Thursday, July 2, 2015

The State of Inspire Pro, Part I: Inspire Pro Championship

Graphics via
Hello, and welcome to what will become a six-part series on the State of Inspire Pro. As you will have noticed, I did not provide a review of Clash at the Bash II that happened way back on June 21 for a variety of reasons. The main one being that it was a show where a whole mess of shit went down and I didn’t think anyone would want to slog through 20,000 words of me detailing everything in a single sitting. There’s really a lot of information to take in. On top of that, nearly everything segues from that show to the one happening on August 9, Fade to Black. So, I felt it was in everyone’s best interests if I changed things up a bit (I can never stick with one style and probably never will) and provided a series of reviews/previews of CATB2 and FtB respectively, and do so broken down by category, once per week, heading into what is shaping up to be an even bigger show at Clash was. Crazy as that sounds.

The very first of which, as you could tell by the title of the piece, will be about the Inspire Pro Championship, which is currently still being held by “Dirty” Andy Dalton, after he successfully defeated J*Crown Champion, Steve-O Reno at Clash at the Bash II. It was a match that came about when Dalton claimed to be the best Champion (having just cheated his way to victory over ACH at In Their Blood 2), not only in Inspire Pro, but anywhere. The undefeated Reno took exception to that statement and opted to cash in his Fungressional Medal of Honor that he had previously won in November 2014 at Fun Fun Fun Fest.

The match was exactly the type of match you thought these two men would have. Simply put, it was great. Match of the Night, which is actually kind of a rarity for the main events of Inspire Pro, but then again just about every match on any given show could be a main event. It’s less surprising that Reno was a part of MotN because that routinely happens. That isn’t to say that Dalton is any sort of slouch. Not in the slightly. I’ve only known the man’s career through Inspire Pro, but he’s been a top-shelf talent since Day One. He has the added bonus of being the absolute perfect heel, has the moves to back up all the shit he says, and has never been in better shape. Now, I know the kind of conditioning a person is in really doesn’t matter, but it also kind of does in such a superficial profession, as unfortunate as that is. But, seriously, Dalton has improved his look ten-fold, and Reno? Well, he just keeps looking better.

The match was evenly matched, and Reno even had a visible tap out from Dalton, but the referee happened to not have his eyes on the match at hand. Dalton did have the advantage of having Davey Vega and Angelus Layne in his corner. In the end, it was just a simple inside cradle reversal that scored Dalton the 1-2-3, kid. There was a bit of confusion as to who actually scored the pinfall, with Reno thinking he had Dalton’s shoulders down, but it seemed pretty clear that it was Dalton who had Reno pinned down. From my vantage point, I couldn’t see Dalton’s shoulders, but just the movement of the inside cradle itself made it at least feel like the intention was a reversal of the pin, and Reno’s shoulders WERE down. So, Dalton retains.

Afterwards, Dalton’s running buddies, Layne and Vega, proceeded to beat down Reno until ”Absolute” Ricky Starks made the save. The two men were staving off the assault when Sammy motherfucking Guevara made a VERY surprising return, joining up with Dalton’s clan. That development is something we will cover in two weeks, when I discuss the J*Crown Championship. Just know that he is back and no one thought that was ever going to happen again. Let’s instead turn our focus back to Starks. He is, afterall, the number one contender for the Inspire Pro Championship and will be challenging Dalton at Fade to Black (as the banner image tells you).

Earlier in the evening, Starks regaled us with the above promo. A very impassioned speech about his career. If there was anyone who doubted Starks’ drive and desire or his worthiness of this spot, well, you are idiots. One, for not already being on board with Starks’ climb to the top, but also, for two, not getting it after watching that. Now, there were some who said that this promo made the main event feel like a foregone conclusion that Dalton was walking away with the Championship.

That’s not unreasonable, but if you’ll noticed, he stated that he didn’t know who would win and that it didn’t matter. He only addressed everything towards Dalton because, at the time of the promo, Dalton was the Champion. It was basically to uncomplicate things. If he had to constantly say “whomever I face for the title” or “whether it be Reno or Dalton,” it would been annoying at the very least. While there is history with Dalton, if it happened to be Reno who won, well, Starks would be going into that match with the same focus and intensity regardless.

That said, I mean, Reno wasn’t winning. He was undefeated and the reigning J*Crown Champion and while I would have loved to see Reno win it (he’s not undeserving in the least), but it wasn’t time. He may be “Mr. Inspire Pro,” but he’s not the Inspire Pro Champion just yet. His time will come, and just like Starks said, he was kind of that new, shiny star that they wanted to give an opportunity to, because Starks will always be there and he will eventually get his. Reno jumped the line, making Starks wait once more, and, yeah, it was well within his rights to do so, but it’s almost a bit of karma that he didn’t win it. (not really, karma is dumb, but go with me here.) I actually think it would have been hurtful for Reno to win the title from Dalton, because, well, he’s virtually unstoppable at that point, right? Might as well give him the Pure Prestige and Tag Titles, too. So, yeah, it was good for Reno that he lost. I know that’s a weird thing to say, that a loss in the biggest match of your career-to-that-point was a good thing, but I truly believe it was. Now, he has other issues to settle, but when his number gets called again, you better believe he’ll be ready.

But, how did I get off on talking about Reno again? Man, he really is Mr. Inspire Pro, huh? Always hogging the conversation. But let’s not deny Starks. He has earned this Championship match. And if it ever was his time, it’s now. Let me regale you with a little bit of history that I have with Starks. See, it was in March of 2013 that my wife and I attended our first Anarchy Championship Wrestling show. I’d heard all sorts of buzz about it and finally had the time to take in a show. On this show, were also special guests Colt Cabana and Jimmy Jacobs. But you know who I came away most impressed with? Ricky Starks.

With ACW, I’d heard of (and saw a little bit of) ACH and Athena. That was it. I knew that they’d had two women as their Heavyweight Champion, so were fairly progressive in regards to their treatment of women. On the second match of the show (they always taped matches for their YouTube channel, although none of them ever seemed to make it on there), out came this match in black and neon tights, accompanied by a Native American, Kyle Hawk. I still don’t know, to this day, why on earth they were paired up. But they were. That match was against ACH. Like I said, I’d heard of ACH and seen a few videos online, so I was passingly familiar with him. I knew nothing of Starks. He had the look, the charisma (overflowing with it, to be honest), and I soon found out he had the skill set. That was over two years ago, so you know he’s improved.

Now, the match was great, and it was a wonderful introduction to the Austin independent scene. And while that match was, indeed, a joy to watch, it was what happened in the next match that really stood out for me. As anyone who has seen an ACH match knows, they can be exhausting. ACH hits hard, moves fast, and just generally attacks non-stop. So, it was surprising that to kick off the official An Absence of Law show that Starks and Hawk stayed out there. They were immediately put into a tag team match against Jack Jameson and Ricky Romida. Two bigger guys who were kind of tough and hard-hitting. That didn’t slow Starks down. In fact, I believe he won the match (which would soon be a rarity in ACW), and the fans (if I’m not mistaken, either before or after the match or both) showed their appreciation for the mere fact that not only did he pull double-duty, he did so back-to-back. That impressed me.

Out of everyone on the show (excluding ACH and Athena, who just confirmed everything that was said about them), Starks was the guy I thought would be working for WWE in a few years (and not just to have potato salad shoved into his ear and slammed through a table or have Dean Ambrose still his popcorn and soda), and I still think that’s going to happen, especially with NXT now as the feeder system for the main product. Starks is going to make it, I sincerely believe that.

But back on point, while we attended ACW shows regularly for over a year, Starks was the only wrestler we ever talked to at those shows. And the only reason we did was because my wife wanted his t-shirt, but in tank top form. At the time he did not have them, but he does now (I actually don’t know if he STILL has them, but he got them not too long after that). This was also around the time of Inspire Pro starting up, and I remarked to Starks that we had just seen him defeat two men in one night (Barrett Brown and Shawn Vexx, in separate matches, at Wired For War) than we’d seen him in win, total, in six months with ACW (it at least felt that way).

One little aside, we went to a show in San Antonio for Branded Outlaw Wrestling, that featured several New Japan Pro Wrestling stars such as Jushin Thunder Liger, Hiroyoshi Tenzan, and others, and while we were standing outside to get in, Starks and Byron “Big Daddy Yum Yum” Wilcott came out, with video camera in hand. They wanted to walk through the fans and ask everyone who they were there for. Everyone screamed for Big Daddy Yum Yum, but they wanted someone to be for Starks. My wife was chosen. We were holding hands as they made their way down and when my wife said, “Ricky Starks!” Starks popped up from behind us, knocked apart our hands, and stood with my wife. I walked away dejected, but he quickly grabbed him, pulled me back, and right there he blessed our relationship. It is for that reason I feel it has gone as well as it has in the two and a half years we’ve been married.

Let’s get back on track, because in the video, Starks straight up mentioned that he was the ACW World and Hardcore Champion (they unified the belts earlier this year), and I feel very strongly that he was crowned Champion one year too late. Exactly one year too late. Not in the, well-it’s-pointless-now kind of late, just that it should have happened sooner. See, for some reason, they opted for a Cage Match between then-Champ Evan Gelistico against Shawn Vexx at their big Guilty by Association 2014 show (Starks won the unified title at the 2015 installment of the same show, defeated Masada). However, Vexx was hardly around and when he was, I don’t recall him interacting with the Submission Squad leader. In fact, Starks had a hell of a feud going with them, if you ask me. He would routinely answer Gelistico’s open challenges (and lose, usually thanks to Squad interference), and had such a grudge with them, that during a tag team match, he brought Pierre Abernathy back to ACW to help stop Abernathy’s old friends.

That was a bad decision, as Abernathy turned on Starks and the Submission Squad was returned to his full-strength. Just off what little story I gave you, how does it not make sense for Starks to challenge for Gelistico’s ACW World Title inside a cage to keep the Squad out of things? You can even have the same ending with The Business turning face and stopping the Squad from interfering. Oh my god, it’s been a year and a half and I’m still annoyed by it. That sort of storytelling, the repetitive matches, and a variety of other issues is why we stopped attending their shows. Plus, we’d been spoiled by Inspire Pro.

There was a strong worry from me that Inspire Pro had forgotten about Starks. As I’ve mentioned many times before, Starks was purposely spotlighted as the breakout star for the company. It really felt like they had big plans for him. No one got more mic time than Starks. He was immediately in the hunt for the Inspire Pro Championship, and fittingly, it was Dalton who pulled him away from that goal. Dalton interfered in his match with Jordan Jensen and Scot Summers, where the winner would go on to compete in the Finals to crown the first Inspire Pro Champion (which would be won by Mike Dell), allowing Jensen to advance. That led to a match between Dalton and Starks at the very first Ecstasy of Gold. Dalton won, but it was only because Starks had once again snapped and refused to release his submission hold, leaving the referee no other choice but to disqualify Starks. So, yes, Dalton can say he holds a victory over Starks, but it’s not like he actually defeated him. That’s what makes Dalton such a perfect heel.

And it’s Starks’ fire and intensity that makes him the perfect option to dethrone “The Dirty Mind of Wrestling.” As long as he can keep that temper in check. It was something he could not do in the early days of Inspire Pro. And I think it may have been what led him away from the top of the card. Starks would go on to get into a battle with Scot Summers that, I think, after Summers defeated him kind of sapped a bit of Starks’ energy. He wasn’t as intense as he had been. It’s like Starks was acting out all those times because no one was putting him in his place. Almost like Summers had called his bluff. In retrospect, I think having Summers win that match was the wrong call. Summers can win, he can lose, he will always be one of the toughest SOBs in wrestling. But Starks, after all those times refusing to release holds (which all culminated in a No Holds Barred/No Rope Breaks Match victory over James Claxton, that had originally been intended for Summers, but they would have to have their match a few months later at the first Clash at the Bash).

See, in-between defeating Claxton and losing to Summers, Starks actually managed to become the first ever J*Crown Champion (before there was even a crown) when he won the Gauntlet Match at No Room to Die by pinning Sammy Guevara and Barrett Brown at the same time. That would lead to a Ladder Match for the actual crown at In Their Blood, which Guevara would win. You should see that match if you haven’t already. (Fun fact: Steve-O Reno actually made his debut at this show as well, with the Hollywood Knives, so that’s a weird bit of synergy.) Once he was no longer J*Crown Champion (almost everyone even forgets he was ever the Champ), Starks just kind of drifted. He got into some shenanigans with The Orphans (teaming with Matthew Palmer and Franco D’Angelo of all people), defended Brandon Stroud’s honor, and that sort of got him back on track. He got to get back on the mic and just rant like only Starks can, and eventually found himself, by virtue of beating Lance Hoyt, in a Number One Contenders Match against Ray Rowe at In Their Blood 2 (my review) and winning.

Now, finally, after so many starts and stops, people jumping ahead of him, he finally has his turn. However, there is still a slight cloud that hangs over the proceedings, and that cloud goes by the name Matthew Palmer. You’ll remember Palmer as the man who defeated “One Man” Mike Dell for the Inspire Pro Championship at Relentless and then immediately being challenged by Dalton, accepting like an idiot, and losing said Championship mere minutes after winning it. Since that time, Palmer has been trying to shoot murder Dalton. “Die, Dalton, Die,” wasn’t merely a t-shirt, he legit loathes Dalton, as he stated when he returned at Clash at the Bash II.

Wait, what, he’s back? Where did he go? I know that’s what you all are saying. Now, let me tell you. Following Dalton’s surprise winning of the gold, the two men had an official match at Ecstasy of Gold II, that resulted in Dalton kicking the referee and getting himself disqualified. After a six-man tag at Undeniable, that saw Palmer pin the Champion, the two men had another one-on-one Championship match at Phenomenon. In that one, Palmer put his Inspire Pro career on the line. It was a wild, brutal, intense fight, but ended with D’Angelo, out of concern for his best friend, threw in the towel. Needless to say, that was a less-than-optimal result for most people.

At the next show, In Their Blood 2, D’Angelo attempted to explain his actions and was confronted by Palmer’s girlfriend and all-around badass, Athena. Things got heated and we ended up with a match booked between the two of them. It was one of the most anticipated matches of Clash at the Bash II. It, unfortunately, did not happen. What happened instead was that who we thought was Athena entered the ring and spoke into a microphone. Only, it was her talking from backstage. After she emerged from the back, it was revealed to be Palmer underneath Athena’s garb. The two men would then brawl all over the ring and disappear out of the building.

It wasn’t until later that we got an explanation of what was going on. Now, I hope I’m getting the basic details right. If I’m not, I’m sure someone will tell me, but from what I could understand was that D’Angelo had, in fact, been true to his word. He had thrown in the towel out of fear for his best friend. He knew it was a mistake as soon as he did it, so from that moment, they hatched a plan to get Palmer re-signed by Inspire Pro. This involved getting Biss into the ring and D’Angelo DEMANDING a match with Palmer, and the only way that could happen was if Biss let him return.

Was it too soon to bring Palmer back? Well, he only missed one show, so, yes, it was. I’m sure there were reason and circumstances that dictated that the either change their plans completely or just move up the time table. I feel there was probably a better alternative, but, hey, that’s wrestling. Sometimes certain things can’t be helped and you do the best that you can. Doesn’t mean you have to like it, and while I’m OK with the overall story being told, I’m not happy with the quickness of how things have taken place, but it is what it is. This is just the next step of the story and we’ll have to see where it goes from there. I have faith it’ll be fine.

It’s just unfortunate for Starks that Palmer has essentially inserted himself back into the picture. The “Centerfold” won’t stop until Dalton is dead. Which, the one silver lining of this is that Palmer didn’t mention that he was coming for the Inspire Pro Championship (not that I recall, at any rate), and that he simply just fucking hated Dalton and wanted to end him. For Starks, that’s great news, if Palmer, indeed is no longer interested in the Title. Because, if I’m being honest, if we got a fourth Palmer vs. Dalton Title match, that would just be overkill. Although, it’s kind of perfect for Palmer given that he’s a Buffalo Bills fan (especially so if he still lost on that fourth attempt). It’s only for that reason I would want to see another Title match between them.

I’m hoping that’s not the case, becasue I do want to see Palmer and Dalton again, I really, really do, just not for the belt. Theirs is a blood feud and does not require the Title to move anything forward. In fact, it would kind of be in the way. There are just some rivalries that go beyond hardware. The kind of hardware they should be using are not wrestling belts, but rather tables and chairs and hammers and butcher knives and things of that nature. More of what they put each other through at Phenomenon. In fact, it’s probably one of those matches that I think would benefit from being an unsanctioned match. Or at least a cage match, if that’s feasible, to keep all the outsiders out of things. Let them effectively blow it off, and if Palmer wins, let Dalton take a few months off.

So, yeah, on August 9, I fully, truly, and completely believe that it is the perfect time to make Ricky Starks The Man. Dalton has been an amazing Champion, of that no one can deny, but it’s time for a fresh change. Dalton has other issues, and Starks can now take on anyone. Who would his challengers be though? So many of the roster are locked in elsewhere (which we will discuss in the coming weeks). There is, though, one person I would like to see make the move up the card, and that person is Jojo Bravo. He, like Starks, was someone who was being positioned as a major player. He headlined the second show, Wired for War, with Mike Dell and Bolt Brady (Dell won), and then followed it up with the best match of Inspire Pro’s young life, against Robert Evans at The Quick and The Dead. Then he was just kind of around, even though he also headlined Battle Wars with ACH against The Colony, and had other feature matches.

He now has aligned himself with Nigel Rabid and the Rabid Nation. Joining Bravo in this group are former Pure Prestige Champion, Thomas Shire, and the newly-adopted Zac and DG Taylor (but we’ll get into that more heavily when I discuss the sudden formation of a million stables in three weeks time), and they should be a formidable faction. You have the Taylor Brothers for the Tag Team division, Shire for the Pure Prestige, and Bravo can elevate himself above the Thomas Munos’ of the world (although that’s seemingly not quite over yet), and move into the main event. There’s no one better to do that against than Starks. Two guys who started off hot with Inspire Pro, who were slowly set aside for the newest and latest shiny objects, making the fans overlook these two amazing talents that have been there since day one. That’s my hope for things going forward, but we have to get to step one first, and that’s getting the belt on Starks.

Now, I know I got back onto Starks, but I’d like to take a detour back Palmer for a brief moment. You see, Palmer only joined Inspire Pro in order to help D’Angelo get a Title shot against Dell. When Dell first joined Inspire, he did so under a mask and the name Void. I have no idea why he needed to do that, but he did, and as soon as he won his first match, he unmasked. So, when they were having a Number One Contender’s match between Bravo (there he is again), D’Angelo, and Void, it allowed Palmer to debut under the mask, get himself DQ’d when he hit Bravo with, I think it was the ring bell, giving D’Angelo an easy victory and a shot at Dell’s Title. Soon thereafter, the two of them helped Robert Evans defeat Ray Rowe and formed the group, Center of Perfection. We have not seen Evans since, but somewhere along the way, D’Angelo injured himself and had to take some time off, and so Palmer went solo.

Thing with Palmer is that he’s very good at this wrestling thing. He’s probably the most underrated guy on the indy scene. I’m not just saying Texas, I’m saying anywhere. It’s a shame and a travesty that he isn’t being booked all over this country. Heck, this world. He should be getting a look from WWE, just like Athena has been (something that’s been long overdue for her, too). He’s a complete package. Now, I probably say that a lot about the people in Inspire Pro, but truth be told, there’s probably five to seven people who could (and should) legit be in NXT right now. Or at the very least working in other corners of the globe, making some bank, and becoming big names. But it’s because of Palmer’s undeniable talent (and the people of Austin’s familiarity with him) that he wasn’t able to stay heel long.

Eventually, he just happened to kind of be in the right place at the right time when Rowe suffered his motorcycle accident. It was because of that that he even faced Dell for the Title (Rowe had, after all, defeated Palmer to become Number One Contender), and he just happened to win (and quickly lose it). We LOVE Palmer. He’s great. We want to see him kill Dalton, like, for real. Well, not for realsies or anything. You know, kill in the wrestling way. But if you go back and look at his history with Inspire Pro, he was never meant to be a fan favorite. He’d have his fans, of course, but the entire mission statement of the Center of Perfection was about their own career advancement. D’Angelo, every chance he has a microphone in his hand, is talking about wanting a Title shot.

I bring this up, because after Dalton defeated Reno, and Dalton’s cronies were beating down Reno and Starks, Palmer and D’Angelo were no where to be found. He had been newly re-instated, had let it be known that he wanted to kill Dalton, and yet, where was he? Why wouldn’t the man hell-bent on ending Dalton’s life come out and attack him? Save Starks and Reno? Doesn’t he remember the six-man tag that he, D’Angelo, and Starks had against The Orphans? Those were good times, right? Well, let’s think about this. Why would he come out? Why would he help? Sure, Dalton was still suffering the affects of having just had a battle with Reno, but he also had three other people with him. Vega’s one of the best around, Guevara is an amazing athlete with an attitude problem, and, well, Angelus Layne is facing Keith Lee at Fade to Black, so do you really want to fuck with that? Yeah, probably not. Not when you’re out-numbered.

Plus, again, what would he have to gain? It was in Palmer’s best interest to hang back and wait for another day. I just really, really, really, really hope that that next day is not August 9th. I want nothing more than Starks to win. Now, if Dalton wins, OK, I can live with that. I think it’s a missed opportunity, but Datlon has been a great Champion, is a great heel, and is just in general pretty great. I just don’t want that reason to be because Palmer made it so. Like, he just couldn’t wait any longer to get his hands on Dalton, so he ruins the match, and inserts himself back into the Title picture. Starks needs the win and it needs to be clean. Dalton has won one match cleanly since winning the Title, so the cheating bastard needs to lose clean. Palmer can wait until afterwards and obliterate Dalton. Now, Palmer can assist in running off Dalton’s buddies, just as long as doing so doesn’t lead into the finish. I’m just really down on screwy finishes. Don’t be WWE. No one really loses anything by losing clean. But no one gains anything by winning with shenanigans (from time to time is fine, but it’s never good to crown a new face Champion in that manner).

Personally, man, I just can’t wait to see how things unfold. So many things happened at Clash at the Bash II that it was near impossible to do a real review, hence why we’re doing it the way we’re doing it. Nothing is as interesting as what could happen during and coming out of the main event. Man, if you’re not going to this show, you’re a dummy. Don’t be a dummy and buy your tickets now. So, on August 9, at Fade to Black, the long wait is finally over for Ricky Starks when he challenges Andy Dalton for the Inspire Pro Championship. Hopefully Inspire Pro doesn’t make the same mistake ACW did.

It’s Absolute-ly Starks’ time.

Check back next week, when I talk about the suddenly VERY interesting Pure Prestige Title scene.