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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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NXT Takeover: Orlando – Amway Centre, Orlando, Florida – 01/04/17

NXT TakeOver OrlandoIt’s amazing to think it’s only a year since NXT first officially staged a Takeover show on WrestleMania weekend. Since then NXT has evolved considerably with new talent taking it in different directions while the Cruiserweight Classic and UK Championship Tournaments have given WWE’s product as a whole a different feel away from the main Raw and Smackdown shows.

This year a lot of the performers weren’t even on the show a year ago, or if they were it was in a rather different capacity but with a bar set high the new NXT team had just as much to prove.

Sanity (Eric Young, Killian Dain, Alexander Wolfe, Nikki Cross) vs Tye Dillinger, Roderick Strong, Ruby Riot and ?

Following an attack earlier in the day it was announced No Way Jose would not be in this match, so things started out with a brief mystery moment before recent returnee to NXT, Kassius Ohno, came through the curtain and both teams hit the ring at pace for an initial, all in, fight.

Killian Dain dropkicks Roderick Strong

Killian Dain dropkicks Roderick Strong

Things ‘calmed down’ with Cross and Riot squaring off and they instantly had a great chemistry with characters custom-built to oppose one another. The fact this was Ruby’s real NXT televised debut match did not pass me by and she more than passed muster instantly.

Things continued with Ohno showing off his talent in front of the big crowd again before Strong became subject of the matches most sustained beat down. With Dain showing off his scary big man attack along with a hugely impressive dropkick.

Tye got the hot tag before it all went a bit chaotic with everyone at least looking good before Sanity got the upper hand and Dain hit his version of the One Winged Angel, the Ulster Plantation, for the win.

Sanity

Sanity

While Sanity picked up the win, continuing their establishment as a top-level faction, everyone came out looking good and it’s hard to think Dillinger isn’t going to be elevated soon (though that might be the NXT mark in me.

It was also great to see Strong and Ohno finding their feet while Riot and Cross could become NXT’s premier long-term women’s feud as we move on in 2017.

Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas vs Aleister Black

The last few months have seen Andrade Almas develop from a bland babyface performer into a cocky heel more reminiscent of his time as leader as Los Ingobernables in Mexico and Japan so, the fact he was set to square off against the biggest debuting character NXT has had in sometime fit perfectly.

Andrade Almas takes a kick from Aleister Black

Almas takes a kick from Black

Rising like Nosferatu on the entrance ramp, Aleister Black (previously known as Tommy End) has appeared as complete package from the start of his hype building and this only continued as he moved from his entrance and into the ring, taking in the atmosphere, crowd and his opponent from a cross-legged position in the middle of the squared circle.

Things started out with a good back and forth between the two competitors with hints and suggestions at what was to come with Black accentuating the strikes and Almas the cocky side of things as well as more holds.

After a faster paced middle section that saw Black hit a nice triangle type moonsault reminiscent of Kota Ibushi’s Golden Triangle the pace slowed and Almas got the upper hand. 

A series of stiff kicks from Black turned the tide culminating with the Black Mass heel kick getting him his debut win.

In many ways this was reminiscent of a slightly lower level version of last year’s Nakamura/Zayn match but it did a great job showcasing both men and I don’t think it’ll be long before both could be involved at the top of the card as the inevitable post-WrestleMania shake up occurs.

NXT Tag Team Championships
Authors of Pain (Akam & Rezar) (c) vs The Revival (Dash Wilder & Scott Dawson) vs DIY (Johnny Gargano & Tomasso Ciampa)

Given the two out of three falls match two of these teams had late last year and the smash ’em up run Authors of Pain have had since their debut, the NXT tag team championship match had all the components to steal the show.

Tommaso Ciampa flies at one of the Authors of Pain

Ciampa flies at one of the Authors of Pain

Starting off with the two smaller teams joining forces to combat the monsters it was frantic from the start and never really let up. We quickly got the first hints of what was to become the story of the match; that, despite their best efforts, DIY and The Revival would be unable to keep any kind of solidarity going for long enough to totally negate the size and strength of the AOP.

As expected it wasn’t long before Johnny Gargano was left alone with the AOP, giving him the chance to do what he does so well in DIY, gaining himself and his partner sympathy and building to the inevitable hot tag to Tomasso Ciampa. Ciampa capitalised with a stiff flurry of offence that was the most sustained solo assault doled out to the Authors yet and, with Revival and Gargano back in the action, Rezar was sent through a table to the floor.

At this point the action came down briefly to four on one with Akam holding his own for a moment before Dawson and Gargano locked on a double submission hold that was split up just as it looked like the champions might be the first eliminated, creating a huge moment of drama.

DIY drive Rezar through a table

DIY drive Rezar through a table

The foursome then hit shared versions of their double team finishing attacks, again to no avail, before action spilled to the floor once more and a pile up spot culminated with Dawson suplexing Ciampa from the top rope onto AOP on the floor.

With the team work now broken down AOP capitalised to eliminate DIY following a Last Chapter legsweep/lariat combo on Ciampa to a less than impressed response from the now feverishly hot crowd.

While The Revival attempted a flurry of double team attacks they were quickly out powered with Authors of Pain retaining their championships, after a Super Collider powerbomb combo, and collecting the newly redesigned tag team title belts in what was a strong early contender for match of the weekend and should progress all three teams as they move forward with Revival in particular looking ready to make the move to Raw or Smackdown.

NXT Women’s Championship
Asuka (c) vs Ember Moon

A year ago to the day Asuka began what has become a legendary reign as NXT Women’s Champion when she defeated Bayley by knock out at NXT Takeover Dallas. Since then contenders have come and gone and of the current crop only Ember Moon has looked anything like a threat to the Empress of Tomorrow‘s position.

Asuka delivers a running kick to Ember Moon

Asuka delivers a running kick to Moon

Following the unveiling of another new belt to replace the now slightly dated previous model, the match started off as a story of two equals as the pair went back and forth with holds and strikes and it wasn’t until Ember Moon took a fall on the steel guard rail that anyone was able to gain the upper hand.

Despite this, Moon continued fighting giving us not only her best display to date but also trading strikes with Asuka like no one else has yet, leading to close falls for both parties.

Following a great dive to the floor from Moon and an extended Asuka Lock survival spot, Moon looked to get the upper hand following a cradle suplex and set up for her Eclipse, flying spinning stunner, finishing attack. Unable to directly counter this Asuka pushed the referee into the ropes causing Moon to lose balance and allowing the champion to connect with a stiff kick to the head for the win.

Finally moving Asuka more into a heel role only serves to broaden her character as it has been heading that way already anyway. This ending also showed she is potentially vulnerable, positioning Ember Moon as possibly the stronger of the two and giving Asuka a real challenge for the first time since her debut. This should lead to the pair developing a rivalry to move the NXT women’s division even further forward in what looks set to be a hard-hitting and intense feud that could become a classic.

NXT Championship
‘Glorious’ Bobby Roode (c) vs ‘King of Strong Style’ Shinsuke Nakamura

With their match at NXT Takeover: San Antonio ending in somewhat controversial fashion, with an apparent injury to Nakamura’s knee, the stakes were high going into this rematch that could see Nakamura become a three-time NXT champion in less than 12 months.

This gave the whole affair a big match atmosphere from the start that the inclusion of the new belt only heightened as Roode hoped to cement his ‘new era’ of NXT.

Shinsuke Nakamura hits a strong strike on Booby Roode

Nakamura hits a strong strike on Roode

The pair started out slow with holds and lighter strikes traded along with a great show of ‘mind games’ from both men, particularly around Nakamura’s trademark ‘come on’ posturing which, if Roode never bested, he certainly equalled.

While the pace remained relatively slow Roode kept the upper hand grounding Nakamura and taking his kicks and elbow strikes out of the equation very effectively, largely focusing on the arm after Shinsuke hit the guard rail with it.

With some fast striking flurries Nakamura remained on a level with Roode, but it was a missed Kinshasa knee strike that saw the champion really take the upper hand, switching strategy to attack the previously injured knee and maintain the near three-month long story centring on this injury.

Despite this Nakamura came back with a great armbar and triangle sequence building a hold for hold aspect to the story. After a sly low blow with the ropes Roode attempted his Glorious DDT but was countered and the former champion connected with a sliding knee strike for a near fall.

Bobby Roode fights out of an armbar from Shinsuke Nakamura

Roode fights out of an armbar from Nakamura

The general slow burn saw the crowd’s excitement build and build as Roode, frustrated, got the ring bell, looking for a desperate disqualification to save his title reign, before pulling out a last-minute spinebuster counter to the Kinshasa for another near fall.

With both men showing exhaustion it was Nakamura who let his guard down first allowing Roode to connect with an tornado-like version of the Glorious DDT and retain his championship in a truly epic match packed with all the drama and both longterm and in-match story you could hope for, while also being different enough to their past encounters to keep it fresh.

While this saw three heels leave NXT Takeover: Orlando with the gold, the show wrapped up a few stories satisfyingly while setting wheels in motion for the next chapter without anyone coming off as a real loser in a series of closely fought, dramatic contests that will give WrestleMania itself a high bar to live up to.

The main event and tag matches were certainly the matches of the night but all stood up strongly and let’s not forget Drew McIntyre was shown in the crowd, just like Bobby Roode was this time a year ago…

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Royal Rumble 2017 – The Alamodome, San Antonio – 29/01/17

Royal Rumble 2017 logoWhile there’s no denying that WrestleMania is the WWE’s, and all of pro-wrestling’s, biggest event of the year, what comes second could be debated, is it NJPW’s January fourth show (this year WrestleKingdom 11), is it SummerSlam (WWE’s WrestleMania of the summer) or is it the Royal Rumble where WWE kickstarts its year and the ‘Road to WrestleMania’?

If be hard pressed to argue against the Rumble, not only is it a launching off point for WWE’s hottest season its name has entered the pop culture lexicon like few things from pro-wrestling ever have and, with supposedly more than 50,000 in attendance the 2017 edition of the show could well confirm my argument.

Even in the pre show it was clear that The Alamodome was a vast arena and a far better scale of this was given than in the 1997 event which also took place here and even as the warm up matches got under way the crowd was already huge.

Kick Off Show

Becky Lynch, Nikki Bella and Naomi vs Alexa Bliss, Mickie James and Natalya

While a women’s six-man tag match screams throwaway warmup match it was clear that all six competitors, Superstars if you will, didn’t want this to be seen that way as all were obviously giving it their all.

Naomi flies at Alexa Bliss

Naomi flies at Alexa Bliss

Seeing Mickie James back on the main shows was great and gives a boost to the Smackdown roster that is otherwise made up of many lesser experienced performers or those moving out of the Diva-era into new WWE women’s wrestling.

As the match went on several storylines were developed or set up that could all feed into WrestleMania but it was the startlingly athletic Naomi pinning the Smackdown Women’s Champion Alexa Bliss after a split legged moonsalut that was the biggest story moment and I expect to see this play out as we head toward April.

WWE Raw Tag Team Championship
Luke Gallows & Karl Anderson (aka The Club) vs Cesaro & Sheamus (c)

Following a bit of a flat run in the middle of 2016, the new year has started with former IWGP Tag Team Champions, The Club, on great form while the development of the tag team champions has been equally great to watch so this felt like a natural match about who of these two rough and tough teams is the best.

The Club win the gold

The Club win the gold

As expected the action was hard-hitting throughout with The Club playing the classic heels and Sheamus and Cesaro’s teamwork growing to new heights, including some nice tandem attacks.

The gimmick of the second referee of course came into play in the conclusion as one ref ate a Brogue Kick from Sheamus allowing The Club to hit their Magic Killer finisher in the Irishman before Anderson rolled up Cesaro with a handful of tights to capture the gold.

This left stuff nicely open for the feud to continue on to Mania and showed The Club as they should have been all along, hard-hitting, dastardly heels of the old school.

Sasha Banks vs Nia Jax

While this match felt like it had come a little out of nowhere over the last few weeks Banks’ history shows she is rarely less than a good performer and Jax has developed into a solid, if slightly one-dimensional performer and that about sums up how the match went.

Nia Jax locks a strech muffler on Sasha Banks

Nia Jax locks a strech muffler on Sasha Banks

With a typical big wrestler vs small wrestler story it wasn’t anything special but Sasha is great at getting sympathy as Nia beat her with size and strength at every turn.

Sasha got a brief comeback after Jax went shoulder first into the ring post including hitting a nice double knee dive. Like Nakamura last night at NXT Takeover though this was Bank’s downfall and her knee injury allowed Jax to hit the pop-up Samoan Drop for the win.

While it’s no surprise to see Nia Jax get pushed (she is after all both an imposing presence and a cousin to The Rock) I’m not sure where she can go now as a dominating heel and Charlotte Flair also sitting atop the mountain as a dominant heel of a different flavour.

Main Show

As I’ve said previously the Royal Rumble is arguably the second biggest show in the pro-wrestling calendar and with an opening hype video like this it really got that across. Unlike many other shows which focus on all sorts of things it was clear that this was all about champions and contenders.

All the matches before the Rumble were for a title and then, of course, the Rumble itself is for a shot at the WWE World or Universal Championship at WrestleMania and from the off its clear this huge crowd was an excited for the show.

WWE Raw Women’s Championship
Bayley vs Charlotte Flair (c)

As her music hit and she made her way onto the stage in her ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage colours and tassels the crowd erupted for Bayley, showing the ongoing potential she has to be a top-level babyface like few female performers her.

Bayley attacks Charlotte Flair

Bayley attacks Charlotte Flair

Charlotte was greeted by a similarly loud reaction but suited to her heel persona as she has, over the past year, really grown into her role as a Flair to great effect.

As the heel champion Flair set the tone with a slow and steady pace, working down her faster more exuberant challenger before Bayley came back with speed and pace including a baseball slide hurricanrana, springboard cross body and Savage style diving elbow drop, before Charlotte regained the advantage with some brilliantly heelish use of the ring apron and steel stairs.

After that it was nearly all Charlotte as she continued to build her dominant persona culminating in a Natural Selection cutter on the ring apron. While this wasn’t the stormer I thought it might manage to be it was still a good, classically paced, contest and it remains great to see the women’s matches given the same level of importance and respect now as the men’s.

WWE Universal Championship
Roman Reigns vs Kevin Owens (c)
No Disqualification with Chris Jericho suspended above the ring in a shark cage!

While the gimmick may sound ridiculous it has its history back in the old territorial days and WWE have recently revived it with the same being used back at NXT Takeover: Toronto in November with Paul Ellering in the cage. Now it was Jericho’s turn to stop him from interfering in the match.

Kevin Owens frog splashes Roman Reigns

Kevin Owens frog splashes Roman Reigns

Owens and Jericho’s arrival got a very positive response (despite their heel role) while the reaction was typically very mixed with the lower, louder boos winning out.

The match itself was a great brawling affair starting with a walk and brawl through the crowd before Owens got the upper hand with a cannonball into the barricade and attempting to powerbomb Reigns throw a pyramid of steel chairs.

Back in the ring the pace slowed as Reigns took control in a far more heel way than anything Owen was really doing before ‘The Big Dog’ headed out the ring and set up a table. It wasn’t long before the table came into play with Owens getting the upper hand and hitting a top rope frog splash on Reigns through the table on the floor to a huge reaction.

After some more back and forth as Reigns survived the table splash Jericho dropped some brass knuckles into the ring and Owens attempted to use them to no avail before taking a Samoan drop onto a steel chair but coming back with a Stone Cold Stunner.

Roman sends Owens through the table

Roman sends Owens through the table

In what felt like the climax of the match Reigns again returned fire driving Owens through the announce table after sending him flying from the top rope through the pyramid of chairs as the crowd continued its mixed response to his every move.

As it looked like the win was secured though Braun Strowman appeared from nowhere chokeslamming Reigns through the table before powerslamming him through another allowing Owens to retain the Universal Championship.

While this felt like a great high stakes match it was once again a strange one with Reigns role as something of a ‘tweener’ still not really working in a satisfying way, though he is constantly putting on decent matches now. With most of the big bumps being taken by Kevin Owens really showed him as the more dedicated worker and the input of Strowman felt like it didn’t totally make sense given what came later in the night.

WWE Cruiserweight Championship
Neville vs Rich Swann (c)

Another match that had a great build through both Raw and the 205 Live show it was no surprise it got off to a fast start with Neville reinvigorated as the heel and Swann far more on the warpath than we’ve seen to date.

Neville hits a superkick on Swann

Neville hits a superkick on Swann

Neville looks like a beast now and after Swann getting the upper hand early the Geordie came back with a powerful missile dropkick from the top rope before slowing the pace down and using his strength to take the advantage.

Swann came back with a series of stiff kicks, showing he can play Neville’s game too, and hit his spinning heel kick finisher too close to the ropes to get the win.

The end came with a nasty looking superplex (it shows why smaller people doing this move is more dangerous) before Neville locked in his Rings of Saturn style double armbar to claim the Cruiserweight crown.

While the math was decent it didn’t sizzle quite as I thought it might but with the crowd in recovery mode from Roman/Owens and gearing up for Cena/Styles that’s not too surprising and with a solid heel at the top of the Cruiserweight roster now it can only help elevate the 205 Live brand further.

WWE World Championship
John Cena vs AJ Styles (c)

The build up to this match has been bubbling away since last summer and really hit a final burst in the last couple of weeks with an intense war of words between the pair that saw Cena take a darker turn than we’ve seen in a while and Styles’ role as well-travelled legit ‘world champion’ elevated even further.

Styles hits a Phenomenal Forearm on Cena

Styles hits a Phenomenal Forearm on Cena

As the pair were announced both received a mix response (showing how well tweener characters can work) before Cena got the early advantage with a, for him, vicious and physical attack.

For the whole match the crowd were loud and animated as the pair went back and forth time and again with both hitting their big moves early for near falls.

In a very nice sequence the pair traded holds from Cena’s AA to Styles Calf Crusher then STFs from each man and finally a figure-four leg lock from Cena referencing the fact that if he won this Cena would equal Ric Flair’s record number of world championships before AJ revered again into a cross arm breaker.

From there it was a flurry of big moves from both including powerbombs, an avalanche AA, the Styles Clash twice, an Ushigoroshi and more.

The crowd was going nuts for all the near falls as Styles set up for another Phenomenal Forearm before Cena countered, hitting a pair of AAs for the win to equal Flair’s record and, in a nice touch, the referee was long time Flair compatriot Charles Robinson.

Cena hits the AA on Styles

Cena hits the AA on Styles

While the match was very good (I don’t think it was ‘the best WWE Championship match ever’ as some have claimed) the logic of putting the belt on Cena again is lost on me.

He is a star with or without the belt both in the ring and out and he can’t be elevated any further in the wrestling world by having the championship again. While I respect his work and work ethic I will admit to never getting Cena but I am, as if it wasn’t obvious, a wrestling nerd not a casual fan, though I would have thought keeping the title on Styles going into WrestleMania would have helped elevate him while Cena remains the same star level he has been for the better part of a decade.

Royal Rumble
30 Man Battle Royal For A World of Universal Championship Match at WrestleMania

With more than 50,000 fans singalong to Enzo Amore and Big Cass the Rumble this year got going with the 7-foot New Yorker squaring off against the WWE United States Champion Chris Jericho.

Jack Gallagher gets eliminated

Jack Gallagher gets eliminated

With this being one of the most star-studded Rumbles in its 30 year history there was a real sense of anticipation and as Kalisto and Mojo Rawley entered the pace picked up and it got a nice flow going.

UK cruiserweight Jack Gallagher was a nice highlight early entrant and got up to some fun with his umbrella but was sadly the first man out at the hands of a returning (again) Mark Henry before the arrival of ‘The Monster Amongst Men’ Braun Strowman.

Strowman cleared most from the ring with Jericho sneaking away to hide with the announcers like the classic heel he is. It was clear at this point the first ‘story’ in this year’s Rumble would be based around Braun Strowman but his recent rival Sami Zayn survived the initial attack to stay in.

Entry number 10 was, as many had predicted and hoped, NXT’s ‘Perfect Ten’ Tye Dillinger and he and Zayn took the attack to Strowman while James Ellsworth provided a nice amusing moment leading to a nasty landing getting sent over the top rope by the monster.

The Wyatt Family explode

The Wyatt Family explode

Things became a battle of the big men as Baron Corbin hit the ring and after a flurry from all, including a stiff looking Helluva Kick from Zayn, Corbin sent Strowman out in something of a shock moment.

With Kofi Kingston’s usual survival spot not living up to past efforts the next part of the match saw Sheamus hit the ring in stiff mode battering his way through everyone before his tag team partner Cesaro arrived and hit his Giant Swing on anyone that got too close.

The pair soon eliminated The New Day, reinvigorating their rivalry, before being eliminated themselves by Jericho.

The next section of the match was built around the ongoing collapse of The Wyatt Family with Randy Orton hitting RKO’s on many before Luke Harper turned on Bray Wyatt and the feud hit a new high.

At this point it was clear the big name part timers were all coming late in the match and the crowd were getting impatient for it with regular Goldberg chants filling the Alamodome until Brock Lesnar’s music hit and the crowd erupted. The presence of quite so many part timers getting quite so much glory here is something that irks me a bit but I can see the draw they have to more casual fans, especially the three big names here Lesnar, Goldberg and The Undertaker.

Goldberg spears Lesnar

Goldberg spears Lesnar

Lesnar did what he does with multiple eliminations, suplexes and F-5s before the comparatively tiny Enzo Amore hit the ring all brash bluster and did one of the best sells on a clothesline I’ve seen in a long time before going over the top rope at the hands of the Beast.

With the field clear (or at least all downed at the hands of Lesnar) the epic music of Goldberg blared and he stalked to the ring face off with one of his greatest rivals. In a repeat of Survivor Series in November there’s a spear, a clothesline and Goldberg sends Lesnar packing in another shock moment that looks to be leading to a rematch at WrestleMania.

With an open moment Orton and Wyatt attack Goldberg before Goldberg gets the upper hand but the lights go out and The Undertaker appears in the ring attacking and eliminating Goldberg in another shock.

The final man out is, of course, Roman Reigns to another unbalanced reaction and he and Taker face off and go at it before Reigns sends Taker to the floor and I can only assume that WWE is finally pushing Reigns as an all out heel as the crowd chanted ‘bullshit’ at quite some volume.

Reigns stares down The Undertaker

Reigns stares down The Undertaker

With Reigns, Orton and Wyatt remaining Roman fought back eliminating Bray before Randy countered a spear into an RKO and got the, to me, surprise win to get a shot at John Cena at WrestleMania.

While I will admit to not being too hot on the idea of Cena vs Orton again at Mania the end of the match was nicely delivered but as a whole the match felt unbalanced.

The presence of the part timers in the final chunk added little to the overall match while their interactions with the main performers did nothing but make them look weaker leaving things on something of a downer

Randy Orton wins the Royal Rumble

Randy Orton wins the Royal Rumble

That said I remain hopeful that WWE have some good things planned heading into WrestleMania  as, while this whole show was certainly good, it lacked the magic thing to take it to the next level – maybe its too much hype that could never be lived up to?

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NXT Takeover: San Antonio – Freeman Coliseum, San Antonio, Texas – 28/01/17

NXT Takeover: San Antonio logoWWE’s developmental brand is starting 2017 in an interesting place. After years of being undeniably the best part of the wider wrestling, sorry Sports Entertainment, company’s output it finally seems as if the ‘main roster’ shows have started to catch up as the performers from NXT have moved up to the bigger shows.

So NXT Takeover: San Antonio comes with slightly less of a hype filled feel than some of the past events and sharing a weekend with what is often WWE’s most anticipated event for dedicated fans, the Royal Rumble, means I went in with slightly lower expectations than I might usually, though given the performers on the card this is slightly odd.

Tye Dillinger vs Eric Young (with Sanity members Killian Dain and Alexander Wolf)

It’s safe to say that starting the show with Tye Dillinger, aka The Perfect Ten, was a great way to get the audience excited from the start and, with his current feud with Sanity stable leader Eric Young having had a nice build there was some anticipation for the match to see if Dillinger could break his losing streak and to see Young making his first real appearance at a Takeover event.

Tye Dillinger and Eric Young

Tye Dillinger hits the Tye Breaker on Eric Young

As ever Dillinger was firmly in the underdog babyface role with Young getting the advantage early on thanks to outside interference from the recently arrived Northern Irish monster Killian Dain (aka Big Damo).

A nice comeback sequence was highlighted by a running top rope belly-to-belly suplex from Dillinger before outside interference really kicked in and The Perfect Ten cleared the ring hitting a Tye Breaker Ushigoroshi neckbreaker on Wolfe and a superkick on Dain. Further focus on the men outside though led to Young having the chance to hit his Youngblood wheelbarrow neckbreaker and get the win.

This match perfectly set the tone to open the show with a fast pace and the ever popular Dillinger really continuing to make a mark. Young came off as an excellent deranged antagonist and I can only see him moving up the card from here as Dillinger’s opponents tend to do.

Dillinger’s future though is still looking uncertain, he seems stuck in a perpetual cycle of losing out to the new bigger indie names in NXT. I hope this is rewarded as he has become one of the most reliable and popular performers on NXT and I can only hope that he moves up in the Royal Rumble tonight.

Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas vs Roderick Strong

Both Almas and Strong have had a bit of a bumpy introduction to NXT, despite both being stars on the independent scene or in Japan and Mexico, it certainly felt like both had something to prove here.

Roderick Strong and Andrade Cien Almas

Strong delivers a backbreaker to Almas

From his entrance Almas looked better than ever with his new (to NXT) heel persona really coming across and seemingly suiting him far more than the bland good guy he had portrayed previously and moves like his Tranquillo rope counter now making far more sense.

The match itself was stiff and athletic from the start with both men showing their best and getting in a great set of moves and seemingly doing their all to make each other look as good as possible.

With a nickname like Messiah of the Backbreaker it was not surprising that Strong got in a few nice variations of the move. Almas meanwhile mixed his famed highflying (including a very nicely done double moonsault reversal moment) and some more body part focussed attacks to create a nice story around injuring Strong’s arm and leading to a nice looking armbar submission spot.

With the whole match being a back and forth exhibition the ending came with the best looking Sick Kick single leg dropkick we’ve seen from Strong since he joined NXT, which looked like a real finishing manoeuvre at last, but really it should be both men who win here as they were given a chance to shine and, arguably, stole the show.

NXT Tag Team Championship
The Authors of Pain (Akam and Rezar with Paul Ellering) vs #DIY (Johnny Gargano & Tommaso Ciampa) (c)

Following the build of #DIY in feuds with the likes of The Revival as well as the Cruiserweight Classic across 2016 this felt like a big shift in things for them as they defended their NXT Tag Team Championships agains the monstrous winners of the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, The Authors Of Pain.

Authors of Pain and Tommaso Ciampa

Ciampa with a stiff kick

Coming to the ring bedecked in battle gear and masks made the Authors look even more terrifying and set the mood for the match with the question of ‘how can Gargano and Ciampa combat this?’ firmly established.

Despite initial attempts the Authors soon got the upper hand, though throughout #DIY kept making impressive comebacks which built and built. Once again Gargano proved himself to be terrific at getting sympathy as he was subject to the most prolonged attack before finally outsmarting the bigger duo to tag in Ciampa leading to a stiff series of attacks that looked to be making a difference.

Hitting a double slingshot spear and redoing the climax of their epic battle with The Revival from Toronto in November it looked like #DIY might do the unimaginable. The power game of the Authors proved too much though leading to a Super Collider double power bomb and then The Last Chapter Russian leg sweep/lariat combination on Ciampa giving the titles to The Authors Of Pain.

Seth Rollins

Rollins is escorted from the ring

I have to say while I hoped to see #DIY get the win there really wasn’t any other way this match could go, but it was far better handled than I expected. Akam and Rezar showed a lot more than they have to date and Gargano and Ciampa proved why they are two of the best in NXT at the moment giving the match a great balance of story and action and hopefully setting up more great stuff to come from both teams.

Following this there was a genuine surprise moment as Seth Rollins hit the ring from the crowd and called out Triple H, who, in typical Authority heel fashion sent out security to throw Seth out of the building to a reign of ‘Let them fight’ and ‘Bullshit!’ chants from the lively crowd.

While this went exactly as I’d expected it did a great job of bringing back some of that sense of surprise that has been a hallmark of NXT over the years and added something different to this show.

NXT Women’s Championship
Nikki Cross vs Peyton Royce vs Billie Kay vs Asuka (c)

On paper this looked like a strange one with the champion, Asuka, and Cross having genuinely formidable fighter personas (of a sort) and Kay and Royce being more traditional WWE women’s wrestlers, but the build and story had made it into something with a lot of potential.

Asuka, Peyton Royce and Billie Kay

Double German Suplex!

From the start it was clear, as previously said, this would be a match of two halves and as Royce and Kay left the ring Cross and Asuka started out with Nikki really looking like a real contender to the champion – something there hasn’t been in a while.

Once all four got back in Asuka hit a great double German suplex on Kay and Royce before Cross got the upper hand with an elevated spinning neckbreaker on the floor to Asuka.

She followed this up with a top rope to the floor dive onto the Australian duo before the three fought their way to the announcers position leading to Cross crashing through a table in one of the biggest spots I’ve seen NXT women do in a while.

Asuka and Nikki Cross

Cross hits a spinning neckbreaker

With the two on one format established it looked like Asuka’s unbeaten run would be in trouble but she came back to overcome the dual assault with her startling array of kicks.

While this did nothing for Kay and Royce individually their work as a team was great and the match left things open for Cross and Asuka to face off one-on-one which, at the moment, is the only way I can see Asuka facing a convincing challenge – one for Wrestlemania weekend I would imagine.

NXT Championship
‘The Glorious’ Bobby Roode vs ‘The King of Strong Style’ Shinsuke Nakamura (c)

In less than a year its fair to say Shinsuke Nakamura has done everything its possible to do in NXT with several NXT match of the year candidates and two reigns as champion.

Shinsuke Nakamura and Bobby Roode

Nakamura flies at Roode

Roode on the other hand has arrived and made a big splash in his modern-day Ric Flair, ‘glorious’, heel persona, so the build to this match felt entirely natural and like the two best in the company facing off (something that may well have been planned since way back in the summer when I saw them face off at a live event before Roode’s official debut).

Starting with some very nice chain wrestling and mind games the match had a very classic ‘American’ wrestling feel largely led by Roode but with Nakamura showing his talent by matching it and revealing, if not a new side, then more developed side of the Champion’s performing than we’d seen before in NXT.

This was followed by more faster paced striking which is Nakamura’s game but in great storytelling and psychology Roode seemed to have an answer for all of Nakamura’s trademark attacks even leading to The Glorious One hitting a double knee lungblower of his own.

Nakamura and Roode

Roode locks in the half Boston crab

Nakamura came back with his classic comeback moves including both his rolling armbar and triangle choke (slightly less seen in NXT) before hitting a Kinshasa on the apron and seemingly injuring his knee.

This was the story of the final third of the match with the wrestlers and officials doing a great job selling it as a legitimate injury (I’m hoping it wasn’t).

Despite the injury Nakamura still survived a first Glorious DDT (which he sold like Finn Balor’s Bloody Sunday/1916) and a single leg Boston crab.

A second big DDT though brought about the end, crowning Roode as new champion but in a way that there’s still a story to tell.

Bobby Roode

Roode is the new NXT Champion

This had a slightly different feel to many of the recent NXT Championship matches but was refreshing for it and did a great job of culminating the establishment of Roode as the ‘top guy’.

While I can see the feud with Nakamura going on to Wrestlemania weekend, I could also see this as being the change to move The King Of Strong Style onto the main roster, and with the Royal Rumble we all know anything can happen!

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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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The True Story of the Royal Rumble – Blu-ray

The True Story of the Royal Rumble - blu-rayIn January 1988 WWE (then WWF) started their year with a TV special show featuring a new type of match. Based on the traditional ‘all in’ Battle Royal that has been a part of professional wrestling for decades, the Royal Rumble took the basic format of many men in the ring at once trying to throw each other out and, with a few tweaks, made it into something that is still one of the most anticipated and well-known pro-wrestling formats as we head to its 30th occurrence next month.

To mark what they are calling the ’30th anniversary’ WWE have released a ‘documentary’ looking at the ‘true story’ of the match and the surrounding event and, much like most other recent WWE productions it is a mixed bag, too focussed on short attention spans to present anything genuinely revealing.

In a conceit they’ve used a few times recently, most memorably in Daniel Bryan’s autobiography and accompanying video set, the historical story is interspersed with behind the scenes moments focussing on the most recent event (in this case 2016). While this behind the scenes stuff is vaguely interesting most of it is either things you’ll have seen before if you’ve seen anything about how WWE stages one or their shows or is clips of the actual show you’ve already seen, just with a bit more clever editing involved.

Hacksaw Jim Duggan wins the first Royal Rumble

Hacksaw Jim Duggan wins the first Royal Rumble

The most interesting elements of this are around the ‘surprise’ entries and how the surprise is maintained, though a few brief clips with AJ Styles do little more than suggest that somewhere in the WWE archive is a very interesting interview with one of the greatest wrestlers on the planet that we’re not being shown.

The historical segments are the most interesting part of this with the match’s creator, WWE legend and ‘Vince McMahon’s right hand man, Pat Paterson and NBC executive Dick Ebersol giving some insight into its creation (Ebersol stands out massively as a non-WWE figure on one of these documentaries though the archive shots of him promoting the XFL suggest he’s someone trusted by the McMahon machine) and the first event with that matches winner, Hacksaw Jim Duggan, actually speaking quite well on what it meant at the time and how the match came together in the ring.

From there it’s hard to escape it feeling like an hour-long trail for the next event with many current performers talking about how big and important the match has been over the years in clearly scripted ‘interviews’, with obvious accompanying clips.

Roman Reigns and The Rock at the 2015 Royal Rumble

Roman Reigns and The Rock at the 2015 Royal Rumble

The aforementioned Duggan interview, along with interviews with Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash and a few others do give a bit more context to the past events but, for various reasons (some obvious, some not), many of the key players are missing making it hard to get past a superficial or one-sided feeling to all this.

Unfortunately it makes the main ‘documentary’ feel like something of a wasted opportunity as there is certainly an interesting story to tell about this most famous of matches, but it feels as if the surface is barely scratched here with a chronologically muddled film that doesn’t seem to want to do anything but stress the importance of the event without any real back up to this while fitting into the current WWE network format that will do nothing but date it badly in the coming years. And with all of this phrase ‘make Roman look strong’ is never far away…

Chris Jericho and AJ Styles in the 2016 Royal Rumble

Chris Jericho and AJ Styles in the 2016 Royal Rumble

The Blu-ray set also includes a few ‘exclusives’ that are interesting asides in a few cases, particularly Duggan discussing his confrontations with The Undertaker at an early Rumble and then much later, Ric Flair talking about his return to wrestling in the WWE in the early 2000s and Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch discussing the idea of a women’s only Royal Rumble in the future.

Also included are a series of matches from Royal Rumble events over the years including four full Rumble matches. While all are interesting and a few are referenced in the documentary, there is a lack of any sense of coherent curation or explanation of ‘why these matches’ leaving it all feeling a bit disjointed, something that really sums up the whole package.

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WWE 205 Live – 29/11/16

WWE 205 LiveOver the summer of 2016 WWE did something unprecedented for them by staging a tournament for Cruiserweight wrestlers from around the world, whether they were permanently signed to the company of not, the Cruiserweight Classic (CWC).

Taped at the same venue as the NXT Arena in Orlando, Florida the small, intimate, knowledgable crowd, combined with some of the best wrestlers I’ve seen in a long time, made for a special series of events that climaxed with the crowning of a new WWE Cruiserweight Champion.

While the likes of Kota Ibushi and Zack Sabre Jr stole the tournament, and for the most part Ibushi looked like a favourite to win, the whole concept was really what stood out as it seemed to something of a throw back to a time when we could believe that professional wrestling was a sport and who won and who lost really mattered, combined with modern sensibilities.

Triple H, TJ Perkins and William Regal

Triple H, TJ Perkins and William Regal

The tournament was finally won by TJ Perkins, while not Ibushi or Sabre still a worthy winner and crucially recently signed to the WWE (something neither of the aforementioned grapplers agreed to), and the Cruiserweight Division was moved to the WWE’s flagship show Monday Night Raw.

On Raw it retained some aspects of the CWC shows with handshakes and its own purple colour scheme, including ropes and matt, while more ‘sports entertainment’ aspects were introduced attempting to give some of the performers more developed characters.

Most successful of these was past WWE Superstar and now veteran, ‘The’ Brian Kendrick, who defeated TJ Perkins for the championship at the Hell In A Cell special in the build up to what I’m looking at here, 205 Live, a new show focussing specifically on the WWE Cruiserweight Division and airing live on the WWE Network, kicking off on Tuesday 29th November following Smackdown.

WWE 205 Live superstars

WWE 205 Live Superstars

Being filmed in a far bigger arena than the CWC instantly gave the show a different feel, as did the rather quiet crowd as commentary team Mauro Ronallo, ‘The Saviour of Misbehaviour’ Corey Graves and ‘The Greatest Man That Ever Lived’ Austin Aries hyped what was to come, before we were introduced to the ‘Superstars of 205 Live’.

While Perkins, Kendrick and current number one contender Rich Swann got a decent reception, most of the rest of the line up were greeted in a muted fashion which was a bit concerning before we got a video hyping the Sihra brother tag team duo, The Bollywood Boys.

These hype videos were something that worked really well on the CWC to introduce the competitors in a snappy way, but there the gimmicks were less pronounced and the competition more to the fore, here it was hard not to see The Bollywood Boys as yet another bland, babyface duo who are confusingly at once from India (hence the name) and Canada (hence the wrestling skills), this led to them making their way to the ring to a fairly quiet reception in the cavernous arena.

Sihra and Neese

Sihra and Neese

Their opponents, already in the ring but thanks to appearances on Raw already established as heels, were ‘The Premier Athlete’ Tony Neese and Drew Gulak. This choice of adversaries thankfully told the crowd all they needed to know and they soon got behind the Indian/Canadians.

The match itself set the scene well with a mix of high-flying spots and groundwork along with some stiff looking, almost ‘strong style’, striking from Neese and Gulak before the faces got the win with a nicely delivered double-superkick. Of the spots a highlight for me was a tandem clothesline/DDT that was something I’d not seen before and, if a little contrived, looked great.

Following the match the heels were interviewed in the aisle bringing back in an element of the ‘real sport’ style of the CWC, though Gulak showed why he’s not been given any live mic time before while Neese did his best to rescue it and just about managed.

After a hype video for Gran Metallik, apparently he’s coming soon despite having been on the stage with the rest of the crew at the start, and a backstage interview with Kendrick it was time for one-on-one competition between fairly typical heel Ariya Daivari and ‘The Extraordinary Gentlemen’ Jack Gallagher.

Gallagher and Daivari

Gallagher and Daivari

Gallagher headed to the ring to a pleasantly positive reaction and is one of the performers I was most looking forward to seeing following his outings in the CWC and his reputation from the recently revived British wrestling scene. The match itself was mostly an exhibition for Gallagher’s ‘unique style’ derived from his training at the Wigan Snakepit as well as his own take on showmanship.

Throughout the match Gallagher showcased some of his trademark moves including an impressive range of chain wrestling counters, a ‘Jim Breaks special’ and the ridiculous but somehow impressive ‘Windsor Knot’ submission hold which has to be seen to be believed, before Gallagher scored the win following his stiff looking corner dropkick. Aries on commentary came into his own here with what I’m hoping sounded like a set up for a feud between the veteran and Gallagher once Austin is cleared to wrestle again.

Kendrick and Swann

Kendrick and Swann

While I’ve enjoyed Rich Swann’s work since the CWC I will admit that seeing him as number one contender for the Cruiserweight Championship didn’t have me convinced as it seems to have come around very quickly – also I am a big fan of Kendrick’s work both recently and from his past time in WWE. None the less they did a good job of building at least a mild sense of anticipation for the main event championship encounter.

Going back and forth for the best part of 20 minutes Kendrick and Swann put on a great match that showed the best of both men and it wasn’t long before the crowd were really getting into it, rooting for the good guy against the genuinely dastardly heel. Both men hit their big spots and seemed to be pushing the envelope further than they had on their outings on Raw with the likes of Kendrick’s turnbuckle neckbreaker, a dragon suplex and a top rope ‘avalanche’ version of his Sliced Bread #2 being particularly strong moments.

Kendrick and Swann

Kendrick and Swann

Swann also held his own, convincing me of his position at the top of the card, picking up the win with a trio of impressive spinning heel kicks.

The end of the show came with more of the ‘real sport’ style post match interviews with Swann being the good babyface and dedicating his win to his late mother, while Kendrick showed why he really is the jewel in the crown of WWE’s Cruiserweights with a bitter heel promo that suggested a follow-up to this throwing TJ Perkins back into the mix.

In the end the premier edition of 205 Live was a bit of a mixed bag. The action in the ring was consistently good and at times great and at least three of the competitors ended the show being very much over with the crowd. Unfortunately staging it in an arena with an audience already tired from the previous two-hour Smackdown programme sapped some of the energy and excitement from the show as a whole.

Rich Swann

Rich Swann

While it didn’t quite live up to the excellence that was the CWC, 205 Live is a bold move for WWE and one that I hope develops from here into something special, which based on this it certainly has the potential to do.

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NXT Bournemouth – Bournemouth International Centre – 16/06/15

NXT view

My view at the show

A couple of days removed from the event this isn’t going to be a definitive blow-by-blow account of NXT’s recent show in Bournemouth, but a bit of a run down and my thoughts on the show.

Arriving at the BIC I wasn’t sure what to expect given my previous experience of live WWE shows was a Monday Night Raw taping at the O2 in 2015, a much larger crowd and, theoretically, broader in scope as ‘sports entertainment’ and prior to that a non-televised show at the Royal Albert Hall in early 1994!

Instantly it was obvious the crowd here was slightly different, more black t-shirts, more males aged 18-35 (thankfully I’m still just in that demographic) and much more ‘serious’ wrestling chat, giving it the feeling of many of live music shows I go to and a bit of a hint of WWE’s (somewhat inexplicably) revered Attitude Era of the late 1990s, just a bit less drunk and raucous.

That said, there were still some families there and, after the men in black t-shirts, the largest contingent was youngsters in purple Bayley t-shirts (and some of the adult men proudly rocking them too). I thought this might make the crowd a bit imbalanced but it didn’t as throughout, from what I could see and hear, everyone was polite and respectful (both in terms of language used and phrases chanted) and clearly out to have a good time, which it seems everyone did, to a huge degree.

Entering the venue’s Windsor Hall and finding my seat, fifth row from ringside and facing the entrance way, I realised I’d struck gold as I had a great view of everything from the ring to the entrance way while also feeling part of the energetic crowd.

Before the show started host and ring announcer Dasha Fuentes headed to ringside to chat with a few fans, it was clear that despite this being near the end of the tour the difference between American and English crowds hadn’t quite sunk in and people were a little more reserved than it seems Fuentes expected but it was still all fun and then, to warm us up for the in-ring action, we got to vote on which classic NXT match to watch highlights of.

With the options being Seth Rollins vs Jinder Mahal, Sami Zayn vs Adrian Neville and Bayley vs Sasha Banks the crowd picked the Bayley/Banks face off from Takeover Brooklyn which just goes to show the way this pair have helped build the reputation of women’s wrestling in WWE and NXT to being on a level with the men’s matches as this is an indisputable classic.

No Way Jose vs Angelo Dawkins

No Way Jose

No Way Jose

With the crowd warmed up the lights went down and we got the WWE TV intros on the big screen, both the ‘Then, Now, Forever’ ident and NXT opening titles which finished setting the mood perfectly before No Way Jose hit the ring and had everyone clapping and singing along to his excellently catchy theme.

Jose is a character I thought I was really not going to like before his debut, dancing gimmicks are very much not my thing, but something about his enthusiasm and the innocence with which it is delivered really works and I was instantly onside with him as babyface and that just grew seeing him live.

His opponent was one of NXT’s roster of unfortunate jobbers, Angelo Dawkins who got little reaction until someone noticed he looks like a low rent version of Attitude Era stalwart D’Lo Brown. From that point on the crowd got on his case about this and he played up to it excellently as a heel should.

The rest of the match was more good fun, all very loose but that’s to be expected in the opening match of a non-televised show and really didn’t spoil things as Jose danced rings around Dawkins before hitting his cobra clutch slam finisher for the win leading to more chanting, dancing and singing and setting the tone nicely.

Bayley & Carmella vs Nia Jax & Alexa Bliss

Bayley

Bayley

As Alexa Bliss made her way to the ring for a tag team match it seemed like we were going to get to see some big names early, and we did as Bliss and Nia Jax (a genuinely imposing presence in person), both greeted to a suitable level of good-natured heat made their way to the ring followed by Carmella, who did her whole Enzo style entrance, and Bayley completely with walking waving inflatable tube men and one of the biggest pops of the night.

Getting to ‘sing-along’ with Carmella was a great moment as we all joined with her ‘My name is…’ schtick complete withe ‘Bada-bing, hottest chick in the ring!’ and just feeling the positivity Bayley brings to the arena is amazing and she is a credit to the WWE. I’ve heard people suggest she could be the female John Cena and on the basis or a response like this I could see her being even more than that and the crowd was all on side in an entirely genuine way.

Bayley and Bliss lock up

Bayley and Bliss lock up

The match was a good back and forth with the heels beating down on both faces, all the great Bayley chants (which she seemed genuinely enthused by) and lots of ‘How you doin’’ chants. it was mostly Carmella suffering at the hands of the heels building to a hot tag to Bayley which again got a huge response.

With all four competitors involved Carmella and Bliss headed to the floor distracting Jax and allowing Bayley to hit the monster heel with her Bayley-to-Belly Suplex finisher for the three. This move was a big surprise and probably amplified the winning pop even more and it was sustained as Bayley made her way around ringside giving out hugs to anyone with an ‘I’m a hugger’ t-shirt.

Tye Dillinger vs Hugo Knox

Tye Dillinger

‘The Perfect 10’ Tye Dillinger

Being from Manchester it was clear that Knox was expected to be the hometown hero in this match as he is English, unfortunately for him and despite the best efforts of both Dillinger and WWE, Tye is getting huge reactions for his perfect 10 gimmick and this continued here, with his work in the ring and natural charisma coming through despite his best efforts to play the bad guy.

The match was good, with newcomer Knox coming across well with some great athleticism for a bodybuilder type guy but he succumbed to Dillinger’s Perfect 10 fireman’s carry neck breaker and the imbalance of the heel/face work did spoil it a little, but Dillinger is just too good at what he does to boo and chanting ’10’ along with his is a great crowd moment.

Austin Aries vs Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas

Austin Aries

Austin Aries

As Aries stepped out, complete with a cape that should be an instant heat winner, he was getting cheered hugely.

As he picked up the mic in the ring though he proceeded to cut an excellent heel promo that did a great job of getting across the cocky side of ‘The greatest man that ever lived’ and almost totally counteracted the initial cheers to set the stage nicely for a fast paced match with NXT newcomer (but seasoned performer elsewhere) Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas.

While having a reputation from CMLL in Mexico and NJPW in Japan as La Sombre (amongst others) Andrade hasn’t quite found his place in NXT yet but, working with a veteran like Aries, it was clear the two brought out the best in each other.

This was the first match to feel genuinely competitive with both men looking for big moves and feeling a bit tighter than what had come before.

Austin Aries vs Andrade Cien Almas

Cien reacts to a dropkick in the corner

Andrade’s springboard moonsault feint into a standing moonsault is hugely impressive as was pretty much everything Aries did, even if he didn’t hit any of his big high-flying trademarks (again fairly expected these wouldn’t be used on a non-televised show).

With a great back and forth and both men playing things excellently the end came with Cien countering what looked like it would be a brain buster and connecting with his running double knee in the corner. This looks far more impactful in person but with Shinsuke Nakamura’s range of knee strikes being present on the same show it feels like an odd choice of finish.

While on paper Aries doing the job sounds strange it worked in the context of this show with everything being very feel good and this was one of those matches where both men came out well regardless of who took the fall.

Shinsuke Nakamura vs Bobby Roode

Bobby Roode

Bobby Roode

To start the next match, scheduled, of course, for one-fall (ONE FALL! – I’ll never quite get why the UK crowd shouts this each match but its fun) some unfamiliar music hit and the screen displayed some nondescript lights so, as former TNA standard Bobby Roode headed out the crowd were initially caught off guard before popping pretty big for this long teased newcomer to NXT.

As Roode entered the ring, looking like a classic wrestling heel a la Ric Flair in his sequined robe, his cocky heel persona really came through and without even taking the mic the crowd was already accepting him as a bad guy when the lights went out and Shinsuke Nakamura’s already familiar theme hit and crowd exploded at the proposition of this ‘dream match’.

Being relatively new to Nakamura I’m already a huge fan but as the lights came up and he strutted his way to the ring it was clear that his charismatic presence is even bigger in person than on-screen and he received the biggest reaction of the night.

Nakamura hits the Kinshasa

Nakamura hits the Kinshasa

With the crowd chanting for both men the duo circled each other but eventually the Nakamura chants (along with ‘Shinsuke Bomaye’ and singing of his theme song) won out and the pair put on the match of the night going back and forth and hitting the fiercest looking strikes and some of the biggest general moves of the show.

Throughout occasional shouts of ‘BEER!… MONEY!’ in reference to Roode showed that this crowd knew they were watching something special and, for a non-televised show we were not disappointed and both men hit a series of big spots culminating in Nakamura’s inverted exploder and Kinshasa/Bomaye knee strike that was the move of the night and rounded off the first half of the show in a huge way that wasn’t to be bettered.

NXT Tag Team Championship
American Alpha vs The Revival (c)

American Alpha

American Alpha

With the crowd re-energised after the emotional drain that was Nakamura/Roode the second half opening with a rematch from last week’s Takeover: The End as American Alpha headed to the ring to challenge The Revival for the NXT Tag Team Championship.

Despite their all American gimmick the work of Jason Jordan and Chad Gable has endeared them well beyond the US and they got one of the biggest reactions tonight as they made their way out and it was clear both they and the crowd were ‘Ready, Willing and Gable’ (sorry I couldn’t resist).

While not such a big reaction Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder were greeted as heels should be with  good-natured negativity that continued throughout the match with many different ways of playing up to the running joke that no one knows who is who out of the two.

American Alpha vs The Revival

Gable arm drags Dawson

It wasn’t all Revival heckling though and Alpha got many renditions of 2-Unlimited’s Euro-pop classic No Limit as reworked with Jordan and Gable’s names – I’m not sure if this chant makes any sense outside of the UK, or even to the two wrestlers, but they seem to love it as much as the crowd does.

Despite it being pretty obvious the belts weren’t going to change hands here both teams did a good job of selling that it might, putting on an excellent exhibition with Dash and Dawson being excellent at playing the old school heels, distracting the ref so cheating could occur, engaging with the crowd and generally being a great modern-day versions of classic teams from the NWA in the 1970s. American Alpha on the other hand are their antithesis being excellent ‘pure wrestlers’ like a more sane version of the Steiner Brothers crossed with Kurt Angle (we got another ankle lock tease spot from Gable), giving the two teams a perfect chemistry together.

The Revival

The Revival – victorious

Of course The Revival came out on top but, with it being thanks to some foul play from Wilder helping Dawson get the pin it left American Alpha looking good and strong and was as pitch perfect a tag match as your likely to see, even if we didn’t get to see the Shatter Machine or Grand Amplitude.

After the match American Alpha stayed in the ring and appeared genuinely touched by the huge reaction they got from the crowd which was great to see.

NXT Women’s Championship
Peyton Royce vs Asuka (c)

Asuka

Asuka

As soon Royce was announced as the challenger here it was clear where this was going which spoiled it a bit as a contest but, despite that she put on a good show and we got to see more from her than we have so far on TV and she worked effectively as a heel including a nice referee distraction spot leading to a tarantula-like hold in the ropes.

Asuka on the other hand was excellent in her silent killer kind of role, despite which she is a face, but she still let the match go back and forth a little before unleashing her ranger of strong style strikes and holds, including a great looking Shining Wizard, before getting the expected win with the Asuka Lock.

NXT Championship
Finn Balor vs Samoa Joe (c)

Finn Balor

Finn Balor – 2 Sweet!

By this point it was clear what the main event was going to be but the greeting for Irish grappler Finn Balor was immense as he stepped through the curtain and threw the hand signal for the Bullet Club/Kliq to be greeted with most of the crowd returning it.

Another unassumingly charismatic performer Balor had the audience in his hand throughout and the positivity of his reaction was matched only by Nakamura tonight and, from a heel side, his opponent Samoa Joe.

Joe in person is genuinely fairly terrifying when he wants to be. Built like a tank the so-called Soman Submission Machine is a real monster and played the part to a tee here as he seemed impervious to much of Balor’s offence in the early going. Both guys hit a lot of signature spots, most of which looked nice and tight continuing the story of their ongoing rivalry brilliantly and the crowd, though somewhat divided in their support, were engaged throughout.

Samoa Joe

Samoa Joe

With Finn starting to make a come back on the champ, Joe bailed from the ring and found a steel chair and, after a bit more offence from Finn, Joe smacked him with it in the gut, then the back leading to a disqualification. This, of course, saved his championship, but felt anti-climactic until Balor retaliated and went back and forth with Joe leading to a Coupe De Grace from the top rope sending the champ to the back.

After the match Finn got on the mic and cut a great promo, initially it felt like a standard, ‘thanks for coming, this was the best night of the tour’ kind of thing, but as we all started chanting ‘Thank you Finn’ it seemed to change to something more heartfelt as the Demon said we shouldn’t be thanking him or any of the others wrestlers, they should be thanking us for supporting them and coming out to see the shows.

Samoa Joe vs Finn Balor

Joe with the facewash on Balor

Coming from a guy who’s truly worked his way up from the bottom (including moving from his home to the UK, then Japan, then America to pursue his dream) this was genuinely quite something and as this maybe Balor’s last tour before he moves to mainstream WWE it gave it something of an extra special ‘farewell tour’ moment and ended a great show on a real high, even if Roode and Nakamura put on the best match of the night.

For me, other than reenforcing my love of pro-wrestling, what this show did most was show just how fun wrestling shows can be and that it takes everything from the dancing of No Way Jose to the ‘strong style’ fighting of Shinsuke to Nakamura to the genuine, heartfelt performance of Finn Balor and Bayley to make a wrestling show, making it about as close to variety as you really get in this day and age.

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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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