Chris Hero & Tommy End vs. Zack Sabre Jr. & Sami Callihan
January 22, 2016
The Orpheum (Ybor City, Florida)
This first round EVOLVE tag team championship tournament match was not shy about being what it was.
Chris Hero, Zack Sabre Jr., Tommy End and Sami Callihan built a match on the precept that bigger equals better. That was accomplished through the use of heavy striking and high impact offense, as well as an exhaustive stretch run. The match beats you over the head with these concepts and just when you think it is done doing so it comes back for more. The match is thirty minutes of big bombs and nearly non-stop action. There is little in the way of subtleties. It is as unapologetic of a fighting spirit bomb fest you will find this side of Ishii and Shibata. There is no hedging going on here or attempts to please a diverse audience. The match was going to live or die by its blunt approach and was unapologetic in doing so.
Objectively – from a consensus viewpoint – that approach worked. The superlatives have come fast and furious for the Chris Hero/Tommy End versus Zack Sabre Jr/Sami Callihan tag team bout and they have come from nearly all directions. The Indy Corner called the match “one of the best tag matches I’ve ever seen in my life.” Voices of Wrestling’s EVOLVE 53 review referred to it as a “perfect tag team match”. Kayfabe Today asserted that “no tag match will come close this year”. The reviews have been nothing short of glowing. For the overwhelming majority that watched the match, the decision to build a match in the manner in which they did was an all-out success.
My opinion is clearly a dissenting one. It also might not be the “right” one – I am not arrogant enough to believe that everyone else is wrong but me – but the match did not strike the same chords with me as it did with most. As mentioned, the match knew what it wanted to be and to its credit it was unrelenting in its focus, but the high impact offense and stretch run was not enough to create a real sense of drama. Rather those elements – at the expense of other techniques –served to create a match that felt both tedious and overwrought.
One central element of the match was the focus on striking and the physicality of the high impact offense. Nearly every review makes mention of the strikes and physical nature of the offense in a positive manner. Kayfabe Today praises End and Hero’s strikes for the way the strikes “retain a degree of realism and produce a wince every time.” The Indy Corner put over the Hero and End tag team and noted how well their striking abilities complement each other. 411Mania included “striking and violence” amongst the match’s best attributes. Pro Wrestling Torch wrote positively about the way all four “beat the living hell out of each.”
The largest issue with the striking was that the strikes did little to instill a sense of danger or drama to the match. Hero is probably the best there is right now at producing great looking and sounding “slap” strikes but he often uses those moves the same way another wrestler might use a hard chop or repeated punches in an American pro style match. As good as Hero’s forearms and kicks might look and sound, they are utilized as mid-match offense. End works a different striking gimmick – he is ostensibly a kick boxer although his offense owes more to KENTA than Bas Rutten in reality – but his kicks and other strikes suffered from the same issue. In this match, for all of the good strikes that Hero and End threw at Sabre Jr., there was almost no reason to buy any of them as match-altering moves. Sabre Jr. shrugged some off, sold some before comebacks, and survived an almost laughable number of would-be major blows.
The announcers told us that the strikes were of high quality. The wrestlers sometimes did, mainly through Sabre Jr.’s selling of them or the shocked facial expressions from all four wrestlers when Sabre Jr. would somehow survive again. That was not enough for me to believe that the strikes were effective. As in all Hero matches – and most End matches – I would have far preferred for there to be less strikes in favor of all (or more) being utilized like knockout or near knockout blows. That might have been more effective in getting across the idea that they are dangerous moves. Telling me they are dangerous moves but then having guys survive a veritable barrage of them is far less effective.
Since the match did a poor job in making me see Hero and End’s strikes as potential high consequential moves, the only function left for them to serve was the role of “good-looking offense”. As mentioned, Hero is as good as anyone with the slapping strikes he does and End had some good kicks (the early counter sequence with Sabre Jr. was well done). The quality of the striking was fine – it was not a significant factor in my enjoyment of the match either way – but it was also not breathtaking enough in order for the match to succeed on that element alone. Matches can be very good on the strength of the moves alone. A lot of matches have succeeded on that alone. Personally, the quality of the offense here did not reach that level. The offense was fine, but not to the level where it could carry the match.
On a different but connected note, the match also received heavy praise for the prolonged ending. The Torch wrote that “the exchanges down the stretch were mind-blowing”. The Voices of Wrestling review put forward the idea that the end stretch was filled with believable false finishes. “The crowd and the good brothers following along at home bought each false finale. Think about that, how many matches in the last decade have accomplished that? Not many.”
I respectfully disagree that everyone bought each false finish. It goes back to the way the strikes were utilized. After an entire opening and body of the match where Sabre Jr. withstood loud strikes from his opponents, it was difficult to believe that these same strikes would all of a sudden do him in. The same could be said for the other high impact offense that was utilized. I get the impression that I was supposed to buy the near falls simply because Sabre Jr. had already taken so much punishment but in fact, the excessive nature of the offense throughout only served to accomplish the opposite. Rather than believe in the near falls for that reason, I was incredulous about them. A good near fall is often off of a move that is clearly a step above what came before it or is off of a counter after a possible match ending move is teased but not executed. End and Hero had already done so much 22 or 26 minutes into the match that there was little room to escalate the action late. Much of the late offense was more of a continuation from before rather than an escalation. They also had Sabre Jr. survive so much that it was difficult to believe they would the match on a counter like a roll up or quick strike (and if they had, that ending certainly would have fell flat).
The only falls where I bought the match might be over were a couple after the 25-minute mark and I bought those largely because Sabre had survived so much already and the match was more than long enough along to wrap up at that point. Even those did not resonate with me totally because when Sabre kicked out those pin attempts, it didn’t exactly illicit an “I really thought that was it!” response that you want from a false finish. Rather it was an “I thought that had a chance finish the match but am not shocked it didn’t” response.
When you rely on excess for near fall reactions, that is often what you end up with. Cageside Seats wrote “…but then all hell broke loose and the back half was epic, both teams trading bombs and breaking out all the stops to try and win.” “Breaking out all of the stops” was clearly what the wrestlers were going for near the end but that did not necessarily equate to a more dramatic ending. When the wrestlers do “break out all of the stops” – and they certainly came close here – they are going to eventually reach a point of diminishing returns on near falls and drama. I felt this match hit that point relatively early on – before the 25-minute mark – and then kept going. Yes, they “pulled out all of the stops” but did that really make the ending more dramatic or the false finishes more believable? For me at least, it didn’t.
Whether talking about the ending or the strike-heavy offense, the difference in opinion between my take and the consensus is that bigger/more did not equal better in this instance. There are a lot of matches in modern wrestling that bludgeon the viewer over the head with the idea that the match is great, dramatic, and impactful because of the volume of offense and the fighting spirit displayed by the wrestlers. For me, this felt more like a talking point that the announcers got over during the match and that the wrestlers occasionally played lip service to, rather than the match layout and execution drawing that response out of me. Compare this to the best of the Dragon Lee vs. Kamaitachi matches. Those matches had a lot of big offense and many near falls but also offense and near falls that built off of one another. This match rushed to the big offense and near falls and it lessened their overall impact as a result.
My last critique deals with the idea of this not just being a great match but also being a great display of tag team wrestling. By no means do all tag team matches have to follow a southern tag team structure. There are far too many quality tag matches that have gone down a different path to believe that to be true. However, there are concepts that are unique to tag team matches and when a match fails to utilize those concepts (or utilize them in a positive manner), then is the match deserving of the label “great (or perfect tag team match”? With the exception of a few near saves from Callihan late in the match (which played into that impromptu team’s eventual break up), this match likely could have been wrestled as a four way match and not lost any of the offensive or near fall elements that were so heavily praised. The drama surrounding an increasingly necessary tag, double team moves, quick tag outs, and partners saving partners were either downplayed or nearly non-existent.
It is easy to see what people liked about the match as all four guys really did hit the audience over the head with strikes, high impact offense, and kick outs to the point that you kind of become buried by all of it. The difference for me is that none of those elements served to make the match more compelling or dramatic for me and as mentioned above, some of those elements served to diminish the drama and overall entertainment value in some respects. For me, it was a match with a lot of ingredients – some good ingredients – that ultimately never came together in an exciting and compelling manner.