A week or so following my viewing of NXT Takeover: In Your House, a show that sprinkled WWF nostalgia on the black and gold WWE brand’s usual great night of signature-styled, smooth-as-silk in-ring performing, I was reminded of my quarterly, post-NXT special event conclusion that they have offered the most consistently positive contributions to my wrestling fandom over the past half decade. New Japan is a brilliant presentation that I’m so glad I finally accepted into my viewership habits and its distinct sports-focus truly connects to the side of my sports entertainment enthusiasm that wants to see pro wrestling take itself so seriously; AEW, meanwhile, reminds me of the peak of this pop culture genre that I grew up on, with elements of WWE and NWA/WCW developing its identity, and as such has become my go-to extracurricular, mind-calming activity. NXT, though, never fails to deliver and is worthy of a place at the roundtable for modern wrestling’s finest.
The month of July has been dedicated to finding peace, as my mind has been trapped in conflict since mid-March. Few things over the years have brought me the kind of peace that sports entertainment has, so when I got the idea on Independence Day to go back to my writing roots over the next month and detail my analysis of the three aforementioned promotions battling for consistent attention, I went with it.
NXT and AEW started off the month taking their Wednesday night ratings battle (fittingly on the USA Network and TNT) to an interesting place historically, what with the returns of NXT icons Sasha Banks and Bayley stimulating a consecutive week total viewership victory for the first time since WWE Survivor Series season last fall. Then, week 2 of Fyter Fest and The Great American Bash was followed by New Japan’s biggest shows since coming back from their self-imposed shut down, the finals of the New Japan Cup and NJPW’s second most prestigious pay-per-view (PPV), Dominion. My wife and I have been watching Game of Thrones of late, so when I told her about this project she referenced the War of the Five Kings, hence the title applied to this column. Who’s the best? Let the War of the Three commence!
NXT Great American Bash Sets the Tone
My viewing order began with the Bash, Night 1. I have called NXT the owners of the best special event franchise in modern pro wrestling, that being their Takeover series. For fans like me whose opinion of the brand was shaped not by the weekly show, but the quarterly (ish) Network exclusive, there is a lot for NXT to live up to when they advertise something even remotely Takeover-like. I honestly enjoyed each match at the Bash, with the catch wrestling from Timothy Thatcher and Oney Lorcan acting as a nice change of pace and Roddy Strong continuing to enhance his healthy NXT legacy against an intriguing but rather mysterious talent in Dexter Lumis. It was thanks to the women’s division particularly, however, that the first night of the Bash was a very satisfying viewing experience, as the opening 4-way #1 contender match and the Banks vs. NXT Women’s Champion Io Shirai main-event book-ended the show with top notch (and on-brand) in-ring action. No major wrestling promotion has served its female stars with better booking than NXT, and I continue to be impressed with how seamlessly they retool and even expand when WWE comes calling to bring NXT’s best to Raw or Smackdown.
Fyter Fest Loses Viewership Battle, Wins Award for Better Quality
There is just something about AEW. Tonally, perhaps aided by the distinct Daily’s Place amphitheater setting, AEW feels like a bigger deal than NXT. For the longest time, NXT was the best alternative to WWE for WWE fans because they gave you that sleek production like their big brother, while offering a very aesthetically pleasing wrestling style. The best version of independent wrestling? Something you ought to see, but not something you feel like you have to see? Interesting questions, I think, in regards to the black and gold. AEW, conversely, gives the aura of a modernized NWA/WCW (it has from its May 2019 debut), well produced but with a gritty charm. The music at Fyter made it seem like I was watching a big Saturday night football game. Many little details like that make the AEW and NXT brands distinct, and their competition for Wednesday night supremacy all the more engaging.
Tag team wrestling, as was seen on Fyter Fest, Night 1, is the back bone of the product, like the tag team scene was during the heyday of Jim Crockett Promotions in the 1980s. The three tag bouts were all very good and all felt like important parts of the show; it was great to see Adam Page and Kenny Omega, who have been so awesome in their emergence as the leaders of the stacked division, in the main-event spot against The Best Friends, who may to bystanders seem like mere challengers-of-the-month but who were so valuable during the roster furlough period (thanks to COVID) that they needed their reward – that kind of high profile spot on a special show. That said, it was the AEW Women’s Title match, in my opinion, that earned Match of the Night honors. Hikaru Shida, the new champ, justified her position and her challenger, Penelope Ford, became a star. Fast-paced and heavy on the believable near falls, they stole the show.
There’s Really No Wrestling Quite Like New Japan Pro Wrestling
Every time that I begin watching New Japan again, I am reminded of how much I love it. In terms of the in-ring product, there is truly nothing better. I did not start watching it regularly until last year, when I consciously made an effort to catch all of their big shows. The level of athleticism and competition inherent to what they do is largely without equal in wrestling’s entire modern history. In Japan, everyone knows that wrestling is performance art, but they still treat it like a legitimate sport, essentially removing the shackles imposed by the “but it’s fake” dynamic that pro wrestling suffers from in the United States. Sometimes wrestling in North America can get too cute for its own good, losing that sense of realism that pro wrestling offers when at its best. NJPW is like a hybrid between the aesthetically pleasing grappling popular in the mainstream stateside with mixed martial arts. In New Japan, the wrestlers beat the tar out of each other. By the time the climax of a great match is reached, you often wonder, “What the heck else can they do to each other?” That may not be for everyone, but as a student of what makes the pro wrestling match great, I love it.
I got caught up on some of the well-regarded bouts from the New Japan Cup, which offered NJPW’s first shows since the pandemic shut them down in late February. SHO vs. Shingo, which my Australian buddy, Sam, championed after enjoying so much their match last year in the Best of the Super Juniors tournament, lived up to the hype. The standout performance to me, though, and the truest reminder of NJPW’s brand of excellence was Hiromu Takahashi vs. Tomohiro Ishii. In the past, I’ve compared to Ishii to Mick Foley and Terry Funk for his distinct style and ability to mesh it with more contemporary talents. Takahashi, the current Junior Heavyweight Champion, stood up and went blow for blow as best he could with one of the toughest humans walking God’s green earth. For much of the match, it felt impossible for the junior to top the heavyweight, but as the end drew near, momentum shifted and it became completely unpredictable who would emerge victorious. Amazing match. One of the best of the year.
Fyter Fest Night Two Upped the Ante
AEW made a regular habit of their Wednesday night television show on TNT being a can’t-miss affair before COVID, particularly during the lead-up to Revolution at the end of February. They had three shows that stand out as being absolutely awesome; Fyter Fest Part II joined the club. Orange Cassidy became a legit star in the main-event against Chris Jericho. He has gone from amusing comedy act to intriguing prospect who could turn it up a notch when given the chance to a guy on the brink of cashing in on his momentum as AEW heads toward their next pay-per-view, All Out. Heck of a performance from OC and a testament to Jericho’s presence. Le Champion, for whom I popped a bottle of “A Little Bit of the Bubbly” while watching Fyter, reminded me of Ric Flair wrestling Brian Pillman (whose son was one of the wrestler/audience members) or Ricky Morton during the waning years of his prime. I thought they justified their main-event slot, edging out a show-stealing bid from FTR, The Young Bucks, The Lucha Bros, and The Butcher and The Blade in a thrilling 8-man tag team match.
Generally, tag team wrestling again was on full display, with Private Party vs. Omega and Page for the titles entertaining me more than last week’s headliner and The Dark Order vs. SCU offering good storytelling and high quality action too (cheers to Stu Grayson in that one). The Bucks and FTR vs. Fenix/Pentagon/B&B lived up to the hype, though. My man, Rich Latta, whose show (One Nation Radio) with James Boyd I joined on Sunday, July 12th, said the week prior that those guys would go nuts and they did indeed. Highlights for me were the engagement between the protagonists (can’t wait for that match when it happens), the Nick Jackson super crazy amazing Canadian Destroyer off the ropes and into the six other wrestlers, and the fact that Fenix and Pentagon won.
Great American Bash Night Two A Great Example of Why I Prefer AEW
Said with all due respect to the black and gold WWE brand and with full acknowledgement that they won the ratings battle with AEW for a third consecutive Wednesday, the second half of the Great American Bash special was basically like a solid episode of their usual weekly TV show. When AEW promises something greater than a normal episode of Dynamite, they always deliver, even if technically that episode is in fact a regular weekly show and not some souped-up, extra-hyped event like Fyter Fest or the Bash at the Beach. Cody Rhodes has outright stated that the company’s modus operandi is, “let’s make every show the very best possible show that it can be,” and you can feel that when they’re in the groove. Great American Bash, which by the way has been an excellent use of the trademark library gained through the 2001 purchase of WCW, naturally suggested something Takeover-esque; the first night even gave us that. If Night One was 75% of Takeover quality, though, Night Two was nowhere close.
That is not to say that I did not thoroughly enjoy GAB, Pt2, however. The Street Fight between Mia Yim and Candice LeRae was very entertaining and closed with quite a spot; Johnny Gargano and Swerve Scott had a great outing in the middle of the show that, from what I’ve read, has gotten lost in the shuffle of the aforementioned opener and the main-event; Keith Lee winning the Title for Title match with Adam Cole was very good in its own right. It is possible that NXT simply fell short by comparison to the stellar AEW episode, but something was missing. At a show that had a Takeover-like main-event, NXT did not deliver a Takeover-like card. Had Cole vs. Lee been a Takeover-caliber headliner, I think it could have elevated the entire experience, but it was not. What was billed as the “biggest match in NXT history” felt like little more than a moment…and though it was a significant moment, the match was less than the best of the year candidate that it by all rights should have been and deserved to be given the stakes, the result, and the hype.
Everything in New Japan is….EVIL
It has been rare since I dipped my toe into New Japan waters in early 2017 with the heralded, paradigm-shifting Omega vs. Okada match that I have engaged in talks with wrestling fans about NJPW booking. They have the man largely considered the best creative decision maker in pro wrestling leading their charge, so usually talks of New Japan center on the amazing matches that they produced in settings that have real history, comparable in many ways to WWE. This week, though, the elevation of EVIL to the IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Championships at their first big shows since February has been the only true talking point. Now, I really like EVIL. During my first full G1 last summer, he stood out as one of the most creative heels on the roster and the one with the most sports entertainment-like flair to his entrance (not a bad thing in my book). There is, however, no question that it was a bold and rather random move.
Time will tell how it will pan out, but Rich Latta went so far as to say that it was clear that the golden age that brought people like he and I into the fold as NJPW fans was over, and that we were now witnessing their attempt to retool and try to build the next golden age – not so much a quality wrestling statement as much as a storyline development and promotional creative focus statement. EVIL is a change of pace, that is for sure. I look forward to seeing how he does with the opportunity, as I was higher on his matches from the New Japan Cup and Dominion than most of my peers. He instantly freshens up a stagnant scene, and as proven by Jay White a year ago, his ascension doesn’t require a long title reign; it just puts him strongly in the mix at a higher level of credibility in a promotion that demands it. I like the move. It’s wide open now in the IWGP Heavyweight Title race. SANADA, Ospreay, Hiromu, Shingo, Ishii…it could be a lot of fun heading into the G1.
Fight for the Fallen Sealed the Deal for AEW
Jon Moxley, still the AEW World Champion, holds an interesting place in my wrestling fandom. I was as big an advocate for the Shield’s ascent in WWE as anyone when I was regularly writing columns in the mid-2010s. Mox, as Dean Ambrose, had a heck of a run, but WWE left something on the table there and so did he. AEW came to be at the perfect time for Moxley to prove himself, and he largely has. He has been everything that I hoped that he would become for AEW, and yet there’s still another two notches higher he can climb as a top guy. Brian Cage, meanwhile, is someone I’ve followed for years. Lucha Underground made him a big hit with those tapped into the scene leading into the bigger promotions. He once retweeted me when I suggested that “Brian Cage is like John Cena with coordination.” He excelled when he moved into Impact Wrestling, showing he could be a Top 5 guy. I’m invested in his success, as well. No question, then: Moxley vs. Cage was one of the most anticipated matches of the year for me, amplified by having to wait a week longer to see it and wonder at times if it would even happen due to a coronavirus scare for Mox.
It was a great main-event for a big-time, non-pay-per-view show. You could clearly see there’s more in the tank for down the road, and Cage’s full arsenal being saved probably drove that point home as much as anything. I’ve been teased for this in the past, but I feel it’s appropriate to label a match like Cage vs. Mox as “smart.” The physicality was there to back up the considerably successful hype in recent weeks; giving Cage an out for his loss and then having him show such fire afterward, both toward Mox and the returning Darby Allin, was an intelligent way to conclude a really good title bout and make people want to come back to see the next chapter written. Give me some classic pro wrestling TV to compliment all these great matches; I’m totally for that and think it’s what differentiates AEW from NXT and New Japan, specifically the ability to do sports entertainment in a logical way consistently on a major television network.
Of course the rest of the show’s wrestling action was tremendous as always, with FTR vs. The Lucha Bros being in its own right an A+ textbook chapter 1, The Elite pairing for a blast of a 6-man with Jurassic Express, and Sonny Kiss coming into his own while taking Cody to the limit. Yet, it was the other touches that made this show memorable. Cody playing the heel, getting way too cocky and telling a story of a man perhaps professionally taxed; Kenny Omega gaining as much character momentum in one night as he had frankly in months, teasing his own heel turn and making my mental gears turn for how we could get back to Omega vs. Moxley for the title before the end of the year; and then the show’s closing minutes. It’s not going to sit well with some; I know that full well because the modern pro wrestling audience has a different expectation than me most of the time, but I’m telling you, from an older school perspective, I had wondered how they were going to pull off doing anything but Cage becoming champion given how valuable an asset I believe him to be and knowing simultaneously that Moxley was highly unlikely losing the title on television, and I am of the opinion that Taz throwing in the towel, in the way they framed it on commentary and immediately afterward, was a good choice and that they still set Cage up nicely moving forward. Great, great, great show from AEW in Fight for the Fallen.
(Doc’s Note – shout out to The Chairshot, which hosted my podcast during its final run in 2019; their logo is featured in the featured image)