Category Archives: 2016

Niebla Roja vs. Gran Guerrero (CMLL – 09/16/2017)

For the foreseeable future – for better or for worse – CMLL Anniversary Show main events are going to be compared to the epic Atlantis mask matches from 2014 and 2015. Those matches – versus Ultimo Guerrero and La Sombra, respectively – had so much going for them before the bell even rang that it is downright unfair to hold other Anniversary Show main events to their standard. The Ultimo Guerrero match had been teased for several years before it actually happened, had a long and rich feud behind it, and involved two of CMLL’s most pushed wrestlers of the prior twenty years. The 2015 match was a pairing of CMLL’s most valuable masked wrestler and the man most likely to assume that role from him in the not-too-distant future. That level of stakes and drama doesn’t come around too often. To state that another Anniversary Show main event pales in comparison is stating the obvious; it shouldn’t be viewed as a failure of the promotion or the wrestlers but rather a matter of circumstance.

The Atlantis matches from the middle part of the current decade are outliers. The truth is that through 84 Anniversary Shows, CMLL has ran far fewer epic mask vs. mask matches than they have run. CMLL tried a little bit of everything over the years including – as they did this year – placing two middle rung masked wrestlers in the main event spot in hopes that the mask match concept itself and the pageantry of the Anniversary Show concept will sell itself.

It was tempting to view Grand Guerrero and Niebla Roja in the main event of CMLL’s biggest annual show as a disappointment before it ever happened simply because neither wrestler’s mask is really that important in the grand sceme of things. Their masks surely aren’t as important as the masks of Atlantis, Ultimo Guerrero, and La Sombra or even Volador Jr., Dragon Lee, and La Mascara. It is instinctual for any wrestling fan to be disappointed when on the biggest show of the calendar year a promotion doesn’t book its strongest – or even one of its top ten – strongest matchups. Much of the time there is little excuse. Had the promotion through ahead and come up with a game plan, they surely could have found a way to put 2 of their top 5 stars in the main event of their signature show. When they don’t, its hard to buy into any excuses.

CMLL and lucha in general is different, however. There is nothing stopping WWE from booking their top two wrestlers in a title match at WrestleMania besides the desire to do so and maybe concern over messing up long term plans. There are more variables at play when attempting to book a mask match. The promotion has to find a wrestler agreeable to dropping the mask and then the promotion must meet his price, which can be rather costly. Booking Atlantis and Caristico in a mask match involves far more hoop jumping than booking John Cena and Roman Reigns for the title in the WrestleMania main event does. Of course CMLL can – and has – bypassed that drama by booking a hair match (less expensive) or a non-apuesta match altogether in the main event but I think that is often a worse solution. Fans want mask matches on big shows. A mediocre mask match is going to be viewed by a lot of folks as a bigger deal than a non-mask match that has everything else going for it.

It’s the nature of the beast – sometimes CMLL is going to have to with a mid-level mask match in a main event spot at the Anniversary Show because it’s the best overall option given the many factors involved. It is debatable that CMLL couldn’t find a better match than Gran Guerrero versus Niebla Roja but its certainly possible that they couldn’t. At the end of the day, the 2017 Anniversary Show main event was a match with a story behind it, involved two capable wrestlers, involved one wrestler with a certain amount of upside, and – most importantly – involved a wrestler who was willing to lose his mask in a professional manner. Look through past CMLL Anniversary Show lineups and you will find plenty of matches that are missing some or all of those elements. By that standard, a Gran Guerrero and Niebla Roja main event shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise or disappointment. It was a match that at the very least made sense on paper.

The upside of Gran Guerrero versus Niebla Roja – or a similar match – as Anniversary Show main event is that expectations are usually low and therefore are often exceeded. At some point in all likelihood – possibly as early as next September – Atlantis is going to wager his mask at another Anniversary Show and with any sort of above-average opponent people are going to expect an epic. Maybe Atlantis continues to defy time and does just that, but its not terribly likely. Atlantis could wrestle the best possible match he is capable of at the 85th Anniversary Show and it would likely still disappoint many fans. Gran Guerrero and Niebla Roja did not have that same burden of expectations. If they went out and delivered their best possible match, it was going to be a success.

For that reason, I find the non-superstar mask vs. mask matches to carry their own unique charm. It is exciting watching two wrestlers work their best possible match together under the brightest lights available. A lower ceiling match that hits its ceiling can be more exhilarating than a better match that comes up short of reaching its considerable potential.

My favorite such matches – at least prior to Gran Guerrero and Niebla Roja’s 2017 effort – were a pair of Anniversary Show headliners wrestled by Mogur in the late 1980’s. At the 1987 anniversary event, Mogur – an otherwise nondescript luchador from Jalisco – was thrust into the spotlight as he wagered his mask against that of As Charro. Neither luchador had much of a profile but the match was a bit of a toss up (As Charro was about a decade older but that’s the only reason he was a more likely loser) and both luchadores were capable of wrestling a quality main event when given the spotlight. They did just that. As Charro – as he was known to do – took some rewind-worthy bumps on the way to dropping his mask. The following year – with one successful Anniversary Show main event behind him – Mogur faced the far higher profile Mascara Ano 2000 of Dinamitas fame. Mascara Ano 2000 is far from a great luchador but Mogur bumped around for him in a match built around Mascara Ano 2000 slamming Mogur on the back of his head and neck. They worked that into the finish with Mogur taking a nasty backdrop driver right on the back of his head, which he continued to sell during the unmasking. The crowd was into both matches because the wrestlers knew how to escalate the drama and stakes of having their masks on the line. These aren’t the greatest matches ever, but they are very good. Above all else, they gave an otherwise replaceable wrestler like Mogur a positive reason to be remembered by lucha fans.

In all likelihood, Niebla Roja just hit the high point of his career. Some young wrestlers see their careers take off after dropping a mask but most aren’t as lucky. While it is too early to tell with any sort of certainty, Niebla Roja doesn’t seem to have it in him. Gran Guerrero will likely always be protected somewhat because of who he is related to and has improved over the past several years, but his ceiling appears limited as well. For all anyone knows, the 84th Anniversary Show main event was the highpoint of these wrestlers’ careers. If that ends up being so, then they can be proud that they wrestled a very good match. The match had creative but digestible high spots, a good pace, solid fall layout, and a dramatic finish.

Dave Meltzer described the match as going by “the usual pattern”, meaning two short falls followed by a third fall with a bunch of big moves and kick outs. Technically, on some level, that is correct. However, it is also misleading. Falls one and two were not afterthoughts as they can often be in modern CMLL matches. The falls were short but of substance. The first ended with a reversal rather than a big move, which is what I personally prefer from the early falls. The second established a reoccurring theme of Guerrero’s ability and willingness to throw his opponent around while outside the ring. The hold that Guerrero used to take the second fall was neat and an appropriate fall ender. The shortening of the first falls even in big matches is a problem with modern CMLL. However, Roja and Guerrero did a better job with it relatively speaking. Had they not done what they did in the first two falls, they would have had to fit some of it in to start the third or else the match wouldn’t have been as good as it was.

Along similar lines, it is a disservice to broadly paint the decisive fall as “a lot of moves and near falls”. That description applied to an Anniversary Show mask match main event conjures up memories of Volador Jr. and La Sombra from 2013. This third fall was a far cry from that third fall. While Volador and La Sombra went on a ten-minute stretch where the entire presentation was move-kick out-move-kick out, the 2017 main event retained a cohesive rhythm throughout the final fall. Yes, Guerrero and Roja hit big moves and yes some of the moves are kicked out of but the rhythm never breaks. The near falls work because they are believable while in the Volador/La Sombra match (among many others), the near falls receive a reaction because of pure volume. There were several times where I believe Guerrero had the match won and a couple of times where – if I wasn’t already aware of the outcome – I would have bought that Roja won.

When the match did end, I was sort of surprised it did. I could have envisioned it going on a little longer without losing interest. The mark of a great match is the ability to be complete while also leaving the audience wanting more. Roja and Guerrero did an admirable job of hitting those notes.

Not to pick on Dave Meltzer more – he liked the match quite a bit – but he also made mention that the match lacked the drama and emotion of “most mask matches of this type”. That of course, is not true. The match had above average crowd reactions throughout which puts it above the average mask match and even above a lot of other Anniversary Show matches. Compared to Atlantis’ back-to-back main events and his March 2000 match with Villano III, the match certainly lacks in the drama department but again, that’s to be excepted. Those are some of the more memorable Arena Mexico matches of all time and those matches had external advantages that this one did not.

Niebla Roja and Gran Guerrero did what Mogur and his opponents did thirty years prior, which is wrestle the best possible match they could under the brightest spotlight of their careers. That in itself is noteworthy and makes the match worthy of a watch. In terms of pure work, the match was not that far off – if off at all – from Atlantis’ back-to-back bouts several years prior. The drama was lacking relative to those matches but that was preordained. As far as Anniversary Show main events that are in circulation go, this one easily fits in the top half in terms of quality. That’s quite the achievement from any two wrestlers.

Jimmy Rave’s 2005

There has been a lot of talk recently about the resurgence of Jimmy Rave and how he is potentially the best wrestler in the world in 2016.  From the footage I’ve watched from him in 2015-2016, I’m not sure I could back that claim.  The more interesting thing to me is that Jimmy Rave had a fantastic 2005, that was viewed positively at the time and upon re watch in recent months.

Rave had super solid **** matches with CM Punk, AJ Styles, and later in the year as part of the Embassy versus Generation Next multi-man feud.  ****, what’s so great about that?  For one, Rave got over as a real heat drawing heel.  That just didn’t happen in ROH.  And while Punk and Styles were good workers in their own right, they certainly weren’t what they would become 5-8 years down the line.

I’d suggest checking out the following matches:

CM Punk (02/26/05 – Chicago)

If this match happened in 2016, move for move with the same crowd reaction, people would be saying it is an easy MOTYC.  It was viewed that way back in 2005 by most, but at the time, it was still a good match and an example of something different in the highly technical world of ROH.  Maybe the closest ROH ever got to being prime-Memphis like.

CM Punk (05/07/05 – New York City)

You would think a chain match, with a guy like Punk who doesn’t have the best body control, in front of a New York City crowd would be a disaster?  You’d be wrong.  Besides being bloody, this had the grit and intensity of a lucha apuestas match.  Once again, Rave easily holds up his end of the bargain.

CM Punk (05/14/05 – Chicago)

Okay, so this is the weird one.  Move for move, moment to moment, they execute a cage match that is arguably good, maybe very good.  But there is no heat.  That could have been due to the length of the show (which ROH was notorious for), the downtime to set the cage up before the main event, and the booking to have this be pin fall, submission, or escape.  It’s worth taking a look at, but unfortunately is a disappointing finish to a really well booked and well wrestled feud.

AJ Styles (07/23/05 – Philadelphia)

This is probably the most underrated match in ROH history, outside of Chad Collyer vs. Rocky Romero from July 2004.  It’s a street fight and once you get past Rave and Styles wearing designer jeans, there is nothing but positives.  Rave’s top notch punches, which he seems to have ditched in his most recent run, are on display here, as well as the bumping, selling, and intensity that was needed as Styles could only work sparse dates for ROH because of TNA obligations.  This even has a brain buster on a chair, a move that I shouldn’t like at all, but it fits in this match pretty perfectly.

There is also an angle on the April 16, 2005 ROH show that leads to the chain match.  It starts with Rave leaving because he doesn’t want to wrestle Punk, who then wrestlers Embassy member Mike Kruel.  Punk beats him and Rave comes back out and they have a great brawl, which ends with Rave attacking Punk’s second, Traci Brooks.  Well worth seeing but not certainly not essential.

Trauma I vs. Canis Lupus (IWRG – 09/04/2016)

Trauma I vs. Canis Lupus
September 4, 2016
Mask vs. Mask
**** 3/4

Out of haste and my excitement to watch Trauma I and Canis Lupus’ IWRG mask match on Labor Day morning, I put on the only version available on YouTube at that time – an 18 minute video uploaded by Estrellas del Ring. That particular YouTube channel records all of marquee lucha indies but rarely if ever uploads full matches. An 18-minute runtime felt right for this match and a scroll through the video to look for obvious signs of clipping revealed nothing of the sort. So I ignored the obvious warning signs – from the video the match appeared to be only one fall which was odd and they seemed to skip to the overt violence section rather quickly – and convinced myself that this was the full (or near full) match.

I only mention that because after watching Canis Lupus and Trauma I destroy one another for the full duration of the video (and still believing I had seen the full thing), I was relatively sure that it was the best pro wrestling match I had watched in 2016. It was only later in the day that after I saw in the luchablog results post that the match was 2 out of 3 falls and checked out another upload of the match that I realized the version I watched was a couple of minutes of the first fall spliced together (very seamlessly I might add) with most of the third fall. The takeaway was that I had convinced that a match I had only seen the third fall of was the match of the year. The beginning of a match – how the wrestlers set a ton for what is to come – is as important in my overall enjoyment of a match as any other element. So I think it says something that a match with almost literally no beginning still registered with me at such a high level. A match has to be special when the third fall on its own makes that big of an impression on me.

After watching the full version of the match (both the AYM broadcast version and the +LuchaTV version are full and on YouTube), it is even more clear just how special and awesome of a match this one is. Trauma I and Canis Lupus wrestled an epic and violent match that at least initially would seem to place it on the same level as other classic apuesta matches.

As I unintentionally proved to myself, the third fall on its own was full enough and strong enough as to standout. The match is going to receive its fair share of attention for the level of blood shed by Lupus during that fall. Admittedly, a couple of pictures posted by Black Terry Jr. that showed the aftermath of the blood shed was a big reason I hurried to watch the match in the first place. And yea, Lupus’ bleeds like his life depends on it and the end of the match – with the mat covered in at least one of pool of newly dropped blood – creates quite the visual. The third fall and therefore the match has to be considered a blood bath because of all the blood that was lost, but blood is not the match’s only defining characteristic. The decisive fall contains at least a couple of believable near falls and a three to four minute ending stretch that formed an indelible impression on me. That fall is not simply Lupus bleeding out while sitting on the mat. The action is well paced, violent, and appropriately dramatic.

In terms of the first falls, it was clear to me after actually watching them that as good as I thought the match was based on just the third, that fall is even better with the first two falls serving as a lead-in.

Lupus and the younger of the Trauma brothers have feuded for months now in Arena Naucalpan. This was a traditionally built mask feud and as such, the blow off match required a hot start. They accomplished that in the form of a tope suicidia from Lupus almost right away in the first fall. It was a great way to start a mask match by demonstrating explicitly that they (or at least Lupus) planned on forgoing all the usual formalities and getting right down to business. You don’t get a lot of matches that feature a tope suicida as the very first move – not now nor ever – which made the impression that this match was different and more important than the norm. Interestingly enough, the tope was the one real piece of action from the first fall that Estrellas del Ring left in their version. That indicates to me that they also saw that tope as a pivotal piece of the match.

The ending of the first fall is also pivotal, in that it makes what was already a great finish to the third fall an even better one. The Lo Negro del Negro (the Trauma brothers’ twisting leg lock submission hold) is one of the best submission holds in all of wrestling. It is the rare submission move that has a high impact and visual element to it thanks to the standing start and twist. It never fails to pop a crowd. The Arena Mexico crowd even went nuts for it when the Traumas appeared on Elite shows late last year and early this year. In the first fall, it is Canis Lupus who uses it to win. Trauma I sold his own move like the killer finish it deserves to be sold as. He flailed about in great pain before tapping quickly. Occasionally throughout the rest of the bout, Trauma I showed ill-effects from the move. Stealing your opponent’s finish might be played in some environments but it really isn’t in lucha and I think it came across like a big deal here. Lupus looked appropriately proud of himself post-fall; having taken the lead while also managing to work in a small insult as well.

In all three falls, the wrestlers balanced action outside of the ring with action in the ring. Far too many IWRG matches over the last few years have been content on being gore fests with uninspired ringside brawling filling the rest of the time. Trauma I and Canis Lupus effectively used in the ringside area to get across the violence and hatred but did not even come close to relying on out of the ring brawling as a crutch. They were in and out, never overstaying their welcome either in or out of the ring. Everything done out of the ring in the first two falls is used to escalate the violence and tension. At points in the first couple of falls the match teases a descent into an all-out ringside brawl but stops just short of getting there. So when the match finally descends into madness in the third fall – chairs and blood – it feels earned. That was perhaps the biggest difference between viewing just the final fall and the entire match. Falls #1 and #2 set up the violence of the third fall perfectly. By the time these two start whacking each other over the head with chairs, you feel like that sort of extreme action was inevitable.

IWRG has been a soulless and directionless promotion for at least a few years now. Arena Naucalpan is almost always far closer to empty than full. For the fans that do show up, IWRG gives them little reasons to invest in the matches due to booking that relies on an endless series of copas, gimmick changes, and pointless title changes in lieu of anything meaningful. So it is striking to watch this match in that context and see Arena Naucalpan virtually full and the crowd completely into the match they are watching. Trauma I is the clear fan favorite – as expected and as planned – as evidenced by the way they continually serenade him with songs and chants of “Vamos Trauma!”. The heat speaks for itself and it is clear to anyone that the crowd is invested in the outcome. It stands out even more so in the context of the generally heatless environment IWRG matches take place in most of the time in 2016.

The match reaches a crescendo in the final four minutes. By this time, Lupus is a bloody mess. Both wrestlers are sporting badly ripped masks and looking the worse for wear. The official is bumped and it was difficult not to worry on first viewing that an overwrought ending was waiting on the other side. Those worries are quickly erased. For one, the referee was actually hit hard and fell hard so they avoided the phantom ref bumps that are all to prevalent in the poorly officiated world of lucha libre. More important, however, is what the bump sets up. Lupus recognizes that he has an opening and decides to go for broke by performing the dreaded martinete (tombstone piledriver) on his opponent. The martinete is an illegal move in lucha and would be grounds for immediate disqualification if the referee saw it. Lupus performs the move swiftly and expertly, like he knows this is his one shot and he cannot blow it by wasting any time.

Perhaps the best part of this entire sequence is that after Lupus has driven Trauma neck first into the mat he does not waste any time in following up. There’s no struggle to wake the ref or anything like that. He covers with a sense of urgency and the referee – who was knocked down rather than knocked out – gets in position to count in a timely fashion. The timing makes for an excellent near fall as I totally bought the idea that Trauma could lose in this manner, with the illegal move serving to protect him to an extent. Instead, it creates a great false finish as Trauma’s foot is under the ropes.

Lupus tries again for a cover. This time Trauma (who seemingly cannot move his neck at least not without great pain) lifts his arms straight up to stop the referee’s count at two. The referee scolds him and counts further away from Trauma’s arms to avoid a similar occurrence. Trauma has no choice now but to lift his neck and shoulders off the mat, which he does while still completely conveying the idea that the martinete has doe serious and potentially permanent damage. This is hammered home further when the match briefly stops so the ringside doctor can strap a neck brace to Trauma I. All of this sets up the actual finish which sees Lupus – in an act of desperation after not being able to pin Trauma following the martinete – go to the top rope for a plancha. Trauma I might not be able to move his neck very well but he can move his legs. He lifts his knees to counter the move. Lupus quickly moves back in, but Trauma I grabs his leg and trips him. This leads to as dramatic and effective of a submission hold struggle as I can remember seeing recently. Lupus knows Trauma is looking for the Lo Negro del Negro and he also knows that if he locks in the hold, the match is as good as lost. He kicks at Trauma and swipes at him with his arms, but Trauma fights it off. When Trauma eventually locks in the move, the crowd goes nuts and Lupus reacts like his legs are snapping in half. He taps in short order, setting off an awesome celebration that begins with Trauma II and Mr. Electro elatedly leaping into the ring to congratulate the winner.

If you are skeptical of this match because the location and the participants suggest that it is just a lucha indie match and will not have the emotion and presentation of a major CMLL or AAA mask match, rest assured those fears are unwarranted. The final minutes of the match are as dramatic as either of the big Atlantis mask matches from the past two years. The scale is different – a few thousand people in Arena Naucalpan is obviously different than 15,000 in Arena Mexico – but on a relative basis the emotion and reactions to the finish are close enough to be considered the equal. So is the post-match activity. The seconds – Mascara Ano 2000 Jr. & Mr. Electro – give speeches putting over the wrestlers, as does Trauma II (in a nice touch, Trauma II was forced to watch his brother defend his mask from the crowd since he was not an officially registered second). Canis Lupus also speaks eventually, surrounded by a throng of photographers and camera men. All the while, Trauma I continues to lay on the mat as doctor’s attend to him. The attention to selling and putting over the martinete rivals any sort of selling I have seen anywhere in the world in 2016. It is only after everyone else has spoken that Trauma I is able to get up (with the help of a neck brace) and give his speech.

To top it all off, a still bloody Canis Lupus lets his girlfriend remove his mask before reportedly proposing to her while still in the ring. If that’s not pro wrestling emotion at its finest, I don’t know what is.

I am always leery of making grand claims about a match that just happened days ago. The fact that I enjoyed the match so much even when I only watched the third fall and enjoyed it even more in full a day later makes me think that Canis Lupus and Trauma I wrestled a truly special match that will stand up as such over time. I am not positive of that, but I think there’s a good chance.

For now, I feel confident stating that Canis Lupus vs. Trauma I is my favorite mask match in recent years surpassing Atlantis vs. La Sombra from last year’s CMLL Anniversary show. The match contains all the attributes of a classic apuesta match from blood and false finishes to a dramatic ending and post-match drama. This is my MOTY for 2016 as of this moment (lucha or otherwise) and will be pleasantly surprised if another match surpasses it.

(05/28/2016) Mike Quackenbush vs. Johnny Kidd, ‘World of Sport’ Rules (Chikara)

Quack does not have a match on record after WrestleMania weekend 2013 and was essentially in semi-retirement. I think the reason usually given for that was back injuries. I know he walked around with a cane for a while but I think that was probably more of a gimmick than anything. In any event, its been a long time since Quack wrestled an official match (assuming he hasn’t wrestled under a mask at points in between) but the idea was that he was a big fan of Kidd and wanted to wrestle him one last time before his upcoming retirement. They had a singles match in wXw back in 2009 and wrestled on opposite side of a tag match in Chikara in 2011, as well.

I am naturally leery of modern matches billed as “World of Sport Rules” matches because that’s a style and concept from a bygone era that is not easily replicated. This match, however, was very good and one of the most fun matches I’ve watched in 2016. The big reason this match succeeded where many other modern WOS-style matches fail is that Kidd actually worked WOS shows when he was younger. For his part, Quack has always appeared to be enamored with hold-centric styles (lucha, British wrestling) and it is very apparent watching this match that he “gets” what made the WOS style tick. They work eight 3-minute rounds. Tim questioned the 3-minute periods initially (as opposed to 5-minutes) but it ended up being the exact right choice. Every round had a different wrinkle to it and because they were only 3-minutes, they never had to kill time to finish off a round. They did all the standard spots guys do when trying to wrestle the British golden era style but they also did a lot of other ones as well. They hit on that balance of levity and impressive athleticism that in my (admittedly limited) exposure to WOS seems to be found in all the good WOS matches. The falls were handled well and the whole presentation (Chikara is always great at presenting things in the best light) was top notch. No, this isn’t a top-end WOS style match, but it is maybe the best modern effort I’ve seen. It was also a ton of fun. I am not sure I have watched any match from 2016 that was this easy and fun to sit through. The match offered something different and it did it well. It is rare that you get both of those things from the same match. [*** 3/4]

Live Super J Cup (Night #1) Thoughts

Matt Sydal (ROH) vs. Kaji Tomato (K-DOJO)

I was disappointed with Tomato as the K-DOJO entrant. Its not that he’s bad in the ring. He’s actually very solid but his charisma is rather forced and let’s be honest – without the dancing ring entrance he wouldn’t have even been under consideration. The bigger issue was that there were better choices, Hori Tonai, Shiori Asai, and TAKA himself are all bigger names or also better overall wrestlers. My personal hope was that we would get Ayuma Honda. Honda is an fun submission and mat wrestler who would have brought something diffrent to the tournament. They could have beaten him easily but he would have had a fun first match and stuck out. 2000 J-Cup had Sano and also had Teioh working a more realistic style. This tournament is missing that sort of guy.

That aside, the tournament opener was a completely fine match. I had forgotten that Tomato is pretty great at getting big near falls out of flash pin attempts, which he did twice late against Sydal. The plancha was kind of weak but everything else he did was more or less on point. Sydal gave him a lot before beating him, which I suspect will happen a lot in this first round. They didn’t do too much and had a high energy match, which is really all you want from an opener.

Gurukun Mask (Dragon Pro) vs. Kenoh (NOAH)

I’ve never seen Gurukun Mask, but knowing Liger likes him gives me hope. Kenoh works the same heel junior shtick we have seen a thousand times and is starting to wear thin. They started with a cool kick exchange, then Kenoh took over with the help of some interference from his second. Gurukun looked good. He got nice distance on his dive and is a lot more polished than I would have thought. If I didn’t know and you asked me which of the guys works NOAH and which works Dragon Pro Wrestlingm based on their work here I wouldn’t be able to tell you. If you are going to do a mid-ring back-and-forth strike exchange, I guess I’d rather it be kicks like these two did because its a chance of pace and in general I prefer kicks to elbows and forearms. Still, I am so tired of that trope. Both guys have nice kicks and I’d rather see them weaved into the actual match rather than used in that manner. Like in the opener, the eventual loser (Gurukun) took much of the match. I want to see more of Gurukun after this. I like his mask and he showed enough in the match. Kenoh continues to do very little for me and the match itself is entirely skippable.

Yuma Aoyagi (AJPW) vs. Taichi (Suzuki-gun)

Speaking of heel acts that have run their course, here is Taichi.

Taichi “tags in” El Desperado to start the match and I am hoping the referee allows it (no such luck). Taichi takes an hour to disrobe. At best it drew a modicum of heat but was really just a waste of time. The chair stuff and Desperado distraction spots are met with similar disinterest. I have liked Aoyagi in the past and really wish they would have given him an opponent that could have highlighted his talent a little more. The allure of these types of tournaments is seeing guys of various backgrounds and at various stages in their career interact. Seeing Aoyagi against the most veteran wrestler in the tournament (Liger) would have been cool. Aoyagi is essentially Kanemaru twenty years ago so that match up would have been really neat. Instead, Aoyagi played random foil to Taichi’s usual (and so cliched) heel routine which seems like a waste. The offense Aoyagi got was overall good. I liked the planchas. The running shooting star press was iffy and he should probably shelf it. It is wild seeing an All Japan junior even try a move like that. Aoyagi does a few flash pins and gets a nice reaction, particularly on the bridging pin attempt. I appreciate that they switched up the formula from the first two matches by having the veteran take more of the match, but Taichi didn’t have the offense to make it work. There wasn’t a whole lot to this one.

Jushin Thunder Liger (NJPW) vs. Eita (Dragon Gate)

Ah, here we go. Eita attacks at the bell and does an immediate dive on Liger. Liger injures his arm in the process and finally we get a match that starts with a little juice behind it. Liger fights back with a brainbuster on the floor which Eita sells like he’s not going to be able to get up. Liger continued to pay attention to his own wrist even while on offense so I imagine that is going to come back into play. I could watch Liger roll out his signature offense against random opponents for the rest of my (or his) life and never get bored with it. Loved Eita’s counter of the Shotei into a Fujiwara arm bar. Eita is really wrenching on the arm, Liger wiggles around like he is in all sort of pain, and all of that leads to the most heated match on the card by far to this point.Liger manages to escape and hits a brainbuster shortly after for the win. I am guessing some are going to think the match was too short and I wouldn’t have minded a few more minutes, but I’ll take three minutes too short over three minutes too long almost every time out. Best match of the tournament by far to this point.

Titan (CMLL) vs. Will Ospreay (CHAOS)

Solid match, but Will Ospreay annoys and frustrates me. For every truly breathtaking move he did in this match – the Sasuke special, the octopus hold – je would do a move that was overly complicated and just didn’t look good. The spinning kick at the end was the best example of that. His major tool is that he is super athletic but that doesn’t mean you need to come up with whacky moves that you can’t hit cleanly just to prove it.

I liked the opening and thought Titan had a good showing. The Asai moonsault was beautiful. Not to continue to pick on Ospreay, but this match provided another example of why I don’t believe he is the “other level” flier that he is often made out to be. He is more athletic than almost anyone but that doesn’t necessarily translate into being the other flier. I thought Titan was every part his equal in the air and Titan is probably not a top 5 flier in Mexico.

The match was too short and too one sided to amount to much but was still fun,

Yoshinobu Kanemaru (Suzuki-gun) vs. BUSHI (LIJ)

These two got to do the one crowd brawling spot on the show. They went at it right away and went into the crowd, where Bushi did a plancha from atop one of the tunnels. The match peaked with that spot. The crowd was into Bushi as the de-facto good guy and the spot got a major reaction. The problem with crowd spots is there is a lot of time between the crowd stuff and getting back to the ring. It is easy to lose momentum and I think that’s what happened here. The heat was gone by the time they got back and the match meandered on for a while before the finish.

Daisuke Harada (NOAH) vs. Ryusuke Taguchi (NJPW)

The execution was good and the structure was not necessarily bad, but the layout was also devoid of any sort of hook. This was one of those matches where it is just two guys doing stuff for 10 minutes without any sort of overarching story or structure before getting to the near falls. If the wrestling in those types of matches is not superlative (and it wasn’t in this case) then those matches have a limited upside. In a lot of ways, they wrestled a typical modern New Japan style match. There was not anything to sink your teeth into early on. They more or less killed time before they got to the near fall section. When they pulled out the big moves late, the near falls got a reaction but the rest of the match didn’t have a ton of heat. That seems par for the course these days, not only in New Japan but in most promotions around the world. On the positive side, once they got going with the near falls they never lost me. They didn’t break the momentum with back-and-forth forearms or no-selling or anything like that. They just rolled out four or five near pins and a couple of near submissions to good effect. Above average match (***-ish) but I’ll probably forget most of it in a couple of days.

Kushida (New Japan) vs. Taiji Ishimori (NOAH)

Very good match.

Easily the most “complete” match on this show and I’d go as far as to say it was a more complete match than anything on the first night of the G1. Kushida has gotten very good at structuring his matches so that they are engaging all the way through while still building in a step by step manner. I write that the match was “complete” because they hit on everything I want to see them hit on. They started with the usual Kushida opening mat work. Ishimori got an early showcase segment. Kushida’s transition where he goes after the arm is really well done. There are comebacks and cut offs throughout. There were a couple of points before the ending stretch where I thought they went a little too back-and-forth but for the most part Kushida’s offense and Ishimori’s comebacks were give enough time to develop.

Kushida almost locking in an armbar while in the fireman’s carry position was my favorite spot of the match. I could have lived without seeing another late match strike exchange with limited selling but I do enjoy how Kushida is starting to draw heat for his closed fist punch. Somewhere Jim Ross is smiling. Ishimori’s top rope fall away slam (reminiscent of Ultimo Guerrero versus Mistico) was also an excellent spot. Another thing Kushida does so well is establish the arm work early so that he can go back to it throughout his matches whenever he needs to. He does that hear at the end. I don’t think its essential to payoff early match limb work but it certainly helped here.

Best match of the opening round by far.