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.

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