Survival of the Fittest: Ultimate Warrior and Hate Speech

12 Apr

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“Leather Hedger had sleeping troubles and anxiety and dealt with terrible mood swings…By today’s standard, though, I do have to agree that he was a great father. Perhaps even greater then the father of the year, Hulk Hogan. After all, Leather Hedger did what it took to kill himself. His kid is without a father, yes, but the negative influence is now removed and his own child has the chance for a full recovery.”

– Ultimate Warrior on Heath Ledger, after the actor’s death

Jim Hellwig, later known as the Ultimate Warrior, was just one week ago enjoying induction into WWE’s Hall of Fame, an appearance at WrestleMania XXX, and a nostalgia promo on Monday Night Raw. He’s now dead. Beyond the wave of tributes for a legendary pro wrestling character, what about the person himself? What about his life’s mission, his beliefs, his passions and his principles?

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The above quote about Heath Ledger, who had starred in a film Warrior considered gay propaganda, Brokeback Mountain, is relatively mild in comparison to Warrior’s infamous homophobic tirades, having spent a substantial proportion of his post-WWF career touring the United States to promote his principle of “survival of the fittest” while engaging in public speaking events where he could be afforded a platform for hate speech – attacking not just homosexuals but also ethnic minorities, women, and even the poor. Sadly, he became more of a figure of ridicule the more he tried to present himself as a serious political commentator of any credibility.

But one week ago, Warrior had ensured himself some forgiveness after burying the hatchet with several pro wrestlers. In perhaps his finest hour – years after his in-ring days had ended – he had every opportunity to follow up such an olive branch by publicly reversing his views on gay people, ethnic minorities, women, and those less wealthy than himself. He chose not to. And the WWE – even under the mask of their anti-bullying PR strategy – failed to have him do so. The mainstream media, meanwhile, remained silent.

Warrior desperately wanted to be perceived as intelligent, even attacking this writer on a forum many years ago using multisyllabic rhetoric, only to fall silent when I pointed out his long words lacked any real meaning; they just demonstrated that he knew such words, and – sometimes – how to use them. He showed his complete ignorance of the term Social Darwinism (animal kingdom principles of “survival of the fittest,” applied on to society) by suggesting it shouldn’t be used simply because, in society, people aren’t dying (unless you consider what he’d no doubt have claimed was the mere coincidence of poor people being more susceptible to low life expectancy). Yet all along, as I do here now, I afforded Warrior the respect of being a human being with a strong set of views that we shouldn’t ignore.

Beyond the Social Darwinist statement above, Warrior maintained an entire website filled with pages of hateful homophobia and bigotry until the day he died. (At the time of writing, much of it remains in the public domain, so you can see for yourself even beyond his death.)

Even as WWE suits from Paul “Triple H” Levesque to Stephanie and Vince McMahon praised pro wrestler Darren Young for being one of their first openly gay stars, their former CEO and Republican politician Linda McMahon inducted Warrior into WWE’s Hall of Fame and exploited the mainstream media’s ignorance towards their industry by getting away with endorsing him when they suddenly saw an opportunity to make money off a man even they had publicly buried.

While even staid international outlets like British newspaper The Independent covered the news of Warrior’s demise, the global mainstream media instead is, of course, armed with few facts about professional wrestling, and reduces itself to ill-informed presentations like those of Nancy Grace, who clumsily gave the impression that steroids killed all those wrestlers who died too young – including Owen Hart, who actually fell to his death when a stunt went awry.

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So long as the media remain ignorant, and open themselves up to criticism and campaigns like #CancelNancy, the pro wrestling industry can conveniently remain relatively free from credible scrutiny, so as to continue making the same mistakes without being held to account, exploiting “independent contractors” with legally questionable binding contracts, no off-season, and no pension or health care coverage. This ignorance set the stage for the rise of the Ultimate Warrior himself, who looked out for himself, cared little for other wrestlers, and then found himself chewed up and spat out, spitting venom upon this outcome, railing against Vince McMahon.

Warrior often spoke of himself in superior tones and even in the third person, capitalised as He or Him or His, and rarely ever admitted flaws, vulnerabilities, or mistakes – his return, as evidenced by his Hall of Fame speech, was only ever about defeating Vince McMahon in his own mind.

Hate kept his blood pumping, and it is perhaps fitting that as soon as he felt redeemed, his heart stopped, following perhaps the greatest amount of steroid abuse known to the pro wrestling industry, an incredible achievement in itself. Yet despite this drug use and abuse, he always felt comfortable mocking the drug addiction of other wrestlers such as Jake “The Snake” Roberts or the drug-induced deaths of high-profile names like Heath Ledger for being “weak” in accordance with his own Social Darwinist outlook. We can only hope that Warrior – after years of ‘roid ravage – receives more respect than he afforded others. So how do we show him respect now?

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One thing Warrior – as with any man who fought for his principles – would surely shudder at the thought of, is fans whitewashing his beliefs mere days after his death, and he’d scoff at the fawning from his peers who just years ago were lining up to attack him in any way they could because few of them saw him as a true peer. One former long-time WWE photographer this week painted the picture of the Warrior as a hateful, selfish man.

For Warrior to truly hurt WWE though, and challenge McMahon’s huge corporation, he would have had to admit weakness by accepting the reality that all wrestlers – not just him – have been at risk of exploitation by a largely unregulated industry. He couldn’t bring himself to do that though, because he firmly believed in the Social Darwinist doctrine of “survival of the fittest,” and thus all of his complaints dissipated as soon as Vince shook his hand, booked him a Hall of Fame spot, and inked a lucrative deal that would never be lived out.

No, Warrior saw himself as special; unique – and when you take that to its logical conclusion, you can claim that the exploitation, too, was merely exclusive to you, rather than a symptom of an entire industry. Warrior, then, got to make the Hall of Fame and for him, all was suddenly well with the world.

And yet, when pro wrestling news sites such as the Pro Wrestling Torch take an honest look at Warrior’s life – his actions and words – they are faced with criticism themselves. Suddenly, traces of Warrior’s true endeavours are being removed from the internet; his character is taking over the human being, so that integrity, or intensity, are now entirely attributed to the man born Jim Hellwig. And yet what made the man intense was that integrity to stand by his beliefs even in the face of social decency.

But just as the man sometimes had trouble separating the two, the character has begun to blur with the person, and it’s threatening to consume it if we don’t afford him the respect of honest tributes that absolutely must endure, and survive. If not, are we truly fit to call ourselves commentators of any kind? There have been some websites that have covered Warrior’s life in honest ways; one overtly political site, I provided the source material for just this week. But it’s sad when little more than a blogger has to prompt successful websites to present true retrospectives.

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Former “Million Dollar Man” turned Christian, Ted DiBiase, who has been a leading critic but received a friendly acknowledgement by Warrior at the Hall of Fame, will be expected to reverse his views now, too. Because regardless of the intense and dedicated performances of the limited, reckless, green yet muscular poster boy for McMahon’s steroid-infested 1980’s, Warrior remained a hateful, ultra-right-wing bigot, but this now must not be addressed at all costs.

Indeed, in this wave of apologism for homophobia which just years from now will have stopped being acceptable and be damned to the annals of history alongside slavery, any true statements about Warrior are attacked. Whereas to call Heath Ledger or Philip Seymour Hoffman drug addicts who ran themselves into early graves is, in conservative American society, perfectly acceptable and even commendable, the sad fact remains that it is not yet ready to hear criticisms of dead celebrities if these criticisms don’t suit the cause.

“To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.” – Voltaire

The Day Pro Wrestling Died

20 Feb

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Each generation of professional wrestling fans seem to have the same nostalgic complaints as the last: pro wrestling, they claim, isn’t as good as it used to be.

Either these fans long for when the business seemed more legitimate as Bruno Sammartino’s slow, deliberate grappling matches led to his historic seven-year WWWF World Championship reign, or they reminisce about strong kayfabe as Jim Cornette and the Midnight Express were chased by lynch mobs due to their credible heel heat, or they talk about the unprecedented boom of “rock ‘n’ wrestling,” as Hulkamania led the likes of Mr T, Cyndi Lauper and Alice Cooper into full stadiums, or they even cite the examples of “Attitude,” when Austin 3:16 and D-Generation X shot ratings through the roof.

Triple H is just one individual who repeats the claim that these were all high points in a business that operated in “cycles,” comparing it to the “boom and bust” capitalist economy. But this assertion is incorrect, long since exposed as fallacious by the likes of James Guttman, author of World Wrestling Insanity, in which he points out that if these “cycles” were natural, the product’s quality would not matter – the cycles would come and go regardless, and high points would occur even if the product itself was dire. He’s right, of course: the product has hit downturns when dependent on, say, the late Nelson “Mabel” Frazier main eventing Pay-Per-View shows, or registering low ratings and buy-rates with supposed flag-bearer John Cena headlining.

So – as with the economy – there are actual built-in causes of why there are peaks and valleys; factual reasons for why things boom, and why they also take a dip. John Cena himself is a modern symbol of what pro wrestling has become, leaving the fan-base forever nostalgic as a result: every single successful era of the past will be longed for, because it’s not melodramatic to say the industry lost its soul long before John Cena came along and botched moves while refusing to sell effectively, or turn heel. No, again there are facts behind the causes of the state of the business as it stands today, and John Cena’s merchandising machine is only a hint.

Professional wrestling as we knew it died on October 19th, 1999. Though it may not register as a significant date in pro wrestling history, it truly was the end of the world as we knew it.

Remember Titan Sports? It was the McMahon parent company of the World Wrestling Federation, and even gave the WWF’s headquarters its name: Titan Towers. Titan Sports, Inc was simply Vince McMahon’s parent company that even launched the disastrous World Bodybuilding Federation, as doomed as any outside venture is when Vince forgets that he truly is himself a good old boy who promotes “wrasslin’,” all the while trying to gain tax breaks and avoid regulation even if he has to side with Republicans (or have his wife become one) to do it.

Yes, the WBF was doomed, and so was the XFL, as McMahon’s response to being blocked out from any attempt of either investing in the NFL, or buying the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts or even the CFL itself. While the XFL – unlike the inherently flawed, one show per-year WBF – had potential and even introduced some good ideas, McMahon had made too many enemies outside of his allies at NBC, and it only enjoyed a single season. But the XFL may hold the key to the demise of pro wrestling as we knew it…

Many believe McMahon needed more money than he had access to in order to launch the XFL in the year 2000. Keep in mind that the WBF was simply an organisation with around a dozen signed stars, a weekly “BodyStars” show, and one Pay-Per-View event in the whole calendar. The XFL was to be a legitimate American football league, with eight full teams, televised games, and prime time television contracts and slots. It was huge. It lost around $35 million of McMahon money. Except, it wasn’t McMahon’s money, was it?

On October 19th, 1999, Titan Sports was no more – in its place, World Wrestling Federation Entertainment was floated on the stock exchange, opening up portions of its ownership to the public via share offerings.

As illogical and nonsensical as a World Wrestling Federation “entertainment” company sounds – particularly given Vince McMahon’s hatred of the word “wrestling” – what this enabled Vince to do was take so much of that money from shareholders who were aware of the recent booming WWF product and pump it into WWFE, Inc. No, this isn’t capitalism based on any kind of meritocracy – this is the ability to do business with money earned by other people in other industries (and, funnily enough, part of the reason why the economy also booms and busts…it’s unstable).

As a result, ever since the XFL collapsed and Vince had to go back to being a “wrasslin'” promoter yet again. However, this time, he wasn’t dictated to by popular trends of his audience (previously described as exemplified by South Park and Celebrity Deathmatch) – the shareholders held him to account, and anything that seemed risky or dangerous was rejected. There could be no experiments influenced by ECW, for example. Even if they wanted to ultimately make more money by taking Vince’s infamous risks, this couldn’t be done by WWFE (or WWE as it would ridiculously become after legal action from the Worldwide Fund for Nature – or World Wildlife Fund as they wanted to be known as again, in order to snatch the precious wwf.com domain). The steady ship of status quo had to be sailed along with a deck full of greedy shareholders who, for all intents and purposes, didn’t necessarily understand or even care for pro wrestling.

This agenda of status quo means we can expect no chances to be taken on pushing someone as a star greater than those who have already been proven: Brock Lesnar, Undertaker, The Rock, Batista, Triple H himself. One need look no further than this to see why CM Punk fails to main event WrestleMania and subsequently takes his ball and goes home a la Steve Austin, or why a John Cena heel turn can’t be left to chance, especially with the t-shirt and toy sales he currently posts as a babyface – no Hulk Hogan, New World Order swerve will be planned, simply because the shareholders won’t understand such a reference point or see how this could generate revenue greater than his multi-coloured merchandise.

At some point, when the NXT developmental well dries up, and/or the cookie-cutter approach and Hollywood bookers fail the product, risk-taking may be the only option. Especially if the shares drop enough.

Is This Even Developmental Anymore?

19 Feb

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The February 12th edition of NXT continued the march towards the Arrival debut on the WWE Network, with what seems to be an official policy of ticking over until that show, at which we will be treated to the best that developmental has to offer at this stage (albeit with a little help, as usual, from the main roster’s mid-card).

Tom Phillips introduced the night’s offerings alongside William Regal, Alex Riley, and Renee Young, who has enjoyed immense popularity which we can only hope will break the doors down for other women (why are male referees still officiating female wrestling matches, anyway?)

Speaking of women, the opening match was a joy to watch, demonstrating yet again that not only does developmental possess a wealth of talented “Divas” who can wrestle (thanks, Sara Del Rey), but that they can put on a great match when given decent allotted time. Here, Nattie Neidhart and Bayley were joined by Emma in facing rivals Summer Rae and Sasha Banks, who were teaming with not Charlotte, who’s injured, but instead Alicia Fox, who has become associated with the faction.

After several minutes of strong action, Charlotte was joined at ringside by her BFFs Summer Rae and Sasha Banks, as all three stablemates retreated up the runway, abandoning Alicia Fox, who, naturally, was soon overwhelmed by her opponents and defeated. This is another fine example of the continuing of a story while protecting all involved: As Emma heads up to settle down on the main roster with Nattie, Neidhart emerges victorious with underdog Bayley, and the BFFs take an official “loss” without feeling it, while Alicia Fox is martyred and can, as a result, pursue any number of options: she can try to avenge her loss to Nattie and her understudy, and/or can of course enjoy a babyface run against the BFFs. Either way, you’d hope she herself can return home to the main roster she’s enjoyed for the last five or so years.

Aiden English is back to his winning ways, here again getting the better of Colin Cassady, who is still developing into a promising young wrestler, even without Enzo Amore in his corner; in fact, if anything he’s been afforded the room to breathe more life into his character. The commentators effectively protected the talent here, explaining away the loss as though English was simply Cassady’s “bogey man,” his Achilles Heel who always gets the better of Big Cass. English got the pin after the “Director’s Cut,” which seems like something they’ve used to refer to finishing moves from the likes of Goldust and The Big Show before (surely “Curtain Call” would have been more suited to a stage star thespian like English, while “Director’s Cut” or “Final Cut” would have worked better for a Hollywood silver screen wrestler like Goldust…as for Show, he just needed an actual gimmick, and pretty much any name other than the abysmal moniker he himself has admitted to loathing).

As promised, Sami Zayn limped to the ring on a bad wheel and took to the microphone to again publicly demand a rematch against Antonio Cesaro, who himself went to the ring to reiterate that he had nothing to prove and no reason to wrestle him again, even raining on the parade of the Full Sail crowd who were convinced their chants had persuaded the Swiss strongman to yield to Sami’s demands. Just when it looked like Cesaro was being reasonable, Antonio instead kicked Zayn’s bad leg from under him and again told him “no.” However, Triple H again decided to take the chance to play babyface in the comfort of Full Sail by emerging, microphone in hand, to book the match anyway for – you guessed it – the NXT Arrival show on the WWE Network on the 27th. I wonder if this match will require a contract signing too?

A promotional video for next Sunday’s Elimination Chamber aired with no sight of Stephanie McMahon delivering cheesy lines; it was actually a good piece that created drama and added to the mystique of the War Games-like match that Steph’s husband claimed credit for just this week. (Well, we knew it wasn’t actually Eric Bischoff’s idea)

Shawn Spears Gavin Spears Tye Dillinger jobbed to CJ Parker, who has at last embraced a heel turn as a self-righteous, environmentally-aware modern-day hippie. Parker’s a decent wrestler, with certain potential, lumbered with a gimmick that can, sadly, never really work as a babyface today, but this heel turn has demonstrated that he can talk, especially when he doesn’t have to try and win over a crowd. The man who debuted by photobombing Tyler Breeze is now just as much of an obnoxious heel.

Finally, the Wyatt Family came “home” and soaked up cheers that would turn the Shield green with envy, and Erick Rowan and Luke Harper squashed Marcus Louis and his partner, Jason Jordan, who was even treated to a taste of Sister Abigail after the bell, courtesy of Bray Wyatt (there’s a line I never ever imagined having to type). Bray Wyatt took the microphone and acknowledged that he was created in NXT, as were all the Wyatts, and prompted another crowd pop in doing so.

And that was your big ending – and I don’t mean Langston. Just a squash match for a main event, presented as a treat because it was main roster talent. But frankly, these NXT episodes are suffering as they tread water until the Arrival show. After that, perhaps we’ll see the likes of Solomon Crowe grace our screens, and booking focusing on, you know, developing developmental talent rather than hauling in main roster wrestlers and Triple H every week.

The danger with NXT’s upcoming presence on the WWE Network as opposed to the speakeasy style emergence on international channels and YouTube, is that it risks being treated as just another show, alongside Main Event, SmackDown, or even Raw. If that happens, we can only hope the powers that be at Titan Towers are happy to give developmental wrestlers – with all their flaws and even their preliminary characters – equal exposure on the same platform as those other shows. If not? NXT becomes just another show, and where that leaves “home grown talent” in terms of gaining some valuable TV wrestling experience then, in the absence of any desire to pluck wrestlers from the independent circuit, is anyone’s guess.

Yesterday’s Superstars Today

10 Feb

The February 5th, 2014 episode of NXT picked up by delivering the follow-up to the Hunico Sin Cara and Alexander Rusev confrontation of two weeks prior.

We can ignore for a moment the absurdity of the larger, tattooed, slower Hunico suiting up as Sin Cara in order to accept the inevitable: the Bulgarian crushed him in mere minutes, making us wonder why WWE even wants to continue the character since at this rate, even kids won’t want to be seen wearing the merchandise of such a loser. The comfort for WWE lies in the fact that the increasingly astute Full Sail crowd at NXT tapings did not chant “Hunico” during the match.

Alexander Rusev, of course, has now arrived on the main roster of WWE along with his “social ambassador,” Lana. I stand by my claim that this is too soon for him, and WWE are clearly papering over the cracks in his persona by having him accompanied by Lana to add layers, as thin as they are (Lana herself has improved greatly in order to convey a Mr Fuji-like control over her charge). But ultimately, without either speaking a great deal of English, they are still limited (the real-life CJ Perry is, in fact, American, but learnt Russian after living there for a long period of time with her family, which begs the question of why WWE didn’t simply introduce her as a multilingual, multicultural character rather than insulting the intelligence of their audience).

Nonetheless, we must wish the two all the best on the main roster, though they’ll likely be back, given WWE’s backwards ethos: the main roster props up a glass ceiling on which stand yesterday’s star like Triple H, Batista, The Undertaker, and sometimes The Rock, while their mid-carders are, in turn, sent back down to developmental to eat up airtime that would otherwise go to the up-and-coming NXT talent.

Remember the motto of previous developmental league, Ohio Valley Wrestling? That’s right: “Tomorrow’s Superstars Today” – it was honest yet enthusiastic about its status as a developmental territory where you get to see incredible talent break out before the rest of the world sees it on the grand stage of WWE’s main roster.

Now, though, NXT is losing its mystique by relying on an awkwardly contrived feud between Antonio Cesaro and a Sami Zayn who really doesn’t need the rub from a mid-carder who would probably be better utilised as WWE’s next Kurt Angle. As excellent as their in-ring exchanges are, it’s a misuse of both wrestlers, and creates an unhealthy expectation in audiences believing they will – or can – only see such great clashes if someone from the main roster graces Full Sail with their presence and leads a dance with a supposedly otherwise clueless rookie (even if they grafted away on the independent circuit for years).

Nonetheless, NXT remains full of those glimpses of the future, presenting us with some characters we know the world will soon be watching (Paige) and others that are doomed to never make it (CJ Parker).

On this episode, we even had a four-person commentary broadcast booth: straight play-by-play Tom Phillips, heel Byron Saxton, face Tensai, and Renee Young. This was, though, at times simply overkill. A three-person booth, maximum, is acceptable, especially if including a special guest commentator like an active wrestler with a personal interest in the match they’re commentating on. But four? When they weren’t talking over one another, it still often seemed – as it has on previous episodes – indistinguishable (with the exception of Renee, obviously). Even Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan had distinctive voices; this does not seem to be a prerequisite any more, rendering a lot of commentating to feel like white noise. Matches need calling, play-by-play, and then complemented by colour commentary to offer, well, colour to the broadcasted voices guiding the televised audience through the action.

At least the next match featured the women (and NXT has an absolutely incredible women’s scene right now). Sadly, Emma is being brought up to the main roster as a “fan” (yes, like Terri “Tori” Poch, and yes, like Mickie James) where she is in danger of being wasted while contradicting WWE’s claim that they wait for the right time and opening before calling up talents from NXT.

Yet again, a main roster mid-carder was summoned to pull NXT duty – in this case, Alicia Fox, who’s been without a storyline longer than anything in Kaitlyn’s worst nightmares, and here fought and lost to Emma before acting as a spare wheel in the BFF group comprised of Summer Rae, Sasha Banks and Charlotte (“Don’t Call Me”) Flair, who attacked Emma until Nattie and Bayley ran in to make the save. Before the assault, Emma had taken the mic in order to deliver an iffy promo on NXT Women’s Champion, Paige, who has been conspicuous by her absence, though why this prompted such a run-in is just as much a mystery as Paige’s disappearance (explained as an injury on-air, but reports varying on her status).

In a strangely booked match, ex-main roster giant Mason Ryan squashed Sylvester LeFort to end the Frenchman’s quest to control the muscleman’s contract. I had expected Sly to have a secret weapon who would run in and attack the chiselled Welshman, but it didn’t happen. Perhaps this feud has been planned out long-term. Let’s hope so, because otherwise this was all an exercise in futility.

Backstage, Aiden English magically and successfully summons a spotlight as he sits on a chair. His justification for threatening Enzo Amore on the last episode was the previous week’s incident where EA drove over his foot with his wheelchair. In fact, it goes back to the “singing competition” between Colin Cassady and himself where he was humiliated, but at least the wheelchair spot was referenced. He then crooned “O Canada, I hope I make you cry,” because of his next opponent, former main roster mid-carder Tyson Kidd – which was awful, even by his standards of songs and singing.

Sure enough, the feud with Colin Cassady continued when Big Cass came to ringside and mockingly wore Aiden’s beret and scarf, distracting him enough for Tyson Kidd to finally manage to score an NXT pinfall.

Before Aiden English could be defeated, Sylvester LeFort was interviewed, still reeling from his pummelling at the hands of Mason Ryan, who he vowed vengeance on. That’s about as long-term as we’re going to get with this feud for now.

Speaking of feuds, NXT Championship contender Adrian Neville fought former partner and recent rival Corey Graves to revive their conflict following on from Corey’s promo the previous week. I never understood these two as partners or opponents, and although they’re both great wrestlers who have had some good matches together, there seems to be something missing in their chemistry to prevent them from fulfilling the potential they might have had. At least Graves has a gimmick of some kind; we’ve still no idea what Adrian Neville is supposed to be besides a high-flying acrobatic aerialist, which is hardly unique unless this is the 1980s still, making me a fresh-faced fan of pro wrestling after all.

After the number one contender scored the pin via his Red Arrow finisher as per the alleged recent NXT memo, the champ himself, Bo Dallas, again attempted to get under the challenger’s skin before their title match on February 27th. However, Triple H yet again appeared in order to draw out the build-up and add more albeit thin layers onto their conflict. He informed Bo that the NXT Championship belt would be taken from his grasp and hung above the ring for their title match in a ladder match, with The Man That Gravity Forgot relished. Apparently it’s the first such match in NXT history, which prompted enthusiasm from the Full Sail crowd as well.

However, it’s not the first such match in WWE’s developmental history, and the women have even done it so very well indeed. Check out this footage from the aforementioned Ohio Valley Wrestling promotion, formerly a developmental territory to WWE, so we can end this report from a mediocre NXT episode with a bang:

By-The-Numbers

4 Feb

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The January 29th, 2014 episode of NXT started with a bang as The Ascension squashed Mike Quiary and John Ikarino. The NXT Tag Team Champions have never been this over, unless we were deceived and the infamous production trust crowd noise was dubbed over. Nonetheless, The Ascension did look great here, as was intended.

Backstage, Sylvester LeFort – no longer managing a stable including the likes of the Dawson/Dylan tag team – was recruiting his next crop of talent. One such candidate was All-American amateur wrestler Cal Bishop, whose cauliflower ears provided too much of a distraction for the French manager.

Alex Riley and William Regal had an entertaining exchange as part of our commentary team before heel Corey Graves cut a promo followed by a convincing win over Camacho, who tapped out in mere minutes to his “Lucky 13” submission finisher. “Chicks Dig” Graves re-solidified his status as a strong singles wrestler with this win over Camacho, whose future remains a mystery while partner Hunico is flirting with a solo career of his own under the Sin Cara mask.

Antonio Cesaro was interviewed by Devon Taylor, who has been less than impressive thus far. The Swiss strongman said Sami Zayn shouldn’t be challenging him since he couldn’t beat him when he was 100%, and now he has an injured leg – before stopping himself, realising he’d been drawn back into Cesaro-Zayn dialogue, and simply walking away.

Elsewhere, LeFort was still “auditioning” for his next recruit. Unfortunately for him, a confused, creepy, effeminate bleached blonde wrestler asked “What audition?” before reluctantly letting go of the Frenchman’s hand after shaking it. Hopefully not a poor man’s Goldust!

Bayley, with Nattie Neidhart, faced Sasha “The Boss” Banks, who was accompanied by BFF’s Charlotte and Summer Rae. The feud continues, the dangling carrot being the potential for Bayley to finally gain an opportunity for vengeance against Charlotte, who abandoned her to join the “It” girls. Every combination of match-ups is being booked in the interim, which is standard by-the-numbers booking, something you can always rely on in NXT when you rarely get it on even shows like Raw or SmackDown. Bayley hit a suplex on Sasha for the pin and the win, bringing her one step closer to getting her hands on Charlotte.

Tyler Breeze beat Colin Cassady by pinfall with the Beauty Shot to end an entertaining match with excellent dynamics and good chemistry, after the videowall showed Aiden English threatening the wheelchair-bound Enzo Amore, who had run over his foot the previous week. Big Cass ran backstage, but EA seemed fine, leading to another hilarious exchange between the “Certified G’s.”

Again following on from weekly storylines, Miz made CJ Parker tap to his notoriously dodgy Flair figure-four leglock, bringing to an abrupt halt their feud and burying Parker, who is still in desperate need of a bigger change than a mere heel turn (and Miz is the last wrestler to reinforce an opponent’s heel status, since he’s still barely cheered by even the NXT Full Sail crowd). The highlight of the match was Regal’s commentary.

Backstage, it was Sami Zayn’s turn to continue the Zayn-Cesaro narrative. Wearing a wonderful “Free Syria” t-shirt (he has Syrian ancestry), Sam said that he won’t take no for an answer from Cesaro so easily, adding that he’ll have to say “No” to his face next week. This was a little odd, since Antonio had already told him “no” right to his face on the stage just last week. Still, again, it’s simply designed to put off the blow-off to the feud  and keep us hanging in there, but I thought this was lazy writing by NXT’s standards; the backstage interviews were thrown in there as though all other ideas had gone. Why not have Sami interrupt Cesaro’s own interview, and Antonio shove over Zayn while he was on his crutch? That would have increased the heat a little, built anticipation, while making it about more than repeating the word “no.” Only Daniel Bryan can pull that off.

Backstage, Sylvester LeFort finally seemed to have his man – however, mighty Welshman Mason Ryan told Sly he’d only let him manage him if he could actually defeat him in the ring. This set up an intriguing scenario, but leaves us wondering how it would work if Ryan was actually beaten by the slight Frenchman, only to have to accept his tutelage despite the humiliation – or would that itself be the story?

The excellent Renee Paquette Young interviewed Adrian Neville who was to sign a contract for his title shot with NXT Champion Bo Dallas, which was strange, since the previous week saw Triple H book an impromptu match, at will, with Bo having to wrestle in his street clothes – so why contracts are suddenly necessary is baffling. This may be NXT, but it’s still WWE, so we can’t have our hopes too high when it comes to logic.

After swerving the audience – and Adrian Neville – into believing he was going to no-show, Bo came to the ring and told the Jumpin’ Geordie to watch why he was champion, before beating the wasted Danny Burch, a “soccer hooligan” who excelled on the English independent circuit as West Ham United supporter and skinhead Martin Stone.

After this match, Bo signed the contract, then delivered a cheap-shot to Neville, who sprang back at him through the ropes, knocking him to the floor, before the two brawled up the aisle and the show ended. I’d have liked to have seen officials or security men issue a pull-apart for the ending, which fell flat a little without anything like that, though this whole feud isn’t helped by the shallowness of the two characters involved.

Overall, this show still delivered the usual levels of enjoyment we can expect from NXT, but there were some signs of sloppy writing and booking which left it below the standards we’ve come to anticipate from the offerings of the developmental programme.

No Mo’ Bo?

29 Jan

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January 22nd, 2014 saw WWE strengthen NXT further after the holiday lull. As mentioned in my last report, the product is being prepared for greater exposure due to the imminent WWE Network launch. While this will elevate the status of the show, the company is less likely to take chances with putting Performance Center talent on television. The NXT Galaxy Universe will, essentially, become just another brand, behind what has been Raw and SmackDown.

Changes are continuing to emerge. With a slightly different opening highlighting different faces, NXT this time saw Eden Stiles – the real-life Brandi Rhodes, wife of Cody – on ring announcing duties. Ironically, she immediately surpassed all other long-term NXT women on this task, and has to be second only to Byron Saxton himself.

Adrian Neville moved back into the NXT Title picture after picking up a win over newcomer Wesley Blake, who didn’t look bad at all despite the cliché cowboy gimmick he’s been saddled with. One entertaining exchange saw the crowd-pleasing “Jumping Geordie” hack away at the country boy with chops, prompting the crowd to chant “one more time” – the Newcastle native didn’t disappoint, moving into the corner for another reverse knife-edge, only to get cut off by Wesley Blake in a brief moment of offence for the cowboy.

Charlotte Flair seemed way more comfortable in her new-found heel role alongside “BFF’s” Summer Rae and Sasha Banks as they were interviewed backstage. Charlotte cut a promo badmouthing Bayley, the fangirl she abandoned, Nattie Neidhart taking mercy on the young babyface and scheduled for a match against Summer Rae for later in the show.

Coming to the ring to the theme song of Brodus Clay (who stole it from Ernest Miller) Xavier Woods sought to pull a “Kofi Kingston” and gain revenge for his loss to Alexander Rusev, who was accompanied by Lana. It was not to be, and it’s fortunate, since the Bulgarian needs reinforcing and protecting if he is to remain WWE’s latest pet project, while Xavier Woods remains a poor imitation of R-Truth. After the match, Hunico Sin Cara ran to the ring to stop Rusev inflicting further damage on Woods. Yes, WWE would still rather have Hunico pull double-duty under a mask, despite everyone knowing who he is after the apparent release of the original man behind the mask. Such is the power of the merchandising cashflow column in corporate WWE.

Once again, “heel” Antonio Cesaro was cheered, while “babyface” CJ Parker was jeered. I mentioned in my last report how CJ Parker needs urgent help before the character sucks the life from NXT, and here was further evidence, as fans supported the villainous Swiss strongman all through the match, buoyed by the giant swing spot after AC no-sold the effects of an airplane spin, leading us to believe Antonio Cesaro is impervious to dizziness. He hit the Neutralizer for the pin and the win.

Afterwards, Sami Zayn emerged on a crutch to the sounds of “olé” in order to request a rematch with Switzerland’s superman, after their 2013 classic. Ominously approaching the former El Generico, Antonio Cesaro got in his face with a resounding “no,” and simply exited, finally drawing heat from the crowd.

As Mike “The Miz” Mizanin was inexplicably interviewed backstage, CJ Parker interrupted him to finally acknowledge the fans booing him, in complete frustration. Though Miz is also a heel again (I think?), he took Parker to task on the interruption (and laughably continued to refer to himself as “the most must-see superstar in the WWE,” even adding that he has supposedly accomplished everything there is to do in WWE, in which case, shouldn’t he retire at the tender age of 33?). Parker slapped Miz before walking away. At least WWE are taking action on the CJ disaster, but I’m not convinced it will be enough to resurrect his budding career.

In a pre-recorded interview, Nattie Neidhart promised that, in 2014, she was going to “get hungry and forget (her) manners.” Though this was a reference to a promo by her father, Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart, while in the Hart Foundation faction circa 1997, the commentators either chose not to acknowledge it or it went over their heads, exposing their lack of knowledge. But then, pro wrestling history has never been important to WWE, so will surely never be on the commentators audition tape list of tests.

With that, Nattie beat Summer Rae in a match I had hoped to offer a little more for Summer. To be fair, though, Nattie has put over so many of NXT’s women the last several months, in matches afforded plenty of time, no one is going to complain here.

Backstage, the wheelchair-bound Enzo Amore was interviewed alongside Colin Cassady, as Aiden English claims he didn’t just beat Cass in the ring, but also in the vocals department despite the fact the fans decided Big Cass was a superior singer several weeks ago. As the former Matt Marquee began to sing to redeem himself from such a humiliating defeat, EA followed Cass out of shot, wheeling right over Aiden’s foot in the process, turning his crooning into a croaking, which was mildly amusing.

As part of his celebrations to honour his 224-day NXT Title reign, the hated Bo Dallas went to the ring to cut another disingenuous promo and herald the dropping of a banner to mark the occasion. Adrian Neville interrupted the proceedings in order to treat us to a promo of his own – and in fairness, the Geordie is still showing signs of slight improvement. The fans used a British colloquialism by calling Bo a “wanker,” perhaps not realising the severity of such an insult back in the UK. Referring to the previous “Beat the Clock” challenges where Neville last got a title shot by beating a “nobody” in 4:45 (that “nobody” being none other than Aiden English). Bo claimed it wouldn’t even take him that long to beat Neville next time. And so, Motorhead hit, and a pre-recorded promo by Triple H was passed off as a live impromptu interruption, where The Game booked a 4:45 time limit match where, if Dallas actually failed to beat Neville in that time, the title shot would be granted. Bo was forced to put his money where his mouth was, right there and then.

The match went ahead, with the NXT Champion in street clothes, his appearance as bland as his repertoire. In an uneventful match, Bo reeled as Neville simply ran around ringside to run the clock down by the 4:40 mark, a finish as uninspiring as the match itself. There’s nothing much many wrestlers can do with Dallas, to be fair, even if you’re “the man that gravity forgot.”

18 months ago, no one would have believed any claim that Bo Dallas would soon be in NXT while his brother Husky Harris verged on main eventing the main roster with a gimmick incorporating elements of Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Waylon Mercy. Granted, Bo is the NXT Champion, but if he loses that belt, where can he go then? The belt is the only thing keeping him relevant. As an oblivious heel in the vain of Honky Tonk Man in 1986 or Chris Jericho in his latter WCW days, Bo’s positioning is based on him being hated, yet apparently not realising it. However, many believe much of the heat is legitimate “go away” heat.

Bo Dallas is hated, because he’s painfully ordinary in the ring, and downright annoying as a personality, but never hated enough as a villain specifically because of his character’s lame attempts to endear himself to the audience. Without the NXT Title, he either heads to certain failure in a WWE main event landscape where even the likes of Curtis Axel can’t succeed, or he simply fades away in NXT. Soon, unless his family connections backstage can save him, there may indeed be “no mo’ Bo.”

A Galaxy Far, Far Away…

17 Jan

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On the latest episode of NXT, from January 15th, 2014, Triple H himself opened the show to address the WWE Universe – or NXT Universe, depending on how he and the rest of the corporate suits feel on the day. Surely, if the over-arching multinational entity known as WWE has its own “universe,” and NXT is just a part of that, then this is the “NXT Galaxy” instead?

Regardless of terminology, Triple H addressed the fans in attendance at Full Sail University to announce that on February 27th, NXT itself will actually air live on the WWE Network, which by then will be three days old.

One of the most crowd-pleasing announcements made by the corporation in years, the WWE Network doesn’t only feature a logo far superior to that of its organisation itself, but actually promises incredible value for money via media accessible anytime, anywhere, for all intents and purposes. The McMahons seem to be ahead of the game (no pun intended), and it wasn’t through the WBF, or the XFL, or The World, or any of the other “outside” ventures they attempted; it was by staying true to their original product of pro wrestling – and making it available on a widespread scale while refusing to rip off their customers. It’s fantastic.

After Triple H’s promo had finished, Adrian Neville finally got his hands on Tyler Breeze, following their backstage altercation last week. As noted in the report from that show, the lack of character suffered by Adrian Neville again resulted in fans engaging far more with the heel, Tyler Breeze – not because the “Jumping Geordie” isn’t popular, but because “Prince Pretty” has a well-defined persona.

Leaving that aside for now, though, it has to be said that this match was very good. Breeze seemed a little taller than his opponent here, which was refreshing, and offered different dynamics for the match. There were several very convincing near-falls, until Neville finally hit what they’re calling the “Red Arrow” for the pin and the win.

Things didn’t look good for a returning CJ Parker (no, not Pamela Anderson’s Baywatch character) when he was suddenly pitted against Jason Jordan, who was embarking on his first high-profile NXT match, complete with ring introduction and music. We can be forgiven for expecting the worst for the “Moon Child” since his babyface hippie character has been booed since day one at Full Sail, with his mannerisms and movements simply annoying fans since it isn’t backed up by anything rebellious, aggressive, or even tangible.

Nonetheless, CJ snatched a much-needed pinfall victory after a superb series of moves leading into his “third eye” finishing move, which is simple but impressive on camera due to the way he executes it (and how his opponent sells it). As a wrestler, the real-life Joe Robinson has certain potential and the necessary abilities to make it, but this gimmick just isn’t working. They have to go with the negative response and turn him into a self-righteous hippie heel, or simply pull him from TV and repackage him. The only way they can get this character over as a babyface now is if they have Mick Foley’s Dude Love accompany him to the ring.

NXT Champion Bo Dallas – still playing the oblivious heel in the style of a circa 1986 Honky Tonk Man – faced an odd choice for an opponent: Mojo Rawley, who has been a sure-fire hit with fans ever since his introductory vignette as a man who “stays hyped.” A real livewire, Mojo runs out on stage and along the aisle, then in – and out of – the ring, engaging with ringside fans all the way as he “stays hyped.” A simple yet effective character, Rawley has been incredibly over with this since his debut, and he remained undefeated going in to this match, a match that threatened to derail him and take away his momentum.

To get around this, WWE booked Dallas to pin Rawley with a handful of trunks to gain the three-count. This kept Dallas on top, while making Mojo’s first loss merely through skulduggery. Though this will surely lead to a rematch, by the time it happens both wrestlers will be drawn out further in their respective character development to the point where a clean loss for either will do no harm. Not that Mojo will actually defeat Dallas for NXT’s premier title – unless it’s far, far away in the future, when the likes of Sami Zayn are no longer stuck in NXT.

Then came the main event, with Kofi Kingston returning from the main roster for his rematch with Alexander Rusev after cutting such a simplistic yet effective interview last week on the subject of their first in-ring meeting, which he lost due to what he claimed was simply an underestimating of his opponent – and his “social ambassador,” Lana.

Once again, this was tricky booking, as a second loss on NXT for Kofi would be a slap in the face, while a defeat for Rusev would end his mini-legacy on NXT if not executed well. The solution this time was to present us with a long match before the Bulgarian’s defeat, which finally showed that he can hang in there and still look good when having to go the distance. This boosted his credibility immensely, and though still green, he is evolving in the right way, and has the tools to one day be a real main roster force. The Jamaican Ghanaian, meanwhile, redeemed his previous loss, and sent the fans away from this taping happy.