227 Lounge (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
27-year old New Japan wrestler Takaaki Watanabe has been floating around US Indies since last October as part of his learning excursion. He hasn’t done much during his eight month stay here. Originally assigned to Pro Wrestling Syndicate in New Jersey (despite the fact that PWS runs one show per month at most), Watanabe has only recently begun to get more regular work with Texas-area independent promotions, Smash Wrestling in Toronto, and Ring of Honor. This is the fourth or fifth time I have seen him and it is the best he has looked during his stay in the US.
Watanabe is such a prick in this match and a natural one at that. The story to set this match up was that Watanabe fouled Hero to elimination him from Smash’s 5-way championship decision match last month. Watanabe looks to still be satisfied with himself for his prior month’s actions. He has a very natural, subtle smirking-heel charisma about him.
Hero is less chipper of a mood and attacks Watanabe as soon as the bell sounds. After praising Hero (along with A.J. Styles) earlier in the year for bringing some much-needed slow build to the US Indie matches they are involved in, Hero has largely eschewed that in recent matches of his I have watched in favor of a more explosive start. In general, it is not a step up but it worked here given the backstory and the fact that Watanabe bailed at the first opportunity. That drew some nice heat and allowed the match to restart after Hero’s fiery start.
Watanabe showed very good heel instincts like that throughout the match. He posted for the crowd when he had the advantage, casually kicking Hero’s head to toy with him. At one point when the two wrestlers ended up outside the ring, he threw a chair in the ring that former WWE referee Jimmy Korderas quickly retrieved. As Korderas did so, Watanabe took advantage of the decoy by grabbing another chair which he walloped Hero with. The best of the lot was probably when he went up top for a move and Hero retreated to the opposite corner to avoid the move. Watanabe jumped off the rope and made the universal signs for indicating that someone is scared. Of course Hero made him pay for that and Watanabe bailed right after, immediately paying off the taunt.
Hero can overdo the big strikes from time to time but that wasn’t the case here. He hit a lot of them but it didn’t feel like the overkill that it sometimes become. The ending stretch was really fun with Watanabe fouling Hero yet again, but this time only getting a 2-count. Each guy kicked out of a signature move from the other (Hero’s roaring elbow and Watanabe’s back drop suplex) before a second roaring elbow put Watanabe down for good.
This was a fun match and it was nice to see both guys working with a solid in-ring backstory. Watanabe faces Christopher Daniels next month in Smash and it would be surprising to me if it was as good as this match. This one made me want to see a rubber match somewhere down the road between these two.
US Indies | Common | Quality & Performance (Watanabe)
Ring of Honor
Ted Reeve Arena (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
One of ROH’s main booking failures these days is a lack of flow from show to show. ROH books a lot of “this guy vs. that guy” matches. You walk away from watching a typical ROH card with the impression that several matches were unimportant and that a handful (or more) were simply warm bodies rather than wrestlers that are actually going anywhere. On paper, this appeared to be one of those matches. ACH is seemingly stuck on the ROH random-match hamster wheel. Bennett appeared to be booked against ACH as a way for him to kill time before his match with Tanahashi in New York.
All of that is probably still true, but I thought both guys (and the booking) did a nice job giving this seemingly random match a little more depth.
ACH goes after the knee early on and stays on it the entire match. This is noteworthy because ACH is generally not a big limb work guy. He’s also the face here and having the face work over the knee of the heel is not normal. Kevin Kelly is bad but I thought he was good here painting ACH’s focus on Bennett’s knee as ACH realizing he needs to become more multi-dimensional with his offense. That is, he cannot get by on just his high-flying even if it his is calling card. The revelation that Bennett has a significant knee injury last year but elected not to have surgery added a layer of depth to the ring work.
Bennett came off like a guy with a bum knee that got re-aggravated. There was a nice subtlety to his selling. Bennett still picks up the win, as he needed to because of his impending meeting with Tanahashi.
Bennett has some choice words for Tanahashi post-match and I couldn’t help but make the logic jump that this match was all a setup for Tanahashi to work the knee in their upcoming contest. This match and the call of it seemed to go out of its way to establish a knee issue for Bennett. Tanahashi just had success working a knee-work match versus Nakamura on April 6th. According to Meltzer, Tanahashi is looking to put on a memorable match with Bennett in New York. All of that taken together leads me to believe that Bennett is going to have his knee targeted heavily in New York by Tanahashi. It wouldn’t be a bad direction to go in.
This was a fine little opener on its own, but if it is indeed a setup for the Tanahashi match than this is the kind of setup booking that ROH (and really any promotion) could afford to do a lot more often to give undercard matches more depth and importance.
US Indies | Worthwhile | Quality & Booking
Turbinenhalle Oberhausen (Oberhausen, Germany)
wXw Unified World Heavyweight Championship
This match had a lot of hype from fans that witnessed it live and I could definitely see why. It wasn’t quite the MOTYC that some have made it out to be, but I enjoyed it quite a bit in spite of some of its flaws.
They actually billed Gresham at 5’2 or 5’3 (I don’t remember exactly which one) which in the world of professional wrestling worked heights and weights stands out for its accuracy. Poor guy really is so small – even by US indie standards – and far more solid than spectacular that you can see he would struggle finding regular gigs. He is extremely solid and well-rounded but if you are just eclipsing the five-foot mark you likely need more than “well-rounded” on your resume in order to stick out.
The bulk of the match is worked cat-and-mouse style with Gresham using his quickness advantage to get spurts of offense while End cuts him off in short order each time Gresham starts to get something going. End is hit or miss for me. I thought he was off versus Zack Sabre Jr. in January but this was a much better showing from him. His kicks generally looked good, his cut-offs were on the mark, and both guys worked a smart match. The mat work at the beginning was basic but effective. I thought all of Gresham’s dives looked good and were well placed within the body of the match.
They probably would have been better off stretching the mat work for a few extra minutes because the final few minutes of the 19-minute match got a little kick out and pop up happy. The cat-and-mouse sections worked well because you look at the two – End much bigger with a kickboxing arsenal and Gresham as the small but technically proficient wrestler – and that dynamic makes a lot of sense. Gresham taking copious amounts of punishment, shrugging it off, and hitting his own offense fits the visual expectations of this match up far less.
On the positive side, they could have gone much further with it. Like the Hero/Styles match from the following week, the match ends quickly via submission just when the match seems in danger of veering way out of control. I don’t know if sudden submission endings are turning into a new thing, but I would certainly welcome that trend on the indies over long kick-out fests.
US Indie | Worthwhile | Quality & Hype
Ring of Honor
Montgomery County Fairgrounds (Dayton, Ohio)
I have said it before about each guy individually, but there is a polish and noticeable experience edge to Styles and Hero that make them stand out amongst the current crop of US indie guys. Neither one is really a world-beater but they know what they to do and can largely execute it. So matched up against one another they have the exact kind of solid, easy to watch match you would expect.
I liked this match significantly more than their January match in Toronto. It felt like it was paced better and it held together a bit more solidly. The match becomes a bit too much of a seesaw battle towards the end but you are going to get that in Styles matches. Right before the finish they run through a 1 ½ minute or saw back-and-forth, pop right up sprint that appeared to be the start of the stretch run since they hadn’t really gone near fall heavy yet (at least relatively speaking). Then Styles does a cool little reversal into his leg submission hold and Hero gives up almost immediately.
I’ve seen the finish described as “out of nowhere” as a strike against the match, but I thought it worked in the match’s favor. The body of the match had enough back-and-forth that a stretch run of big near falls would have felt like overkill. I liked that they went all-out for a minute or two and then avoided going kick out crazy by going right to the quick submission. It was a bit different for what you usually see in ROH in that regard. I can’t remember the last time before this match where I was watching ROH and the finish came at a point where it sort of left me wanting more.
This is the best ROH match of the year so far, I think, and given the guys involved that is not super surprising.
US Indies | Worthwhile | Quality