Mixed Bag Volume 8: A Tad Late – Highlights from WrestleMania Weekend I

Intro

Ricochet vs. Keith Lee from EVOLVE 80. Photo credit ESPN.

It has been roughly a year since the publication of the last Mixed Bag. This staggering fact comes, in all likelihood, as a result of a number of things, not the least of which being a heavy 2016 and 2017 workload coupled with the most comically distressing of all ailments – narcolepsy. My hope had been to catch up on what, from my understanding, had been an incredible second half of 2016 in professional wrestling during our December holidays of last year, but pro-wrestling (especially comfy grappling mat-work, a style I am particularly fond of) tends to relax me like few other forms of entertainment. And so it should come as no surprise that I spent much of my December pro-wres viewing semi-conscious at best, and fully asleep for the majority of the remainder.

These physiological changes brought with them surprising changes in my viewing habits and preferences. If I had little taste for the “do nothing until the last five minutes and then cosplay your favourite mid-2000s ROH match” of the main roster WWE before this development (and NJPW in some instances too) I had lost it all by the end. I fell even deeper in love with sprints during this time. The top of 2016’s G1 was wonderful and all, but there are only so many times that you can watch the same Naito vs. Kenny Omega opening sequence before you hope for something more manageable. In fact, as deliberately contrarian as this comment may seem, one of my favourite matches from my late-2016 viewing experience was, of all things, Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar at Survivor Series, a match that I may have gone as high as **** 1/4 on at the time. For similar reasons I didn’t think much of either John Cena versus AJ Styles bout – finding it tough to muster but a *** 1/2 rating for those looking for snowflakes like me.

It is now the 2017 winter holidays here in the Southern Hemisphere and I have, thankfully, gotten the narcolepsy under control for the most part. This has probably been my single greatest personal happening of 2016-2017 the constraints it relaxes. This isn’t to say that many of the opinions that I developed during my hiatus no longer hold, however. I have a whole article devoted to Brock Lesnar vs. Bill Goldberg as the distilled perfection of the WWE main event match coming up, and another devoted to some of the wonderful sprints we have been treated to over the past several months as a collective. However, as we shell get to in the coming weeks, if a match is able to engage me throughout its run-time, like Kenny Omega vs. Kazuchika Okada II, then my short match bias disappears. This would have been a physical impossibility several months ago, as above all else I wouldn’t have been able to sit through the vast majority of their Dome match, let alone their Dominion draw.

Even for The Mixed Bag segment which, in the past, has followed a non-standard format, we will be taking a somewhat different approach over the next few weeks as we play a game of catch-up, as well as cover more topical matches. The plan is to (and plans change here at the CCN at a pace equitable to the direction of a WWE creative meeting) include some snippets from 2016 that I would like to seek out. Not all of this will take place in The Mixed Bag segment, as we have the aforementioned Lesnar-Goldberg piece coming through the pipeline soon, as well as a look into what may be the most interesting match of the last few years, Kazuchika Okada vs. Katsuyori Shibata. We will have far more information on the holiday schedule, as well as some exciting website developments in some upcoming announcements.

If, by some miracle, you are unfamiliar with the Mixed Bag feature and have made it this far you may be wondering exactly what this regular feature is about. In short: no one knows! In a few paragraphs:

The Mixed Bag is an alternative take on the traditional pro-wrestling show and match review format. Instead of working through entire cards match-by-match, spot-by-spot – an often tiresome endeavour for both readers and writers alike – the Digest instead looks to “pick the jewels from the fruit” exploring topical pro-wrestling themes, trends, and points of contention within the context of the wrestling itself. Spot-by-spot breakdowns are an important resource, but there are other writers that do it better, faster, and more efficiently than I ever could (including on this very website!). I realized during my stint as NJPW and RAW reviewer that digging into the minutia of pro-wrestling matches and television was more trouble than it was worth, creating a stressful and tiring environment that ultimately detracted from my enjoyment of the medium.

This series is a manifestation of my desire to circumvent this, both for myself as a reviewer as well as for readers of this fine website. The Mixed Bag, is, in essence, my pro-wrestling viewing diary, as well as a forum for passing thoughts and observations on current trends in the medium.

Match recommendations are always highly appreciated and will be mentioned where applicable. Feel free to tweet @RyanClingman, @CubedCircleWres, or email ryan <at sign gimmick> cubedcirclewrestling.com with match suggestions, criticisms, and general feedback for the column.

As always, thanks for reading!

The Men with the Power: Keith Lee vs. Donovan Dijack, EVOLVE 81, March 31st 2017

In the second half of the June 8th DKP podcast, Alan Counihan and Dave Musgrave as part of Alan’s ongoing “I Was There When Series…” series discussed the legendary Dragon Gate six-man from WrestleMania Weekend 2006. That trios spectacle in Chicago, a hallmark of mid-2000s Ring of Honor, is often likened to the ECW Barely Legal Michinoku-Pro six-man from close to a decade earlier. The two bouts, beyond sharing stylistic origins, were both immediate introductions to cutting-edge and entirely novel genres of pro-wrestling for their respective American audiences.

Naturally matches of this sort are rare throughout history, but in the current decade where global wrestling styles are perhaps as homogeneous as they have ever been, we may be approaching a point where they become all but impossible – if not for the homogenization factor, then simply due to accessibility of footage and growing hardcore slant of the general wrestling fan. Alan, on that same show, gave a more interesting recent example of an exotic US import – namely Pete Dunn vs. Tyler Bate from January.

Bate-Dunn is likely the last stylistic revelation the US scene will see for some time, however, in a more understated fashion we have been subject to the reveal of America’s best kept secrets becoming somewhat of an annual tradition at WrestleMania Weekend. In 2014 and 2015 the Catch-Point crew made their names, enlightening many, including myself, to the greatness of Timothy Thatcher, Drew Gulak, and friends.

This year’s Mania Weekend belonged to the big lads – Keith Lee and Donovan Dijack. Having followed Ring of Honor more closely several years ago than I do now, I recognized the Dijack name as it continued to pop up with increasing frequency throughout 2016 and 2017. As addressed in our look into his EVOLVE 80 match with Ricochet, however, I had no visual familiarity with Keith Lee leading into the weekend – only recognizing the name from podcasts and reviews from the later months of 2016.

As it turns out I could have entered the Weekend as unfamiliar with Dijack as I had been with Lee. In terms of presence and in-ring ability he had undergone a near complete metamorphosis. We have seen big men fly before. Uhaa Nation, now Apollo Crews, is a notable example of a big man (at least in terms of build) who demonstrated the extent to which a powerhouse could keep up with the ever escalating athleticism of lighter wrestlers. For as great as Uhaa was, however, Keith Lee and Donovan Dijack have the star power and additional size to make their athletic showcases all the more spectacular.

Lee-Dijack was like a beefier, sloppier, and clumsier Dragon Lee-Kamaitachi match in that the pair have helped build their names off of their bouts leading into this match, and went on to wow this Orlando crowd in much the same way as I can imagine they did in AAW, BEYOND, NEW, and any other crowd they have worked this year. One could argue that Lee and Dijack also have similar mental disorders as their Japanese and Mexican counterparts given the madness that unfolded here.

It was also like Dragon Lee-Kamaitachi in another sense – regardless of wrestling knowledge or enthusiasm popping friends and family by flipping Dijack-Lee on (as with most Lee/Kamaitachi bouts) is child’s play. Leap frogs, arm-drags, and dives to the floor are impressive enough for giants – catching a springboard tope con giro mid-dive and landing a powerbomb on the apron out of it is another matter entirely. I have seen this match five times thus far and it hasn’t gotten old. Admittedly my viewing experiences have been selfishly enhanced by the reactions of my non-obsessive friends and family I coerced into watching it. If you haven’t seen this match seek it out immediately, and after you have finished with that force everyone you know to seek it out too.
**** 1/2

The Classic Southern Tag Reworked for 2017: Travis Banks & AC Cooper with Thalia Black vs. Chris Dickinson & Jacka, WWN SuperShow, April 1st 2017

This was my first exposure to The South Pacific Power-Trip; although I had, of course, heard about them on podcasts and forums over the past few months. My unfamiliarity was unintentional – due more to my general backlog growing at alarming rates during a period of academic strain on my end. But, regardless of background or prior exposure, much like Keith Lee they stole my wrestling heart here – as did Jacka and Dickinson, to whom I had a similar familiarity.

Photo credit the great Speedy’s Productions! (www.facebook.com/speedysproductions/)

The South Pacific Power-Trip, for those unfamiliar, look like your typical hyper-athletic, kick-pad wearing, indie start-ups, which they are to some extent, but this description would do the team an injustice. They are this generations Future Shock – only much better at this stage of their respective careers than even the early stand-outs, Adam Cole and Kyle ‘O Reilly. Dickinson and Jacka on the other hand are thick scowling bruisers, thicker than Timothy Thatcher, and leaner and more rugged than Jeff Cobb or Michael Elgin. Jacka has a particularly unique look, the love child of Rampage Jackson and Rocky Romero if such a thing was physically possible.

On Twitter I claimed that this was the ideal modern adaption of the tried and tested traditional Southern Style tag team match. It most certainly started out that way, with a molten hot crowd cheering Cooper on as he was ruthlessly mauled by Dickinson and Jacka. Once the hot tag was made and Orlando became unglued. They proceeded to work an enthralling amalgam of catch-point style and the go-go-go Ring of Honor layout of the mid-2000s. There was lot’s of no selling and big spots, but not of the sort we see often, or at least not very many of them. The high spots were, more often than not, closer to Ishii/Shibata than Ricochet/Ospreay.

Some will say that this match was a “spot-fest” or “indie-riffic”, and that may be the case, but in ever sense this match was hotter than any “self-conscious epic” you will see on some much bigger shows. It was a feverous blur, better in every way than Scurll/Ospreay from Highstakes 2016, and more substantive than an AJ Styles/John Cena. This was a spot-fest, this was a mat-battle, this was a Southern tag, this was a slug-fest, this was mid-2000s ROH, this was a coming out party, this was one of the best tag matches you will see on Planet Earth in 2017.
**** 3/4

The Man of the Hour: Keith Lee vs. Ricochet, EVOLVE 80, March 30th 2017

Ricochet lands a heel kick on Keith Lee at EVOLVE 80. Photo Credit FloSlam.

This was my introduction to Keith Lee after abandoning an impossible backlog stretching to the final quarter of 2016 and beyond. At first I was simply attracted to the man’s music – some bass-y, purpose-written hip-hop not dissimilar to Chris Hero’s indie themes. But within 20 seconds of strutting through the curtain it was clear – as clear as for any young indie talent I have seen on first viewing – Keith Lee is a future pro-wrestling mega star.

On the indies Lee certainly has an advantage – there aren’t all too many true man-mountains walking around. Lee isn’t freakishly tall (6’2), but he is THICK with fantastically broad shoulders and a giant head. As I wrote on Twitter at the time with not even the slightest hint of hyperbole, “Keith Lee is like the glorious love child of Dusty Rhodes, Mark Henry, Jeff Cobb, and Uhaa Nation.”. That analogy is ridiculous, but that’s because Keith Lee is ridiculous.

He shouldn’t have such pitch perfect facials at this point in the game. He shouldn’t have the selling ability having only worked on minor indies since 2005. He shouldn’t connect the way he does. He shouldn’t have the main event timing. He shouldn’t be able to fly like those half his size. And yet here he was, a man that, barring a serious accident stood before this Orlando crowd a future professional wrestling superstar – or at least as big of a superstar as the power’s that be will allow at this point in wrestling’s history.

The match itself was a lot of fun, even coming from someone generally low on Ricochet. Ricochet was a great bouncing ball for the living, breathing, slamming, bumping Tokusatsu monster that is Keith Lee. They may have sunk into the “indie” near-fall trap (although it isn’t an indie trope anymore as much as it is a global wrestling one), but the selling from Keith Lee, was so on point for this spot on the show that this good but not great match got bumped up several notches as a result.

In several years I probably won’t remember much from this match itself, this card, or even much of the weekend itself, but I can assure you, dear reader, that I will remember the first time I saw THE MAN OF THE HOUR THE KING OF THE RING, Keith Lee. ****

Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Michael Elgin, EVOLVE 81, March 31st 2017

Elgin prepares to throw a big forearm at Sabre Jr’s forehead. Photo credit @WayneMason.

It’s difficult to determine whether this came as the result of fan burnout, over-exposure, performer fatigue, poor micing, layout, unfair expectations, or some combination of factors, but both this match and the one that followed, Drew Galloway vs. Leo Rush, fell well short of my expectations. I felt the same for Sabre’s match on the previous day’s show against ACH,. But Sabre’s EVOLVE 80 match, I probably wasn’t in the minority here.

Of course, with as many shows promoters had booked over Mania Weekend 2017, and consequently with the number of dates the top indie talent were working, even over the course of a few hours, some disappointments were expected. And unfortunately, for as much as I love Zack Sabre Jr. (one of my favourite wrestlers in the world) his style isn’t suited to repeated exposure over an exceedingly short periods. On the other hand, the match was far shorter than it had any right to be, almost certainly due to both Elgin and Sabre being booked at the RevPro show over at the WrestleCon venue a couple hours after the conclusion of this bout.

Sabre bled lightly from a cut over his eye, a wound remaining from a PROGRESS show earlier in the day at the same venue (he worked the opener of that show too), but it didn’t play significantly into the match. It looked like the referee was actually going to try and clean him up WWE style, which would have been disastrous in front of a crowd that, at least on the live stream, far from lively.

Given the working circumstances of both men this marquee match should have perhaps been reserved for EVOLVE’s next double shot New York. At the same time, it should be stated that even Elgin and Sabre Jr., rushed and perhaps even a little burnt out, is still worth seeking out, even if only for a stiff slap battle on the apron.
*** 1/4

Drew Galloway vs. Lio Rush, EVOLVE 81, March 31st 2017

One of my favourite things in independent pro-wrestling since Galloway’s return to the indies in 2014 have been his battles opposite smaller wrestlers. Galloway, already towering over most everyone outside The Land of the Giants, looked orders of magnitude more physically imposing against the tiny Leo Rush. As was expected, Rush was rag-dolled for a great portion of the match, with particular brutality shown on the outside where he was haphazardly tossed into the ring-post and slammed onto the apron.

In 2015 Galloway and Mike Bailey had what was a personal all-time PWG highlight. That was a match that, in hindsight would probably rank as one of my favourite matches of that year, although not one I would place over one of the most overlooked matches of the decade, Roderick Strong vs. Mike Bailey from April of that same year. Tangent aside, I didn’t expect Galloway and Rush to reach such heights on this show – those would have been unfair. Still, what we got under-delivered.

The proceedings concluded in a joltingly abrupt fashion with Lio Rush, a hot prospect for EVOLVE and the indies in general, alongside Keith Lee and Dijack (*), capturing an upset on the ultimate over-dog, Galloway. Even without the flat finish, this bout failed to satisfy, with Rush rendered uncharacteristically unmemorable, particularly in the closing stretch where I would have expected him to shine brightest.
*** 1/4

(*) This review was written during WrestleMania Weekend – well before the WWE signings of Dijack or Rush became public knowledge.

Other Star-Ratings

EVOLVE 80, 2017-03-30:

Tracy Williams & Fred Yehi vs. Michael Elgin & Donovan Dijack *** 1/2
Zack Sabre Jr. vs. ACH (I need to rewatch and come back to this)

EVOLVE 81, 2017-03-31:

Matthew Riddle vs. Fred Yehi **** 1/4
Darby Allin vs. Ethan Page *** 1/4
Timothy Thatcher vs. ACH *** 1/2

WWN Supershow, 2017-04-01:

Keith Lee vs. Jason Kincaid vs. Austin Theory vs. Gatekeeper #1 *** 1/2
LuFisto vs. Toni Storm *** 1/4
Zack Sabre Jr. vs. Mark Haskins *** 3/4
ACH vs. Pete Dunn ****

Next Time

In the next installment of the Mixed Bag we conclude our look at this year’s WrestleMania Weekend with some rather scattered thoughts on ACH-Dunn, some show at a camping site, one of the best sprints you will see this year (to be posted separately), the WWN super-show, Riddle, Severn, and more!

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