(04/04 – 04/06) Catch Up: WrestleMania Weekend

I haven’t written in a while because as I suspected, Major League Baseball being back is taking more of my time & energy away from this (got to have my priorities in line . . .).  I am still watching stuff – although at a slower pace than before – I just haven’t been as quick or motivated to write things up.  So I will probably throw up a few catch up posts when I get around to them to get caught up on April.

I am starting with WrestleMania weekend.  I watched Friday afternoon’s A Wrestling Odyssey show, Saturday evening’s Dragon Gate USA show, Sunday morning’s NJPW show, and of course WrestleMania live.  I went back and caught up on the Friday night DGUSA show after it was well-reviewed.  I’ve seen most of ROH’s Supercard of Honor via the TV show but nothing stuck out to me as noteworthy other than Michael Elgin vs. Kevin Steen once again made me wonder what some people see in Elgin while at the same time upping my opinion for AJ Styles who somehow got a decent 30-minute draw out of Elgin on ROH TV a couple of weeks ago.

(04/04) Timothy Thatcher vs. Drew Gulak
A Wrestling Odyssey
British Round Rules 

There are not many wrestlers on the US indies who deviate from the current conventional US indie match structure, so I was immediately sold on a match whose gimmick virtually guaranteed something different  in that regard.  British Round rules can mean a variety of things, but here the rules were no closed fists, no approaching a downed man once contact is broken, and an illegal move would result in a public warning with the third public warning causing a disqualification.  The boundaries were six, five-minute rounds with two pin falls, two submissions, or one KO (a ten-count administered whenever a wrestler is down on the mat) constituting a victory.

This is not an easy style to work given how limiting (from the norm) the rules are.  Thatcher and Gulak gave it a good try.  There were some attempts at classic World of Sport spots and everything they did was pretty polished, it just didn’t quite come together.  The problem with so many gimmicks in a single match is the tendency to make sure each one comes into play even if that means rolling through them in a near robotic fashion.  Gulak & Thatcher fell victim to that a bit as they rolled out pin victories, a submission victory, a public warning, many near 10-counts, and a closed fist punch without any sort of build from one to the next.

The inability to approach a downed opponent also proved to be a hindrance.  There was a lot of standing around and 10-counts on normal moves (or even regular strikes) which killed the flow at times.  It seems to me that the way around that is to stay on the mat and chain wrestle as much as possible which both of these guys (particularly Gulak) can do but they didn’t go that route all that often.

In the end, I’ll take a so-so match that went out on a limb to try something different than a so-so match that was played safely, but I don’t think this was anything special.

British  | Common | Gimmick 

(04/04)  Masato Tanaka vs. Chris Hero
Dragon Gate USA 

I am indifferent on this.  There was nothing all that bad, but nothing really compelling about it either.  Tanaka is about as good as he ever was.  That is a big compliment to give a 41-year old wrestler who has put his body through as much as Tanaka has.  He’s still a competent, hard worker who has solid offense and can sell a beating.  They work in the obvious dueling rolling elbow spots which are fine, but it’s a hard sell to build an entire 20 minute match around two guys going for the same elbow.

This felt a lot like most recent Chris Hero matches in that everything was hit smoothly and there were some cool spots, but it wasn’t the most memorable match in the world.

Hard Hitting | Common | Quality & Dream Match 

(04/04) Johnny Gargano (c) vs. Ricochet
Dragon Gate USA
Open the Freedom Gate Championship 

File this match under the “if only they knew when to stop” category.

I have written favorably about Ricochet before and lot of the reasons why I view him in a positive light were on display here.  He is unbelievably athletic and pulled off a kung-fu movie style fight sequence as about as well as it can probably be done (outside of Low Ki and Amazing Red) earlier on in the match.  He has become quite adept at the often-cited “little things”.  Examples here include kicking towards Gargano to keep him at bay whiile on his back, turning headlocks into pin attempts to break up the monotony, and subtle physical and facial selling.  I am not sure when the last time was that I saw him completely blow a move and he rarely even hits something uncleanly, which is incredibly impressive for someone with such a high-risk offense.  His dives looked fantastic as usual (particularly the running flip out of the corner) and he caught Gargano a couple of times on his shoulders in difficult situations with relative ease.

Gargano is good here as well – maybe as much so as I have ever seen him – but he lacks a few tangible and some intangible qualities that Ricochet possesses.

The match builds nicely from an opening to a body to a finishing sequence, but they lost me during the finishing run a bit.  That particularly segment begins in earnest with each guy landing several super kicks and the other guy brushing them off.  That maybe bothers me more than some, but it is just such a momentum killer for me as a fan.  The things is, there were some strong near falls during the stretch run but there were also some less-than-stellar moments during the ending run so it ended up a bit of a mixed bag.  The long Garga-no Lock sequences in particular were a bit goofy.  I’ve seen far worse from finishing stretches, however.

US Indie | Worthwhile | Hype & Quality

(04/05) Masato Tanaka, Chris Hero & Roderick Strong vs. Ricochet, Rich Swann & AR Fox
Dragon Gate USA 

I am a sucker for trios matches with unique combinations of wrestlers (I wish there was a modern day WAR churning out such match ups regularly) so this match alone sold me on what was otherwise a non-descript looking show.  It was difficult to envision this match not going well.  Hero, Tanaka, and Strong form a team that should be able to put together interesting stretches of offense and all three are solid bases.  Ricochet, Fox & Swann – to varying degrees – are strong baby faces with truly top-level flying offense.  It is a strong pairing on paper.

In execution it was good, but not great.  Hero’s team controlled early with a lot of quick tags and the first seven or so minutes flew by as a result.  Where it sort of fell short for me was that the match moved into a back and forth period after the opening segments and that never quite clicked.  The match was calling for 10 minutes of Hero, Strong & Tanaka offense followed by a five minute insane finishing stretch where the bases could compliment the fliers, but we never really got it.  Everything was fine, but I did feel like they left a lot on the table particularly for a match that was the main selling point of an entire show (even if it was the opener).  The poor crowd didn’t help things either and I have got to think this match would have come off better in front of, for example, a PWG Reseda crowd.

Trios | Worthwhile | Quality 

(04/06)  Hiroshi Tanahashi (c) vs. Shinsuke Nakamura
IWGP Intercontinental Championship 

This match was criticized before it happened for merely existing.  Tanahashi and Nakamura already wrestled twice previously in 2014 on big shows for the IC title (1/4 Tokyo Dome and 2/9 Hiroshima).  Not to mention that they have paired up many, many other times in prior years as two of the top NJPW heavyweights of the past decade.  The repetitiveness of the match up was probably worthy of being looked at critically, but at the same time it seems silly to complain about getting a good match-up three times without even watching it play out.

Tanahashi and Nakamura were seemingly aware of the potential problem and ditched the usual current NJPW main event style match in favor of a match more focused on limb work and limb selling.  Tanahashi was a lot of fun unmercifully attacking Nakamura’s leg and smirking at the boos from the crowd.  The story was that Tanahashi was annoyed by Nakamura’s decision to go after the IC belt again with his prize for winning the New Japan Cup, after Tanahashi had already defeated him twice in a row in IC title matches.  So he attacked the leg to send a message and put him away as a challenger once and for all.

Nakamura’s selling was very good I thought.  If they erred at any part, it was probably starting the leg work before Nakamura’s early/mid-match comeback.  That segment felt necessarily – Tanahashi was triple-dipping on his offense as was so the match didn’t need him on offense the entire 25 minutes – but probably would have avoided the selling-questions if the leg work started after that comeback.  As was, Nakamura sort of had to temporarily put the leg aside before Tanahashi went back on offense and thoroughly destroyed it.  I had no issues with the end which saw Nakamura use his legs (and knees) to win the match despite the prior work.  That’s his offense and it was clear the entire time even while putting Tanahashi away that he was doing himself more pain by going to jumping knees and such, but that’s his best offense so he had no other choice.

Good match and a nice change of pace from the normal fare from these two.

Limb Work | Watch It | Quality 

(04/06)  Tomohiro Ishii (c) vs. Tetsuya Naito
NEVER Open Weight Championship 

There is not much to say about the latest chapter of Ishii/Naito that has not been said about their prior matches.  If you loved those, you will love these.  As I have said before, I’ve enjoyed all of their matches but am not as enamored with Ishii’s style as others are.  For a variety of reasons – the importance of the card, their position on the card, the fact that it was their third singles match in 2014 – they went a little less epic in this one which helped since it was a tad more compact.

Ishii and Naito DO have great chemistry together.  I also thought their matches got incrementally better as they went along, largely because the crowd treated their interaction (in singles and tags) as progressively more important as the feud developed.  This was likely the feud ender for the time being and hopefully they don’t meet up too many more times before a likely G-1 match this summer.

Japan Singles | Worthwhile | Quality & Hype 

(04/06)  Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H

I am going to need to re-watch some Triple H on the Network because he was so much better here than I almost ever remembering him being.  Given that he is no longer a full time guy, he was certainly trimmed down from his peak and moving a lot better for it.  Triple H deserves a lot of credit for working a Daniel Bryan match instead of a Triple H match which was the right call on several levels.  I need a “Journey to WrestleMania” special with Triple H where we get to see who decided Triple H should throw a release Tiger Suplex (and a great-looking one at that).

Bryan is so, so good.  His selling of the arm and bump on the table was top notch.  I liked the risky call of an off-the-apron tornado DDT on a guy who has never rolled over for a DDT in his life (it worked out just fine).  Bryan was great in this match as usual but Triple H brought a ton to the table as well.  It will be interesting to see how he looks with the Shield.  Was this simply a case of being WrestleMania and Bryan being Bryan or is semi-retired Triple H in for a refreshingly strong run?

WWE Singles | Must Watch| Quality & Angle 

(04/06)  Undertaker vs. Brock Lesnar

It goes without saying that this is a must-watch match on several fronts.  I doubt there will be a more noteworthy match in 2014.

To get it out of the way, taken on its own merits this was a really terrible and boring match.  I didn’t care for the Triple H/Undertake matches in 2011 and 2012.  I was shocked out how much I enjoyed the Punk match from 2013, however.  So I really wasn’t going into this one thinking that Undertaker was done and wouldn’t be able to pull out a smoke-and-mirrors match that still got touted by some as a classic.  It is not as if Brock is incapable of holding up his end.  Instead, we got a boring, meandering match that didn’t even seem to attempt to smoke-and-mirror its way to something special.  I think that is what surprised me the most about how this was wrestled.  Even if Undertaker was a physical wreck and didn’t have much to give, I think there were probably better ways to try and get through it.

Without the ending, this is just a bad match that would have likely lessened interest in Undertaker’s next match.  Instead it will be remembered as one of the more unexpected and talked about finishes in recent memory.  Dave Meltzer more or less nailed it the day after the show.  If Undertaker is done and is not going to wrestle another match, it was a good decision (the absolute “right” decision is more of an ambiguous determination).  If not, it was questionable given Brock is a part-timer.  The WWE will have the first wave of network subscription renewals coming up right around Summer Slam.  If they can turn Lesnar defeating Undertaker’s streak into a match versus Bryan for the title that people want to see AND Undertaker is done, then I think we will unanimously look at the finish of this match as either the right move or at least an inoffensive one.

WWE Singles | Must Watch| Angle & Historical Importance 

(04/06)  Randy Orton (c) vs. Batista vs. Daniel Bryan
WWE World Heavyweight Championship

Meltzer raved about the layout here.  It was standard WWE main event/attitude era fare executed very effectively so I see where he is coming from.  I thought the opener was clearly a stronger match but this accomplished what it set out to.

The fact that the crowd was so hot for Bryan after (a) already seeing him wrestle once and (b) having just had the air taken out of their sales with the Undertaker loss is a testament to just how over he was going into WrestleMania.  As said, the match they worked also helped maintain and build on that reception, with Batista tapping to the Yes! lock being the perfect capper.

Bryan is such a likeable guy with such a great story.  The ending gives WWE an almost picture perfect “WrestleMania moment” to hype and replay for years to come.  Everyone who followed the US indies in the 2000’s as already said this, but it is really neat to watch a guy go from being one of the best wrestlers in the world with no exposure and little fanfare to one of the best wrestlers in the world with incredible exposure and fanfare.  We don’t often get to see our favorites in wrestling or sports get such a perfect payoff to an interesting journey which is really what made this match and this win standout.

Three Way Match | Watch It | Quality & Angle

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