What Is The Mixed Bag? A Slight Twist on the Traditional Wrestling Review.
Welcome, everyone, to the third installment 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 reports 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 and 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 we hope that you enjoy this week’s discussion.
— Ryan Clingman
NJPW, February 11th 2016, New Beginning in Osaka, NEVER Openweight Championship Match: Katsuyori Shibata vs. Tomohiro Ishii
I have far more to say on the topic of concussions, physical trauma, injuries, and the way that they should affect the evolution of pro-wrestling than what was said a couple of weeks ago in the Daniel Bryan article. A full length feature on this topic is coming, most likely for the Tag Rope Magazine in the next month or so, and of course, at the forefront of this discussion will be the likes of Tomohiro Ishii and Katsuyori Shibata.
The first seventy or so percent of their most recent encounter filled me with a sense of foolish optimism, as whilst most of the strikes were hard and audible, the majority were delivered to the significantly safer neck and shoulder region. However, slowly much of the disturbing violence — which makes for outstanding matches, but will have depressing consequences in the coming years — seeped its way back into this match-up. Shibata’s running boots were present, but were far less intense. Superplexes were present, but most of the bumps were safe. Then came the sharp backdrops, elbows to the face, and eventually a single thumping headbutt, similar in intensity to the ones we saw at the Dome.
Depressingly, these spots, whilst effective, were far from wholly necessary from a crowd reaction standpoint. Shibata debuted a kip-up for example, which garnered a huge reaction with no adverse health consequences. There were submissions spots of a similar ilk when the crowd was already up high and would react to just about anything. And yet, massive head slaps and a big headbutt, at least sounding concussive, were implemented, simply because that is what is done in matches of this sort.
We knew about concussions and their dangers well before Daniel Bryan, and as I said in the accompanying piece, everyone knows that being hit in the head is unhealthy — the question of how bad exactly, has been answered with a greater degree of accuracy in recent years. Everyone expected Bryan’s case to be a bad one, but seizures and lesions go far beyond what most anyone would have anticipated. These are serious, life altering issues, and the evaluation of matches of this nature cannot be taken lightly, and will not by this newsletter. At the same time, we only have a star rating system with which to address match quality, and have not quite come to terms with just how to properly critique matches of this nature in wake of an ever increasing body of research. We will thus follow with a rating befitting of the match itself, one not reflective of everything that has thus far been addressed. This may change in the future, and it will most certainly be discussed in the Tag Rope Magazine, but for now diatribes of this sort are the only modifications I have thought to make in reviews of matches of this sort.
NJPW, February 11th 2016, New Beginning in Osaka, Jay White vs. David Finlay
We have discussed this match before in many respects. There is only so far that one can take a Young Lions match after all, with the requirement for limited offence in the interest of honing fundamental skills and showcasing humility. At the same time, the opener to New Beginning Osaka was but another showcase of just how good the company’s two main foreign young boys are at this stage of their respective careers. The opening matwork was slick, the match layout solid, and the apparent influences on their slowly growing movesets many. We saw the expected stomps to the head inside of the Boston Crab from Finlay, a clear ode to Toshiaki Kawada, but also witnessed in the matches earlier stages some Zack Sabre Jr.-esque finger and arm work from White, Danielson elbows to the shoulder from Finlay, and even a Styles Clash inspired Boston Crab transition from White in the match’s finish.
Jay White and David Finlay, much like their Japanese colleagues, Yohei Komatsu and Sho Tanaka, continue to show remarkable rapid and continuous improvement. There is something special about watching rookies develop in any promotion, and NJPW is no exception. I don’t know how the NJPW or Stardom dojos have produced such remarkable young talent as of late, but the wrestling business will be better for it regardless.
IWGP Junior Tag Team Title Match: Young Bucks vs. reDragon vs. Matt Sydal & Ricochet — “We are the best tag team of all time, and all of you smart marks know it.” — Nick Jackson, prior to the commencement of the match. This was any and every tag team three-way the company is seemingly capable of doing. ***
IWGP Heavyweight Championship Match, Kazuchika Okada vs. Hirooki Goto: The main talking points for the main event of the first New Beginnings show from Osaka came from Goto’s attire — essentially 2016’s answer to Jinsei Shinzaki — and the finish, which saw Okada land three rainmakers before making the pin. I thought the final spot to be wholly egregious, with the double and triple rainmaker spots reserved only for Okada’s biggest opponents: Nakamura, Tanahashi, and Styles — for as much as I enjoy Goto, he is not a member of that list. Others on Twitter, such as Voices of Wrestling’s flagship account and Ru Gunn had a different interpretation, stating that Okada was simply disrespecting Goto by pinning him in such strong fashion. I stated on Twitter, and will state once more, that I simply cannot understand this logic, as in his 2014 G1 Final with Shinsuke Nakamura and Wrestling Kingdom 10 main event that same spot was centred around respect, and not underestimating an opponent’s resolve. Whilst Goto and Okada had a far more heated build to their match here, if Okada was to truly insult Goto, he would have finished him with something other than the Rainmaker, to show that he could put Goto away without even utilising his most powerful move. An alternative explanation is that Okada just really hates Jinsei Shinzaki. *** ½
Yoshiaki Fujiwara is a polarising in-ring performer. Some, like Dave Meltzer, believe that he was only ever a novelty worker in his heyday, one who mostly headbutted and struck his way through matches, with a limited move set, and limited upside. Others, like myself, feel that he was one of the best of his era, and an influence so strong on late 80s and 90s wrestling that he deserves inclusion in the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame, despite the fact that he isn’t even on the current ballot.
Even more divisive than Fujiwara in his prime, however, is the now 66 year-old grappler, who is nearly unanimously considered a good wrestler for his age, but not necessarily a good wrestler overall. As a fairly strong Fujiwara proponent overall, I believe that he is capable of having decent to strong mat-based matches on occasion, and when placed in the right scenario, such as his six-man match at the Tenryu retirement show, can still pull-out some great ones.
With all of this said, Fujiwara’s pre-Rambo appearance against Aoki was not the endearing performance of a disfigured and unsightly veteran, but instead a rather sad struggle of a man attempting to hold onto something that he once had by abusing his already broken body. The general work in this January 3rd match was passable, albeit fairly bland and a little clumsy, but the spot that earned this match my vehement disapproval was not the slow and uneventful work, or Fujiwara’s sickly appearance, but rather the spots that Fujiwara resorted to for reaction. Approximately mid-way through, Fujiwara decided to walk onto the apron, and, of his own volition, undo the protective covering of the steel behind the turnbuckle, ramming his head into it with substantial force. Not only was this a silly spot without context, or the knowledge of head trauma that we have today, but a down-right unacceptable one in 2016. It was egregious and deplorable on every level, and made even worse by the subsequent, albeit lighter, impacts of Aoki’s head against the same buckle.
A dumber spot in 2016 ladies and gentlemen? pic.twitter.com/NE7PbbQRNh
— Ryan Clingman (@RyanClingman) February 26, 2016
This may have been a technically fine match-up, but the masochistic brain trauma made me sad as the viewer of what may very well finish as one of my worst matches of 2016.
NJPW, February 14th 2016, New Beginning Niigata, IWGP Intercontinental Championship Match (vacant): Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kenny Omega
Some have lauded Kenny Omega’s victory over Hiroshi Tanahashi as a win on the level of Misawa over Tsuruta in 1990, Von Erich over Flair in World Class, and other such historic performances. I don’t believe that their match was quite that. This isn’t to say that it wasn’t an excellent contest, which is was, even with interference towards the final few minutes, but Kenny Omega simply isn’t going to be New Japan’s future top star. What Omega is, however, is a valuable component of the roster, replacing Styles in much the same way as Styles replaced Devitt in 2014 — a testament to New Japan’s booking as much as it is to Omega and Styles as performers and success stories.
Remarkably, Omega, who is fluent in Japanese and has lived in the country for years, acted as though he could only speak a few words in the post-match. This is unfortunate, as finding a gaijin fluent in the language, with wrestling ability, and charisma is a an exceptionally difficult task. At the same time, the company desperately required a top star for the Bullet Club heel faction if they were to maintain the unit, a spot which suits Omega perhaps even better than AJ Styles. And for as great as it would be to have Omega cut promos in Japanese, invariably, this would get him over as a babyface. Should Omega stay with Japan, which has for the longest time seemed his intention, then I would predict a babyface run at some point, as he is all but built for the role.
Some will criticise Omega for his theatrical delivery, reminiscent of an overly dramatic English anime or video game dub. Similarly, attention has been drawn to some of his more eccentric in-ring tendencies. However, the way in which Omega sold his leg in this match was not only near flawless, but also showcased Omega’s ability to work the main event NJPW style as well as most of the top talent. He sold with so many of the subtleties absent in not just NJPW limb-work, but WWE, ROH, and several other companies. He would drop Tanahashi, unable to bare his weight. He would moonsault with only only one leg on the ropes — in this way his selling far exceeded that of Okada a this year’s WrestleKingdom.
There were several other key narrative tid-bits scattered throughout. Omega used the Boma Ye knee and Styles Clash for instance, and it was those subtleties, solid base limb work from Tanahashi, and a good atmosphere with high stakes that made this match not only Omega’s best NJPW match to date, but a must-see encounter for the week in wrestling. **** ½ [MATCH OF THE BAG]
CZW, February 13th 2016, Sami Callihan vs. ‘Speedball’ Mike Bailey
As regular readers of the newsletter can probably attest — I love ‘Speedball’ Mike Bailey. He isn’t the best wrestler in the world at present, but given a few more years of working the indies with the world’s top talent and improving at the rate that he has been, he may very well ascend to that rank within the coming years. He is very much reminiscent of a young El Generico in this way.
Callihan is a man that I have been more mixed on. He is talented, certainly, but does things to actively repulse me in a manner that in no way draws heel heat. The “spit spot” is his signature, and whilst I am not entirely aversed to spitting in wrestling, it should be used exceptionally sparingly (a common criticism I have of Naito). In fact, I can’t think of but a single match or angle where spitting added any substantial additional value. This is, of course, with the exception of the Montreal Screwjob, and perhaps Hart/Undertaker from SummerSlam 1997, but the later was a minor moment in a year with far more important happenings, and the former a shoot.
With this being said, we saw three spit spots in the span of 15 minutes, disgusting me to the extent that I was ready to turn the match off at the site of another. It was low-class and unseemly, something that no one should have to resort to, almost ever. In fact, the times that it works are so rare that they are barely even worth mentioning. In spite of these spots, which took the bout down to some extent, Callihan and Bailey had a very good match in front of a CZW crowd, a fanbase with a generally bad reputation. Bailey kicked out of a package tombstone piledriver at one before being pinned with a far lesser manoeuvre in the sliding D. *** ½
EVOLVE 53 01/22: Matt Riddle vs. Peter Kaasa ** ½
EVOLVE 53 01/22: Tracy Williams vs. Fred Yehi *** ½
EVOLVE 53 01/22: Chris Hero & Tommy End vs. Zack Sabre Jr. & Sami Callihan **** ¼
NJPW 02/14: KUSHIDA vs. BUSHI *** ½
WWE Fastlane 02/21: Kevin Owens vs. Dolph Ziggler ***
WWE Fastlane 02/21: AJ Styles vs. Chris Jericho *** ¼
WWE Fastlane 02/21: Roman Reigns vs. Dean Ambrose vs. Brock Lesnar *** ½