Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Progress Wrestling - Super Strong Style 16 2018

This past weekend saw Progress Wrestling’s annual Super Strong Style 16 tournament descend on its biggest go around yet, at London’s historic Alexandra Palace.

With sixteen of the very best independent wrestlers in the world right now, from WWE UK Champion Pete Dunne, to David Starr, to Zack Sabre Jr, and even the returning Kassius Ohno (Chris Hero), this was a tournament card which packed a whole lot of punch right from the get go.

I won’t recap every match we saw over the weekend (there were 24 of them after all) but I’ll hit on some big highlight moments.

Day One

As Day One kicked off, we saw the first round matches, beginning with the aforementioned Pete Dunne taking on British legend Doug Williams. Its fair to say Doug’s journey in Progress of late has been tough, he’s raked up a string of losses, but he has kept fighting, and thats exactly what we saw here. In many ways this was a passing of the torch moment. One of the best of a bygone generation giving the brightest star in the next one his blessing. Doug wasn’t going to go down without a fight, and the two put on an incredible contest before Pete would finally get the better of the older statesman.  If Williams’ career is winding down, this was a really nice spot on that road. Personally I’d like to see him maybe get one more title run (on which more later), but for now this was a nice moment, and a really hot way to get the crowd going. 

Next up the technical wizard Zack Sabre Jr would begin his tournament against for my money the biggest shock of the tournament: Chuck Mambo. 9 months ago in this very venue Mambo had faced Spike Trivet in a pre-show match, he wasn’t even on the main card. When he got announced for Strong Style then he was considered a major underdog, even more so when the bracket came out and we saw he was facing Sabre. How could the comedy character stack up against the best in the world?

Everyone - myself included mind you - was counting Mambo out. As the two men told a story though, Chuck managing to fight out of Sabre’s submissions and mount a surprising amount of offence you could feel the crowd come alive. They began to believe that maybe Mambo could do it. In the end Sabre proved too much, but it was Chuck who was given a much deserved standing ovation. Sometimes in wrestling we make a lot out of one match, but genuinely, given the reaction he got the rest of the weekend this should be the launchpad that propels him into the next stage of his career. This was easily the match of Day One, and its one I can’t wait to revisit it on Demand Progress in the coming weeks.

After we saw David Starr make pretty easy work of TK Cooper we were treated to a debuting Angelico against Mark Andrews to close the first half. Of course the thought on everyones mind as the match went on was “Where is Eddie Dennis?” and it wouldn’t take too long to find out as he sauntered out to ringside where he has apparently bought a ticket and simply stared at him, distracting him long enough for Angelico to pick up the win. This again was top notch story telling from what is for my money the best feud in Progress today. Eddie didn’t have to touch Mark, he didn’t even have to get in the ring. Just his presence sent a message. These two are not done, and the story would continue as the weekend progressed (if you’ll excuse the pun).

Jordan Devlin and Tyler Bate put on a fantastic match to open the second half, followed up by the Grizzled Young Veterans who were given a choice of who they wanted to enter the tournament. As their would be opponent Joey Janella got bored of waiting for a response he began to beat both men down, eventually targeting Drake. Just when it looked like he was going to beat Drake though Gibson grabbed the mic, reminded him that they had never revealed who was in the match and that as of right now it would be him. The bell rings and Gibson rolls Janella up and steals a victory in about 10 seconds.

The continued descent of Flash Morgan Webster into the arms of Vicky Haskins’ stable continued as he took on Keith Lee. Having been absolutely rag dolled by the big man for most of the match their came a point where Vicky would get on the apron and distract the ref. Flash grabbed his trusty helmet and was about to knock Lee out when his conscience got the better of him. The hesitation would cost him dear as Lee got back up and flattened him to advance.

Then in the main event of Day One, and the final first round match, CCK’s Chris Brookes would take on the returning Kassius Ohno from NXT. The history between the two men has been documented (a - very - young Brookes would do a lot of Ohno’s design work when he was on the indies and the two had been friends since). To see them knock ten bells out of each other exchanging kicks and punches then was particularly special. Several times Brookes looked to lock in the Octopus Stretch, but in the end it was the Knock Out Artist who would pick up the fall over his friend after a thunderous elbow to the back of the head.

He grabbed a mic and thanked Brookes for one of the hardest matches, and some of the hardest kicks he had taken in his nearly twenty year career, sending the crowd home happy after a great night of wrestling. 

If these 8 matches had been it the crowd would have had its moneys worth, but no: this was just Day One, and there were two more to follow. 

Day Two

The second day would kick off with Pete Dunne once again getting things underway, this time against Zack Gibson, who commented that all Pete had done lately was throw a shoe. Which of course led a fan to give Pete a shoe to throw again. Because: Wrestling. It was hilarious, and the two were just beginning to put together a nice match when Haskins Havoc and Webster interfered. They will meet Dunne and the other members of British Strong Style in a few weeks at Manchester’s Victoria Warehouse.

Dunne fought them off with a chair before any of them could lay a finger on him, but then turned round and smacked Gibson with the chair, intentionally or not is unclear, leaving referee Joel Allen with no choice but to disqualify him, meaning Gibson would advance. At this point Haskins’ crew would start the beat down proper before Tyler Bate would come down to make the save.

Having both impressed heartily on Day One Chuck Mambo and Jordan Devlin (along with T K Cooper) would meet in a triple threat match. The match itself was excellent but what this segment will be remembered for came before it. Chuck Mambo’s entrance had involved filling the arena with beach balls bouncing all over the place.

As they fell into the ring the wrestlers had been kicking or throwing them out. Then Devlin jumped up, and gave the best over head kick I have ever seen in my life to kick one sky high into the crowd. The pop was immense, and people were still talking about this hours later. It was amazing. One of those unique moments that you couldn’t possibly script because it wouldn’t work out as perfectly as it did just being in the moment.

The Vicky Haskin’s trio would come back out next to face another 3 of the eliminated SSS competitors in Chris Brookes, Andrews and Joey Janella. The former made surprisingly easy work of them, but after the match Janella said that he had come to Progress to prove himself and so far all he had done was get beaten by c**ts, and that Havoc (who he had faced off against in New York for Progress last year) was the biggest c**t of them all. He wanted to finish what they started back then, and demanded a death match for Day Three. Havoc accepted and owner Jim Smallman made the match official. This felt huge and the crowd ate it up.

Keith Lee would show once again just how dominant he could be as he put away Angelico - who himself had a great showing, nearly getting Lee up for his Crucifix Buckle Bomb, but dropping him after a step or two and allowing Lee to get the win to advance to Day Three’s semi finals. 

The start of the second half though was for me the highlight of the entire tournament. David Starr, my gun to head pick to win it all going in would take on Zack Sabre Jr in a quarter final match which will go down for the ages. Every move one had the other had a counter for. Starr tried to go hard against Sabre’s technical style. I literally lost count of how many Han Stansen’s he hit as the match went on, but incredibly both men kept getting up. It was an actual clinic of a wrestling match, the kind trainees should have to watch as required viewing. In the end it was the boy from Sheppey who would prove the victor, but honestly the real winner with this was the fans in attendance, who were just lapping it up.

The night finished with two David Vs Goliath stories as first Tyler Bate went against Ohno, telling the story that Bate couldnt get Ohno up, no matter how strong he was, until finally he got the dead lift German suplex off and then his patented airplane spin. The crowd exploded when the latter occured and came to their feet, where they would remain as he hit a thunderous Tyler Driver 97 to secure his own semi final place.

Then came a main event more than 9 months in the making as the Progress World Championship would be defended by Travis Banks against the Atlas Champion Walter. A fantastic hype video package told the crowd all they needed to know - these were the two most dominating men in Progress, both undefeated since Chase the Sun back at Alexandra Palace last September, and that something was about to give. 

Rather predictably given the difference in size Walter manhandled the champion. The crowd, tired of Travis’s constant Terminator antics were squarely on the side of the Austrian as chants of “Walter’s our champion” and “Walter’s gonna kill you” rang across the arena. An interfering T K Cooper (dressed in full Roman Reigns flack jacket) got knocked out for his troubles but it was then that Travis enacted his awful master plan. As champion and challenger battled on the outside Walter eventually slid back in to break his own countout. Trav though decided that was it. He picked up his title, and he walked away, before Walter had a chance to go after him and senior official Chris Roberts counted the ten to count Banks out.

Walter had won, but had failed to pick up the title. He called Travis a disgrace and power bombed TK in the middle of the ring before storming out clearly fuming, to close off the wrestling portion of Day two. 

I say the wrestling portion because there was still more to come. Across town at the Dome in Tufnell Park, Mark Andrews’ band Junior were the official Day Two afterparty. They put on a great gig but just as they began the encore none other than Eddie Dennis appeared, attacking the MC before security could drag him out. Mark was incensed, and took to twitter soon after to say simply “Eddie, be at Alexandra Palace tomorrow.” After months of build up, Mark had finally snapped. Which leads us nicely on to…

Day Three

The final day of Super Strong Style 16 began where the second day let off. Jim Smallman played a video of the events of the night previous and Mandrews stormed the ring, saying that when Eddie attacked him, or other wrestlers, that was fine - they could defend themselves, but this was an innocent bystander. Enough was enough, and he was finally accepting Eddie’s constant challenges for a match once he was healed from injury. He said he would accept as long as Eddie promised that until that day he has to leave Mark and his friends alone.

Eddie jumped at the chance but had his own condition: he gets to pick the stipulation for the match. The two gave a brutal stare down and it was clear the match was set for Eddie’s return in a few months time.

Next up was Roy Johnson’s Wasteman Challenge, featuring most of the guys who had been eliminated from the tournament up to this point. After Chuck Mambo, and Devlin in particular got some big pops for their rhymes, Jim made the crowd aware that as Tyler Bate was unable to continue in the tournament because of an injury sustained during his Day Two match, this challenge would now instantly become a scramble match for his spot in the semi finals, and to ring the bell. All the men in the match made it clear how huge an opportunity this was and started knocking the hell out of each other, but in the end Ohno would lay waste to everyone with his swinging elbows. A highlight in particular to watch for on Demand Progress is the moment he catches Devlin in mid air with one as Jordan was coming of the top rope. It was brutal to watch but fantastic. Suddenly the big man was back in the tournament. 

The semis would see ZSJ take on Keith Lee and then Ohno Vs Gibson. The former was a brilliant display of Sabres fortitude to get up from everything Lee would throw at him, before finally bridging a pin fall to get three against the big man. The latter was more akin to a PRO wrestling match than the technical side we got in the first semi. The match became about Gibson’s partner James Drake trying again and again to interfere, before finally getting caught by Joel Allen and ejected, leading to Gibson taking an elbow to the back of the head while he was distracted for the loss. Both matches were very different, but they showcased how many great styles of wrestling there are, and ever 3 days in this crowd were buying into every minute. 

The first half of Day Three would end with the Death Match which we had had announced earlier in the weekend. Now I’m not going to slate this match, I’m just going to say Death Matches aren’t my thing. I don’t like them very much. I completely get there are people who love them (and clearly the crowd were getting a lot out of it, so I’m not going to slate it). It just wasn’t my cup of tea.

What came after the match though got probably the pop of the entire weekend it was so out of left field. Jimmy, having lost the match began to cut a promo on Progess and Jim Smallman. He said that he and Haskins had joined forces because after the last Ally Pally show when they had put their lives on the line in a death match they hadn’t been booked on the next show.

They were frustrated with their clear lack of direction and took it out on David Starr and Jack Sexsmith who they thought unworthy of the spot. Nice to begin with to finally have that answer as to why the team came together, but it was when he then started going after Will Ospreay and how he had returned from his Loser Leaves Town stipulation so easily that he got really dark. He said that in the years since their feud Will had become a megastar and Jimmy had simply become more and more broken down. Maybe, he said, it was time to….

Before he could finish the sentence though the Aerial Assassin himself’s music hit and he walked down the ramp, Jimmy’s old axe in hand, to a thunderous reception from the Ally Pally crowd. 

He said he had watched from afar but that Jimmy didn't get to decide when he was done. Will had that power. He had always had that power because their story had been engrained together since the very beginning. He was fed up of watching some bloke called James stumble through Progress. He wanted the bastard who nearly decapitated him with an axe. He wanted Jimmy F***ing Havoc. He wanted him at Wembley Arena on September the 30th. The promo was absolutely on fire, and one of the best I have ever seen Ospreay deliver. Jimmy accepted, before throwing himself not just once but like five or six times back bumping onto a collection of thumbtacks on the floor from the death match to show that he had snapped and that Jimmy Havoc was finally back. The ovation was like very little you could imagine, especially as this crowd had been chanting and screaming for nearly three solid days at this point. 

The second half would see Toni Storm first see of Charlie Morgan in convincing fashion to retain her Women's Championship and set up the match nearly a year in the making as she will finally go on to face Jinny at Victoria Warehouse for the title.

Next up Walter would look to pick up a measure of retribution over the Kiwi Buzzsaw after the events of Day Two as he effectively ate up his little poodle T K Cooper and spat out the carcass. This was an annihilation. Once again though it was what happened in the after math that will be remembered. Travis cut a promo saying it was unfair that Walter could claim to be in two weight classes and that as long as he holds the Atlas title he would not get another World championship match.

To which Walter said: Ok then, and handed Jim his Atlas title before chasing Travis out of the arena. Its amazing to see that Walter will clearly not be done with Travis until he gets his hands on him for that belt, and even more interesting that this is the way they choose to get the Atlas belt off Walter. It frees him up to take that world title spot without having to lose and thus break some of the mystique.

I also hope, to refer all the way back to the first match Day One, that the fatal four way match at Victoria Warehouse between Joseph Conners, Rob Lynch, Rampage and Doug Williams will now be for the vacant Atlas belt and that Doug Williams might get one more run to close out his career.

All of which brings us nicely to the Grand Final of the Super Strong Style 16 tournament for 2018. Who would join Ospreay, Tommy End and Travis Banks as the fourth winner? In the end there could be only one. The first British born winner of the New Japan Cup would also finally get the demon of his back. He had been so close to touching this moment on a couple of occasions over the years that in many way this year simply had to belong to: Zack Sabre Jr.

As he celebrated, he called his title shot the only way a boy from Kent can: “Wembley, Innit” and with that the confetti fell form the rafters, and the streamers filled the ring.

As Jim tearfully thanked everyone in attendance for making the entire weekend as special as it was, it was hard to believe this was it. One of the best weekends of wrestling probably ever, had come to an end. The family that we had all become over several days were returning to our lives outisde the world of Progress.

But to misquote a great film: We’ll always have Ally Pally.

We will always have the memories of what we all shared together. We laughed, we cried, we made new friends and rekindled old ones. We all lived our best lives and cheered our hearts out because we were united. No matter how bleak the world outside, for one weekend 1500 people in North London were united in euphoria and bliss.

If that isn’t Progress, I don’t know what is. Lets do it again some time yeah? 

Monday, 9 April 2018

Review - Wrestlemania 34

Firstly: allow me to apologise for the odd paragraphing on this. Its in the default settings, so I'm not sure why its doing like triple line spacing on paragraphs. Its not like that in the actual text, or in preview mode but I can't work out how to fix it, so apologies. That said, onto the review: 

At the time of writing, we are now nearly 12 hours removed from Wrestlemania 34.

I'm honestly still not sure how I feel about it. There were great moments, but also moments which - at best - left myself and those I was watching with scratching their heads. 

Matt Hardy winning the Andre battle royal on the preshow, and then Seth Rollins winning the IC belt to kick off the main card got fans into the night early, with a proper hot crowd.

We were then treated to a great match between Asuka and Charlotte. The end of the match though is perhaps where the night's first issues started creeping in. Its not even that Asuka lost per se - she had to lose some time - but the way she lost. Charlotte had barely got the Figure 8 locked on when the Empress of Tomorrow tapped. Over 900 days of Streak just suddenly ended in a split second.

For the added drama they could have had her hold on for a minute or two, try and make it to the rope, before finally succumbing. It would have done a better job of keeping both women looking strong. From here its just not clear where Asuka goes next. 

Throughout the preshow, and right through into the Smackdown Women's title match, we kept getting cutaways to John Cena in the crowd. It was a clever gimmick, but they went to the well way too often. Cutting away twice in what is a world title match is simply unacceptable. Thankfully they sent him to the back after the women were done because it was getting old FAST.

Another strange booking choice followed with the US title match. With Asuka's streak broken everyone I watched with agreed that if they were going to save the crowd and bring them back on side then Rusev was going to have to pick up the win here. Instead though, on the cusp of his glory suddenly Mahal was pinning him and raising the gold. A champion no-one wanted, and the guy people wanted to win eating the pin. Yep... *bangs head on the desk*
Back to the good side of Mania 34, who would ever have believed you going in if you'd said Ronda Rousey's debut would have been the match of the night. Well - it was. Rousey started slow, with a few minor botches, but she quickly found her feet, and the sheer spectacle of seeing her face down HHH, before locking in her patented arm bar on Stephanie felt huge. This was the first match on the entire card which felt like a Wrestlemania moment, rising above even your usual PPV fare.  Like I say: it wasn't perfect, if this is Rousey's foundation I can't wait to see how she grows from here. 

Perhaps a victim of its placement on the card, the SD Tag championship match felt incredibly rushed. At just over 5 minutes, none of the teams were able to really get their stuff in and while I'm excited for the Bludgeon Brothers to get a run with the belt, this wasn't the fantastic match we know these three teams to be capable of. 
After that cool down through, John Cena's music hit and he ran to the ring, and the atmosphere suddenly filled with electricity. The moment we had waited for was here. The lights went out, and then....the guitar strummed. It wasn't Undertaker but Elias who slowly trudged to the ring. This was a really masterful use of the young heel. Fans love to boo him, and this trolling gave them ample opportunity. Cena made quick work of him before heading to the back assuming his Wrestlemania was over. 

Half way up the ramp though the lights would go out again and this time the Undertakers hat and gloves would appear in the centre of the ring where he left them a year previously. The trademark lightning and pyro sent them straight to hell and the gong finally chimed. Rising back out of the stage - again a call back to what he preciously thought was his retirement last year - The Dead Man was back. He marched to the ring in classic Undertaker style and then arguably the biggest shock of the night so far occurred: He squashed Cena in 2minutes 47 seconds. 
Yep. Big Match John, one of the biggest stars in history, and the man who has spent so long begging for this match, got his ass handed to him in under 3 minutes. 

I'm honestly not sure what to think. The lead in segment was fantastic, and the quick finish did a great job of not exposing Undertaker's age. That said, in both mans primes this should have been one of those Wrestlemania dream matches which went down in the pantheon of the best ever. To see it over so quickly I just couldn't help but feel a little let down. For what it was it was great, its just when you start thinking of what it could have been.

Also: this didnt feel like a retirement match in the way I think just about everyone expected. It felt like it was building Taker for something. Will it be a rematch with Cena at Mania 35? A final match at Survivor Series to bring his story full circle? Without the answers to those questions this match feels even harder to judge. If this is the start of a story between the two that leads to a real match this was a really inventive way of kick starting the feud. If this was the end...it just feels wasted. 

Daniel Bryan’s return was hot, and it didnt feel like he had missed a beat in the years he was gone. After the weirdness and shortness of the two matches which it followed, this finally felt like a welcome relief.

Aaaaaand thats where Wrestlemania’s upside ended.

Nakamura Vs AJ Styles had all the makings of a potential Match of the Year candidate on paper, but in reality the match just never quite got going. It was a bit of a metaphor for the night as a whole to be honest. Perfectly OK, but not at all what it could have been, and in turn that made it just feel even more disappointing than if we hadn’t expected anything from it.
Braun Strowman and a ten year old then proceeded to effectively bury the entire Raw Tag division. Yes, you read that right. I’ve got nothing, sorry. 

Last but by no means least we marched into a main event that no-one wanted to see - especially 70000 people who had sat for 7 hours at this point already including the preshow. Lesnar Vs Reigns felt like the entire match was laid out to make Roman’s eventual victory seem huge, like he was overcoming something. Samoa Joe and Braun couldn’t kick out of a single F5. Even the Undertaker was beaten by 3. 

By the time Roman kicked out of a fifth, there were genuinely This Is Awful chants, and the fans just started playing with a beach ball. 

Of course this would be followed by Roman getting a huge emphatic spear and finally exorcising the Lesnar demon off his back in this story that has been 3 years in the making.

Wait, no. Thats not what happened. A sixth F5 would suddenly put the Big Dog away, leaving Brock with the title and Roman’s entire quest in tatters. 
What was the point? If he was going to lay down for Brock why did they have to go the ridiculous six finishers route? Just have him get beat. It made NO sense.

As I said at the outset, I’m not going to suggest this Wrestlemania was a disaster. It wasn’t. This was no Wrestlemania 9 for example, which was awful start to finish. This time around there were huge highs - the IC title match, the mixed tag - and even to an extent the Undertaker and Asuka situations were good enough(although they weren’t without their flaws). Its just that with so much genuine mess, especially in the second half of the show and the two world title matches, I just can’t see this being one of those CLASSIC Manias we go back to time and again. I’m not angry, I’m just…disappointed.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Ranking The Undertaker's Wrestlemania matches

It’s Wrestlemania day, and, despite appearances to the contrary last year, this really does look like its going to be the year we see the swan song for the greatest professional wrestling character ever: The Undertaker.

Of course when you think of the Dead Man, his name is almost synonymous with Wrestlemania, having appeared at 25 of the last 27, and amassing an insurmountable 23 out of 25 wins. With that in mind I thought I’d take the time to go back over the legendary Wrestlemania career that Taker has had. and rank the matches from worst, through to the very best

25: Giant Gonzalez - WM9 - There is very little to be said about this utter turd of a match. Far from the masterpieces we will see down the list, this was a particularly low point on what is considered the worst Mania ever. Gonzalez was big and hulking yes but a good worker he was not, and even the Undertaker’s obvious skill couldn’t sort this out. It ends with Gonzalez choking Taker out with Chloroform and getting DQ’ed. I just… Nope, I got nothing. It was a turd. A complete total turd.

24: Jimmy Snuka - WM7 - At just over 4 minutes, the Undertakers first Wrestlemania appearance felt more like an extended squash match than anything particularly special. Its not bad for what it is, just very basic. He can (and will) do substantially better).

23: Big Boss Man - WM15 - For my money the worst Hell in a Cell match in WWE history, this is a Boss Man who never really gets going. Following the brutality of the Michaels and Mankind HiaCs this just feels entirely forgettable, something that cage should simply never allow. 

22: King Kong Bundy - WM11 - Another quick fall, this feels at least a little more accomplished than the Snuka match, and did what it needed to to continue the ongoing story with Ted Dibiase which the Undertaker was working up to at this point. 

21: Shane McMahon - WM32 - The lowest recent entry on this list, its the storytelling more than the match quality that let this down. Shane is still willing to do all his crazy stuff, and the Undertaker gets all his stuff in, but it just never made sense why Undertaker was doing Vince’s dirty work to begin with. Taker is ostensibly still a face here, and yet he’s fighting for the heel head of the company against a massively over returning Shane. And WHAT WAS IN THE LOCK BOX?! 2 years on and we still never got the end of the story.

20: Sycho Sid - WM13 - Sid, like Gonzalez above, was never a fantastic worker in the ring, and while he puts on a serviceable match here, its not what anyone remembers from this card - thats the Hart Austin submission match.

19: Jake Roberts - WM8 - The last of the very early matches we will cover, and again this is really before there was a Streak to defend. This is still very early in the career of the Undertaker and this squash match allows us to further that character in the eyes of the audience.

18: A Train and Big Show - WM19 - Notable for being the only non one-on-one match the Undertaker has had at the Show of Shows, this is 3 big men going at it. It might not be a masterpiece, but its a good hard hitting match.

17: Mark Henry - WM22 - For someone like my self who would call himself an Undertaker superfan I’ve never actually been all that partial to Casket matches, despite them being his signature. The gimmick rather detracts from the suspense of the big near falls which can make big matches feel even bigger, but again this is a decent big mans wrestling match, even if the suspense is never right where it needs to be

16: Kane 1 - WM14 - One of the best storylines Undertaker had been in up to this point saw him refuse to fight his brother, who was wreaking havoc in the WWE and consistently making Taker’s life hell. To see the two brothers finally come to a head, and for it to take 3 Tombstones to put the Big Red Machine down made both men look like monsters, which lets face it - is kind of the point.

15: Diesel - WM12 - On the ongoing subject of big men knocking bells out of one another, comes the Diesel match. I’m sorry to say this, and I know I’ll get flack for it from some in the Internet wrestling community - I’ve never really rated Kevin Nash as a performer. It may just be that you had to be around at the time to truly feel what he would become with the NWO, but I just never cared for him. Its why this match came as such a pleasant surprise because it feels like a bit of a high point for Diesel match quality wise.

14: Brock Lesnar - WM30 - Its a crying shame that the match which ended the Streak is so low down this list. From an importance stand point it could easily be higher but - having suffered a concussion just a minute or two into the match - the pace is completely thrown off, and it never really regains it. If the ramifications of the final moments weren’t there, I don’t think this match would even be in the conversation. Its a mess, but an honourable mess, and we have to give kudos to Taker just for keeping going in the condition he was in. And lets face it: the sheer importance of the end of the Streak makes this one of the most important Wrestlemania moments of all time even if the match itself doesn’t stock up

13: Bray Wyatt - WM31 - Thankfully it seems time heals all wounds. The broken Dead Man we saw just a year earlier losing the final Streak match would return seemingly rejuvenated. The result was never really in question, but it was nice to see someone of Wyatt’s stature in the WWE system at the time get the opportunity at such a high profile match. I’ve long been high on Bray Wyatt as a character and while its often felt he has been allowed to stagnate, at least at this point creative were clearly interested enough in him to hand him to the Dead Man.

12: Ric Flair - WM18 - On a night which saw Hogan vs Rock main event in an Icon vs Icon match that would go down in history, a little way down the card Flair and Undertaker too were looking to put on a huge legends match. WCW’s biggest star had come back to the WWE and the Undertaker was realistically the gatekeeper. A bloody affair with Flair donning his patented crimson mask early on in the proceedings, its a match which probably doesn’t get the credit it deserves given the match which came later in the night, but its definitely good. It also ends with Undertaker holding up 10 fingers, signifying his 10-0 record at Wrestlemania, the first time on television that the Streak had really been mentioned, and it wouldn’t come into its own for another several years - on which more later.

11: Batista - WM23 - By this point The Streak was in full swing, and The Undertaker was really reaching the peak in his career. It was The Streak Vs The World Heavyweight Championship, and for my money this was Batista’s best feud in the WWE. The two big men put on a hard hitting contest. A thunderous Batista Bomb came close to ending the Streak, while the Animal kicked out of The Last Ride, as the pair traded near falls. At a little over 16 minutes this was better than it ever deserved to be, and like I say: might just be one of Batista’s very best matches.

10: HHH 1 - WM17 - Another match which gets lost in the shuffle of the card it was on. WMX7 is for many the best Mania ever, and includes the best TLC match ever, and the best match of the Austin Vs Rock trilogy. That said this for me is the Undertaker’s big Mania coming out party where the matches really started getting good. They battle all over the arena. Chair shots, sledgehammers, a classic ref bump (seriously Mike Chioda, an elbow drop doesnt knock you out for 10 minutes), this was a properly fantastic match and a prelude to the two classics Hunter and Taker would later put on.

9: Randy Orton - WM21 - Above we mentioned the first time the Streak would really be called out as such, and this is the match. At this point deep into his Legend Killer gimmick Orton swore to do what 12 men hadn’t been able to do up to that point: Beat the Dead Man at the Show of Shows. This feels like the closest the booking ever came to ending the Streak before it actually happened, and the match is properly impressive. It was completely believable that Orton might have the rocket strapped to his back, and a win over Undertaker would have sent his stock into the stratosphere. Some interference from Bob Orton and an incredible Chokeslam-into-RKO reversal stand out as the high points of this superb match, but in the end its Randy’s hubris which gets the better of him. Determined to beat the Phenom with his own move Randy goes for a Tombstone which Taker flips back into his own for the win. 13-0, and the Streak marches on.

8: Roman Reigns - WM33 - I’m going to get a lot of flack for this going as high as it is. I’m not going to claim it has the match quality of some of the entries we are about to see, but the sheer weight of the emotion in this match was palpable from the get go. The moment Jim Ross came out to commentate, and the fact the match was the main event, fans had an inkling that this might just be the Undertaker’s Last Ride. A back and forth battle between the two would culminate in what many assume was the final time we will see The Dead Man, at least in that gimmick. He leaves his hat and gloves in the ring as an entire stadium gives this man a standing ovation, not a dry eye in the house. It may not be an INCREDIBLE match bell to bell, but its serviceable enough that the added emotion makes this chapter in the Undertaker’s legacy feel so important.

7:  Kane 2 - WM20 - Another match more about the story than it was about the action per se, but what a story it was. The November before, the American Bad Ass version of Undertaker had lost a Buried Alive match to Mr McMahon after his brother Kane ceremoniously dumped an entire JCB load of dirt on the Biker. Over the next several months Kane became haunted by visions of the Undertaker, with the signature lightning bolts and gongs. Kane carried the brunt of the feud as Undertaker was intentionally kept off screen, but the Big Red Machine does an incredible job of playing up how he doesnt believe in the magic of the Undertaker. He believes the Dead Man is gone, and that he won. Then when Mania finally rolls around, the druids march out with their torches, Paul Bearer walks out with the Urn, and then there he is. The Dead Man has risen, black trench coat, black hat, this is THE UNDERTAKER. The Phenom. The Bad Ass might be gone, but the most powerful entity in the WWE is back. He makes short work of his brother and proves to everyone in attendance why he is the Dead Man. On a rewatch you could probably skip the match itself, but the promotional video and then the entrances are probably the best production WWE has ever done. There, I said it.

6: CM Punk - WM29 - This is the point in our list where we reach the real masterpieces. From this point onwards it would almost be fair to say that on any persons given list these could easily go down as a person’s favourite Mania match for the Undertaker. Having held the WWE title for longer than anyone in the modern era, CM Punk made no secret of the fact he believed he belonged in the main event of Wrestlemania 29, but with Rock Vs Cena holding that coveted spot, Punk would have to find another way to the show of shows. With the death of Paul Bearer, Punk gets to go into full heel mode as he steals the Undertaker’s urn, mocking the memory of Bearer and calling out the Dead Man.

5: Edge - WM24 - Featuring two of my all time favourite superstars,  this is a match I have been back to many times over the years. Edge was able to counter the Dead Man time and again, with Undertaker unable to hit almost any of his signature moves to put the Rated R Superstar away. A ref bump which would lead to a reverse Tombstone spot which would echo the earlier Randy Orton effort, and an incredible reversal of Edge’s spear into a Hells Gate would ensure the Streak would last on another year. 

From here the list gets even more interesting. These last four matches for me could almost be interchangeable in their position on this list, because to be honest: They are one ongoing story. It may technically be four matches, but for me WWE has never so successfully woven a story across four consecutive years as they did when The Undertaker would come face to face with HHH, and the Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels. That story is something we shall examine now. I will give them in my order of preference, but as I say, this is one of those where all four matches are practically perfect and I wouldn’t argue anyone who put the four matches in a different order.

4: HHH 2 - WM27 - Having watched his best friend Shawn Michaels be unable to beat The Undertaker not once but twice at Wrestlemania, and retire in the process, The Game had a lot to prove going into WM27. He had to beat the Phenom or die trying, and this is one of the most heart hitting battles of the entire streak. Chair shots, and an amazing camera shot as HHH delivers a Tombstone to Undertaker, trying to put away the Dead Man with his own move stand out. Its one of a hundred fantastic moments in the match, and its place in the ongoing story cannot be downplayed. The Undertaker being unable to walk out under his own power at the end of the match was a huge moment. The Dead Man suddenly felt a little more mortal, and even though the Streak remained, maybe, just maybe, it was beatable after all? It had to be worth just one more try right? On which more soon.

3: Shawn Michaels 2 - WM26 - Its not QUITE the high water mark of their first contest (darn it, that feels like a Spoiler, though you’ve all guessed already where I’m going), but Shawn’s retirement match is FULL of raw emotion. They trade false finishes back and forth for what feels like an age, but not for one moment does anyone want to see this instant classic end. This is a battle for the ages, and as the final 3 count falls it feels like we have witnessed something truly special.

2: HHH 3 - WM28 End of an Era Hell in a Cell, Shawn Michaels as Special Referee - This was very nearly top of my list. Its the culmination of the story these 3 men have been telling for four years. The Undertaker is the most vulnerable we have ever seen him up to this point after WM27 and we literally have not seen him on screen in a full year outside of some strange video packages. This time it is HIM who needs to prove something. He wants HHH because he needs to know. He doesn’t feel like his win counts the last time because it was he who was broken by the end. He wants one final match to settle it all. The addition of Michaels at the ref is the best touch, because the audience knows his history with the Undertaker, but also his history with HHH. They’re friends yes but there has also been huge animosity between them. Could Shawn bare to see Hunter do what he couldn’t and snap the Streak? Some frankly fantastic psychology goes in to this, but the match reaches its peak when Undertaker snaps at Michaels and puts him into Hells Gate, prompting Michaels to then give Sweet Chin Music directly into a Pedigree for what might have been the closest near fall of the entire Streak. This is probably one of the matches (along with Number One on this list) that I have seen more than any other, and I still explode into floods of tears seeing the curtain call at the end. Three men who gave EVERYTHING to a business they love, and to fans who loved them, and they are going out on a high. If I’m honest, I’d have liked this to be the end of all 3 men. Have Hunter go off into his exec job and have Shawn and Taker ride off into the sunset. They never bettered this with what followed, so quit while you’re ahead.

1: Shawn Michaels 1 - WM25 - It was never really in any doubt was it? As a lifelong Undertaker fan (anyone who knows me knows that he is my favourite wrestler), this is for me not only the best Undertaker Wrestlemania match, this is the single greatest professional wrestling bout ever. I have seen it easily 100 times, and could practically take you move by move. Right from the Heaven Vs Hell entrances, to the moment where Shawn pushes the camera guy in front of a diving Taker, to the moment which lead to my favourite gif ever (Taker’s SHOCKED eyes after Shawn kicked out of a Tombstone). This thing is a masterpiece from bell to bell, and, nearly 9 years later its still never been bettered by any pair of performers. I just don’t know how else to say about this. I don’t think there is any wrestling fan alive who I need to tell how good this was. Instead of rambling on I’ll say this instead: save the time you’d have saved reading an essay on how incredible this is, and go watch this match again on the WWE Network right now. Do it. Right now. You will not be disappointed.

With Wrestlemania 34 just hours away, we have to wonder whether he will answer John Cena’s challenge, and - if he does - where the match would fall if I was to redo this list after the event. Only time will tell, but for now lets simply celebrate the most important WWE career of all time. Thank You Undertaker. If this is to be the end, I just want to thank you for so many great memories. 

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Ready Player One - Review

Ever since I saw the first trailer for Steven Spielberg’s latest, Ready Player One, I was excited. A movie set inside a massive virtual world, picking up on Easter eggs and references to a whole host of other movies, books and video games, it sounded right up my street. 

While I had never read Ernest Cline’s now much lauded novel of the same name, my interests were definitely peaked so I headed down to see the film opening night. 

What followed was an action adventure romp which evokes everything from Willy Wonka, to Wreck It Ralph, to The Hunger Games, while deftly meshing the ultra-futurist world of its Oasis (the virtual world at the films centre) with the nostalgia we all feel for the simplicity of our childhoods.

We join Wade Watts, very clearly the Charlie Bucket character if we extend the Wonka metaphor out, a struggling poor boy from The Stacks, a literal trailer park where trailers are piled on top of one another because of the immense over population and crowding in this slum. He and his friends live their lives within The Oasis, which they use as a virtual escape from their troubles. In the Oasis we are told, anyone can be anything, and it’s using this prism that the films references come through – Wade drives the DeLorean, while his friend Aech has built working replicas of everything from the Iron Giant to the Galactica.

The story of the film sees our heroes attempting to find 3 keys hidden within the game by its reclusive creator James Halliday before he died. Halliday (again like Wonka), wanted to find someone worthy of taking over his company and his creation after his death, so he has set up various challenges for an eventual winner to overcome. 

From an epic car chase with obstacles as varied as wrecking balls and spikes right through to Jurassic Park’s T Rex and King Kong; through to a challenge set inside the infamous Overlook hotel from The Shining, Spielberg has effortlessly woven a tapestry with these characters.

With the sheer amount of properties on display here this could have felt forced under a lesser director. Very much an exercise in “hey, look how many things you recognise that we managed to get”. Instead though rather than making too big a deal out of them, the film just puts these things on screen and then moves on. These things simply exist in this world. Its actual movie world building at is best.

The movie works though not because of its flash or its spectacle, but because you believe in the characters at its heart. Wade is far from a perfect hero, his arrogance and his desperation to rise above his current station nearly derail his efforts on several occasions – its perhaps fitting that he of all the characters is the one with the DeLorean, as he is evoking Marty Mcfly in that regard.

The other central members of the group are well fleshed out too. Art3mis, a young activist who’s reason for wanting to win the contest are far purer than Wade’s, gives the film its emotional resonance. He wants to win, she needs to win because she understands the power that this place they have all created together has, and the dangers of allowing it to fall into the wrong hands.

It’s a nice metaphor for the internet at large right now. The vast majority of its users are there to create a vast, interconnected community spreading its way across the globe. You don’t have to have met these people in real life to feel connected to them. At the same time there are those who’s corporate greed would seek to destroy the community and instead simply turn it into a bottom line figure.

On that note, Nolan Sorrento, the films central villain, and owner of IOI, Halliday’s leading competitor, who wants nothing more than to finally destroy his enemies vision and turn it into a for profit machine. He’s perhaps a little pantomime (there is a sequence in which he genuinely talks about how many ads they can flood someone’s headset with before they go into full blown seizure), and for my money this is perhaps the films weak point. When everyone else feels so real and so well rounded, we could perhaps have done with just a moment of looking at why Sorrento became the way he was.

It’s a minor quibble though. The film tears along at a rip-roaring pace, and really works hard to pack every sequence with as much emotional heft as they can manage. It feels, perhaps fittingly given the nostalgia factor at the films heart, like it fits into the old Amblin canon. It’s just as fun, and explores ideas just as lofty as its predecessors like ET. It doesn’t hold quite that high watermark admittedly, but then comparing much of anything to ET would leave an unfavourable view.

Ready Player One though feels like a real return to form for one of cinema’s greatest creators. He’s created a visual and emotional paradise, and one I cannot wait to return to.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Review: Star Wars - The Last Jedi - SPOILERS

Speaking as one of many for whom Star Wars was a formative part of my early childhood, the resurgence of the franchise to its former glories in recent years has been something I have joyously watched over. Force Awakens was a great, fun ride, Rogue One was the closest the franchise has ever come to what I’d refer to as a great FILM, rather than just a great movie. It was with baited breath then that I attended the midnight screening for Episode VIII. Willing it to live up to its recent predecessors. I needn’t have worried. It blows them out of the water, and even the original trilogy along with it.

Let’s begin of all places at the end. That last 60 seconds. The moment you realise hope is truly still alive in the galaxy. It’s a beautiful and enchanting vision of the rebellion, and unlike anything which has come before in 8 films truly seems to present how important the rebellion is not just to those few ragtag fighters but to the whole oppressed galaxy. These 3 children, telling the story of Luke Skywalker, are as important as any Jedi or Sith or Rebel or First Order fighter. Where Empire Strikes Back leaves the universe in torment at the end of its trilogies second act, Last Jedi's message is one of hope from tyranny. I know even after one viewing that this tops even Empire Strikes Back, long held in my heart as the high watermark by which Star Wars should be judged. A statement of intent on how the franchise could work. 

Last Jedi is without a single shadow of a doubt in my mind the most well crafted Star Wars film ever made. Peril which genuinely felt perilous; a story which took everything I expected (an Empire carbon copy to follow on from Force Awakens’ New Hope carbon copy) and turned them on their heads; and even while it’s probably the bleakest vision of this universe we have had to date it’s also somehow the funniest. Yoda being his playful mischievous self - and a PUPPET NOT CGI - was wonderful. Also a far younger puppet than the one in Jedi, because it would seem like Anakin in NewJedi he has decided to present himself in his prime not at the point of his death. No, even in the darkness of a film in which we learn Luke nearly murdered a child, director Rian Johnson is brave enough to intersperse a nice amount of comedy and brevity to the proceedings without for one moment lessening any of those big moments. We learn that where we thought Snoke was going to be our big bad a la The Emperor, in the grand scheme of things the point was that Snoke wasn’t that important. We assumed we would relive Jedi, and the struggle would be for Rens soul against Snoke as Vader’s was with the Emperor. But then they killed Snoke and Ben was still evil. The twist was the real important bit, not Snoke. Ren was able to hide his true feelings from Snoke. Suggests Snoke was never that powerful a Sith, and that his apprentice is already WAY more powerful. Supreme Leader Kylo Ren is a bad guy reborn from the ashes of his failures in Force Awakens. He is a mad man the likes of whom cannot be reckoned with, and to see him battle Luke at the end, with even Luke - who could turn Darth Vader of all people - conceding that Ren could not be saved sets Kylo up as an almighty big bad come Episode IX and his seemingly inevitable reunion-come-battle with Rey and her new Jedi order. On Rey, her not being a skywalker or a Kenobi or a Solo is a bold, some might even suggest inspired choice. She’s just Rey. Its huge for the franchise because it takes it beyond the Skywalker saga. If Ren dies, the final part of the Skywalker bloodline dies with it. It also once again helps to subvert every expectation that this was going to be Empire2. We spend the film waiting for a huge familial reveal, because that is what must come, and it simply doesn’t. I wept when Luke and Leia reunited, and actually cheered out loud when we finally got Leia's force moment. We have always kind of known she was at least passably force sensitive, but she is literally like a fully untrained Jedi. These characters have lived with so many of us for so long that to finally see them shine again on the big screen is incredible. 

Carrie Fisher’s General Organa is fantastic. She has matured from the Princess cracking wise to a leader who understands that every life lost in the resistance is a blow which could wipe it out. Her expression while everyone else celebrates the Dreadnaught kill and she simply looks at the screen listing the fleet members lost is one of the more finely played moments in the franchise to date.
It is Mark Hamill though who deserves the most plaudits. Luke Skywalker, our legend, our hero, has been torn asunder, and its in Hamills performance that it never for one moment feels forced. He gets the odd laugh (brushing himself off after the AT-AT barrage is a particular highlight), but for the most part he has completely inhabited the role of the old and broken master, desperate to end the Jedi once and for all, not because he has turned to the dark side, but because he believes it is the only way to bring balance to the force, ending the Jedi’s hold over it once and for all. 

His final emotional sequence as he pronounces the rebellion (an interesting choice of words, not Resistance but Rebellion, just like the old days) reborn, and that he is not the last Jedi after all is the completing of a story arc more than 40 years in the making. Him then bowing out in silence before the twin suns, clearly having transported his consciousness back to Tatooine one final time, is the beautiful and touching end to a character we saw come from nothing all those years ago.

I can't remember how long its been since I felt so entirely euphoric coming out of a movie. I am so excited to see how they move forward, because right now we are in a position of great hope. They have to rebuild the rebellion, and they have to rebuild the Jedi order, and getting there is going to be so intriguing. There are what, maybe 50 people on the Millennium Falcon. Thats technically the entire Rebel Alliance (a phrase which as mentioned above I think may be about to make a resurgence). Yet somehow we know they will overcome. We have what George Lucas knew was most important to the franchise decades ago, when he came back to sub-title Episode IV. We have: A New Hope. 

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Review: Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2

The sequel is never as good as the original. Its an adage as old as Hollywood itself, and has very very few exceptions to the otherwise hard and fast rule. After the overnight success that was Guardians of the Galaxy then, there was a level of trepidation surrounding Marvel’s return to their band of space mercenaries. 

Thankfully it picks up right where the first film left off from a comedic point of view, and from the exuberant opening sequence which sees Baby Groot dance to Mr Blue Sky while his friends fight an inter-dimensional space slug in the background, its impossible not be smiling, and the laughs just keep going and going.

Its not just the comedy that keeps on giving though. This film sees our heroes really grow as characters. Where the first film concentrated heavily on Chris Pratt’s Starlord, somewhat at the expense of his compatriots this new entry concentrates far more heavily on the background players, as we see Nebula, Yondu and in particular Rocket take centre stage.

After Rocket’s “I didn’t ask to be made!” explosion in the first film, he is desperately searching for a true family bond, but doesn’t know how to ask for it, and so ends up sinking deeper and deeper into his outcast role, arguing and acting out constantly, just hoping to be noticed. As the group constantly mock him as a “trash panda” or “triangle faced monkey” his dejection only grows, as does his descent into anger and depression.

Its heartwarming therefore to see his relationship with Yondu grow, as they realise they are effectively two sides of the same coin. Both are reckless loners who long for acceptance, but both believe themselves irredeemable. Its my favourite thread through what is an excellent adventure, and really helps to round both characters beyond their rather flat roles from the first outing.

Nebula too grows beyond her “generic evil super villain” role here too as we realise that Gamora isn’t the only daughter of Thanos to see the darkness for what it is. We find out that Nebula was jealous of Gamora, seeing her as Thanos’ favourite and that this feeling of abandonment even from her adopted father is what had turned her heart cold. 

For all the love that the Avengers will get within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and their part in the eventual battle with Thanos come the Infinity War, it would only be truly fitting at this point for either Nebula or Gamora to deal the final blow that brings the monstrous tyrant down. As deep and sweeping as Thanos’ terror has been across the galaxy, it is these two above all others who truly have that intimate terror, and inextricable link to Thanos. 

We are also reintroduced to a character who, despite only uttering 3 words, came to be the symbol for everything we loved about the first film: Groot. Long gone are the days of him being Rocket’s “resident houseplant and occasional muscle”. He’s now reborn from a single twig of the original, and is a hand sized Baby version of himself. Not only does this make him infinitely cuter, but it also brings a real change to the character, as the Guardians now have to look out for him, keeping him out of the fray of the darkest battles - a direct comparison to the first film. It was really interesting to see this evolution, and its wholly successful. You instantly believe that this is the same character, while equally understanding the shortcomings he now suffers. It will be interesting to see where Volume 3 goes, whether it will pick up from the post credits sequence with Teenage Groot or whether we will go back to his full grown form next time around. 

I make mention above of Mr Blue Sky, and it would be remiss in any review of a Guardians film not to bring up Awesome Mix Volume 2. Like the first film, this has a pumping soundtrack at it’s heart, as Quill’s walkman brings the music of the 70s and 80s to the big screen. I’d say it's not QUITE as good a mix as the first film offered, but that was always going to be a hard measuring stick, and this is great nonetheless. 

This film then takes everything which was great about the first films, these characters and their camaraderie, and boosts it up to 11, building on the universe with new characters, and really getting to the hearts of the characters we came to love first time around. 

To put it simply, this is a sequel with real heart, proving what the first entry in the series suggested: the Guardians are Marvels best movie property. Now the long wait begins. Bring on Volume 3 and the long awaited entrance of the Sovereign’s secret weapon: Adam Warlock!