Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Vanilla Midget Report: Vol. 3, Issue 3

Mustafa Ali and Buddy Murphy made use of them stairs
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Another week, another episode of WWE's real A-show, 205 Live. This week, Drake Maverick is courteous enough to give the audience fair warning that TJP will kick the show off, but instead of him boringly mauling a local competitor, he gets actual competition. Please be The Ryback, please be The Ryback, please... ah well, time to get into the report.

Noam Dar, Come on Down!

For once, the most notable thing in a TJP segment wasn't his negative-decibel crowd reaction to his entrance. Seriously, his entrance music, which is clearly the best thing about him anymore, is so disconcerting when it plays because of how low-fi it is compared to the rest of the presentation with absolutely no fanfare, negative or positive, to counterbalance it. However, while the opponent who thankfully cut off his tirade didn't get a much better reaction from the fans, well, he at least jolted some life into the segment. Noam Dar, freshly back to 205 Live from injury, with an interstitial on the WWE United Kingdom special tapings, came out, kicked TJP a few times, and went to the back, because as Bobby Heenan used to say, you don't get paid by the hour. It wasn't just that Dar stomped TJP out with disturbingly infrequent dominance — even Akira Tozawa had to sell for his local competitor. He provided a spark of life that was missing from him even back to the Cruiserweight Classic. If this Noam Dar is what's going to be on the table going forward, I can be down.

Seize Your Moment, Akira

Tozawa didn't have that much trouble dispatching Jayson Strife, but the local competitor was just canvas for the real story. Lio Rush spent the match at ringside, scouting Tozawa, and afterwards got on the mic and said in no uncertain terms that he's not gonna wait for his opportunities. The pairing might seem random on the surface, but it does have a solid foundation. Tozawa has been dead in the water since trading the Purple Strap with Neville last year (remember him?). His story in the tournament for the vacant title was talking the big game before Mark Andrew upended him, and then he kinda spent some time in a tag team on a show with no tag titles. He was just doing stuff to do stuff. Having Rush point that out all of a sudden makes that water-treading make narrative sense, even if it wasn't supposed to at the time. Retroactive storytelling is one of the best ways WWE has been able to salvage its seemingly bad writing after the fact on all levels.

Where it really is going to work is in the ring. Rush last week showed he can do things that even other top cruiserweights can do, and who better to put him against than the guy you plucked from Dragon Gate. In case you aren't familiar, crazy shit is the norm in that promotion, and Tozawa stood out even above others. Tozawa is in reality the perfect first opponent for Rush for that reason and also because he's one of the few guys on 205 who can rejuvenate a dead crowd. Where I'm skeptical that this is a good idea is that Tozawa's strengths are working more on the heel side, and Rush's antics can only keep him a bad guy for so long. I get the feeling they could do a double turn down the road, but then again, it's 2018. Worrying about alignments are for wimps and pedants. Rush and Tozawa are gonna light this shit on fire, and I for one am here for it.

Stairs Match II: Murphy's Comin' For You

Some stipulations come with certain expectations. For example, a street fight conjures images of dudes in jeans brawling crazily all around the arena. A TLC match means someone's probably gonna fall an ill-advised distance. And in a No Disqualifications match, you expect plunder, which is one reason why the main event, though excellent in other contexts, didn't click completely for me. Modern wrestling, WWE or otherwise, has conditioned the average viewer to expect a lack of disqualification as an option to mean someone's getting wailed with a chair or put through a folding (read: non-commentary) table. Yet, the most sophisticated weapon of choice for this match was the ring stair segment, which at least was used in all its different varieties and then some, a whole-hog execution to borrow a descriptor from North Carolina barbecue. On one hand, it could be read as a subversion of expectation. On the other, using the steel stairs rarely is a cause for disqualification in a normal match. Same for jumping over the barricade or using the announce table. Maybe the no-countout portion of the stipulation was explored, but I felt like they left a huge portion of the studio space darkened. Given their reputations for in-ring during the year, it could only be viewed as a disappointment.

The other part that fell flat for me was Buddy Murphy's choice of early match heeling. He's gotten a lot of plaudits this year for being the cruiserweight bully that you could rely on to lay the thunder down on them small boys, but I think he still requires some polish to get on the level of the indie vets, even guys like Mustafa Ali who are relatively new compared to the Tozawas and the Cedric Alexanders and even the TJPs of division. The promo between the first two matches foreshadowed some of that unreadiness; you could tell he was reading a script from memory or off a teleprompter because of how disjointed his thoughts went from sentence to sentence. The same sort of unreadiness for the moment shone through in his first heat segment, where he relied on headlocks and basic corner whips to build up an advantage over Ali. I could see that working in their first match, but a main event stipulation match that should serve as an emotional blowoff should have carte blanche to escalate the violence throughout. Even something as subtle as a fishhook or a nose gouge would have enhanced that.

However, outside of those arenas, it's hard to criticize how the match went down. Ali, as always, was stellar from his preemptive strike on Murphy as he was entering, replete with the GONZO somersault senton from the top to the floor and the violent barricade toss. The whole match through, you could tell he had a sense of the moment. He didn't just do what was expected of him, but he elevated the action. For example, the superplex where he used the stairs stood up on the bottom as a base and a launch point wasn't really rocket science, but no one thought to use them in that capacity before. Couple that with his and Murphy's ability to maintain balance, and it was a spot that came off as memorable.Once the match got going into full gear, Murphy started feeling himself, and by the midpoint or the third act or so, it started to become a classic 205 Live main event.

While the lack of traditional (or even non-traditional but illegal) weapons was disappointing, they made full use of the stairs and the commentary desk as their risque elements, and fully embraced them as parts of the match. In a way, they pulled off a fully realized sequel to the infamous Stairs Match from TLC 2014. If that was the goal all along, then bravo to them for sneaking in a second entry into that match stipulation. Had it been announced as such, it would've generated a bunch of laughs. But how they again went from rooter-to-tooter with the various ways of utilizing those stairs was a brilliant stroke of completism and economy. Rather than pull the entire arsenal out, they took one element, used it to its completion, and supplemented with some big spots off the barricade and with the commentary desk. The Spanish Fly, for example, onto said desk looked a hell of a lot more brutal than the one two weeks ago from desk to floor, mainly because any spot looks about 40 percent more gnarly when that fucking table doesn't break like it almost never does.

So I'm not sure where Murphy or Ali go from here, but it's fun to appreciate what should be the end to one of the better feuds in WWE all year. I guess that will be revealed sometime after next week's big episode where Cedric Alexander defends against Hideo Itami. Even now that Itami is well past his KENTA peak, it should still be a tremendous match, so I'm all in. You should be too.