Saturday 5 April 2014

DG USA Open the Ultimate Gate 2014 review

Dragon Gate USA, the imaginatively named spin-off of Japanese promotion Dragon Gate, has not been having an easy time securing talent over the last several months. Their shows in February saw CIMA pulled due to an injury, something which also prevented him from appearing here. On top of that there was some sort of issue with getting other names from the Japanese main roster, either a conscious decision or a visa issue depending on who you believe. Whatever the reason it’s a problem if DG USA is to be seen as an extension of the Japanese league.

This isn’t to knock the non-Japanese DG USA regulars. The company has a talented roster who are capable of putting together enjoyable matches and shows. But as talented as they are the DG USA name implies that Japanese talent, who can’t be seen live anywhere else outside of Japan, will be appearing. It’s those imports that are Dragon Gate USA’s biggest selling point.

Gabe Sapolsky has done what he can to combat the injuries and his partners’-slash-bosses’ reluctance or inability to make big names available. He rejigged the February cards to feature bigger matches (most notably Gargano versus Barreta) and made the best possible use Yosuke Santa Maria, the lone mid-card performer sent over to provide a “legitimate” presence on the cards.

For these WrestleMania weekend shows Sapolsky had a little more time to piece something together. He used it to secure the services of Low Ki, a man capable of turning out a cracking match, someone who wrestling fans will pay to see, and a man who’d been absent from the wrestling scene for nearly a year, making his appearance here particularly noteworthy. Booking him for these shows was a smart move on Sapolsky’s part. It went a fair way to making up for the absence of an Akira Tozawa or a Tomahwak TT. But long-term Dragon Gate are going to need to look at what they’re doing with their US branch or risk driving away fans they’ve worked hard to attract.

Sapolsky also signed Masato Tanaka to appear. While he fits the bill of a foreign talent he is not a man especially linked to Dragon Gate. If anything he’s still marked as an ECW guy in the minds of many. Still, it was another good get for Sapolsky, another man people would accept as a big deal. Pitting him against Chris Hero was another good move, their styles mirroring one another so closely.

The night kicked off with the Bravado brothers defending their Open the United Gate tag team titles against Anthony Nese and Caleb Konley. It was a peculiar match, what with the two teams being DG USA's two most effective heel units. It was a strange opener too. Generally it's good form to have a clear act to cheer at the start of a wrestling event.

The audience started off slightly favouring Harlem and Lance but ultimately treated the action like it was an all babyface encounter. Saying that, as soon as Harlem started playing to the crowd he heard boos. He proved he was capable of playing the good guy role moments later when he gingerly (AR Fox and The Young Bucks have nothing to worry about) cannonballed off the top rope to the floor, sending Nese and Konley sprawling.

The match was very enjoyable. The Bravados are an underrated unit, partly because they get overshadowed by the shenanigans they're booked to employ. Nese and Konley worked well in their first match together. They were never going to win, the match was more about getting something different onto the show and giving the Brand some practice time as a team ahead of the following night’s trios tournament, but they strung together some impressive double teams (the highlight was a pump handle bomb and neck breaker combo) that provided convincing near falls. Speaking of which it was a double team move that got the Bravados their win. Moose speared an interfering Mr A and intimidated Nese long enough for Harlem and Lance to perform a Gentlemen's Agreement on him.

After the match Nese laid into Mr A, telling him he wouldn't leave the ring until he got something right. Su Yung followed up with some words of her own but the microphone troubles of the previous evening's EVOLVE show were still going and I couldn't understand a word she said. AR Fox came out to have a match with Mr A, and we were told by Lenny Leonard as that started that Yung had ordered A to destroy the former EVOLVE champ.

The match that followed was all over the place. A's offence was plodding, tentative and basic, although he did make a fabulous crash mat for 'The Whole Foxin' Show's' aerial manoeuvres. Bizarrely he proved far better at performing leg lariats than he did punches and power moves. It's always handy for a big lad to be able to leave his feet in a wrestling match but throwing a convincing haymaker is far more important. That's what they'll be doing far more of, after all.

Forget Okada and Raptor, it's all about Hart and Cat from now on
Eventually Su Yung involved herself which brought out Ivalisse to even the odds. The ladies brawled backstage, freeing ringside up for the arrival of Larry Dallas. He shouted something into a microphone (again, no idea what) and then Teddy Hart sauntered out to ringside dressed in an outfit that looked like something The Honky Tonk Man would wear. Two women and a cat then joined him. The cat was placed on a turnbuckle before Teddy performed a power bomb into a back breaker on Fox, posed, dropped Mr A with a neck breaker, moonsaulted him, and left. It was a weird sequence but it worked well. Presumably Teddy Hart v AR Fox will be happening in the not too distant future. It should be good.

The match continued despite what was technically interference. Fox blasted A with a bundle of flying moves before getting apron bombed and spinebustered. A lumbered up to the top rope, ostensibly to try a splash, but got caught out with Fox's Lo Mein Pain finish. That put him down for the three. For Fox this match was nothing special, but it wasn't meant to be. For A it was a decent showing. The issues mentioned above aside he looked promising.

Match three saw Rich Swann facing Biff Busick. It was a fast, mostly even encounter that benefited from an involved, interested audience. Busick did his blend of pseudo brawling and mat wrestling while Swann dazzled with his impressive leaping ability and great aim. It wasn't surprising that Swann, the more popular and useful of the pair, won but it was surprising that he did so after a lengthy exchange of pins and counter pins.

The first half ended with a tag match putting Gentlemen's Club members Drew Gulak and Chuck Taylor against The Colony's Green Ant and Fire Ant. The Ants were the unquestionable faces of the bout with Taylor reverting to the role of loudmouth comedy heel. It worked for a match that was more about fun than long term storylines. The match built up to a frenetic series of double teams and signature moves before Gulak and Green Ant were left along to exchange pin and submission attempts. Green Ant got the submission for his team with the CHIKARA Special.

After The Colony left Gulak turned on Taylor, viciously clubbing him to the mat and giving him a kicking. The reasons he gave for his actions couldn't be deciphered but Lenny Leonard helpfully informed us that The Gentlemen's Club was no more. Seems like a good move to me. The group had been around for a while and its members can do more things of interest as singles wrestlers than as a group. Taylor's popular enough for a singles run while Gulak is more interesting as a prospective aggressive heel than in his previous undefined role.

The show's second half kicked off with the hotly anticipated return of Low Ki to mainstream wrestling. He got the "Welcome back!" treatment while his opponent Trent Barreta heard "Low Ki's gonna kill you!" It was a battle of two men Gabe Sapolsky is very keen on. Ki was his selection to be the inaugural Ring of Honor champion back in 2002 and was a key part of Gabe’s early booking career. Barreta has been treated as a special commodity since joining WWN following his WWE release in January of last year. There is clearly something about the two that attracts Gabe to presenting them as headline attractions.

The early going was a feeling out process, Barreta keeping to the ropes for fear of getting caught in a hold or hit with a strike by 'The World Warrior'. That gradually gave way to a match which revolved around the two swapping the initiative and treating the crowd to submission holds and loud chops (the latter of which came mostly from Ki). The pace quickened after Low Ki slipped out of a German suplex from Barreta, landing on his feet and then smashing him with a double stomp and half a dozen hard kicks.

The finish wasn't far behind that. Low Ki took a trip up to the top rope. Barreta attempted a hurricanrana but got stopped with a headbutt and hung up in a tree of woe. The audience, expecting to see Ki's celebrated double stomp, rose to their feet and were perplexed when Barreta managed to reach up and send Ki flying back down into the canvas. Untangling himself Barreta sped across the ring and nailed Ki with a knee strike that put him down for three.

The fans told Low Ki he still had it as he headed to the back. He was in great shape and the match was far from bad, but it was not the level of quality that Ki's been associated with in the past. I wouldn't say he doesn't have it anymore but the "You still got it" chant wasn’t merited here. The fans, as is all too common now, simply chanted it because they felt it was the right thing to do and because they wanted to say they'd done so. The meaning has been drained from the chant.

The second guest star was next. Tanaka versus Hero started out with a handshake and some slick hold-counter-hold exchanges. A strike exchange was teased a couple of minutes in when both men went for rolling elbows and held off when they caught sight of one another. It was a nice moment, carefully playing upon audience expectations and foreshadowing what was to come.

We weren't kept waiting long. Tanaka was soon encouraging Hero to kick him repeatedly in the face, coming back with a few with chops of his own and leaving Hero reeling on the mat. 'The Knockout Artist' returned fire with elbow shots but was plastered with Tanaka elbows in return. The story quickly developed into Tanaka having the upper hand but Hero being a proficient enough striker to surprise his more experienced foe if he bided his time. Despite being little more than a lengthy period of strikes and signature moves (brainbusters, Awesome bombs, Diamond bombs and big boots) interspersed with selling exhaustion on the mat the match was engaging and compelling. They expertly increased the stakes and ramped up the tension, climaxing with Hero going down to a diving lariat and a diving elbow.

Afterwards the two men bowed, shook hands and raised one another's hands. It was a classy moment. The admiration Hero has for Tanaka was clear to see.

Going on last were Ricochet and Johnny Gargano. The match was a champion versus champion encounter, Ricochet being the Open the Dream Gate champion and Gargano being the Open the Freedom Gate champion. Only the latter's gold was up for grabs. Ricochet didn't even wear his belt to the ring, which struck me as a bit odd considering it's the top prize in Dragon Gate and he’s the first non-Japanese wrestler to ever win it. Whatevs. Maybe he leaves it in Japan for simplicity’s sake.

What followed was a wonderful match. Things started off evenly but Gargano was put off his game after almost being hit with Ricochet's Benadryller, which had knocked him out for over a minute the previous night. 'Chet controlled the pace for several minutes until 'The Cat's Meow' caught him playing to the crowd once too often and speared him. From there the pace slowed and Gargano concentrated on wearing down the challenger with blows and submissions holds.

That couldn't last forever. 'The King of Flight' got a comeback going with an ace crusher and followed up with a dive over the top rope and a springboard clothesline back into the ring. Ricochet got a convincing near fall with a northern lights suplex followed by a brainbuster. Gargano came back with a power bomb for a two of his own. Ricochet slipped out of a lawn dart attempt and dropped Gargano with a Pele kick. A shooting star press attempt missed, allowing Gargano to connect with his lawn dart after all. A lengthy series of super kicks and elbows saw both men fall down to the mat, briefly slowing the pace.

A foray to the apron led to Ricochet being kicked down to ringside. An attempted suicide dive by Gargano didn't pay off: Ricochet caught him on his shoulders and performed and Death Valley Driver. Back in the ring the Freedom Gate champ desperately fought out of a top rope Benadryller and countered into a hurricanrana, following up with a Hurts Donut. That didn't get him a pinfall but it left Ricochet stunned enough to be placed in the Gargano Escape. The challenger managed to roll through into pinning attempts and power out into a Regalplex but the 'The Whole Shebang' managed to keep the hold applied. An escape was eventually managed after Ricochet got to his feet, hold still applied, and flung the champion into a turnbuckle.

A 630 splash earned Ricochet a two count. Next he tried a drop kick into the corner but Gargano pulled the referee in front of him (a ref bump for the second night a row, there was a time when Gabe had strong feelings about this sort of thing). Ricochet hit a Bendryller. With nobody to count he was left with no choice but to check on the referee. That gave Gargano time to grab his title belt. His attempt to smack Ricochet with it failed but he'd be more successful seconds later: after he was hoisted up and dropped for a Bendryller Gargano held up his title for Ricochet’s incoming kick. With the challenger knocked for six Gargano was free to wallop him with the belt shot after all.  

When Ricochet kicked out of that the crowd erupted. The champion choked the challenger with his wrist tape (an act which had signalled his heel turn one year earlier during a match with Shingo Takagi) but still found himself hoisted up for another Bendryller attempt seconds later. He countered it again, this time into a Gargano Escape. Ricochet got close to the ropes so Gargano released the hold to pull him away and reapply it. That backfired on him with Ricochet rolled him up with a cradle for a sizzling false finish.

Ricochet celebrates his Open the Freedom Gate win
And then, just like that, it was over: Gargano leapt off the second rope and got caught and dropped into a Benadryller. The crowd gave the new champion a standing ovation and a chant of "You deserve it!" as the locker room emptied. Ricochet celebrated with his fellow wrestlers and then cut a show ending promo that, sadly, couldn’t be understood.

It may not have featured any Japanese Dragon Gate talent but that didn’t harm the quality of the show. I’m sure the final two matches will end up as contenders for match of the weekend honours, and the rest of the card was always at least good. Open the Ultimate Gate 2014 was one of the best DG USA shows in quite a while and I’d strongly recommend giving it a watch. That said I hope the talent issues get sorted out by the time the promotion next promotes shows. If they continue to omit parent company names for much longer the credibility and legitimacy of the company as a spin-off may begin to erode. And that’s not something DG USA deserves.

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