The world of professional wrestling is so vast and fast-moving that it’s damn near impossible to keep up. Luckily, your pals at Deadshirt are here to keep an eye on squared circles everywhere, from modest bingo halls to packed football stadiums, and bring you the most notable matches and storylines from throughout the past week. And it’s a good thing, too, because there’s just TOO MUCH WRESTLING!
SmackDown Live (WWE)
February 21st, 2017, Citizen’s Bank Arena, Ontario, California
Last year, WWE made a lot of noise with their “Women’s Revolution,” which acknowledged the talent and potential of the generation of female performers coming up from their developmental program in NXT. The revolution was built for Charlotte Flair, Sasha Banks, and those who come after them, who have since brought the house down in main events and intense stipulation matches the likes of which the preceding “Divas” generation would never have been permitted to perform.
Monday Night Raw’s women’s division is focused almost entirely on this new generation, but SmackDown Live has a mix of both NXT athletes like Becky Lynch and performers better known from the reality series Total Divas than for their wrestling, namely Nikki Bella, Natalya, and Naomi. On paper, this might seem to work to SmackDown’s detriment, being saddled with wrestlers who were brought on board when model-hot looks were more important to the company than athleticism, but instead of dismissing them as phonies, SmackDown Live has taken every opportunity to demonstrate that the former “Divas” can have great matches—that it was never talent they were missing, just opportunities to shine.
This week’s episode of SmackDown gave nearly its entire first hour to female talent, including a Women’s Championship match and an intense Falls Count Anywhere contest, but it’s the opening promo that stands out as the highlight of the episode. Nine days earlier at Elimination Chamber, Divas era midcarder Naomi finally won her first WWE title from the Five Feet of Fury, Alexa Bliss, and was received by thunderous cheers and chants of “You deserve it!” This is a woman who languished at the bottom of the ladder for years when the division was at its worst—she probably never thought her day would come, let alone that it would be so well received.
But Naomi’s triumph is paired with a small tragedy in the form of a knee injury that is expected to keep her out of action through WrestleMania, which will be held in her hometown of Orlando. Rather than allow the belt to collect dust heading into the show of shows, a teary-eyed Naomi agrees to vacate the title, handing it to a sympathetic General Manager Daniel Bryan, who had to make that same tough call twice in his own career. And as Naomi retreats back up the ramp, cheers and chants transition into boos and howls as the former champ Alexa Bliss makes her way to the ring and mocks the former Diva for her injury. The heat on Bliss is nuclear.
A California crowd is screaming at an NXT call-up for mocking one of the lesser stars of Total Divas. The curse is lifted, the stigma of reality TV is forgotten. The rehabilitation of the WWE Women’s Division is complete.
Extra High Spots: The Naomi/Bliss promo was followed by two matches—a contest for the vacant title between Bliss and Becky Lynch, and that insane Falls Count Anywhere match between Nikki Bella and Natalya, two more Total Divas alums who have ascended to hardcore gimmick match status. Both matches were fun, staged totally differently, and part of completely isolated story lines. Good stuff.
– Dylan Roth
The Smarks Have Taken Over the Asylum
WCPW Loaded (WhatCulture Pro Wrestling)
February 20th, 2017, Newcastle, England
WhatCulture Pro Wrestling is a curious animal to begin with. WhatCulture.com is basically what BuzzFeed was five years ago: a popular site for quick, clickbaity listicles and snark about entertainment. When their WWE coverage became insanely popular on YouTube, their stars and writers who frequently claimed (as many smart marks do) that they could book a wrestling show better than the pros do, decided to put their company’s money where their mouths were and open their own wrestling federation. And regardless of what you think of their output of WWE criticism, I think the idea behind WCPW is admirable, and the pro wrestling community seems to agree. Since opening their doors in June of last year, WCPW has quickly inserted itself into the indie wrestling circuit, attracting Internet darlings and former WWE main eventers. They’re a wrestling promotion by the Internet, for the Internet, on the Internet, and it seems to be suiting them pretty well so far.
This week’s episode of Loaded is the second half of a taped event that took place last week in the aftermath of their iPPV True Legacy, which had an absolutely stacked card featuring Ricochet vs. Will Ospreay, Nixon Newell vs. Tessa Blanchard, and Kurt Angle’s final match in the U.K. before joining the WWE Hall of Fame, against fellow former WWE champion Alberto El Patron. This week’s episode opened with Alberto spitting absolute fire on “Local Hero” Joe Hendry, who turned heel on Kurt Angle during the legend’s farewell at True Legacy. Seeing Alberto perform as a foul-mouthed badass babyface makes it immediately clear why he wanted to be released from WWE—you absolutely have to let this man speak off the cuff. You absolutely have to let him say “fuck.” After being unable to hide how miserable he was during his last WWE run, it’s startling to see the former Alberto Del Rio having so much fun in the ring. Good for you, you cradle-robbing weirdo.
Much of this episode’s midcard was forgettable (even Ricochet’s match against Travis Banks was just okay), and I place a lot of the blame on the lifeless guest commentary team of Lucha Underground’s Matt Striker and legendary voice of WWE Jim Ross, who, I’m sorry, just doesn’t have it anymore. But the show came to life to me for the main event, which saw new WCPW Tag Team Champions The Swords of Essex—Scott Wainwright & Will Fucking Ospreay—butt heads with babyface wrestler and acting General Manager Martin Kirby and the WCPW Champion Drew Galloway. Ospreay thinks he’s owed a shot at Galloway’s title, and the match tells the story of Ospreay changing Galloway’s perception of him. Before the match, Galloway sees Ospreay as most people do—as one of the world’s best young wrestlers whose ego is a little out of control. By the end, the Swords of Essex have Galloway at his wits’ end, and he’s practically frothing at the mouth for a shot at Ospreay.
The match is controlled chaos, with different permutations of the four fighters steadily trading in and out of the ring. Martin Kirby woos the crowd with his fun, dorky moves like the Zoidberg Elbow (set up by cartoonishly crab-walking across the second rope) and a long stalling vertical suplex that ends with him setting his opponent back on his feet and then poking him in the eyes. Galloway comes off as incredibly strong, like a champ should, but the tag team of lifelong friends Ospreay and Wainwright is more than up for the challenge. And after Kirby takes a missile dropkick to the back of the head and eats a pin, Ospreay nails Galloway with a low blow. The furious champ vows not just to defeat the young Aerial Assassin, but to break his legs.
After about a half hour of wondering if I’d even watch another episode, WCPW now has me absolutely hyped for their title match at WCPW Exit Wounds, free on YouTube the first Monday of March.
Extra High Spots: While it didn’t blow me away, any Ricochet match is worth watching. His showdown with Travis Banks subverted my expectations by starting off with a lot of great fast mat wrestling, building anticipation for the top rope action you expect from the Future of Flight.
– Dylan Roth
Why You Gotta Be So Roode?
February 22nd, 2017
Full Sail University, Winter Park, Florida
I’m not going to mince my words here, NXT has lost a lot of its charm. It’s hard to believe that a show involving Shinsuke Nakamura—my favorite wrestler in the world—isn’t holding my attention these days, but even he seems to be phoning it in while he waits for his long-overdue call-up. Add to this a title picture that for over a year now has boiled down to a predictable pattern where you can see the next two or three champions as soon as a new veteran debuts, and the magic is mostly gone. Hell, the title hasn’t been on anyone that spent a significant time in developmental since Sami Zayn, and he only held it for a few weeks.
Right now, there’s a huge gap between the top few stars (Nakamura, Roode, Asuka) and everyone else on the roster, a gap that only seems to be growing with each week. I get that they’re in the rebuilding process, but they either don’t seem ready to commit to anyone from their own Performance Center or they’re too enticed by pushing every newly acquired indie star or pro they can sign. It’s almost like they have too much talent at this point and not enough time to showcase it all. This is extremely obvious when every three months of programming is just another ramp up to a Takeover where we’ll have a title match involving two guys that were already huge, another “uh, who do we feed to Asuka” match, and probably some singles matches that are basically all booked 50/50 and don’t really put one star over the other. Hopefully once more of the big players move up, the show can form some more cohesive storylines involving the rising stars, rather than the ones that have been established for a decade.
It’s tough to pick a really standout match of the night from the main stories, since it feels like Roode is just spinning his wheels right now and did little to help No Way Jose’s standing, and Peyton Royce, though I love her, is no match for Asuka, especially in a title match on a weekly installment of the show. However, there was what amounts to an exhibition match featuring two wrestlers from the UK Tournament that was easily the high point of the show.
While not expressly members of NXT, Mark Andrews and Pete Dunne worked their match like it was for the UK Championship itself. Dunne is VICIOUS in his offense, really working Mark’s extremities and snarling like a hungry animal the whole time. While he’s a little bit of a silly looking guy that kind of reminds me of a kid that would get murdered in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory (and he wears a wolf pelt or something and a singlet that says “Bruiserweight”), he’s easily the best heel and character in general to come out of that tournament. Plus he has a killer arsenal of moves that involves these finger bending holds that are growing on me, a suplex from the floor to the apron, and The Bitter End, which is one of the best looking flatliners I’ve ever seen.
I could probably gush more about Dunne and why I can’t wait to see him take that UK title from Tyler Bate, but regarding the match itself, it was far above the average quality of a weekly NXT show. Andrews is one of those natural faces that Michael Cole describes as “loving to have fun” and is a very solid in-ring worker. While Dunne maintains the upper hand for much of the early match, Andrews uses some high flying offense to help even things out so that by the end of the match it looks like it could go either way. These two really put their hearts and souls into this match, which was ostensibly “just a match,” but in the grander scheme of things, this was their debut in NXT, and they both looked to make a statement. This was probably the first time since the actual UK tournament that I’ve been excited by the prospect of seeing more UK guys working their way into the week-to-week storylines, especially if we get more play between William Regal and his bratty son, Pete Dunne.
Extra High Spots: While I will complain about many characters on NXT, I love the mean girls thing that Billie and Peyton have going. In my opinion, they should topple Asuka. I want to see them cheat their way to a win, sparing Asuka a “real” loss and letting her move on to collecting every belt and every skull on the main roster.
– Kyle Herr
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