WWE gets fighting fit for sale of the century (June 3, 2021)

On My Mind This Week

What if WWE was bought by FOX, NBC, or USA Network? What if Amazon matched its acquisition of MGM? What if Walt Disney really did form a tag team with Vince McMahon?

Far from being fantasy, these are all now cases to ponder.

No-one knows if McMahon really plans to sell off the company that has been in his family for almost 60 years, but what is obvious is that he cares far more about his legacy as an entertainment mogul than he does handing a wrestling company to his daughter, whom he hopes can cause far more damage in politics. What is known is that when a corporation is considering selling up, it often goes through major and unexpected reorganisation to get itself in line with what its suitors might wish to inherit, simultaneously sprucing up the books and trimming the fat.

The consolidation of WWE president Nick Khan’s power, seen through the firing of those such as head of global PR Dan Humphreys and EVP of International Jay Rosenstock, as well as his promotion to the company’s board, is another sign that WWE wishes to present itself as an entertainment superpower, now more than ever: the hiring of those with a name in the corporate world, such as Steve Koonin, the CEO of the Atlanta Hawks and, amusingly, the former president of Turner Entertainment, is a showcase for a company that is doing the corporate equivalent of adding some lean muscle before getting married.

June 2’s wave of talent releases will not be WWE’s last, as it also floods the market with wrestlers that it doesn’t feel can significantly alter the dynamic that exists with its nearest competitor, AEW. In doing so regularly and by including several names at a time, WWE has made it difficult for AEW to pick up even the best of the released talent, lest the latter solidify itself as a promotion that needs WWE cast-offs.

From a critical perspective, the future of WWE does not look any brighter simply because it is taking steps in line with preparing for sale. No-one at the corporate level is concerned with the quality of WWE television, even if ratings continue to fall, because they can claim that its audience is simply continuing to shift online. If WWE is sold to, say, Disney, the promotion will continue to pride itself on offering content, branding, and merchandising, and not the finest elements of what it calls “sports entertainment”.

At this point, with WWE’s creative output having consistently declined since the turn of the century, a sale to anyone would be nothing short of fascinating.

For fans of quality wrestling, there is little left to lose.

WWE’s firing of Raw announcer Adnan Virk on May 25 managed to be equally one of the most surprising and yet least surprising things that will occur in 2021. Virk, a former ESPN broadcaster let go in 2019 for leaking information to the media, was said to have had a mutual parting of the ways with WWE, although Fightful later reported that the company had decided on the change with or without Virk’s agreement.

The appointment of the 42-year-old was simply never going to pay off, and certainly not as richly as it had done with Tom Phillips (real name: Thomas Hannifan), who was let go two days later. Plucked from virtual obscurity, Phillips was at least highly skilled in reacting to the action in WWE-speak, an almost impossible task for experienced sports announcers who rely on their instinct to make insightful yet emotional and dramatic calls in the blink of an eye.

Herein lies the problem: if an announcer needs even an extra half-second to translate his thoughts into the WWE dialect before expressing them, the moment will already have passed.

Perhaps unknowingly, Vince McMahon is condemning all of his future broadcasting acquisitions to Virk’s fate, because no matter whom he brings in as the next play-by-play announcer, they will live in fear of saying the wrong thing, or at the wrong time, just in case they happen to catch McMahon at his most megalomaniacal.

If no-one is able to reach his standards, McMahon should step back into the booth himself.

But that won’t happen, because he does not like having only himself to blame.

On My Screen This Week

  • The Young Bucks vs. Jon Moxley & Eddie Kingston (AEW; May 31, 2021)

It is simply not true that I dislike the Young Bucks’ style of wrestling. However, it is undeniable to me that their act only works when I’m in the mood to watch independent wrestling as it was intended, which is to break the rules of the mainstream, and for all the right reasons.

Whether it always planned to do so or not, All Elite Wrestling has taken an independent wrestling mindset to national television, dismissing the concept of big fight feel and replacing it with illogical highspots and “amusing” gimmicks (the main in-ring exceptions being the Cody Rhodes versus Dustin Rhodes bloodbath, and the Cody Rhodes & Red Velvet versus Shaquille O’Neal & Jade Cargill special attraction).

Simply put, the style that I enjoyed so much in Pro Wrestling Guerrilla circa 2009-2016 does not work in a grander environment, just as a hair metal band playing a club gig is always more enjoyable than seeing them perform in a 20,000-seat arena.

I bring this up because, at May 31’s Double Or Nothing, the Bucks managed to capture a little of that classic indie style opposite Jon Moxley and Eddie Kingston. Perhaps it was the fact that Daily’s Place appeared on television to be far more Reseda-esque than its 5,500 capacity, or the fact that every seat was filled with an enthusiastic spectator. Either way, this AEW Tag Team title match, which aired second on the pay-per-view card, was a triumph of the Bucks’ style.

The battle started hot with an attack by the babyfaces, and maintained its energy throughout. The Bucks were particularly pestiferous here, but in a manner that kept them within their gimmick and allowed Moxley and Kingston to remain true to their own. The babyface tags were quick and refreshing at the outset, until the match turned on a spray-to-the-eyes spot in which referee Rick Knox had to pretend to be distracted by the invading Karl Anderson and Frankie Kazarian, long after both had disappeared behind the curtain. As if reacting to the exact opposite of what had just happened, the audience then began chanting, “This is awesome!”

It wasn’t the only moment that Knox’ timing was horrendous (it’s actually more appropriate to blame the wrestlers who took too long to complete it, but by playing along Knox’ effect on the match was notably deleterious) as he spent a full 15 seconds placing the Bucks’ Air Dior trainers in the hands of a ringside attendant, allowing Moxley and Kingston to strike Matt with a Doomsday Device. That came after some infuriating camera direction ruined arguably the biggest spot of the match, in which the Bucks’ hit the Meltzer Driver on the ramp on Moxley, and before the director was equally absent for Matt’s 450o splash.

Speaking of camera direction, there was a particularly amusing moment that should have been ought of sight, as after Kingston no-sold several of Nick’s punches, he twice gave him the eyes to tell him to run off the ropes and bump for him, which Nick promptly did. Although he wasn’t as intrinsic to the match as his more illustrious colleagues, Kingston performed admirably overall, and it’s clear that if he had a look on the level of his work, he’d be a millionaire several times over.

While I’m pointing out flaws that took away from the bout, I can’t overstate that when the action was performed well, it was both entertaining and gripping. There was some much-appreciated storytelling, too, when Nick superkicked Kingston above his previously injured left knee, and then the same man performed a well-executed roll-through counter as Moxley went for the Paradigm Shift DDT.

The finish also came at a pleasing time, with most fans expecting Moxley to kick out of four consecutive BTE Triggers (double knee strikes) after he had also kicked out at one after a Superkick Party (double superkick). With Kingston reeling from another knee attack, however, Moxley was indeed put down for three, as the cameras quickly cut away to Jim Ross, Tony Schiavone, and Excalibur on commentary. (***3/4)

  • Super Dragon vs. Kevin Steen (PWG; March 12, 2005)

I can’t recall who I should credit (blame?) for spurring me to check out some Super Dragon matches from arguably his best year in wrestling, but the idea certainly came from somewhere on Twitter. I hadn’t seen any of these three 2005 bouts before, at least to my recollection, as in terms of picking up shows on DVD, more of my attention leaned to Pro Wrestling Guerrilla in around 2009.

In PWG, Kevin Steen was Super Dragon’s sworn enemy throughout 2005, and this bout started out fast, with the heel Steen attacking his rival in the aisle. In what was the second bout of the night for “Mr. Wrestling”, the strikes were pleasantly stiff at the outset, but I was pleasantly surprised when Dragon picked exactly the right time to bring the match to the mat with a headscissors and a leg full nelson. This was a clever veteran move that left me with high hopes for how these matches might play out.

Things didn’t follow this path for long, though, especially after Dragon missed a topé con hilo and Steen slipped on a springboard plancha. After that, Steen engaged in far too much back-and-forth with the audience, causing inopportune lulls in the bout, and making it seem far less important than it was as a main event title affair.

At least Steen’s offence remained impressive, as he struck a gorgeous missile dropkick and moonsault, as well as a Flyover Flatliner (a leap over the top rope into an STO). For his own part, Dragon struck with a huge top-rope senton, and a curb stomp that was believable enough to be the finish. Not only did Steen kick out, though, but Dragon did likewise when Steen hit the same move minutes later.

When Steen eventually landed his own patented move, the package piledriver, it produced an excellent near-fall, but when Super Dragon rolled to the floor to recuperate, it gave him enough time to strike with his own version of the move, and capture the pinfall.

After such a promising start in terms of its pacing, this conclusion here was anticlimactic, as the audience lost the flow of the action. Still, it was an often spectacular showcase that had did enough to entertain beyond its obvious flaws. (**1/2)

  • Super Dragon vs. Excalibur (PWG; May 13, 2005)

Anyone who has watched All Elite Wrestling for a period of time recognises that Excalibur is an extremely knowledgeable announcer who sometimes gets too wrapped up in showing it. You can see from where this has evolved by listening to him deliver a nonsensical, verbose promo before this match, as he attempts to explain his heel turn on Super Dragon, attacking him from behind with a chair.

“Shut up!” someone yells from the crowd.


As it happens, Excalibur doesn’t just make a mess of these tedious mutterings, but also the first chair shot of this Guerrilla Warfare match, as he someone manages to lob the weapon beyond Dragon’s head. Even worse, he then repeats the move with a nod and a wink to the audience, getting it right this time, at least.

Throughout the opening of this no rules match, it’s conspicuous that there’s no sense of a fight, even when the pair are brawling through the crowd. This black hole of violence is rather summarised when Dragon traps Excalibur’s head in a ladder and then jumps on it, which causes one of the commentators to react that “maybe Excalibur’s head’s come off.” That was not the tone required for the viewer at home.

Admittedly, there’s some thrilling violence throughout this mess, such as Excalibur flipping his opponent violently through a ladder and a number of rather disgusting chair shots to the head, and there is some quality wrestling, too, such as when Dragon busts out German, Dragon, and Tiger suplexes in a row. However, these moves seem inconsequential when they result not only in just two-counts, but the recipient recovering in record time to get in his own offence.

Speaking of making it inconsequential, a second person clad in Super Dragon garb latterly arrives on the scene and attacks the original, quickly revealing himself to be Kevin Steen when he removes the mask and strikes with a package piledriver. This not only makes for an anticlimactic ending, but a groan-inducing one, too, as it both ruins PWG’s speciality match and takes one of the worst elements of mainstream wrestling and applies it to a promotion that ought to be writing all of WWE’s wrongs.

To put the icing on the cake, Steen helps Super Dragon up to Excalibur as the latter stands on a table in the corner of the ring, only for the table to collapse prematurely as Excalibur hits a package piledriver, in a instance that could quite easily have broken his opponent’s neck.

Judged on its beginning and end, this match is little short of a disaster, while the combatants make sure that the middle has only a fraction of the effect that it ought to have had. (*1/2)

  • Super Dragon vs. Kevin Steen (PWG; December 16, 2005)

I had initially planned to write about five Super Dragon matches as a kind of mini project for this issue, but I quickly decided to make it four, and then later three, because it was so challenging to write about them. I don’t mean that the task was difficult in and of itself, but rather that it was a chore to create a flow of words for matches that were so full of moves yet so lacking in drama.

This bout, at least, started out rough and chaotic, with fans scrambling as Dragon and Steen threw chairs at each other. Steen came up on the short end of that when Dragon brutalised him over the head with one in a typically reckless way. I cannot fathom being a wrestler and allowing him to do this, especially since he has a habit of doing so after he has himself taken a shot, as if presenting his anger straight to your skull. The violence is titillating but undoubtedly gratuitous.

Once again, however, even the big hits mean very little. When Steen hits a curb stomp, Dragon is almost immediately up to strike with two of his own, and there are suplexes over the top rope to a table on the floor, and further curb stomps onto and through chairs that don’t take the match an closer to a conclusion. Indeed, the finish won’t even come into sight until thumb tacks (Steen powerbombs Dragon into them), a pile of chairs (a package piledriver onto them by Steen), and a barbed wire board (Dragon hits a double-underhook suplex from the top onto it) are introduced to the proceedings.

The near-falls from all of these moves are infuriating rather than fascinating, although the commentators clearly revel in unconvincingly begging for the carnage to stop. There then comes an utterly hilarious moment in which, after Dragon crumples Steen with a Psycho Driver from the apron to the floor, and through a table, a ringside attendant goes to check on Dragon first.

The match has already jumped the shark long before Dragon handcuffs Steen’s hands behind his back - don’t forget, Dragon is the babyface - and smashes him with one of the most ignorantly brutal chair shots you’ll ever see. Mercifully, he has only one more attempt at breaking Steen’s neck, hitting a Psycho Driver onto the tacks and barbed wire board before capturing the pinfall. (*3/4)

  • Masa Fuchi vs. Mighty Inoue (AJPW; March 8, 1989)

I had to cleanse my palate after the previous abominations, and this 1989 AJPW junior-heavyweight title match seemed like perfect way to achieve that.

The champion, Mighty Inoue, and Masa Fuchi were regular tag team partners who would share the ring hundreds of times during their careers and after a handshake, they start their bout as smooth as silk, with the stocky Inoue showcasing his surprising athleticism with headscissor and headlock takedowns.

As you will know if you are a fan of All Japan from this period, Fuchi is wrestling’s foremost sadist, and he delights in making his friend scream in pain with an armbar, before Inoue gets some revenge by working on Fuchi’s leg.

The early portion of the bout had felt like 1970s’ wrestling at an 1980s’ pace, but while there is some fine wrestling occurring, by the middle it’s time to move things on, which Inoue begins to do not by German suplexing Fuchi, but by rolling through with him in a kind of stationary O’Connor Roll. Fuchi, on the other hand, has no problem back suplexing his opponent hard onto the mat.

This match did not lack for two-counts and near-falls, including a beautiful inside cradle off a headscissor takedown, but these were a testament to the skill and conditioning of the wrestlers, and not to how much punishment they could pretend to take. Eventually, Fuchi reversed the momentum on another cradle, holding Inoue’s shoulders to the mat to the delight of audience, who sounded their applause for a job well done. (***)

A Little Bit Of Housekeeping

  • I’m really interested in your feedback to the first several issues of Riffing On Wrestling. Please comment here or reach out to me at brian(at)hardcopy(dot)ie.

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