What Is The Mixed Bag? A Twist on the Traditional Wrestling Review.
Welcome, everyone, to the seventh 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.
New Japan Pro-Wrestling Best of the Super Juniors Night 5, May 27th 2016, Ricochet vs. Will Ospreay
Unfortunately, whilst the bulk of the 2016 Best of the Super Juniors was underway, I was preparing for exams — unable to watch the tournament in real time. It is for this reason that I wasn’t able to, in any way, participate in the absurd Ricochet-Will-Ospreay match discussion that took place on Twitter, various message boards, and most major contemporary wresting podcasts several weeks ago. This was a disappointment to me at the time, as I was (quite wrongly) willing to rubbish the match before I had even seen it. Of course, this wasn’t due to the bizarre extent of the discussion that overtook wrestling media for all of a few days, nor was it out of contempt for either of the two men. No, I WANTED to dislike the match as a reaction to years of frustration watching highly tauted Ricochet matches, which, for one reason or another, simply failed to connect with me.
However, when I eventually got around to watching the match this past week, cold-to-luke-warm takes at the ready, I didn’t find the egregious self-unaware flip battles that litter big Dragon Gate shows and many a New Japan undercard. Rather, what Ospreay and Ricochet delivered was a nod and a wink to a style that I rarely care for, and an all out spectacle that I enjoyed from start to finish. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Ospreay-Ricochet from the Best of the Super Juniors 2016 was the best Ricochet match since his bout with KUSHIDA last year, and perhaps even better. This isn’t too say that the bout was a match of the year candidate, but at the same time the “lack of selling” — which had ludicrously discussed on several occasions by opponents of the match — patched one of the largest holes Ricochet has as a performer, his selling.
Ricochet’s selling has been his biggest weak point since his rise to prominence in 2011 . This isn’t because he “doesn’t sell”, but rather that when he does it feels more like he is checking a chore off of a “match to-do list” and less like an attempt to elicit an emotional response in his audience or progress the match along. This is by no means a fault of Ricochet alone, and extends to some wrestlers I very much enjoy at times, like Kazuchika Okada, for example. I didn’t feel this way whilst watching Ospreay-Ricochet. Rather, Ricochet and Ospreay felt like a battle between two super heroes, at different points in their careers, battling it out for superiority. Or, if you would like to get a little more meta, a battle for the top flippy-guy spot. Regardless, this match broke from the monotony. I have nothing against a self-aware, light-hearted story — in fact, it’s the kind of match I would like to see more of from the Ricochet’s and AR Fox’s of the wrestling world. *** ¾
Reviewing comedy wrestling can be rough sometimes. If done poorly it gets significantly easier, as the reviewer can just call the match “terrible” and move on. But what, then, about good comedy matches, how do we go about rating those? Whilst I feel strongly that wrestling as an art form is subjective, it is far easier to find some kind of common ground when discussing a serious match than a comedy one — after all, comedy in general is notoriously subjective. What makes this task even more difficult is that comedy wrestling (assuming we are dealing with intentional comedy here, and not just bad wrestling, which can be some of the best comedy wrestling around) is often made intentionally bad on a technical front, and would thus rank poorly when evaluated by more “serious” standards. Unfortunately for us, Kikutaro vs. Chuck Taylor was of the later variety.
Chuck Taylor has always been a bit of a goofy wrestler, but has shifted his focus, at least in PWG where I most often watch him, to strict comedy in recent years. And, whilst Taylor had some great matches as one half of the ‘Men of Low Moral Fibre’ with Kenny Omega and one third of F.I.S.T. in Chikara Pro, he has produced some of his most endearing and entertaining work as a comedy wrestler and colour commentator in PWG over the last several years. And so, when I read that ludicrous Kensuke Office and Osaka Pro comedy wrestler, Kikutaro, would be working Taylor in Reseda late last year, my interest was understandably peaked.
Amazingly, both men (although veteran PWG referee, Rick Knox deserves a good deal of the credit here too) greatly exceeded my expectations, producing one of the funniest wrestling matches I have seen in years. Whilst mostly slapstick the match (matches to be precise) also featured one of my most beloved pro-wrestling tropes — the game of heel one-upsmanship. Essentially, the entire match was a contest to decide the least incompetent — in the Ibushi Research Institute realm of believability and relation to real sport. However, matches like this go a long way in demonstrating the diversity of wrestling as a performance art, and this match in particular is short and self-contained enough to show to your non-wrestling-fan friends and family. The CM Punk and AJPW references may be lost on them, but there was enough there to make most anyone, if nothing else, just a little bit happier. *** ¾
New Japan Pro-Wrestling Dominion, June 19th 2016, Tetsuya Naito vs. Kazuchika Okada
I had initially written substantially on the specifics of this match before losing it to the curse of the great technological void indigenous to our base here at CCN HQ. However, this was likely for the better (at least in the particular case of this match), because locally, especially when thought of in a couple months’ hindsight, this match was essentially the same as the one delivered at Invasion Attack. What is more interesting to discuss – and in some sense this is a question no longer relevant – is the global structure of the match and its ramifications for New Japan and its booking.
Whilst the G1 is already underway, and many decided to leave judgment of this match’s finish – Okada regaining the IWGP Heavyweight Championship – until the end of the company’s biggest annual tournament. With Naito only managing but a single successful championship defence against Ishii before dropping the title back to Okada (who had himself captured the title fromTanahashi at the Tokyo Dome in January) hot-potatoing of the company’s top prize is a call for concern. This is especially so when considering the calibre of star that the company has lost in the last year – Shinsuke Nakamura and AJ Styles in particular. When a promotion has a loaded, star-studded roster – as was the case for NJPW in 2012-2014 or so – titles are important, but cases of hot-potatoing or poor booking may be excused with the upper card able to carry its own weight, as well as that of the championship if needed. This is no longer the case; NJPW needs a strong IWGP title now more than ever.
As for their Dominion match itself, Okada and Naito put on a good show with negligible interference after Okada requested that Naito send the rest of Los Ingobernables to the back. Okada busted out three consecutive Rainmakers, which has worked in the past, but on the this match didn’t build sufficient drama earlier to warrant it. As a consequence, like many Okada matches over the past year or so, we saw a memorable and technically immaculate finishing sequence preceded by a good 15 minutes worth of forgettable filler. *** ¾
New Japan Pro-Wrestling Dominion, June 19th 2016, Will Ospreay vs. KUSHIDA
As was the case with the Naito-Okada recap and review, the original report for this match was too lost to time due to aforementioned technical difficulties. Unlike that match, however, the major story of Ospreay/KUSHIDA II was the in-ring work, with Will Ospreay – coming off some harsh criticism his “lack of selling” in his Best of the Super Juniors bout with Ricochet – pulled off, quite easily, the best sell job of the entire show.
Admittedly, I am a sucker for limb work that leads to adaptations of move-sets, and that is what we got from Ospreay to a large extent in this IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title match. Perhaps the most memorable of these adaptions was a handless “handspring” from Ospreay – a move that I have never before seen, and didn’t even realize was physiologically possible. But, Ospreay performed one regardless. Unfortunately, however, whilst the “little things” were well attended to throughout the match’s majority we did see much of the Ospreay arm-work ignored towards the closing stretches – a shame given how much went into his selling early on. However, given his experience level and ability to perform high spots that very few others can, Ospreay is far more advanced on a selling front than he realistically should be at this point in his career.
For whatever reason, it has felt to me over the past year or so that Ospreay has a strong enate heel quality, which is most definitely a positive given that he has already succeeded as a top-tier babyface. With the CWC underway, a cruiserweight division soon to emerge, and the WWE on the hunt for prospective talent, Ospreay may very well be WWE bound in 2017. However, for the time being and as long as New Japan holds onto him, Ospreay is one of the best workers in the company – a significant asset, and superb number two behind KUSHIDA. **** ¼
WWE Battleground, July 24th 2016, Sasha Banks & Bayley vs. Charlotte & Dana Brooke
A pattern that I have noticed all too often in contemporary pro-wrestling, particularly in the WWE and NJPW, but the WWE to a far greater extent, is the decline in the importance and artistic substance of the middle 1/3 of most matches I see. Whether they are wasted away by meaningless chin-locks, inconsequential limb-work, or more recently, soulless spot after inconsequential soulless spot, the result is the same. It isn’t that the creativity isn’t there, as 2016/5 has seen some of the best finishing sequences that I can remember – Okada/Styles, Okada/Tanahashi, Nakamura/Tanahashi, Reigns/Lesnar I, Owens/Cena, and so on – but all of the drama, subtlety and emotion that I see in these big matches is compacted into the match’s final third or less leaving the rest feeling empty and frivolous. This is something that I hope to write about in greater detail within the next few months, but is certainly worth mentioning with respect to this match.
I have seen a few negative reviews of this match based on some sloppy and one or two blown spots. These criticisms are valid, however, for what was lost in precise execution and crispness was made up for in intensity. Unlike the majority of the WWE matches that I have seen this year, Banks, Bayley, Charlotte, and Brooke kept me engaged from start to finish with each minute of action feeling vitally important to the match’s conclusion – Banks tapping Charlotte out with the Banks Statement. These spots and moments didn’t even take the form of limb work or anything all too terribly creative, rather headlocks and needless rest holds were kept to a minimum, with the intermediary work delivered with sufficient intensity and passion to hold my attention from start to finish. *** ¾
WWE Battleground, July 24th 2016, Kevin Owens vs. Sami Zayn
In the WrestleMania Weekend instalment of the Mixed Bag several months ago, of the matches on the WrestleMania card itself ,we primarily discussed the Intercontinental Championship ladder match. Apart from being the best (or at the very least second best) match of the card, the ladder match delivered three of my favourite moments of 2016 in professional wrestling – Zack Ryder had his moment’s due and two of my favourite wrestlers of the late-2000s and early-2010s brought their perpetual rivalry to the biggest crowd in the history of the company in North America. Whilst both Zayn and Owens had great matches since and prior, their match at Battleground felt like the natural continuation of their WrestleMania debuts.
Battleground was the first time that Owens and Zayn managed to reignite some of the intensity of their hallmark feud of 2010 – delivering not only the best main-roster match of the year thus far, but also one of the best matches that I have seen out of North America in 2016. The bout couldn’t have been what their Ring of Honor wars were, not only for the obvious restrictions on blood, but also due to the wholly different kind of personality El Generico was in comparison to Zayn. Their Ring of Honor feud had months worth of tag team work behind it, and was left to simmer in a manner in which is entirely unattainable on the main roster for the upper echelon, let alone at the mid-card. At the same time Zayn and Owens got all that they possibly could out of this heated war – Zayn even going as far as to execute a sharp vertical suplex on the apron.
Of course dangerous spots don’t necessarily make for a good match, but much like the women’s tag earlier on the show, these two men did something that few others in the company have managed to do this year, and that is make the entirety of their performance count. **** ½ [MATCH OF THE BAG]
Brian Cage & Michael Elgin vs. Davey Richards & Eddie Edwards ***
Sami Callihan vs. Drew Gulak *** ½
Mike Bailey vs. Kenny Omega **** 1/4
Trevor Lee vs. Will Ospreay ****
Roderick Strong vs. Matt Sydal **** ½ [REPORT LOST TO TIME]
Marty Scurll vs. Timothy Thatcher **** [REPORT LOST TO TIME]
Matt Sydal vs. Trevor Lee **** ¼
Kenny Omega vs. Will Ospreay **** [REPORT LOST TO TIME]
Chris Hero, Mike Bailey, Candice LeRae & Joey Ryan vs. Young Bucks, Adam Cole & Roderick Strong *** ¾ [REPORT LOST TO TIME]
Will Ospreay vs. Mike Bailey **** ¼
Chris Hero vs. Josh Bodom *** ½
NJPW Dominion, June 19th 2016
Hirooki Goto vs. EVIL ***
Tomohiro Ishii & YOSHI-HASHI vs. BUSHI & SANADA ***
Katsuyori Shibata vs. Yuji Nagata **** [REPORT LOST TO TIME]
Michael Elgin vs. Kenny Omega *** ¾ [REPORT LOST TO TIME]
WWE Battleground, July 24th 2016
The New Day vs. The Wyatts ** ¾
Natalya vs. Becky Lynch ***
John Cena, Enzo Amore & Big Cass vs. AJ Styles, Karl Anderson & Luke Gallows *** ¼