State of the Grapple

So, I’m acutely aware that I’ve neglected this place for the last few months. It’s not that I stopped watching wrestling – it’s just that I didn’t feel that inspired to write about it, at least not in the way I’d been writing about it previously. I’m writing this post in part to clear the cobwebs away, in part to document my current feelings about the scene, and in part to see if the exercise shakes something out.

WWE

I have basically stopped watching WWE, mostly because I am incredibly tired of its shit. I am tired of the Saudi blood money and the contortions that WWE executives and stars put them through to try and present the idea that a Lacey Evans vs. Natalya match will bring sweeping social change to Saudi Arabia. Maybe in the context of cultures more free to develop organically, whose regimes don’t stifle social change outside of the specific channels they want to cultivate, that’d be the case, but let’s face it: the Saudi monarchy and its power structure is the major barrier to social change in the Kingdom, and providing the “circuses” part of the age-old bread and circuses formula to the monarchy is serving the interests of the monarchy, not the interests of the people.

Speaking of stagnating monarchies, I am also tired of the creative malaise over WWE. Maybe it truly isn’t Vince’s fault – maybe he was just unlucky, hired a bunch of bad writers, and everyone’s having to make the best of what they produce – but I think we all know that’s probably not the case. It’s a real shame, because I like great swathes of the talent on the WWE, NXT, and NXT UK rosters (I have more or less entirely lost track of what’s going on on 205 Live), but they’re all beholden to this system which seems unable to make new stars except by accident, and then when one of those happy accidents happen they almost always overplay their hand and the magic is lost. The Man Becky Lynch gave us an iconic wrestling image when Nia Jax busted her open, but now after Creative have done their job on her push it’s really hard not to get tired of her. The same’s true of the other Four Horsewomen, all of whom have been ridden into the dirt.

(Some people think that WWE deliberately doesn’t make new stars these days – that they never put all their weight behind someone because they are paranoid about people hitting the point that Hogan and Rock reached where their star power is bigger than the company’s. The problem is that if we’re in a world where only the promotion is allowed to be the star, and the promotion is an unlikable heel who accepts Saudi blood money… why should we follow it?)

The best success story at the moment in WWE is probably Bray Wyatt/The Fiend. This is partially because Bray’s clever character work allows him to make a distinction between him and the WWE-mandated nickname that Creative insists on attaching to everyone in a really obviously artificial way – you know, the Man, the Queen, the Boss, the Big Dog, the Architect, and so on ad nauseum – and partly because Bray’s a promo king and they’ve given him his head there. Unfortunately, the actual matches haven’t been so good, almost always for reasons which aren’t Bray’s fault.

The iconic example of his is last year’s Hell In a Cell, whose finish managed to bury an entire match format. Sure, WWE, tell me over and over again that it was a ref stoppage, not a disqualification. It was communicated in the ring like a disqualification, not a stoppage, and also you just made the refs in charge of King of the Ring 1997 look like utter fuckwits for not stopping the match then and those in charge of Hell In a Cell 2019 look like stubborn shitheads when they don’t restart the match when a) Bray is clearly capable of continuing to fight and b) the entire arena is demanding it.

Of course, they were saving the Fiend’s victory for Crown Jewel, which is another way in which the Saudi blood money is fucking everything up. When major PPVs – including, to an extent, Wrestlemania itself – end up janky and lopsided because events which would have made far more sense there are being saved for the Saudis, everything is bent out of shape. Part of the reason the women’s division in WWE is as good as it is comes down to the women not needing to take the Saudis into account in their booking.

Most of all, I am sick of getting invested only to be disappointed. Everything good in WWE eventually gets overplayed until we’re all sick of it. Everyone who was great in NXT ends up utterly wasted on the main roster, and I’m increasingly inclined to split the blame 50-50 there – I blame Vince for not seeing the value and audience investment that NXT talent develop before they hit the main roster, and I blame Triple H for failing to provide a developmental regime which allows its graduates to thrive on the main roster.

I am tired of watching Vince spoil all of my favourites. I’m done with WWE until Vince is gone.

AEW

Honestly, this is filling the “wrestling in front of arena-size audiences” niche for me just fine. It’s not necessarily that AEW are offering something vastly more serious in tone than what WWE is aiming for – it’s more that they do it in a way which seems less like a direct insult to the audience. They’re clearly still feeling their way, but it’s equally clear they’re correcting course in response to feedback here and there without doing so in a short-sighted, knee-jerk way, taking criticism as a prompt to have a rethink rather than having a panic.

It probably helps here that they are doing 1 live show per week and a PPV every quarter or so, rather than doing 2 main roster shows, plus developmental shows, plus a monthly PPV, plus house shows. It means that the talent can give us more in the ring because they know that (unless they have an indie or NJPW booking later on) they’ll have the better part of a week to rest up. It also means that the creative team can actually sit down and think and workshop stuff and not rush into things, rather than being in a constant crunch to get the next show sorted. (It probably also helps that they don’t have Vince randomly rewriting all the booking on a whim.)

Do I like everything equally? No, I have my favourites and the bits which land less well. But there’s parts which I didn’t initially like which I’ve begun to warm to, and even where that hasn’t happened the show is varied enough in tone that I’m happy to sit through the bits I don’t like to get to the bits I do, because the hit/miss ratio is good enough that it’s worth it.

NWA/MLW/Impact

All of these promotions are in their own way doing something interesting, clearly realising that at the tier they’re at they need to specialise a little to stand out. NWA’s got your incredibly 1980s presentation combined with an emphasis on old school booking practices that was enough to win the approval of Jim Cornette, but also enough of an eye on diversity to have an actual women’s division (not something Jim Crockett Promotions ever really bothered with) and to bin Jim Cornette when he makes an unacceptably dated joke. (But not, however, enough of an eye on the ball to think “wait, that’s unacceptable” and not broadcast the joke in the first place.

MLW seem to regularly run shows in venues smaller than those AEW or WWE use but comfortably larger than the haunts of Impact or NWA. They seem to have a good eye for talent, and with the strong lucha and hardcore components to their shows they feel a bit like a version of ECW which has grown up, stopped mindlessly chasing controversy, and gained a little patience.

Impact seems to have somehow bounced back and become more worth talking about than ROH, which has hit the doldrums of late. (Marty Scurll has his work cut out rehabilitating the promotion.) I think making Tessa their World Champion probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but they’ve booked themselves into a bit of a spot now. (Does this mean the women’s world championship is officially a secondary belt? Are we going to see any more women crossing the line into the world title scene?) They’re probably the best at comedy at the moment – intentional comedy, surprisingly, with the Joey Ryan Wrestler’s Court skit from a while back being pretty amusing.

Other Promotions

I still occasionally watch NJPW – usually to catch the G1 and Wrestle Kingdom – but I don’t have time to watch it regularly. GCW is a treat and I will most likely watch a bunch of GCW shows over Wrestlemania week rather than watching Wrestlemania itself this year. EVE is still my preferred local promotion, but I’ve just got back from a show put on by a really local promotion to me (as in it takes less than 10 minute for me to get to the venue from my house) called New Force Wrestling. NFW seem to be quietly building themselves into a grassroots indie promotion with some credibility – they have decent shirt designs, the shows seem to be well-organised, they are associated with a wrestling school of the same name and their homegrown talent seem competent, and they can muster guests such as Simon Williams of What Culture fame. Could do without Bagheera, the white guy working the Papa Shango-esque gimmick, but otherwise a promising show.

SideshowMania!: Joey Janela’s Spring Break 3: Part 2

This is the second half of Joey Janela’s Spring Break 3. and whilst it includes a few matches of note – most particularly LAX vs the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, who still move like it’s the 1980s even though the rock and roll figure they most resemble is Iron Maiden’s Eddie mascot – the main attraction here is the Clusterfuck.

The Spring Break Clusterfuck is basically a comedy battle royale, a wild parody of the Royal Rumble. (A nice point which allows for more variety of spots is that the Clusterfuck takes a leaf from MLW’s Battle Riot match format – in that as well as over-the-top-rope elimination being legal, conventional pins also are.) And because of WWE’s Saudi Arabian antics this past year with the Greatest Royal Rumble, Janela’s decided to up his game and offer up… the Greatest Clusterfuck.

Continue reading “SideshowMania!: Joey Janela’s Spring Break 3: Part 2”

SideshowMania!: Joey Janela’s Spring Break 3: Part 1

The more comedic flipside of BloodsportJoey Janela’s Spring Break debuted two years ago as GCW’s major Wrestlemania week offering for Wrestlemania 33 and has now become a monster – to the point where they had to split it over two nights.

There is, of course, a question mark over whether this will be Joey Janela’s Spring Break this time next year; Janela’s signed to AEW, and whilst they seem to be cultivating a pretty friendly relationship with a range of indies, it’ll be interesting to see whether they’re keen on one of their own putting their name to an indie show once they’re up and running.

Continue reading “SideshowMania!: Joey Janela’s Spring Break 3: Part 1”

SideshowMania!: Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport

As mentioned, rather than doing full TV Party Tonight! treatments for the WrestleMania indie shows, I’m going to instead do little articles like this on those I happen to catch, within which I won’t do full match-by-match breakdowns so much as I just spill my general thoughts.

Game Changer Wrestling are putting on an absurd number of shows this weekend – they’re clearly bidding to set themselves up as a top-tier indie promotion. The secret seems to be offering something distinctly different in each show. That’s particularly evident with the Bloodsport shows – this year it’s Josh Barnett’s Bloodspoot, in previous years it was Matt Riddle’s Bloodsport but, well, you can blame William Regal for that changing. (Incidentally, Dean Ambrose and William Regal were spotted sitting together at this year’s Bloodsport, so I guess Ambrose is doing WWE the favour of helping out with some talent scouting, seeing how he doesn’t have a Wrestlemania match to prepare for.)

The particular Bloodsport schtick is that it’s a sort of blended MMA-wrestling event: the matches, I believe, are worked, but the performers are chosen either for MMA chops or at least some sort of “shoot badass” reputation (real or kayfabe) and rather than working conventional wrestling matches it’s this sort of hybrid sport. There’s no ropes on the ring, and there’s no pinfalls – just referee stoppage – but it’s not a no-DQ situation, with various proper rules being enforced. The end result involves a lot of MMA-ish matwork along with pro wrestling storytelling given a particular twist due to the particular rules that the heels have to evade.

Continue reading “SideshowMania!: Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport”