Monday, December 21, 2015

Best Coast Bias: Demon Days

The King of Cosplay still reigns, however narrowly
Photo Credit:
In Greil Marcus' novella about what makes the original Manchurian Candidate such a masterwork, one of his successful arguments in his and its favor is that "you're going to see everything you ever believed in suspended and then dashed to the ground. That's a thrill." (For the opposite of that feeling, have your computary source seize up on you the moment after you write that sentence, thus leaving you to brave a big box store the weekend before the biggest holiday of the year. But we digress.)

While the fate of the free world wasn't quite at stake from London in the imprint's final two-hour live special of 2015, it did bring to bear a lot of things that made Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury's classic exactly that: nearly choked with twists and turns that managed to stay true to the universe involved's logic, a few moments of dark humor to slightly leaven out the show and not have every single moment feel like life or death balanced on the tip of a knifepoint, and most importantly provided a constantly compelling pair of hours that culminated in an ending that could be considered a surprise while paying off everything that had come before it.

In the weeks before the main event of Takeover: London, Finn Bálor found himself emotionally compromised by a former friend he'd won the inaugural Dusty Classic tag tournament with, and, moreover, getting physically decimated every single time he and Samoa Joe crossed paths. It was his own personal Groundhog Day; they'd get together in the same place at the same time, Joe would find a way to defray and okeydoke, then Bálor's anger would render him temporarily stupid and Joe's signature Clutch would subsequently render him temporarily unconscious. It was clear that if he was going to be the NXT World Champion going into 2016 (and with all titles being defended on this show, BCB has made the executive decision to refer to all NXT titles as World Championships and variants thereof) that it was going to take something slumbering since the summer inside of him to wake up and be summoned forth lest Joe's craftiness and rage make him the eighth NXT World Heavyweight Champion. So summon it he did, and this time in locale-appropriate motif what the Champion's dark passenger summoned was a rendition of Jack the Ripper with ostensibly the hopes of turning Joe into his version of Kool Moe Dee in this feud.

Joe may've literally thumbed his nose at Finn the Ripper pre-match, but then again the match hadn't yet to unspool yet. Faced with figuratively and literally the biggest challenge to his title reign, Bálor proved he had the chops to hang in against one of the best of the world, as if there had been any prior doubts. In a nice change of pace from the rest of the card this wasn't about chain wrestling but rather standing in front of someone who could very well destroy you but hanging in with your fortitude and gutting it out because the title is just that damn important -- as Joe pointed out willingly with no trace of either malice or playfulness in the pre-match, he flushed a decade of friendship to get into position just to try to get it. In the end, Bálor recovered enough from the beating that got put on him for the majority of the match to recover enough to double and in some cases triple down on his offensive before delivering a match-closing Coup to the head in order to polish off the successful title defense.

The match was hard-hitting to the point where as he was being helped to the back you could see a red thin line either coming out from or just underneath Joe's lip, and Bálor was either teaching a master class in selling during the one-man curtain call after his W or he was legitimately knocked groggy at some point. The fun thing is that the storytelling gave birth to a river with those tributaries, and whatever you wanted to think was either accurate or accurate enough to as not make that much of a difference. With no reports of any serious injury after the show, it at least appears that whatever may've been wrong won't stop Bálor from holding the Big X into the new year or facing new challengers (more about which before we close out here).

And yet, hard hitting and visually arresting as the main event was for the majority of it, it may not have been the crown jewel of the show. Of course, all of these things are subjective, season to taste, your mileage may very and et al. But for many, the night's tastiest cream came in the semi-main event and Bayley's successful defense of the NXT Women's World Championship against the newcomer Nia Jax. It was based on one of the fundamentals that pro graps is built around, but done to such high dudgeon one couldn't be helped but be impressed all the way around once the big picture was unveiled in full at the match's end. From the outset, we had a video package of Bayley re-reading the essay 11-year-old her wrote about wanting to be a wrestling Champion when she grew up; this was interspersed with her taking beating after beating while still fending off challenger after challenger to the throne, and those were interspersed with Jax being a land monster who did things like throwing Bayley through a door and seemingly spending most of her waking moments trying to figure out how to turn the Northern Californian from a solid into a powder.

Even a pre-match interruption from Asuka (soon, my pretties, soon) didn't get Jax off course that much--her physical domination was going to be too damn much for any woman to overcome, Bayley included, and for what seemed to be 96% of the match that certainly looked to be the case. But she fumbled it when it came down to the wire, and on a couple of occasions where it seemed she had the belt for the taking she undermined her own setup work for the moment with arrogant covers (boot on the chest, hands on the chest instead of a leg hook, etc) and Bayley's irrepressible and borderline impossible surfeit of fighting spirit handled the rest. It had been built to so subtly during the match; when Bayley was able to get daylight out of the match, she went for a submission. It would've seemed a desperate act if you didn't recognize with hindsight that all of these attempts, even fleeting, targeted the head. An early dragon sleeper and a modified Hell's Gate (Hell's Bayte?) set up the endgame where Bayley would manage to procure a guillotine and then Jax would swat her down and it off. But then when she tried to go back to work and get this pest swatted, Bayley would relock the guillotine on.

And again. It wasn't quite the Rumble in the Jungle, but it ended up making the fellow San Diegan eventually look like a dope between the ropes as every time Bayley cinched it in, she did so for longer and longer, incurring more damage in the process until what even five minutes prior would've been thought to have been the impossible turned into the truth; Nia Jax, sitting down in the middle of the ring as Bayley cranked back so hard on her latest and ultimate in a series of guillotines that their bodies together almost formed a capital D and the big, bad previously unbeaten and patently unconquerable monster was forced to tap out cleanly. (Somehow not noted on commentary but a very nice subplot for those of us with longer memories: this is the second straight Takeover Bayley's made a seemingly superior opponent tap out with no controversy mid-ring.) When Byron Saxton called it unreal and Corey Graves willingly ate all the crow that anybody would've thrown at him as Bayley was still recovering on the mat with the belt in hand, they didn't feel like hyperbole for hyperbole's sake bur rather the simple truisms anyone who'd been watching the bout would've reached on their own. The former fangirl is now the best NXT Women's World Champion the brand's ever had, and it's to the point where it doesn't even seem like the point is debatable.

What also isn't up for discussion is the fact that on a show where it was expected that at least one title would change hands, and maybe the entire set of gold and leather would end up with new owners, everybody who walked in Champion walked out as one, too. Alongside Finn and Bayley, Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder seemingly sucked every molecule of oxygen out of mini Wembley when they successfully fended off the charge from the Realest Guys in the World, who were just as beloved on the other side of the pond as they are here. Everybody knows at this point what the Not The Chikara Throwbacks are about, personified in their semi-official slogan "No flips, just fists."

In recent matches it's been more about precision targeting of a pressure point until it cracks under, but that certainly doesn't preclude them from engaging in full-length double teams and cheerlessly clubberin' away at their soon-to-be victim. At times it seems that Enzo Amore was put on this Earth merely for the purposes of pre-match stickwork and to eat the offense of his opponents; so it went here. Even with the crowd singing his name to the rhythm of Seven Nation Army in an inspired bit it didn't keep Team D and D from beating on him like a rented goalie. Drawing heavily from the book of the Horsemen they lit into him with a slingshot suplex and a two-man gourdbuster but in possibly the greatest subtle moment on the show the referee didn't count for the Champions having not seen their tag due to keeping Cass from interfering, then they complained while making the switch to get Dash in the ring in one fluid move only for Amore's shoulder now not being on the mat if by only a tad having been given even that small breath away from that suffocating offense. In the end it looked like it was going to be business as usual to get to new Champions, as Cass went nuckfuts.

Then the tides starting turning, first in the direction of the Champions off of a signature Dawson chop block to the injured leg of Cass to set up Dawson putting on a hold that looked remarkably like the Lucky 13 and went for the double-team that'd injured the 7'er in the first place, then to the challengers when Enzo pushed Dawson off to the floor and they executed the Rocket Launcher, then back to the challengers when Dawson made the save and having failed at turning Carmella into a human shield managed to run the chivalrous Cass into the post as a result. This left the matchup every tag team in NXT's history has ever wanted; the both of them against one beaten-up-on Amore, and an avalanche Shatter Machine later to the crowd's chagrin the belts went home with the ones they came with.

In the show's two non-title matches that may well have been unofficial number one contendership bouts, we got the expected in the form of what up until recently was known in some circles as Death By Kana and we got the unexpected in Baron Corbin definitively bringing Apollo Crews' undefeated run to its and his End of Days. Then again, when a match is as good as Asuka/Emma was? To paraphrase some men of low moral turpitude, you don't need no stinkin' surprises.

This proved to be another instance where someone could easily successfully argue that from a pure match quality level perspective, this fifteen minute back and forth was the evening's A-number-one and while some might argue the point they wouldn't disagree that there was a strong argument to be made for it. After an early tease of Emma eating the roundhouse kick of death that knocked that poor cannon fodder on the prior week's show the eff out (shadowing shadowing shadowing shadowing), they went into a fine display of chain wrestling and while Emma could almost match Asuka move for move she couldn't quite get to and maintain an advantage. And when you're of low moral turpitude as the Aussie currently is, that's exactly when you have your underling provide an advantage so that cheap shots and cheating are easier. It's what Al Davis would've wanted, after all. Emma tried pinning predicaments that didn't work, then nice-looking submission holds that got Asuka to scream, but what she didn't get was a win and after an unbelievably misguided slap to the face her season pass to the all-the-ass-whooping-you-can-take-buffet was paid for.

To Emma's credit, Asuka got further pushed then she's been since she came to the States, but not even Emma's signatures could stand up in the face of the perfect strike storm she was trying to weather. When she found herself in trouble, she tried to cheat via bumping Smilin' Drake and then letting Asuka look guilty of using a chain-styled belt thrown to her by Dana. When the resultant surprise rollup got her in Asuka's Lock, Dana tried to run interference and managed to get herself ejected while Emma tapped behind Drake's back. This gave Emma the opportunity to lay Asuka out with the belt; it also got her the opportunity to get laid the eff out with a roundhouse kick. Remember? Ain't no party like an Asuka strike party 'cause an Asuka party don't stop until you're horizontal in the back with the trainer checking on you while you get mocked. Even Johnny Saint had to give it up for the Japanese Murder Doll.

Watching Baron Corbin heel it up is a fun treat, as the man clearly has no interest in saving a portion of the fanbase in order to up his merch points. Listening to him mock a fallen Apollo Crews with a loud "You shouldve stayed in Ring of Honor!" -- an establishment the former Uhaa Nation has not been under the employ of (Ed. Note: And that's what makes it such a great burn for someone like Corbin. -- TH) -- is like a king-sized Reese's peanut butter cup. Either he can't tell and is too stupid to realize that different independent wrestling leagues know...different (thus making him an asshole because he is exhibiting such firm conviction in his absolute wrongness) or he knows the difference and is just throwing out a general mockery of the road Crews has gone down to get to this point (thus making him an asshole since the only training in Corbin's pro wrestling background is NXT, which obviously has to be the best non-WWE thing since WWE makes that we think about it, there was a slight whiff of a hashtag millennials get off my lawn-ness to that taunt). Of course, Corbin got to do so since he was beating on Crews and posing smugly while the crowd called him a dozen different types of wanker. The Lone Wolf seemingly dominated the match after accidentally sending the NXT newcomer over the top rope and into the steps, and overcame a few small punch-filled flurries and an End of Days backflip counter to finally turn off AC with his signature much to the Londoners' dismay. It certainly seems like he would be the latest in a series of Big Bads to go in against Finn, and he certainly thinks as much.

But that'll probably be in the offing for 2016. For now, over the holidays, when NXT casts a backwards gaze over their 2015 they'll know it was their biggest and best year to date -- a year that paid off the past year's promises even despite a rash of injuries to elite talents -- a year when they weren't a buzzworded hashtag but the ones to help redefine women's wrestling -- a year when their moribund tag division suddenly gained life and depth -- a year that saw three of the most talented wrestlers in North America hold their signature title and for it to be defended internationally on multiple occasions -- a year in which their specials defined the word and were appointment TV for fans of old and new school alike --

--you know.

The year that NXT well and truly took over.