|Ciampa and Gargano had one hell of a tilt to close out round one|
Photo Credit: WWE.com
All Night Long - Rich Swann made his debut as a WWE Wrestler Of Importance™ (after a couple of enhancement appearances, most notably in the service of Finn Bálor), and he did not disappoint. While he didn't get a showcase match on the back end of the show, he's still gotta be among the favorites to win, a point reinforced by Mauro Ranallo mentioning he was the only full-time NXT singles competitor in the fray (which makes sense because this was taped before Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa signed their deals and since technically both Gargano and Ciampa are tag competitors in NXT). In fact, Swann's still my pick to win.
Jason Lee was Swann's opponent, and the name Ho Ho Lun was mentioned nearly as much as his. The fact that Lun is the one who founded the Hong Kong wrestling scene is a tad funny when based on the extremely small sample size of one match apiece that Lee came off much better looking. While Lee worked a somewhat stereotypical kung-fu style, he looked far more comfortable doing it than Lun did doing his super-indie tribute act. He also seemed to have a knack for dramatic selling, especially with his "tree falls in the forest" impersonation on the roundhouse kick. Swann did Swann things, which is a good thing, but two specific notes need to be made. The first is that he broke out some STIFF Vader-style forearm shots on Lee. While those shots ran counter to his pre-match intro putting himself over as one of the smallest dudes in the tourney, they looked appropriate. It's all about confidence and execution. The second is making note about something everyone already knew about him, the Standing 450. Again, if that move doesn't get over like wildfire, then I question the tastes of wrestling crowds everywhere.
The Puzzle Pieces Didn't Quite Fit - Noam Dar, the youngest of the CWC competitors, and Gurv Sihra (brother of fellow Bollywood Boy Harv) had the second match on the card and it was, well, ambitious to be kind. They tried to do a lot of high concept timing stuff, and they just didn't seem to be on the same page. The flubs weren't even the biggest problem, because other matches like the one that followed had at least one misstep that was overcome quite easily. However, I didn't really come away from this match with any sense of what either guy could do in the ring. Honestly, I saw promise, especially from Dar's finish. I loved the tenacity and intensity he brought by booting Sihra with his free leg on the kneebar. But I feel like Dar could use a better fitting opponent, and Sihra deserves more of a look with brother Harv as a tag team.
That being said, both guys had great things to note about them outside of their wrestling ability. Dar's aesthetic was top notch, especially his jacket with the sunglasses monkey on the back. He's definitely a guy who looks like a modern wrestler. Sihra's look got a preview last week from his brother, but he also got the sympathetic family backstory, doing the tournament for his blind grandfather back home in India. The match had all the trappings to be good, and sometimes, the intangibles can help make up for a lack of execution in the ring.
Europe's Finest - Jack Gallagher was one of the guys I was most excited to see based on word of mouth alone, and boy, he didn't disappoint at all. To compare him to the Vaudevillains is a disservice to him, because the Vaudies seem to be caricatures. Don't get me wrong, I love Aiden English and Simon Gotch, but Gallagher has an air of authenticity, from his top notch aesthetic with the well-groomed moustache, an ostentatious but stylish suit in his pre-match intro, and his fabulous rainbow-on-black tights. He feels like a modern character, which may not make sense since he has some throwback gimmickry going on, but at the same time, if one were to go to Brooklyn or other havens of the modern antiquary style, he would fit right in.
True to his gentlemanly demeanor, his in-ring style recalled the "Escapology" (to put it mildly) of guys like Zack Sabre, Jr., Drew Gulak, and others currently on the indies like Timothy Thatcher, but with a smoother finish, even differing from Sabre's. ZSJ's smoothness manifested itself more with a cocksure connotation. Gallagher showed more of a subtle finish, but with a lot more panache if that makes sense. Still, he brought the force when he needed to; his corner dropkick finish looked like it could knock a man out.
But his opponent may have been more impressive if just for the surprise factor. Fabian Aichner, much like Clement Petiot in episode one, may have only been below 205 lbs. in the kayfabe sense of the term, but also like Petiot, he came out guns firing. Not only did he use his muscles to project the power advantage, he kept up with some of Gallagher's best grapples. He even broke out a double Asai moonsault, which I'm still floored over. If WWE were smart, it would sign Aichner and Petiot, tag them together, and let them run against Tommaso Ciampa and Johnny Gargano or the Revival or the Authors of Pain, or whatever tag team happens to be running game at the end of the year. Either way, both competitors in the match showed that North America and Japan aren't the only places where elite, TV-ready grapplers can be found. Europe is ready to be a major player.
A Fitting Main Event - Speaking of Gargano and Ciampa, I was a bit skittish about their final first round tilt. Them getting the main event spot was a no-brainer, since they're the only two guys currently established in the NXT narrative. But I had my reservations, because I've been hurt before by Gargano main event epics, regardless of opponent. Fortunately, the surprise was pleasant, like, coming home from a lousy day at work to your partner in nothing but an apron with your favorite dinner in hand.
For one, Gargano/Ciampa was the only match that got any kind of real story build between the two competitors. In the NXT timeline, they're tag partners gunning for the Revival. I would be shocked if they didn't get the outright shot at the Champs in Brooklyn. They played up their brotherhood in pre-match promos, and even got a face to face where they promised each other that they wouldn't hold back and such. It was a nice setting for the match to come, but just to have the story isn't enough. The wrestlers need to follow through on it. They did, and that's why it was not only the best match in the tournament to date, but maybe the best match of the year so far.
The evolution of the story within the match unfolded with near perfection. The escalation in violence was pitch perfect. The execution and timing of spots hit every note. But the end of the match put it over the top, with Ciampa hesitating before delivering a knee to the head, or Gargano begging for more. Even the finish, a glorified roll-up, worked because it hit home that both guys knew exactly what to prepare for in the normal situation that one of them would have to resort to something out of the ordinary. In a first round slate which had a bunch of matches I thought that would be hard to top, this match, in addition to being a highly appropriate main event for the first set of tapings, will be the hardest for round two to surpass.
And Now, a Playback of All the Names Mauro Ranallo Mentioned on the Broadcast - To be fair to Ranallo, he only really started dropping names in the second half of the show. He mentioned Billy Robinson, Davey Boy Smith, Johnny Saint, Roy Wood, and the inimitable BRUCE LEE, but his biggest name drop came from within the company. He actually put over John Cena learning Mandarin to help with WWE's marketing blitz into China. Talk about trying to earn brownie points. Honestly though, I don't want to seem like I'm hating on the poor man. He is the best play-by-play guy in the company, even if he likes to shoehorn in his references. His call in the main event about forgetting about the sounds of silence because Gargano and Ciampa were making the sounds of violence was as close to a signature as anything in the first round.
First Round Collect - The first round slate contained 16 matches, and maybe two or three of them fell a little short of prime satisfaction. I've seen plenty of tournaments in my day, and several of them have been produced by WWE, either the main arm or the folks running NXT. None of them had the success rate in terms of high quality matches that this CWC has had so far, especially in their first rounds. No King of the Ring, no vacant title tourney, no nothing, nothing has compared to what this first round has been like, which is a testament to how well the field was put together, and more importantly, how each wrestler was up to the task of performing under the bright lights.
The second round starts airing next week, and the advance word is that those eight matches improve upon what was built in the first round exponentially. The matchups are as follows: Akira Tozawa vs. Jack Gallagher, Gran Metalik vs. Yoshihiro Tajiri, Drew Gulak vs. Zack Sabre, Jr., Noam Dar vs. Ho Ho Lun, Brian Kendrick vs. Tony Nese, Kota Ibushi vs. Cedric Alexander, TJ Perkins vs. Johnny Gargano, and Lince Dorado vs. Rich Swann. Even if one only saw those wrestlers within the confines of the CWC, that lineup should put smiles on faces just by the on-paper potential. I certainly can't wait for this thing to kick into high gear, because if the first round was only first gear, then the sky is the goddamn limit for the rest of it.