Sunday, 29 March 2015

WWN Mercury Rising 2015 review


Mercury Rising 2015 was in every conceivable sense the WWN answer to WrestleMania. It played out in front of what will probably, outside of the China tour, be the biggest crowd the company attracts all year. It featured a variety of major matches, some of them grudge matches built up over months, and developments that changed the landscape of the company, impacting on its future. Most obviously it was held just one night before and a few miles away from WrestleMania 31.

But was it any good? Let's run through the show and then come back to that at the end. He'd been injured the night before at EVOLVE 40 but that didn't stop Rich Swann from opening the show with a several minutes long song and dance routine in which he called on several members of the audience to join in with his rendition of Lionel Richie's All Night Long over the microphone. The crowd as a whole, and most of the people Swann called on in particular, seemed self-conscious during this. I don't blame them. It's awkward.

Once the music cut Swann acknowledged his injury, as much to ensure the live crowd were up to speed as anything else, and challenged the Premier Athlete Brand to a tag title match at one of the April EVOLVE shows. The Brand came out and attacked Swann. Johnny Gargano and Ethan Page dashed out to make the save, which fed into the show's opening match of Page versus Caleb Konley.

They had a fun little match, the highlights of which were a Konley double stomp on the ring apron and Page using Gargano's lawn dart. Page survived a Lionsault, the One Night Stand fireman driver, and outside interference from the Brian Cage and Andrea to get the win with a schoolboy roll-up and a handful of tights. It's nice that Page got a win but it's a shame it had to come at the expense of Konley, a guy who went from the middle of the card to the top over the course of last year and who deserves to be treated more like a top guy.

After the match So Cal Val shouted that the loss wasn't part of her plan (well obviously not, Val) before Andrea swerve turned on Brian Cage with a low blow. He was to blame for Konley's loss apparently. This development was a pity. I thought Cage was a good fit with the Brand.

The traditional 'Mania weekend six man tag was on second, although this year it was a six woman tag presented by WWN affiliate Shine. Nicole Matthews (the SHIMMER champ), Portia Perez (collectively known as the Canadian Ninjas), and Nikki Storm were due to faced Shine champion Mia Yim and Shine tag team champions Cherry Bomb and Kimber Lee (collectively known as the Kimber Bombs). Before the match began Andrea and SCV returned to the ring. Andrea attacked Nikki Storm and replaced her in the match. Presumably Storm's two matches in the chick fight tournament which had preceded this show played a part in this decision. Mia Yim, who's also wrestled two matches, contributed less to this match than I'd expected for the same reason.

As a successor to some of the Dragon Gate scorchers that have taken the six man spot in previous years this match didn't hold up. But that's an almost impossibly high standard to meet. Judged at a more realistic level (without the comparison) this was a good match. Everyone got a chance to - ahem - shine, Andrea was presented as a powerhouse, and there was a nice, albeit brief, sequence pitting the two singles champions against one another (something that a match like this really has to do). Mia Yim got the pin for her team when she rolled Perez up following a back and forth exchange of forearms.

After the match the Ninjas argued with Val and Andrea, setting up the return of Nikki Storm. She declared herself the "white chocolate cheesecake of sports entertainment" and challenged Andrea to a match at Shine 26. It set up matches for a show that will be all too easy to overlook, awkwardly falling a few days after the WrestleMania Weekend festivities as it does.

In a surprise move Drew Galloway sauntered out after that. The reason for this early arrival was that he'd been offered a booking back in Scotland the next day and wanted to take it so that he could defend the EVOLVE championship and a newly won Open the Freedom Gate championship there. Not one to disappoint, Gargano accepted the early call and walked down to the ring with Ethan Page for the much hyped title versus title match.

The opening minutes were characterised by Gargano using his speed against Galloway's strength. The action would spill to the outside where Galloway would tilt-a-whirl Gargano onto the apron. Not to be outdone Gargano would toss the former 3MBer into the first row and dive over the barricade onto him. After a lengthy brawl around the arena the pair returned to the ring and Galloway ate a Gargano spear. He fired back with an inverted concrete slam. Gargano responded with a lawn dart.

Moments later Gargano would manoeuvre the EVOLVE champ out to the floor and attempt a suicide dive. Galloway blocked it but failed to block the super kick that followed. Gargano got his suicide dive on the second attempt but wiped out the referee in the process.

Back in the ring Galloway scored with an exploder into the corner. His cover didn't get him a win because there was nobody to count the pin. The Open the Freedom Gate champion escaped a double arm DDT and floored Galloway with an enziguri as Page got up onto the apron to offer him some wrist tape. This was a call-back to Gargano choking out SHINGO at Open the Ultimate Gate 2013 (the first ever DG USA show I reviewed, fact fans), an act which signalled a heel turn at the time. Gargano accepted the tape but, after a brief pause, threw it out of the ring. I thought this really added a lot to the match. It made it clear that Gargano is back to being an honourable lad and sowed about Page.

Gargano turned around into a double arm DDT from Galloway. A second referee ran to the ring to count the fall but Gargano kicked out. The second ref didn't last: he'd fall victim to a misplaced sick kick seconds later. Galloway got caught in the Gargano Escape. He countered into pin for two then took a super kick. Gargano tried to skin the cat but got caught by the EVOLVE champion, who went for a Tombstone piledriver. Gargano reversed into a Gargano Escape. Galloway muscled his way back to his feet and got the Tombstone.

Gargano kicked out but was clearly worn out. Galloway hoisted him onto his shoulders and clambered to the top rope, leaping off for an Emerald Flowsion but finding it reversed into a DDT in mid-air. 'The Whole Shebang' staggered to his feet and super kicked a kneeling Galloway twice. Galloway staggered to his feet and absorbed two more before falling to his feet. Gargano went for a fifth but Galloway sidestepped it and hit him with two double arm DDTs.

Gargano kicked out to a great crowd response then spat in Galloway's face. That caused Galloway to snap. He grabbed Gargano, yanked him to his feet, and drilled him with a jumping tombstone piledriver for the victory.

I thought it was a very good match. There were elements of the Attitude Era to it with the extended crowd fight and the bevy of finishing moves (and the kick outs from them) but used sparingly I think that match can be very effective. It helped to make the match feel more like the big fight it was meant to be. I don't think Gargano and Galloway could have had a better match. It's a shame they didn't get to close the show and the weekend (for the WWN).

After both men had lain about making it clear they were exhausted from their match Galloway took the microphone to cut a promo. He declared that 'Mania 26, where he wrestled in a Money in the Bank ladder match, wasn't his WrestleMania moment, this match was. He put over Gargano and pandered to the fans by saying the ring belonged to everyone. He asked for and received a handshake from the former champion, passed him the microphone, and left. All Gargano managed to say was "thank you" before Ethan Page lamped him and gave him a good stomping. 'All Ego' revealed that he was taking his cue from Ronin, going after Gargano's spot and ending his WWN career.

The turn was an interesting twist which I hadn't expected. They'd been laying the respect on so heavily that I'd expected Page to officially join Ronin and perhaps go after the tag titles with Gargano. This was probably a better option. It introduces a much needed fresh rivalry to EVOLVE.

Tasked with the tough job of following that was a four-way match featuring TJ Perkins, Drew Gulak, Tommy End and Biff Busick. After overcoming some initial awkwardness they got into a good groove. The match didn't dazzle but it had its moments. I particularly liked the sequence where TJP trapped End in a deathlock and fought off Busick and Gulak with abdominal stretches and a northern lights suplex. Perkins got a flash win with the cross armbreaker on Gulak.

PJ Black versus AR Fox was good, though not as good as I'd expected. It was heavy on spots but they weren't quite flashy or bountiful enough to help the match live up to its heavy 'Darewolf' versus 'Daredevil' hype. Highlights included: Black avoiding an attack by moonsaulting from the apron to the floor; Black super kicking Fox in mid-air off a guardrail springboard; another Fox springboard being turned into a triangle choke; and a Death Valley driver from the top rope to the apron by Black, softening 'The Whole Foxin' Show' up for a springboard 450 splash.

The match likely would have benefited from being repositioned first or second on the card. Of course my lack of interest in Fox probably didn't help matters.

After some excessive plugging from some lad whose name I missed (he was the WWN "ambassador") we got Timothy Thatcher facing Chris Hero. The match took an age to begin as Hero spent what must have been a good three or four minutes milking duelling chants from the crowd in a storyline attempt to rattle Thatcher with his popularity. Thatcher simply stood stocky in the ring and looked unimpressed with the veteran's antics. It was good to see the crowd so hot so it made sense to make use of it.

Instead of going into a dynamic series of strikes and counter strikes they went with the Thatcher standard: mat wrestling and submission holds. This isn't a bad thing but it doesn't provide much variety and does run the risk of cooling audiences down. Thankfully that didn't happen here, although some fans did start singing, which may have been worse. I suspect a more unpredictable approach to the blending of styles would have been more warmly received. 

This match, more than any other I've seen him in, highlighted Thatcher's inability or unwillingness to change things up. He's very good at his style of match but doesn't seem interested in doing much else. Even against someone like Hero, who has plenty of experience and an ability to tap into plenty of different styles, we got the same sort of match we always get from Thatcher. This isn't the worst thing in the world as Thatcher's matches usually have something dynamic and engaging in them, especially in the closing stretches, but it would be nice if they weren't so predictable.

Hero blasted Thatcher with four rolling elbows (the last with the elbow pad removed) and left him limp on the mat. He went for a cover but Thatcher kicked out and slipped on a Fujiwara armbar for the tap out win. After the match Hero slapped Thatcher twice, getting one in return each time. This was a respect thing with no malice to it. They shook and Hero left Thatcher to bow to the crowd.

The main event was the much ballyhooed tag match pitting Uhaa Nation and Ricochet against Roderick Strong and Austin Aries, reuniting as Generation Next properly for the first time since 2011 in PWG (before that they hadn't been together since 2007 in the final match of their ROH run together). The match was notable for featuring representatives of ROH (Strong), TNA (Aries), Lucha Underground (Ricochet as Prince Puma) and soon-to-be WWE (Nation). It was quite the inter-promotional affair. The first half of the match was best described as serviceable, with nothing special happening and a safe pace being set.

Things picked up in the second half. Tags were surreptitiously abandoned and the four worked through some sick double team spots. Roddy and 'A Double' demonstrated that they coud, if given the opportunity, still be of benefit to a tag division. Strong won after avoiding a Ricochet Shooting Star Press before hitting him with a knee and an absolutely wild lumbar check. Ricochet managed a ridiculous number of rotations when he was thrown up to take the move.  

After the match Roddy took a mic and made some babyface comments about how Aries had made him the man and the wrestler he is. Then he swerve turned, cracking Aries and Uhaa with the microphone and grabbing the mic again to say that he'd destroyed Drew Galloway at EVOLVE 38 and was gunning for the newly won titles. Timothy Thatcher came out to run him off and end the show on a positive note by thanking the fans. On the subject of Roddy and the championships he said the road to them went through him.

Going back to the question I posed at the beginning of this review's second paragraph: yes, this show was good. The main event started off slowly but ended well, while Thatcher versus Hero and the title versus title match were good from start to finish and there were again no out-and-out bad matches on the card.

That said I don't think the show was the success that EVOLVE 39 was. On the reflection the first WWN offering of the weekend was the best. It was the most consistent and its big matchs were just as enjoyable as the big matches here. I think the level of spectacle was right for this Supershow but an injury and Black and Fox not clicking quite as well as might have been hoped hampered things just a bit.

Overall though it was a success. The Page turn on Gargano was set up well and should lead to interesting things over the next several shows. Galloway becoming a double champ was a mild surprise but deserved considering the passion and effort he's displayed in his time with the company so far. And the final turn from Roderick Strong reminded us that he's not meant to be likeable or trustworthy. He's been built up as a major challenge for Galloway. Now we get to sit back and watch Galloway overcome him.  

***

Results summary:
Ethan Page defeated Caleb Konley
Mia Yim, Kimber Lee and Cherry Bomb defeated Andrea, Nicole Matthews and Portia Perez
Drew Galloway defeated Johnny Gargano to retain the EVOLVE championship and win the Open the Freedom Gate championship
TJ Perkins defeated Biff Busick, Drew Gulak and Tommy End
PJ Black defeated AR Fox
Timothy Thatcher defeated Chris Hero
Generation Next defeated Uhaa Nation and Ricochet

Saturday, 28 March 2015

EVOLVE 40 review


EVOLVE's second WrestleMania weekend offering of 2015 started off strong with the non-title match between EVOLVE champion Drew Galloway and the allegedly departing Uhaa Nation. This was a far better choice for the opening slot than the technical mat exchange between Gulak and Thatcher at EVOLVE 39. It's not that that match was bad, it just wasn't the exciting hook an opener tends to be.

Galloway and Nation spent the early minutes slugging away at one another (because big lads) before leaving the ring. There we got an early highlight as Galloway sidestepped an Uhaa moonsault from the apron and gave him a tilt-a-whirl back onto the ring's edge. Back in the ring Galloway went all Randy Orton and worked over Nation with stomps and a sleeper before 'The One Man Nation' managed to fire back with some clotheslines, rolling German suplexes and a splash from the top rope.

Galloway kicked out of the cover that followed and scored with a power bomb, a German suplex into a turnbuckle and Roderick Strong's sick kick. Uhaa kicked out of all that and the two exchanged a few right hands before Galloway got dropped with a power bomb.

Like the previous evening's Galloway match this one ended with a surprise double arm DDT. Galloway went for it and got it seemingly at random and got the win with it. Clearly this was done to get the move over for Galloway's unification match against Johnny Gargano at Mercury Rising, a match he addressed after his victory. He waffled on a lot but basically his message was that he and Gargano would have a great match at Mercury Rising, which I'm sure they will. He's a passionate, shouty promo is Galloway. That helps when he's repeating the same message two nights in a row.

Match two saw Tommy End, with Chris Hero in his corner, take on Timothy Thatcher. Both men were popular with the crowd but they were easily more into Thatcher. The crowd went wild for him, presumably because he's announced as being from Sacramento, California. We're also assured he's English.

The match was all about Thatcher's mat wrestling being deployed against End's striking. Thatcher's had success early on but End's striking came into play in the match's second half. He smacked Thatcher with a kick to the temple, flooring him until the count of eight. From there a dazed Thatcher was dominated by End's strikes, although End found himself in the frustrating position of being unable to finish Thatcher off. He unleashed his impressive bicycle knee strike but it wasn't enough: Thatcher caught him in a Fujiwara armbar for the tap out victory.

After the match Hero entered the ring and bad mouthed Thatcher. Thatcher ignored him and walked backstage. Hero kicked the bottom rope in frustration then left to allow End to soak up some well-deserved cheers. This was another good showing from End.

Drew Gulak (with five unnamed seconds) versus TJ Perkins followed that. The mat-based 'Legal Eagle' against the nippy flyer could have been a disaster but it wasn't. They went out of their way to keep things fast and avoided sticking with submission holds for too long. TJP's submission abilities helped too, he clearly knows how to blend his flashier moves with hold into counter hold exchanges. Gulak won with the ankle lock after a series of reversals. Nothing occurred with the five nameless lads Gulak brought to ringside. They were just there to get over Gulak's new serious competitor gimmick.

Ethan Page v AR Fox was an exhilarating affair. It was the usual flash and sizzle from Fox (a stark contrast to his maddeningly bland character) and Page kept up fine, which was the most that could be asked of him in this situation. Fox survived a spinebuster onto the apron, a back breaker on the floor, a lifting reverse DDT, and a Tower of London onto the apron before coming back with a springboard Codebreaker, a Lo Mein Pain and a 450 splash to win.

After the match Page talked about how he'd let Johnny Gargano (the man who'd endorsed him) down by losing, which brought Gargano out to the ring. The Open the Freedom Gate champ gave Page a pep talk before bringing up the EVOLVE title v DG USA title match. Again he promised that he'd win that match and leave a double champion, though this time there was a greater emphasis on his history in the company and his contributions getting it to its current state. He offered more reasons as to why we should believe he needs to win the match with this promo than he had at EVOLVE 39.

The Chris Hero v Biff Busick grudge match followed that. Their issues first surfaced at EVOLVE 33, where Biff Busick had talked about his efforts in the 2014 style battle tournament and mentioned Chris Hero as someone the current generation of wrestlers wish to surpass. It was intended as a compliment, an acknowledgement of Hero's accomplishments within wrestling. But Hero took offense and an argument erupted. A few more followed with the final one coming the night before this at EVOLVE 39 where Busick vowed to choke Hero out with the stranglehold.

They had the stiff battle that was to be expected. Busick stayed true to his promise and spent most of the match attempting to apply his stranglehold finisher for long enough to choke Hero into unconsciousness. He applied the hold several times but never managed to submit or blackout Hero. That brought about a shift in approach and he started blasting the former King of Wrestling with suplexes. Hero weathered the storm and then smashed Busick with half a dozen elbows and a Tombstone piledriver for the victory. This match just outdid the main event to nab match of the night honours for me.

The card's lone tag match followed that. It saw the recently (and fairly half-heartedly) reunited Ronin team of Johnny Gargano and Rich Swann take on the new look Premier Athlete Brand of Brian Cage and Caleb Konley. I was again impressed by how good Cage is and felt that it was another strong showing from Konley, who has improved a great deal over the last year.

Gargano was good but not at his best, quite possibly because he was saving himself for his showdown with Scotland's own Drew Galloway the following evening. Considering how much that match has been built up it was an understandable move by the Open the Freedom Gate champ. That left Swann to deliver the thrills and spills. He accomplished this but injured himself in the process, necessitating the match being called to a finish early. Confusingly Konley tapped to the Gargano Escape before the referee announced that he'd ruled the match in the PAB's favour due to Swann's injury.

Had this run its intended course I imagine it would have ended up an inoffensive and fun, though ultimately forgettable, tag bout. But instead it will be most remembered for the peculiar ending. Though, on the bright side, that could be used as part of a Ronin v Premier Athletes story in the future.

The main event saw former WWE Superstar™ PJ Black take on Ricochet in a battle of the high-flyers. They set a breakdown speed and stuffed the match with spots and kept the psychology and lining sequences light (which was to be expected). The story of the early going was basically that Ricochet was a little better than Black, countering or immediately recovering from whatever Black threw at him. This included a great mid-air recovery off a monkey flip, a kip up immediately after a shoulder block, and a drop kick counter to a cross body.

This forced Black to up his game and he started getting an increasing amount of offence in on 'The Future of Flight'. It wasn't enough to get him a victory though. Following a surprisingly vicious exchange of strikes Ricochet got a two count off a top rope reverse hurricanrana then finally put Black down with a nasty power bomb and the 630 splash.

Unfortunate and unavoidable incident in the tag match aside this was another very good offering from the EVOLVE crew. Of the two cards presented this weekend I think this was the stronger. 39 took a little longer to get going with the three more technical matches kicking things off. 40 started with a rowdy bout that drew you in and kept improving right up until the tag match hit (and, again, at least part of the reason that match disappointed was beyond anyone's control). Ricochet versus Black was a superior main event. Black showed he could have been an asset to WWE and Ricochet again proved he deserves all the success he's had.

***

Results summary:
Drew Galloway defeated Uhaa Nation
Timothy Thatcher defeated Tommy End
Drew Gulak defeated TJ Perkins
AR Fox defeated Ethan Page
Chris Hero defeated Biff Busick
The Premier Athlete Brand defeated Johnny Gargano and Rich Swann via referee stoppage
Ricochet defeated PJ Black

Friday, 27 March 2015

EVOLVE 39 review


EVOLVE 39 had the task of kicking off the WWN's schedule of WrestleMania Weekend shows. That's not an easy spot. The group of promotions push the boat out for 'Mania weekend every year and 2015 has been no exception. EVOLVE 40 will boast PJ Black v Ricochet, Ronin v the Premier Athlete Brand and Hero v Busick while Saturday's Mercury Rising event (dubbed a supershow, so you know it's serious) will feature Galloway v Gargano, the reunion of Generation Next, and Hero v Thatcher. There was also external competition with Ring of Honor's Supercard of Honor IX.

It would have been easy to assume that EVOLVE 39 offered little, the bigger, better matches being held off for the cards later in the week. Happily this wasn't the case. The promotion's thirty-ninth show was an enjoyable experience with a solid list of match-ups on offer.

The show kicked off with Timothy Thatcher versus Drew Gulak, with Gulak talking about how he, Thatcher and Busick want to reinvigorate real wrestling before the match. That's something that he did at EVOLVE 38 and I imagien it's going to go somewhere soon, possily later this weekend. I enjoy these sorts of matches but they're tough to transcribe because so much of them is exchanges of amateur style holds which I can't name. That's why I generally skip to the finish of them, as I'll do here. Gulak won a tidy opener with a crucifix roll-up after a brisk exchange of submission hold attempts.

The debuting Tommy End was out next for his match opposite Biff Busick. He's a striker with a penchant for kicks. It was a much faster match than the opener and would have been better in that spot (though I understand the decision to kick off with two known quantities). End got the advantage early on and gave Busick a battering until he got walloped with an uppercut and a half Nelson suplex. End fired back with a bicycle kick but got put down with a lariat.

Back on their feet End put Busick down with an impressive bicycle knee strike. Busick rolled out of the way of the attempted top rope double stomp and returned to his feet to be struck with more kicks. After plenty more striking Busick rolled End down to the mat with his headlock takeover and applied the half stranglehold. End passed out and Busick won.

After the match Busick took a microphone and said he'd choked out Chris Hero's endorsement then promised to do the same to Hero at EVOLVE 40. This earned Busick a smattering of boos before he took a leaf from Hero's book and wandered off through the crowd. End was given a deserved round of applause as he headed to the back. It was a good match from him. He's definitely someone worth bringing back.

Match three pitted Chris Hero against Ethan Page. It was a fun match, featuring the usual Chris Hero blend of strikes and aggressive veteran tendencies. Page mixed in some humour towards the start for good measure. Neither man had the advantage for too long, which helped Page to look competitive against the far more established 'Knockout Artist'. Hero got the win with a rolling elbow.

After the match Hero took a microphone and talked about guys using his name (which was the starting point for his rivalry with Biff Busick). He said he wasn't scared of Busick or his choke hold. Busick returned to the ring and told Hero he'd choke him out at EVOLVE 40 then offered Hero a free shot to "prove" the elbow wasn't powerful enough to knock him out. Hero teased it before saying no because he was looking forward to beating Busick and he wouldn't be able to if he concussed him before their match. Hero went to leave but Busick pulled him back in. They had a tussle where Hero found his elbow reversed into the stranglehold, forcing him to slip out of the ring and retreat. As a segment to refresh everyone on the Hero-Busick issues this was good.

Match number four was the six man tag team match. The new-look Premier Athlete Brand of Caleb Konley (still half of the Open the United Gate champions, in case you'd forgotten), Brian Cage and TJ Perkins took on Rich Swann, Ricochet and Uhaa Nation. The PAB had So Cal Val and a stereotypical Amazonian bodyguard Andrea with them. Swann did his usual blow-up-the-crowd-so-they're-less-responsive-for-the-match routine, but it's over so that's acceptable apparently.

I'd expected the match to be a series of high spots. It was more than that. There was comedy early on (mostly dancing-based) and plenty of very fluid wrestling linking everything together. That said the six lads didn't disappoint on the high spots. Highlights included: a cruiserweight exchange between muscle boys Cage and Uhaa (including a 619 from Cage); duelling power spots between Uhaa and Cage, using their smaller opponents for delayed press slams and stalling suplexes; a sequence in which Ricochet wiped out both Konley and Perkins before being bounced to the mat by Cage; Nation catching Konley on a springboard dive and turning it into a Samoan drop; a great Gory special into the O Face by Konley to Swann; a trio of dives from the ring to the outside by Swann, Nation and Ricochet; a solo twirling tope by Ricochet to Cage; and the match winning sequence of a Swann 450 and an Uhaa Combination on Konley.

The match was very good. I'd expected it to be with Nation, Ricochet, Swann, Perkins and the underrated Konley involved. I hadn't expected much from Cage because he looks like a generic muscle guy but he proved to be very agile and solid on crowd interaction. If he improves his timing he could go somewhere.

Uhaa and Swann danced after the match before Andrea low blowed them both and Cage and Konley gave them a beating (including an always popular title belt shot from Konley). Because heels, am I right? TJP didn't join in with the attack and got a telling off from Val. His response was to walk out. The Brand left in a huff.

The penultimate match of the card was for the Open the Freedom Gate championship, Johnny Gargano defending against AR Fox. Gargano had Ethan Page with him at ringside, because Sapolsky adores the concept of young guys paying their dues as the understudies of established stars. After a nippy feeling out exchange the two progressed to the bigger stuff when Fox bicycle kicked the champ and they headed outside for the prerequisite ringside excursion.

Gargano took control when they returned to the ring. Fox turned the tide after a few minutes with a missile drop kick and a bicycle kick. The action spilled outside the ring again as Fox tried to hit topes. Gargano countered each attempt before hitting a senton from the apron. The slingshot DDT scored him a two count on the challenger.

Gargano tried the Hurts Donut but 'The Whole Foxin' Show' countered into a roll-up before leaping to the top rope to hit a Swanton bomb. When Gargano kicked out Fox attempted a 450 splash. Gargano moved so Fox landed on his feet. Because athleticism. Gargano hit a double stomp to the back of the head and a power bomb for two. After an exchange of elbows the two ran through super kicks, enziguris and other related strikes, the champion getting the last word when he put Fox down with a discuss clothesline.

Fox tried leg dropping Gargano on the apron. Gargano moved and hit Fox with a suicide dive which, in a scarily unplanned moment, sent the pair sprawling into the audience. Luckily everyone seemed to be fine. Fox countered a spear with a kick to the head, following up with a Canadian Destroyer for two. A Low Mein Pain attempt was broken by a shove, with 'The Whole Shebang' immediately hitting a buckle bomb and the lawn dart for a two count. Moments later Fox managed to get him with the LMP and a 450.

Gargano kicked out. After more super and yakuza kicks Gargano got a Hurts Donut on Fox from the top rope. The challenger kicked out of that but immediately found himself trapped in the Gargano Escape, tapping out to end a great match.

At that point Lacey made a surprise appearance to ask Gargano about his (potential, at this point) unification match at Mercury Rising. 'The Whole Shebang' promised he'd be the man to win both belts. Well, he would say that wouldn't he?

The main event was a match you would at one point have had to tune into Superstars to see: PJ Black v Drew Galloway for the EVOLVE championship. That this is something that can be said (that they were little more than job guys in WWE) was likely a deciding factor in making the match in the first place. I imagine it's also something that motivated both men. It was a chance for them to show exactly what WWE missed out on by not giving them more opportunities to just get in a ring and wrestle on TV.

They easily surpassed the standards set by the quality of Superstars matches. They told the story of Galloway's power against Black's speed as Lenny Leonard did a great job of talking up their shared history. Which, incidentally, isn't limited to WWE. They first met at an FWA training school in London in 2001. It was very likely the one advertised on the old TalkSport show which Alex Shane made a massive thing of pushing (understandably). Black survived big boots, power bombs and ringside brawling before falling victim to Galloway's double underhook DDT.

Lacey returned to the ring to discuss the title versus title match on Saturday. Galloway initially no-sold that to thank PJ Black for the match and put over the importance of WrestleMania Weekend, ultimately deciding to rename it Wrestle Week (yeah, that'll catch on). Much like DGUSA title holder Gargano, Galloway promised he'd be the one holding both titles at the end of Mercury Rising. Unlike Gargano he offered a little more than a mere promise as reasoning, stating that he didn't want his eight months of hard work establishing himself as a hard-working, talented wrestler to go to waste with a loss on such an important show.

Gargano rolled back out at that point, telling the EVOLVE champion that he'd been in the WWN for a lot longer than eight months and that he'd slogged to make the brand mean something. Galloway told Gargano that he was hungrier because he hadn't had the opportunity to do what he loved while in WWE and told the Gargano to leave the ring. They had a spirited verbal back-and-forth before things got physical and Ethan Page and Rich Swann left the locker room to break things up. All EVOLVE shows end with a promo of some description but this was one of the better ones. They did a great job of establishing the importance of the Mercury Rising unification bout. Definitely one to look forward to.

EVOLVE 39 was both a good show in its own right and a strong start to several days of wrestling from the WWN. There wasn't a single bad match all night and the final three offerings are all definitely recommended watches. Wrestle Week is off to a strong start!  

***

Results summary:
Drew Gulak defeated Timothy Thatcher
Biff Busick defeated Tommy End
Chris Hero defeated Ethan Page
Ricochet, Rich Swann and Uhaa Nation defeated The Premier Athlete Brand
Johnny Gargano defeated AR Fox to retain the Open the Freedom Gate championship
Drew Galloway defeated PJ Black to retain the EVOLVE championship

Thursday, 26 March 2015

NXT 25.03.15 review

Saving a significant match for this week's episode of NXT was a clever move on WWE's part. It allowed them to get the WrestleMania weekend festivities off to an impactful, memorable start. Not that WWE are concerned with the unaffiliated shows that will take place over the next few days, of course. If they had their way those wouldn't be happening and we'd all now be looking forward to a SmackDown heavy on Axxess coverage and Saturday night's Hal of Fame ceremony.

The significant match that this week's NXT revolved around was Finn Bálor versus Kevin Owens. It was notable for a couple of reasons. Probably the biggest is the fact that it was a first time ever match. That wasn't a lie concocted by WWE or an overly accurate statement playing on name changes, the two men really hadn't ever faced one another. As genuine international stars away from NXT this first meeting was a big deal.

Secondly, the match was for the NXT championship. Despite supposedly being a title for developmental talents (i.e. not full-fledged WWE Superstars™) the NXT championship has become one of the most meaningful prizes in wrestling. It's treated with importance by the wrestlers. It's presented as important by the writing team. As such it's seen as important by fans and that ensures that it means something when it's defended. This being Owens' first defence only added to that.

Finally, there was a secondary match for the NXT women's championship. Like the men's title, the women's championship has been portrayed as something important and desirable by and to the women who compete on the show. After a lengthy journey to winning the title (it lasted over a year, for the record) Sasha Banks has been positioned as a fighting champion poised to dominate the division. It made sense for her second defence (the first was a one-on-one rematch with former champ Charlotte) to take second billing on such an important episode.

Bliss and Banks opened the show. The challenger started off with a series of flash pin attempts, trying to win early or wear the champion out trying. Banks put a stop to that by kicking Bliss as she flipped herself into the air using the corner ropes, following up with a mocking curtsey and the rope hung double stomp before applying her straightjacket surfboard.

Bliss bridged out of that and got another flash pin but Banks kicked out and quickly rammed her foe into a turnbuckle. Bliss surprised Banks with a headscissors and then sidestepped a charge, sending Banks tumbling out of the ring. Banks took an eight count before she was thrown back into the ring to be walloped with a slap by the challenger.

One mistake and Banks is still the champ.
Bliss dropped Banks with a string of clotheslines and hit a Glitz Flip (a knees-first standing moonsault which I'm convinced must have started out as a botch). Sasha kicked out and was immediately dropped again, this time with a sunset bomb. She escaped as the crowd began chanting for Bliss, who was climbing up to the top rope. That would be her undoing: the champion yanked her down to the mat and applied the Bank Statement for a submission victory.

The match could easily have been a throwaway affair with Bliss being sacrificed to make emphasise how dominant Banks is. By allowing her to control the pace of the match Bliss was elevated even though she lost. Banks also benefited, being portrayed as a woman savvy enough to capitalise on her opponent' sole mistake. It was another good women's championship match.

After that things went backstage for a while. We got a short Kevin Owens interview, of the sort he's been so good at for a long time. He mentioned being motivated by his family, getting over his character, acknowledged the reputation both he and Bálor have outside of WWE, getting Bálor over as a bigger threat to him than someone like Alex Riley and telling newcomers they were seeing a special match, and dropped in a disparaging remark about Bálor's face paint demon gimmick, introducing a reason for Bálor to not paint himself up for the match (needed because this was a recorded episode, not a live special, meaning there wasn't the time for Bálor to get dolled up). Then a video played recapping the debut of Owens, his short road to the title, and Bálor's victory in the number one contender tournament. It was a nice piece of work.

That was followed by an exchange between Emma and Bayley. Emma again tried to turn Bayley to her way of thinking, telling her a lack of aggression had caused her to lose to Becky Lynch and that the crowd won't get her where she wants to be. It's a clever use of Emma's return to NXT after a failed run on the main roster. Which is WWE's own fault for introducing her in such a haphazard fashion but it's nice to see them at least using it for what looks like a promising story here.

The segment ended with Bayley telling Emma that she was wrong about the fans and getting slapped to the ground for doing so. It'll be nice to see to women feuding over something that isn't the women's championship. It makes the division feel deeper.

A brief interview between Devin Taylor and Tyler Breeze was interrupted by Hideo Itami, who laid out the challenge for a two-out-of-three falls match on the next show. Breeze did a good job of looking like a guy who's intimidated and trying not to show it. Then we were shown a Finn Bálor video, highlights of his six months in WWE so far with him discussing his previous accomplishments, the face paint, and his desire to win the NXT championship over the top. It was more good work that placed importance on Bálor, Owens and the title.

The backstage action wound up with Blake and Murphy apologising to Carmella for nearly hurting her the week before. They'd bought her a necklace with their championship bonus. Yeah, a championship bonus. That's a minor but nonetheless great touch. It shows that there's an incentive beyond honour and respect (which, let's be honest, could be construed as hollow words) for wrestlers to become champions. Carmella seemed impressed with the necklace and bickered about it with Enzo and Cass, who were convinced it was cheap tat from the mall.

Owens love him some power bombs.
Owens v Bálor was a twenty-five minute belter. It started slowly with Owens wandering around ringside and the pair exchanging "wear down" holds before gradually building to a faster pace, the two trading bigger moves and kick outs. Bálor escaped Owens' apron bomb but got dropped with a crucifix bomb (because Owens is big on power bomb variants). He kicked out of a belly-to-belly suplex before back dropping the champion out of the ring and hitting him with a tope. After being rolled back into the ring Owens took a double stomp to the back of the neck. He kicked out, naturally.

Owens reversed an inverted Bloody Sunday but didn't avoid a Pele kick. Bálor followed up with chops, a sling blade and a lariat before going for the inverse Bloody Sunday again. This time he got it... but Owens kicked out. Bálor went for the corner drop kick which sets up his double stomp finish but Owens moved and immediately targeted the obviously tweaked knee of Bálor, wrapping it around the ring post, stomping it, and even dropping onto it with a senton.

Owens in pain there because he's smacking a title belt into his own head.
Bálor managed to escape a power bomb attempt and gave Owens a double stomp. Owens kicked out and stumbled into the corner. Bálor followed him, obviously intending to try a big, match-ending move, but Owens grabbed him and leapt off the second rope with a fisherman buster. Bálor kicked out, surprising the audience, and managed to slip in a kick to the head of Owens. But Owens was un-phased. He gave the challenger's leg a vicious kick before charging into the corner with a pair of cannonballs, the second on Bálor's bad leg draped on the bottom rope. 'The Real Rock 'n' Roller' avoided a third, managed to get in a charging drop kick and the top rope double stomp... but his leg was too injured for him to go for a cover. By the time he was back on his feet Owens had recovered enough to blast him with a pop-up power bomb to end the match and keep his championship. 

The match couldn't have been better. Bálor was kept strong in defeat with the implication that he had the match and the belt won with his double stomp but Owens wasn't cheapened by cheatign to retain. His victory was fully earned: he'd targeted Bálor's tweaked knee and weakened it enough for it to pay off in the match's closing moments. There's an argument for Bálor having to earn another title match and an argument for him being deserving of another straight away. It'll be interesting to see how the situation plays out as NXT continues its dominance as WWE's most well-booked programme.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

The Re-Signing Heard Around the World

"I was born to be an entertainer" - Brock Lesnar

Yesterday evening Brock Lesnar revealed during an interview with Michelle Beadle on ESPN that he had re-signed a fresh WWE contract. This happened sometime on Monday while he was in LA for RAW and the WWE champion confirmed that the decision officially draws his MMA career to a close. He will presumably continue to work a similarly light schedule and has confirmed that the new agreement will see him with the company for a number of years.

A man done with MMA.
This is, obviously good news for WWE. They've retained the services of a significant ratings force and the outcome of the WrestleMania 31 main event is now about as far from obvious as it can get. With Lesnar staying put there's every chance he'll retain the world championship against Roman Reigns on Sunday.

The news does raise questions about the closing moments of the Monday 23 RAW though. The show went off the air with Lesnar and Reigns playing tug-o'-war with the championship belt, looking like a pair toddlers squabbling in the playground as they did so. It was an unimpressive finish that will remain memorable for all the wrong reasons. As Lesnar had almost inked his new deal by this point you have to wonder why this was what closed one of the most important RAWs of the year. The suggestion that WWE didn't want to commit to making one man looking overly strong in case he left doesn't cut it with this news.

But that's by the by. With the re-signing WWE has been given an opportunity to do something spcial with Brock Lesnar. They can make him the most dominant world heavyweight champion the company's ever seen.

This doesn't have to mean he's the longest reigning or has the most defences. Neither of those things would hurt but they're unlikely. Bruno Sammartino's eight year run seems insurmountable in the modern era and Lesnar's light as a feather schedule means it would take him decades to rack up as many televised defences as other champions. The way WWE should make him dominant is by having him beat anyone and everyone of note. Pick a successor (Danie Bryan, for example) and keep him away from 'The Beast' until the build-up to the title change is going to begin.

In the meantime have Lesnar go over everyone. A page could be taken from the more real-sports approach taken by New Japan and Ring of Honor with a story being told across Lesnar's reign. In ROH it's been common in the past (less so in recent years) for world champions to become worn down over time until when they finally drop the belt they're completely knackered (something which works so well because it's usually true). The inverse of that should be true for Lesnar. He should get stronger as time goes on, wrestling shorter matches and winning them more decisively.

Would this make the roster look weak? No, not necessarily. They'd still be having competitive matches amongst themselves and could be booked as strong as was liked going into their title challenges against 'The Pain'. The idea would be to emphasise how Lesnar's on top of his game and is at the peak of professional wrestling ability, not to make people look weak for the sake of it. If someone's been built up as a juggernaut it doesn't make people look weak to lose to them. It simply affirms that juggernaut status.

Of course this approach would make Lesnar a popular guy. But that's nothing new. He's more popular than supposed hot young babyface Roman Reigns as we trundle into WrestleMania 31. This is because people know they're not getting an act with Lesnar, he essentially plays himself on-screen. That believability makes him relatable on a roster of childish, wafer-thin gimmicks and overly rehearsed acts. In fact believability itself gives Lesnar an appeal. Lack of it is what's giving Reigns problems: people know his lines are scripted and they don't like it. For a company happy to say they're giving us the Reality Era WWE really don't seem to understand what reality on a modern wrestling show needs to be.

The alternative is to have Reigns or Rollins take the title from Lesnar. Either of them would benefit from that victory, but they or someone else could benefit more if accolades and victories continued being heaped on 'The One' for another year or more. The longer Lesnar's reign lasts the more it's going to mean when the time finally comes for it to end.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

WWE WrestleMania 31 preview


Here we are again. Another WestleMania. The culmination of a year's worth of storylines being drawn to a close and produced with all the flash and sizzle WWE can muster. It will be the biggest and most financially successful wrestling event of the year for the world's most financially successful wrestling company. We know this. WrestleMania is firmly established as the one show where WWE pulls out all the stops, the one show it's guaranteed to make a spectacle.

So why doesn't it feel as special as it has in previous years? There's no definitive answer but the feeling is there. This year's entry in the 'Mania series feels like it's destined to become just another show before it's even taken place. Personally I think there are several reasons for this. The obvious place to start listing them is at the top, which means mentioning Roman Reigns. Which is unfair. Because I really don't think Reigns has been as bad as he could have been since his shove into the upper echelons came about at this year's Royal Rumble.

Okay, so his promos could have been better, he's been protected with clever booking, and he was pitted against Daniel Bryan at Fast Lane in an incredibly transparent effort to both curry favour with a certain fan demographic and show everyone that Reigns is better than Bryan. The only thing he had any real control over from that list is his effort in promos. He's far from great but he's improved since this time last year, and let's not forget that he is ultimately reading words given to him by someone else rather than expressing his own feelings and opinions. That he's been afforded good booking and got to beat Bryan is entirely out of his control but it's not like he should have turned either down. Who in their right mind would ask their employer to expose their weaknesses and refuse a lengthy pay-per-view match with one of wrestling's best workers?

Reigns being in the main event is a problem mostly because he's not Daniel Bryan. Practically everyone, including me, wanted to see Bryan versus Lesnar for the WWE championship. With a move back to the UFC looking likely for Lesnar that match doesn't seem as though it's meant to be. Reigns versus Lesnar is not a substitute for that match because Reigns is not the wrester Bryan is. But this isn't to say the match is guaranteed to be bad. It's not. In fact it's more likely to be good. Lesnar's no slouch when it comes to delivering gripping matches, Reigns is perfectly capable even though he's not the standout many wish he were, and it's going to headline the biggest show of the year. There's no way everyone involved won't do everything they can to make it the best match possible.

What's good about Reigns' participation in the main event (it's not all bad) is that he's someone new. WWE has been in need of fresh singles acts at the top of the card for years and they've been incredibly slack about building some up. Before they were coerced into doing something with Bryan last year the last guy they'd given the hallowed Big Push to was CM Punk in 2011. Before that it was Jeff Hardy in 2008 (and let's not forget that he was so appreciative that he's been slumming it in TNA since early 2010). Reigns is a much needed shot in the arm and indicates that WWE are finally set on filling their many gaps.

Probably the second biggest issue I have with WrestleMania 31 is the use of Daniel Bryan. That may initially sound like a direct contradiction to what I've just said but it's not. I'm not arguing that Bryan should be in the main event. He was there last year and had his moment. It would have been nice to see him face Lesnar but it wasn't the only thing that could have been done with him. There are other shows he can headline and the world title will still be there for him to win once 'Mania's done and dusted. In fact Bryan versus Reigns would be a very nice main event for this year's SummerSlam. Bryan not being the man to face Lesnar here isn't the issue. The issue is what he's been given to do instead.

Having Daniel Bryan be one of the men to challenge Bad News Barrett for the Intercontinental championship sends the message that he's not important. Whether he's liked by management or not this isn't a message they should be getting behind. D-Bry has been chosen by the people as a top guy, and at a time when top guys are light on the ground the company should not be choosey about who's in the main event. The man's popularity has already taken knocks this year, most obviously when he was eliminated early from the Royal Rumble and when he failed to defeat Reigns a month later at Fast Lane. This sort of counterproductive booking may keep Bryan "in his place" (not that Bryan seems like the kind who has an ego about how he's used) but it deprives people of something they clearly want: Daniel Bryan having a key role on WWE television. All this does is deincentivise viewers from watching the product and becoming emotionally invested.

The only thing worse than having Bryan in the ladder match would be having him win it. That would send the message that he was out of his league competing for the world title and that he's much happier larking about with the likes of Barrett and R-Truth over a second rate strap. Think Bryan holding the IC strap would add credibility to it? Think again. No matter how good a wrestler and how over Bryan may be the Intercontinental championship is a tarnished item. It will take more than slinging it on 'The People's Elixir' to make it mean anything. This would be an attempt at a quick fix when extended effort is what's required.

The lack of a Streak match is also bothering me. The Streak was something that was easy to invest in and helped make WrestleMania feel like a major event. I won't argue that Brock Lesnar wasn't a good choice to end it but it does feel odd that Undertaker is carrying on after he's suffered a loss on 'The Grandest Stage of Them All'. For the last several years 'The Dead Man' has been portrayed as being motivated by his annual defence of The Streak. Can Bray Wyatt becoming one of the many men to steal his urn really compare to the defence of a two decade long winning streak? In my mind no, it can't. I don't think the match will be bad, in fact I'm rather looking forward to it, but part of 'Taker's lustre has definitely gone along with his undefeated record.

The final thing on the list is the Triple H v Sting match. While I've never been the biggest fan of 'The Game' I have come to appreciate him more over the past few years as he's transitioned into his new role as an evil authority figure and part time wrestler. He's not the super-reliable hand he believes himself to be but he's more enjoyable than he was during his full time career. Meanwhile Sting does nothing for me. He didn't engage me during the final couple of years of WCW and he's been worse in TNA (although it wouldn't be unfair to claim that most things are worse in TNA). They're just two guys I have no real connection to and so I can't get excited for their match.

The requisite number of big names have been lined up for the show. The crowning moment for the new chosen one has been adequately set up. But there's been no flair to anything in the lead-in to this year's 'Showcase of the Immortals'. It almost feels like WWE are resting on their laurels a little. And it definitely feels as though they're not fully in tune with what their audience wants in 2015. WrestleMania should always feel like the company's crowning glory, a show dripping in relevance and it just doesn't this year. The substance is there but the style is missing.

The rest of the card is unremarkable. The main match not yet mentioned is Rusev versus Cena. Their match at Fast Lane was (slightly) better than I'd expected but that they had that match in the first place harms the appeal of this one. Cena v Rusev felt like a match that should have been saved for WrestleMania. I understand that by moving it forward to Fast lane 'The Super Athlete' was set up as the unstoppable machine and Cena as the underdog, which is sound logic for a rematch. But that's also made it look pretty clear who's going to win. While I'd love to see Cena fall to Rusev again, because he can afford to and it would do Rusev so much good, I just can't see it happening. Everything about the scenario points to Cena avenging his Fast Lane loss, building for the future be damned.

In defence of the Rusev v Cena rematch it has provided us with one of the most entertaining segments from this year's Road to WrestleMania; the contract signing segment from the March 16 RAW. Okay, it was mostly good because of how incredibly bad the guy playing Rusev's lawyer was but that was at least something. By contrast the build to Randy Orton and Seth Rollins' match has been abysmal. 'The Viper' returned, out of the blue, at Fast Lane and ran The Authority off from the ring. The next night he rejoined them. Then he spent a few weeks pretending he was allied with them while at the same time costing Rollins meaningless television matches before eventually revealing that he wasn't really back with The Authority at all and Sting showed up to help him ward the heels off.

It's been a series of underwhelming events. What's so frustrating is that at the beginning of the year Rollins v Orton felt like one of the easiest matches in the world to set up. Orton had become jealous of the young chosen one and allowed that anger to boil over into physicality. Forced to take sides, Authority bosses Triple H and Stephanie McMahon had gone with 'The Future', essentially showing Orty that he'd been right to worry. A vicious beatdown saw Orton written off TV, at a point when he was more interesting as a performer than he had been in years, and Rollins went on to headline pay-per-views and challenge for the WWE title in his absence.

All WWE needed to do was have Orton make a dramatic comeback in which he almost but not quite got his hands on Rollins then have him get closer each week as WrestleMania edged nearer. It would have been simple to do, would have gotten over the cowardly aspect of Rollins character, and would have made use of the large entourage, casting them as perfect RKO-fodder. By the time they arrived at WrestleMania people would have been desperate to see Rollins finally take his beating.

As things stand the two can still have a good match. Rollins is one of the best in the company. Provided he's in a mood to try so is Orton. The potential is there for a great finishing spot that sees Orton nip to his feet and blast Rollins with an RKO as he goes for the Phoenix splash. There's a chance Rollins will win the match because he's been kept pretty strong by the writing team but I'm leaning more towards an Orton win. Not only does that add one more to the good guy tally on the company's top show but it also gives Orton a victory over a man with the Money in the Bank briefcase. Should Rollins cash-in, which is not impossible, Orton would be established as an immediate challenger.

Finally there are the designated filler matches: the tag title match, the Andre battle royal and the token Divas match. The tag title match will see Cesaro and Tyson Kidd defend against the Usos, Los Matadores, and The New Day. It will take place on the pre-show, as is now apparently traditional for the doubles hardware. Although they're technically the only heels in the match I suspect the Brass Ring lads will be the most popular duo with the live crowd, which would make a successful defence logical (always good to start a show with a crowd-pleasing result). This match will almost certainly get enough time to be an enjoyable experience. Considering the rest of the show it could even end up as the match of the night.

The Divas match will break from tradition by not being for the championship. Instead champion Nikki Bella will team with her sister Brie to face AJ Lee and Paige. The lead-up to this match has arguably been some of the best work the writing team have done over the last month, which is more a reflection on how poor the standard of writing is than anything else. Instead of drawing on the history between AJ and Paige (Paige debuted the night after last year's 'Mania and defeated AJ in her debut match) the feud has centred around the Bellas being stereotypical mean girls and Lee and Paige becoming bessie mates to teach them a lesson. It's been lazy and only seems like a good idea for a match when you consider that they're the four most heavily featured women in WWE and they've been involved with one another in a variety of forms for months. AJ and Paige will probably win with one of them pinning Nikki to create a reason for a championship match.

The only thing I really have to say about the battle royal is that I'm surprised to see it back. When last year's was described as the "first annual" Andre memorial battle royal I took it to mean that it would be the first and last, because that's generally how things work in WWE. It's nice to be wrong on this. The match could really go to anybody because there's not actually anything on the line. That said it is a nice opportunity to start a push and it would be nice to think this will be capitalised on by those in charge. Looking at the list of entrants Ryback, Miz and Midow seem the most likely people to win. Mizdow could eliminate Miz early and win for a well-deserved WrestleMania Moment™. 'The Awesome One' could eliminate Mizdow via shady tactics at the last second, cruelly snatching a win away from him. Ryback's Ryback. He seems over with the right people and he's been protected recently. I'm going to go with Mizdow winning. Whatever happens I expect the next pay-per-view will see a Miz versus Mizdow singles match.

The only other guy I'd consider as a battle royal winner is Sheamus. We've been (cruelly) teased about his comeback for a month or two now. It would make all the sense in the world for him to return and win the battle royal. But I think it's likelier he'll be a surprise addition to the Intercontinental championship ladder match. His chances of winning that seem depressingly good. Rumours persist that we're in store for yet another Sheamus v Bryan series (they're good together but I don't like their seemingly annual rivalries) and it's all too easy to see the starting point being Shaymo yanking D-Bry off a ladder and grabbing the gold for himself. I'd be happy with Ziggler or Barrett leaving as the champion, because they're the guys I think a strong mid-card should revolve around, or Ambrose, because I think he could convince people the title means something to him, but Sheamus seems likelier.

All of which brings me back around to three of the event's top matches. Wyatt versus Undertaker, despite not being for The Streak should be good as long as 'The Phenom' can avoid a repeat of last year's early concussion. The ring entrances alone should be something special. I'm fairly confident Undertaker will go over. A victory would help to revitalise him for next year's WrestleMania, which will seemingly host his retirement. He'll look stronger coming off a win than coming off a loss.

Although there's also something in the idea of 'The Eater of Worlds' winning. That would put Undertaker in the position of having lost two matches back-to-back going into his final appearance, which would in turn allow WWE to play the "Can he still get it done?" card for the retirement match. If that's against Cena (as there's a strong chance it will be) it could be a very good story, Undertaker desperate to win and prove that he still has the old magic before he takes his final bow and Cena wanting to prove he could have taken The Streak had he had the chance. But having protagonists show weakness is not something this company does well or often.

I've little more to offer on the subject of Sting versus Triple H. Sting should enter to his WCW music. He won't. The bout should last less than six minutes. It won't. Sting should dominate Triple H before Triple H cheats to gain an unfair advantage, leading to a mighty Sting comeback a few minutes later, culminating with a Scorpion Death Drop for the win. This... might happen. But it probably won't. I am at least confident 'The Vigilante' will win, because that's the logical conclusion to the story they seem to be trying to tell. The longer this match goes the less interested I'll be.

Finally there's the main event. The thing that would sway my prediction is something I can't know until after the fact: whether or not Brock Lesnar has signed a deal to stay in wrestling. I think if he opts to stay Vince and co will be more than happy to keep the title strapped around his waist, possibly all the way until WrestleMania 32. That would give 'The Pain' another year of dominance before dropping the title. Daniel Bryan's popularity could finally be embraced and he could win the 2016 Rumble before dethroning Lesnar in a modern day dream match. Or the loss this year could send Reigns over the edge, turning him into a madman who feels he's had his birthright stolen from him and setting him on a path of destruction that sees him go over everybody before finally earning a rematch with Lesnar.

Lesnar sticking around is not the only way the Reigns scenario could come about. Even if Lesnar's off to UFC Reigns could lose to him before a Rollins' MITB cash-in. That would allow Rollins to brag about doing what golden boy Reigns couldn't while allowing Reigns to engage in his longer term storyline of unleashing fury.

Something I find surprisingly easy to rule out is Reigns simply winning. I can imagine Lesnar retaining and sticking around. I can imagine Reigns failing, both with and without a Rollins cash-in on Lesnar following. I can imagine Reigns winning and then having Rollins cash in the contract on him. But I can't imagine Reigns defeating Lesnar and then enjoying a lengthy run as the WWE world heavyweight champion. This is a company that loves to throw adversity at its top babyfaces, because the theory is that overcoming it will make fans love them (something which cheerfully overlooks the fact that babyfaces need to be loved beforehand for this to work). Reigns beating Lesnar and making it out of both WrestleMania and the following evening's RAW as the champion just strikes me as unlikely.

In this regard the main event is already a success. It's not an easy match to predict a winner for. With Lesnar's contractual status, Reigns' mixed reactions and Rollins' briefcase there are too many factors to say with any confidence that any one sequence of events will take place. So I'll predict the one I like the sound of the best: Brock Lesnar will retain the WWE heavyweight championship.

***

Predictions summary:
Brock Lesnar to defeat Roman Reigns
Undertaker to defeat Bray Wyatt
John Cena to defeat Rusev
Sting to defeat Triple H
Randy Orton to defeat Seth Rollins
Sheamus to win the Intercontinental championship ladder match
Paige and AJ Lee to defeat Nikki Bella and Brie Bella
Damien Mizdow to win the Andre The Giant memorial battle royal
Cesaro and Tyson Kidd to retain the tag team championship

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Decreasing Value in Triplicate

I've written before that I'm not generally in favour of former world champions winning mid-card championships. It's been a while since I explained my reasons for this though so it's probably worth covering them again briefly. Generally speaking I think it's a move that hurts the credibility of the champion in question and does nothing for either of the championships. The world championship should be a promotion's top prize. If a wrestler is happy to forget about trying to regain it in favour of challenging for another title it makes the world championship look less prestigious. It makes the wrestler look like they were in over the head at the top of the card, as though they're taking  step backwards to the easier opposition of the mid-card. Rather than elevating the non-world title it makes it look like something that guys do in between world title reigns, turning it into a stopgap rather than a legitimate prize.

American champ? Maybe.
American hero? Undoubtably.
The reason I mention this is that it's currently looking as though WWE may be planning to have John Cena and Daniel Bryan win non-world titles at WrestleMania. They are respectively the face of and most popular man in the company. The reasoning, according to the most prevalent of rumours, is that if Lesnar re-signs he can retain the world championship against Roman Reigns and house shows can be structured around US champion Cena and Intercontinental champion D-Bry.

If you just glance at the idea it makes sense. Lesnar can keep his world strap and the lesser belts can be given a boost by Bryan and Cena. But realistically that's not going to happen. The US and IC belts are going to carry the same lustre they have for years no matter who holds them. And, just to be clear, that lustre is practically non-existent. Bryan and Cena won't elevate the titles simply by winning them because they're the same titles that have been aimlessly thrust around the same bunch of stagnating, going nowhere mid-carders for year. The best part of a decade in fact. By the time they're beginning to make progress at making the titles mean more, if they manage it at all, the writing team will have some other grand scheme that involves the two of them being moved back into the world title's orbit. Because this sort of schizophrenic approach is how the writing team works.

This move would make it look like Cena and Bryan are doing exactly what I said above, taking a step back and killing time before a better opportunity to become world champion presents itself. To an extent this would make sense for Cena's character. He's been trounced by Lesnar several times now. But this wouldn't be how it's presented, because doing so would involve acknowledging that Cena isn't omnipotent.

This man is better than WWE's Intercontinental championship.
Meanwhile Bryan has never faced 'The Beast'. Surely it would be better for his character, and the world championship, if he left 'Mania with no gold and announced his intention to focus on earning a match with Lesnar and defeating him for the world title. That would make it clear the WWE championship is still the biggest prize in the company and give us a sure-fire hit in Lesnar v Bryan. It would also make a Bryan v Reigns title match an interesting proposition: Reigns would have won the Rumble and defeated Bryan before being halted by Lesnar, the man Bryan would have beaten for the gold.

The thing is, this entire line of thinking is unnecessary on WWE's part anyway. Nobody buys tickets to WWE house shows based on title defences, no matter what titles they are. It's the WWE brand and the number of main event performers announced that determines whether people go or not. John Cena (or whoever) defending the world title against Seth Rollins (or whoever) doesn't make a jot of difference because everyone knows the champion will leave with the championship if the match isn't televised.

Yeah, New Japan has been very successful introducing an Intercontinental championship of their own and having it held by former world champions. But New Japan is a very different company with a very different style to WWE. A far greater emphasis is placed on match quality than in WWE. Their title also benefits from not being booked as an afterthought for well over a decade. And WWE doesn't anyone like Shinsuke Nakamura to make synonymous with their championship. Cena will never be that good and Bryan doesn't have the tenure.

As much as I'd like to see him stick around and hold the title indefinitely this whole thing makes me hope, just a bit, that Lesnar decides on returning to the UFC. At least that would make the WWE title picture ever so slightly more likely to remain interesting in the traditionally dry post-'Mania period.