Thursday, March 12, 2015

The 2014 Top 100 Matches Countdown, Part 4: Texas Heat

Photo Credit:
The penultimate installment of the match countdown takes us all the way through the summer months.

Sheamus vs. Cesaro, Smackdown, 6/13 (airdate) - Watch Highlights Here!
A hoss fight is one of the most misunderstood things in wrestling. Folks seem to think hoss fights consist of meaty dudes slugging each other, but what happens to the other guy taking the shots is just as important. Cesaro and Sheamus get that you have to make the guy hitting you seem like a jackhammer breaking up thin concrete too. The recoil is just as important. The props around the hits you take need to be larger than life. You can’t just go on through the match like nothing fazed you. The art of the hoss fight involves Sheamus taking the heel trip from the apron to the floor, and Cesaro toppling off the top rope like debris from a stadium implosion. It involves Sheamus punch drunk on his knees begging for Cesaro to punch him, or fear welling up in Cesaro’s eyes before he took the chest clubs in the rope. They not only dealt the pain, they absorbed it and showed the effects.

So it was only appropriate that the match end with a flash pin. Then again, Cesaro gaining the pinfall with an inside cradle was both a callback to their match at Payback which ended with Sheamus getting the flash victory and a stroke of building his villainous character building off ragging Sheamus for said victory. The sequence leading into the cradle was so well-laid and had such dexterity. Cesaro going from the over the shoulder body slam position into the cradle was a thing of beauty. Who knew the big loads could show that kind of grace? Well, anyone who was paying attention to WWE for the last few years would know about these two.

Chase Owens (c) vs. Fred Yehi, NWA Jr. Heavyweight Championship Match, SFCW Anniversary Show, 6/14 - Watch It Here!
When I first caught wind of Fred Yehi a couple of years ago, I marvelled at how well he was able to work a straight-up technical match where he eschewed alignment or was even able to work as a scrappy underdog babyface in some cases. But his best work was still in his back pocket, as balls-out, classic chickenshit, cheat-at-every-turn Fred Yehi has turned out to be an utter delight. Because viewing his work is so sparse on my behalf, I’m not sure when he uncorked this delicious character turn, but he was in full display at the Southern Fried Championship anniversary show in a big, headline-worthy shot at Chase Owens’ NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship.

Everything Yehi did in this match was perfect, from stalling to an eight count at the beginning of the match all the way through ruthlessly slamming Owens’ arm to the mat while working it. It’s not just in his moves either, although his sliding eye poke may be the greatest move in professional wrestling history after the infamous space flying tiger back rake done by the Young Bucks and completing an arm-wringer by biting Owens’ hand was a touch of sadistic genius.. It’s in his body language, his jittery motion, how he never ever stops moving, whether it’s to preen to the crowd after hitting Owens with a big move or to inflict extra damage to him while he’s down, whether legal or not. His facial expressions were on point too, selling both his cocksurety as well as the absolute disarming terror in his eyes when Owens went to make his big comeback. He was electric and dynamic, a charismatic villain for even the most vanilla hero to take down and claim plaudits.

But Owens wasn’t some typical pretty white dude with no charm sent out on virtue of look. This guy had some real fire behind his fists, pep in his step, and he hit all the notes that Yehi set up for him. He’s not just agile and athletic, but he knew how to implement it in this contest to keep the crowd buzzing and the story moving along to its cathartic end. This match was about as classic an old-school, Southern wrestling bout could be in terms of mood and narrative arc. It had big personalities, none bigger than Yehi’s, and a finish that hit a satisfying crescendo, one that was appropriate for the action that set it up. In fact, it may have been the best match I’ve seen in the indies all year long.

Matthew Palmer vs. Ray Rowe, Inspire Pro Clash at the Bash, 6/15
This write-up originally appeared in my review for Clash at the Bash.
Wrestling is built on a contrast of styles. While HOSS FIGHTS or cruiserweight flip-fests can be prime theater, putting two guys from different backgrounds, different styles, or even different statures in the ring against each other can open more doors and bring out things in each wrestler that are not thought possible, or at least unlikely. But rare is the match where both wrestlers are just dialed into their roles so much that the result ends up as archetypical. Palmer and Rowe brought radically different styles to the ring, and yet they fit them together like interlocking pieces in the same jigsaw puzzle.

Palmer's attack was two-pronged, going for leverage-based takedowns and a little bit of high-flying dynamics that he has come to be known for, although given his alignment in Inspire, I understand why he relied more on the mat and his seconds outside the ring helping gain advantages. Nothing pops a crowd more than flippy shit, and Palmer needed to put Rowe over. Not that Rowe needed that much help anyway. He brought stiff intensity that reminded me of the mid-'90s All-Japan heavyweight scene. Given that Vader is one of the finest potato-vendors in history, comparing Rowe to the Mastodon is a supreme compliment.

With a sturdy base in place, the two were able to build spectacular-looking spots towards a taut, tense finish. The beats were both subtle and over the top in some spots. Examples of the former include Rowe pulling off a delay vertical suplex that he finished by stepping on the bottom turnbuckle for extra oomph. The latter saw Palmer wrangling Rowe in the ropes with a dragon sleeper, with a sadistic grin on his face that not only sold Rowe being in distress but set a tone for what Palmer was to bring to the table. Even though he didn't win, the Centerfold came out of the match looking like a worthy contender down the line for Rowe should he take home the Inspire Pro Championship.

Jimmy and Jey Uso (c) vs. Erick Rowan and Luke Harper, WWE Tag Team Championship Match, Money in the Bank, 6/29
This write-up originally appeared in my review for Money in the Bank.
Two of the best tag teams working today were tasked with opening the Money in the Bank pay-per-view, and they may have stolen the show away from the rest of the packed slate that would follow them. When one competitor can improve a match just by widening his eyes, and the two brothers across the ring from him do very little to disprove theories that twins are psychically linked, then the odds for a good match are extremely good. Both teams had their working boots on and thus gave those following a tough act to follow, even when the later competitors would have the advantages of ladders in their favor.

The heat segment that Jey Uso underwent pretty much turned out to be the Luke Harper show. His crazy eyes and zombie walk are the best things going in wrestling. He has a perfect understanding of how to meld character and work ability in the ring, and that talent is going to take him far in WWE. He did big and little things well. Cutting off a tag and knocking the other guy off the apron is basic tag team stuff, but when you're running at big rig speeds to decapitate Jimmy Uso on the other side of the ring to prevent the hot tag, well, you're on another plane. Kudos to the Uso for taking that bump off the apron as well. Erick Rowan did a lot of things well in this match as well. Even though his endgame was missing the move, his form going from the mat up to doing that twirling leg drop was beautiful stuff, and by the time he was ready to accept the Usos cutting him off, I was ready to see him fly off the top.

But the Usos were more than willing to hold up their ends of the bargain. To call them the Samoan Young Bucks would be a disservice to both teams, but their uncanny knack of leg placement on their superkicks is second only to the Kings of Reseda. The one spot where Rowan scooped up Jey on the outside only for Jimmy to hit him with the superman plancha was beautifully timed and one of the few dives that I recall hitting the mark. Their synergy on the finishing sequence was amazing as well. The Usos winning in this case felt so unfinished, even with the decisive pinfall. However, if one feud could continue into the future indefinitely, I wouldn't mind it being this one.

Jimmy and Jey Uso and Sheamus vs. Bray Wyatt, Erick Rowan, and Luke Harper, RAW, 6/30 - Watch Highlights Here!
For being tall and hossy, Sheamus’ face-in-peril game is on point, and against a team of three angry, burly rednecks, his talents of taking an ass-whipping were of utmost importance. Mostly, the sequence where Harper and Rowan were giving him the business on the outside was tight and crisp. He dishes out the punishment, but taking it seems to be his forte, but he even got in on the high-spot slinging. He went from the top to the floor on a battering ram. He basically did it all in this match, but his opponents and partners held up their ends. The Usos are among the best teams at post-hot-tag offense, and they were on display after Sheamus tagged out. To finish, Harper didn’t hit his best clothesline, but it speaks to his ability as a wrestler that even if he just skims the top of the head, it still looks vicious.

Miz told Sheamus not to hit him in the face
Photo Credit:
Sheamus vs. The Miz, Main Event, 7/15 - Watch Highlights Here!
This match started out slow, but once Miz was able establish his personal match strategy of going “NOT IN THE FACE! NOT IN THE FACE!” it picked up huge. He was able to commit to blocking his face and avoiding shots to the “moneymaker” all match, and he didn’t look awkward or forced doing it. He’s always been a good wrestler, but this match saw him embrace instincts and really arrive as a worker. Sheamus was an ideal opponent for him because he both is a bruiser on offense and is willing to take the heat selling for Miz. He went hard in this match, taking a big toss into the barricade. But the finish was sublime. Miz’s fear of getting wrecked in the face turned into his downfall as he ducked away from a Brogue Kick, and while Sheamus’ rollup was telegraphed as soon as Miz ducked away, his form tight and deep.

Jimmy and Jey Uso (c) vs. Erick Rowan and Luke Harper, WWE Tag Team Championship Best Two-out-of-Three Falls Match, Battleground, 7/20
This write-up originally appeared in my review for Battleground.
On paper, the Tag Title match between the Usos and Wyatts looked to be the strongest match in terms of in-ring action. Predictably, as the two teams have done several times in the last few months, they tore the house down in the opening match of the pay-per-view proper, and no one was able to pick up their slack at least during a regular match. While the layout of the match rendered the two-out-of-three falls stipulation superfluous, the third fall more than made up for the early shortcomings and provided yet another notch in the cases of both teams as part of the factional elite in the US today.

The first two falls went by almost as quickly as the two pre-show matches did, rendering the actual three-fall layout of the match useless. I blame that more on the agents than anything, but still, a multiple fall match is built to be a marathon. Still, the two teams began to build a strong narrative through the match by establishing a tone of dominance by the challengers with the only hope the Champs had being a flash pinfall in the second stanza. WWE likes to build matches by saying the babyfaces are against the odds and need to overcome great adversity in order to triumph against swelling evil. However, all the talk usually ends up ringing hollow. The Usos here were able to show that they were true underdogs in this scenario, working underneath two towering hosses with a penchant for crazy looks. It also cannot be understated how the opening of the match played into that build, with Jey knocking Rowan's mask clean off his face with a SLAP that would have made Rick James proud.

The third match, however, was a masterclass in how modern tag team wrestling should be performed. The Usos continued to work underneath and build to a crescendo that allowed their climactic comeback to resonate with the crowd in more than just a token "yay good guys" fashion. The crazy high spots felt like they belonged in the match flow instead of being shoehorned into the fray for inserting them's sake. The fact that Luke Harper is as adept at throwing planchas as the Uso brother are is incredible and worth noting. The way the Superfly Splash has been built up as an untouchable finish made Rowan kicking out of it all the more eye-popping, and it set up for the double splash finish. Of course, the match wasn't perfect - Rowan's attempt at a frogsplash looked Tamina Snuka-levels of awkward - but it would have been among the best matches on every WWE special event this year. Outstanding work from two excellent teams.

Cesaro vs. Dean Ambrose, No Disqualification, Smackdown, 7/25 (airdate) - Watch Highlights Here!
Ambrose and Cesaro took what they started the previous Monday and built upon it in exquisite escalation. They were given a stipulation and more than explored the studio space. They owned it, throwing their bodies into any blunt or stationary object as an expression of utter violence. It was fitting, almost the product of foreshadowing even. WWE dot com ran a feature about Ambrose’s past in death matches that same week, and to cap the frame off, he went out and hearkened back to his roots in Combat Zone Wrestling. But in place of the blood and gore, Ambrose, and his opponent Cesaro, delivered with psychology and sheer impact.

Ambrose broke the seal on the extremity with his patented quirkiness, pulling items from under the ring like he was shopping at a rummage sale. His energy drove his offense and punctuated his defense and countering. Him ducking a kendo stick shot outside against the ringpost in wily fashion added as much to the match as any offensive move or any bump he took. Hell, even the little things added so much to the story. The little flourishes on his moves, the nervous, busy spasms when he’s back in the ropes before the jawbreaker lariat, even the positioning on his Russian leg sweep is sublime. And Cesaro played his role as the behemoth, the towering pillar of granite. His presence and his disposition both impose such shadow even in regular matches. When weapons are involved though? Watching Cesaro sit leisurely on a steel chair while exerting a perfect, closed-window camel clutch is a sight to behold. And the only thing that could have added even more visual primacy to his Brian Cage ring-in superplex would be doing it on a pile of chairs.

WWE brawls are a treat when placed in the hands of masters, and when weapons are introduced into the fray, the action usually gets elevated. However, it has been awhile since the action with the weapons seemed so violent. Even my favorite match from last year, the Daniel Bryan/Randy Orton hardcore main event from June, was enhanced because their use of the plunder was smart. Ambrose and Cesaro put their goddamn bodies on the line in a sublime display of brutality, that not even patented wasted WWE interference and an inside cradle finish could put a damper on the contest on the whole. This match may have been the best WWE presented on free TV all year.

Drew Gulak vs. Timothy Thatcher, EVOLVE 31, 8/8
When professional wrestling looks real without looking like mixed-martial arts, it takes on an almost sublime quality. Any style can produce the lifelike qualities that transform the choreographed ritual between the bells from a dance into a fight so tense and stiff that it almost looks real, but the one that is closest to replicating such a quality with the greatest regularity is the mat-heavy, grappling-and-countergrappling based, English-influenced style worked by scions of the World of Sport. Few wrestlers work the style the States, and even fewer are masters at it, but when two, unquestioned mat generals are pitted against each other and given time to flesh out an entire narrative, the results are gorgeous. Even the roughest, most turbulent exchange of grapples, counters, and submissions are beautiful in the hands of masters, and Thatcher and Gulak are probably ranked 1 and 1a when it comes to people working in America right now.

Right from the start, when Thatcher started out grinding Gulak’s wrist against his humerus and Gulak throwing the reverse into his own lock, the match’s tone took that rough and tumble, technical feel that only two evenly-matched wrestlers could convey. Neither man had an advantage over the other, so no hold was locked in fully or cleanly. No move was free from the dangers of being countered. Neither wrestler stopped squirming or reaching for a way to get out of the hold or tighten their moves up because they set the atmosphere right from the start. Very few strikes were thrown. The wrestling “moves” like Thatcher’s play on the Three Amigos or Gulak’s spike Memphis piledriver, were few, far between, and used for emphasis in misdirecting an advantage either way so that the next counter could have more emotional impact.

But while the World of Sport style may conjure images of Johnny Saint and Johnny Kidd politely exchanging holds and going off bouts of whimsy, Thatcher especially was able to drive a super-competitiveness that created room for stiffness and brutality. He didn’t let anyone think he was in a gentlemanly contest with Gulak, and even if he had to savagely bend back Gulak’s finger to make the point. Gulak spent a good part of the match having to sell his arm and put out the vibe that he was in danger, but his counterwrestling during times when he could get the upperhand made the finish believable, even when Thatcher was at his most overbearing. Of course, slipping out of a gutwrench into the ankle lock was a visually stunning display of counterwrestling itself, but no one ever said Gulak lacked panache, did they?

Bayley vs. Sasha Banks, NXT, 8/14 (airdate) - Watch Highlights Here!
Bayley and Sasha Banks prove every time they go out, whether against each other or someone else that they’re WWE superstars, regardless of demographic, and when they got the chance to go two segments with plenty of time to tell a story with gravity, they knocked it out of the fucking park. The contest was smartly worked, stiff, hit all the beats, and had a tight finish that legitimately felt like it came “out of nowhere.” If the match wasn’t going to end on the Belly-to-Bayley, a move that served as the canvas for most of the storytelling in the match, then having it end on a counter to the Boss Lock was the next best option. The finish put both competitors over strong, and it was yet another piece of evidence towards the case that the women ruled the roost in NXT in 2014.

Dean Ambrose vs. Cesaro, Smackdown, 8/15 (airdate) - Watch Highlights Here!
WWE has a bad habit of putting the same two guys in a match over and over again and having the same guy win in that series, but when the two competitors have such a chemistry together, the repetition doesn’t matter. Cesaro and Ambrose once again were tasked with wrestling each other, and they pulled out a unique match where for a moment, I forgot WWE’s milquetoast booking habits and thought maybe, just maybe, the Swiss Superman could win. While I would have plotted Cesaro ducking the Nigel and answering with a LARIATO of his own after Ambrose actually hit his version of the clothesline, that counter spot was visually stunning, and yet it still was the third best spot in the match. Earlier in the match, Cesaro grabbed Ambrose after he took the shoulder-first Ziggler bump into the corner and suplexed him to the outside, and then he went from the top rope to the floor in a big tumble that preceded an Ambrose plancha to the floor. The finish showed how well Ambrose has a grasp of the moment, fluidly going from a counter sequence into Dirty Deeds. The result was written in the stars, but it still felt shocking and fresh.

Seth Rollins vs. Dean Ambrose, Falls Count Anywhere, RAW, 8/18 - Watch Highlights Here!
One of my biggest pet peeves is when a Falls Count Anywhere match rarely goes out of the ring, but for these two wrestlers, I make an exception. Anything they touch turns to gold, and one night after turning in the best match on a strong major pay-per-view, they went back out and escalated their feud into violent overdrive. The best aspect was that they hearkened back to both ECW and CZW roots without making the violence seem cheap and excessive, yet the finish of the match felt almost cartoonish in scope. Yet, for the purpose it served, Ambrose getting his head slammed into a pile of gimmicked cinder blocks worked on such a gaudy, pro wrestling level. Of course, you don’t earn that kind of finish without earning it.

The match started with the same kind of garden variety brawling that WWE matches have grown accustomed to fostering. Ambrose in his time in the company has become one of the best chasing and wailing, and Rollins is never afraid to bump nor is he too proud to beg off and sell his injuries. The brawling led to the token nearfall outside of the ring, a beautifully staged suplex tease sequence that ended with Charles Robinson of all people nearly submarining the whole thing by his reluctance to pound the floor on something other than canvas. Still, despite the ref’s reluctance to go all-in, the visual worked.

But for a Falls Count Anywhere match to be better when the action was centered mostly in the ring is an anomaly. Then again, nothing about Rollins or especially Ambrose screams conventional. They traded bombs throughout the match. Ambrose paid tribute to the ECW stars of the past by tossing chairs into the ring first and then hitting Rollins with a White Russian leg sweep. Rollins went with two finisher-grade spots that I initially was against using as transitions - a super bomb into the aforementioned chair pile and then a superplex through a table - but later talked myself into after seeing what kind of adrenaline Ambrose was able to run on. Even Kane’s involvement worked in the context of the story. The journey they took to get to mashing Ambrose into a pile of cinder was amazing and worthy of the kind of endgame for which they were aiming.

Fred Yehi vs. Jonathan Gresham, WWA4 School Free Match, 8/28 - Watch It Here!
The WWA4 school in Atlanta has produced some of the most exciting wrestlers including Jon Gresham, but like other wrestling schools around the country, it produces its own wrestling product from time to time. When Fred Yehi came through the doors for the first time, the people running the joint had to put him against one of its best graduates and continuing trainees in Gresham. The two had a long contest that was intense, athletic, and whimsical at times. These two wrestlers were best suited to go up against each other and keep an even, competitive bout up to the very end.

They set the mood early with a scrappy and tight test of strength sequence that saw Yehi beckoning the ref to “ASK HIM!” if he wanted to give the match up, and the whimsy and lightheartedness kept coming along intertwined between intense submission segments, stiff exchanges, and athletic maneuvering. They took the cake with a spot in the beginning that could be polarizing for how it played out but that I thought was amusing in its purility. Yehi entangled Gresham in a wristlock, but rather than guile his way out with a regular counter, Gresham pointed to the ceiling and told Yehi to look up, which he did, allowing Gresham to escape out of it. The spot was such a dumb, Dad-joke callback, but sticking it right in the middle of a modern, high-speed indie match was the height of endearment.

But while no fat birds were to be found in this match, it was still the kind of hard-hitting, big-time feeling match one should come to expect from Gresham and especially Yehi. It’s one thing to go hard to the mat with intensity, but when you can do it with panache, flourish, or even levity, it’s elevated. It becomes further and further ingrained into the genetic code of pro wrestling, one that never has taken itself too seriously. I’m not saying the straightforward grappling is bad, per se, mainly because I dig the hell out of Timothy Thatcher and his ilk. But if wrestling can be fun, it should be fun. Fred Yehi makes wrestling fun.

Steve O'Reno and Bradley Axel Dawson vs. Zac and DG Taylor, Inspire Pro Relentless, 8/31
Even though the Hollywood Knives were nominally a tag team, their conceit was basically a vehicle to get Reno over as a world-beating singles guy wrestling in handicap matches. This fourth and ultimately final match in their run saw Reno wrestle perhaps the archetypical handicap match. The Orphans wrestled with cohesion and technique that belied their scruffy appearance and “latch key” gimmick, and they kept the heat on Reno throughout the match. Reno kept scrapping with his underdog fire, working the eternal face in peril and getting in some good shots of his own, both individually and on both Taylor boys. The match had a brilliant finish with Dawson coming to just in time to enter illegally and distract the ref while Sky de Lacrimosa’s interference at the end put Reno away for good.
Mr. B and Scotty Santiago went all over the place at Relentless
Photo Credit: Kelly Kyle
Mr. B vs. Scotty Santiago, Street Fight, Inspire Pro Relentless, 8/31
This write-up originally appeared in my review for Relentless.
Few things get my attention than a crazy, intense street fight that matriculates throughout the arena and incorporates its surroundings in both ridiculous and sublime ways. Mr. B and Santiago were given the task to beat the crap out of each other with whatever was nearby, whether it was in a fixed position or just laying around on the ground. Hell, Mr. B at one point used an empty Olde English tallboy can as a weapon, which gets nothing but respect from me.

The action started in the ring and quickly escalated with both weaponry and scenery changes. They brawled all the way to the foyer and teased even going outside, but at each stop, they did their best to wallop each other either with whatever was available or into whatever was available. One thing was clear above the fracas, that Santiago was both the more athletic and sadistic competitor. Santiago crotched B on the brass railing and slid him down. He threw B into the wall and then tossed him into the ladies' bathroom, which caused two patrons to assail him and toss his involuntarily intruding ass out. Then when they got back to the ring, B whipped Santiago into the steps, but he leaped over them and then rebounded by using the steps as a launching pad onto his would-be assailant.

B wasn't at want for brutality, but he couldn't really match the wits that Santiago had, which is why I thought bringing out Shane Taylor for the fuck-finish didn't feel deflating. After all, if politics are working against you, why not use them back? The match was brutal brilliance, and the end advanced a story that will guarantee some more brawls in the future between the two, plus, holy shit Taylor really hossed it up. On a show with at least two or three other matches that could rate in year-end polls, this visceral, trashy brawl stole the show.

Barbi Hayden (c) vs. Athena, NWA Women’s Championship, Inspire Pro Relentless, 8/31
Hayden’s residency defending the NWA title at Inspire Pro has been one of the best things about 2014, and her match with Athena was no exception. While they’ve faced off against each other in different capacities before around Texas, this match had a unique feel to it, one signature to the Marchesa Theater. Athena is a solid bet for a great match wherever she goes as well, and predictably, their match here was one of the best, even on this loaded show where everything seemed to pop off the page.

It was superficially a contest of contrasts. Hayden uses her thick frame to lay down some punishment, an old-school roughneck style that flies in the face of her glamor model appearance. She even shows that meanstreak when showing her technical side, segueing from a dragon sleeper into raining forearms and elbows down on Athena’s prone face and chest. Her heel game isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s also not based in outrageous cheating or overt punishment either. It’s all in the faux beauty queen waves, biting to escape the modified STF, and holding open ropes for an opponent who tumbled to the outside. Athena’s swag was the perfect counterbalance to this, because she would find ways to throw it back in Hayden’s face

The two wrestler personalities created symmetry that punctuated the match. The aforementioned rope hold led to Athena opening the ropes for Hayden, only instead of letting her back into the ring, she opened them to allow Hayden to crash to the outside. It would be a more overt example of symmetry that would close the encounter. Athena hit the O-Face and got a seeming win on Hayden, except the Champ got her foot under the ropes for the break. But Athena’s rope break would be missed after Hayden drilled her with her signature stump DDT, which hopefully will set up another rematch in the future.

Adrian Neville (c) vs. Sami Zayn vs. Tyler Breeze vs. Tyson Kidd, NXT Championship Match, Takeover Fatal Four Way, 9/11 - Watch Highlights Here!
From the start, when they wrecked each other on the ramp, the four wrestlers in this match showed that they were going to go above and beyond the normal WWE color palette for fatal four way matches. The forced layabouts on the outside by two of the wrestlers didn’t seem so forced, and even those spots were few, far between, and well-covered for, especially by Kidd. They built organically on the story threads, had great pop on their surprise shots, and the big spots blew off the screen in ways that helped spark anew the flame of looking forward to in-ring action under a WWE banner.

I admit not to buying the hype on Kidd in 2014, but he was lights out in this match. His half of the interplay with Zayn during the first big heat segment was as intense as it needed to be for Zayn to break out his signature spaghetti legs and expressive oversell. Him keeping Neville at bay is what made the segment work. Breeze cleaning house towards the end of this first act was hot fire as well, and he proved he could hang with the three nerd darlings. Zayn was the most dynamic performer of the four, but that’s not an upset at all. He turned his normal big match jets up to full blast, even at one point imitating Stone Cold while stomping a mudhole in Kidd and then walking it dry. His execution on the SUPER TOWER OF DOOM turned that spot from an annoying contrivance to an amazing visual of struggle and overcoming odds.

But Neville’s craftiness tied the story together. Pulling the referee out of the ring was the piece de resistance, but his devious heel foreshadowing was there first by cutting of Zayn’s suicide dive attempt at the pass with a springboard moonsault and then grabbing Breeze’s arm before he could tap out to the sharpshooter. His main events in the first two Network specials lacked a special something, but in this match, he showed that maybe it wasn’t what he was doing, but what he wasn’t doing that was holding his in-ring game from being complete.

Biff Busick vs. Zack Sabre, Jr., EVOLVE 35, 9/14
Watch one match between two heavy, amateur-influenced “shoot” grapplers, and you may not be able to tell the difference between the two or discern any kind of gimmickry within the mostly straightforward-seeming conceit. Watch a bunch of them, and you can get pretty good at telling the differences between the workers and appreciating the characters they build around the idea of having an entire world built around what some might derisively call “wrestling for the sake of wrestling.” And once that subtlety is calibrated into one’s viewing habits, then the super-grappling style becomes even more gratifying than the stereotypical ideal that all in-ring dorks care about is dudes rolling around in some watered-down version of the UWFi and that character is not important.

Case in point, Biff Busick vs. Zack Sabre, Jr. at EVOLVE 35 on the surface featured a lot of trading holds, counters, that sort of thing that one might be used to if that person watched a lot of Timothy Thatcher, Drew Gulak, Chris Hero, Silver Ant, or Busick during the year. But the story that was told was elemental. Sabre stood in one corner as the unfuckwithable English hero, so good at what he was doing with an ego so huge that he couldn’t help but let everyone know, especially his opponent. Busick, contarily, was the guy who’d probably be working a dock somewhere in Boston if not for wrestling with the temper to back it up. If you went up and told him that you were better than he was, he might not slap you across the face as much as choke you out and dump you on your ass in the middle of the sidewalk. Those two elements being placed together in a ring led to a story of a matchup as volatile as tossing metallic sodium into the middle of a pond.

The match was as tight and rough as most of the best grappling style matches were all year, but the facial expressions told so much of the real story, that it was a game of cat and mouse between the visiting Sabre and the home-turf-defending Busick. Sabre walked confidently and reversed holds with even more swagger. And with each time he got one-upped, Busick popped up with an uglier and uglier scowl on his face. But the cat would get his prey at the end with Busick snagging Sabre in a side crossface headlock that would seal up maneuvering into a leg grapevine for the big tapout victory. Sabre’s dickish nature made the decision all the more satisfying as well, proving that if you know what to watch for, the faux-shoot style can be just as colorful as a gimmick-heavy spot fest.

Adrian Neville and Sami Zayn vs. Titus O’Neil and Tyson Kidd, NXT, 9/18 (airdate) - Watch Highlights Here!
I dreaded the replacement of Tyler Breeze with Titus O’Neil from Takeover in this tag match, but Mr. Make It a Win added a needed presence that added to the match’s story. The first half was absolutely made by Zayn and Neville playing “Can you top this?” Their interactions were seamless, and the payoff with Zayn interrupting Neville’s dive with a suicide moonsault of his own was aesthetically beautiful. The match changed gears abruptly and both heels took over with their grinding assault on Zayn, who Ricky Morton’d like a boss. Not to be overlooked was Kidd taking some major bumps in hope spots for Zayn. If impact of counters and move misses were to dictate a tidal shift, then Kidd going ass first on the apron and taking another big bump in the ring would have indicated Zayn was a lock to make his tag, only for O’Neil to squelch it. The finish made sense in context of the story too. All in all, a fine performance from all four competitors.

Scene from the best comedy match of the year
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
Davey Vega, Evan Gelistico, Gary the Barn Owl, and Pierre Abernathy vs. Chuck Taylor, Drew Gulak, Orange Cassidy, and the Swamp Monster, Chikara King of Trios Night 3, 9/21
This write-up first appeared in my review for King of Trios '14, Night Three.
I know a small but vocal minority (or large majority, I don't know, I'm a writer, not a census taker) probably hated everything about this match, but the Submission Squad's contribution to the weekend cemented them in the Chikara firmament. It was a match that was for Chikara fans, from the beginning all the way to the finish that was cribbed straight from memories of watching the World Wrestling Federation in the '80s and '90s. While in "serious" competition, the Squad more than holds its own, the group showed that it, as a collective, has a mastery of comedic timing and deployment of beats, and the Gentlemen's Club was the perfect group against which they could show their stuff. If they couldn't tickle ribs and create magic with Chuck Taylor across the ring from them, then they had no hope at all.

Whether it was Gary the Barn Owl and the Swamp Monster striking up a friendship that caused them to go against their own teammates, Davey Vega monologuing with everyone else on pause about how he had a live grenade shoved down his pants, referee Bryce Remsburg getting in on the action so much as getting a pin attempt on both Gary and the Monster with Taylor making the count, or even Taylor's antics throughout the match, this atomicos match was jam-packed with amusement, mirth, and merriment. Even the split second where things got "serious" with Vega and Drew Gulak squaring off fit as almost a moment of anti-comic relief in a yuk-fest. I found it hard to take complete notes and transcribe everything that enthralled me during this match because the pace was so frenetic and I couldn't really keep my eyes anywhere but on the action in the ring, but then again, isn't that the mark of a good match?

In a weekend full of the emotional drum getting beaten hard, and on a show where the final moments were refined for maximum catharsis, the comic relief had to be just as bombastic, just as intense. The Squad and the Club provided that bedrock, a refuge for the fans in attendance to laugh, get a respite from the tension in the air, and appreciate eight guys and a plant elemental going out and being unafraid to make themselves look like jackasses for the crowd's amusement. Deriding the clowns can be easy to do, but without them, wrestling shows would provide a totally different and not as worthwhile an experience, and the Submission Squad, Gentlemen's Club, and Remsburg turned in one of the best examples of why a comedic break in the action is not only absolutely necessary, but can be among the finest action not only on a given show, but in a given year.
The final installment is tomorrow! VERY EXCITE!