For all of us in the community of pro-wrasslin’ marks, this past weekend was something really, really special. We were faced with too much good wrestling.
What a time to be a fan.
Of the three big shows that all ran on Saturday, August 31st, I watched AEW: All Out live, caught NXT UK TakeOver on my PVR, and continued my streak of not watching New Japan shows by skipping Royal Quest. There are only so many hours in a lifetime to spend watching wrestling, after all.
While the impact of New Japan and its importance on the grander world of wrestling can’t be denied, it’s a product that I don’t see myself investing in any time soon. So, for me this was a two-show day with AEW and my favorite wrestling brand of the moment, NXT UK, both offering up stacked, quality cards for my enjoyment.
With a handful of shows now under their belts, this was an opportunity for AEW to settle into its groove a bit and showcase exactly what their version of wrestling looks and feels like. We saw the crowning of a world champion, a ladder match that was nothing short of spectacular, contenders set for a women’s title match, some threads to follow as they build to their TV debut in October, and some more “blood and guts”.
Over on the other side of the pond, NXT UK was in the unique position of going head up with both AEW and NJPW with their take on the pure-wrestling product genre. There were feel-good highs, title changes, a Cesaro match that frickin’ ruled, and a main event that was everything good about professional wrestling.
While it is somewhat fair to call the two shows apples and oranges, they were still both fruit and delicious in their own way. Having to compare the two shows is a glorious (shout out to Robert Roode) problem to have and I’m excited to tuck into it, so let’s get going!
AEW is Jericho!
One year from their industry-rattling All In event, The Elite and their ever-expanding family at AEW presented a card that, at around five hours, was just a little overstuffed. But it was filled with so much action, it’s hard not to feel like I got my 50 bucks worth. There were some things I loved, some things I hated, and some things that I really can’t be asked about. But, the overall takeaway was that this was not a WWE show. It left me ready to find out what comes next.
The biggest moment of the event was the crowning of first ever AEW champion Chris Jericho in a very physical contest with “Hangman” Adam Page. The challenge for this one was getting a fan like me, that has grown up with Chris Jericho, to root against his success with a guy I know little to nothing about in Page. As I do not watch Being the Elite on YouTube, my only experience with Page has been his appearances at Double or Nothing and Fight for the Fallen, neither of which got me particularly hyped for the character. That said, he worked really hard in this match and got a very solid rub from the veteran Jericho who sold his moves like murder and even got some colour midway through the match. The finish came in the form of the Judas Effect elbow from Jericho, which looked brutal and set the stage for the first era of AEW’s world title picture: The veteran Jericho takes his heel persona and rock star attitude to TV and the young, hungry up-and-comers line up to take shots at him. It’s classic wrestling stuff that works for a reason. I’d like to see Jericho add some kind of a bodyguard/heater to his act moving forward, but maybe that will come in the form of his mystery tag partners for the TNT show debut.
The rest of the card was a mixed bag, with the sensational, death-defying Lucha Bros and Young Bucks risking life and limb in a ladder match being a highlight and the Cracker Barrel Clash being a lowlight.
First, the Cracker Barrel thing: I dislike deathmatch wrestling. Full stop. I think thumbtacks, staple guns, and the like diminish the business and have no place in mainstream wrestling or anywhere else for that matter. The three competitors, Joey Janela, Jimmy Havoc, and Darby Allin look like they haven’t seen a gym or solid meal in months. The risks they took were unnecessary, offering no return for them as performers or us as an audience. I get that there is a demand for this sort of thing in certain circles of the world but, by giving it a platform, I feel AEW is risking alienating another part of their audience in guys like me that are just over this style of work. Thumbtacks in the mouth, the skateboard tacks, the paper cuts… what did any of it actually do for the match? Nothing. It just popped some geeks with a blood fetish. Then, there was the Coffin Drop to the outside spot. Dear lord, why? Of these three guys, I feel like Darby Allin really has something. But, he isn’t going to live long enough to become that something if he does stunts like this. Jumping backward while holding a barrel to his back onto steel steps is about as close to a suicidal bump as I have ever seen. Call it a calculated risk if you want, but even Mick Foley in his crazy prime wouldn’t have taken that.
Okay, rant over.
The ladder match was out of this world. While it did feel a little over choreographed at times, it is undeniable that these two teams make something really special happen when they get in the ring. Making their matches a focal point of AEW’s first two pay-per-view events was really smart. It both establishes tag team wrestling as being a core focus for the new company and also allows four of their top stars to showcase what they can do. I am curious to see how these teams exist as TV stars working weekly matches as the human body simply can’t take that kind of abuse on a regular basis. But, I’m confident that they will not only do it but do it well.
The rest of the card was what it was. Cody and Shawn (Mr. “Iiiiiiconic!“) Spears was a great bit of sports entertainment. SCU did their thing against the Jurassic Express (a small boy, another boy, and his dinosaur). The women’s Battle Royale, though clunky, got its job done. I could have done without the Best Friends vs Dark Order match and, sorry Dave Meltzer, I still don’t get the fuss about Kenny Omega. I found his match with PAC to be a good wrestling match, but the character does nothing for me. I do think that his losing streak as an angle going into TV is very compelling, considering his reputation and status, but I’m just not into the guy yet.
The takeaway from this show for me is that AEW got two PPV buys from me on good faith. Aside from Jericho, there is nobody on that roster that I have any connection with, so giving them two shots at 50 bucks a pop was me, really wanting this thing to succeed. The challenge for them with me, and I’m sure many others as viewers, is to earn that third PPV buy. I need to know that this is going to be something different than WWE. I need to see that there are characters and stories that I want to invest in from week to week, month to month, and year to year. Wrasslin’ is a long game business, and say what you will about the WWE, but nobody has been playing this game longer than they have.
Oh, and if I can add, Luchasaurus might be the next biggest thing in wrestling. The guy is over like rover to the point that even Jim Cornette likes him.
The other NXT flexes its B I G S T R O N G muscles
As the dozens (and dozens!) of people that read this column know, I love NXT UK. Going into TakeOver I was fully invested in three of the big matches: Mastiff vs Coffey, the triple threat tag title match and, of course, the main event of WALTER vs Tyler Bate. Not only did all three of these matches deliver, but they each had me jumping out of my seat at different points out of sheer excitement. The card also featured a match between Travis Banks and Noam Dar that I didn’t watch, a women’s match that saw Toni Storm lose her championship to Kay Lee Ray, and a chance for Cesaro to work a proper match against up-and-comer Ilya Dragunov. The back end of the card was solid, but it was the big three that made this one a great one.
The big, burly last man standing match between Joe Coffey and “Bomber” Dave Mastiff was something I have been anticipating for a long time and man, oh man, was it fun. This match featured amazing spots like an Irish whip breaking the top rope, assault with a cricket bat, and multiple broken tables. Was this a hardcore match? I guess to an extent it was, but it was hardcore without the nonsense. It was two, big badasses in a fight that was simply too much to be contained within the squared circle. Even though the Bomber took his first singles loss in this match, via an amazing heel finish from Coffey, I have high hopes that we will see him line up against WALTER in the near future.
In a weekend where AEW was staking their claim as the spot for tag team wrestling, it’s my opinion that the best tag match of the weekend actually took place in Wales and not in Chicago. The Grizzled Young Veterans vs Gallus vs “Flash” Morgan Webster and Mark Andrews was about as much fun as a wrestling match can be. Everybody got their stuff in. Whether it was GYV working seamless double teams, Wolfgang of Gallus murdering people in the ring, or the high flying tenacity of Andrews and Webster, this match showcased the strengths of all the competitors. It also told the story of hometown boys, Webster and Andrews, doing everything in their power to overcome the odds and become the first-ever WWE champions from Wales. Now, I have watched a lot of wrasslin’ in my day, but I can’t think of a match that more effectively used false finishes to elevate a crowd. When Andrews came off the top with his Shooting Star Press to save Webster from a pinfall and win the match, I popped all the way out of my seat and pumped a happy fist in the air. The crowd loved it, I loved it, and the new NXT UK tag team champions looked like they loved it, too. What a match.
While the feel-good ending to the tag match made it my match of the weekend, the NXT UK Championship match between WALTER and Tyler Bate was the kind of match that made me proud to be a wrestling fan.
Look, in a business that has seen octogenarians give birth to hands, peoples’ moms be hung from a pole, fake gay weddings, and whatever that nonsense with Rowan and Roman is, it can be a struggle to justify loving professional wrestling. It’s a form of entertainment that features sweaty, overbuilt humans pretending to beat one another up with fireworks, music, and way more spandex that you will come across anywhere else. Sometimes, it can be hard to justify watching it to myself, let alone anyone else. But then, you get to see a match like this that you can point to and say: that, that right there is art. I may not give out five-star ratings or anything like that, but as far as I’m concerned this thing was perfect.
WALTER and Bate, two athletes with markedly different physiques and ring styles told a 40-minute long story that contained all the things that make drama, theater, and, in this case, wrestling great. Heroic feats of strength, dastardly acts of villainy, all with the emotional pretext of a well-told journey leading up to the match. I could write an entire column about all the great things that took place in this contest, but if you are reading this, I would much rather you took the time to watch it. These two men did what wrestlers at their best do: they elevated each other, they drew in the crowd, and they gave their bodies up for a beating, all for our brutal entertainment. While crowd favorite Tyler Bate did not succeed in his quest to become the first-ever two time UK champion, he did mark his claim as one of the top workers in the world today. And as for WALTER… who the hell can stop WALTER?
If I were in WWE marketing, this is a match I would be using to sell network subscriptions. As far as bang for my buck, at 50 dollars for All Out and 12 dollars a month for the WWE Network, it’s hard to argue where the best value is. It baffles me that neither SmackDown Live nor Monday Night RAW devote any time at all to promoting this brand as part of the reasons to subscribe to the network. Here is where you get back your lapsed fans, the fans that want wrestling and not sports entertainment. Let these fans know that, yes, you get all the PPVs and Ride-Along and that crap that Edge and Christian do, but you also get great wrestling shows like NXT, NXT UK, and the better-than-you-think 205 Live. If it wasn’t for network shows, I wouldn’t watch at all and I bet I’m not alone.
Okay, rant over.
The Wrestling Gods are smiling on us
Competition is proven to be the best thing for professional wrestling. All of us that came up during the days of WCW and ECW, or those that go further back to the territories, know that having more places to work is good for the wrestlers and good for the fans. More variety, more styles, and more exposure all fuel this industry to be better. The WWE monopoly has lasted a long time and it has brought us some great stuff, along with some crap (*cough* Baron Corbin *cough*). But the arrival of AEW is the injection of fresh energy that the industry needs. Another fresher product with money behind it forces the hands of everyone else to work a little harder at what they do.
AEW vs NXT doesn’t have to be a war, rather a game of professional oneupmanship. Give me more banger matches, more compelling characters, more great stories to follow, and more of Bate vs WALTER.
So, to wrap it up: if this was round one of the fight for brand supremacy in the world of pro-wrestling, I’d say the winners are the fans who get to sit back and watch the shows.
That’s it for me this week. Until Kane heads down the ramp with the hellfire but leaves all his brimstone at home, I’ll see you marks around the loop.