What Is The Mixed Bag? A Twist on the Traditional Wrestling Review.
Welcome, everyone, to the sixth instalment of our ‘Mixed Bag’ series! For those unfamiliar, the ‘Mixed Bag’ is a slightly different take on the traditional title-recap-thoughts-rating review formula that is most often used in wrestling reviews from the Observer and Torch to Voices of Wrestling, and, yes, even the Cubed Circle Newsletter itself. Instead, the ‘Mixed Bag’ comprises very little recap, as a column that aims to provide worthwhile discussion of the matches in question, participants, and topics related to the match at hand, as well as pro-wrestling in general. Some weeks will feature more from specific shows and promotions than others, but generally speaking any bout from 2015/12/01-2016/11/31 is eligible for discussion. This is a segment dedicated to matches that I have personally seen and find worthy of prolonged discussion, and with only so much time, any match suggestions are always welcomed and appreciated. As always, thanks for reading, and I hope that you enjoy this week’s discussion.
— Ryan Clingman
New Japan Pro-Wrestling, March 3rd 2016, New Japan Cup, Kazuchika Okada & Kazushi Sakuraba vs. KUSHIDA & Katsuyori Shibata
Not to sound like a premeditated contrarian, but I expected to enjoy this match more than most had coming in. This isn’t to say that I heard any negative reviews of the match. I didn’t. But, three months after the fact I had very little recollection of major discussion of this match upon initial airing. The line-up itself had much the same appeal as what I believe to be one of the most underrated New Japan matches of the modern era — Katsuyori Shibata & Hirooki Goto versus Yuji Nagata & Tomoaki Honma from Dominion 2014. This exhibition tag match wasn’t as important, heated, or memorable as that encounter, but it was still one of the better tag matches of the New Japan year thus far and something. It was a match of a sort I would like to see more of on New Japan B-shows and undercards – a meaningful tag match involving top guys without a third wheel thrown in for the sole purpose of bringing the bout down to “filler” tier.
Of course, more newsworthy than the match itself, which saw Okada pin KUSHIDA with a Rainmaker, was the post-match where Kazuchika Okada announced the addition of Will Ospreay to the NJPW roster, and more specifically to his CHAOS stable. Ospreay, a definite unknown to the vast majority of the audience, made a connection with a pre-taped (subtitled) promo. Content and delivery wise Ospreay said everything that he needed to and delivered well enough, but what came through on the promo more than anything, and certainly more so in person within the months that followed, was Ospreay’s natural charisma, a charisma of a different sort than most any other gaijin or US indie talent. ****
New Japan Pro-Wrestling, March 3rd 2016, New Japan Cup, EVIL vs. Tomohiro Ishii
You know that EVIL is a heel when he interrupted one of the best theme songs in wrestling by attacking Ishii before the bell. On a more serious note, Ishii seemed to have lost some mass around his arms and legs heading into this tour. Aging is a possible explanation, but what is more likely is that Ishii was working with an injury once more, (or still, depending on the circumstances). This is the Japanese wrestling mentality, but is decidedly counterproductive for all involved.
Ishii, as in the vast majority of his matches, took most of the punishment and some worrying shots to the head, as well as several bumps straight onto his head and neck. The tests of strength, lariat battles, and a surprise STO from Ishii were the moves that garnered the biggest reaction here, and not big neck bumps, head shots, and backdrops mid-way-through. There is a time when this kind of work is necessary, and there is a time when it is okay. In the semi-main of a first round New Japan Cup show was not that time.
Nevertheless, Ishii, as he almost always does, put on a very good match, albeit at the grossly unnecessary expense of his health — and from any wrestler, let alone one of my very favourites, this was a scene that I would rather see less of.
New Japan Pro-Wrestling, March 4th 2016, New Japan Cup, Tetsuya Naito vs. Tomohiro Ishii
Naito received due praise in his formative years for his timing and layout work. However, Naito as a performer, even after winning the 2013 G1, failed to regain the momentum he had gathered prior to falling prey to a knee injury in late 2012. His fortunes changed with his bizarre heal turn, and much of his local and international popularity returned. Evident in this match though was the timing and layout work that he had become so well known in the months during and prior to New Japan’s revival in 2012 and 2013.
Naito, once the most reviled man in the entire company, had Korakuen, the building who had turned their backs on him as a babyface, eating out of his hands in this war against Ishii, one of the building’s favourites. Whilst by no means a psychological masterpiece, Naito’s subtleties, such as an absolutely perfect Liger kick which served to bring Korakuen up for the closing stretch coupled with Ishii’s pitch perfect selling made for the best match of the tournament, even if the opening moments saw excessive spitting.
Revolution Pro-Wrestling, June 12th 2016, RevPro Angle Vs. Sabre Jr., Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Kurt Angle
As one of Kurt Angle’s first matches post-TNA his RevPro main event versus Zack Sabre Jr. was very good, and when accounting for Angle’s Manabu Nakanishi like degree of mobility, perhaps great. Angle came into this match and probably out of his TNA run with a knee injury requiring him to wear a large black knee brace, which, for the most part, didn’t play heavily into the story of the match. However, for what this match lacked in terms of layout and general work, it, or rather the York Hall fans, made up for in atmospheric intensity.
Angle entered to his old WWE theme music, which led to an interesting crowd response — a massive pop followed by the customary “you suck” chants. Angle’s face when walking out to undoubtedly one of the biggest pops he has heard in years followed almost immediately by “you suck” chants for the first time since his WWE run was one of befuddlement, adulation, and amusement – one of the best personal wrestling moments of 2016 thus far.
The match’s most overtly negative quality was the result, with Angle submitting the British Heavyweight Champion with his ankle lock in a non-title match. This may have very well been a condition to secure Angle’s appearance, and in a few weeks or months most will have forgotten the finish with only memories of Angle’s gigantic pop, Sabre’s ovation, and some of the bout’s best exchanges to go by. In this way sacrificing some of Sabre’s credibility was warranted, especially if he is WWE bound. Still, one can’t help but question if there was a better way of going about this.
WWE NXT, June 8th 2016, Takeover: The End, NXT Tag Team Championship Match, American Alpha vs. The Revival
I was lower on the opener to Takeover Dallas than most, but I am confident in my assertion that, as far as go-go-go matches are concerned, this match wouldn’t have been out of place as a great mid-2000s ROH tag, or a Minnesota Wrecking Crew/Guerrero’s/Mysterio/Edge type bout on an early 2000s SmackDown pay-per-view. American Alpha are one of the best tag teams on the planet as of right now, and The Revival have gone from a dissimilar pair of wrestlers so generic that I couldn’t tell the bald one apart from the other, to an tremendous tag team in their own right. This match was out of control, but in the best, most intense and deliberate way — in the Shield/Evolution kind of way. **** ½
WWE NXT, June 8th 2016, Takeover: The End, NXT Championship Match: Samoa Joe vs. Finn Balor
Of all my wrestling pet peeves, entirely irrational or otherwise, few are more grating than the nonsensical and counterproductive rules of the WWE steel cage match. The quirks of the WWE cage are long established and deeply entrenched in the 80s and 90s when the biggest of blood feuds were settled inside of a cage in which escaping through the door or over the top could be constituted as a suitable end to a blood feud.
Joe and Balor couldn’t match the intensity of their Dallas match. Some of this was out of their control, with hard way coming at the best possible time in their third contest. On the other, this bout was more reserved starting and ending slower. Still, the biggest problem here, both for intensity, storytelling, and overall match quality was the escape the cage rules. Just as I had seen Balor fight Joe off in an attempt to regain his title, or Joe smash his nemesis into the mat, the man on offence would begin to climb, or focus on the cage door, completely killing any sense of perceived hate amongst Joe and Balor for me.
This is damaging for the image of a babyface in particular — after all, what kind of babyface edges to the door representing the easy way out of a feud against a man that he presumably despises? It’s a silly rule, one that has led to the same tried tropes used in dozens of cages.
Regardless of the stipulation, Joe and Balor both worked hard in the main event of this special, as I would imagine pretty much everyone would have expected going in. Joe retained with a top rope muscle buster, a move that he hasn’t utilised in many a year. Balor will probably go further in the company than Joe, but in terms of talent, whilst I think that Balor is a wonderful performer, Joe may be the closest the promotion will come to Brock Lesnar for some time. He is absolute gold.
New Japan Pro-Wrestling, April 10th 2016, Invasion Attack, IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship Match: KUSHIDA vs. Will Ospreay
I don’t think that anyone, including KUSHIDA or Ospreay themselves, could have hoped for a better overall debut Ospreay performance and reception than what we got here. On a technical front I would have liked to have seen Ospreay get a bit more offence in early in order to establish him before KUSHIDA went to work on his arm, but this is an admittant nitpick. KUSHIDA, as the ace of the junior division and one of the very best workers, not only in New Japan Pro-Wrestling, but in the entire world, helped convey Ospreay’s world class talent to an audience that had, for all intents and purposes, never seen him before. One of the cleverest spots of the entire match came when Ospreay did Okada’s Rainmaker pose and went for the move, presenting a crowd that had come in cold something that they could reference and subsequently pop for. Very few, including AJ Styles in his New Japan debut against Okada in Fukuoka, managed to debut in as impressive form as Ospreay did here. **** ¼
New Japan Pro-Wrestling, April 10th 2016, Invasion Attack, NEVER Openweight Championship Match: Katsuyori Shibata vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan
For whatever reason Hiroyoshi Tenzan has had his best singles performances of the last five to seven years with two men — AJ Styles and Katsuyori Shibata. This trend held true this match with Shibata holding little back — despite the physical state and age of his opponent. Whilst this dynamic made for a good match, Shibata took undue liberties when ramming his head at full-force into that of Tenzan, a spot which did little more than put both performers at risk of concussion and all of its terrifying consequences.
This is especially true when considering the role of Tenzan’s straggly mullet in this spot, as the whip of his head serves to mask much of the physical content, or optimally, lack thereof. Some in the company are smart enough to take note of this. Tetsuya Naito in his New Japan Cup match at Korakuen Hall against Ishii, made great use of his and Ishii’s physical positioning to make forearms, elbows, and other strikes look real, whilst still protecting his opponent. This wasn’t always the case with Naito, who in his prior matches with Ishii looked to go all out as far as physical punishment was concerned. Elsewhere, of course, there are those who are able to make their strikes look brutal without putting themselves or their opponents at risk — Chris Hero is one of the most adept at this.
Thus, whilst I enjoyed this match on a visceral level, like many matches involving reckless and negligent head trauma, the headbutt spot, instead of enhancing a sense of realism in the match, instead acted to remove me from its story — wincing at the thought of Tenzan and Shibata’s brains rattling in their heads as a shoot.
New Japan Pro-Wrestling, March 3rd 2016, New Japan Cup
Satoshi Kojima vs. Tomoaki Honma *** ¼
Yuji Nagata vs. Hirooki Goto *** ¼
New Japan Pro-Wrestling, March 4th 2016, New Japan Cup
David Finlay vs. Jay White *** ¼
New Japan Pro-Wrestling, March 12th 2016, New Japan Cup
Jay White vs. David Finlay ***
Hirooki Goto vs. Michael Elgin *** ¼
Hirooki Goto vs. Tetsuya Naito *** ¼
New Japan Pro-Wrestling, April 10th 2016, Invasion Attack
EVIL & BUSHI vs. Hirooki Goto & Tomohiro Ishii *** ¼
RPG Vice vs. Matt Sydal & Ricochet *** ¼
Tetsuya Naito vs. Kazuchika Okada ****
The Young Bucks & Kenny Omega vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi, Michael Elgin, and Yoshitatsu *** ¼
WWE NXT, June 8th 2016, Takeover: The End
Tye Dillinger vs. Andrade Almas ** ¾
Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Austin Aries *** ½
Asuka vs. Nia Jax *** ½