Call for Papers: Special Issue on Cultural Studies of Florida

Calls

Working the Circuit: Cultural Studies of Florida

Guest Editors: Aisha Durham, Wesley Johnson, and Sasha Sanders, University of South Florida

Florida figures prominently in the US American imaginary. It is a spectacular state of escape for spring breaking coeds, disneyfied kids, and sun-seeking “snowbirds” who flock south among resettled retirees, new migrants, longtime locals, and Indigenous communities to cocreate a cultural mélange of cosmopolitan, coastal, and country sensibility. Long before a presidential New Yorker relocated to a rebranded neo-confederacy, news media and new media already reduced its carnivalesque oddity to a meme. This special issue departs from shorthand comedic snapshots of the Sunshine State by providing methodologically thick, fleshy interpretive analyses that take seriously its cultural politics, people, and popular forms.

It attends to the aims and scope of Departures in Critical Qualitative Research by privileging experiential, experimental, and embodied approaches represented as personal narrative, textual experience (Durham, 2014), intersectional and decolonial cultural critique, performative writing, mystory, and critical autoethnography. “Working the Circuit” invites inventive research about cultural practices, products, policies, and performances by drawing from the canonical circuit of culture model (du Gay, Hall et. al, 1997), which emphasizes the interrelated nature of culture and power permeating each key moment. 

“Working the Circuit,” is a timely special issue for two reasons: It highlights meaningful conversations about the state when it will take center stage during the upcoming presidential election, and when it will become the home-base for big fan communities with WrestleMania 36 and Super Bowl LIV.  In addition to national popular and political events, local conversations about cultural difference, climate change, precarity, and participatory democracy in Florida set the stage for broader ones in US American society.  In both spheres, Florida is a site of critical inquiry that is timely and important to the development of contemporary cultural studies.

Suggested topics for the special issue include, but are not limited to, the following:

– #Floridaman   

– Claws (2017-present)

– Climate change

– Cultural citizenship

– Cultural difference       

– Culture wars

– David Makes Man (2019)         

– Disney, Disney World, or Disneyfication

– Dream Defenders and #BlackLivesMatter         

– Foodways

– Freakshows and carnivals         

– Glocalization and transnationalism

– Intracultural and intercultural contact zones       

– Jane the Virgin (2014-2019)

– Mass shootings (Parkland, Pulse)         

– Migration and immigration

– Moonlight (2016)         

– Most Expensivest  (2017-present)

– Music culture   

– Precarity

– Reality television         

– Regionality

– Serial killers (Howell Donaldson, Ted Bundy)   

– Social media activism, social movements

– Space and race relations

– Sports and game culture

– Spring break     

– Tourism

– WrestleMania   

– Youth culture

Submission Timeline

1.15.2020:  Deadline for 100-word abstracts sent to aishadurham@usf.edu (“Circuit” in subject line)

2.12.2020:  Notification of acceptance

3.30.2020:  Deadline to upload manuscripts to the ScholarOne Manuscripts site for Departures

5.18.2020:  Deadline to submit revised manuscripts

5.01.2021:  Publication of special issue

Submission Guidelines

Manuscripts should be formatted in Microsoft Word and conform to the Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (2017) with endnotes. Manuscripts should be prepared in a 12-point common font, should be double-spaced, and should not exceed 7,000 words including tables, captions, and endnotes. Visit the journal page for additional information about the form, format, and organization of the full manuscript.

Departures in Critical Qualitative Research is a peer-reviewed journal. Submitted manuscripts will be reviewed by a Special Issue Editorial Board and should not be under review by any other publication venue. To inquire about this special issue, please contact:

Aisha Durham, Associate Professor

Department of Communication

University of South Florida

4202 E. Fowler Avenue, CIS1040

Tampa, FL 33620

aishadurham@usf.edu

Guest Editors

Aisha Durham is an Associate Professor of Communication and 2019 Fulbright-Hays Fellow at the University of South Florida. She is a cultural critic who uses autoethnography, performance writing, and Black feminist-informed intersectional approaches to examine power, identity, and popular culture. Research about hip hop feminism is published in her monograph, Home with Hip Hop Feminism: Performances in Communication and Culture, and her edited books Globalizing Cultural Studies: Ethnographic Interventions in Theory, Method, and Policy, and Home Girls Make Some Noise! Hip Hop Feminism Anthology.

Wesley Johnson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Pasco-Hernando State College and a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at the University of South Florida where he uses critical media studies and autoethnography to examine white rage, masculinity, and policing in popular culture.

Sasha Sanders is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of South Florida. Her embodied, reflexive approach to exploring media and culture engages Black feminist thought, critical cultural studies, and performance studies in Communication.

Nylons and Midriffs: War and Peace (November 6, 2019)

Nylons and Midriffs

Image credit: newsweek.com

It has been a bittersweet couple of weeks, friends. I feel very conflicted, seeing both the highest of highs as far as women’s wrestling, as well as lowest of lows as far as some of the problematic developments since the previous edition of Nylons.

My suitcase is full of thoughts, so let us start unpacking them together.

The Good
NXT/AEW: I am still enjoying the women’s wrestling of All Elite Wrestling, even if it is few and far between (more on that in the next section). Right now, I feel that with each new woman that shows her face on weekly TV, I’m getting a deeper sense of the holistic identity of their women’s division. Every woman seems to have their own style and in-ring presentation, that makes each woman distinct in a way that’s different than WWE. It feels almost reminiscent of WWE’s Attitude Era in that the women feel like independent and unique entities that choose to compete for a specific company, rather than a company trying to mold them into a specific shape or brand, like NXT intends to.

If you watch WWE long enough, you figure out that their ultimate goal (and some would argue, particularly with NXT) is to make each wrestler signature to their own brand and style. It’s all about getting wrestlers to assimilate to WWE’s specific presentation of “sports entertainment.” WWE acts as a parent that tells you, “You’re free to express yourself — just not like that.”

In AEW, it genuinely feels that the women are not constricted in that way. They feel fluid and rough around the edges. And that, so far, is what I really like about their women.

As far as NXT? OH BABY. For the women, NXT had a near-perfect two weeks. Let me just talk a little bit about each of the best things we saw.

When the Rebel Heart Met the Blackheart: Slash in Professional Wrestling

Works-In-Process

I’ve been working on this project for awhile now, and this presentation from MPCA/ACA 2019 contains my preliminary results on slash fanfic that feature NXT wrestlers Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa.

This work began with noticing that other fans were as interested in this pairing as I was: https://prowrestlingstudies.org/2018/11/21/pro-wrestling-slash. When I started looking into the stories being told, I noticed how the fans were reacting to the NXT storyline featuring these wrestlers. This observation led me to begin mapping the emotional trajectory of that storyline: https://prowrestlingstudies.org/2019/02/22/the-emotionality-behind-ciampa-gargano-part-1-pre-tag-team-titles. I still have more on that storyline to map, but I decided to start theorizing what I saw happening in this fandom, which led to the above presentation.

Mainly, my argument is that kayfabe aligns professional wrestling with other forms of fictional storytelling, meaning that how people react to those narratives would have some similarity to have people react to pro-wrestling narratives. And, if there is a script, then there is an encoding occurring in those narratives that reflect specific ideological perspectives. NXT creates stories with actors like any other entertainment producer, and those stories contain certain ideas about the world as embodied through actors’ performances.

Since ideas are being encoded into those storylines, that means pro-wrestling fans — like any other type of fan — will decode what they see in those narratives and react to them in different ways (depending on their interpretive baggage). Some fans will also engage in transformative work to recode elements of those narratives to create their own stories, ones that may be more emotionally or cognitively fulfilling than the original canon. Such fanon, then, can contain depictions that are quite different from what was originally encoded, such as slash stories that turning canonical homosocial or antagonist relationships into homosexual relationships.

Gargano and Ciampa joined NXT starting in 2015. After a slow start where they were positioned as strangers teamed up to compete in the inaugural Dusty Rhodes Classic, their underdog, emotional story really took off during the Cruiserweight Challenge. Since then, the stories have had their emotional highs and lows, as the storyline responded to actual injuries suffered by Ciampa, who went from face to heel in his relationship with Gargano.

Whether they were friends or foes, Gargano and Ciampa’s performances inside the ring involved a level and type of physicality less common in WWE matches. Other than just the technical skill of their movesets or their willingness to risk their bodies, the men embraced one another repeatedly in emotional displays of solidarity, joy, and pain.

Brandon Stroud and other commentators have highlighted their emotional in-ring performances, remaking on their ability to tell stories almost completely through expression and gesture. And the men’s social media accounts, especially when they were #DIY and when Ciampa turned, furthered this storyline, creating a transmedia experience that added to the kayfabe that these two men were more than friends.

It is not surprising, then, that the fans reacted to these men in very emotional ways, such as intense cheers and boos, depending on the point in the storyline. More interestingly, however, are how the slash fanfics reflect the emotional nature of their performances and the storyline.

For this presentation, I focused on Archive of Our Own (AO3), which had the most such stories. Their decoding could be seen in how they commented on each other’s stories, making direct references to the matches, wrestlers, and storyline — all reflecting their decoding.

On AO3, I have identified 43 such stories so far, 13 with a Mature rating for sexually explicit material. These slash stories tended to portray Gargano as sweet, innocent, emotional, feminine, and submissive — and Ciampa as stoic, bitter, pained, aggressive, lonely, and dominant. Furthermore, the stories appear to do two main things:

What appears to be happening is that NXT encoded into their storyline a level and type of homosocial relationship that challenges gender stereotypes in professional wrestling. The fans, then, have emotional decoding reactions to the emotional story cues. What they recode through their slash fanfic are homosexual relationships that serve two purposes: first, to explain the nonstereotypical homosocial relationship; second, to repair the bonds of the broken relationship between Gargano and Ciampa. In this way, their recording operates as a form of relationship maintenance that helps establish why these two men — originally positioned as strangers to each other — acted as they did and also helps the wrestlers — and their fans — work through the tensions to hopefully reunite the wrestlers and thereby give them a happy ending.

Again, all of this is preliminary, and needs work done to relate what was found to what has been written about professional wrestling fans and slash fan fiction. And I look forward to doing the research to finalize this project — especially as it means reading more slash!

Nylons and Midriffs: All You Can Eat (October 9, 2019)

Nylons and Midriffs

Image credit: prowrestlingsheet.com

A whole new woooorld….a whole new place I never knew…..

It is certainly a whole new world for you and me, and watching the two sides of the Wednesday Night War last week got me excited for this world’s potential.

Because WWE did just have a pay-per-view, though, we’re obligated to discuss what went down. Likewise, because I watched both NXT and AEW for the first time in the last couple of weeks, I have many thoughts to share about those products as well, as a new viewer.

So I think it best in this post if I run down the pros and cons of NXT versus AEW, as well as HIAC. Lastly, rather than finishing with the usual Thorny section, I wanted to end with a little hope for the future of women’s professional wrestling as we know it. We’ll call that, the Revolutionary.

Let’s crack on!

The Good
AEW: I have quite a few general thoughts about All Elite Wrestling’s first TV airing in general, but we’re here every week to talk about the women. And, the first thing I want to address has almost nothing at all to do with the wrestlers: the female referee. Although I am pretty sure one or two female referees have been introduced in WWE, I have yet to see one on their main shows, RAW and SmackDown. As this female referee was officiating on Dynamite, she was praised by the commentary team as an expert at her job. She was also involved later in a pull-apart brawl later in the episode between male wrestlers.

Image credit: Facebook.com

I couldn’t put my finger on why at the time of viewing, but the fact that she was actually acknowledged as female, and proficient in her work, felt significant. Referees often get a bad reputation as conveniently incompetent officiants to matches, ignored until their miscues need to drive storylines forward. But, in the wrestling world, they still hold a fair amount of power to call matches down the middle. And if they’re really good at doing their jobs, they can rise to the reverence that people like Earl Hebner has. An unexpected delight in the first TV match of this new promotion!

Also, I was shocked and elated to see that the match to determine the first-ever AEW women’s champion was between two women of color. Not only this, but women of two extremes size-wise — a plus-sized Native woman in Nyla Rose (more on her later), and a diminutive Japanese woman in Riho. In the American wrestling market, the sizes of these women are marginalized. But in AEW, they seemed to find a home.

NXT: I absolutely loved the women’s matches that I saw in the last two weeks. On the whole, I was struck by how prominent feminine energy was in NXT compared to the main roster (if we can still call it that). The women usually have multiple matches and/or segments in a single episode, and such a thing happens seemingly intentionally. On the main roster, it feels much more like women are the final touches to the night’s show, rather than a thoughtfully considered component.

From top to bottom, I saw everything that the men get showcased for women: matches, return packages for those who’d been injured, championship matches, quick backstage bits. Additionally, we have Beth Phoenix on commentary where, unlike Renee Young, she is actually allowed to speak without being belittled by her male cohorts. We even have a black, natural-haired ring announcer. All of these things made apparent to me that the women’s division of NXT has depth. There is a main event made up of champion Shayna Baszler and whoever she is feuding with, a mid-card of future women’s champions like Mia Yim, Io Shirai, and Bianca Belair, and even a lower mid-card of women who perhaps won’t be champions one day, but still add to the division, like Taynara.

Image credit: kimberlasskick.tumblr.com

Because I was simply exposed to more women, I am probably more excited to see the women’s division of NXT week-to-week. The standout star for me was Io Shirai. She had me hooked from her electrifying entrance, but kept me interested with her excellent heel work and in-ring prowess. I do believe NXT has stars in its ranks.

Hell in a Cell: I mean, undoubtedly the opening match between Becky Lynch and Sasha Banks for the RAW women’s championship.

Image credit: akahinews.com

This bout was beyond inventive with the spots that these two ladies pulled off. To name a few: Sasha’s various meteoras to Becky (onto a ladder, through a table), Sasha’s planting of a chair trap in the Cell early in the match to thwart Becky toward the finish, and Becky’s innovative chair-on-a kendo stick dropkick to a seated Sasha in the corner of the Cell.

This match was exciting from start to finish — well, almost to the finish (we’ll get to that). But this match stole the show and once again made a case for the women deserving a main event spot. There’s really not much else to say about this match besides this: go and watch it! Potentially one of the greatest Cell matches ever, but definitely of the modern era.

The Bad
AEW: The only negative thing I can say about AEW based off a singular episode is that there was only one women’s match to consider. Because I am starting from scratch with AEW, I am unsure of how many women they currently have signed with the company. From what I hear, their women’s division so far is obviously more sparse than WWE’s, but it has potential and diversity. I am hoping that Dynamite can showcase depth with their women’s roster, to help female fans (or fans of women’s wrestling) see themselves in the product.

This is a crucial time for AEW to appeal to the audiences they want to attract, so if they want to prioritize the female demographic of wrestling fans — ever “niche” as it may seem — they must do so early and often.

NXT: Honestly, from what I have seen, I have nothing bad to say about the product thus far! One thing I can nitpick is that it is obvious where the women of color in WWE are allowed to thrive. Clearly, a metamorphosis happens to the women’s roster from NXT to the main roster, in that the image of “woman” in WWE becomes less randomized and more blonde and white. If anything, this was the most infuriating realization I had watching NXT weekly TV for the past few weeks.

Hell in a Cell: The booking of the RAW women’s title match was wrong. There is no reason Becky needed to win on Sunday, and it should have been Sasha. Full stop.

Becky would not have been hurt by a loss. Sasha would be. Becky did not need another win to cement her status as a top woman in the women’s division. Sasha did. Sasha needed this win, to legitimize her return, her heel turn, and redeem the last several months (or really years) of careless booking. It is tiring to see Sasha perpetually used to put over other women in the division. She has faced off against each of her Four Horsewoman counterparts, and in each feud, she seceded the win to her opponent. In most of the biggest matches of her career, she has had to do the favor for someone else. (No really, think about it.)

Image credit: lordsofpain.net

And when it possibly counted the most, WWE dropped the ball again. The news has since come out that she is potentially injured, so I suppose her losing was for the best. But the decision to have her lose was likely made prior to her injury occurring, and thus a decision WWE made of sound mind and body themselves.

And to add insult to yes, injury, Bayley also lost her title on the night to Charlotte Flair. While the loss for Bayley doesn’t have the high stakes that Sasha’s does, the two are still interconnected. So, their double-loss on Sunday (and their voyeuristically filmed tears about their losses) nullifies any momentum the two of them had going, together and individually.

Put simply, I don’t know where we go from here for Boss n’ Hug. And I don’t have confidence that WWE does either.

The Revolutionary

Image credit: app.com

I wanted to take a break from my usual pessimistic self to discuss something that made me very emotional upon discovering it for myself; something that made me feel utter joy.

I was watching AEW, and as each wrestler went on, I did a quick Google search to learn a little more about who they were. I searched Nyla Rose as the women’s match went on and, after glancing at her Wikipedia page, I noticed some recent news articles about her. I saw the word “transgender,” I investigated. And suddenly I realized the weight of Nyla’s existence in AEW.

For those not aware, Nyla Rose is the first transgender wrestler to be signed by a major wrestling promotion in the U.S. Immediately, I thought back to Patricia Arquette’s recent speech on the Emmy stage, wherein she implored Hollywood to hire trans actors and end the stigma surrounding trans folks’ existence, referencing her fallen trans sibling, Alexis.

And here was AEW, in reality, Cody and Brandi Rhodes, giving a trans woman a job. Without any fuss, without parading it or shoving it down our throats. Without expecting a pat on the back. And that is significant. As any “first,” especially with a doubly marginalized identity as a First Nations, trans woman, Nyla will face hatred and bigotry.

But, there must always be a first for there to be a second. And third. And tenth. And the door was opened for Nyla and any other trans person hoping to one day wrestle in the division that so matches their identity.

Nyla in interviews has already acknowledged some of the pressure that being the first entails. She said the following in a panel interview with other AEW stars:

“I’ll be so happy when we get the point where it’s ‘Nyla did something’ and that’s the headline. That’s where we gotta get. If I could help get us there, I don’t mind driving the car for a little bit. I’m used to these long road trips.”

With Nyla driving for now, we’re certainly on our way somewhere.

***

I’m rubbing my proverbial hands together at all of the wrestling I can consume on a weekly basis. At last, I don’t have to settle for a one-course meal; I, like you reading this, can buffet to my heart’s content now.

Let’s toast to that, shall we?

Stay legit bossy,
AC

Paradigm Shifts: A Brief History of the Life, Death and Rebirth of Pro Wrestling on TNT in the US from WCW’s Demise to AEW’s First Show on Television

Works-In-Process
Photo by author

Wednesday, October 2, 2019, marks the first time in 6764 days professional wrestling has aired on the TNT network; it’s also been that long since the Monday Night Wars officially ended even though the meaningful battles ceased well before. Over eighteen and a half years have passed since the name on the contract read McMahon, and WCW was no more. How did the Wrestling Wars start, end, and (possibly) begin again?

WWF Monday Night Raw premiered on January 11, 1993. It was the first live weekly wrestling show with true national television reach. Shortly after its debut, costs prohibited going live so multiple weeks of Raw were taped at the Manhattan Center in New York City and subsequently shown in the 8pm Eastern slot on the USA network.

In 1995, the recently promoted Executive Producer of WCW, Eric Bischoff, found himself in a meeting with Ted Turner. Turner asked him how WCW could become competitive with WWF; Bischoff responded that they needed prime time. His off-the-cuff proposal was granted with a Monday night slot on TNT, thus kicking off the Monday night war.

The first WCW Nitro emanated from the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota on September 4th, 1995. The first shot fired was the appearance of Lex Luger, who had wrestled for WWF the night before. Luger’s contract had lapsed and he signed with WCW the day of the Nitro premiere on TNT.

Many memorable moments occurred during the Monday Night Wars and both companies pushed to newer heights in ratings and revenue. WCW actually defeated WWF in the ratings for 83 consecutive weeks. The shows gradually increased in length from one hour, to two hours, to three, in Nitro’s case. (The WWF would change its name to WWE after a trademark lawsuit from the World Wildlife Federation, and would later increase to three hours each Monday after the wars had ended).

There were too many memorable moments to detail here as the companies battled for supremacy. However, it was a golden age for wrestling fans as both companies pushed the envelope to outdo one another. Which brings us to present times.

The current era of wrestling started fairly innocuously. Renowned wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer was asked on Twitter about the drawing power of independent wrestlers, people who weren’t signed to a major company. A follower asked if any independent company could draw 10,000 fans. Meltzer replied, “Not any time soon.” Cody Rhodes, a second-generation star who had recently departed from WWE responded emphatically to Meltzer: “I’ll take that bet Dave.”

At that time, Cody was wrestling in the Ring of Honor (ROH) promotion. It wasn’t an independent, per se, as it was (and is) owned by the Sinclair broadcast group. They had national syndication but at the time didn’t have a national weekly television slot.

Cody huddled with his new friends the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega, and they hatched a plan to do a one-off independent show to try to prove Meltzer wrong. This was the birth of All-In, a supershow in the Chicago, Illinois area intended to sell 10,000 seats. Later, pay-per-view (PPV) distribution was added as the show sold out in under 30 minutes. It was obvious from the response that a hunger existed in the wrestling audience for an alternative to WWE.

Also involved in All-In was Tony Khan, the sports analytics guru and wrestling superfan, and son of the incredibly successful businessman Shahid Khan. In fact, Tony Khan financed the private jet that allowed Chris Jericho to make an appearance at All-In and still honor his concert obligations with his band Fozzy in Merriam, Kansas that night.

Since All-In, it has become obvious that a hunger exists for a different type of pro wrestling than what WWE offers. AEW launched in May with the Double or Nothing pay-per-view from Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena. More events followed with Fyter Fest, a co-promotion with the CEO Gaming convention, and Fight For the Fallen, a fundraiser to combat gun violence in Jacksonville, Florida. The culminating event prior to AEW’s television debut was a PPV from the same arena as All-In. The show, entitled All Out, set the stage for the debut of the TNT weekly program Dynamite from 8-10pm Eastern beginning October 2nd, 2019.

I had originally intended to end here. However, WWE has taken steps to add their developmental territory, NXT, to directly oppose AEW by being televised on the USA network on Wednesday nights also from 8-10pm Eastern. Both promotions cater to the same fans who want more serious pro wrestling. Though the principal players deny it, we have a new wrestling war on our hands.

Enjoy.

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.

Pro-Wrestling Slash

Works-In-Process

When I first got into professional wrestling — way back in 2014! — my first favorite wrestler was The Miz. I was watching WWE Main Event, which aired Wednesday nights on our Ion TV channel. This was before the WWE Network was launched, and before I had any access to higher level cable channels like the USA Network, so Main Event become my entry into professional wrestling and the WWE. Then we got the Network and cable, bringing to use NXT, Lucha Underground, and more. And I started going to the live events put on by AAW here in Chicagoland. So since in the years since, I have had other favorites to add to my own fangirl roster, with Sami Zayn earning perhaps the biggest place in my heart — for his wrestling and his political activism.

Sami, unfortunately, keeps getting injured, and I no longer have cable, so I cannot follow him on the WWE main roster (which underutilized him anyway). And while I also no longer subscribe to the Network for political reasons (seriously, Crown Jewel was just an idiotic event to do), I still watch NXT through next-day airings on Hulu. And I need to keep doing that, because I need by Ciampa/Gargano fix.

I remember first seeing Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano in the Dusty Rhodes tournament and wondering who they were. Needing to know who they were, I found a video of them wrestling in AAW. And at that time, they were not signed to NXT, so they were still wrestling in AAW. In fact, the first AAW show I went to had Ciampa there, busting open his nose right in front of me.

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Ciampa at AAW Windy City Classic XI in 2015.

Unlike Sami, here I had the opportunity to meet Ciampa and Gargano — and I did! The fangirl in me was so excited to be able to buy their t-shirts directly from them! I got to meet each of the them, and nervously (remember, I’m like a grown adult woman) gush about how much I like their work. Their last match at AAW after being signed to NXT was something I wrote about for a chapter in a book I co-edited. Unlike with Sami, I had actual interactions with them in a physical setting that could help fuel my interest in them. I wasn’t just watching them through television or following them through Twitter. I had met them. I knew how much taller I was than them. I breathed the same air as them. I touched them!

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Gargano at AAW United We Stand in 2016.

I am such a huge fangirl for them. I have been since their beginning in NXT. So I have followed their storyline with intense interest. I have had actual tears in my eyes watching their Cruiserweight match, or when they finally won the tag-team belts as DIY. I have felt actual shock and fear when Ciampa turned on Gargano. I was shaken by their TakeOver: New Orleans match for how brutal and emotional it was. I was there at TakeOver: Chicago, cheering for Ciampa, when he tore Gargano’s wedding ring off the hand of the man whose wedding he attended. I know every twist and turn of their story, and am legit concerned about the darkness consuming Gargano while also hoping it means he may soon get back with Ciampa.

Gargano Jump

Gargano’s jump on Ciampa, my vantage point at NXT TakeOver: Chicago in 2018.

I have even been writing a slash story in my head to bring them back together.

If you don’t know what slash is, here is a quick primer: it is a fan activity involving taking two characters who in canon (i.e. the original television show, book, movie, etc.) may be friends or enemies and putting them into a homosexual relationship. The classic examples include Kirk/Spock, Harry/Draco, and Sherlock/Watson. Fans may create such slash for a variety of reasons, and the relationships can be anything from angsty and emotional to brutal and hardcore.

When Ciampa came back after his injury as Blackheart and began torturing Gargano’s mind, body, and soul, my mind started to slash them. For me, it was a way to handle how two friends who seemed so close suddenly became such bitter enemies. I wanted them to reconcile and become friends again. I wanted them to kiss and make up.

Up to that point, I didn’t think anyone else was creating slash for these wrestlers (characters? real people?). Slash tends to be created by fangirls, and professional wrestling still tends to be dominated by fanboys. So I didn’t think to go look to see if there was a community out there engaging in this practices for this canon.

I was wrong. I found Ciampa/Gargano slash. Such as at a large fanfiction online site, Archive of Our Own. And then I found more at my old stomping grounds, FanFiction.net.

I found fans using slash and alternate universe (AU) stories to resolve the tensions between the characters/people of Ciampa and Gargano — tensions constructed through the kayfabe transmedia storytelling of their DIY rise and fallout. One author even called their fanfic “therapy” to help them cope with Ciampa’s heel turn.

Here are the ones I have found so far:

  • For example, there is the AU story involving the duo being werewolves where, although they hate each other, they are soulmates, and their interactions bristle with sexual tension.
  • And another where they are sexually active werewolves.
  • And another like that. And another. And another. One author in particular likes this angle. Could the werewolf angle be because of how they change identities between being real people and being performers?
  • This compilation of vignettes includes the suggestion of a polyamorous relationship between Ciampa, Gargano, and LeRae.
  • And the AU story of Ciampa experiencing a brush with death and reliving the night he and Gargano broke up, and using that heartbreak to explain Ciampa’s turning on Gargano.
  • Or this AU story that presents the entire arc of Ciampa/Gargano in NXT, up until Ciampa’s heel turn, as Ciampa struggles with his feelings for Gargano.
  • And this AU, where in a collection of stories, Ciampa recalls a romantic New Years with Gargano. Same with this one.
  • Then there is this AU story, presenting Gargano’s experience being haunted by Ciampa after the heel turn.
  • Although not updated, this planned AU definitely gets down to the kissing.
  • And this AU story finds them attempting a Glorious Bomb, only to have their first kiss.
  • In this AU story, Gargano is once again the tender one taking care of the rough Ciampa.
  • In this AU story, the heel turn never takes breaks up the partnership, which is definitely more than just professional.
  • In this AU, Gargano tracks down Ciampa after the heel turn to confess his love.
  • And another AU reference to Chuck Taylor claiming Ciampa/Gargano were a couple. Did he actually make such a comment?
  • Here Ciampa helps Gargano deal with a trauma from his past.
  • This time Gargano helps Ciampa reveal his true feelings.
  • Then in this AU story, their D&D characters have to fall in love for them to realize their true feelings for each other. And here as well.
  • For this story, their tenderness for each other comes through after a loss for the tag-team titles.
  • And in this story, even before the heel turn, their relationship was more personal than professional.
  • Then in this AU, they are X-Men, and teenagers find their first loves.
  • For this one, another angsty one for Ciampa needing to realize his feelings for Gargano.
  • In these connected stories, multiple wrestlers come together, but again, Ciampa is rough with Gargano: part 1 and part 2.
  • While this one starts out rough, Gargano manages to bring out Ciampa’s tender side (which he does in other stories as well).
  • Like in this one, the younger Gargano manages to save Ciampa from a life of crime.

In total so far, 25 stories that in some way put these two into a romantic relationship. Stories that come from early in DIY to after the break-up to the current era of the darkness between them. And all of them fantastic in some way because of how they are either directly relating to an event from the story told by these wrestlers or are referencing the overall arc and angst of the story.

Another aspect of these stories that is fascinating is how many are from Ciampa’s perspective, as if he is tortured with these longings for Gargano and that perhaps those longings, unfulfilled, can explain his heel turn. And there are the stories were Gargano is taking care of Ciampa, putting him in a more feminine position to the gruff Ciampa. So a lot of interesting character interpretation and supposition happening to fill in the gaps created in the story about who these people are and why they have done what they have done to each other.

Finding these stories can help me conduct an analysis of the transformative fandom among pro-wrestling fans not commonly studied: women. And such an analysis could show the overlaps with different fandoms through the common practices of fanfiction, in general, and slash, in particular. Overall, the works show fans seeking for the two men to make up, to become friends again. The emotional work done by the wrestlers to tell their transmedia story is being reflected in how fans use their fics to transform the negative relationship back to a positive one.

I hope to use this example to do more research on my encoding-decoding-recoding model. I think I can argue that the transmedia storytelling serves as encoding kayfabe, that the fans’ decoding consists of emotional reactions to the kayfabe, and their fanfic acts as recoding to deal with those emotional reactions. The fact that so many of the stories directly reference events as depicted in NXT helps to show the relationships between the storytelling (encoding) and how fans reacted to the storytelling (decoding and recoding). Even the timecode stamps on the fanfics can help show what the fans reacted to. Plus there are the comments to the fanfics, which could further help show the decoding through the fan discourses embedded in these fanfics.

So right now, this idea represents a work-in-progress here, but one I am very excited about — and not just because I get to read Ciampa/Gargano fanfic.

“Ladies All Across the World!”: An Evolution Review

Scholarly Wrestling Reviews

EDITOR’S NOTE: There is a spoiler here for NXT UK and is marked as such.

This past Sunday night was WWE’s first ever all women’s pay-per-view called Evolution. While other promotions feature an all women roster (Shimmer and Shine most notably), this is the first time WWE has put all the focus on their women Superstars. The event was held in Nassau Coliseum on Long Island, NY, a venue with a lot of wrestling history. I personally saw my first wrestling show in this very arena. While there is no former WWE show to compare this too, it is interesting to note that this show was held less than a week before WWE Crown Jewel, another one of the Saudi Arabia shows that bars women from competing. I was at Evolution in person, so my review will be from an in person point-of-view.

The crowd at Evolution was a nice mix – I saw fans of all ages, genders, and races. There were women cosplaying as their favorite superstars – I noticed women as Alexa Bliss, Nikki Bella, Carmella, Becky Lynch, Ronda Rousey, Asuka, and Trish Stratus. There were also tons of shirts for women superstars, some from WWE Shop, and others from back in the day or from independent sites. The merchandise tables only had merch from women superstars, in both men’s and women’s cuts. Sadly, they did not have anything from their new Curvy Collection (women’s cut shirts in plus sizes).

SPOILER: During the pre-show, the audience at home saw footage and interviews from the red carpet, along with promos for the upcoming matches. The audience at the Coliseum saw Rhea Ripley defending the NXT UK Women’s Title against Dakota Kai. While the NXT UK show has not showed Rhea winning the title, her holding the belt is known to the WWE Universe. The match itself was short, but fun. The crowd seemed fully invested in the match, and I am personally excited to see more of Rhea once her title defenses start to air on the WWE Network. My rating: B+.

The show opened up with rock legends Nita Strauss (in the ring) and Lzzy Hale (on the ramp) shredding their guitars with Lzzy also singing about Evolution. It was hard to hear from my seats in the 200 level, but the crowd popped when they realized who was performing.

The first match up was the tag team match of Trish Stratus & Lita (Team Bestie) versus Alicia Fox & Mickie James (with Alexa Bliss). Lillian Garcia, former ring announcer, was here to announce this match. Trish came out first to a huge pop from the crowd, followed by Lita who got an even louder pop. Alexa then came out to cut a brief promo making fun of Lita and Trish’s age. Alicia and Mickie came out to Mickie’s music. During the match Lita and Trish both received “you still got it” chants, and when Alicia Fox botched a save there was one of the loudest boos of the night. Lita performed a Twist of Fate on Alicia, followed by a moonsault on both Alicia and Mickie. Mickie was then on the receiving end of a Chick Kick from Trish, who then pinned Mickie for the win. For the most part the legends in the ring looked good, with the exception of a Stratusfaction that looked sloppy. Fun Fact: Trish debuted 18 years ago in Nassau Coliseum. My rating: B+.

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Courtesy of WWE.

Next up was the Women’s Battle Royal. Each woman had her own entrance, which was a welcomed departure from former battle royals. Lilian Garcia came back to announce this match as well. Every woman came out by herself, with the exception of The IIconics. The IIconics cut a promo on their way to the ring, and this saw them as the first ones eliminated. The new stars circled around the legends, and then the all-out brawl happened. One thing I noticed about the audience was that there were no “Rusev Day” chants for Lana, nor did any of the other women get their significant others mentioned (something the crowd normally does). Some of the bigger pops from the match were when: Mandy Rose eliminated Sonya Deville; when Nia and Tamina gave a shout out to their cousin Roman Reigns; when Ember Moon eliminated Asuka; and when Zelena Vega appeared again towards the end to try to eliminate Nia and Ember. The crowd popped when Nia won, though I think they would have been happy with any of the three final women winning. Fun Fact: Michelle McCool became the first Diva’s champion in Nassau Coliseum. My rating: B+

Next up was the finals of the Mae Young Classic: Toni Storm versus Io Shirai. Toni was in the 2017 Mae Young Classic, coming up short in the semi-finals. This match was a chance at redemption for her. Io was looking to make a name for herself in WWE, after taking the Japanese wrestling world by storm. Before either entered the ring, there was a shot of Jessika Carr on the screens. Jessika is the first woman referee WWE has, and received a nice pop from the crowd when she was shown. Both women received healthy pops from the crowd, and I would estimate the crowd was 50/50 on who they wanted to win. These women received the first “this is awesome” chant of the night. After a lot of back and forth that made both women look strong, Toni won. Both women were very emotional after, especially when Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, and NXT Trainer Sara Amato came out to give both women roses. In one of the sweetest moments of the night, Toni and Io were hugging and crying in the ring, even as Toni helped Io to her feet. You could tell there was true respect and sportsmanship from both women. My rating: A+

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Courtesy of WWE.

The 3 versus 3 match was next up. Riott Squad came out first and they were all dressed as horror movie villains. Then Sasha came out, followed by Natalya then Bayley. There was a small pop when Bayley’s Buddies came up. The crowd was firmly behind Sasha, Bayley, and Natalya, though there was a small boo when Sasha’s hometown Boston was announced (unsurprising because the event was held in Yankee territory). When Natalya and Sasha Banks performed the Hart Attack there was a nice pop, and it was a great reference to Natalya’s late father. After a back and forth match, Liv Morgan of the Riott Squad got hit by a triple finisher – first a power bomb from Natalya, followed by a dive by Bayley, then a frog splash from Banks. Banks pinned Liv for the win. The match made every woman in it look strong, which is always a nice thing. My rating: A.

The NXT Women’s Title match was next. The match itself, Kairi Sane versus Shayna Baszler, is a rematch of the finals of the 2017 Mae Young Classic. Jessica Carr was back to referee the match. The crowd was roughly 70/30, for Kairi. This match took the crowd a bit to warm up to, but once they got into the match, they got loud. Shayna holding Kairi up by her arm and then dropping her to the ground got one of the bigger pops, as did Kairi doing an elbow drop to Shayna on the ground. The latter move got an “NXT” chant from the crowd. Shayna’s fellow Four Horsewomen, Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir, got involved in the match, helping Shayna win and become the first 2x NXT Women’s Champion. Kairi did not tap to Shayna’s submission hold. Rather, she passed out and could not answer the ref’s call. My rating: A+.

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Courtesy of WWE.

The hottest match of the night was Becky Lynch versus Charlotte Flair for the Smackdown Women’s Championship in a Last Woman Standing match. The only way to win was to incapacitate your opponent so bad they could not get up for a ten count. The crowd was firmly behind Becky, with the loudest boos of the night going to Charlotte as she entered. According to a friend who was watching at home, the Network made it seem like the crowd was booing Becky and cheering Charlotte during the pre-match package. Despite booing Charlotte when she came out, the crowd did cheer with her chops and when she cleared off an announce table. The crowd was so against Charlotte that there were times my friend and I thought the crowd would riot if Becky didn’t leave with the belt. Some chants included “boo the woo” and “you deserve it” when Becky was burying Charlotte. The match ended with Becky power bombing Charlotte through a table, incapacitating Charlotte for a 10 count. Rating: A.

After this match there was a graphic shown for WWE Crown Jewel that was booed so badly they took the graphic down after only a few seconds. This showed a lack of foresight on the production team – the crowd did not want to see a graphic for a show women cannot compete in during Evolution.

The final match was Ronda Rousey versus Nikki Bella (with Brie Bella). The crowd was firmly on Ronda’s side during the entrances, while during the match there were some “let’s go Ronda/let’s go Nikki” chants. From my seat this was the only time I heard sexist chants going on. A group of men were chanting “Cena left you” to Nikki, as well as yelling “beat her [Nikki] like Cena should have.” This was the only time I felt uncomfortable during the event. Thankfully, my friend Pat yelled at them to “shut the eff up.” The match itself was great, though I would have put it before Charlotte and Becky. Nikki looked strong, getting Ronda with the Rack Attack 2.0. Ronda ended up winning after getting Nikki in the arm bar, despite numerous interferences from Brie Bella. My rating: A-.

Overall Evolution was one of the better PPVs and cards I have seen in a while. There was a feel of an NXT event to it, with the way the ring was set up (no LED screens on the posts or ringside). The barriers were the metal ones instead of the thicker ones. I fully enjoyed myself, and hope this was not a one off event. Seeing the women leave it all in the ring was wonderful and this event celebrated women of the past, present, and future. Overall PPV rating: A-.

Before They Were Superstars: Johnny Gargano

Before They Were Superstars

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Image Credits:  https://www.wwe.com/shows/wwenxt/2017-12-06/gallery/wwe-nxt-photos-2017-12-06#fid-40189388

Sometimes a wrestler becomes so well known in a certain alignment it’s strange to see them wrestle the other way. Ric Flair was widely known as a heel, but would wrestle as a face periodically. Hulk Hogan, for much of his career, also wrestled as a face — to the point that it was a major shock when he joined the NWO as a heel.

Currently, Johnny Gargano wrestles as a fiery, underdog babyface in NXT, but he had a solid run as a heel in Dragon Gate USA. At the end of 2011, Gargano won the DGUSA Open the Freedom Gate Championship from YAMATO as a face. In the middle of his reign in 2013, he turned heel. Being smaller in stature, he would take cheapshots whenever possible, avoid contenders, and cheat to win. His promos were arrogant and self-important.

This was no different at DGUSA’s Freedom Fight 2013 when he had a “Roast of Johnny Gargano” before his championship defense. At the start, Gargano claimed that he was everyone’s hero. The crowd took exception to this and even his former partners, Chuck Taylor and Rich Swann, appeared to let their feelings of disgust be known. A top contender to Gargano’s title, Ricochet, even showed up to call him a coward before his opponent, Chris Hero, would come out to begin their match.

The following images are screenshots from Club WWN.

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This match would be Chris Hero’s first upon returning to the indie wrestling scene after he was released by NXT. He was given, pardon the pun, a hero’s welcome and the crowd was desperate to see him dethrone Gargano.

The match starts with the two jaw jacking in the middle of the ring. Hero finally breaks the standoff by hitting a mafia kick on Gargano and going for a quick pin. Gargano kicks out, but Hero follows it up with a flurry of offense that sends Gargano out to the floor. Hero goes to roll Gargano back inside, but Gargano rolls right back out. Gargano pays for it by getting chopped, punched, and kicked senseless at ringside.

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When they get back in the ring, Hero follows things up with a standing senton that nearly gets a three count. Hero goes for a move off the top rope, but Gargano pushes him off and sends Hero to the floor.  Hero takes a nasty bump by falling on his left arm. The referee goes to check on Hero and Gargano follows and starts working on Hero’s arm. Gargano slows down the pace by continuing to work over Hero’s arm and kicking him while he’s down. Hero tries to mount an comeback by trying to throw one of his patented elbows, but Gargano is able to stay out of reach. Gargano goes for a submission, but Hero is able to make it the ropes.

Gargano starts putting the boots to Hero some more, but Hero shrugs them off and throws some wicked chops. Hero goes for another elbow, but Gargano is able to avoid it by taking Hero down to the mat and kicking him in the head. Hero ends up rolling outside and regains the advantage on the floor.

When they get back in the ring Hero finally hits Gargano with an elbow but it doesn’t keep Gargano down. Hero attempts a submission, but isn’t able to lock in the hold since his left arm is still bothering him. Hero hits one of his signature moves, Hero’s Welcome, and follows it up with a multitude of strikes.  Gargano is able to survive the onslaught. When Hero goes for another elbow strike Gargano is able to reverse it into his GargaNo Escape submission.

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Hero makes it to the ropes and Gargano takes a while to break the hold. Hero fights back with another series of strikes and goes for a moonsault. Gargano moves out of the way and, like a good indie heel, hits Hero with a Pedigree. Hero kicks out at one.

Gargano hits a Hurts Donut and a super kick as a follow-up before locking in the GargaNo Escape. Gargano starts kneeing Hero in the head, and the referee has no choice but to stop the match due to Hero not being able to fight back.

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Gargano quickly flees with his title to a chorus of boos.

This run can be a bit of a surprise if you’ve only seen Gargano wrestle in NXT. While I think his heel work in this match is good, I feel that he works much better as a face. The Johnny Wrestling persona works better when he’s trying to gain sympathy from the crowd before a big comeback. It’s easy to watch Gargano in NXT and wish for him to succeed. I find myself invested in what he’s doing and cringe whenever he takes any kind of damage or punishment.

I think Gargano could wrestle as a heel again, but I think the story has to be right in order for it to happen. The match with Hero took place almost five years ago, and I’m sure Gargano has picked up some new tricks in the interim. For now, I’m perfectly happy rooting for Johnny Wrestling instead of booing him out of the building.

Review – NXT TakeOver: New Orleans

Fan Reviews

This past weekend, New Orleans, Louisiana played host to several different professional wrestling promotions, all of which offered an abundance of pro graps to wrestling fans of all persuasions. For instance, AAW, Fight Club: Pro, and The Wrestling Revolver co-sponsored the Pancakes and Piledrivers show, which took place at WrestleCon and caused some controversy when AAW tag team champions The Besties in the World (Davey Vega and Mat Fitchett) hit tandem piledrivers on their opponents The Rascalz (Dezmond Xavier and Zachary Wentz) in violation of the Louisiana Boxing and Wrestling Commission’s rules. WrestleCon also played host to the Impact vs. Lucha Underground crossover event, featuring a high-profile rematch between Eddie Edwards and the controversial Jeremiah Crane (aka Sami Callihan). Meanwhile, Ring of Honor unleashed their 12th annual Supercard of Honor, this time featuring a hotly-anticipated contest between current Bullet Club leader (and former WWE Superstar) Cody Rhodes and previous leader Kenny Omega, now one half of the Golden Lovers tag team with Kota Ibushi. And, of course, WWE dominated the weekend with another installment of the granddaddy of all wrestling shows, WrestleMania, which this year boasted the in-ring debut of former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) star Ronda Rousey, along with several other marquee matches.

Yet, for many fans (myself included), NXT TakeOver: New Orleans represented the pinnacle of a week filled with all manner of pro wrestling. Since 2014, NXT’s periodic TakeOver shows have become the gold standard of big-time wrestling events (which is appropriate, given the brand’s predominantly yellow color scheme), often overshadowing the shows produced by WWE’s main roster. Starting with the original NXT TakeOver, which aired exclusively on the WWE Network on May 29, 2014, and continuing through the most recent show broadcast live from NOLA on April 7, 2018, each TakeOver event has offered discerning wrestling fans a fresh alternative to the often stale and sanitized programs featured on shows like Monday Night Raw and Smackdown Live!. NXT’s live events routinely feature exciting, hard-hitting action, memorable entrances, hip guests, and emotionally-gripping storytelling. These things and more have helped transform NXT from a mere developmental program to a widely-beloved brand and one of the most popular sports entertainment promotions around.

NXT TakeOver: New Orleans is no exception, largely because it features the final chapter (at least for now) to one of the most riveting pro wrestling story lines currently going. The show starts with a wild six-man ladder match that saw Lars Sullivan, Killian Dain, Velveteen Dream, Adam Cole (BAY BAY!), and the debuting Ricochet and ECIII all vying for the new NXT North American Championship. The match was chaotic and fun, and it allowed every single competitor a chance to shine. Ricochet — a staple of the indie wrestling circuit for years as well as the man behind the Prince Puma mask on El Rey Network’s cult phenomenon Lucha Underground — immediately emerged as the star of the match, taking every opportunity to show off his high-flying offense and impressive strength. Meanwhile, Sullivan and Dain looked appropriately monstrous (the spot in which they tossed Ricochet back and forth was quite fun), and their interactions served as a nice preview for their eventual one-on-one confrontation (HOSS FIGHT). ECIII was instantly over with the crowd and seems primed to fill the entitled heel/tweener spot recently vacated by Bobby Roode (who now wrestles as part of the Smackdown Live! roster). Velveteen Dream proved once again why he deserves to be considered one of the biggest stars in the world; his charisma and athleticism were on full display throughout, and his elbow drop off the top of the ladder was a thing of beauty. The match ended with Cole winning the title, which is the right decision and hopefully gives his character some much-needed direction (he has felt somewhat aimless since debuting at NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn III on August 19, 2017).

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The second match featured NXT Women’s Champion Ember Moon defending her title for the second time against former mixed martial arts sensation (and inaugural Mae Young Classic finalist) Shayna Baszler. At NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia on January 27, 2018, Moon defeated Baszler but suffered an injured shoulder in the process (the same shoulder that Asuka injured on the May 3, 2017 installment of NXT’s weekly show). A few weeks later, on February 14, 2017, Baszler and Moon faced off in a rematch that ended in a disqualification when Kairi Sane attacked Baszler. This led to yet another intense match between the Moon and Baszler at TakeOver: New Orleans, which built expertly on their previous matches. The two women had clearly learned from their prior encounters, as they managed to counter one another’s moves and tell a powerful story in the process. At one point, Moon stomped on Baszler’s left arm (as retribution for what Baszler did to Dakota Kai a few weeks earlier), separating Baszler’s shoulder and leaving her vulnerable. Nonetheless, Baszler managed to pop her shoulder back into place (a la Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon) by slamming it repeatedly against the steel ring post, which provided for a great visual and an excellent demonstration of her toughness. Soon after, Moon hit Baszler with an Eclipse (her finishing maneuver, a diving corkscrew stunner) off the top rope to the arena floor, showing off her own resiliency and reckless abandon. The match ended with Moon going for another Eclipse inside the ring, only to get caught in the Kirifuda Clutch and choked out by Baszler, who left the arena as the new NXT Women’s Champion. Meanwhile, Moon showed up on Raw the following night to tag with new Raw Women’s Champion Nia Jax against Mickie James and former champ Alexa Bliss.

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Next up was a triple threat match for the NXT Tag Team Championships that featured the Authors of Pain (Akam and Rezar), The Undisputed Era (Kyle O’Reilly and Adam Cole, subbing in for the injured Bobby Fish), and the hastily-assembled team of Roderick Strong and NXT UK Champion Pete Dunne. The match was originally meant as a reward for the winner of the 2018 Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, with the winners of the tournament receiving both the Dusty Cup and a title shot against The Undisputed Era (TUE). However, Fish’s knee injury necessitated a last-minute booking change. Thus, on the April 4, 2018 episode of NXT, TUE interfered in the finals, prompting the referee to throw out the match. As a result, the two teams that made it to the finals, Authors of Pain (AoP) and Strong/Dunne, both got an opportunity to face O’Reilly/Cole for the belts. The match itself was sloppy but fun, culminating with Strong’s heel turn, which allowed TUE to win both the belts and the Dusty Cup. This outcome gives the faction some much-needed credibility and (as mentioned above) direction, because they can now brag about being the most successful stable in NXT history while running roughshod over the entire promotion (much like the nWo in WCW or D-Generation X in the WWE). Furthermore, adding Strong to the group sets up some compelling storytelling possibilities down the road, most notably Cole and Strong potentially feuding over leadership of TUE. It could also lead to a faction-versus-faction feud between TUE and cult heroes Sanity (Eric Young, Alexander Wolfe, Killian Dane, and Nikki Cross). In any event, the match outcome should give Cole and his running buddies something to do going forward.

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In the penultimate match, Aleister Black challenged Andrade “Cien” Almas for the NXT Championship. While the match itself was good, it failed to generate the same level of drama or excitement as Almas’ incredible match against Johnny Gargano at NXT TakeOver: Philadelphia. The Almas/Black match felt somewhat thrown together, and therefore lacked the sense of urgency and excitement that marked Almas/Gargano. During the buildup, Black and Dain challenged Almas for the title, leading to a number one contender’s match between the two. Black came out on top and spent the next few weeks verbally sparring with Almas’ valet/manager, Zelina Vega. The promos were good, but never felt personal in any way. In that regard they were the exact opposite of the promos leading up to the Gargano/Almas match, as Vega made that match incredibly personal by constantly reminding Gargano of the betrayal of his former best friend, Tommaso Ciampa (more on that below). Furthermore, while Almas nailed the role of entitled heel champ during his run, his mic skills proved less than stellar and hurt his credibility somewhat. Crowds never quite connected to him as a face, and failed to respond strongly to him as a heel. Meanwhile, much like Cole, Black’s character often felt directionless, and that aimlessness remained in his feud with Almas. Therefore, the title match lacked an emotional core, though both performers delivered an entertaining contest. Black and Almas are undoubtedly two of the best wrestlers in the world, and they showed off their skills in the match, which was unfortunately hurt by the lack of a compelling story. Still, Black emerging as the winner is a good thing; he’s got the look and the talent to carry the company, especially if the NXT creative team gives him some solid storylines. Almas, meanwhile, is likely headed up to the main roster, and if WWE keeps Vega as his mouthpiece, he should prove an extremely valuable addition to either Raw or Smackdown.

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Finally, in the main event, Gargano battled Ciampa in one of the most powerful and heart-wrenching matches in the history of NXT. The two spent years as singles wrestlers on the indie circuit before getting called up to NXT as a tag team on September 9, 2015. They competed in the first Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, making it to the second round, only to lose to the team of Baron Corbin and Rhyno. Ciampa and Gargano then competed in the first-ever WWE Cruiserweight Classic (CWC), with Gargano eliminating Ciampa in the first round. Afterward, they reunited as a tag team under the name DIY (Do It Yourself) and had a series of classic matches with then-NXT Tag Team Champions, The Revival (Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder). On November 19, 2016, DIY defeated The Revival to win the NXT Tag Team Titles, but lost them to AoP two months later at NXT TakeOver: San Antonio. DIY faced AoP once more in a brutal ladder match for the Tag Team Titles at NXT TakeOver: Chicago on May 20, 2017, but came up short in the end. After the match, an injured Ciampa turned on Gargano, setting up a bitter rivalry between the two. Over the next few months, Gargano emerged as one of the top babyfaces in NXT, while Ciampa disappeared from the weekly show during his long recovery from knee surgery. He eventually returned to become one of the most hated heels in NXT, interfering in a match that not only cost Gargano the NXT Championship, but drove him out of NXT. This then set up a much-anticipated unsanctioned match between the two former best friends at TakeOver: New Orleans.

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The match delivered on every level, cementing both performers as two of the best wrestlers in the entire world. Ciampa and Gargano held nothing back, taking sick bumps throughout and nailing one another with stiff strikes that no doubt left more than a few battle scars. More importantly, they told an incredibly emotional story in the ring, with Ciampa unleashing his anger at being abandoned by the NXT Universe, and Gagano fighting for his career. At one point, following nearly 30 minutes of grueling competition, Gargano was set to bash a battered and bruised Ciampa with a crutch (retribution for Ciampa doing the same to Gargano several times throughout the feud), but stopped when he realized his former-friend-turned-enemy was defenseless. In that one moment, Gargano solidified his place as the purest white-meat babyface in all of WWE (while simultaneously revealing the inconsistent characters of most of the main roster faces). The match featured several other shocking and heartrending moments, including Gargano powerbombing Ciampa onto exposed concrete, an exhausted Gargano crawling over to a disgusted Ciampa (who, by that point, sported a nasty-looking swollen black eye), and Gargano using Ciampa’s own knee brace to lock Ciampa into a submission and forcing him to submit (pictured above). Gargano eventually picked up the win, thus reclaiming his spot on the NXT roster and hopefully starting down the path toward a run with the NXT Championship. Ciampa, meanwhile, remains one of NXT’s most loathed characters, and his activity on social media gives fans the sense that this feud is far from over.

Overall, while it never quite reaches the heights of NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn (in which Bayley fought Sasha Banks in one of the greatest title matches ever televised) or NXT TakeOver: Chicago (which featured an all-time classic between Dunne and Tyler Bate for the UK Championship), NXT TakeOver: New Orleans continues NXT’s impressive streak of excellent live events. The show offered a variety of matches and spotlighted some of the best wrestlers around, culminating in an exciting and emotional match that served as a capper to one of the best feuds of the last few decades. Fans of NXT should come away happy, and those who have never watched the product may not get the same sort of impact from the main event as those who have followed along week after week, but the in-ring action should nonetheless satisfy even the most jaded smark. NXT TakeOver: New Orleans is a triumph, and promises a bright future for WWE’s most over brand.