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Wrestlemania 33 – Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Florida – 02/04/17

WWE WrestleMania 33 logoAfter last year’s controversial and over long show, WWE looked to restore some of the  real grandeur of their premier event as WrestleMania returned to Orlando.

Much like last year the previous night’s NXT Takeover event had set a high target for the wrestling to aim for, but of course WrestleMania is so much more than that, as a broader entertainment spectacle.

Even in the daylight of the pre-show the stadium looked huge with the open air setting and stage making it appear in some ways larger than last year’s show in Dallas (though or course it wasn’t) and as the preliminary matches kicked off the Citrus Bowl was already nicely full.

Kickoff

WWE Cruiserweight Championship
Neville (c) vs Austin Aries

For the first time since 2004 a version of the WWE Cruiserweight Championship was defended at WrestleMania with the continuing rebirth of the lighter weight division of WWE reaching new heights thanks to both men involved here.

Austin Aries and Adrian Neville

Aries goes for a hurricanrana on Neville

As the bell rang there were big chants for Aries before the duo set out at a steady but fast pace. The story of the match saw Neville keep a step ahead of Aries’ well known offence, including nice counters of the challengers trademark low dropkick and heat seeking missile suicide dive, before Aries found a way around the counters.

Neville continued to build in his vicious heel persona that has seen him reach a new level as a performer in WWE, highlighted here with some stomps and sick looking snap and deadlift German suplexes along with some great high-flying in the form of a Phoenix splash.

Aries got his fair share of offence in too with a particularly nice missile dropkick, a discuss ‘five-arm’ out of nowhere and his classic 450 splash.

Austin Aries and Adrian Neville

Neville suplexes Aries

Across the match it was a great example of competition and character coming together to create a compelling story with exciting in-ring action, exactly what all wrestling, but particularly the cruiserweights, should be doing.

The ending came with some more great heel work from Neville as he attacked Aries’ recently injured eye allowing him to connect with his Red Arrow twisting splash to retain his title in a match that allowed both men to show their best and make quite an impact despite the early slot.

Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal

Going into to this match it looked fairly predictable that Braun Strowman would be its centrepiece following his run in recent months destroying pretty much anyone who gets in his way, so, as it began with Strowman and Big Show tossing competitors out left, right and centre all seemed on track.

Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal

Battle Royal

Then, in a real surprise both big men were eliminated in fairly swift fashion, suddenly changing the whole complexion of the match and allowing newcomer, NXT wrestler and Sanity team member, Killian Dain, to put in a great showing.

Along with Dain, Dolph Ziggler had some highlight moments of barely staying in the match but in the end it came down to the improbable trio of Dain, Jinder Mahal and Mojo Rawley.

With Dain incapacitated briefly Mojo and Mahal headed out of the ring and Jinder got in a war of words with American footballer and ‘friend of Mojo’, Rob Gronkowski.

Back in the ring Gronkowski attacked Mahal and Dain allowing Mojo to get the very surprising win.

While the ending was odd and Rawley would have been far from my first choice of winner, it was good to see it at least went to an up and coming talent. Otherwise though the match was largely forgettable and messy, but that is often the nature of a battle royal and why they rarely live up to the hype.

WWE Intercontinental Championship
Dean Ambrose (c) vs Baron Corbin

Baron Corbin and Dean Ambrose

Ambrose delivers a flying elbow to Corbin

As this match was announced my first thought was ‘why is this on the kick off show’, but I guess there is an argument that it would be a good higher mid-level match to encourage more viewers on to the main show. Also it seems to have been swapped with the Smackdown Women’s Championship match following protest from fans.

Anyway onto the match itself and not the surrounding circumstance.

Ambrose and Corbin have built up an enjoyable and physical rivalry in recent months and continued it right away here with a quick and strong start from both before Ambrose was sent ribs first into the ring post giving Corbin the upper hand and slowing the pace to his more deliberate style.

JBL’s commentary did its best to help tell the story of two unpredictable wrestlers facing off but both performers felt a little off pace with each other making it all fall a little flat.

As the match went on it picked up a little and the closing spot of Corbin’s End of Days being reversed into Ambrose’s Dirty Deeds DDT looked nice but was a little bit too little too late giving Ambrose the win in a disappointingly average affair.

WrestleMania 33

The New Day

The New Day

After the standard rendition of America The Beautiful (actually a decent performance this year) and the intro video (along with the first crowd sign of the show saying ‘We hate Roman’) this year’s hosts, The New Day, made their way down the enormous ramp.

As ever the trio were so ridiculous it was just pure entertainment, and they didn’t shy away from hinting at Xavier Wood’s recent unfortunate indiscretion in their own sly way.

Certainly The New Day were the best hosts I can remember for WrestleMania as they were never over indulgent and the segments were kept tight and brief – unlike The Rock last year which still irks.

AJ Styles vs Shane McMahon

Given the fairly hasty set up for the match it probably shouldn’t have been a surprise this was so early on the card, but considering the year Styles has had, I did expect him to be further up the bill, but then it is a stacked line up.

It was clear before both men were even in the ring that the prescribed heel/face dynamic had been switched with AJ clearly being the crowd’s favourite.

AJ Styles and Shane McMahon

Styles attempts to go Coast To Coast

The match started out with some nice psychology with Styles looking to keep it a wrestling match and both men putting in a good, if slightly basic, show of it before things broke down in to more standard fare.

Throughout it was clear that Styles was carrying McMachon through a lot of the match and a great spot highlighted this as AJ went for a springboard 450 splash which Shane countered into a triangle choke before AJ turned it into a modified Styles Clash. All Shane really had to do for this was lie the right way and tuck his head at the right time, but it still looked great.

Following the referee taking a rogue kick to the head, it became a more standard McMahon match with trash cans coming into play and some nice work around the always impressive Coast to Coast from both men before Styles got the win after a second attempt at The Phenomenal Forearm connected.

As always Shane showed himself to have a daredevil streak like few others and both men did their best to try to tell a story, though in the end it all became a little too spot to spot for my liking. With McMahon not the well conditioned athlete he was made out to me kudos must go to Styles for making it all look so good, but this left it a little flatter than expected, especially without a truly death-defying spot from Shane like his Hell In The Cell dive last year.

WWE United States Championship
Chris Jericho (c) vs Kevin Owens

Given the six month build up to this and the fact it features two of the best all rounders in WWE today there was every chance this contest for the United States Championship could steal the show and, as a straight wrestling match, it probably did.

Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho

Jericho with a flying elbow on Owens

Following an excellent hype video Owens hit the ring in full heel, prizefighter mode while Jericho, complete with flashing LED laced scarf was doing a more face version of what he’s been doing for the best part of a year.

Starting off with a brawl it felt like a real feud with both men giving their all to come out on top. Jericho gained the early advantage but it was back and forth throughout with an early highlight being a Cannonball on the apron into the ring post from Owens to Jericho.

As always Owens trash talking was loud and on point building the story and character and Jericho did his fair share of that too.

As the match went on the pair countered each other’s high-flying moves in a great sequence that built the idea of how well they know each other, before some innovative versions of their signature moves and holds were traded including a true highlight of the night moment where Owens escaped a loss by getting just a finger onto the bottom rope.

The end came following Owens trademark powerbomb into the ring apron rounding off a match that was tough, hard-hitting, entertaining and told a story that made sense. Certainly on most shows this would have been the night’s highlight, but this is WrestleMania….

WWE Raw Women’s Championship
Bayley (c) vs Nia Jax vs Sasha Banks vs Charlotte Flair

After the ‘evolution’ of WWE’s women’s division at last year’s WrestleMania things have continued to develop with the women’s championships on both Raw and Smackdown becoming more credible than anytime in the last two decades.

Triple powerbomb to Nia Jax

Triple powerbomb to Nia Jax

With this in mind a lot hinged on this match pitting the top four female performers from Raw against one another in an elimination style contest, something the WWE finally seem to have realised is a more dramatic way of doing a multi-person contest than a single fall to a finish.

The champion, Bayley, was first out and, just to highlight how much more store is being set in this division she had a scaled up version of her usual entrance complete with fireworks, while the three other women all had suitable added extras too.

Being out first, though unconventional for the champion, allowed the story to begin well before the bell as Bayley played her young, slightly naive character to perfection looking increasingly concerned as her generally more imposing challengers made their way to the ring.

The match itself began with Nia Jax in dominating form, using her size to out power all three other competitors in a way that, more than ever, established her monstrous character.

This is a totally new story for a women’s match in WWE and was well told with some nice spots from all involved culminating in a pair of triple team attacks to Jax, including a nasty looking back suplex/big boot combination and triple powerbomb, that saw her eliminated first but elevated her character.

Following a spectacular twisting moonsalut from the top rope to the floor by Flair, the second part of the match settled down to the revival of the feud between her and Sasha Banks.

Bayley and Charlotte Flair

Bayley fights out of the Figure 8

It was good to see The Boss apparently back to 100% after six months plagued by niggling injuries and her and Charlotte put on a good show until Sasha’s head connected with a partially exposed turnbuckle bolt to give Charlotte the pin.

The ultimate fan, Bayley, against the regal and entitled Flair is the stuff of wrestling story perfection and, having feuded for most of the year now, this was the perfect pairing to round off this match.

As usual the contest was focussed around Flair attacking Bayley’s leg to set up her Figure 8 Leg Lock but it was Bayley who got the win after a slightly sloppy tree of woe spot saw Flair hit the turnbuckle she used against Banks, allowing Bayley to hit a Randy Savage style Atomic Elbow Drop to retain her title.

While it was a little lose in places and felt somewhat short, all four women gave it their all and some nice new work came to the fore from all of them. Bayley winning felt like the right way to make it a genuinely celebratory affair and Charlotte’s loss should play into the further development of this storyline in a new direction.

WWE Hall of Fame recap

The Friday night before WrestleMania saw the 2017 WWE Hall of Fame ceremony take place and, as something of a break in the action, the new inductees were introduced to the crowd. For once it was hard to argue with the deserving nests of all of them with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, Beth Phoenix, Diamond Dallas Page and, of course, Kurt Angle amongst them. And it was great hearing the crowd chant ‘you suck’ at Angle once again as we got a truly mind-blowing shot of the 75,000 strong throng over Kurt’s shoulder from the stage.

WWE Raw Tag Team Championships
Ladder Match
Luke Gallows & Karl Anderson (c) vs Enzo Amore & Big Cass vs Sheamus and Cesaro

The Hardy Boyz

The Hardy Boyz

With all three competing teams in the ring and ready to go The New Day’s music hit and the trio came onto the stage looking ready to join the action, but they were actually there to introduce a surprise fourth team – the returning duo of Matt and Jeff, The Hardy Boyz!

Having been out of WWE the best part of the decade, and having made a new reputation for themselves in TNA and Ring of Honour, the brothers from North Carolina were greeted by one of the biggest responses of the night with plenty of Matt’s trademark ‘DELETE!’ chants leading to the night’s first real moments as even watching from the other side of the world I got chills.

Luke Gallows & Karl Anderson (c) vs Enzo Amore & Big Cass vs Sheamus and Cesaro vs The Hardy Boyz

As expected the match began with chaos and rarely settled down, but it was the Hardyz who got the first advantage with a flurry of their signature spots as the crowd continued to chant for Broken Matt and Brother Nero (and there was indeed the feeling that they ‘knew you’d come’).

Sheamus, Cesaro and Big Cass

Sheamus, Cesaro and Big Cass

As a match like this always will be it was a non-stop spot-fest, and a hugely enjoyable one with all four teams having their moments and getting close to claiming the belts but, in the end, it came down to Jeffrey Nero Hardy hitting a death-defying Swanton Bomb from the top of the top of a genuinely 20ft tall ladder while Matt unhooked the belts.

Given the fact the Hardyz only lost the Ring of Honour tag team titles the previous night to The Young Bucks in another ladder match, this was truly a historic moment in wrestling – there’s not been something that felt like this at WrestleMania in a long time.

John Cena & Nikki Bella vs The Miz & Maryse

With Miz on the hottest streak of his career as one of WWE’s most genuinely hatable heels we love to hate, and Cena the ever-present guy we hate to love, this match had an interesting dynamic.

The Miz and John Cena

Miz hits Cena with a kick

Miz continued his amazing heel work to such a degree that he got genuine ‘Miz is Awesome’ chants from the crowd and played up to it brilliantly, while unfortunately, Jerry Lawler sitting in on commentary was awful.

The match itself was more about the entertainment side than the wrestling and it was short, likely to cover Maryse’s limitations and Nikki’s potential ongoing neck injury, and the outcome of Cena and Nikki getting the win with their simultaneous finishers was entirely expected.

After the match Cena picked up a mic and, rounding off what feels like it’s been both a TV storyline and real life one, proposed to Nikki Bella.

While the audience in the stadium seemed less than impressed by this to me it brought to mind the Macho Man and Elizabeth story from the late 80s and, while it didn’t connect with me, it’s all part of the big entertainment tapestry that has always made up WrestleMania.

Unsanctioned Match
‘The King of Kings’ Triple H vs ‘The Kingslayer’ Seth Rollins

Following an excellent hype video, accompanied by a less than excellent song from Metallica’s Hardwired… To Self Destruct, Triple H headed to the ring in his usual over the top fashion for WrestleMania – this year on a huge motor-trike accompanied buy a fleet of police motorbikes.

Triple H

Triple H makes his way to the ring

To try to match this Rollins came out, playing up his new Kingslayer moniker, in gold attire mimicking the Jamie Lannister and the King’s Guard in Game of Thrones and with a flaming torch which he used to illuminate the massive ramp in a spot that was probably better on paper than in practice.

The match itself was based around the injury to Seth’s knee which has been the basis of the whole build, but none the less it kicked off with a suitable pace and level of aggression for an intense feud and the pair soon spilled to the floor.

The pace slowed down when Triple H hit a DDT to Seth on the announcers’ table before attacking his knee with a chair and going into methodical hold mode.

Keeping the knee story going Rollins tried to hit some of his signature spots but his knee gave way before he managed to pull out a Buckle Bomb.

Seth Rollins and Triple H

Triple H attacks Rollins with a chair

Things went back and forth with Seth surviving a spinebuster and having his knee stomped on with a chair to hit a Superplex/Falcon Arrow combination as the match properly reached its peak and there was a feeling this was a real career making moment for Seth.

With a sledgehammer in play there was more back and forth with Seth surviving a Pedigree and hitting a Phoenix Splash before the end came as Triple H accidentally sent Stephanie McMahon through a table and Rollins hit his Pedigree to slay the King of Kings.

In all, this was a great match that rounded off a story that’s been going on for several years, mixing the best of what the two men do while still sticking to the legitimate knee injury angle. As I said earlier this felt custom-made to confirm Seth in that rare group at the top of the company for a long time to come.

As something of a break following the first ‘main event’ type match we got the obligatory performance by Flo Rida and his comrades, as ever I really didn’t pay much attention to this taking the opportunity for a break as we were now three hours into the show.

WWE Chanpionship
Bray Wyatt (c) vs Randy Orton

With 75,000 people in the stadium Wyatt’s sea of fireflies was a genuinely spectacular sight as the champion made his way to the ring. Orton on the other hand seemed back to his bland and ill-fitting face persona from a couple of years ago that has never really worked for me.

Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton

Wyatt stalks Orton

While the match started off with a good intensity for this twisted rivalry, it soon became more about Wyatt’s mystical mind games which didn’t quite ring true in context, though projecting writhing maggots, cockroaches and such on the canvas did make for a cool visual.

After that it became a game of who can hit their finisher properly first with Bray winning that but only getting a two count as the match struggled on in second gear.

The end came with an RKO ‘out of nowhere’ in disappointingly predictable fashion, giving Orton the world title and stalling what felt like a promising storyline before it really even got going. For the most part I didn’t have any gripes with the booking of this show but this was an exception and it seems the live crowd agreed – but we’ll see where it goes from here…

WWE Universal championship
Goldberg (c) vs Brock Lesnar (with Paul Heyman)

With Goldberg having become champion following less than 10 minutes (and that’s being generous) of ring time the crowd were far from on side with the returning ‘hero’ going into this contest.

Goldberg and Brock Lesnar

Lesnar stands over the fallen Goldberg

Again this was far from a lengthy contest, but compared to their last one on one match it was epic and it certainly outshone their controversial bout at WrestleMania 20. 

Keeping it short meant it was all high impact with more than 10 German suplexes, numerous Spears (including one through the barricade) a Jackhammer and, finally, an F5 giving Lesnar the win and the Universal Championship.

While Goldberg took more big impacts than I expected it was otherwise what I would have predicted and was reasonably satisfying for that.

While I’m still not a fan of the belt being on a part-time performer this kind of contest is what these guys are built to do, but the moment of the match went to Corey Graves on commentary for his line ‘Superman was forced to kneel before Zod!’

Smackdown Women’s Championship
Six-Pack Challenge Match
Alexa Bliss (c) vs Becky Lynch vs Mickie James vs Carmella (with James Ellsworth) vs Natalya vs Naomi 

Following the very good, if slightly short, Raw women’s match it was hard to escape the fact that, on paper, this looked a little like a throw back to the Divas days, with all available female performers thrown together between two of the top main events.

Naomi flies over the top rope

Naomi flies over the top rope

While it certainly had hints of that it was also clear that all of these women were giving it their all. While the sheer number of moving parts involved meant a few moments were a little sloppy it was still enjoyable with Becky Lynch getting a good showing and Alexa Bliss continuing to prove why she’s become one of the most valuable performers on the Smackdown roster.

The end came with a nice roll up counter into a submission from Naomi on Bliss giving the hometown girl the win and her second Smackdown Women’s Championship.

As a whole the match was enjoyable but felt a little too much like a break and palette cleanser between main events despite the efforts of the performers.

Continuing the respite before the final match The New Day were back to announce the official attendance, a venue record of 75,245 (though I’m always dubious of WWE’s announced attendances giving the overblown figures quoted in the past).

As a whole New Day were the best hosts I remember for WrestleMania and the setting was one of the best too with the outdoor Citrus Bowl feeling bigger and grander than last year’s 100,000 seater stadium in Dallas.

No Holds Barred Match
The Undertaker vs Roman Reigns

Following a genuinely excellent hype video, and with Jim Ross joining Michael Cole and John Bradshaw Layfield at the commentary table, the scene was set for a match with a lot riding on it.

Roman Reigns and The Undertaker

Undertaker delivers punches to Reigns

There’s a lot of baggage here, not only around the fact that this was going on last, but also Roman Reigns and how his position over the last few years has been the cause of constant debate. While I’m not his biggest fan, given what’s going on here I’m going to do my best to remain neutral and give the ‘Big Dog’ his due as a much improved performer as he faces off against a genuine legend.

Of course Roman was greeted by a huge negative reaction from this die-hard crowd, while Undertaker’s impressive but not overdone arrival was the thing great WrestleMania moments are made of, and hearing JR’s voice over the top just made it exactly what it should be (he remains the voice of pro-wrestling for me).

As expected things started as a brawl with Taker getting the upper hand and quickly throwing Reigns from the ring with a shout of ‘it’s still my yard’. This went back and forth, in and out of the ring, before the big spots came into play with Roman taking a chokeslam on one table before recovering to spear the Deadman through another.

The Undertaker legdrops Roman Reigns

The Undertaker legdrops Roman Reigns

Of course this was Undertaker’s moment to sit up, Michael Myers like, and the match kicked up a gear into a stiff affair before The Last Ride was delivered but only lead to a two count.

A steel chair them came into play with Roman taking the first stiff shots to his back before escaping a pair of chokeslams by rolling out of the ring.

Back in the ring Roman hit a pair of Superman Punches but a third was countered into a chokeslam on a chair following by a Tombstone Piledriver for a near fall and a great shocked reaction from the Undertaker.

At this point it was clear, even more so than before, which way this match was going and the crowd were clearly not happy, finding the energy for many boos and ‘bullshit’ chants nearly seven hours into the event.

Tombstone to Roman Reigns

Tombstone to Reigns

More Superman Punches were followed by a spear but Taker managed to briefly lock in his Hell’s Gate gogoplata submission before Roman again got the advantage and used the chair on the Deadman.

After some stiff sounding shots to the back Reigns implored the Undertaker to stay down before getting another close fall from a spear. 

With Taker unable to sit up but struggling to his feet Reigns connected with a final ‘super spear’ after several rebounds off the ropes to deliver the Undertaker only his second loss out of 25 matches at WrestleMania.

At this point I wasn’t sure if I was shocked, exhausted, disappointed or a mixture of all of these things as Roman left the ring with the Undertaker lying in the centre and we cut to the highlights.

Back from the replays and the Deadman was back on his feet in his trench coat and hat.

The Undertaker

The Undertaker

After taking his time to soak in his surroundings he unfastened his gloves, removed his coat and finally laid down his hat in the middle of the ring in a bright spotlight amongst the purple tinged darkness.

This moment was the real emotional climaxes here as the Undertaker, the last link to the WWE’s Hulkamania era and one who has stood tall since then, passed into history, leaving Mark Callaway to finally head back up the ramp, after acknowledging his family at ringside for the first time, closing not only WrestleMania 33 but a genuine era in wrestling history.

While the match itself was far from either performers best, the no holds barred stipulation allowed them the freedom to successfully tell their old dog vs new dog story.

While the loss didn’t have the shock factor of the Lesnar loss at WrestleMania 30 it still felt enough like a moment. Of course what came after the match is something else and really felt like a full stop on what has been a career genuinely like no other.

Undertaker's gear in the ring

Undertaker’s gear in the ring

As a whole Wrestlemania 33 was a step up on the previous year and a very good, if again over long, show.

With no big name non-wrestling nostalgia acts it felt fresher and even the Lesnar/Goldberg match and Undertaker spectacle worked in context of a show largely championing the current roster even if the ending was rather bittersweet and it felt like the last big hero was finally gone.

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WWE United Kingdom Championship Tournament – Empress Ballroom, Blackpool – 14-15/01/17

WWE United Kingdom Championship TournamentWith WWE’s mainstream programming featuring a stronger wrestling element than in a long time, the development of NXT and last summer’s Cruiserweight Classic tournament, along with a genuinely stellar line up at NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom 11 and the boom in the British wrestling scene (from Progress and ICW to the return of World of Sport to TV), it’s fair to say that in some ways professional wrestling is in something of a peak period, at least in terms of quality available and accessibility to it.

Within this WWE have now responded to the British wrestling boom in particular with the first ever United Kingdom Championship Tournament, held over two nights at the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool.

I will say that going in to this my expectations and hopes were high, particularly following the disappointment of World of Sport, so when Triple H emerged to kick off the show with his customary ‘Are you ready?’ things certainly seemed to be in the right track.

Night 1

Nigel McGuinness

Nigel McGuinness

The introduction to the show by commentators Michael Cole (on the best form I’ve possibly ever heard) and newcomer, modern Brit-wrestling legend, Nigel McGuinness only helped to develop that before, without much further ado, we cut to the introductions of the first two competitors.

Before each match we were treated to short videos about each wrestler that told us just enough to let us know who they were but not so much to dictate everything we would expect to see, leaving it up to the performers to tell the story in the ring.

First round
Trent Seven vs H.C. Dyer

Being one of the most recognisable competitors Trent Seven entered to a strong reaction backed up by comparisons on commentary to legends like Fit Finlay and Marty Jones and the fact Seven holds the Progress Wrestling tag team championships (with fellow competitor Tyler Bate).

Trent Seven hits the Seven Stars Lariat

Trent Seven hits the Seven Stars Lariat

The match itself was solid stuff from both men but it never felt anything but Seven’s show with the crowd chanting ‘Moustache Mountain’ for him and he being the centre of attention throughout.

The pair told a nice story around a hand injury to Seven and Dyer hit a nice pop-up spinebuster for a near fall, but it was the Seven Stars Lariat (a close relative of Kazuchika Okada’s Rainmaker) that secured the win for Seven who came across as true star with huge charisma and great in-ring skills.

Being in the Empress Ballroom gave the event a genuinely impressive feel and this was backed up by exterior shots of the Blackpool tower bringing a real sense of authentic grandeur to things. Something of a big WWE show but with a twist, helped by an English ring announcer and the presence of McGuinness of commentary.

Jordan Devlin vs Danny Burch

Danny Burch is a face familiar as something of a jobber on NXT TV shows who has never really shown a great deal of character beyond being a generic British hard man. While that was still present here his overall presentation built on this before the match even started and he felt like a legitimate contender.

Devlin with a superkick on Burch

Devlin with a superkick on Burch

Equally legitimate was the much younger Irishman Jordan Devlin, however even before the match started the comparisons and references to fellow Bray native Finn Balor were becoming a bit tiresome.

The match itself was slower getting going than I expected with a more ‘sport’ feel than many. As it went on though Devlin’s reaction to the crowd saw him grow into the match’s heel and the pace picked up as Burch made a comeback with speed, strikes and an impactful lariat.

A spinning enziguri roundhouse-kick busted Burch’s head open leading to a controversial pinfall win for Devlin that didn’t impress the crowd and was confusing as a TV viewer as well. While this was probably the weakest moment of the whole tournament a swift superkick after the match from Devlin did a great job of getting him firmly across as the villain while I would hope his performance here will see Burch elevated back in NXT.

While this match wasn’t the best it could have been it began to inject a little story into the tournament that was much-needed, while not at the expense of the wrestling. I can only think this is something WWE have learnt after the near total lack of story in the CWC that has made it hard for some the wrestlers to establish characters as they have moved on.

‘Muscle Cat’ Saxon Huxley vs Sam Gradwell

Huxley and Gradwell

Huxley and Gradwell

Being the first competitor to not be wearing black trunks made Saxon Huxley stand out from the pack though the mish-mash of appearance and character didn’t gel well and it wasn’t long before the crowd leapt on his long hair and beard with a fine range of Jesus related chants that were hilarious and showed exactly what British fans are good at (even if they caused a bit of controversy across the pond).

Gradwell on the other hand looks like a legit young hooligan and with more comparisons to legends like Marty Jones and Johnny Saint he came with a pedigree.

While the pair put on a solid match this one was all about the fan interaction with Gradwell certainly getting the better of it and getting the win with a Dynamite Kid style flying headbutt.

‘The Bruiserweight’ Pete Dunne vs Roy Johnson

Since the announcement of the tournament one name and face has stood out from the pack across all the promotion, that of Progress Wrestling world champion ‘The Brusierweight’ Pete Dunne and, as he made his entrance here looking like a pissed off pit bull ready to tear his opponent apart, it was obvious why.

Pete Dunne stretches Roy Johnson

Pete Dunne stretches Roy Johnson

Roy Johnson on the other hand was a far flashier looking performer and rare in this contest for being a sportsman before becoming a wrestler as a former power lifter.

Both men played their parts here very well but it was, of course, Dunne who was the highlight as he gradually picked apart the tenacious Johnson in a way reminiscent of the men whose colours he wore, Daniel Bryan and Blackpool’s own William Regal. This culminated in Dunne’s trademark pair of moves the X-Plex release vertical suplex and The Bitter End pump-handle flatliner that got him an unsurprising but emphatic win.

Having not seem a lot of Dunne before but being aware of his reputation, even at this early stage of the tournament he surpassed my expectations as he came across like a legitimate star and genuinely terrifying grappler.

Across the show as a whole it was very encouraging to hear WWE promoting some of the smaller independent British promotions and this was highlighted by the owners of both Progress Wrestling and ICW getting some screen time on the show. This points to good things for the future of WWE’s presence in the UK and relationship with both wrestlers and fans alike as it’s fair to say the fans of Progress and ICW support their ‘team’ just as much as the individual competitors.

‘The Last King of Scotland’ Wolfgang vs Tyson T-Bone

Wolfgang delivers The Howling

Wolfgang delivers The Howling

After quite a number of matches featuring smaller competitors, this one had the makings of a classic big man brawl and it didn’t disappoint. T-Bone came across as an impactful fighter from the start hitting a headbutt over the handshake before the pair went back and forth.

As the match went on it was ICW World Heavyweight Champion Wolfgang who really stood out with an incredible turn of speed for a big man giving the match a good dynamic of flashy stuff mixed in with the brawling.

Wolfgang though never looked like he was going to lose and sealed his win with The Howling Swanton Bomb.

Joseph Connors vs James Drake

While these two guys seemed to have a fairly similar look and style, it was Connors who stood out thanks to a partially missing ear that was used really well to tell his tough man story as he was reportedly left for dead after a fight in a night club leading to the disfigurement and he played up to it well – a bit like a modern Mankind.

Connors receives and enziguri kick

Connors receives and enziguri kick

After a great strong collar and elbow tie up opening, the match was very even and the ear came into play from both sides with Drake trying to attack Connors’ ‘injury’ and Connors looking to inflict similar brutality on his opponent.

After a very equal match it was Connors who got in his finishing combination of a reverse-elbow backbreaker (a very slick move I’ve not seen before) and his Don’t Look Down uranagi DDT to move on to the next round.

Mark Andrews vs Dan Moloney

Having had quite a storied career already, including a foray into US wrestling company TNA, Cardiff’s Mark Andrews (aka Mandrews) was something of a known commodity as a top-level high flyer. His opponent on the other hand, while perfectly fine left little impression and really that was the story of the match.

Mark Andrews

Mark Andrews

Throughout there was probably the clearest face/heel dynamic of the first round and Mandrews certainly looked like a star from the moment he stepped through the curtain. Getting in some nice high-flying action he got the win with his Stundog Millionaire counter (transforming his opponents’ suplex into a Stunner in slightly over convoluted fashion) and a very slick Shooting Star Press.

Tyler Bate vs Tucker

At just 19 years old it was very impressive to see Tyler Bate, the third member of British Strong Style with Dunne and Seven, headlining this first night – though he was playing the out-and-out babyface here.

Tyler Driver 97

Tyler Driver 97

Tucker was also playing face and the crowd loved both of them, but Bate just a little more as they put on a great show. The duo delivered a good back and forth but it was Bate’s slightly old school stylings that stood out with an airplane spin particularly marking this.

Tucker connected with a brutal super kick that looked like it would get him the win but Bate fought through and connected with his Tyler Driver 97 (a high angle Tiger Driver) to round of an excellent opening show of the tournament with real feeling wrestling matches accompanied by great character work and an amazing atmosphere.

The show concluded with the matches for the quarter finals being announced with the competitors on the stage and it was Pete Dunne who confirmed his impact with an attack on Sam Gradwell culminating in an X-Plex on the ramp and William Regal calling for his disqualification as the show went off the air.

Night 2

After the close of the previous night’s show it wasn’t too surprising that Pete Dunne featured strongly in the intro for night two and we didn’t have long to wait as, after recap from Cole and McGuinness, the first match got underway.

Quarter Finals
Pete Dunne vs Sam Gradwell

Gradwell and Dunne

Gradwell and Dunne

With his back taped up due to the previous night’s injury Gradwell was in fine angry form and he and Dunne kicked the night off with an intense brawl both inside and outside the ring leading to Gradwell getting a modicum of revenge with a butterfly suplex on the ramp.

Things turned soon after though with Dunne sending Gradwell tumbling to the floor further injuring his back before hitting a nasty looking slam into the turnbuckles, landing Gradwell on his head, for the win in a short, sharp, stiff and effective match.

After a post match Bitter End, Dunne cut a short promo on the stage and proved that he was a complete all round package of a pro-wrestler and at this stage was my pick to win the championship at the end of the night.

Mark Andrews vs Joseph Connors

Andrews hits a Shooting Star Press

Andrews hits a Shooting Star Press

In contrast to the last match Andrews kicked this off with a fast and athletic back and forth with Connors before the bigger man slowed it down and got the upper hand.

With more action outside the ring Andrews hit a nice cannonball off the barricade before being on the receiving end of a slingshot flatliner as the crowd cheered both men on.

Much like the first round though it was Mandrews who reversed a suplex and hit his top rope dive to progress. While I and the crowd would have been happy with either man winning Mandrews really feels like he deserves this, though maybe he didn’t deserve to have to face off with ‘The Bruiserweight’ later.

Wolfgang vs Trent Seven

Wolfgang absorbs the Seven Stars

Wolfgang absorbs the Seven Stars

With the two biggest remaining competitors facing off this one promised to be a hard-hitting affair and it certainly was.

Both guys come with big characters the crowd loved and that seemed to fuel them through a brawl outside the ring, including a moonsault off the barricade from the 250lb Wolfgang and low-level suicide dive from Seven.

Back in the ring Seven called for his ‘Lariatooo!’ but was revered leading to Wolfgang’s Wasteland and a missed moonsault followed by a nasty dragon suplex. With his nose streaming blood and possibly broken Wolfgang shocked everyone by surviving the Seven Stars and hitting The Howling to progress after a match that, at this stage, was a sure-fire highlight.

Jordan Devlin vs Tyler Bate

Another Tyler Driver 97

Another Tyler Driver 97

With more comparisons to Finn Balor, Devlin really played up his antics from last night as the crowd chanted ‘Your just a shit Finn Balor!’ in their typically unsubtle fashion while Bate was clearly the tournament’s fan favourite.

Despite this all becoming a bit too heavy on suicide dives the technical stuff here between the two was spot on as it built to a great airplane spin spot, developing on last night’s, before Devlin used the ropes on Bate’s eyes to regain the advantage and hit his spinning kick.

Surviving that though Bate hit his Bop And Bang sucker punch to set up the Tyler Driver 97 and win, showing himself to be a fine technical performer with even more excellent character work.

Semi-Finals
Mark Andrews vs Pete Dunne

Heading into the semi-finals this was the second match of the night for both men and it was clear that Andrews had the tougher path here, but the duo went at it at a pace from the off with Dunne showing another side keeping up with Andrews speedy high-flying.

Andrews and Dunne fight on the top rope

Andrews and Dunne fight on the top rope

With arm drag reversals and big moves galore, including a huricanrana from the ring steps, Andrews had many close falls before Dunne turned the tide with a modified X-Plex onto the ring apron.

Dunne’s strong style attack continued with some vicious looking stomps to Andrews head and neck building on a nice little neck injury story that developed across the match but Andrews still managed to counter an X-Plex into the Stundog and go for the Shooting Star.

Driving his knee’s to Andrew’s gut, Dunne countered and sealed his place in the final with a German Suplex into the turnbuckle another X-Plex and The Bitter End to round off what was arguably the match of the tournament.

Wolfgang vs Tyler Bate

On paper this was a huge mismatch with the biggest guy in the tournament squaring off against one of the smallest, but, thanks to a shoulder injury and broken nose, things were more even and a swift jab to Wolfgang’s face only helped Bate’s cause.

Wolfgang and Bate trade strikes

Wolfgang and Bate trade strikes

Despite the injuries Wolfgang put on a power display against his smaller opponent and even missing an early attempt at The Howling didn’t seem to slow him down.

As the crowd reached a crescendo that would barely let up for the rest of the night it was Bate who shocked everyone by hitting his Tyler Driver 97 on the big man to win a shorter but still sweet contest and earn his place in the final.

The celebration was short-lived though as Pete Dunne continued his tear across the tourney by attacking Bate from behind and twice driving him shoulder first into the ring post before being run off again by William Regal and setting up a final with great heat and a great story between these two superb performers.

Exhibition match
Adrian Neville vs ?

Having been missed out of the Cruiserweight Classic last summer and now not in this tournament, Newcastle born grappler Adrian Neville was on hand to continue his very successful heel turn in front of this comparatively local crowd, and turn well he did.

Of course having this match gave Dunne and Bate a chance to have a break but also worked well to further establish Neville’s new bitter bad guy persona which is far better than his past bland baby face superhero and the crowd ate it up as he claimed no one could beat him, not just in the UK but all of Europe.

Tommy End with a bridging German Suplex on Adrian Neville

Tommy End with a bridging German Suplex on Adrian Neville

At this challenge new WWE signee and regular performer on the UK scene, Amsterdam born fighter, Tommy End appeared making his on-screen WWE debut (before becoming Aleister Black in NXT full-time).

The pair put on a great little exhibition that, even if not at full pace was still hugely entertaining and seemed to merely hint at End’s capabilities. After some amazing strikes from End, Neville got the upper hand with a standing top rope hurricanrana that set up for The Red Arrow giving the Englishman the win to a rain of boos.

Following an appearance at a Progress show in Birmingham earlier in the day Finn Balor was on back in Blackpool ahead of the final and, while the ‘We deserve this’ chant from the crowd was a little grating it was hard to argue that the UK really has deserved something special for a long time being such a hotbed of wrestling action over the years.

Final
WWE United Kingdom Championship
Tyler Bate vs Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne and Tyler Bate

Bate works on the arm of Dunne

With Bate selling the shoulder injury and Dunne the confident and vicious heel the scene was well set for a British Strong Style final that didn’t disappoint.

The crowd was chanting ‘British Wrestling’ early, clearly still split over who they wanted to win of these two rather different (here at least) grapplers.

Soon though the story took over and they got behind Bate as the pair delivered some stiff work that built and built to a crescendo for the whole weekend.

Once again Bate’s airplane spin grew into a back to back to back trio of them and a 450 double stomp looked set to finish off Dunne, but it didn’t.

Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne

Bate eats a forearms from Dunne

Dunne came back with a Bitter End before locking in a Kimura double wrist lock that Bate reversed into a nasty looking brainbuster that still didn’t get him the win.

With things hitting their peak another stiff striking exchange came to an end with a pair of rolling wheel kicks from Bate setting up a Tyler Driver 97 for the three count making him the first ever WWE United Kingdom Champion.

With Balor, Regal, Fit Finlay and Triple H all on hand Bate looked brilliantly shocked, and I don’t think it was entirely an act, as the crowd gave the performers a standing ovation to close off an amazing two nights of properly structured professional wrestling that built to a raging climax of passion and power.

Triple H, Tyler Bate and William Regal

Triple H, Tyler Bate and William Regal

If this is a sign of things to come I can only be incredibly happy and I hope WWE take some of this into their other regular programming as it is some of the best I have seen from that company in some time, of course a lot of the credit for that is down to the excellent wrestlers coming out of the UK and Ireland right now.

Now to investigate more Progress, Rev Pro, ICW, etc…

All photos from WWE.com

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NXT Greatest Matches: Volume 1

NXT Greatest Matches blu-rayOver the last four years NXT, WWE’s ‘super-indie’ (to quote Jim Smallman of Progress Wrestling and the Tuesday Night Jaw podcast), has gone from being a training ground for stars of the future to one of the most respected and interesting wrestling brands or promotions in its own right.

Taking a lot of the conventions of the independent wrestling scene and marrying it to WWE’s big budget look and highly formatted approach has created something different to both, that now not only allows new WWE performers to learn their craft but is providing a new route for already established indie stars to transition to the somewhat different ‘WWE style’ of wrestling and (whisper it) sports entertainment.

With all that in mind WWE have put out a DVD/Blu-ray collection of highlight matches charting NXT’s development from the crowning of their first champion in August 2012 to their Takeover: Respect event in October 2015. Most sets like this WWE release would be described as a mixed bag, but here is a solid collection of more than 8 hours at least good and predominantly pretty great matches, as has become NXT’s stock in trade.

Dusty Rhodes, Seth Rollins and Triple H

Dusty Rhodes, Seth Rollins and Triple H

The first disc charts the brands evolution from internet based show watched by a handful through the arrival of the WWE Network and up beginnings of NXT’s evolution into its own entity.

So we see a few matches from Seth Rollins that show just why he was to become the star he now he is. His championship match with Big E Langston may be the better of the two here but the tournament final for the first championship with Jinder Mahal is, of course, the more historically significant.

With this we also see Bray Wyatt, before he made it to the ‘main roster’, in a match with Chris Jericho that is again interesting. Notable in these early matches is the commentary team led by ‘JR’ Jim Ross and often featuring William Regal, that is exceptional and really serves to elevate and highlight all the performers strong points – if only the commentary on Monday Night Raw and the monthly WWE specials would do the same!

One of the most talked about early NXT matches, that set the reputation not only for the brand but for one its stars who came in from the indies is included, as Sami Zayn (who some say previously performed under a mask as El Generico) goes to war with Antonio Cesaro in a 2-out-of-3 falls match that is fantastic.

Sami Zayn and Antonio Cesaro

Zayn with the Koji Clutch on Cesaro

Zayn is the performer who’s path most tracks alongside NXT’s so we see him develop with his journey to the NXT championship in a classic against Adrian Neville and the renewal of his storied feud with Kevin Owens in a brutal show stealer. As I write this Zayn’s time in NXT has recently culminated with a match destined for Volume 2 of this collection (should it happen) as he tore the house down in Dallas against a debuting Shinsuke Nakamura.

Alongside the story of Sami Zayn we get potentially the even more influential story of NXT, its Women’s Division. While WWE was still mostly focusing on models ‘wrestling’ under the banner Divas, NXT was breaking this mold with some of the best female wrestlers in the world, including one as their lead trainer, leading to the revolution of the form that has come to the main shows at with the return of the WWE Women’s Championship at Wrestlemania 32.

Here we get the beginnings of this with Paige and Emma clashing for the NXT Women’s Championship followed by the emergence of the ‘Four Horsewomen of NXT’ Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, Becky Lynch and Bayley (the last of which is essentially a female Sami Zayn within NXT).

The Four Horsewomen at Takeover: Brooklyn

The Four Horsewomen at Takeover: Brooklyn

Disc one features classics pitting Charlotte against Natalya Neidhart and the Horsewomen squaring off in a Fatal-4-Way match for the championship, before on the second disc we see the Sasha Banks and Bayley feud highlighted with their show stealing performance from Takeover: Brooklyn that even eclipsed that night’s main event between indie heroes Finn Balor and Kevin Owens.

Disc 2 of the Blu-ray set sees NXT grow into an internationally touring brand as we see the Florida based show move out to the Arnold Classic sports expo, Wrestlemania 31 in San Jose, Beast in the East in Tokyo and Takeover: Brooklyn.

With this the third generation of stars come to the fore with Owens and Balor squaring off in a Japanese classic, Hideo Itami showing his credentials in San Jose and the aforementioned face off between Sasha Banks and Bayley in Brooklyn.

Finn Balor at Beast In The East

Finn Balor at Beast In The East

As well as the string of great matches we get an insight into the show from not only the wrestlers but the man leading the show, former WWE World Heavyweight Champion and heir apparent to the WWE as a whole, Triple H, aka Paul Levesque.

These are an interesting set of largely out of character talking heads that shed a light on the organic approach taken to NXT’s development and the apparent surprise and genuine appreciation for its growing popularity.

Notable here as well is the respect shown to the late Dusty Rhodes who seemed to steer the NXT ship in its early days and lay a lot of the groundwork for what it is now. As a parting gift from The American Dream, they don’t come much better or more suitable given his long-held hard-working, common man character.

Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn

Owens and Zayn continue their epic feud

The Blu-ray comes with five bonus matches which, while more curios than essentials, are all at least very good and its nice to see CM Punk and Kassius Ohno (aka Chris Hero) featured given their less than great relationships with WWE today and the chance to see Corey Graves in the ring before his concussion issues is also appreciated.

While many of the matches contained here are available on the WWE Network, what this collection does, and does well, is present a potted history of NXT and its best moments in one easy to find place. Along with that are the early matches not currently available elsewhere which make this a real must own for fans of the brand, and especially fans of British wrestler William Regal as his last televised match (a stormer with Antonio Cesaro) is also included.

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WrestleMania 32 – Dallas, Texas – 03/04/16

wrestlemania 32 logoSince I first started watching pro-wrestling in 1992, following the then WWF’s SummerSlam at Wembley (before this weekend their highest ever legitimate live attendance of around 80,000) the ‘sport’ has had its ups and downs.

WrestleMania 32 comes at something of a transitional time for the WWE in particular, but also comes when the company is arguably the biggest it’s ever been.

In 1993, for WrestleMania IX, the ‘show of shows’ was a three-hour long, pay-per-view event featuring a string of single and tag team matches and the odd celebrity appearance. Now, in 2016 WrestleMania 32 lasts, all told, the best part of a week if you include all the side events from the Axxess fan festival, to NXT Takeover and the WWE Hall of Fame ceremony.

Meanwhile the main show itself is a seven-hour marathon, if you include the ‘Kickoff’ show, with matches, celebrities (in and out of the ring), musical performances and more all in front of (allegedly) 101,763 people.

Kickoff Show

Wrestlemania 32 kickoff panel

The kickoff panel

The pre-show itself was, for the most part, as expected with Renee Young (currently one of WWE’s finest presenting talents) chairing a panel of ‘legends’, Booker T, Lita and Corey Graves, discussing and hyping the matches to come.

Out of the ring the highlights of the pre-show came, somewhat predictably, from promo masters Paul Heyman and Kevin Owens.

Heyman’s slightly creepy, supremely arrogant ‘advocate’ character really came to the fore in an online Q&A segment, while Intercontinental Champion Kevin Owen made everyone in the upcoming seven man ladder match sound good while maintaining his not to be messed with, out their to win at all costs, persona.

WWE United States Championship
Kalisto (c) vs. Ryback

Kalisto and Ryback

Kalisto and Ryback

Coming out in the face of a not even half full arena (reports suggest getting in was a slow process) defending champion Kalisto still got a decent recent and the match itself started out with some good big man/small man psychology between the two competitors.

As always it wasn’t long before Ryback was doing some dangerous looking throws on the much smaller luchadore before we cut to an advert for WrestleMania – this felt fairly pointless as everyone watching this match would be doing on a platform already showing the main show, anyway, back to the fight.

After some back and forth and nice moves from Kalisto, Ryback hit a brutal but nice looking running Michinoku Driver before a stalling vertical superplex got reversed for a near fall.

Ryback hits a Michinoku Driver

Ryback hits a Michinoku Driver

At this point new play-by-play man Mauro Ronallo mentioned that Kalisto’s tights were designed in tribute to Japanese legend Hayabusa, which was a nice touch and shows Ronallo’s ability to make even minor factors sound interesting and relevant.

The match ended with a nice little sequence involving Ryback hitting an exposed turnbuckle and falling into Kalisto’s Solida Del Sol finisher giving the champion the win.

While nothing special the match exceeded my expectations and was a solid start to the show with a feel-good finish with the Lucha Dragon retaining his title against all the odds.

Total Divas vs. Team B.A.D. & Blonde

Natalya and Paige hit the Hart Attack

Natalya and Paige hit the Hart Attack

Despite all the talk of the ‘Divas revolution’ since last summer this ’10 Diva tag team match’ felt like something of a throwback with a few able wrestlers teaming alongside glorified fashion models.

The match started out relatively flat until a nice Hart Attack from Paige and Natalya and Emma coming in against Paige and delivering a nice wheelbarrow suplex before the standard spot of everyone hitting their signature moves.

Here it became obvious that Lana (the ‘Ravishing Russian’) was only being trusted to hit a version of Rusev’s jumping superkick and Eva Marie, despite being put on the face team, was still receiving the levels of negative crowd response she always has.

I’m going to try to avoid so-called ‘political’ talk where possible, but the case of the hate for Eva from large sections of the crowd is representative of a problem, to which there are certainly two sides, seen across this show and, as a fan, I can’t help but feel I’m being driven away from the product by some of this.

A fitting send off for Brie Bella?

A fitting send off for Brie Bella?

Back to the match and things culminated in a much better sequence between a genuinely fired up Brie Bella and Naomi finishing in Naomi tapping out to the Yes Lock.

After the match Brie’s injured sister Nikki came out and the Total Divas team celebrated with Brie and Nikki in particular sharing a moment that maybe the pair’s swansong in the ring.

While I’ve not always been their biggest fan, both had upped their game over the last year and it’s a shame to see them go, but, as ever a happy, healthy life should always be put above the damage that can be sustained in the wrestling ring.

Lita unveils the new Women's Championship

Lita unveils the new Women’s Championship

In a slightly related segment, that in many ways I hope will do away with matches like the one we’d just witnessed, WWE Hall of Famer Lita was in the ring to unveil the new WWE Women’s Championship belt which, it was announced, would be contested in the women’s match on the main show, replacing the Diva’s belt.

I’ll go into more detail later but this has been a change that’s been a long time coming and shows a lot more respect to the female wrestlers in WWE who over the last couple of years have reached impressive new highs, particularly following the lead of the Women’s Division in NXT.

The Usos vs. The Dudley Boys

The Dudleys and The Usos

The Dudleys and The Usos

Acting as the climax of what had felt like a fairly lackluster feud two teams of different eras clashed to round off the pre-show. The match started well with Bubba Ray Dudley in particular providing some highlights with his self commentated beat down on whichever of the Uso twins was in the ring. This is something Bubba has always excelled at and what has made this team one of the best bad guy duos of the last twenty years.

Unfortunately things didn’t go much further than that as, after a few superkicks (seemingly the only moves the Usos were allowed to do tonight) the match was over in barely five minutes. A post-match table spot looked good and popped the crowd for simply existing, but felt forced and what had been a feud without a lot of heat finished in the same way.

Dudleys go through the tables

Dudleys go through the tables

As the countdown clocked neared zero we got a final hype package for the night’s main event that actually did a decent job of making it a compelling story and, while it didn’t make me side with Roman Reigns, it got me more invested than I had been previously and set the scene well for what was to come. So now, after two hours of warm up, onto…

WrestleMania

After the customary America The Beautiful rendition, this year from Fifth Harmony (a girl group I’d never heard of and hope never to again, if I’m honest) we got a genuinely excellent opening video highlighting the history of WrestleMania that gave the event a genuine feel of heritage. Featured were Andre The Giant, Ultimate Warrior, Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Steve Austin and Daniel Bryan giving a span of the modern era of wrestling and showing how tonight’s big matches fit in that context.

I love this kind of thing so was suitably hyped as we cut back to the arena and a ring surrounded by ladders so its time for…

WWE Intercontinental Championship Ladder Match
Kevin Owens (c) vs. Sami Zayn vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Stardust vs. The Miz vs. Zack Ryder vs. Sin Cara

Owens frog splashes Zayn

Owens frog splashes Zayn

Ziggler was out first to a big pop followed by Sami Zayn. His arrival and the crowd reaction was a genuine goosebump moment given his storied journey to the ‘grandest stage of them all’ and was matched only in this match by the reception afforded to Kevin Owens who has had a very similar path.

Throughout the match it was mostly the story of Zayn and Owens with things always seemingly defaulting back to the two facing off, though that’s not to say everyone else got their moments too.

As expected it was a spot-fest but all paid off well from Sami’s dive through the ladder to the outside to Ziggler’s ‘superkick party’, Stardust’s polka dot ladder (in tribute to his late father Dusty Rhodes), Owens’ huge frog splash and Zack Ryder’s even bigger ‘El-bro’ drop off the ladder.

The conclusion came when Sami and Owens fought themselves out of the match with a sick looking half-and-half suplex into a ladder that I worried had caused Owens a legitimate injury, before Zack Ryder provided the night’s first real shock by shoving Miz off the ladder and grabbing the belt to make a real WrestleMania moment.

Zack Ryder

Zack Ryder

Though clearly shocked, the crowd, who’d given Ryder a mixed response earlier, seemed to love it and, while I find it hard to see how this will fit into the bigger picture, I couldn’t be happier for Ryder who’s been one of the hardest working most overlooked performers for years, starting the night off on a feel-good high.

Chris Jericho vs. AJ Styles

From fighting Shinsuke Nakamura (who debuted for NXT at Takeover the preceding Friday) at Wrestle Kingdom 10 in January to debuting for the WWE at the Royal Rumble to now making his first appearance at WrestleMania, its been quite a year for ‘The Phenomenal One’ AJ Styles so far.

His feud with Chris Jericho has been going on since the Rumble and, while never white-hot, has had a nice build and both men are veterans and have had some good matches so, there was an expectation that this could be a show stealer.

Styles dives in a Jericho dropkick

Styles dives in a Jericho dropkick

Things started off with some good back and forth, albeit with a slightly slow pace, and as the match went on both guys hit their non-finishing signature spots and the crowd got hotter and hotter as this went on.

AJ provided the real high spots, as expected, with his springboard 450 splash, his selling on Jericho’s Codebreaker and his general style which nicely combines elements of the WWE style with things his time in Japan has added to that.

The end came, again as something of a surprise, as Jericho countered the Phenomenal Forearm into a Codebreaker leaving, for me, something of a sour taste to the match that I had assumed would be used to build Styles in the eyes of the more casual WWE fans.

That said the match as a whole was a good one and, if not an all out show stealer was one of the better offerings.

The New Day vs. The League of Nations

The New Day

The New Day

The last year has seen the WWE Tag Team Champions Big E, Xavier Woods and Kofi Kingston, aka The New Day, grow and grow in popularity through a mix of comedy, in-ring skill and all round fun that makes the perfect package for WWE’s brand of sports entertainment.

So it was fitting that they were the first to receive a special entrance here as they emerged from a giant box of ‘Booty-Os’ cereal in Power Rangers style attire.

Suitably the somewhat lackluster heel faction, The League of Nations (who have the feel of four guys with nothing better to do rather than a real team) just walked to the ring as usual – though I will admit that they make a physically imposing line up.

Rusev superkicks Big E

Rusev superkicks Big E

The match itself was something of a scrappy six-man tag that felt odd given it included the tag team champions not defending on the biggest show of the year.

The New Day got their popular spots in early, highlighted by the delightfully silly ‘Unicorn Stampede’ complete with trombone accompaniment before things descended into ‘chaos’ including a nasty looking jumping superkick from Rusev to Big E that the cameras all but missed.

The conclusion came when King Barrett interfered, hitting a Bullhammer from the outside and Sheamus connected with his Brogue Kick for the seemingly meaningless win. In all, this match would have been a good match on Raw, but at WrestleMania fell short, until…

The Unicorn Stampede

The Unicorn Stampede

After the match Barrett cut a promo suggesting no three-man team could beat the League of Nations at which point Shawn Michaels music hit and he came out dressed to fight (for the first time since his retirement several years ago), he was followed by Mick Foley in semi-Cactus Jack gear and then the glass smashed and the crowd erupted for Stone Cold Steve Austin.

While a bit random all three men have strong ties with Dallas wrestling being from Texas or having wrestled at the Sportatorium for WCCW in the late 80s and they proceeded to ‘open a can of whoop ass’ (to steal a phrase) on the League of Nations before celebrating with The New Day. Suitably Austin didn’t get involved in the dancing, instead hitting a stunner on Xavier Woods before the Hall of Fame trio shared some beers in classic Stone Cold style.

Austin with the Stunner on Woods

Austin with the Stunner on Woods

This segment was all good fun but led to the problem that WWE often has with these things that it has rendered any threat or power the League of Nations may have had null and void and they have now been bested by a trio of retired performers.

I could go on at length about this but I have to say I enjoyed the segment for what it was but worry it will continue to affect WWE’s already challenged weekly shows by rendering a set of potentially top class heels as a comedy side-show.

So, with the undercard now well and truly out-of-the-way (with one arguable exception), its time for the first of four matches that feel like main events.

No Holds Barred Street Fight
Brock Lesnar vs. Dean Ambrose

Ambrose gets thrown

Ambrose gets thrown

While this looked like a huge mismatch, given Lesnar’s ‘beast’ status, the build to the match felt like it could give Ambrose a chance based on his history as a hardcore wrestler and the nice touch of getting endorsements and ‘weapons’ from some hardcore legends like Mick Foley and Terry Funk.

With that in mind most of the body of the match had a good back and forth feel; Lesnar looked dominant with his suplexes and MMA style knee strikes, while Ambrose found moments to use kendo sticks and steel chairs (and a well-timed low blow) to fight back.

A nice spot in the middle of the match saw Ambrose counter Brock’s F-5 finisher into a version of his Dirty Deeds DDT onto a steel chair, but ultimately Lesnar proved too much to overcome.

Ambrose canes Lesnar

Ambrose canes Lesnar

Despite 13 suplexes, a gimmick that grown tired over the last year and half, the end of the match felt a bit sudden and incomplete once again leaving an up and coming performer loosing out in a way that seems to kill the momentum of both the performer and stories involved.

Tellingly it was at this point in the night I first thought the whole show seemed to have a very odd sense of the booking with good matches being left on down points and, judging by reactions both in the stadium and online, I wasn’t alone in this thought.

Its become tradition that, the night before WrestleMania, WWE celebrates heroes of the past at its Hall of Fame induction ceremony, at this point in the show they were introduced in the stadium and, while a mixed set, it felt like a good year for the Hall of Fame.

Sting

Sting

Stan Hansen and The Fabulous Freebirds were there representing Texas (though quite why Freebird Michael Hayes was wearing a bum bag is beyond me) while Snoop Dogg felt like an actually fitting inductee in the ‘celebrity wing’.

The headliner though was Sting, who got a big reaction and its good to see him getting honour that many thought he wouldn’t given his long time refusal to work with WWE.

WWE Women’s Championship
Charlotte Flair (c) vs. Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch

Sasha Banks with Snoop Dogg

Sasha Banks with Snoop Dogg

With the earlier announcement that this match would be to crown a new Women’s Champion and see the retirement of the Diva’s Title what already felt like one of the most anticipated matches on the show, went up yet another level.

For years WWE has insisted on calling its male wrestlers Superstars and its female wrestlers Divas. Understandably that has always felt like something of a gender imbalance and, given the recent resurgence in actual legitimate feeling women’s wrestling in NXT and creeping onto the main WWE shows, this imbalance has felt all the more pronounced.

This change though seems to suggest that WWE is now going to take this side of its product more seriously and, I for one, am hugely excited about this given the quality of matches that have been taking place over the last year. All three competitors here have featured in those matches and made their WrestleMania debuts here, giving this a real feeling of a milestone that was reflected in both the performances given and the audience’s response to it.

Charlotte goes for a moonsault

Charlotte goes for a moonsault

Given her history it was great to see Becky Lynch come out to a decent reaction even though she was clearly the biggest underdog in this match. Sasha Banks got a real WrestleMania entrance with her cousin Snoop Dogg joining her while Charlotte, accompanied by her father Ric Flair, also made this feel like a big match with a new robe made from one of Ric’s old ones giving an extra boost to the legacy feel of the match.

The match itself is probably the best women’s match ever to take place at WrestleMania as it opened with a series of quick near falls that set a hell of a pace. Throughout all three competitors delivered some inventive stuff and, for the most part, all three were involved throughout, rather than the more standard WWE triple threat match approach of a series of one on one moments.

All three took impressive dives to the floor with Sasha’s being particularly impressive. She also delivered a great frog splash to Charlotte in tribute to Eddie Guerrero (who she also referenced in the design of her ring gear) and, along with a series of traded submission holds got a ‘This is wrestling’ chant from the crowd who grew more and more engaged as the match went on.

Sasha hits a frog splash

Sasha hits a frog splash

The match built expertly to its climax which was, arguably, slightly spoilt by an interference spot from Ric Flair, giving the in to Charlotte. While that was a bit of a shame there wasn’t a clean winner I hope this sets up a dedicated feud between Charlotte and Sasha that could really cement the reputation of the new championship in the coming months.

At this point in the show this match stood out head and shoulders as match of the night with both the build and most of the execution out shining anything that had come before.

Hell in a Cell
The Undertaker vs. Shane McMahon

The Undertaker

The Undertaker

With what can only be described as a slightly confusing build involving the return of the McMahon family soap opera that was headlining WrestleMania more than a decade ago, there was an odd feeling going into this match. But, it being Undertaker at WrestleMania and a Hell in a Cell match promised spectacle if nothing else – and in that regard it delivered.

The first part of the match told a good story of Shane’s speed against Undertaker’s power with strikes making up the bulk of it but a few of the Deadman’s power moves coming into play as well.

Following a spell on the outside to hype the danger of the cell Shane locked in a triangle hold in the ring leading to a nice Undertaker comeback and a chokeslam on the steel stairs for the first real ‘extreme’ moment of the match.

Shane locks in the triangle hold

Shane locks in the triangle hold

From here on it was all a bit spot to spot, but they were good spots building to a clear climax. First Shane hit his Coast To Coast, Van Terminator, dropkick to Undertaker before getting driven through the cell wall. From there the duo fought outside the cell leading to Taker driving Shane through the ill-fated Spanish Announce Table to counter a sleeper hold.

At this point it struck me that the now long-held rule about shot to the head with ‘weapons’ seemed to have been waived for this match, but actually most of the shots looked safe, though it’s still uncomfortable to see given the now more well-known concussion issues in the ‘sport’, but this was soon forgotten as Shane scaled the outside wall of the cell.

Over the years Mick Foley’s falls from the cell have become the stuff of legend, as has Shane McMachon’s penchant for ridiculous falls and spots in his matches but, for me, in 2016, I think wrestling has really moved beyond this.

Shane takes a dive

Shane takes a dive

That said there was a sense of anticipation for something to happen here and, while I wouldn’t really have though it missing had it not happened what came next really was hugely impressive, if scary, and shows an impressive dedication on the part of Shane – though I’m not sure if it’s through bravery or a special kind of stupidity.

So, from the top of the now much taller cell, Shane McMahon leapt, the Undertaker moved, and Shane crashed through the second announce table in a truly spectacular moment.

Inevitably this lead to the end of the match in not short order via a final Tombstone Piledriver back in the ring giving the Undertaker the win.

While the match was a fine spectacle, much like the Ambrose/Lesnar street fight, it left the whole thing feeling a little off as all the work and momentum spent in building up to this was cut off in its prime leaving many holes and questions to still be answered and making for an odd way to seemingly end the feud as neither McMahon or the Undertaker are likely to be back in the ring anytime soon.

Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal

Shaq and Big Show

Shaq and Big Show

Having been a staple of the lower card for the last two years it was a bit odd to see this match moved up to here, though I assumed it was to act as a less intense moment between the Hell in a Cell and the main event – in that I was only partially correct.

A group of the usual lower-mid card suspects made their way to the ring before bigger names Mark Henry, Kane and Big Show headed to the ring, along with surprise entrant/nostalgia act Diamond Dallas Page (though they should have given him a little pyro for his ‘Bang!’ at least).

At this point though things took a turn for the surreal, and not in a good way, as Shaquille O’Neill headed to the ring and squared off with Big Show.

Diamond Dallas Page

Diamond Dallas Page

While I’ve no real problem with celebrities at WrestleMania, its part of the show, having them in the ring is always a stretch and something like this can’t help but remind me of some of the biggest mistakes WCW made during their decline.

Thankfully this didn’t last two long as, after a bit a stare down and ‘choke off’ the two were eliminated by everyone else.

From there it was largely a nothing match of random guys being eliminated with no sense of story until the very end where NXT’s Baron Corbin eliminated Kane to get the win.

While I’m no fan of Corbin, for various reasons that are in fact similar to issues I have with Roman Reigns, it was good to see a new performer get the win which will hopefully help to elevate their worth and create something new on the main roster.

Baron Corbin

Baron Corbin

As a heel who’s done pretty much all he can on NXT (except learn how to put on a good match) he could be useful on the currently heel light main roster if that’s what this signifies – for me Samoa Joe replacing Corbin would have made more sense here, but that’s just me.

Now we come to the part of the show that I had enjoyed least and have the most problem with…

The Rock, The Wyatts and the return

After a brief burst of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (we were told they were world-renowned…) The Rock made his much hyped but, to be honest, not especially wanted return by posing on the stage for an age then setting fire to his name with a flame thrower and heading to the ring.

The Rock

The Rock

It was at this point the feeling that WrestleMania may have jumped the shark set in.

From there we got the usual Rock promo work which, while impressive how he works the crowd, has now been going on for more than 15 years as a gimmick and so is very past its sell by date in my opinion.

After announcing the supposed attendance record of the event a crack of light (or darkness) emerged as Bray Wyatt and his ‘family’ made their way to the ring with a breath-taking shot of the arena filled with Bray’s ‘fireflies’. A back and forth ensued before The Rock stripped off to his wrestling gear (I’m glad he was prepared for this surprise interruption) and beat Erick Rowan in six seconds.

The Wyatts and The Rock

The Wyatts and The Rock

A beatdown looked set to ensue before no one’s favourite hero John Cena made his return and he and Rocky fought off the Wyatt’s once again completely killing any threat for yet another group of potentially excellent heels in the name of nonsensical nostalgia.

There was a lot of interesting stuff that could have gone down here keeping The Rock as a popular character while elevating Wyatt, but that didn’t happen rendering it a really hard section of the show to take while killing any momentum that had been building as we head into…

WWE World Heavyweight Championship
Triple H (c) vs. Roman Reigns

Triple H and Roman Reigns

Triple H and Roman Reigns

After the same hype package from the pre-show we cut back to arena to see Stephanie McMahon dressed as a kind of warrior queen, matching Triple H’s King Conan-esque look and introducing her husband and champion with a rallying call for The Authority.

While ridiculous it matches their characters but with all the previous craziness of the show just added to the fever dream feeling.

Triple H himself (entering first, something a champion shouldn’t do) came to ring in surprisingly regular fashion despite the various accompaniments, and still looks the part of a champion as only he can.

Roman Reigns on the other hand was greeted by a deafening chorus of boos as his specially elaborate entrance didn’t really work on TV and I can’t see how it would have done in the stadium as it was based on camera angles and fireworks outside the arena.

Spear through the barrier

Spear through the barrier

The match started in typical slow, Triple H style, which I like in this context but it was clear the crowd were not buying Reigns as their hero from the off so it was like watching a heel (Triple H) against a mega-heel (Reigns) making the whole thing imbalanced.

With a generally punch kick feel there were a few nice moves as the match went on including a swinging neckbreaker to Reigns off the one remaining announce table, a spear through the barricades to Triple H and a nice sequence of arm bars from Triple H on an apparently injured Reigns.

While last year’s main event between Reigns and Lesnar saw Roman actually get some momentum behind him, here he did nothing to try to win the crowd (not that I think anything would have been successful) and, as the much climaxed with a spear to Stephanie and an escape from a pin following a Pedigree even through the TV there seemed to be a hostile atmosphere.

Pedigree from Triple H

Pedigree from Triple H

Hitting a colossal spear Roman Reigns pinned Triple H for the three count to become the new WWE World Heavyweight Champion leading to a celebration that showed suspiciously few shots of the crowd and featured extremely loud music and commentary even for a WWE show.

Reports from in the stadium suggest this was to try to mask the negative and angry reaction of the audience that left WrestleMania 32 on a strange note.

A lot could, and already is, being argued as the relatively merits and reasons for some of the choices made across the show, but, for me, a lot of poor booking decisions were made rendering this year’s show a hugely problematic one that left too many things in a state that made all the work put in before hand null or void or leaving the audience with a bad taste in their mouths.

Roman Reigns

Roman Reigns

That said the high points were high, topped off by the Women’s Championship match leaving WrestleMania 32 as a mid level show in the history of the event, but I look forward to looking back on it with some hindsight and see if anything changes.

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Sting – Into The Light

Sting - Into the Light DVD coverIn 1985 Steve Borden, aka Sting, first stepped into a wrestling ring. Now, 31 years later, speculation is rife that his in-ring career is over following a neck injury sustained in September 2015 during a match with then WWE World Heavyweight Champion Seth Rollins.

With that in mind, as we approach Wrestlemania weekend 2016 and Sting being inducted into the WWE Hall Of Fame, I thought it seemed the right time to take a look at the documentary released in mid-2015 charting the career of the man dubbed ‘The Icon’.

The main documentary, running at just over an hour, deals with most aspects of Sting’s 30 years in the ring as well as some elements of his personal life and, while clearly very much produced from the WWE point of view, it does allow some interesting stories to come through.

Like many of the more recent WWE documentaries, made since the dawning of the WWE Network, Into The Light takes something of a dual path approach to its story; one focusing on the more ‘reality’ aspect of the then current build up to Sting’s debut in WWE and the other looking at his history.

Sting circa 1990

Sting circa 1990

All of this is highlighted by a series of new interviews with Sting himself where he opens up, in relatively candid terms, about his path. As a wrestling fan dating back to the early 1990s for me the most interesting parts of this revolve around his feud with Ric Flair that spanned the late 1980s to the final WCW Nitro show in early 2001. This segment gives a real insight into the way the wrestlers work together and quite what it means to them to compete at the top of their ‘sport’.

Along with the Sting interviews the documentary is packed with inserts from a range of stars, past and present, and again it’s Sting’s contemporaries from WCW that provide the most insight, particularly his old ‘running buddies’ Lex Luger and Rick Steiner.

Notable by his absence here (especially as Jerry Jarrett appears and rival company TNA even gets a passing mention) is Scott Steiner, though given rumours surrounding his relationship with WWE it’s not really surprising.

All too brief in all of this are a couple of clips of Ultimate Warrior who broke into pro-wrestling with Sting and it would have been great to hear more of this, sadly circumstances of course prevent that.

Sting and Ric Flair at The Great American Bash

Sting and Ric Flair at The Great American Bash

As things get up to the era of the NWO in WCW we get some more insight into how the company was being mismanaged that, while never totally explicit, back up a lot of what is rumoured and discussed. While he remains polite about it, its clear that Sting was hugely frustrated by all the ‘politics’ at play around Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff and that this had a major effect on both his professional and personal life.

Knowing some of the history of Steve Borden outside of the ring I wasn’t surprised to see some sections about his faith. While I always find these kind of things a bit trying, they do represent what is clearly a strong aspect of the man and fed into his choices about working with WWE over the last decade and a half – though given his work in TNA this isn’t totally convincing.

What I’ve described as the more ‘reality’ sections are fascinating in their own right as they allow a view into the day-to-day working of the WWE away from the pro-wrestling that shows quite how huge and varied a concern it is.

Sting and John Cena

Sting and John Cena

Along with clips of meetings with Paul ‘Triple H’ Levesque, we get to see inside ‘Titan Towers’ in Stamford, Connecticut with meetings about merchandise, community/charity work and more.

This all culminates with a look back at Sting making his WWE debut at Wrestlemania 31 against Triple H. While it skirts certain questions it is an interesting insight into, arguably, the most historic match at that event.

Bonus Features

As with all these documentaries the DVD/Blu-Ray release comes with a bunch of off-cut extra ‘stories’ and these don’t disappoint.

Sting at Wrestlemania 31

Sting at Wrestlemania 31

While not essential to the story told in the main feature they offer some new insights from the origins of the Scorpion Death Lock/Sharpshooter (as explained by Tyson Kidd) to more behind the scenes looks at WWE to Sting’s then revolutionary entrances rappelling from the ceiling in NWO era WCW.

Along with these are a series of career spanning matches that, along with the previously released Best of Sting set, offer a pretty exhaustive look at Borden’s career from early matches with the Warrior-to-be as The Blade Runners through WCW and up to the match with Triple H at Wrestlemania 31.

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WrestleMania 31 – 29/03/15

Westlemania 31 poster31 years since the birth of Hulkamania WWE brought its ‘Showcase of the Immortals’ to San Jose, California for one of the most hyped WrestleManias of all time.

Clocking in at 6 hours, including the two pre-show segments, it was also the longest WrestleMania to date and the first to be almost entirely reliant on the existence of the WWE Network and in this, and other respects, it seemed to be the beginning of a new chapter in the history of WWE and mainstream pro-wrestling – following last year’s subsequently somewhat stalled attempt at the same.

Pre-show

The first hour of the pre-show was essentially the standard warm-up fare with hype packages for the big matches and few backstage segments. The only real thing of note was the nicely played cameo of Vince McMahon’s old pair of stooges, Pat Patterson and Gerald Brisco, as they had a brief run in with J&J Security, their current equivalents who stand alongside Seth Rollins.

Also the appearance of Lana with Rusev continued their storyline nicely leading into the match later with John Cena and the video package for Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt, using Johnny Cash’s When The Man Comes Around, showed what WWE can do with hyping matches when they are at their best.

The second hour of the pre-show is where things really began as it moved from the free format of YouTube and onto the WWE Network (that’s $9.99 a month, as they have been drilling into us for the last year!) and we got a couple of matches along with some more hype and some #AskLita segments which, while it’s always good to see Lita back on-screen, were a bit pointless.

Tag Team Championships: Tyson Kidd and Cesaro (w/ Natalya) (c) vs The Usos (w/Naomi) vs The New Day (w/Xavier Woods) vs El Matadores (w/ El Torito)

Cesaro takes a superkick

Cesaro takes a superkick

With the doors having only been open for an hour the near 80,000 strong crowd were still making their way in as the teams made their way out with slightly truncated entrances, but it wasn’t long before the audience really got into this.

An injury to one of the Usos was well covered as Cesaro threw him into the barricade and he was helped out leaving his brother to go it alone, but, with the amount of people already around the ring, this really didn’t matter.

The crowd really got into it with chants for the Swiss Superman and some great clap along ‘New Day Sucks’ chants as Woods tried to get a positive chant going for his team.

The match flew from spot to spot excellently with only one or two minor loose moments and no major botches to speak of, which is always impressive for a spot fest like this.

With bodies flying over the ropes and all sorts of other spots it was a fun, psychology free, affair that warmed the crowd up a treat and ended on a great double-triple-top-rope superplex spot and showed that Cesaro and Kidd are by far the most over team on the main roster and really none of the other teams came across as potential contenders at all.

Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royal

Hideo Itami eliminates Bo Dallas

Hideo Itami eliminates Bo Dallas

After an initial big build up this match was dropped to the pre-show and, once it got going, it was obvious why.

Battle royals are always a challenging affair as, with so many people in the ring, the first three-quarters of the match are generally hard to follow and this was no different, though there were a few nice spots featuring Zack Ryder, Hideo Itami and others.

The crowd also seemed really into Itami which was great to hear and a bit of a theme for the whole show of just quite how over NXT has become in recent months.

Unfortunately most of those being cheered for were soon eliminated (Curtis Axel, Itami, Ryder and others) and it became an excuse for the bigger guys to show off despite the crowd clearly not being into them.

Sandow sends Miz over the top

Sandow sends Miz over the top

The exception was Ryback who got some good cheers, though I’ve yet to work out why, but even he didn’t seem over like the more ‘underdog’ performers and his elimination of The Ascension continued to prove that once on the main roster no one seems to know what to do with the NXT performers.

The match ended with some nice stuff between The Miz and Mizdow which will hopefully lead to a career making feud for the highly talented Sandow (Mizdow) but it was all ultimately won by Big Show in an inexplicably pointless bit of booking that saw an old, past it, out of shape, performer go over at the expense of future stars who could have been made here.

Main show

After a decent rendition of America The Beautiful which didn’t go on too much or feel too xenophobic (they were saving that for later) and an odd intro video featuring LL Cool J, for reasons I’ve yet to fathom, the main show kicked off with a bang as Daniel Bryan made his way to ring for the Intercontinental Ladder match.

Intercontinental Championship: Wade Barrett (c) vs Daniel Bryan vs Dolph Ziggler vs Dean Ambrose vs Luke Harper vs R-Truth vs Stardust

Ambrose take a dive

Ambrose take a dive

Much like the tag team title match this was clearly positioned as a high energy spot fest to get the crowd warmed up and kick off the show with something strong as the audience continued to file into the stadium.

It was clear the Ambrose, Bryan and Ziggler were the wrestlers the crowd cared about and, if I’m honest the presence of Truth, Stardust and even Harper was mostly window dressing.

All men hit some big spots over and around the ropes to the floor early on and it all look surprisingly, and thankfully, safe. As things went on Stardust pulled out a sparkly ladder and, in a nice new spot, Barret broke off one of the rungs and used it as a particularly stiff looking weapon.

Sick powerbomb on Ambrose

Sick powerbomb on Ambrose

Much like many multi-person ladder matches this one suffered from two things.

The first is that we have seen so many of these matches now the spots are often just retreads of what we’ve seen before and the other was something that would mar the whole show – that the commentary team seemed totally in over the heads to actually explain anything that was going on in an exciting and coherent way.

That said there was some nice stuff as Wade Barret hit a nice range of Bullhammer elbows, Dean Ambrose took a sick powerbomb through a ladder, that clearly had both the audience in the stadium and at home concerned, and the matches climax of Bryan and Ziggler slugging it out on top of the ladder was simple, stiff looking and effective and I hope sets up a future feud between the two.

Daniel Bryan

Daniel Bryan

Bryan winning the match felt very odd at the time, as did the outcome of other early matches on the card, but in context of the show as a whole, it seems like a good thing as it gives Bryan a (hopefully) solid position.

Having a slightly bigger star as champion should also help elevate the Intercontinental Championship a little more.

It may be wishful thinking but this state of affairs could easily see the belts put back into their rightful positions like they are in the current NXT setting.

Randy Orton vs Seth Rollins (w/ J&J Security)

Rollins hits Avada Kedavra on Orton

Rollins hits Avada Kedavra on Orton

After the IC title match we were straight into what felt, in the build up, like it should have been one of the top matches on the card as ‘The Face’ squared off against ‘The Future’.

Unfortunately I’ve always found Orton hard to take as a face, his general cocky nature, even here, and the whole ‘hearing voices that make him hurt people’ gimmick isn’t really a good guy thing so this felt like heel vs heel, but thankfully two heels who can both do different and engaging things.

As the match went on J&J Security got dealt with effectively by Orton and Rollins really put in the lion’s share of the big moments (as was to be expected) with suicide dives, Asai moonsaults and an attempted phoenix splash all being memorable ‘high spots’.

Orton prepares for an astonishing RKO

Orton prepares for an astonishing RKO

Story wise the match also went well with each man surviving the others finisher and it built to a great climax and one of the best reversals into an RKO I’ve ever seen leading to Orton picking up the win.

As Orton posed in victory this felt like another moment of the new stars being pushed down in favour of already established names, a counter intuitive thing to do, but this became less of an issue in this match thanks to what was to come.

In the end, while this was a good match it didn’t quite electrify like it seems it should have, though several moments, particularly that RKO, will go down as classic WrestleMania moments.

Triple H vs Sting

The build up to this match had felt like the build up to a story that began in early 2001 when WWE finally saw off its main competition WCW, and, as was hyped here, this was ‘the last remnant of WCW’ finally facing off with the man at the top of WWE, sort of.

Triple H and Sting prepare for battle

Triple H and Sting prepare for battle

We didn’t get to this though until after both men had come to the ring, first out was Sting, which felt a bit backwards. His troupe of Japanese drummers didn’t really make much sense and seeing the dark, Crow-style, character come out in daylight also felt wrong, so we were off to an odd start.

The crowd also seemed more intrigued and interested in him than genuinely excited, so he wasn’t greeted with as big a pop as I was expecting, but maybe we’re just 13 years too late – this is a feeling that would recur at the conclusion of the match.

After a baffling Terminator promo video Triple H emerged from the stage surrounded by an army of the cyborgs in his most ridiculous and least effective WrestleMania entrance yet. Obviously linked in with the previous night’s induction of Arnold Schwarzenegger into the WWE Hall of Fame, this whole sequence felt forced and again didn’t work in the broad daylight of a Californian afternoon.

Sting applies the Scorpion Death Lock

Sting applies the Scorpion Death Lock

Once Motorhead’s The Game kicked in though we were on more familiar ground and Triple H, as always, looked the part of a conquering barbarian king as he marched to the ring.

Once that was all done and the two men faced off in the ring things started well with the two going back and forth and Sting hitting a great dropkick and generally looking amazing for a man of 56 as “You’ve still got it” chants from the crowd backed this up.

This back and forth reached a quick crescendo as, after some outside brawling, Sting went for the Scorpion Death Lock submission hold and D-Generation X’s music hit.

Triple H hits the Pedigree

Triple H hits the Pedigree

The New Age Outlaws and X-Pac ran in and Sting fought them back but, as Triple H capitalised and went for the Pedigree the nWo theme kicked in and out came The Outsiders and Hulk Hogan, somewhat slower than their DX counterparts.

From here on in the match became a surreal mess as Shawn Michaels showed up too, just to cap things off, and Triple H picked up the win, while commentators JBL and Michael Cole buried WCW, a company that went out of business over a decade ago.

If you’ve read my review of WrestleMania X8 you’ll know my view on the nWo becoming obsolete by 2002 and here, what seemed geared to be a nostalgic moment, fell totally flat for me.

Sting connects with the Stinger Splash

Sting connects with the Stinger Splash

This was because we’ve seen all of these men (except Sting) in similar ‘nostalgia act’ situations so many times before and the link between Sting and the nWo is far from the tight relationsip between Triple H and D-X, so it just came across as an overbooked mess where it should have been a triumphant moment for long time pro-wrestling fans.

I can only think this falls into category of a McMahon family ego trip moment, but unfortunately felt rather like the sort of event that was happening in the dying days of WCW…

Following that we got a musical performance that, as ever, went down like a lead balloon with the crowd who treated this time, half way through the show, as a rest break, and, to be honest I don’t blame them. Though a regular part of WrestleMania now, live music performances never really work in context and this was no different.

AJ Lee & Paige vs Nikki and Brie Bella

Superkick from Paige

Superkick from Paige

After the Sting/Triple H fiasco it was going to take something to get me back into it and, as Paige made her way out I was hopeful, following the recent development of the ‘Divas’ division, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Across the match the four ladies told a great story and, while it didn’t live up to what’s happening on NXT, it is clear that the stellar women’s matches there are having an effect. In that regard we got some nice moments including a top rope dropkick and a steel stair spot and the match as a whole probably last longer than the last five years worth of WrestleMania Divas matches.

Brie Bella with a flying dropkick

Brie Bella with a flying dropkick

Once again the commentary entirely failed to add anything to the match but the in-ring action stepped up well and, while the bigger story isn’t the most clear, it was an enjoyable and well put together match and hopefully a sign of things to come for the ladies on the main roster.

The traditional Hall of Fame recap came next and, while the ceremony itself was a bit on the long side, it was great seeing some of these guys on stage here.

Bushwhacker Butch in particular deserves respect for even making it onto stage and still being a lot of fun and into the whole thing despite his obvious ill-health, Lanny Poffo was hugely respectful and respectable representing his brother Macho Man Randy Savage and even Kevin Nash managed to not milk it too much showing that, like Scott Hall, maybe he has changed and once again sees his place within pro-wrestling in a more humble light.

United States Championship: Rusev (w/Lana) (c) vs John Cena

Rusev on a tank!

Rusev on a tank!

One of the moments of the night came next as Rusev made his entrance as part of a mock, Soviet-style, rally complete with marching troops, an artillery salute and Rusev himself riding in on a tank.

Moments like this, where pro-wrestling steps beyond regular logic and into a world of utter silliness, are hit and miss but here, it was all delivered with such a straight face it was amazing and actually got me into the feud more than anything else over the past few months and had me rooting for the Bulgarian Brute throughout.

Cena had an equally over the top entrance video, but, unfortunately, it came across like a jingoistic, pro-American, Republican party political broadcast, and only served to amplify my dislike of Cena and his Never Give Up washcloth thing he brings to the ring (doesn’t quite match up to riding in on a tank does it).

Rusev and Cena face off

Rusev and Cena face off

The match itself started well with Rusev in monster mode before Cena got into his moves of doom and then it was a good back and forth with both men focusing on their respective submissions, The Accolade (Camel Clutch) for Rusev and STF(U) for Cena.

As it went on the crowd seemed to get behind Rusev and he hit a great top rope diving headbutt for a near fall.

It all ended, after Cena broke out of the Accolade, with a very loose and unconvincing AA (is there any other sort?) that saw Cena win the US Championship and Rusev go off on his manager Lana, who’s attempted interference caused the loss.

Cena's first move of doom

Cena’s first move of doom

Much like the Daniel Bryan win earlier in the night I’m hoping having a bigger star with a lower belt is used well to elevate the title and breathe some new excitement into the mid card scene.

This section of the card, while it has a lot of good performers, hasn’t had much for them to really get their teeth into in for a while, and it would be nice if it breathed some fresh life into the painfully stale John Cena character.

Following this we headed back up to the pre-show team for some highlights of those matches and all the while the crowd are letting loose with some huge ‘N-X-T’ chants – I get the feeling that the ‘developmental’ brand is a lot more over than anyone in WWE thought and the whole WrestleMania weekend has proved it, and then Triple H and Stephanie McMahon are in the ring.

Rhonda Rousey with a hip throw on Triple H

Rhonda Rousey with a hip throw on Triple H

As they announce the ‘official attendance’ for the event of 76,976 Stephanie went into an excellent heel promo that put The Authority back into position of top heels following the confusing ending of Triple H’s match earlier and showed that she really is her father’s successor – though a Shane-O-Mac chant later in the segment was nice to hear.

Mid flow she was interrupted by The Rock who was on fire on the mic, as always, and the segment culminated in a tease of Rock vs Triple H (for next year’s Mania maybe?) and the involvement of UFC star Ronda Rousey was surprisingly effective and made this segment much more than I think anyone expected when it started.

Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt

Undertaker squares off with Bray Wyatt

Undertaker squares off with Bray Wyatt

The ‘New Face of Fear’ made his way out next with a great entrance involving zombie scarecrows that continued to build the creepy character that Wyatt is so good at delivering.

What we were all waiting for though was the man who came out next, a year after his last appearance Undertaker’s walk to the ring was surprisingly simple, but, even in the still day light conditions, was as effective as always and it was clear Taker was looking better than he was 12 months ago.

Along with this Wyatt’s performance of staring down The Deadman really helped set the psychology and story of this match up long before the bell.

Undertaker and Bray Wyatt

Undertaker sits up after Sister Abigail

The match itself was a great example of using strengths to tell a story, we know Taker is now fallible but he is still somewhat of a monster, but Wyatt also came across stronger than ever before and some nice moves like a big uranage really putting him over.

With finishers hit and kicked out off the best moment of the match was when Taker sat up mid-Wyatt spider walk and, with a second tombstone, The Deadman went 22-and-1.

This was a fine example of how to make a new guy look great, while keeping the legacy of the Undertaker alive. How much life is left in Taker’s career remains to be seen and, personally, I’d like to see one more match next year to round it off and send him out on a high in his home state as WWE finally establishes its new generation.

WWE World Heavyweight Championship: Brock Lesnar (w/Paul Heyman) (c) vs Roman Reigns

Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns get ready for a war

Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns get ready for a war

To say this match had stirred up its fair share of controversy and debate among pro-wrestling fans would be an understatement so, as ‘face’ Roman Reigns made his way out, flanked by a legion of security and to a chorus of boos and ‘heel’ Brock Lesnar strode out to cheers, this had a genuine big fight, main event feel, that even WrestleMania main events sometimes struggle to attain.

As soon as the bell rang the match was a stiff showing of strikes and throws with Lesnar dominant as expected, but, unlike his match with Cena at SummerSlam last year, this felt like a pro-wrestling match with a story to tell.

German suplex to Reigns

German suplex to Reigns

Roman got his licks in, cutting Lesnar early on, and then smiling and laughing in the face of the beating, infuriating The Beast, and both men played it off brilliantly, and even the commentary, finally, helped develop the story.

With more than 10 suplexes, three F5’s, a number of superman punches and two spears, and Brock Lesnar bleeding more than anyone in WWE has in a decade, the match was reaching a climax point that was genuinely hard to call when Seth Rollins’ music hit and Mr Money In The Bank hit the ring and cashed in.

With Curbstomps for both men, Rollins’ pinned Reigns for the title and took his place next to Edge as best and most convincing use of the Money In The Bank yet rounding off a mixed WrestleMania on a real high point and ushering in a new top level of talent for the company

Rollins sets up to Curbstomp Lesnar

Rollins sets up to Curbstomp Lesnar

Conclusions

A year before WrestleMania 31 a lot of seeds were sown for a new era in WWE and many of those have now begun to reach fruition. This show felt like a WrestleMania, which they don’t always, and while it wasn’t the best ever (that honour still goes to 17) it was a strong one.

What it really left me thinking though was that it has acted as a reset for the main roster with new and (for the most part) fresh champions and angles coming out of the show and, generally, without making anyone look weak – with the exception of the pointless booking of the battle royal and the stand alone exhibition of Triple H and Sting.

With the set up as it is now we can look forward to a great heel World Champion on TV regularly giving Rollins and Reigns a chance to elevate themselves further, and hopefully add some legitimacy to the so far forced character of Reigns.

WWE Championship belt customised for Seth Rollins

WWE Championship belt customised for Seth Rollins

We can also see Daniel Bryan rule the mid card with great newer performers like Ambrose and Harper (and Ziggler as well) while John Cena can, hopefully, find something new in his new mid card role.

While this is going on Lesnar remains a monster who can do his part-time destruction thing far more effectively, though quite who in WWE can face up to him now he’s gone through Triple H and Undertaker remains to be seen.

Now all we need are some reasonable tag teams to contend with Kidd and Cesaro.

As a show, WrestleMania 31 took a while to make sense, but once it did and the pieces fell into place it was very enjoyable, with the exception of the nonsense of Sting vs Triple H and the battle royal, but it has succeeded in getting me far more invested with what could be coming next than I thought I would be when the show began.

On top of this, let’s be honest, there isn’t another wrestling company in the world who can put on a show with this much star power, performances and spectacle all rolled into one – now, let Rollins run with this and WWE could be heading into another heyday!

Seth Rollins - WWE World Heavyweight Champion

Seth Rollins – The new WWE World Heavyweight Champion

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Wrestlemania X8: Icon Vs Icon (2002)

wwf-wrestlemania-x8-coverOn March 17th 2002 the then WWF took their flagship show, Wrestlemania, north of the border to the SkyDome in Toronto, Ontario, Canada for the second and treated 68,237 people to one of the biggest main events in the history of pro-wrestling as generations clashed when Hollywood Hulk Hogan battled The Rock – there is however, the matter of the rest of the near four-hour extravaganza…

This coming from Canada we don’t America The Beautiful to open the show, so we don’t have to sit through a cringe worthy hyper-patriotic video package. Unfortunately what we do get is something that will mark this show and, I think, is one of the reasons it fails to reach the heights of its predecessor, a performance of a generic nu-metal single from Saliva.

To give things a bit of context, Wrestlemania 18 comes a year after what is widely considered the best show WWF have ever put on Wrestlemania X7 (or 17 for those who prefer a conventional numbering system). That show came weeks after the collapse of WCW and ECW and it was clear WWF was in celebratory mode.

Saliva on the X8 set

Saliva

This show however comes after the, generally, failed ‘Invasion’ storyline where WCW and ECW tried to take over WWF, so we come in here to a show packed with some of the biggest names in wrestling history but a general lack of creative direction as WWF tried to work out what its place is in a world with, essentially, no competition.

After Saliva’s woeful performance (live music rarely works in the context of a pro-wrestling show despite many efforts to make it work) we get a fairly standard intro video where all the big names hype what Wrestlemania is but for the most part don’t tell us anything about the matches or stories we are going to see, which makes for a somewhat low-key opening that fails to entirely excite as I feel it should.

Intercontinental Championship – William Regal (c) vs Rob Vam Dam

RVD ad William RegalThe show kicks off with what should be a big match, as the WWF’s second championship is contested between two bonafide superstars of the business. Seeing William Regal with a belt is always a treat for me, but it is in more recent times that his contributions have been properly appreciated. That said in terms of in ring performance both men here are arguably in their prime.

Things start off a little shaky as they both have such different styles but they are soon gelling well and both exhibit their own styles brilliantly with Regal’s villainous side and RVD high spots looking great, and Van Dam sells Regal’s throws and neckbreakers like only he can.

Unfortunately the match is only a very short one so while its non-stop action and manages to make both guys look pretty good, despite a clean pinfall win for RVD, it ends just as it feels like its starting to get going. But it does a decent job of getting the crowd going.

European Championship: Diamond Dallas Page (c) vs Christian

Christian and DDPThis crowd reaction is soon lost though as we get a generic heel promo from Toronto native Christian where he says he’s moved to Florida and a video fails to raise any excitement for this match stemming from DDP trying to help Christian with his proto-DDP Yoga gimmick.

Christians entrance is awesome with his then new ‘At Last Your On Your Own’ opera-metal theme and general cocky heel shenanigans but DDP elicits little response and it’s just strange seeing a guy who was a top name in WCW in this lower-mid card position.

The match itself is ok, though the crowd take a long time to warm up and its hard to find any investment in it as the meat of the storyline is at best basic, and even for the live crowd is only really a week long. As it goes on there are a few nice Diamond Cutter and Killswitch (Unprettier) counters but DDP’s win falls flat and his following ‘self-help’ promo and Christian’s temper tantrum get no response from a crowd who seem more interested in getting their signs on camera.

Business picks up briefly next as we get a promo from The Rock which serves to demonstrate just why this man is the mega-star he now is.

Starting off with his comedy shtick he gets interviewer Jonathan Coachman to ‘say his prayers’ a la Hulk Hogan, before kicking him to the curb and expertly hyping his upcoming encounter with the aforementioned legend. The crowd aren’t totally behind Rocky but still sing along and, as we will see later, its clear this is the match they all came to see.

Hardcore Championship: Maven (c) vs Goldust

Maven and GoldustThird match of the night and third for a belt, this highlights one of the problems with the WWF at this time was that there were too many belts flying around which meant the main championships felt less special. This is a problem they’ve yet to really find a suitable solution for, but it’s not as bad now as it was at this time.

This match is largely pointless and features one of the worst Van Daminator style spots I’ve witnessed, but really it is nothing but an angle setting a series of backstage segments across the show. So it ends with Spike Dudley running in and using the 24/7 rule (which grew very tired very quickly) to win the Hardcore title and escape through the crowd pursued by Crash Holly as we the have to sit through a song by Drowning Pool, supposedly helping to tell the story of tonight’s world championship match.

All this serves to do however is kill the crowd who had already calmed considerably thanks to the nonsense hardcore segment.

The musical performance is followed by a backstage hardcore segment that sees Al Snow in a golf cart before Hurricane swoops in to pin Spike for the belt.

I’m not going to go into detail on all of these segments as they are many and pointless throughout the night but they do nothing but make the notion of championships pointless and do nothing to develop any stories or make anyone actually look any good and just seem to entirely kill any momentum the show manages to build.

Kurt Angle vs Kane

WrestleMania_18_-_Kurt_Angle_Vs_Kane_01Kurt Angle comes out first and looks in prime shape, which is amazing, and starts to cut one of his fine heel promos before Kane’s pyro goes off and out marches the Big Red Machine. Here Kane is the good guy looking to avenge an injury he sustained at Kurt’s hands a few weeks prior which leads to JR saying the phrase ‘head trauma’ about a thousand times in the opening couple of minutes.

Commentary team JR and Jerry Lawler are on fine form all night but it’s here, as Lawler picks up on JR’s repetition that their famed chemistry really comes into own.

Its evident throughout the crowd really don’t care about this story which seems very one-dimensional considering the semi-main event level of the two guys involved and the differing styles of the two men never really gel, though Kurt is a total machine and looks as good as he can.

A belly-to-belly suplex on Kane is a particularly impressive looking throw, but it all leads to what is a solid match rather than the kind of stand out Kurt Angle is more than capable of delivering – the slightly botched roll up ending doesn’t help matters either.

Following some more hardcore nonsense that feels like the bad bits of WWF during the Attitude era we get a fine promo package hyping…

The Undertaker vs Ric Flair – no disqualification match

Ric Flair and The UndertakerIn the video Undertaker is set up as a real bad ass heel who has targeted Flair’s family and friends to get this match with the 16 time world champ who had been acting as co-owner of the company for the past few months, so this sees Flair’s return to the ring following the final Nitro a year and a bit earlier.

‘Taker gets a huge initial pop when Limp Bizkit’s Rollin’ hits despite being a bad guy and Flair gets a reasonable, if not stellar, reception, but is in surprisingly good shape.

Most of the match see’s the pair battle in and out of the ring with punches and Flair’s knife-edge chops and it isn’t too long before Flair is bleeding all over the place and genuinely wearing the proverbial ‘Crimson Mask’. Despite the general lack of actual wrestling the pair manage to tell a great story of Flair fighting back in the seemingly insurmountable face of the younger, bigger, monster heel while JR and Lawler really get the whole thing over excellently on commentary.

WrestleMania_18_-_Undertaker_Vs_Ric_Flair_01The highlight of the match comes when ‘Taker hits a full top rope superplex on Flair which is astonishing to see from the 6’10” Deadman and 50-something year old Flair, who JR reminds us suffered a broken back in his younger days.

The match ends following a vicious looking spinebuster from Arn Anderson who appears from no where but it’s not enough to keep ‘Taker down who fails to deliver The Last Ride to Flair but just goes for a Tombstone, which the crowd love, as the Deadman goes 10 and 0 at Wrestlemania.

Booker T vs Edge

Backstage Michael Cole is with Booker T who does his best to live up The Rock’s promo earlier but entirely fails. Considering he’s feuding with Edge about a shampoo advert though this isn’t surprising.

BOOKER T and  EDGEBooker comes out to very little reaction and even hometown hero Edge doesn’t get the response you might expect but the sign in the crowd saying ‘They’re fighting about shampoo” sums up why perfectly.

Both guys are perfectly adequate, though Edge has yet to hit his Rated-R Superstar peak and Booker T is still stuck in his Invasion-era gimmick so the angle hampers them and fails to engage anyone.

The match is generally ok despite a botched top rope hurricanrana spot, Edge’s Spear has yet to become a bonafide finisher and when he wins the crowd go mild, despite, as I said earlier, his being from Toronto – the Canadian crowd are nothing if not contrary at times.

More backstage hardcore stuff leads into…

Stone Cold Steve Austin vs Scott Hall (w/ Kevin Nash)

Steve Austin and Scott HallFollowing a video package doing a decent job of hyping the return of the nWo as Vince McMachon’s hired goons and their attacks on Austin we get a match that, a few years prior, could have torn the house down and, for the first part here, does a good job of heading in that direction.

Despite both being a little past their prime the duo tell a great story and hit some nice spots, with Hall in particular looking far better than I think anyone expected at the time.

Unfortunately typical nWo shenanigans strike as Nash gets involved and soon the ref is knocked out. At this point they beatdown Austin briefly but he fights back hitting stunners on Hall and Nash completely killing any sense of threat The Outsiders might have had going forward as they can be easily overcome by one man.

Nash is eventually sent to the back and some kind of order is restored for Austin to hit two more stunners on Hall and get a clean pinfall win.

The return of the nWo was, much like the Invasion, another angle that almost entirely failed. The popularity of Hogan (more of which later) and this outcome at Wrestlemania, led to the faction being watered down barely a month into their run and the cynic in me suggests this may have been Vince McMahon’s intent to further discredit WCW and the things they did that were (initially at least) superior to WWF’s product – thankfully this run for the nWo is now mostly forgotten but for the purposes of this show it leads to a promising match falling flat.

Tag Team Championship: Billy & Chuck (c) vs The Dudley Boyz vs The Hardy Boyz vs APA

four-corner-eliminationNu-metal-mania continues next as Saliva are back to massacre the Dudley Boyz entrance music and introduce this tag-team-four-corner-elimination match.

Following the previous year’s run of TLC matches this had a lot to live up to and entirely fails. Things start off reasonably well as the APA clatter everyone with stiff powerslams and spinebusters and a great looking Clothesline From Hell, but they are soon eliminated in forgettable fashion while the Dudleys set up a table on the floor.

For a while the Dudleyz and the Hardyz have a very standard tag match as Billy & Chuck watch on before D-Von is sent through the table and Bubba is pinned leaving us with the Hardyz and Billy & Chuck.

For the second time this match the Hardyz hit their standard double team spots and the match ends with a belt shot from Billy to Jeff Hardy leading to a pinfall win for Billy & Chuck who retain while no one in attendance cares, including most of the guys in the match it seemed.

Hollywood Hulk Hogan vs The Rock

The Rock and Hulk HoganFollowing a great package hyping this battle of the generations the nWo music hits and Hogan comes out to a huge pop which just keeps going and grows as he does the shirt ripping bit in the ring.

Many things get hyped by WWE as being ‘Wrestlemania Moments’ but when Rock and Hogan face off in the middle of the ring with the crowd genuinely losing it we witness one of the biggest moments in the now 30 year history of the show.

It’s soon evident that for this one the roles are reversed from even a week before and Hogan is face so Rock switches masterfully into heel mode, being one of the few wrestlers to be able to genuinely deliver either at the drop of a hat and the pair spend the next 15 minutes or so telling a gripping story of who really is the top icon.

The Rock and Hulk HoganAs the match goes on both men hit their finishers and survive, with Hogan’s ‘Hulking Up’ seeing the crowd become even more unglued, and it finally comes down to a Rock Bottom and a People’s Elbow and The Rock getting his hand raised.

What follows is a handshake that really does feel like Hogan passing the torch in a way he hadn’t done previously. Storylines briefly kick back in as Hall and Nash attack Hogan, banishing him from the nWo, before The Rock and Hogan run them off, hug and then Rock lets Hogan do his posing before both men walk to the back together.

While the actual wrestling isn’t the best this is a true classic match that shows just what WWE/F can do when at its best in terms of character, story and performance.

Women’s Championship: Jazz (c) vs Lita vs Trish Stratus

The crowd are clearly exhausted after Hogan/Rock so give very little to this messy three-way contest.

Lita and Trish StratusChampion Jazz spends most of the time out of things, despite a few nice moves, and Lita and Trish are yet to reach their later high point that saw their rivalry become a classic.

The high point comes at the matches conclusion as Trish takes a nasty looking bump into the turnbuckles and then out to the floor before Jazz hits Lita with a spectacular if scary top rope fisherman’s suplex ending a real nothing of a match.

We then get our final hardcore segment that sees Maven pin Christian and escape in a taxi resetting the Hardcore Championship to where it started the night and making all these segments entirely pointless.

Undisputed WWF Championship: Chris Jericho (c) (w/Stephanie McMahon-Helmsely) vs Triple H

Chris Jericho and Stephanie McMahonWith the crowd still reeling from Hogan/Rock, Triple H is played to the ring by Drowning Pool as they massacre his theme that is usually done by Motorhead. This doesn’t help the crowd any and nor does the fact, from my point of view, that Hunter is meant to be the face, but with no video package to explain things the story is at best unclear.

Jericho then comes out with Triple H’s on-screen (at the time) wife to little reaction and the two engage in what is a decent match but, in the circumstances, can’t compete with what it follows and comes across as one of the worst outings these two performers could give.

The biggest crowd reactions come when the Triple H/Stephanie story comes to the fore, which does a huge disservice to both Jericho and the championship and throughout the divide between face and heel is never quite clear enough to make either man be the fan favourite.

Triple HEnding with a slightly clunky reversal into a Pedigree, Triple H starts a new championship reign on something of a low point to round off the 18th Wrestlemania.

In the end this is a very transitional show as the Attitude era has yet to be finally put to rest but the next direction for the WWF hasn’t really been confirmed either. With a roster as packed with stars as this the show really should have been better but too many of the stories and angles are underdeveloped and focus is, more often than not, misplaced.

This combined with too many distracting segments of nu-metal performances or backstage ‘hardcore’ activity leads to a show that is watchable and fine but unbalanced and fails entirely to live up what it could and should have been.

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The Best of WWE at Madison Square Garden – Blu-ray

The Best of WWE at Madison Square GardenA couple of recent happenings within the world of World Wrestling Entertainment seem to have finally made this collection of matches possible as it seems the name WWF no longer needs to be censored and, more importantly from a pro-wreslting fan standpoint, Bruno Sammartino is back on the good terms with the McMahons and co.

So what we get here are more than 8 hours of matches and memories from the arena that has become WWE’s spiritual home over the last 50 years, New York’s Madison Square Garden.

As an arena it is famed for both sport and music but, for me, it will always be associated with WWE and, after watching this its clear to see why.

With 22 matches (on the Blu-ray edition) we get, essentially, a history of the WWE from the early 1970s until 2011 featuring the likes of Ivan Koloff, Bob Backlund, Harley Race, Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart, The Rock, Steve Austin, Triple H and CM Punk (amongst others) and the aforementioned ‘living legend’ Sammartino.

Bruno Sammartino

Bruno Sammartino

As is to be expected the visual quality of the early matches is not as sharp as some and it is clear they were really originally only filmed for CCTV broadcast rather than TV (or HD Blu-ray).

What this gives us, particularly in the opening Koloff vs Pedro Morales world championship match, is a chance to get some insight, through a new commentary track from Jim Ross, who tells the story of the fight and lets us know about the performers in ways some other current pro-wrestling commentators can only dream of.

While the matches on the first half of the disc are generally excellent, either in technical terms (e.g. the Backlund matches) or due to their notoriety (e.g. the main event from Wrestlemania I) the interviews are generally not quite as absorbing as they mostly just toe the line of saying how amazing the atmosphere at MSG always is and how great the WWE’s ‘hometown’ crowd in New York always are, something that comes across from watching the matches.

Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania X

Shawn Michaels at Wrestlemania X

The exception is, unsurprisingly, The Iron Sheik who is his usual baffling but candid self and talks about being offered money by another promoter to break Hulk Hogan’s leg and jump ship with the world title in 1984.

For me the first ‘half’ of the set is highlighted by confrontations between Mr Perfect and The Hitman and the incomparable ladder match between Shawn Michaels and Razor Ramon at Wrestlemania X.

Unfortunately the second disc wavers a bit.

Starting out with what would (and should) be a forgettable Survivor Series match that only really seems to be included as it is the debut of the man now known as The Rock, there are a few more matches here that, while they have potential, are often from TV and too short or are too promo and ‘moment’ heavy.

Triple H and Cactus Jack

Triple H and Cactus Jack

That said we do get a couple of classics, including Cactus Jack’s WWE debut against Triple H in 1997 as well as The Hardy Boyz going up against The Dudley Boyz in the Royal Rumble 2000 tables match, but, despite these the second half doesn’t have the weight of classics of the first.

The Blu-ray comes with a few exclusive extra matches two of which are decent if throw away in the grander scheme of things and one of which that really should have acted as the main feature’s final match as we get CM Punk vs Alberto Del Rio at Survior Series 2011, the start of Punk’s epic 434 day title reign – but then again I’m a super-mark for the Best In The World.

CM Punk and Alberto Del Rio

CM Punk and Alberto Del Rio

In the end this is not quite an essential set but does include some fascinating matches that haven’t been released on DVD/Blu-ray or in fact seen in a long time and it does act as a good chart of the history of the WWWF/WWF/WWE with several performers talking ‘out of character’ in ways we haven’t heard much before.

Certainly this is a must for the devotees but for the more casual fan may have some elements that are hard to grasp, though if they make it through could prove a valuable education in the biggest company in the pro-wrestling game.

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WWE Falls Count Anywhere (Blu-ray)

WWE continues it’s recent trend of solid Blu-ray and DVD compilation releases on this look at their hardcore history.

This year has seen a series of great compilation releases from WWE (from Edge’s history through to ECW Unreleased) and they continue their trend of at least good releases with Falls Count Anywhere: The Greatest Street Fights And Other Out Of Control Matches.

Hosted by Mick Foley, we get a slightly odd series of match introductions which are endearing in Mick’s own comedy promo style, but don’t give a huge amount of insight to the matches other than the fact that doing this sort of thing hurts and WWE has got a bit more tame since Mick’s days at the top.

So onto the matches.

Things start a bit shaky, but interesting, with a match from the WWF in the early 1980s pitting Pat Patterson against Sgt. Slaughter. By any modern wrestling fans standards this is about as tame as a ‘street fight’ can get but it shows how wrestlers, managers and announcers can work together to tell the story and transmit the psychology of a match – specifically here with reference to the wrestlers boots and how they are used as ‘weapons’.

From there Hulkamania overtook WWF so the mid-80s to the mid-90s are represented by WCW and these matches are a very mixed bag with over blown gimmicks and over-basic camera work making the matches hard to follow out of context (though Jim Cornette demonstrates why he was such a great manager and we get to see Cactus Jack in his early prime going against legendary Sting).

The mid-90s matches see a mix of WWF and WCW matches showing how they were trying to make their product slightly less child-centric at the time but, ultimately, still falling short thanks to the producers clearly still not really knowing how to shoot these matches for TV and the various rules and stipulations getting a bit baffling (especially in Savage vs Crush at Wrestlemania X!).

Things really start to pick up though as we head into the late-90s and the birth of the “Attitude Era” of WWF, with the feud between Bret Hart and Steve Austin and the return of Cactus Jack against Triple H.

From here the collection is a rollercoaster ride of extreme matches that highlight a sort of pro-wrestling which has since left the mainstream, as chairs, tables, sledgehammers and ladders all become mainstays of the matches, along with some spectacular spots and set pieces.

This middle section of the two Blu-ray set is certainly the strongest as we get to see Triple H in his prime along with matches featuring the frankly fearless (or insane, or both) Shane McMahon along with some great late-era Ric Flair outings and Shawn Michaels’ impressive return.

As we head towards the end of the disc we head back into WWE’s PG pro-wrestling territory, so the matches become much tamer, but there are still a few performances of note, specifically from Triple H and Randy Orton, although the John Cena vs Umaga match seems needlessly shoehorned in just so Cena makes an appearance.

The Blu-Ray features four extra matches, one of which see’s Mankind going against ‘Santa’, which is frankly a waste of disc space, however the other three bonus matches show how WWE can still do a street fight even without chair shots to the head or excessive amounts of blood (Triple H’s neck/arm injury against Sheamus being a fine example of in ring story telling).

Overall this set isn’t up there with ECW Unreleased Vol.1 or You Think You Know Me: The Story of Edge from earlier in the year, however it is still certainly worth a look if you’re a fan of WWE’s contributions to the genre of hardcore wrestling.

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WWE – The Best of King of the Ring

WWE present a flawed but still fascinating look back at their King of the Ring tournaments and pay-per-view shows on this new DVD collection.

Reviewing anything to do the ‘sport’ of professional wrestling is always a challenge due to the very nature of the product itself, but that said I’m going to have a go with the new Best of King of the Ring DVD set and I promise I’ll try not to be too much of a ‘smart mark’ about it.

The King of the Ring is a championship title in WWE (formerly the WWF) that has been awarded on and off for the best part of 30 years on a semi-occasional basis following a “single elimination tournament” traditionally held all at the same event.

This DVD set mentions but glosses over the first run of the events as these went largely un-televised and this is the first disappointing thing about the collection. Some of the early winners include bone fide pro-wrestling legends like Harley Race, Randy Savage and Ted DiBiase and the chance to relive some of their matches would certainly have been welcome.

The DVD starts with the first pay-per-view version of the event in 1993 with the tournament final featuring another true legend, Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart, going up against Bam Bam Bigelow in a reasonable match which plays with the psychology of the 3 matches in one night well and really sets up the title of King of the Ring as being something that genuinely matter (within the world of the WWF).

Also from the 1993 event we get the WWF Championship match which sees champion Hulk Hogan take on Yokozuna in what was to be Hogan’s last WWF match before he went to WCW.

As such it’s a bit of a mixed affair that ends in a way that puts neither man over and makes neither look like a loser.

This format of tournament final and notable other match from the PPVs continues across the three discs and includes some great matches and some of the most notoriously brutal moments in WWF/E history.

Particular highlights Owen Hart winning the tournament, the now legendary “Austin 3:16” speech, Undertaker destroying Mankind in Hell In A Cell and Shane McMahon displaying ridiculous levels of dedication to his father’s company in a brutal ‘street fight’ with Kurt Angle.

While these highlights are great and most of the other matches included are at least worth watching (though the more recent one’s taken from Raw rather than the dedicated PPV seems a little quick when compared to the earlier ones), there are some bizarre omissions.

While their matches and WWF/E careers may not have been as stellar as the likes of Triple H, Steve Austin or the Hitman, it seems strange that Mabel and Billy Gunn’s tournament winning efforts are not included when Ken Shamrock’s is.

Also unfortunate is the lack of context around the finals. Sometimes the commentary tells us who the finalists went up against earlier but other times this is barely mentioned and a brief highlights package from the tournament before the finals would really have added that extra something to make this an excellent package (possibly on a par with the Rise and Fall of ECW which remains the best WWE DVD set to date).

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