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WWE Mae Young Classic – Final (and more)

Mae Young classic finalists Kairi Sane and Shayna Baszler

Kairi Sane and Shayna Baszler

A couple of weeks ago I took a look at the opening round of the Mae Young Classic, WWE’s international women’s wrestling tournament.

Since then the second round, quarter and semi finals have all been aired leading to a live final pitting Japan’s ‘pirate princess’ Kairi Sane and her devastating flying elbow drop against MMA fighter, and one of Ronda Rousey’s ‘four horsewomen’, Shayna Baszler and her debilitating suplex into a rear naked choke style sleeper hold.

Like the first round the second had its fair share of great moments but it was the quarter finals where the tournament really began to come to life with all four matches being some of the best women’s wrestling I’ve ever seen.

Shayna Baszler and Mercedes Martinez

Baszler and Martinez

In this round my highlights came in the Kairi Sane/Dakota Kai match and particularly the contest between Scottish wrestler Piper ‘The Viper’ Niven and Progress Wrestling Women’s Champion, Australian competitor Toni Storm.

The semi-finals then upped things even further setting a par not just for women’s wrestling but for any matches within the WWE Universe (to use their phrase) this year.

Baszler faced off against her mentor on the indie circuit, Mercedes Martinez, in a match pitting fighter against fighter.

The match had that MMA crossover feel with stiff striking and legitimate looking submission holds with both women looking like contenders.

It was accumulated shoulder and knee injuries for the older Martinez though that were her downfall giving Baszler her place in the final.

Kairi Sane and Toni Storm

Sane and Storm

The second semi-final had a more standard pro-wrestling feel to it with Sane’s Japanese high-flying against the Antipodean Strong Style of Toni Storm.

Again both women looked like they could make it to the final and both hit big moves, including a top rope to the floor crossbody from Sane that saw her go headfirst into the metal ramp.

Despite that it was Sane who would connect with her diving elbow on Storm to get the win and set up a real clash of styles and personalities in the final.

Final round – Las Vegas, Nevada – 12/09/17
Kairi Sane (Japan) vs Shayna Baszler (USA)

When I first heard that the final was going to be taking place after a Smackdown show in Las Vegas, rather than sat the NXT Arena at Full Sail in Orlando, I was concerned.

If 205 Live has shown us anything it’s that the crowd following the two-hour Smackdown show can be pretty burnt out, especially when faced with less well-known competitors and, as the opening chunk of the show on the WWE Network rolled on, this was looking to be the case.

Kairi Sane and Shayna Baszler

Baszler gets the upper hand on Sane

After a look at the ‘red carpet’ for the evening, largely an excuse to further remind us of the building feud between the MMA and WWE horsewomen, as well as a nice little mention of Netflix’s GLOW, we headed back to the arena where commentators Jim Ross and Lita got a mild reaction and the challengers headed to the ring.

While Baszler got little response from the crowd on her entrance and Sane only marginally more, as they were announced in the ring by returning long time ring announcer Lillian Garcia it seemed the audience began to realise this was a special event, and as the lights dimmed more than usual for a big WWE arena show this continued.

The match itself was great with the size and style difference between the two women exploited to the full.

Kairis Sane hits an axe-kick on Shayna Baszler

Sane hits an axe-kick

With some fairly even back and forth wrestling it was Baszler, clearly playing the heel now, who took the upper hand with a stiff looking kick to Sane’s head that sent the Japanese fighter to the floor before Baslzer got the first real two-count.

From there Baszler focussed on the submission angle working on Sane’s right arm with a range of nice ‘joint manipulation’ style holds along with nasty looking versions of armbars and several attempts to apply the double wrist lock (aka the Kimura).

Sane came back with chops only to be derailed by a knee lift reminiscent of Kenny Omega’s V-Trigger, but on a third attempt she connected with her impactful spear injuring Baszler’s ribs.

This then became the story of the third act of the match, as Baszler aimed for the arm but Sane found the weakness in her opponent’s ribs. A top rope flying forearm was countered into a rear naked choke, Baszler’s signature hold across the tournament, but Sane escaped thanks to the rib injury.

Kairi Sane double stomps Shayna Baszler

Tree of Woe double stomp from Sane

The climax came following a forearm battle on the top rope leading to a tree of woe double foot stomp which garnered ‘this is awesome chants’ from the now fully invested crowd, and then an immaculate version of Sane’s spectacular take on the diving elbow drop giving her the three count and the trophy.

Given all the competitors in the tournament this match was a great final pairing as they combined storyline with the more sporting feel brilliantly and this was summed in a moment after the bell when the two hugged and Baszler, previously a vicious heel, clearly said thank you to the more experienced Sane.

Kairi Sane elbow drop on Shayna Baszler

Sane hits her diving elbow drop for the win

Triple H, Stephanie McMahon and Sara Amato then presented Sane with the typically ludicrously oversized trophy in what felt like a genuine wrestling moment, possibly even more so than TJ Perkins’ win in the Cruiserweight Classic Last year and up with Tyler Bate’s win in the United Kingdom Championship tournament.

While this show felt a little short at barely 30 minutes – I’d have liked to maybe have seen tag match featuring Storm & LeRae against Niven & Mendez as they were all shown to be in attendance, the final was far from the great contest with a dead crowd I was expecting.

In fact it was a great match with a newly invested crowd and more than suitably rounded off what has been a great tournament featuring some of the best in ring work WWE is likely to see this year, regardless of gender, and I hope this becomes a recurring event like the Best of the Super Juniors tournament in New Japan or Chikara’s King of Trios.

Stephanie McMahon, Sara Amato, Kairi Sane and Triple H

McMahon, Amato and Triple H congratulate Sane

But I think it’s safe to say that in the end the right woman won and the whole tournament has done a great job of setting up some upcoming stories and characters for the regular TV shows while giving some future talent a place to make a mark and maintaining a certain legitimate feel often lost in WWE’s ‘sports entertainment’ product.

Photos from WWE.com

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WWE Mae Young Classic 2017 – Round One

WWE Mae Young Classic logoIf you’d told me five years ago that not only would WWE be staging a stand alone women’s wrestling tournament, and also that I’d be getting genuinely excited about it, I would have been at least very sceptical if not purely disbelieving.

Well here we are in summer 2017 and, following the ‘women’s revolution’ of the past couple of years and last summer’s Cruiserweight Classic tournament, not to mention the United Kingdom Championship Tournament, we have the Mae Young Classic – a 32 competitor single elimination tournament featuring some top name international women’s talent.

Unlike the CWC last year, WWE are releasing this tournament (which was taped back in July) in blocks of each round before a live final, so here I’m looking at the first round of matches, released on the WWE Network on Monday August 28th.

Mae Young Classic wrestler

The competitors

Continuing with a theme I raised at both the previous weekend’s NXT Takeover and SummerSlam events, the Mae Young Classic continues WWE’s ongoing trend to at least appear more international.

Many of the contenders are announced as representing different countries with some even hailing from those countries (though it’s noticeable a lot are American, far more so than in the CWC).

Along with that, while some of the competitors are long-standing and well-known faces in the world of women’s wrestling, a slightly suspicious number seem to be rather new, even if they have other sports experience, and in a few cases it’s telling and smacks of WWE trying to promote their new signings before they appear on NXT.

That said, the pairings in this opening round led, with a few exceptions, to some great matches with some excellent moments.

Mae Young Classic opening brackets

I won’t go through things match for match but will pick out some highlights.

As a whole though the presentation was very well done with a similar, more legit ate sporting feel, like the CWC.

Baszler and Zeda

Baszler chokes out Zeda

The commentary, from Jim Ross and Lita, did take a while to settle with both feeling a bit out-of-place at first but by the end of the first round they seemed to have settled down (though I’ll admit the legend that is JR does sound a little old hat now and I’d have preferred to hear Mauro Ronallo).

The first episode (each episode featuring four matches) was a strong start following a ‘not as inspiring as it should have been’ hype video voiced by Stephanie McMahon.

Female luchadore Princesa Sugeheit got what was, to my mind, a surprise win over Scotland’s Kay Lee Ray, but it was former UFC competitor Shayna Baszler and both Abbey Laith (formerly known as Kimber Lee) and Jazzy Gabert (aka The Alpha Female) who were the real standouts, with Baszler looking like a potential winner, especially with her very nice suplex into sleeper finishing combo.

Xia Yim and Sarah Logan

Yim pins Logan after a German suplex

The second episode was headlined by Mia Yim picking up a win over Sarah Logan in a match where both came out looking good.

Also on the show Chinese performer Xia Li, signed to WWE following their foray to China to try to expand their market, lost out to Mercedes Martinez, who came across as a tough MMA style wrestler, while Li looked far better than anyone would expect in a debut.

Australian athlete Rhea Ripley looked good with a win over Miranda Salinas and the daughter of Paul Ellering, Rachel Evers, picked up a win over Marti Belle in the first duff match of the tournament.

Toni Storm

A victorious Toni Storm

In many ways episode three was the highlight for me featuring three of the wrestlers I’m most familiar with advancing.

The show began with Toni Storm, the first Progress Wrestling women’s champion, going over a very inexperienced looking Ayesha Raymond before kiwi standout Dakota Kai got a convincingly hard-fought win with a hyper speed corner kick and double stomp on WWE’s first Indian female competitor Kavita Devi.

In the episode’s main event Piper Niven, who had previously appeared on ITV’s World of Sport back in December as Viper, got a win over Santana Garrett with some impressively athletic moves.

While Niven may look like a friendlier modern-day Klondyke Kate style performer she has a lot more in her arsenal than one would expect from that, no doubt echoing some of the Japanese competitor with whom I’m less familiar like Bull Nakano.

Kairi Sane elbow drop on Tessa Blanchard

Sane’s elbow drop on Blanchard

Despite featuring two of the most anticipated wrestlers, the fourth episode was in some ways also the weakest.

Thankfully Candice LeRae’s opening victory over Renee Michelle and pretty much everything done by Japan’s Kairi Sane (aka Kairi Hojo) in her face off with Tessa Blanchard stole the show – particularly Sane’s ridiculous winning elbow drop from the top rope that is like no other I’ve previously seen.

While some of the eliminated competitors are ones I’d like to see more from, the results of the first round have set up some very interesting matches going forward making it hard to call who will advance, which is always nice when things can so often be so easy to predict in WWE, and has set the tournament going in a very enjoyable manner.

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SummerSlam – Barclays Centre – 20/08/17

WWE SummerSlam logo25 years ago WWE (then WWF) presented what was then their biggest live event, with 80,000 people in London’s Wembley Stadium for the 1992 SummerSlam event.

While the show was a mixed bag for a few reasons it’s lived in the memory thanks to its location, the only WWE pay per view outside main land North America, and the main event which saw Bret Hart and the British Bulldog fight for the Intercontinental Championship – it was also my real doorway into the world of professional wrestling.

Now, in 2017, for its 30th edition the show has ballooned to six hours of TV time broadcast from Brooklyn New York’s Barclay’s Centre in front of 16,000 fans.

Given the running time I have had neither time, nor if I’m honest inclination, to watch the three matches on the ‘pre-show’ despite them featuring some excellent performers, so I’ll jump straight to the main show, which began with a nice music video package highlighting the night’s main events, though in comparison to the previous night’s NXT TakeOver show, this was the start of things not quite being all they could be.

John Cena vs Baron Corbin

Baron Corbin and John Cena

Baron Corbin and John Cena

With WWE biggest star kicking off the show the crowd went nuclear with a huge ‘John Cena sucks’ singalong before the usual mixed reaction once he hit the ring.

Relative newcomer Corbin meanwhile was treated to an imposingly impressive new entrance with new video effects and music suggesting maybe he still is seen as a next big bad guy character, despite the somewhat unceremonious dropping of the Money in the Bank on last week’s Smackdown TV show.

While Cena continued to get a mixed reaction and Corbin is developing into a brilliantly hate-able heel, the match the pair put on couldn’t have been much more flat. Mostly stalling for time or punch/kick offence and defence it felt like they’d worked out the character beats and nothing else.

Baron Corbin chokeslams John Cena

Corbin chokeslams Cena

It struck watching this as well that Corbin only has a handful of moves in his arsenal so once these were exhausted and repeated several times it was hard to engage – even what could have been a nice chokeslam/backbreaker move was too loose to be anything much.

With a third attempt at his slide around the ring post Corbin was caught in Cena’s AA, giving Cena a win that did little for the part-time megastar and all but killed any legitimacy of Corbin as the killer heel he’s had the look of becoming, making for a damp squib of an opening match.

Smackdown Women’s Championship
Naomi (c) vs Natalya

Natalya and Naomi

Flying headscissor from Naomi

After the first of many cringe inducing commercials featuring WWE superstars we got the culmination of a feud that we never really wanted between Naomi and Natalya.

From her entrance it looked like Natalya was once again basing her character off her heritage as a member of the Hart family with a nice Hart Foundation style jacket and this was carried on through JBL’s commentary and into the match’s conclusion.

Naomi meanwhile was the brightly coloured, neon cartoon with no real substance she has been for the last nine months or so.

Despite a few nice moments it was hard to escape the feeling of the two competitors going through the motions with no real sense that this was for a big prize and more the feeling that it was a casual exhibition.

Natalya applies the Sharpshooter to Naomi

Natalya applies the Sharpshooter to Naomi

That said Natalya has got some of the best snap suplexes in the WWE today and Naomi delivered a nice blockbuster off the steps to the floor, but that was about it for highlights.

The end came following an unconvincing sequence into a first Sharpshooter before Naomi missed a split legged moonsault, allowing the challenger to once again apply the leg lock and become champion.

While it’s always nice to see Natalya rewarded as by far the longest standing member of the women’s division, it’s hard to escape the fact that she never quite convinces as an aggressive champion and once again this match fell flat because of that.

Big Cass vs Big Show
with Enzo Amore locked in a shark cage above the ring

Enzo in the 'shark cage'

Enzo in the ‘shark cage’

Before I get to the match it’s hard to escape the feeling that last year WWE paid a fair amount for the ‘shark cage’ as its come into play at least three times in recent months when the gimmick really is a relic of the old territory system, and I find it hard to remember it being used in the last 20 years or more.

Anyway, the match seemed designed to establish Big Cass as the new mid card big man by Big Show ‘passing the torch’ in a sense, however with Enzo really the focus as the one of the trio who’s particularly good on the mic, it’s been a very unbalanced affair.

That was highlighted here as Enzo cut his usual promo before being hoisted in the cage but it felt like treading water compared to his past highs, just hinting that the split of this team has happened far too soon and done damage to both characters.

With Big Show having a ‘broken hand’ he was limited even further than usual and this made the bulk of the match rather boring, and the crowd let the performers know it.

Big Cass with a big boot on the Big Show

Big Cass with a big boot on the Big Show

Some slight excitement cage came as Enzo squeezed out of the cage only to get a big boot to the head before Cass got the win with his Empire Elbow drop on the giant.

Unfortunately this all left the crowd dead and I’m just hoping it hasn’t entirely derailed both Enzo and Cass’ build, but I fear it may have, while Big Show remains a slightly more than past it novelty act.

Backstage we got a brief skit with Kurt Angle and Daniel Bryan which felt entirely superfluous and seemed to return to trying to hype competition between Raw and Smackdown which always feels pointless as, no matter how much we suspend our disbelief, we all know they are owned by the same company….

Randy Orton vs Rusev

Rusev throws Randy Orton

Rusev throws Orton

It’s hard to not find something a bit distasteful in Orton’s current run fighting stereotypical ‘evil foreigners’ given his appearance as an entitled white man in the current political climate, so, when Rusev attacked before the bell it looked like we might get a good fight to distract from that.

Unfortunately this was short-lived and once both men were back in the ring and the match officially began, Orton hit his RKO ‘from outta nowhere’ for the win in a moment reminiscent of Cena’s earlier victory with an established star going over a newer performer who really should be elevated.

Raw Women’s Championship
Alexa Bliss (c) vs Sasha Banks

Alexa Bliss dives at Sasha Banks

Bliss dives at Banks

With the match originally slated to see Bayley challenging Bliss things were rather rapidly put together but Banks has remained a perennial contender since her arrival on Raw and seems to have regained her old form in recent weeks as well.

Despite a rather ridiculous (even by WWE standards) piece of entrance attire the match soon settled into a nice pace with both women on top form.

While the middle section of the match was a little flat there were some nice spots including a Code Red being reversed into a turnbuckle slam.

Sasha lock in the Bank Statement

Sasha lock in the Bank Statement

It looked like Bliss would retain as she hit her Twisted Bliss top rope spinning splash but Banks survived and, after a slightly awkward but ok sequence got the submission win with her Bank Statement crossface to become a four-time champion.

While not perfect this, thankfully, upped the ante somewhat for the night and Banks winning was a nice twist that hopefully will reinvigorate both her and the slightly flagging women’s division – if I had my way this would slowly lead to a heel turn and feud with Bayley when she’s recovered, but that’s maybe a bit too much fantasy booking.

Bray Wyatt vs ‘The Demon’ Finn Balor

'The Demon' Finn Balor

‘The Demon’ Finn Balor

While I think Finn’s ‘alter ego’ of The Demon should be more of a surprise (I understand that the WWE marketing machine means it can’t really be) it was good to see him back in the body paint for the first time since last SummerSlam and his entrance got a huge reaction and several chants, including a nice ‘too sweet’ one from the clearly knowledgeable fans.

From the start Balor was playing a more intense version of himself to represent the Demon and Wyatt played up to it with shock exactly as you’d want at the start.

After a truly amazing looking tope con hilo from Balor, Wyatt took control with a nasty looking suplex to the floor and then a hanging top rope shoulder/neckbreaker.

Finn Balor attacks Bray Wyatt

Balor attacks Wyatt

Despite a few flurries Bray kept the upper hand and the crowd really started to get behind Finn as they properly came alive for the first time since Cena left.

With a nice story building throughout the climax came when Balor ‘countered’ Bray’s ‘spiderwalk’ taunt and hit his standard ending sequence of Sling Blade, Shotgun Dropkick and Coup De Grace for the win.

While this climax came a little fast given the rest of the pace and it didn’t all seem to be quite running at full force, at this point this was by far the best match and continued the previous one on building the excitement of the show – also special mention has to go to Corey Graves for his Gorilla Monsoon moment in commentary.

Raw Tag Team Championship
‘The Bar’ Sheamus & Cesaro (c) vs Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose 

Seth Rollins with a frog splash on Sheamus

Rollins with a frog splash on Sheamus

One of the most naturally exciting things on WWE TV in recent months has been the build to the reunion of former Shield members Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose.

This has been well-balanced with their feud with the tag team champions to lead to a match with a real story behind it (in many ways the first of the night).

The match itself was some thing of a masterclass for modern WWE tag team wrestling with near nonstop action from both teams building a great story of the challengers rediscovering their old rapport in the face of the more cohesive champions.

Highlights came with a chaotic flurry from Ambrose in contrast to the more controlled Rollins, a double suicide dive from the challengers and Cesaro heading out into the crowd to dispose of a beach ball (a move which has caused a surprising amount of controversy since).

Rollins hits a superkick on Sheamus

Rollins hits a superkick on Sheamus

As the match went on Cesaro showed his abilities with the best Sharpshooter since the days of the Hart family and the best crossface since Benoit.

The end came with a great sequence that began with a top rope hurricanrana from Rollins and finished with the double attack of Seth’s Rainmaker/V-Trigger rip-chord knee strike into Ambrose Dirty Deeds DDT securing the championships for the reformed Shield members and providing one if the highlight matches of the night while also giving some great fan service for those who remember the hey day of the Hounds of Justice.

WWE United States Championship
AJ Styles (c) vs Kevin Owens
Special guest referee Shane McMahon

AJ Styles and Kevin Owens

Intense action between Styles and Owens

Another match that has come with a good and lengthy build, this felt like a final chapter as Styles and Owens have traded the title a few times now.

Added to this Shane McMahon as referee brings a convincing extra intrigue given his relationship with both men in the past.

While it started off stiff and intense with a pre match brawl, pulled apart by McMahon and setting up his role in proceedings, it was, of course Owens who became the vocal heel aggressor.

Both men got their chance to show their high spots and a particular highlight came with a sequence going form a missed Asai Moonsuslt, a countered pop up power bomb and a huge Ushigoroshi for a two count.

AJ Styles hits the Phenomenal Forearm

Styles hits the Phenomenal Forearm

Shortly after that the guest referee came into play as McMahon was caught in the crossfire of a springboard 450 splash, so missed the count off Owens’ pop up powerbomb followed by missing the tap out to a Styles Calf Crusher.

Following more great sequences and near falls from a Styles Clash to another pop up powerbomb, Owens got into an argument with McMahon allowing AJ to get the decisive victory with a Phenomenal Forearm and another tightly delivered Styles Clash.

Given the ending, I hope this is a full stop on what’s been a great feud that has set up Styles as a confirmed champion (not that he wasn’t before) and built on the dissent of Owens with the management.

WWE World Championship
Jinder Mahal w/ The Singh Brothers (c) vs Shinsuke Nakamura

Shinsuke Nakamura and Jinder Mahal

Nakamura hits a spin kick on Mahal

One thing that’s often been said of the WWE is that, for a company with World in its name, it’s rather solidly North America-centric.

2016 and 2017 have seen this change somewhat though with the Cruiser Weight Classic and United Kingdom Championship Tournament through to Black vs Itami the previous night at NXT TakeOver, and this match, pitting the Indian (well actually Canadian but ‘of Indian heritage’) champion Mahal against modern Japanese legend, the King of Strong Style, Nakamura.

Throughout it was clear how over Nakamura is with this crowd and, equally, they were opposed to Mahal in just the right way something that was echoed in their clash of in-ring styles.

Unfortunately, while a clash can sometimes lead to something great, here it just came across and Nakamura doing all the work in both giving and selling in the face of Mahal’s ponderous, traditional WWE muscleman approach.

Kinshasa!

Kinshasa!

There was a nice spot where Nakamura countered a slam into a triangle choke hold and, with a Kinshasa to the back of the head, he looked poised to claim the championship.

This was when the a Singh brothers got involved, only to be removed by Shinsuke, but giving Mahal the opening to get the win with his Khallas cobra clutch slam.

This clearly shocked the crowd as it did come out of nowhere and the concept of Mahal overcoming Nakamura is a stretch of the imagination even with the interference, sadly leaving it all fall a little too flat. But Nakamura came out of things looking great anyway and I have to admit to enjoying Mahal’s run as champion so far, especially now its veered away from purely ‘foreigner = bad guy’ territory.

WWE Universal Championship
Brock Lesnar w/Paul Heyman (c) vs Roman Reigns vs Samoa Joe vs Braun Strowman

Brock Lesnar suplexes Roman Reigns

Lesnar suplexes Reigns

As the challengers came out the responses were all strong and what we’d expect from the New York crowd; a mixed response but with chants for Joe, a mostly positive response for Strowman and a deafening chorus of boos for Reigns.

Then the champion and his advocate, as always getting a positive reaction due to the sheer freakish nature of Lesnar.

The match itself was a non stop chaotic battle between all four, literally a human demolition derby to steal a phrase, but as soon as it spilled to the floor it became Braun Strowman’s showcase.

While keeping Joe and Reigns at bay ‘The Monster Amongst Men’ drove Lesnar through two tables before dumping another on top of the champion causing him to be stretchered out with a laughing Strowmam shouting taunts after him in a moment that will be remembered for a long time.

Braun Strowman drives Brock Lesnar through a table

Strowman drives Lesnar through a table

For a while it settled down into a triple threat style, but largely with Strowman maintaining the upper hand (despite the use of steel stairs by Reigns) before Lesnar returned, squared off against his new nemesis, and proceeded to fight off Joe and Reigns with his usual attacks.

Strowman again gained the upper hand only to be hit with a Superman Punch from Reigns, but this allowed Lesnar to hit his F5 spinning slam on Reigns and, somewhat unexpectedly, retain the gold.

While the match itself was the highlight of the show in just the way a main event between four heavyweights should be, and was an insane exhibition from Strowman, all four men looked great and even Lesnar felt reinvigorated now there is a real looking challenge in his path which is just what the WWE needed at this stage.

Brock Lesnar lifts Samoa Joe for an F5

Lesnar lifts Joe for an F5

As a whole, while the show was horrendously overlong (something it shares in common with WrestleMania), but from the Raw women’s match on it was at least enjoyable or better and with the Raw tag team title match, the US title match and the Universal title match being some genuinely great bouts all in different styles.

So, while the 30th SummerSlam could have been better, the good points were exactly what WWE does best, delivered by the performers in the best way and setting up at least the next three months stories very nicely just as it should, and it created a new star in the form of The Monster Amongst Men, Braun Strowman.

Photos from WWE.com

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NXT TakeOver Brooklyn III – Barclays Centre – 19/08/17

NXT TakeOver Brooklyn III logoOver the last two years WWE’s developmental brand NXT has made its big summer show, so far always held at the Barclays Centre in Brooklyn, into their annual focal point.

This seems to have been fairly organic, by WWE standards, with the first event headlined by the genre defining match between Bayley and Sasha Banks for the NXT Women’s Championship and acting as the confirming launch pad for the WWE careers of both Kevin Owens and Finn Balor with their main eventing NXT Championship ladder match.

Two years later and NXT is firmly into what could be classed its third wave and, so far, they’ve had an arguably bumpy ride. While there have been some great high moments there has yet to be a whole show that has stood out like some of the earlier TakeOver event.

On paper, while I was quietly optimistic, NXT TakeOver Brooklyn III looked like it might have its work cut out standing up to some of the past events in the way that was really needed to cement the new set of upcoming superstars.

With the main WWE stage in place this instantly felt like a bigger show with the 14,000 (approx) crowd clearly up for a lively show things kicked off with metal band Code Orange playing live in the arena with one of the edgiest feeling opening videos, intercut with the live band, in a long time before the announce team of Mauro Ronallo, Nigel McGuinnes and Percy Watson welcomed us to the show.

Johnny Gargano vs Andrade ‘Cien’ Almas w/ Zelina Vega

Almas and Gargano

Almas locked in the Gargano Escape

While Johnny Gargano was greeted by huge chants of ‘Johnny Wrestling’ it was hard to escape the feeling that, despite the great fan reaction, this match felt a little thrown together as the pair haven’t had a huge amount of interaction until the last couple of NXT TV shows.

Really most were expecting this be Gargano squaring up against his former tag partner Thomasso Ciampa before the latter was injured a couple of months back.

Added to this the artist formerly known as La Sombra has had trouble finding his feet with a consistent character, though the recent addition of Vega as manager has begun to help Almas with that.

From the opening bell though it was clear there was nothing to worry about as the pair went at it with fast paced chain wrestling, which showed why Gargano has picked up the Johnny Wrestling nickname, while Almas showed more of his side of things with a nice ‘Tranquilo’ pose during a head scissors (I just wish they’d capitalise a little more on the Los Ingobernables link in someway).

Almas and Gargano

Almas hits the running knees on Gargano

While the match was, largely, fast paced they kept a nice story going with Gargano in his traditional role of underdog babyface and Almas the cocky heel.

They threw in a couple of nice twists including Gargano countering Almas’ pose in the ropes with a superkick and getting on a role to hit a series of trademark moves including a tight slingshot DDT and the Lawn Dart.

A titl-a-whirl headscissor into the Gargano Escape crossface-armbar led to a sequence that got the crowd chanting ‘NXT’ for both men, but it was a distraction from Vega that allowed Almas to hit his hammerlock DDT and continue both men’s independent stories while acting as a great showcase for both and warming the crowd up excellently both in the arena and at home.

NXT Tag Team Championships
Authors of Pain (Akam and Rezar) w/ Paul Ellering (c) vs Sanity (Killian Dain and Alexander Wolfe) w/ Eric Young and Nikki Cross

Sanity and Authors of Pain

Wolfe flies at one of the Authors

This was another match where the set up had felt a little rushed and left the challenging team falling somewhere between face and heel, though the champs remained firmly the aggressors, meant again it was hard to know how this was going to work.

Once AOP rushed the ring and a pre-match brawl erupted though it was quickly clear this match was going to be as chaotic as can be.

While the brawl went back and forth it was the champions who came out on top at first and things settled down into the match with the Authors of Pain working on Alexander Wolfe on their side of the ring.

As expected Wolfe eventually reached his corner but, rather than tagging Dain, Eric Young tagged in and, as the big Ulsterman hadn’t yet been in the match officially the switch was allowed and things again went chaotic.

AOP again gained the upper hand, including a fearless Young taking a back drop into Dominator double attack, things again settled down before another hot tag to Wolfe after which the chaos returned and never let up.

With impressive suplexes on both champions Wolfe put in the best showing he has to date, before all four men ended up on the outside and even Nikki Cross got in on the action with a top rope dive before Dain drove one of the champions (and Cross) through a table, allowing Sanity to hit a double team attack and finally topple the previously invincible Authors.

reDRagon attack Wolfe

reDRagon attack Wolfe

As a whole the match told a great story through the chaos giving Sanity a win they much-needed to make them a legitimately powerful stable while maintaining the strength of Authors of Pain who only fell after all four members of Sanity got involved.

The real ongoing story though happened after the match as recently debuted pair of Kyle O’Reilly and Bobby Fish, aka former Ring of Honor tag team reDRagon attacked both teams leaving them all laying in a genuinely shock moment that feels like the beginning of something big to come.

Hideo Itami vs Aleister Black

Black and Itami

Black with a stiff knee on Itami

Following Itami’s natural feeling heel turn after his return from long-term injuries and matches for the NXT Championship, his feud with relative newcomer Aleister Black has had a fairly organic feel based around the fact everyone knows these two men are two of the best striking fighters in WWE today.

It’s nice to see Itami in what feels like a more natural heel role, while Black is still running on the energy of his debut, combined with the unique look and feel of his character and all this has combined to make this bout simply about who is the better and more honourable fighter.

With that in mind the pair wasted no time going straight to the stiff kicks that are their trademarks and as guest commentator JR pointed out this match is all about who can kick their opponent their hardest.

The combination of a Japanese and Dutch fighter squaring off really adds to WWE’s recently developed international feel (continued throughout the weekend with Sanity earlier and of course Nakamura vs Mahal at SummerSlam) which is something that often felt missing from a company with ‘World’ in their name in the past.

Back to the match and with Black’s nose busted early on it had a real fight feel that grew as Itami settled into the heelish antagonist role and more pro-wrestling than striking for the middle section – before the big moves came into play.

Black Mass

Itami feels the Black Mass

Highlights came with Itami’s tornado neck snap and flying clothesline spot, a top rope Falcon Arrow and a Falcon Arrow in the ring before Itami went for his GTS fireman carry knee strike.

After Black’s escape an angered Itami got distracted by the crowd giving Black the chance to hit his Black Mass heel kick, which is one of the most devastating looking strikes in WWE, for the hard-fought win.

While Black got the duke both men came out of this looking great with Itami’s angry heel character developing nicely in a way that solidifies him in the roster in a way he has struggled to find for the last two years, while confirming Black in the NXT top flight.

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

Asuka and Ember Moon

Moon hits a step up Enzugiri on Asuka

With a longer build than usual thanks to a shoulder injury suffered by Moon, combined with Asuka’s 504 day title reign (and even longer undefeated streak) this match probably felt like the one with the most story going into it with a real sense of importance.

With a quick start from Moon this feeling was brought into the match and stayed throughout as Ember got the early advantage before Asuka took control on the floor with a hammer lock suplex on the ramp.

That move alone shows how far women’s wrestling has come in WWE in the last couple of years as we head toward the screening of the Mae Young Classic tournament in coming weeks.

The mid section of the match saw Asuka focus on Moon’s previously injured shoulder in brilliantly effective fashion that even got a Minoru Suzuki comparison from McGuinnes (I know I’m a sucker for references to wrestlers outside the WWE universe).

This led to a great sequence based around the Asuka Lock that drew duelling chants from the crowd despite the now clearly defined heel/face dynamic.

With Moon hitting the Eclipse top rope twisting stunner it felt it could all be over but, thanks to the injured shoulder, Asuka fought free and again the ref came into play as had happened in their past match back in Orlando.

Asuka and Ember Moon

Moon dives over the referee onto Asuka

Unlike that match though, Moon survived this to hit a superkick that again looked set to defeat the Empress of Tomorrow but didn’t getting a huge reaction from the crowd.

Another nice sequence of submissions led to an extended Asuka Lock that eventually led to the tap out from Moon and, while I thought this might be the night, once again raises the question, who can beat Asuka?

After the match Moon received a standing ovation and ‘thank you’ chants as the pair delivered one of the best women’s matches since that Bayley/Banks bout two years ago and provided one of the true highlights of a show packed with great moments, though I’m once again left unsure where the NXT Womens’ Division goes from here.

NXT Championship
Bobby Roode (c) vs Drew McIntyre

Throughout the show various past NXT performers had made appearances in what seemed to be an attempt to give the event more of a special feel that, as i referenced earlier, it had developed of its own accord and leading into this match we saw Kevin Owens in the crowd. While I get the point of these they always feel a little false and unneeded when what’s happening in the ring is what really matters in NXT and is as on point as it was here.

Anyway onto the main event.

Roode and McIntyre

McIntyre with a clothesline on Roode

With a story that while only short harks back to the challenger’s past time in WWE as ‘the chosen one’ along with Roode’s ever present arrogant, Glorious, persona it had all the makings for something great.

This was only added to as McIntyre made his entrance to a live ‘pipes and drums’ accompaniment.

The match itself was a more traditional WWE main event style affair than the evening’s earlier bouts but, with Roode so good at playing the kind of arrogant heel that Ric Flair made his name with and McIntyre being such an imposing force, it was instantly engrossing as power stood up to psychology.

A deadlift release suplex gave McIntyre the momentum for a time before a pair of neck breakers switched it back to Roode and the two men went back and forth throughout before a Future Shock DDT led to the match’s first legitimate feeling near fall.

Drew McIntyre

Drew McIntyre wins the NXT Championship

This was followed by a Claymore from McIntyre that left Roode too near the ropes for the win. The Claymore has been an interesting move for McIntyre but here for the first time felt like a legitimate winning strike, possibly down to Roode’s selling but also, I suspect, given the higher stakes of the match.

After a moment entirely out of character for a perfomer of his size as McIntyre delivered a Tope Con Hilo to the floor, Roode took the advantage back with a spinebuster and Glorious DDT for a near fall.

McIntyre survived a second of the implant style DDTs and escaped a third to hit a second equally impressive Claymore kick to secure his first NXT Championship in fine style that would have made for a great ending to the show, but…

Adam Cole attacks McIntyre

Adam Cole attacks McIntyre

With speculation running rampant about a big new signing to NXT there was hope he might appear and, as reDRagon made their second appearance of the night distracting the new champ, now was the moment for former ROH World Champion Adam Cole to attack.

He delivered a devastating superkick, laying out the new champ in an echo of his firing from the Bullet Club, and ending the show with Cole and his new team mates standing strong and setting a whole new set of wheels in motion that I can’t wait to see turn.

As a whole NXT TakeOver Brooklyn III did exactly what it needed to do solidifying the new crop of performers as genuinely players in the WWE Universe with one of the strongest shows NXT have put on in sometime, probably since last November’s TakeOver in Toronto and once again setting the bar high for SummerSlam.

Photos from wwe.com

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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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