|Rest in peace, Shield dudes|
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Daniel Bryan, Kane, and the Undertaker vs. Dean Ambrose, Seth Rollins, and Roman Reigns, RAW, 4/22 - See highlights here!
It’s 2013, and the Undertaker has had two of the best matches of the year, bar none, in a span of three weeks. Are we living in bizarro world, or is it that a year on the shelf between his last match and that house show in Waco did him wonders? I’d like to think it’s the latter, because I don’t wanna wake up from this dream. At all.
The match started perfectly. Bryan and Kane were taken out two segments prior, so Taker was there to greet the challenge by himself. The Shield surrounded the ring, ready to devour their prey, but Kane and Bryan came bursting from the back, holding their wounds and making the charge to help their fellow Stepbrother of Destruction. Right there, I knew this match was going to deliver in a big way.
Never doubt me on these things, because I was right a billion percent. Seth Rollins has turned from awkward Hot Topic ROH Champion Tyler Black into confident, cocksure Shield member who knows that putting his body on the line means so much. Ambrose is such a great pointman. Reigns’ spear on Undertaker while he had the other two in the chokeslam position? GOOD LORD. Undertaker looked as spry as he has in years, especially chasing after the Shield. And Bryan and Kane were Bryan and Kane. Goddammit, even the finish was perfect, the Brothers of Destruction wailing on the tall brunettes on the outside while Ambrose slid out of a Bryan headbutt to get the quick pin. That’s how you do special. That’s how you do wrestling.
Ricardo Rodriguez vs. Zeb Colter vs. Big E Langston, RAW, 4/29 - See highlights here!
This was set up as a comedy match from jump, and it played out like one from beginning to end. But all three guys are legitimately talented. I bet if Colter and Rodriguez had a chance to run with being fulltime WWE superstars, they’d shine. But I’ll take what they gave us here, which was a fun jaunt hitting all the comedic notes early into probably the most Attitude Era style schmozz towards the end. Lost in all of this might be that Rodriguez legit throws one of the best punches on the roster. Why is he just a ring announcer again?
Ryback vs. Daniel Bryan, Smackdown, 5/3 (airdate) - See highlights here!
I want to see this match main event a pay-per-view. I’m serious. Bryan and Ryback did end up going hard like it WAS a pay-per-view, but there was the fortuitous commercial break. Every moment mattered here. It was a well-laid out match featuring Bryan breaking out his best strategy of keep away to keep Ryback at bay. When it came time for Bryan to bump for Ryback, he went big. Two occasions he nearly went Full Ziggler, one on Ryback tossing him out of the ring with a military press, and the other when Ryback drove him spine-first into the ringpost. I think my favorite part of this match was Bryan seamlessly going from taking the Thesz Press then rolling into a single-leg crab. These are the spots that need to happen in his matches to further his rep as a submission master, not Michael Cole or Bryan himself saying it. I would have liked the leg work Bryan was doing to Ryback to figure in a bit more, or for there to be a bit of distortion on the finish (i.e., Bryan teasing a counter), but those are minor complaints, really.
ACH and Tadarius Thomas vs. Cedric Alexander and Caprice Coleman, ROH Border Wars, 5/4
This write-up originally appeared in my review of Border Wars.
Obviously, any match ACH in it is one I look forward to. However, this match excelled despite ACH probably having the least amount of ring time in it. It had the perfect pace to get the crowd going, although really, they were pumped from even before the match when The Last Dragon made his debut across the border.Davey Richards vs. Paul London, ROH Border Wars, 5/4
Both duos' teamwork was fluid and in sync, which is a huge plus for a tag match. The double-team moves were there, definitely. My favorite was when the C&C Wrestling Factory broke out a combo Hart Attack/axe kick. However, moves aren't the be-all, end-all for any match. I was impressed by ring placement, timing, and all the little things that make a match with so many moving parts look easy. I was also pretty impressed with Thomas' capoeira offense. I was remarking earlier in the week that I was disappointed that Fandango in WWE didn't work dancing into his offense as much as his character dictated, but I guess it takes some amount of skill to work in the art of Brazilian dance fighting. It's clear that this is a sliver of Thomas' offense that he has down pat, even when it was used to set himself up for a fall, example being Thomas going for a handstand kick on Alexander, only to be taken out by a Coleman baseball slide.
It's not like ACH wasn't a part of the match. He busted out some of his offensive fireworks as well, the sheer highlight of which being a slingshot Osaka street cutter. The crowd wanted to root for him from jump, and he gave them plenty of reasons such as that. Conversely, I thought where he made the most impact on the match was at the finish, where he just got snapped up by Coleman and Alexander's sequence in fine order. All in all, this was the perfect match to start the show, and it set the tone for the night. I'm not sure any other match answered the bell, but I also don't think it's understating how much of an impact a hot opening match has in putting me, the viewer, in a good mood.
Paul London should be a national treasure. I can only imagine that he enjoys the amount of power he has over his bookings, because that, to me, feels like the only reason why he doesn’t work full time. He should though, at least from my own selfish standpoint. He went into a situation I was dreading - a feature match against Davey Richards on a ROH iPPV, and he was able to tell a story. He is such an elemental babyface, and the crowd was so hostile towards Richards, that the American Wolf had no choice but to heel it up huge. That provides for a winning formula. I nearly lost it when Richards gyrated at more than one point during the match. Something about him embracing what is rumored to be his real life persona. London, for a guy who really could just stay retired and be done with it, took more than one murderous bump during the match. The first one nearly wiped out a photographer, when Richards took a normal leapfrog spot and decided to let London go from above the top rope to the floor. The second may have been the most brutal spot of the year, a double stomp from the top rope onto the apron. I wanted to know what drugs London was on to let him take that bump, but hey, he was okay, and it played out fabulously on the screen.
|You're gonna regret that one, Sami...|
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
This write-up originally appeared in my review of King and Queen of the Ring.
Before the match, I expected this to be a brutally stiff, well-paced affair, and I have to say, it exceeded every expectation I had and then some. It was a match that was bathed in saliva instead of blood and the raw emotion - determination and hate on the part of Havok and dismissive frustration on the part of Callihan - permeated the atmosphere. Any two wrestlers can stiff each other and try to be brutal, but when you have two who can tell a story and have that hatred click, it's magical.Big E Langston vs. Alberto del Rio, RAW, 5/20 - See highlights here!
There was a lot of chirping in this match as well. Obviously, without context, Callihan calling Havok a "bitch" might seem like overkill, but it made sense in the fact that Havok fired right back, both verbally, salivarily, and of course, with her attacks. The spit was the most poignant part of the match. When I think of two people swapping spit, I don't necessarily imagine them hocking loogies at each other, but there they were, at more than one juncture in the match.
But it was also a match that included big kicks, finishers, and Havok going through a barricade. She went through a barricade so hard that it split in half. However she paid him back in full. Some would consider the finish "cheap." I thought she won through a combination of smarts and force. In a battle between scoundrels, the one who was the most devious would be the one to win. No mistake about it, Sami Callihan was a scoundrel. Havok did what she had to do, and it was glorious.
While it’s not really fair to discount del Rio’s impact on this match, and honestly, as one of WWE’s steadiest hands, the probability that he’s going to be in a great match is pretty high, this match was all about Big E. del Rio locked in the cross armbreaker, but Langston struggled and it led into one of those Backlund-esque short arm scissors. The best part? Langston hossed the shit out of del Rio INTO the ring post. However, as with most good wrestlers, Langston impressed me most at the end with his vulnerability, going totally punch drunk on a del Rio enzugiri. But a well-played distraction from AJ Lee led to a surprising but satisfying finish that saw Langston get a relatively clean victory.
Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns (c) vs. Daniel Bryan and Kane, WWE Tag Team Championship Match, RAW, 5/27 - See highlights here!
My buddy Gregg Gethard tweeted to me during this match that “Daniel Bryan constantly feeling the need to prove himself is the best kind of Daniel Bryan.” He’s right. When Bryan, in character, has a chip on his shoulder, it translates to his best material in the ring. Whether it’s playing up his Napoleonic complex on offense, or whether it’s really playing into why people might think he’s a weak link on defense/selling/bumping, he’s showing you why he’s the best in the world. He’s drawing you in. He’s making you believe.
It was a virtuoso performance more than anything else, which is saying something for how well the other guys in the match performed as well. Seth Rollins continued his attempt at making Dolph Ziggler look like pre-crisis Undertaker. Roman Reigns came in with an injury, but he hossed it up when he had to. Kane, as he’s good at, came in like a house on fire (that’ll never get old). Wrestling matches, especially tag matches, don’t get to God-level for one participant alone.
But when someone is as goddamn special as Bryan was in this match, then you get the formula for the free TV match of the year, or at least one of the strong contenders. WWE has been good in 2013 for letting its best wrestlers go off the leash and make magic on Smackdown, Main Event, and especially RAW. Bryan is the best they have, and he showed it. Whether it was slipping out of the surfboard, delivering a back superplex, or taking DAT SPEAR from Reigns at the end of the match on the floor, he was making it happen.
Fire Ant, Green Ant, and assailANT vs. Max Smashmaster, Blaster McMassive, and Flex Rumblecrunch, Chikara Aniversario: Never Compromise, 6/2
This write-up originally appeared in my review for Never Compromise.
True story, when Green Ant came up to the balcony to reprise the first balcony dive he did in that same venue, only on the other side of the building, he passed right in front of me and my friends. We knew it was coming. But it didn't diminish the act of leaping from the balcony onto the three hulking frames of the Devastation Corporation. In 2012, his leap was done for hatred, to show Gekido that he didn't take kindly to them trying to steal his mask. This was out of necessity. The Colony was outweighed by the two established members of the Corporation. Drastic measures had to be taken.
And it was true, the Corporation had the size, and they had Sidney Bakabella on the outside, meddling whenever the Ants got their advantages. But the lengths that the Ants went to take out the Corporation showed that there was still some fight left in tecnicos, all of whom have been put under attack. They worked in tandem, and Fire Ant even took his offensive move chaining to new heights, at one point leaping off Max Smashmaster in a headscissors down to taking out Blaster McMassive with a basement DDT.
For all the skepticism around the Corporation though, they held up their end, especially the new Flex Rumblecrunch, who proved to be at least half as good in the ring as his name was out of it. The show was the "coming out" party for several parties, but none more than the Corporation, who finally showed that they could hang with the luchadors who have set the bar pretty high over the last five or so years. All in all, it was the perfect confluence to make this trios affair the standout match on a standout Chikara anniversary show.
|Into the tomb ye shall lay...|
Photo Credit: Zia Hiltey
If there was any match that was dangerous to give a half-hour to, it was this one. I’ve had problems with Ophidian matches going unnecessarily long since he split from Amasis at High Noon. I remember back to his match against Hieracon at the Thirteenth Hat and wondering if they could lend about five minutes to the Mike Quackenbush/Green Ant submission and mat wrestling bouquet that felt a bit short for my tastes. Plus, the arena was a gosh darn sweat box, and by that time, I know I was ready for intermission.
But if there isn’t a saying that says, “Good wrestling is a panacea,” then there should be. I forgot about my concerns, and I forgot about the heat, because these two former friends put on such a clinic. Right from the start, Ophidian innovated just by throwing his hands up and playing defense. No one does that in wrestling. No one. It’s amazing how people didn’t figure out that wrestling was staged when no one would try to block a move and they didn’t end up drooling vegetables within five years of their careers beginning. The blocks evolved into counters, and the counters evolved into the other guy figuring out ways to bypass or escape said counters. It had all the nuts and bolts of a sound, grounded technical masterpiece.
But then you add in the hatred between the two. You add in the huge spots. The interference. The look on Ophidian’s face after Amasis stole his mask. All of it was just brilliant, and it made the time feel like it was well-spent, even if it did feel like a half-hour had passed. The Egyptian Destroyer spot atop the sarcophagus lid encapsulated the match perfectly. Ophidian’s hate for Amasis sparked the move, and Amasis’ will to survive had him use his last energy to roll off the stage and make it increasingly difficult for Ophidian to haul him into the coffin. To me, that’s what big time wrestling is all about.
Daniel Bryan vs. Ryback, RAW, 6/3 - See highlights here!
I know it’s a grandiose comparison, but if their Smackdown match The Godfather, then this match was The Godfather Part 2, the sequel that outdid the original. They hit a few of the same beats they did in the first match, most notably the Thesz press-into-the-single crab, only it wasn’t as tight. However, that was the only thing that wasn’t as good as the first time. Bryan hit harder, fully into his “pissed off, chip on shoulder” stride that he had embarked upon after losing the Tag Titles. He twisted Ryback into more of a pretzel, and added in some vicious forearms as well. The only time anyone could have felt the size difference mattered was before the match began.
But even as Bryan kept pace with Ryback, the monster kept reminding everyone that even against the goddamn best in the Universe, he was still the insatiable frenzied feeder that put people in ambulances. Bryan held serve with his brutality, but Ryback showed shrewdness and technical proficiency. I was agog when Bryan went for his signature basement KO kick, and Ryback yanked the leg and scooped him up into a stiff powerbomb. That was something I expected Bryan to break out.
The best matches are when you can get lost in them and think either guy can win. Ryback didn’t have to bump huge for Bryan, but he did. Bryan, of course, threw his flesh recklessly for the betterment of the match, but you knew that was going to happen. The story was that Bryan wanted to prove himself, that he wasn’t the weak link. You knew he was going to take his lumps, but the fact that he gave them back? Even in Pyrrhic victory, a disqualification win because Ryback wanted to prove a point to John Cena, Bryan proved he belonged. It hit the mark. That’s what a good match does, regardless of result.
Sheamus vs. Antonio Cesaro, Main Event, 6/5 (airdate) - See highlights here!
If Sheamus were as giving out of the ring as he was inside of it, he’d be, by far, the best overall talent on WWE’s roster, non-Daniel Bryan division. There was a sequence in this match where Cesaro moved out of the way of a charging-on-the-apron Sheamus, allowing him to crash shoulder first on the ringpost, head exposed next to said slab of steel. Cesaro followed it up with a yakuza kick, and then when Sheamus crumpled to the floor, a Goomba stomp from the apron. That to me summed up the disconnect between Sheamus, the guy in the ring who makes dudes like Damien Sandow and Cesaro look like worldbeaters, if just for a little while, and the Sheamus who bullies everyone who looks at him sidelong out of it.
Of course, putting Sheamus and Mr. Main Event in the same ring on that show is the surest thing. Cesaro continues to show he has the uncanniest knack to be in the right place in the right time, and to know what move goes where. The story he told working Sheamus’ arm was nothing short of beautiful, and I will take an European uppercut out of nowhere 99 times out of 100 over a RKO out of the same lack of space. WWE may not know how to utilize its roster, but the beauty of how good it is means that no matter how many times they put Sheamus and Cesaro in the same ring, the match will always be different than any other time they occupy it together.
Daniel Bryan vs. Seth Rollins, RAW, 6/10 - See highlights here!
Once upon a time, Tyler Black was a poorly-booked Ring of Honor cult hero, and Bryan Danielson was the undisputed Best in the World. They would have matches in bingo halls and VFWs around the United States, ones that would blow the minds of the people watching. These were the salad days of Black, and the waning days of Danielson, as WWE would surely come to call him to their pleasure dome, to dine on honeydew and drink the milk of paradise, if you’re bold enough to consider WWE paradise. That inference is fodder for separate discussion. Anyway, Black went on to win the title, but soon after, he’d be called to the same land of plenty.
Their paths crossed a plentitude of times in trios and tag matches, but on this episode of RAW, they met one-on-one. The results were similarly sublime to when they were in the smaller venues, a tilt as close in spirit to their battles in elseworlds. Obviously, the beats were there in terms of the offensive maneuvering. For crying out loud, Bryan answered a buckle bomb with the Chaos Theory.
But what some folks overlook while the workrate stars shine in their eyes is story. Psychology is embedded in more than just moves. This was a story about how Bryan was the unspoken Best in the World in WWE (depending on whom you talked to, that mantel belonged to either CM Punk or Chris Jericho), but how Rollins would try to one-up him, faltering at every turn. Yet, in the end, even with all the interference by Roman Reigns and counterinference from Randy Orton, it was a flash pin in the confusion - a veritable return to Mr. Small Package if you will, that won the match. It was unexpected, but aren’t those the best finishes?
Antonio Cesaro vs. Sami Zayn, NXT, 6/13 (airdate)
I will always have unreasonably high expectations for guys I see wrestle each other on the indies going at it in WWE. Even if the names change, the wrestlers still have the same styles and makeups. These two had a match as Claudio Castagnoli and El Generico respectively in PWG at Kurt RussellReunion II, and scrubbing that from my mind while watching them work as Antonio Cesaro and Sami Zayn is harder than I ever thought. Still, while this match was meant to be a stepping stone towards a payoff that at the time of viewing had already been wrestled, they fit enough story and action to make this a satisfying bite. Cesaro came out with more fire and anger than he had shown since leaving the BDK in Chikara, and yet Zayn kept coming back, staying on point with each counter, especially his turnaround of a powerbomb into a Yoshi tonic looking thing. The finish didn’t really have the drama I expected, but again, the role of this match was to be a stepping stone. Besides, how Cesaro segued from the neck wrench into the Neutralizer was just bad-ass.
Antonio Cesaro vs. Sheamus, Smackdown, 6/14 (airdate) - See highlights here!
Have you ever wondered what lucha libre would look like if done by two statuesque WWE-style hosses? Well, if you watched Smackdown on June 14th, you would have found out. Okay, maybe it was only one real sequence, but it was a good one, featuring Cesaro flying off the apron into the waiting clutches of Sheamus, who tossed him into the guardrail with a fallaway slam of reckless abandon. While the match lived on the outside - Cesaro had his own spot where he lulled Sheamus into a false sense of security before drop toehold-ing him into the ring steps - it was the finish that was so perfectly timed. Sheamus went from punch-tipsiness into full Brogue Kick motion so seamlessly, like he for real saw an opening to put a boot in Cesaro’s face and took it. It was an organic finish, and one that proves the Celtic Warrior’s worth to me, no matter how much of a git he can be before and after the bell.
|TAP YOU SON OF A BITCH, TAP|
Photo Credit: WWE.com
This write-up originally appeared in my Instant Feedback for the 6/24 episode of RAW.
…[W]hen Bryan gets to trade bombs with Randy Orton, a wrestler who is overrated only because he's not willing to bump, then that's the piece de resistance.NOTE: This match was my first place vote on my Voices of Wrestling Match of the Year poll ballot.
I mean, let's ruminate on this for a second. On a day when Jerry Lawler got to audibly mourn his mentor and maker Jackie Fargo on the air, Bryan and Orton opened and closed the show by paying a much richer tribute to him than any words could belly up to the bar. They were unrestrained in their anger, telling an impassioned story about how their uneasy alliance turned into this boiled over pot, all because the painted arrogant man in the establishment took the troll bait. On a haughty cloud, Orton sat, beckoning Bryan to fight him. Well, when you're about to call down the thunder, you had best be ready to take the hit, because Bryan wasn't fucking around.
And to his credit, when it came time to make Bryan look like a star, he fucking made Bryan look like a star. His MO in the past was that he didn't bump a whole lot, but for Bryan, he went through tables, got peppered with kicks, and let Bryan rub a kendo stick in his face. That fact means all the difference in the world, and it's what sets apart a real starmaking performance from the lip service that Orton paid in the ring to Christian in a series of matches when the latter took all the big bumps and was still expected to drive a compelling story with a hero that gave no fuck. Whether it was the fault of Orton or Creative, well, it was someone's fault.
But that's the one thing that I think the nerds with the stopwatches have always failed to realize. Time of wrestling on a show is never the thing that mattered. It's the wrestling that felt like it mattered that has always been most valuable. Looking at a goddamn minute/second agglomeration of actual grappling on this show might tell you that it was full of wrestling, but it wouldn't tell you whether it was good. That's why you don't pay attention to raw times. That's why you need context. Matches plus meaning is the reason why RAW is the "wrestling show" now. It's what I wanted from it all along, and that we're living in a fully realized vision of it just makes me absolutely happy to be a fan right now.
Randy Orton vs. Christian, Smackdown, 7/5 (airdate) - See highlights here!
In the promos before the match, both Orton and Christian acknowledged their history, their feud from ‘11. That contained a lot of good matches, but after Christian turned heel, the series got completely and utterly overrated. Orton took zero bumps, and for me at least, that took a lot out of my enjoyment. If it’s just one guy beating the shit out of the other, the crushing expectedness of the result takes me out of the match.
I had no delusions of Christian winning this match at all, but at least Orton bumped for him. In fact, I’d say Orton took the biggest bump in the match and the only one that went above 0.5 on the Ziggler Scale, going from over the top to the floor on a neat exchange going from Orton dodging Christian’s leap to the floor face slap and then Christian countering Orton’s stump DDT with the aforementioned dump over the top. Man, that was a tortured sentence, wasn’t it? Sorry. Anyway, the story of the match was that these two knew each other so well that they countered everything and anything, including an almost hoss-like RKO shove off. This match won’t get heralded like most of their ‘11 series, but I may have enjoyed it more than any match they had in that stretch.
Daniel Bryan vs. Sheamus, RAW, 7/8 - See highlights here!
I saw a tweet during this match that Daniel Bryan could “put over a broomstick.” That’s true, but Sheamus is far from a broomstick. Every time these two have a match that’s longer than 18 seconds, it’s an instant classic. Their feud in 2012 was maybe the best in-ring thing WWE had produced in the last five years, and that’s saying something given that this company also has given us John Cena and CM Punk reeling off Match of the Year candidates like Donald Trump sends out asshole tweets.
The best parts of these matches oftentimes end up making me scream out in concern and horror. Bryan is a fearless bumper, and at times, it makes me wonder why he hasn’t died a billion times already. Seriously, he ran off the apron with his signature high knee, and the way Sheamus caught him was so awkward that when they crashed into the barrier, Bryan landed face first. He landed a bit rough on the plancha that happened after the commercial break too. But he kept getting back up and giving it back to Sheamus, who took his lumps as well. Sheamus may be a jerk out of the ring, but he’s exceedingly giving inside of it. There’s no opponent that generosity works better against than Daniel Bryan except maybe Damien Sandow.
The reason why Bryan and Sheamus make such beautiful music together is that they start out slow but build to amazing crescendos. The third act on this particular match was just amazing in build and mood. I had gotten so used to seeing Sheamus just hit the Brogue Kick with no real fanfare that when he draped his leg over the top rope after missing, I got sucked in completely. The final flourish brilliantly evoked the echoes of Mr. Small Package, the Bryan Danielson stint in the indies where he’d do anything to win with the inside cradle. It was the best possible way to counter White Noise, and the best possible way to make a flash pin look bad-ass.
Christian vs. Daniel Bryan, Smackdown, 7/12 - See highlights here!
WWE hacked into my dream journal again, didn’t they? Christian was my first place vote in the inaugural TWB 100, and Bryan was the top vote-getter the following year. I don’t recall whether this was the first time they got in the ring together, but whatever the number of matches, it totally lived up to my expectation. I can tell you the exact moment I knew it did too.
Somewhere in the middle of the match, Bryan was charging across the ring, looking to land a tope suicida on Christian on the outside of the ring. Christian turned around, noticed what was to come, and instinctively asked Bryan what the five fingers said to the face in the exact moment that his head came through the ropes. It was such a grumpy-old-man move that I could have sworn I mistook Captain Charisma for Genichiro Tenryu for a moment. In a climate where counters get more and more complex and high-impact - hell, look at the counter that finished the match with Bryan snaring Christian out of midair into the NO! Lock - the most bad-ass move reversal of them all was a well-timed slap to the face.
There was plenty of other stuff to get excited about, and why not? These are two of the best ever in the ring to open up Smackdown, the show traditionally given time to have great matches. People have ragged on WWE as being a show where guys didn’t actually tangle in the ring, but it’s clear that narrative is bullshit. All I needed to see was Christian wiping out on a high crossbody or Bryan going over the top to the floor to know that the second W still means something.
Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns (c) vs. Jimmy and Jey Uso, WWE Tag Team Championship Match, WWE Money in the Bank Countdown Show, 7/14 - Watch it here (among the preshow footage)
I don’t know how much of this match I missed out upon; I had no idea that it was going to be broadcast on the actual pay-per-view channel and not exclusively online, but I’m glad I did end up catching as much of it as I did. I got to catch the big crescendo at the end, which included a stack superplex/powerbomb combo involving all four match participants. I’m not sure who was supposed to sell it or who was doing the damage. I guess that could count as a fault, but again, I am an easily amused child sometimes. These two teams are just so adept at doing the tag thing that I wasn’t shocked they arrived here with a write-up.