best, shadowy outlines, and at worst, impenetrable darkness.

This contrast didn’t change as the camera switched to a fan point-of-view and then out to a slow pan of the entrance area. Everything, apart from the ring, was still an enigma. Even the entryway seemed dark and foreboding. Flooded with blue and purple light, the wrestlers emerged for the first bout as if from nowhere. Where once there had been darkness, figures began to materialize, first as distant shadows, before slowly resolving to full illumination. It was as if these men had emerged from the dark hinterland that surrounded rings. It was as if they had crossed over from that unformed space beyond the light, as if they had emerged from the very shadows and stepped in to the world of wrestling.

Even when the house lights came up, the contrast remained pronounced. A few more rows of fans became visible, but for the most part, there was the ringside area and the darkness beyond. As a young viewer, this dynamic drew me in toward the action in the rings. I was a part of the audience, invited in to view the world of wrestling but forever confined to the shadowy and somehow distant space beyond. Or so I thought.

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Returning now, in 2017, to the 1989 Great American Bash, I’m drawn to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s notion of binary opposition to explain my experience of that aesthetic (Dundes, 1997). For me, the narrative of the event, and my entrance into that event, was driven by the juxtaposition of the binary opposites of, as Roland Barthes (1972) would suggest, the great solar spectacle of the wrestling ring and the surrounding gloom.

It was this oppositional reading of the space in which the fans existed against the space in which the wrestlers existed that allowed me to construct meaning. The wrestlers were elevated to a special world, the world of wrestling, while the rest of us (including me in my little attic room) were kept from this space. Here, the wrestlers were amplified, luminous and dynamic[3]. The spectators, by contrast, were mostly static, sitting in rows behind a barrier and often in shadow.

The gaze of the wrestlers and the spectators worked in binary opposition too. As a young boy watching the TV, my gaze was primarily focused on the wrestlers. So too were the spectators in the arena. The gaze of the wrestlers, by comparison, was primarily focused on their opponent. Again, this distanced me from the special world of wrestling. I was there to consume it, not be a part of it. I was necessarily on the outside looking in. The construction of the narrative did not lead me to perceive myself as bodily co-present with the performers. It led me to perceive myself as apart from them.

Then came the War Games match, and suddenly this opposition shifted.

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By the virtue of a camera operator being stationed inside the double cage and between the two rings, no longer was I excluded from the space of the world of wrestling, but rather I was immersed amidst it. The oppositions were shifting, but only for me. The live audience was still bound to their spatial plain beyond the world of wrestling, but, from my little attic room at the top of the house, I had now entered that cage with the wrestlers. I was in the world of wrestling. Just like the wrestlers who had emerged from the gloomy hinterland, I too had now transcended to the light to become bodily co-present with the very world I’d been excluded from only moments ago.

It wasn’t a permanent transcendence, however. It was only fleeting and transitory. One moment I was in the ring, as Jimmy Garvin raked Bobby Eaton’s face across the mesh of the cage, the next, I was cast out. Sent back to the audience and set apart from that special world. That was okay with me though. Those little moments were enough. Those brief instances of privilege, where it was just me and wrestlers in the ring had transformed an event that had at first accentuated my distance from the wrestling world to one that had immersed me in that hallowed space more than anything I’d experienced before.

I remember feeling a sense of sorrow when the War Games match came to an end and the cage was removed with the main event still to come. When Ric Flair faced Terry Funk for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, I’d expected to be back on the outside looking in, and for the most part I was, until the binary oppositions shifted once more.

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After Flair had won the match, the fight continued, spilling into the crowd, with the brawl expanding to include the Great Muta, Sting, and Gary Hart. Soon, all five men crossed over into the space of the of the audience. No longer were the wrestlers set in opposition to the spectators; now they inhabited the same space. No longer were the wrestlers amplified, and luminous in contrast to the audience; now they were often in shadow. No longer were the wrestlers solely those who were dynamic; now the space of the wrestling world had converged with the space of the audience and I too had been invited back in via the roving camera operator, and the experience had been exhilarating.

It was with memories of this level of immersion in the text that I approached the 2017 NXT TakeOver: WarGames, some twenty-eight or so years later. Initially, I had planned to discuss in this posting how and why the aesthetic changes that have occurred on the surface of professional wrestling pay-per-view events have impacted on storytelling; however, within moments of streaming the NXT TakeOver: WarGames event, I was struck by how much hadn’t changed at all. Okay, so maybe the floating parallelograms were gone, but there were still two rings. There was still the opening video package, with clips of wrestling action and shots of downtown. There was still the generic guitar-based rock theme, and there was still, for me at least, the sense of something a bit different.

So, what do I mean by that? Well, while NXT is a part of WWE, it is also an entity in its own right. It’s distinct. There is a purposeful separation between NXT and the other brands of WWE, and this separation strikes me as more pronounced than the separation between Raw and Smackdown Live. This differentiation is especially evident in the visual aesthetic of the brand. Like the WCW of all those years ago, NXT seems to be less vibrant in color palette than the other brands of WWE. The dark grey, if not charcoal, canvas is a marked signifier of this tonal shift, much like the dark canvas utilized in the 1989 Great American Bash. It stands out. It makes thing different, more gritty somehow.

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The aesthetic binary oppositions of the world of wrestling are, I would also argue, more pronounced in NXT too. While the wrestlers – or should I now say sports entertainers – no longer emerge from the gloom of a dark and foreboding entrance way (except for maybe Lars Sullivan), the dark once more enshrouds the NXT audience, clearly delineating the brightly lit world of wrestling from the dark space around it. This, of course, can be read in opposition to other WWE pay-per-view events, or indeed, Raw or Smackdown Live, where the WWE Universe is often celebrated in full light, showcasing the full or near full arenas as a testament to the popularity of the WWE product. It’s another level of differentiation. In NXT the audience, for the most part is hidden, and for me, this begs the question –  just who exactly is sitting out there?

In this way, I found that the dark visual aesthetics of NXT TakeOver: WarGames again distanced me from the special world of wrestling, and maybe even the audience. I was once more there to consume it, not be a part of it. I was necessarily back on the outside looking in. Again, the construction and aesthetic of the narrative did not lead me to perceive myself as bodily co-present with the performers. It led me to perceive myself as apart from them. Even with the on screen paratextual prompts to engage with discussion about my consumption with other members of the WWE Universe (obviously unavailable to WCW in the late eighties), I was encouraged to discuss and share my experience, not participate.

Much like the 1989 Great American Bash, only in the WarGames match itself did this aesthetic of exclusion give way and allow the viewer to transcend the binary limitations of the audience to become bodily co-present in the wrestling world. Once more, I was invited in to the wrestling world to stand shoulder to shoulder with the denizens of NXT. Once more, the live audience remained bound to their spatial plain beyond the world of wrestling; but for me, as a viewer, I was back in that cage with the wrestlers. I was bodily co-present again. I was right there in the ring when Roderick Strong superplexed Adam Cole into the assembled masses of humanity, and dare I say it again, it all just felt a little more raw than Raw.

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So, as I sat there, no longer in the attic room at the top of my parents’ house but in the living room of my own house, no longer watching on a fourteen-inch black and white portable TV, but watching on a fifty-inch LED smart TV, I had expected much to have changed. Yet on the surface of the text, and most notably in the visual aesthetics, I found that, at least with NXT TakeOver: WarGames, not much had, and truth be told, that made me happy. It was just a shame there wasn’t a big in-crowd ‘schmoz’ ending.

Works Cited

Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. (A. Lavers, Trans.) New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Dundes, A. (1997). Binary Opposition in Myth: The Propp/Lévi-Strauss Debate in Retrospect. Western Folklore, 56(1), 39-50.

Notes

[1] This was in fact Jim Crocket Promotions and the National Wrestling Alliance, but I didn’t know that till much later.

[2] I’m from Scotland, and at that point in my life I’d never even ventured so far as to cross the border into England, let alone Maryland.

[3] Although, for me, much less so than in the WWE.