Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Vanilla Midget Report, Vol. 1, Issue 1

Kota Ibushi was one of the best parts of an excellent kickoff for the CWC
Photo Credit:
After weeks and weeks of hype, The WWE Cruiserweight Classic kicked off last night on The Network, and the first installment undoubtedly lived up to the hype. Wrestling, especially corporate wrestling, so often builds the fan up only to let him or her down in spectacular fashion, but if one was looking to be underwhelmed with the first night of tournament action, that person would be disappointed by not being disappointed. Fuck, does that even make sense? Anyway, over the coming weeks, the Vanilla Midget Report1 will do its best to keep you, the reader, abreast of all the pertinent opinions and analysis of this fancy shindig of a tournament. The time has arrived to dive right into the action.

First Impressions - When WWE announced the initial conceit for the Cruiserweight Classic, or as it was known then the Global Cruiserweight Series, the company showed that it was willing to think outside the box. Then the names started filtering in, names like Gran Metalik and Akira Tozawa and Kota Ibushi, and suddenly, the anticipation for the thing to play itself out skyrocketed. How would the tournament be presented? Would it be just another knock-off of RAW, or would the people in charge put some time and effort into differentiating it from the rest of WWE programming, even NXT? The answer from jump was a resounding affirmation of the latter.

Right from the beginning after Triple H's narrated introduction, the show took on a far different feel than anything WWE has produced since Brawl For All. Daniel Bryan and Mauro Ranallo gave their preamble as if they were about to call a sporting event rather than a serialized production of stories masked in the veneer of legitimate competition. Corey Graves occupied a control center like an honest-to-god studio analyst. The referees were mic'd and gave instructions before the match, and afterwards, both competitors, not just the winner, stood in presentation of the decision. Matches had time limits installed. Hell, even the ring was smaller. Whether that tidbit was an homage to World Championship Wrestling or a detail to acclimate the wrestlers used to the more intimate squared circle is unknown to me, but I'm not sure I care. It added another level of differentiation to the overall aura. Sometimes, different is bad, but in an era of stagnation in the world's biggest wrestling distributor, any variation to the formula is met with exuberance. Thankfully, it wasn't just a breath of fresh air because it was different for difference's sake.

The differences really shone brightest with the commentary. Ranallo and Bryan were less concerned with trying to make fetch happen with Vince McMahon's insane whims, and gave more weight to giving background on eight wrestlers who may not have been known to the wider audience. Sure, nerds like myself and select readers out there were rapt in delight for the coming of guys like Gran Metalik (better known as Mascara Dorada in both Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre and New Japan Pro Wrestling), Kota Ibushi, and Cedric Alexander. But what about the folks tuning in because they were promised a throwdown, or because they were fans of the old WCW cruiserweights? And what about the dudes like Alejandro Saez and Sean Maluta, about whom not a whole lot was known? Little details like Bryan breaking down why Saez needing to cut 30 pounds to make weight for the tournament could adversely affect him or Ranallo letting people know how Ho Ho Lun basically is a founding father of Chinese wrestling added so much to the understanding of the wrestlers, and thus it made even the most foreign guys feel familiar. I would mention that it makes the RAW broadcast booth sound like the minutes before feeding time at the big cat exhibit at the local zoo, but to be real, anyone with half a passing knowledge of WWE already knew that.

The Unknown Quantities - As mentioned above, the average viewer probably knew some kind of information about three of the competitors. A fourth, Ariya Daivari, had the benefit of getting some play in the Chicagoland/Southern Illinois/St. Louis wrestling scene and of having a brother compete for WWE (although that led to the funniest wrestling non-sequitur of the month, "I am Ariya Daivari, and my brother Daivari also wrestled for WWE"). What about the other four wrestlers? Alejandro Saez, Clement Petiot, Ho Ho Lun, and Sean Maluta all came in with dubious backgrounds, three of them coming from countries without the richest wrestling heritage, and the fourth came in with an Anoa'i pedigree and not much else. Yet all of them looked not only like they belonged in a wrestling ring, but like they could start with NXT right away and fit in.

Of all of the four unknowns, Saez impressed me the most. Ranallo and Bryan described him as a self-taught wrestler who pioneered wrestling in his native Chile, and in a way, it showed through his ring presence and body language. He didn't feel like someone who was taught in one of the wrestling schools in America or the dojos in Japan. His movements were janky at times, like a sharp edge cutting through a silken canvas. However, in keeping with the theme of "different from normal," he stood out in a good way. He was't nearly as smooth as Metalik, his opponent, but he was exciting. He also did some other traditional things well; for example, he had the best facial expressions of anyone whose visage was visible to the crowd. He played the subtle heel card well enough to make Metalik the clear sympathetic figure. For someone who taught himself how to wrestle off YouTube videos, Saez sure looked like someone who'd been doing this for decades.

If Saez was number one, then Petiot was one-b. Noted Twitter maven @85mf put it best:
Funny, because WWE is currently at loggerheads with the original issue, dot dot dot. Anyway, while Petiot may have been the poster child for the term "kayfabe" in terms of the weight limit (his arms looked like they were 205 lbs. by themselves), he brought a much needed bully presence to the hour of power. I watch a lot of Chopped and the judges' biggest critique is always that a dish needs some acidity to cut through the richness of a given dish. Petiot was the hossy acidity that cut through the fatty goodness that was all the gaudy high fliers. Alexander was the perfect opponent for him too, because he's not necessarily the smallest guy in the tournament either, but he takes big offense so well. Petiot really shone, but Alexander was the right guy to help open a blind for his light rather than shutter it.

Maluta had the unenviable task of being Ibushi's job boy, and I get the sinking feeling that a good portion of the viewership might harp on him tripping over the apron while trying to perform a tope suicida to the outside. Mistakes happen, and honestly, if you're the type who chants "YOU FUCKED UP! YOU FUCKED UP!" at a "botch," then you're not the kind of person my writing is intended for, eh? Anyway, while Ibushi is the kind of guy who has great matches with blow-up dolls and in mountainous creeks, Maluta at least looked like he belonged. His timing on the big counter superkick towards the end of the match was tighter than a good bit of his relatives' versions of it, and it looked a lit more snug as well. While he may not have been the most impressive of the bunch, he may be the best fit to show up on NXT (or even Smackdown?) television right away.

The funniest thing is that the least impressive of the unknown quantities, Ho Ho Lun, was the only guy to have gone over in his match, which is fine. He wasn't bad, but I can't help but feel he needs the most work at not telegraphing spots or moving seamlessly without seeming lost. Then again, he was part of the first group of wrestlers to work and promote the biz in Hong Kong and China, which is no small feat. He's almost there, but if he got some polish at, say, the New Japan Dojo or the Performance Center or one of the better wrestling schools Stateside, he could blow up big. His opponent, Daivari, actually had a bit of polish on him, and I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up getting signed. But their match was probably the least impressive of the first four. It was just so... basic, like a 1980s syndicated Saturday morning wrestling show with simplistic heel/face dynamics and mostly basic offense. (As an aside, Lun finishing with a German suplex actually warmed my cold, dead heart.) I'm not sure whether that's all on Lun or whether it's even fair to put all of it on him. But who knows.

The Ones You Know - Obviously, the big names coming into the night were Gran Metalik, Cedric Alexander, and Kota Ibushi, and one of the big reasons why this first show was so successful was because each of the three wrestlers were allowed to show off why they were invited to be the in the prestige vanguard in the first place. Metalik basically put 80% of all high flying wrestlers to shame with his performance. If Lun's brand of stutter-stepping spot construction is grainy flip-phone footage, then Metalik's flippy goodness is 1080p high definition video, crystal clear in all its majesty. He made all his big spots look easy, stupid easy, easier than the best stunt and fight coordination in big-budget summer blockbusters. In his limited time in the ring, he more than any of the other seven guys who wrestled, made me want to see him more. I know he won't make the finals because he doesn't have enough name value, but if he makes it to the final four, then this tourney will be a success.

While Metalik impressed off the white hot fire of his offensive prowess, Alexander was put in a more defensive, giving role. For a name guy, he spent what seemed to be an inordinate amount of time taking Petiot's offense, which as noted above, wasn't necessarily a bad thing. For one, Petiot was fuckin' impressive, and two, what's a big, sports-themed tournament if one of the favorites wasn't in trouble for a good bit of the runtime? But again, Alexander takes the big offense so well, and his comebacks are so well-timed that he seems better suited to be taking moves rather than giving them.

Of course, Ibushi had the biggest name, the biggest stage, and the most hype coming into the tournament, and for good reason. He's among the best in the world at what he does when he can actually stand up straight. For those coming in and looking for the batshit crazy dude who did a bunch of flips and wrestled children, those people may have been slightly disappointed, but even in his restrained mode, he broke out some kernels of what he'll be breaking out on his eventual trip deep into the bracket, potentially into the finals. For example, he broke out the vintage Shawn Michaels at SummerSlam '05 bump and sell for Maluta's top rope codebreaker that came right before the unfortunate plancha. That moment felt as if he wanted to let his inner peacock burst out and run around the ring, but he had to save the big fireworks for future opponents. But even in his pre-warmed up state, he showed why he's literally the hottest free agent in professional wrestling (DAMMIT). Things like the timing on his comeback or the snap on his counter Pele kick to a top rope-perched Maluta are what get me excited even when they're not Phoenix Splashes or Space Flying Tiger Drops with a Corkscrew Back.

Hey Mauro, I Think You Dropped Something *picks up a bunch of names* - Super Crazy. Kazuchika Okada. The Pro Wrestling NOAH Dojo. Kenta Kobashi. Lance Storm. Toshiaki Kawada. Low Ki. ZERO-One. Mitsuharu Misawa. CHRIS HERO. I think Ranallo was an El Hijo del Santo reference and a shoutout to RINGS from getting his punch card for a free half-rack of ribs at Abdullah the Butcher's restaurant completely filled out.

1 - Kevin Nash famously referred to the original breed of American cruiserweights as "vanilla midgets" in regards to their lack of larger-than-life presence. He was sincere when he called smaller dudes by that epithet. In these posts, the term shall be used with tongue planted firmly in cheek, but you already knew that.