The War of the Three (NJPW, AEW, and NXT)

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)

The Rewindables: Casino Royale

The podcast that has helped me get through the last few months, replacing the sports-related shows that would usually be earning my listens, has been The Rewatchables on the Ringer network. It has given me a much-needed escape on a near-daily basis. The premise is awesome for movie lovers like me: take a classic, break it down category by category, and talk about how great it is. As a long-time column writer in sports/entertainment, I enjoy taking cool visual or audio concepts and trying to replicate them in written form. So, during a recent replay of Daniel Craig’s first Bond movie, I thought it would be fun to do my take on the Rewatchables, called the Rewindables, which borrows in tribute many of the same categories that make the podcast so perfect for me. The following is a discussion of Casino Royale.

Most Rewatchable Scene

Option A: The Chase in Madagascar – My goodness what a way to kick off the movie. Craig put one of his many stamps on the franchise when he showed us what Bond looked like in relative youth, first starting out with his license to kill. The cool factor was toned down slightly in favor of a more rugged version, athletic enough to keep pace with a Parkour wizard who happened to be in possession of something that Bond was after. The scene surely tops the list of most aesthetically engaging action set-pieces in Bond film lore. In ten minutes, Bond and the Madagascar(an?) took a foot race from the ground to the extraordinary heights of a massive crane, then back down again, with the scene hitting its climax via one of the ultimate Bond moments that surely gets mentioned among enthusiasts who get together and have conversations about it: surrounded by six (ish) guards, he shoots both Master of Parkour and a large gas tank, which exploded to allow him an escape. This has to be the frontrunner for most rewatchable scene, even though it happens in the first 20-minutes of the best emotionally acted, most genuine Bond performance ever.

Option B: The Save at Miami Dade – Another terrific action scene, highlighted first by a silent knife duel in the middle of a crowded terminal, won by Bond of course but in memorable fashion given the subtleties required to pull it off so well. 2006 Daniel Craig made 007 seem like a super soldier who could run like a cheetah, a trait again put on display in a chase, this time trying to catch a key chain bomb before it blows up a gas truck. Emphasizing the influence of the early 2000s Jason Bourne series on Royale, Bond wins another slick fighting sequence with confined movements (in a moving vehicle’s front seat). I would say that scenes like this exemplify one of the two primary things that makes me prefer Craig’s first take on the character above all the rest in 50 years of Bond: it was a fresh concept, Bond as cool and relatable but also a total badass.

I watched this movie with my dad a couple of years before he died. I had seen every previous Bond film with him and all of the Brosnan-led movies with him in the theater. My love of movies comes courtesy of my father, and though we weren’t always on the same page in the final decade of his life about cinematic tastes, this one we agreed on. He always had a soft spot for Connery, but on this we were in agreement: Craig was “The Man” here. I got a nice flashback to that conversation (I think it was Christmas ’09 or the weekend of the Ryder Cup in 2008) while rewatching on this occasion.

Option C: Getting Too Emotionally Attached – This is part action scene, part dramatic interlude. The fight scene in the stairwell while Vesper watches on and tries to stay out of the way is every bit as intense in hand to hand combat as it is in the desperation feel offered by their descending the steps, often rather harshly. It is what follows immediately, however, that earns this powerhouse combo passage into such formidable competition for the award: Bond trying to shake off the emotional and physical wounds just endured with an award-winning expression and a double straight cocktail, then moments later comforting a terrified Ms. Lynd in just the kind of tender moment that his superiors at MI:6 want him to avoid. It is a psychologically diverse sub-ten-minutes. You wonder if they went so far into the development of his super spy psyche – that ultimately informs the cooler-than-cool nature of the character in the other films – knowing that they may have only had one shot to tell this Bond origin story in the way it was told in Royale. This was Bond at his most raw…

Option D: Poison; Shaken, Not Stirred …well, actually maybe this was Bond at his most raw, sweating profusely as his body began to shut down from a lethal chemical agent. Craig truly painted his masterpiece in this movie, didn’t he? His near death portrayal never fails to suck you deep into the fiction on replay. Such is the advantage, I suppose, of plucking Bond from a more character-driven stage. It’s too subjective to properly compare the various actors who have played 007, but just in terms of the range of emotions this movie takes you through, all spear-headed by the leading man including the visually stunning action set-pieces, I think this is the most nuanced and versatile Bond we have seen to date. This is the part of proceedings when I readily admit to believing Royale is in a league of its own among the film series; everything else competes for the top of the second tier until proven otherwise. That he proceeds to best Le Chiffre, the villain who poisoned him, in the deciding hand of a high stakes poker game, is made all the more satisfying by way of the pulse-racing emergency immediately preceding the card game’s climax. The scene even features a classic Bond one-liner (“That last hand, it nearly killed me.”). Applause.

Winner in my opinion: Bond Wins Stairwell Fight, Cleans Up, Shows Heart (The chase through the streets of Madagascar is incredible, but what separates this movie from others in its genre is the emotional weight it carries)

Apex Mountain

Given to the principal players whose careers peaked with the movie in question, the Apex Mountain award winners for Casino Royale are as follows:

Daniel Craig – 1A with Sean Connery to many, and the outright best Bond to date in the eyes of folks like myself. Further viewings of Skyfall, which I have still only seen just the one time in the cinema but that currently holds the highest critical score among Craig’s Bond films, are needed I suppose, but Royale is a candidate in my opinion for one of the Top 25 most rewatchable movies of my lifetime, so I would call the 2006 movie Crag’s apex (although his most viewed Bond portrayal was during the intro to the 2012 London Olympics, when he shared screen time with her majesty, the Queen).

Martin Campbell, director – Though not a name that immediately jumps to mind, Campbell has a solid IMDB profile, having been at the helm of Brosnan’s first foray into Bond and an underrated late ’90s classic, The Mask of Zorro. Critically, Royale holds a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes; commercially, it made $609 million against a $150 million budget. Part of the Apex Mountain exercise is to ask yourself, “When you think of this person, do you think of this movie?” Unquestionably, that has to be the case for Campbell and Royale.

Mads Mikkelsen – He has some similarities to Campbell in being successful but not a huge name. You could almost call him a candidate for the “That Guy” award given to the actor who you know from certain movies but cannot readily identify his name; in fact, let’s go ahead and give him the nod there. Here, he is rock solid as Le Chiffre, a memorable Bond villain who bleeds tears. His performance does not jump off the screen or anything, probably earning some extra credit merely by association with Craig’s “rising tide lifts all ships” dynamic, but Royale was Mads’s highest profile role. His 2012 Cannes Film Festival Best Actor award would mean more to him, but fans of the big screen most associate him with Le Chiffre.

“Bond Girls” – Eva Green is tremendous and arguably up for Apex Mountain, as well, but she has been nominated for a Golden Globe for another role. Nevertheless, she is so formidable, verbally dressing down Bond and standing up to him with her own brand of confidence and charisma. At the right moment in history, Green helped reshape the perception of women in Bond movies. Her screen presence and chemistry with Craig combine for some of the most affecting scenes in franchise lore. She just took it to another level and the concept of the “Bond Girl” has greatly benefited from it.

I flirted with putting the Bond franchise on Apex Mountain, but there are too many variables to make that statement without far more thought put into it than I have thus far given.

Best “Heat Check” Performance

Awarded to the actor/actress who makes the most of limited screen time to add real value to the overall presentation, the only other candidate besides what I consider to be the obvious winner is Giancarlo Giannini as Mathis, the friend turned supposed foe most prominently featured in the casino scenes in Montenegro. Judi Dench as M is the choice clearly. She exudes “this is a powerful woman you don’t want to mess with” and makes the movie about 10% better. Green could come back to the franchise at Dench’s age and play a version of M.

Conclusions

I think it would be safe to say that Craig and Royale elevated the franchise, financially and otherwise. It was bankable previously, but the 2006 edition started the momentum that peaked with Skyfall earning a worldwide box office haul of over $1 billion. Critically, there are many Bond films that have enjoyed immense success, but this stripped down, visceral version plays right to my tastes as a big screen enthusiast. I mentioned the more psychologically engaging scenes in the rewatchable category; I left off that list the interrogation, the “whatever is left of me, all I am, I’m yours,” and the Vesper’s demise scenes which themselves represent the extra emotional touches that set Royale apart. The legacy of the movie is that it humanized Bond while simultaneously showcasing him at his physical, ass-kicking zenith, creating a template for further character reinvention in the decade and a half since and setting a new standard for the franchise to live up to as we go deeper into the 21st century. It’s a gem.

The End

AEW’s Top 20 Wrestlers Through Year 1

All Elite Wrestling has helped reinvigorate my fandom in the past year. As an extension of the column I wrote on WrestlingHeadlines.com, here is the other half of the Top 20.

#20 Sammy Guevara – Since Dynamite on TNT started, the self-proclaimed Spanish God has been one of the anchors of the AEW product as a member of the Inner Circle. Sammy is a bonafide star with innate charisma perhaps best exemplified through his use of signs to trash talk during picture-in-picture commercial breaks. He takes a lot of losses, but maintains through his association with Jericho a very high profile that affords him enough credibility to make matches against stars further up the proverbial ladder feel relevant and engaging. His mid-card feud with Darby Allin, simple as it has been to date, felt like AEW’s first home-run in the middle-tier genre, echoing comparable rivalries between young talent in other promotions from years gone by. Expect a 25% increase in standing by Double or Nothing 2021.

#19 Hikaru Shida – Her peaks have not been as high as her female peers; even the un-ranked Dr. Britt Baker hit a higher crescendo due to her developing heel persona. However, no female on the roster has been as consistent as Shida, who has contributed the kind of in-ring performances for which the AEW women’s division has become known. A microcosm of the female roster presentation, nothing she does knocks your socks off, but she has mastered the art of taking a match that few cared about and, by the closing bell, interested people in the outcome. If an example of what is to come, her match with Baker DMD from Dynamite in April (?) might serve as a launching pad to a breakout second year.

#18 Dustin Rhodes – I wrote in my notes a few months ago that he has become AEW’s “spot duty all-star.” Since last year’s Double or Nothing, he has not been asked to contribute much beyond the occasional high profile battle to put someone else over, but he does his job very well. Truthfully, he made my list almost exclusively because of his match with Cody last May, though. That was one of the most emotionally gripping performances that I have seen in a pro wrestling ring across 33 years of fandom, a 5-star classic that put on full display the passion that the brothers Rhodes had for wrestling each other. When it was booked, I was not into it, but they sold me on the “Road To” shows and absolutely won me over across the run-time of what truly holds up in my memory as an awesome experience.

#17 The Jurassic Express – Mild intrigue would best describe my first impression of “Jungle Boy” Jack Perry when he showed up on last year’s “Road to Double or Nothing.” Massively intrigued would best describe my impression of his potential now after a year of seeing him and his stablemates perform for AEW. Luke Perry’s kid, along with Luchasaurus and Marko Stunt, never fails to entertain from bell-to-bell. Given how talented ‘Saurus is and how well Stunt connects with the audience, I get the sense that Jungle Boy and Co. could have a New Day-type run in All Elite, rising steadily to become one of the featured acts, evolving while remaining endearing.

#16 Riho – She earned her place in my memory for being featured on my daughter’s sign that made it on TV when we attended the November 6th Dynamite in Charlotte, but she makes the Top 20 on account of being the first AEW Women’s World Champion. Riho’s matches with Nyla Rose that book-ended her reign were the only true highlights she offered, but they stand as comfortably the two best women’s matches in AEW history through year one. The women’s division had a rather inauspicious start and she was a rather inauspicious champion, but on the rare occasion that she was given the ball in feature-length television matches for the title, she unquestionably delivered.

#15 The Dark Order – This group has perhaps been the best example of AEW’s ability to evolve something bordering on flopping creatively into a success. They went from the least popular act to be consistently featured to the center of a lot of positive attention, although with plenty of bumps along the road. Time will tell if Brodie Lee can keep them relevant beyond a natural main-event end point (perhaps as soon as Saturday night), but between the undeniable in-ring ability of Uno and Grayson, the slickly produced #JoinDarkOrder vignettes, and the potential of The Exalted One as a top-tier star, Dark Order brings something valuable to the product.

#14 Nyla Rose – History may show that she was the right choice to hold the title from the start back in October when AEW crowned its first Women’s World Champion. Nyla is incredibly unique, a great athlete for her size, and has shown the same viciousness on the microphone as she has in the ring. Characters are the foundation for strong divisions, and in that regard she is everything that Riho was not. As previously mentioned in the Riho section, Nyla owns the two best women’s matches in company lore; she also stands to have a long, title-establishing reign as champion and has been the most consistently pushed personality in the women’s division to date. I hope she gets the chance to make a Top 10 level ascent in year 2.

#13 Santana and Ortiz – Even without the stat-padding that would have come from showing up in AEW before their All Out debut, Proud and Powerful have been two of the MVPs of the Dynamite Era as members of Chris Jericho’s Inner Circle. At any moment, they could become the alphas of the world’s most stacked tag team division, as evidenced most prominently by their match with the Young Bucks at Full Gear in November (one of the most rewatchable on AEW’s great match list). When they get there, we will be able to look back at their multi-faceted personalities (see The Bubbly Bunch, then their integral roles in the build-up to Jericho vs. Jon Moxley), their bevy of strong television matches, and their ability to look credible against the tippy-top guys in the promotion and feel as though Santana and Ortiz could elevate tag team wrestling in AEW even higher (and that’s saying something…)

#12 Best Friends (with Orange Cassidy) – I put them in this spot before Trent’s run over the past ten weeks, when he stepped up big time during the COVID-induced reduction down to 25% roster availability for television tapings. Bottom line: these guys have been outstanding. It has only been in recent months that we have seen proof of what Orange Cassidy can offer when on full display (his match at Revolution with Pac is among my Top 10 favorite AEW matches to date), but it would be difficult to dispute that his act has gotten over huge in AEW. Meanwhile, Trent and Chucky T have been anchoring the second-tier of the tag team division from day one; they have the versatility to switch back and forth between serious and comedic with ease, which seems an important trait to me as I watch All Elite establish its identity. Will this be their peak, I wonder?

#11 Darby Allin – It is a testament to AEW’s roster that one of the true breakout performers of the company’s young history did not make the Top 10 in year one. He has been so memorable, thus far. His pay-per-view matches with Cody and Sammy were top notch, his part in the three-way Cracker Barrel Clash at All Out not to be denied its due as a hardcore classic for the modern era. On Dynamite, the pops he has received from increasingly adoring crowds when he makes a save of a fellow protagonist, the spooky and engaging videos used to promote his matches, and his work against AEW’s top stars have shaped for him a rising star status that very few peers in the entire industry can equal. He’s lightning in a bottle and it’s quite possible that AEW pushes him to the moon before 2020 is over.

The Top 10 NBA Teams of My Basketball Fandom: A Fantasy Tournament

As a kid, I played an extraordinary amount of basketball in my driveway. I had a good imagination, so games involving me pretending to be various heroes of the hardwood from Pettit to Chamberlain to Oscar to Cousy to Bird to Magic to Jordan to Hakeem at an earlier age became a full blown league of made-up players, including myself and my friends and family during middle school…I even kept stats (points, rebounds, and assists), handed out year-end awards, and had a draft quickly followed by free agency. Chad’s Basketball Association had seven seasons of quite a lot of my spare time. Honestly hated to end it heading to college. That was one of my first true passions.

Recently watching this incredible Bulls documentary, I started to think of a fun exercise in old school imagination meets present day writing passion. I remember the ’96 Bulls as the greatest team I ever saw, but I wondered how they’d do if they played some of the other candidates for greatest team of my 25 year NBA basketball fandom. I picked ten teams, ranked them, and dreamed up the fantasy tournament that you’re about to read.

Round 1: 1995 Houston Rockets (10th seed) vs. 1997 Chicago Bulls (3rd seed)

The Rockets were the first NBA Champions of my basketball fandom as I know it. The ’95 Orlando Magic resonated with me like no previous basketball team and truly jumpstarted my passion for the league. The McIntyres have a long history with Orlando, and I fell quickly for the Disney city’s Magic, led by my favorite childhood player, Penny Hardaway (along, of course, with Shaq). Yeah, and that Magic team got throttled by the Rockets. Hakeem Olajuwon ended his peak with a second straight title, but his team was gassed after that season and didn’t have a three-peat run in it. Had they, Jordan’s 72-win, record-setting Bulls would’ve been waiting in the ’96 Finals. That would’ve been fascinating.

The ’96 Bulls get a bye to the Semis as one of the top 2 seeds, but Jordan’s ’97 Bulls were arguably better and they land as the #3 seed to get a shot at the Rockets that bridged the gap between the Chicago three-peats. Olajuwon would have been a true handful for either version and it was him being such a force and winning those two titles, even though they were the 6th seed in 1995, that compelled me to include the “Heart of a Champion” Rockets in the tournament. They had a good core around him from 1994, but in 1995 they added Clyde Drexler to “Big Shot” Robert Horry in his reputation-starting years, Mario Elie, Sam Cassell, Vernon Maxwell, and Kenny Smith. Amidst stiff competition from the ’04 Pistons and ’07 Spurs, winning back-to-back and going through the Stockton-Malone Jazz, Barkley-Suns, and Robinson-Spurs and sweeping the Magic team that handed Jordan’s Bulls their only playoff series loss from 1991 on made me feel confident in picking the ’95 Rockets to get their shot here.

Ultimately, the ’97 Bulls would remind Hakeem that the only reason he won his two titles was because Jordan retired for a season and a half to play baseball, but I suspect Olajuwon and his excellent group of supporting cast members would earn their utmost respect. Hakeem was that good.

Round 1: 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers (9th seed) vs. 2001 Los Angeles Lakers (4th seed)

LeBron’s Cleveland title team rolled through the East as it should have and made the greatest comeback in modern Finals lore to topple the 2016 Warriors, who broke the regular season win total record (73-9), but the ’01 Lakers were one of the most dominant playoff teams of all-time. To sweep their way through the West playoffs in 2001, the Lakers had to go through three perennial thorns in their side. Like the 2017 Warriors, they should have gone undefeated through the entirety of the playoffs, but they let one slip against Iverson in the Finals. Shaq was unstoppable and that was also the year that Kobe became absolutely lethal.

Could peak LeBron topple that dominant second straight championship-winning Lakers team? I just don’t see a window for them to squeeze through honestly, as memorable as they were. James might have earned his claim to 2nd best player ever with that championship comeback, but against the best version of the Kobe-Shaq combo, he would have to beat two of the best 10 players ever when both were utterly awesome. Gosh, it’s really not even a contest. History sleeps on that ’01 Lakers team. It wouldn’t be close, likely something akin or worse to the last two Warriors-Cavs series in ’17 and ’18.

Round 1: 2009 Los Angeles Lakers (8th seed) vs. 2013 Miami Heat (5th seed)

The world wanted to see it. I would not have traded the ’09 Magic making the Finals to see it, but I definitely chomped at the bit to see Kobe vs. LeBron in the NBA Championship series. Vince McMahon would have booked it, but David Stern couldn’t. So, here we have it. Kobe’s best non-Shaq team against LeBron’s best team. I think that the ’09 Lakers took advantage of the league as it was that season, with Duncan’s Spurs retooling and Nash’s Suns fading; I also think that they were a great basketball team that could have won anyway because that’s how good Kobe had become once Pau Gasol showed up. I wonder how history is going to remember Gasol because I remember him being a complete game-changer in the Western Conference for three years.

Beating the 2013 Heatles would be a tall task. That team was special. They won 27 games in a row that season. On paper, their run through the playoffs and needing the full fourteen games to win both the East and the NBA Finals was not enough to put them on the level of the ’01 Lakers, but the Heat much like that Lakers team of the Kobe-Shaq days defended their title that season and clearly owned the league in terms of hype and confidence. The ’13 Spurs vs. Heat series is the best NBA Finals I’ve seen, hands down, all respect due to the comeback Cavs. LeBron ascended that year in the Finals, for me. I think it really comes down, comparing the ’09 Lakers to the ’13 Heat, to exactly what you’d expect from the match-up: your preference for peak Kobe vs. peak LeBron.

Personally, I think LeBron’s pair of Game 7 NBA Finals performances suggest that he should be the pick over Kobe, who could be more volatile. That said, Kobe was able to will that ’09 team and there’s an intangible to give that Lakers squad with Phil Jackson coaching. I’m a big fan of Coach Spo, personally, but that was Phil’s 10th title team. Kobe was unflappable; LeBron has proven flappable. Give me Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh plus the Finals savvy of 2013 hero Ray Allen, though, over Gasol and the other key Lakers. It’s a tough call. If it was the 2012 Heat, I’d give the nod to Kobe because of experience, but by 2013 LeBron had gotten the title monkey off of his back and it was his 4th NBA Finals. He was the best, and as he has proven throughout the past decade, if talent is relatively similar, he is going to be the deciding factor that pushes a team to the promised land. Chalk continues.

Round 1: 2008 Boston Celtics (#7 seed) vs. 2014 San Antonio Spurs (#6 seed)

Of all the Spurs teams that won titles, the 2014 version stands out to me most because of the team that they battled to a split of the championships in back to back years. Getting out of the West in the 2000s was wild, if you will, going against a litany of that decade’s titans, from Webber to Garnett to Kobe/Shaq to Nash to Dirk. Trust me, leaving a Spurs team featuring Tim Duncan at his finest off the list felt weird, and perhaps the biggest thing that detracts from my list is a lack of respect (perceived) for the ’04 Pistons and the ’05 Spurs. I am confident, however, that the ’14 Spurs, motivated as they were to get their win back after Ray Allen ripped their hearts out in Game 6 the prior year, had a little something extra; they would have beaten the slow it down Duncan teams.

Then you have that awesome Celtics team from 2008. They dominated the league in the regular season, their first year together with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joining Paul Pierce, but they showed their nerves in the playoffs, needing twenty of a possible twenty one games just to get out of the East, which was not that strong. At first glance, you would pick the ’14 Spurs for the same reason the apex Duncan teams were left out at their expense. KG was never better, though, Pierce emerged as an all-timer, and that team when healthy was one of the best of the century to date, without question. Defensively, they could be a nightmare.

Looking at the match-ups, the two things that would swing it in favor of the Spurs are Kawhi Leonard, Finals MVP in 2014 for defending LeBron so well and rising to the considerable offensive challenge as well, and the ball movement style that made the Spurs so pretty to watch those couple of years. Steve Kerr’s Warriors borrowed from the Popovich-led shift to pace and movement from 2012-2014. Rondo vs. Parker would have been an interesting chess match because Rondo was such a good defender and Parker was so shifty. Kawhi might’ve gotten the better of Pierce eventually, though Pierce was so scrappy. Prime Ray Allen could have been the biggest difference maker for the Celtics. I think it’s a 7-game series ultimately. In the end, the Spurs would edge them out, even if just by the slimmest of margins because of that added chip on their shoulder.

Round 2: 2014 San Antonio Spurs (6th seed) vs. 1997 Chicago Bulls (3rd seed)

Everything I just said about Kawhi defensively? That type of talk would have been chum for the shark that was Michael Jordan. His Airness had a competitiveness bordering on a disorder. “Jordan Stopper” Kawhi? That wouldn’t have worked out well in all likelihood for Leonard. Nevertheless, he would have made MJ expend a lot more energy. The Bulls vs. the Warriors has been a common discussion in recent years, and the argument for a Warriors win has centered in part on their style of play. Again, the Spurs helped shape that style, so it would give the Bulls trouble played at elite level by either team.

It’s hard to imagine a Jordan-led team losing, because we never saw peak Jordan lose. Each of these other teams eventually got to a point where someone knocked them off their championship pedestal. Could the 2014 Spurs really beat Jordan’s Bulls? I’m looking at this as a 7-game series, and five of the six Bulls dynasty title teams took six games to finish off their opposition in the Finals, so it’s logical that the Spurs would steal two games at least. The Bulls would have to adapt to the pace and take their level of perimeter defense up several notches, but if this is a typical home-and-away series, the time machine version means that the top seed gets the deciding game played in their era…and I’d predict this would go seven.

Jordan would slice through modern defenses like a knife through butter without hand-checking rules to hinder him. Kawhi is among the best defenders of his generation, so he’d take full advantage on the flip side of being able to play more physical ’90s defense. Still, that’s advantage MJ. The thing that I think is interesting to consider is how seamlessly the Spurs would potentially adapt, because they bought into a new style to emphasize Tony Parker’s strengths when Duncan started to decline, but they were throughout the 2000s a defensive-oriented team known for its grit; they could be the best of both worlds.

Home era advantage to Jordan makes me question any thought that the ’14 Spurs could beat them in Chicago in 1997. Jordan was 35-0 when he had home court advantage. Read that stat again. 35-0 in playoff series with home court in his favor. Rodman handles a last-legs Duncan, Jordan and Pippen take turns frustrating the tired legs of Tony Parker, and Steve Kerr makes his presence felt late to give the ’97 Bulls the win.

Round 2: 2013 Miami Heat (#5 seed) vs. 2001 Los Angeles Lakers (#4 seed)

Teams that won back-to-back championships are rightfully held in high esteem. Title-winning mettle is that quality which defines a team as the greatest of its era. The Lakers and Heat dominated the league a decade apart. I find it extremely difficult to pick between them. On paper, the Lakers who three-peated from 2000 to 2002 and ripped through the 2001 playoffs should handle LeBron’s Heat, who had the opportunity to four-peat, but just didn’t have it in them and who never at any point dominated elite competition like the ’01 Lakers demolished the Spurs and Kings. This is the kind of match-up that James-led teams tend to lose historically, too. The Lakers were clearly better in the Shaq-Kobe days. So, as good as LeBron was, this screams one of those brilliant “goes down swinging” series for The King. No long breakdown necessary. Shaq would be unguardable. The same Kobe vs. LeBron dynamic from Round 1 would largely exist again, but Shaq owned the championship series for 3 straight seasons and I see no reason to bet against him here. I almost roll my eyes at my own fantasy exercise since all the top teams advanced; I suppose, though, that there’s a reason why seeding exists and this thought process at least acknowledges the value in it.

Semi-Finals: 1997 Chicago Bulls (3rd seed) vs. 2017 Golden State Warriors (2nd seed)

Now, we’re talking. Don’t worry about recency bias from me, as though I respect the Warriors dynasty, I do not believe that they faced the kind competition that would give me an accurate gauge of their historical potential against a team like Jordan’s Bulls. Such is why – I wouldn’t say that I scoff but – I generally tend to keep my cards close to the vest when evaluations of the Warriors at their peak with Kevin Durant come up in sports conversation. The bottom line is that, when they were motivated and healthy, nobody could really beat them. So, in essence, they were what the Heatles proposed they’d be in 2010 but never truly became. Offensively, they were the greatest team in the current era of basketball. Defensively, their best line-up featured four players that could make the opposition’s life miserable.

It’s the 1997 Chicago Bulls, though. How motivated do you think Jordan would have been to be the lower seed in a tournament featuring historically great basketball teams? Him, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman presumably would rise to the challenge of trying to shut down an offense considered so superior. I feel like the argument here is similar to the ones had about the ’92 Dream Team and the 2012 USA Team considered the modern equivalent; a ’90s team would have the physical advantage and attempt to intimidate with it, and would be further unleashed by less restrictions in the modern game. On top of that, you then insert the Chad-specific tournament dynamic of the ’97 Bulls getting used to playing against a pace-and-space precursor in the ’14 Spurs.

The kicker for the 2017 Warriors might be that their stars were all primed and experienced for a challenge like Jordan’s Bulls, their top four guys at the peak of their powers. The ’14 Spurs had a lot of worn-out, aging stars by comparison. Plus, you would think that Klay Thompson, Andre Iguadala, and Draymond Green particularly would embrace the challenge of stepping up in away-era games that were allowed to be more physical. Games 3 and 4 in 1997 would probably take some adjustment time, so I envision a split among the first four games with all four home-era teams winning, but by Game 6 in 1997 I believe the Warriors would have figured it out. The flipside to that, of course, would be that the Bulls would have time to figure them out, as well, and Phil Jackson has the coaching edge over Steve Kerr (who, I say in jest, might have a hard time looking over at the sideline at a younger version of himself playing for Chicago…I can see it crossing his mind that he might be inadvertently destroying the space-time continuum).

If Steph Curry got hot, Jordan would probably switch to defending him, then Pippen over to Klay, and finally Rodman over to Durant. It would be a fascinating game of switching on defense. Nobody could guard Jordan. In 2017, he would destroy them. He would average 45 points per game – maybe 50 – for the series. I question, though, if the Bulls could find enough scoring beyond MJ and Scottie. Toni Kukoc would have to light it up and would probably be in the starting line-up as a stretch 4, moving Rodman to center, by Game 5. Kerr would be a key weapon, taking a lot of open threes as the series progressed to elimination. The Bulls had that hardened edge from winning titles, but facing a former champion in the Finals did not hinder Durant from rising up to Finals MVP status in 2017, so that might not matter.

As evidenced by the lengthier discourse, I am not sure who would win really, but I think it would be disrespectful to the modern titan Warriors dynasty to sell them short and not at least give them a crack at my all-time Finals, where most modern historians agree they belong.

Semi-Finals: 2001 Los Angeles Lakers (4th seed) vs. 1996 Chicago Bulls (1st seed)

It’s a testament to the Warriors success – 3 championships in four seasons, plus 5 straight trips to the Finals and the 73-win regular season – that the ’00 to ’02 Lakers aren’t regarded to this day as the twenty-first century’s greatest basketball team. The Shaq-Kobe duo, with Phil Jackson as the anchor, when it was all said and done, normalized for me the three-peat by natural extension of the pair of three-peats I had seen the Bulls win in the ’90s. That had not been done since the Russell era Celtics, and then in 11 years we saw it three times…and we’ve never seen it since. Something that the Warriors and Lakers dynasties share is the single loss playoff runs. The Lakers went 15-1 to win the 2001 title; the Warriors bested that mark at 16-1 thanks to the 2003 first round increase to a best-of-seven series. I’ll always have a tendency to give more credit to the Lakers because the Warriors, having added Durant to a 73-win regular season team that had just split the last two NBA Finals with LeBron’s Cavs, stacked the deck against the rest of the league through a salary cap anomaly.

Could the Lakers beat MJ’s Bulls – his greatest team of the six champions – to earn a shot at the Warriors? It’s another fascinating hypothetical, pitting these two teams against one another. They had the same coach in Phil. Tex Winter, the triangle offense guru, was an assistant on both teams. Strategically, they would be evenly matched. So, what would it boil down to then? Surely, you know I’m going first to the MJ vs. Kobe match-up.

Kobe was essentially a Jordan clone, and I mean that in the greatest possible way. Competitively, Kobe was just like Michael. They both invented things in their own minds to motivate themselves, and they wanted to win at all costs and saw a very specific avenue through which to do it. Without a doubt, Kobe would have relished the opportunity to play against Jordan with a chance at all-time greatness at stake. The 2001 Playoffs were Kobe’s emergence to the next level of his stardom, too, when the Jordan comparisons started to materialize as something more than just media hype. Specific to this fantasy exercise, he would have also gained the confidence of having knocked out LeBron.

The 2001 NBA Finals MVP, recall, was Shaq. That’s where it gets more interesting to me. Shaq was practically unstoppable for three straight playoffs. He was The Man, and as such would expect to be fed early and often. I’m not sure Kobe at that age could have resisted the urge to make the Semi-Finals a Kobe vs. Jordan showcase, at Shaq’s expense. They always had a tenuous relationship, did Kobe and Shaq, and it would not take much to stoke the flames. Rodman being the ultimate irritant, as well, I think that this series would set up Shaq for intense frustration. The ’96 Bulls swept my 60-win Magic team in the Eastern Conference Finals, in part thanks to Rodman being the defensive anchor of that team. Peak Shaq would not have stood for a sweep, of course, and under Jackson’s tutelage, he was such a hoss that it’s not like he would have let the Lakers go down in a heap.

Then, of course, there’s the Jordan effect. MJ simply had no peers. Kobe was amazing, but he was MJ Lite (and again that is said with the utmost respect, very complimentary). Jordan would win that battle, if for no other reason than he was just that much more motivated on the basketball court and was, in 1996, so much more wily and determined. I keep going back to it because I’ve never seen anything like it, but when you have similar talent, it’s hard not to pick Jordan’s team because he was never defeated in the Playoffs at his apex. How could you pick against Jordan?

I have a sneaky suspicion that it would be a pretty substantial blowout, actually. Defensively, the Bulls in 1996 were just unreal. Jordan was one of the greatest defensive guards of all-time, while Rodman and Pippen were perhaps the most versatile defenders ever. Neither Bulls dynasty nor the Lakers dynasty had any real rivals, so you would have a tendency on paper to see the teams as relative equals, but I think the Bulls would go up 2-0, the Lakers would implode because of their typical locker room tension, and MJ and the gang would step on their figurative throats. I’d go 4-1 in favor of the ’96 Bulls.

The All-Time Finals: 2017 Golden State Warriors (2nd seed) vs. 1996 Chicago Bulls (1st seed)

So, here we go. It all comes down to the debate anyone reading this surely knew this would come down to. The Warriors come in the underdogs for me, especially after having completed my viewing of the instant classic documentary, The Last Dance, chronicling the team that shaped my basketball fandom, defined it, gave it meaning, and established context for every future discussion about NBA greatness. How can the Warriors compete with that legacy, even its very best team that should’ve become the first team to sweep the playoffs and that would have, with that “fo-fo-fo-fo,” probably sealed the deal as the greatest team ever accordingly? It’s confounding.

The 2017 Warriors scored at will during the playoffs, tallying over 100 points in every game as they roared to a 15-0 record through Game 3 of the Finals, most of their wins being blow-outs. They were a swiss-army knife of an NBA all-timer and it can never be understated just how much of a juggernaut they were when you consider that Durant was the second best player in the league behind LeBron when he joined Curry and the Warriors. It wasn’t like the Heatles either; the franchise did not have to strip the roster down to bit parts to facilitate the talent collection. Durant joined a champion fully realized. So many things had to go right for the ’17 Warriors to be plausible, and they did. The gap between them and everyone else was so wide, making the Warriors more comparable to a team from before the NBA-ABA merger, when fewer teams meant greater conglomerations of stacked talent.

Two decades prior, the Bulls scored over 100 points seven times in their fifteen victories during the 1996 playoffs. Different era, of course, with a far less aesthetically pleasing version of basketball that did not demand huge scoring, but the physicality of the 1990s was born of trying to stop the free-wheeling style that led to high scoring in the 1980s. “Put him on the ground” was the motto of the Bad Boy Pistons who changed the league defensively and influenced the 1990s. Combine that with talent dilution through league expansion and you have a recipe for a more grinding style of play.

The Bulls had archetypes for modern basketball, however. Kerr was one of the best 3-point shooters, by percentage, ever. Kukoc shot over 40% from three in 1996. Jud Buechler hit 44% from three that year. Jordan was the best hero ball, iso player in the history of basketball, but they had guys that could have adapted if needed. Nobody ever wanted victory more than MJ either, so to think that he would not have found a way underestimates his legendary competitive drive. “Rodman, get Draymond thrown out of the game,” I could see him saying, having studied tape of the 2016 Finals in this fantastical hypothetical. “Guys, make Durant doubt his teammates – we can get in his head,” he would surely suggest. To say that Jordan would lose to anyone at his apex has no historical basis.

Here’s the thing: the Warriors are the only other team in this tournament besides the Bulls that we cannot imagine losing largely because they never did. Durant was injured in the 2019 Finals. It’s a what if. So, it really boils down to which team had the versatility to adapt to the other era’s style. Since, in this scenario, the Warriors would have already had the chance to do that against the 1997 Bulls in the Semi-Finals, I think they would beat the 1996 Bulls. They were too long, too fast, too prolific at shooting threes, and too defensively dynamic to bet against; Kerr would be better able to prepare a team to face the Bulls dynasty than any other coach because of his pedigree as well. Take the tournament situation out of the equation and do the straight-up seven game series and I’ll take the Bulls, for the record, but within the context presented across this fantasy exercise, I think the Warriors would be too much.

The 5 Roles That Define My Favorite Actor

When I met my wife in 2008, she told me after a few months that “Tom Cruise is your man crush” because so many movies I enjoyed rewatching (as evidenced by my DVD collection at the time) featured Cruise as the lead. Undoubtedly, through the first half of my life, replays of Top Gun (my #2 all-time favorite movie), Cocktail, and A Few Good Men confirmed that Cruise was my favorite actor. In the mid-2000s, though, there was a shift in my movie tastes and with it the beginning of a shift toward a new favorite actor. Cruise eventually moved to second place to make way for Leonardo DiCaprio. Here are the five films that best describe why:

5. Shutter Island – Honorable mention to his Oscar-winning turn in The Revenant and his work with Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but Leo’s 2010 collaboration with Martin Scorsese is in my opinion his most underrated role. I’m a sucker for a movie about multiple identities. I switched majors in college from biology to psychology because I find the mind to be the most fascinating piece of the human existence. From a movie-loving standpoint, I think the challenge of playing two roles in one is daunting and I greatly appreciate those who perform it well; to me it’s the film equivalent of hitting the game-winning shot in a playoff game. Edward Norton, for instance, will always get a gold star from me for both Primal Fear and Fight Club. Leo similarly stepped up to the plate and knocked it out of the park in Shutter Island.

As proven in his 2006 performance in a Scorsese film to be discussed momentarily, Leo does an excellent job of portraying a man full of psychological tumult, walking the fine line between utterly stressed out but holding together by a thread and the bottom of his mind dropping out leading to insanity. He never crosses that line as Billy Costigan, but he does here as Teddy Daniels.

4. Titanic – C’mon dude. If you tell me that Titanic isn’t a ridiculously rewatchable movie and that Jack Dawson is a guy that, if you met him in real life, you wouldn’t go out of your way to help find his footing because of the potential you see in him as a person, I’m calling you a liar, Mean Gene.

Youngsters today would scoff at the notion of rewatching this like I did in the late 1990s, ejecting tape #1 to make way for #2 (the film’s epic length required it be a two-VHS set), but that’s what I did. I believe it was also the first movie that I saw in the theater more than twice. 13 year old me went to see it because of the Titanic sinking appeal, wanting to see the tragic story told in school manifest on the big screen, but that same 13 year old me went back to the theater again and the version of me at every age since has typically watched at least some of it each time Titanic was on TV because of the strength of the story, anchored by Leo’s Jack, the everyman who one-ups the system and saves the girl. Forbidden love ending in tragedy is timeless.

3. Catch Me If You Can – This was the game-changing Leo movie for me. As a child of the 1990s, I was often annoyed by female fascination with DiCaprio as Jack Dawson, so there was a bit of a stigma with that teenage association that Leo had to shed to work his way onto his current place in my actor hierarchy. When I was in college, a typical Time Warner Cable customer service debacle led to six months of free service, including HBO, during a time when this movie about young bank fraud expert, Frank Abignale Jr., was replaying consistently. The film is a blast to rewatch, flowing effortlessly across its run-time, so rewatch it I did. It would be very accurate to say I’ve seen it 25 times at least across the past two decades and it may not be a stretch to say I’ve seen at least bits and pieces 50 times or more.

Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken are excellent too, but it’s a DiCaprio movie through and through. He maintains a youthful and rather relatable charm, even as he makes his way in the world through increasingly cunning deceit. It is an odd type of anti-hero role, but Leo owns it in such a way that reveals the true silliness in looking at the world through a black-and-white lens. His hero-worship of his flawed father (Walken) informs some of the more powerfully emotional scenes, all of which add the kind of depth to Leo’s Frank Jr. that make you root for him.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street – Perhaps the most ludicrous three hours in film lore, spearheaded by the story of a guy who lived limitlessly at the expense of others. I mean, it’s almost weird to say you love a movie about one of my lifetime’s greatest financial villains, a true pirate of the modern age. Villains are more interesting, though, in an ironic sort of way. Scorsese illustrated that point well with Kyle Chandler’s protagonist character taking the subway home after getting Leo’s Jordan Belfort put away for three years and forcing him to spill the beans on Wall Street’s most illustrious. What do you get for arresting a notorious economic criminal and archetype of corruption in the late 20th century that continues to this day in various ways under our noses? Underappreciated financially, that’s for sure.

It’s dark comedy at its finest. Leo is part Gordon Gekko and part Jim Carrey, and it’s hard not to laugh at the insanity of all his vices and debauchery. Certainly, cheers to the supporting cast because they’re iconic too; Margot Robbie splashes onto the scene here and seems poised to become an all-time icon now, Matthew McConaughey has never been better (and he’s only in the movie for like three scenes and less than fifteen minutes), Jonah Hill is unreal as Belfort’s #2, and even Rob Reiner (the director of several classic rewatchables) as Jordan’s dad knocks it out of the park. But it’s Leo’s vehicle and he drives it like a lunatic to probably his best performance.

1. The Departed – After rewatching Catch Me If You Can so many times, the stage was set for Leo’s performance as an undercover cop trying to take down Irish mob moss, Frank Costello, to take him definitively out of the “Titanic guy” spot in my mind and move him squarely into the territory of being the actor whose career I would follow as an adult like someone would the career of Tom Hanks had their formative years been the 1980s.

It was a bit of a right place, right time scenario for Leo. The innocence of youth was still one of his hallmark traits and part of his on-screen likability, making it easy to buy into him as the smart kid who winds up dropped into a volatile situation, struggles mightily with the anxiety of it, and occasionally allows extreme bursts of anger to erupt. His plea to the psychiatrist for something to chill him out served as the scene that made me an unabashed Leo fan, apt in the years since to say, “Awesome, DiCaprio has a new movie coming out.” Considering that he shares the screen with Nicholson and gets strong competition for movie MVP from Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg (whose show-stealing attempt is admirable) and further considering that he was acting in a really high profile and high pressure Scorsese mob film, Leo delivering arguably his career-altering performance was incredibly impressive.

In Gladiator and Beyond, the Heel Makes the Movie

A point I’ve often made in movie conversations over the years, particularly about superhero films, is that they are usually only as good as their villains. Extending that point across other genres, I think it holds water. What’s the difference between a highly rewatchable movie and a solid film that’s worth the original watch or worse? The strength of the antagonist. Avengers: Infinity War, for instance, is about Thanos, the genocidal but weirdly intellectual titan. Josh Brolin’s work in that role within two viewings entered the movie villain pantheon for me, and in doing so elevated Avengers 3 (and, to a slightly lesser extent, its sequel) to Empire Strikes Back levels of historical cinematic achievement.

From Colonel Jessup in A Few Good Men to Bodhi in Point Break, from Agent Smith in The Matrix to Joker in The Dark Knight, the heel makes the movie. The lesser the antagonist, the lesser the potential movie.

Case in point is Gladiator. Recently, I rewatched it for the first time in years and for the only time to date in a state of mind oriented toward rewatchability evaluation. What stood out to me more than any of the rewatchable scenes (tops among them being the initial glimpses of Rome at the Empire’s peak and of the Roman Coliseum, the re-creation of the Battle of Carthage, Maximus vs. Tigris of Gaul, and the climax) was Joaquin Phoenix in the role of Emperor Commodus. A lot of movie heels are somewhat relatable, adding a layer of depth to the storytelling; Thanos, for example, has an apt point about finite resources in spite of his extremist solution. Others are what they call in sports entertainment “cool heels,” like Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Some, like Darth Vader, are both. Commodus, though, is just a pure evil bad guy that you want to see get his comeuppance.

Commodus might be the baddest of all bad guys, in fact. There is no redeeming quality about him. He is not the least bit cool. Commodus is the worst version of any person, complete with a total lack of morality and incestuous feelings for his sister. He kills his father in a tantrum over not getting passed the torch, calls for Maximus and his family to be executed, and threatens to have his sister and nephew killed. To put it simply, Commodus is a corrupt and ruthless little brat. And my goodness is it hard not to jump out of your seat and clap when Maximus kills him in the climactic scene, no matter how many times you have seen the movie already. It evokes a visceral reaction. That is the mark of an exemplary villain.

Who would Maximus be without Commodus? We get to see the depths of the general’s psyche explored because the Emperor is so very unlikeable. The tears Maximus sheds, the anger he displays (“Like you mourned for your father…”), the sincerity, the ruthlessness…all of it…he is taken to another level (an Oscar-winning level) by playing off of Commodus. And we who love movies salute him.

Unwelcomed Sanity: A Short Story Inspired by COVID-19

A foreign and awful noise jolted Dr. Hirochika Takada from sleep. Characteristically groggy after a long day of working in his personally owned health clinic on the outskirts of Osaka, he found himself instinctively reaching for the source of the noise. His right hand clasped a small and rectangular electronic device.

A cell phone? Takada had not seen one since he was a boy, but without hesitation and using muscle memory he did not know he had, he swiped the screen to silence the alarm, noticing in a fleeting moment that the message attached to the alert had been written in a language other than Japanese. Prone to over-stimulation and not wanting to begin his day in that brain state, he was more content with the renewal of quiet than he was concerned about what prompted the noise or about the fact that he was holding a cell phone, a machine long since rendered obsolete. Another sudden burst of auditory activity left little time to ponder the unusual circumstances.

Takada was greeted by his daughter, Kaisuka, but not with the radiant smile he so loved to see first thing in the morning. Instead, grim features covered his beautiful 7 year old’s face like a mask. She spoke in English. “Daddy, is it the Anoroc,” she asked. All he could understand was her listless tone because, like the words on his phone, her dialogue was not registering; had the cell phone’s alert also been in English? Her body language spoke volumes. Slumped shoulders. Disappointment. Eyes looking around him rather than at him. Resignation. Takada and his daughter, he assumed, had had a similar discussion before. He took a deep breath, hugged her tightly, and said in a perfect English that startled his ears, “It’s going to be OK, sweetie.”

He needed a minute. Surely this was a dream. He asked Kaisuka to leave the room, which he could see now that his eyes had adjusted to the morning light was not the room in which he had fallen asleep the night before. Yes, definitely a dream. Everything about this room was different. The processing of details so early in the morning had always flustered Takada, so he had learned through repetition not to try. Get up, go through your morning routine, have a cup of tea. He reasoned that he would probably wake up soon anyway.

Much of the weirdness washed away in the shower, so Takada made his way downstairs (downstairs?) with his usual morning sense of purpose. Nice house. As he walked into the kitchen, his wife, Aja, approached with a sympathetic smile. “Here we go again,” she said. “How do you think things are going to be at the clinic tomorrow?” And the weirdness was back. Confusion took a firm grip on his mind as he tried to process her words. He stood there looking at Aja for what seemed like minutes but was actually a few seconds. “I suppose we’ll see,” Takada replied, the perfect English again surprising him as he attempted to disguise the uncertainty of his response. She kissed him while his son, Kota, hugged his leg just above the knee. Kota was unbridled enthusiasm personified. He reached down and hugged him. “I love you, daddy,” Kota said in that heart-melting way that only he could. I understood what he said! This feels real; not like a dream.

His sharp memory for detail then recalled his wife’s comment and both she and their daughter’s questions. Anoroc. Again? Something different about the clinic? He ate breakfast lost in thought, took the vitamins that Aja had laid on the napkin next to the food, and gathered his things, aware certainly that it was not his typical morning meal and that the vitamins were unfamiliar, but at that point too busy being confused and overwhelmed to spend much energy on it. He needed his cup of tea, though, and a quick search for its location snapped him into focus. Sweet Iron Goddess of Mercy, his preferred oolong. Needed now more than ever. Where was it? “Aja, I’m feeling a little off this morning; where is the tea?”

Aja’s momentary consternation was replaced quickly with empathy, one of Takada’s most treasured of his wife’s traits and one he loved to be reminded about in dream states. “It is still on back order from the last shutdown,” she said. “Remember?” Takada nodded knowingly, hiding (perhaps not so well?) his continued struggle to discern whether he was dreaming, whether he had met up with his best friend, Minoru, and had too many drinks last night, or if he was plain losing his mind.

He then looked at the clock and instinctively asked Kaisuka, “You ready to go, sweetie? It’s time for school.” The three sets of eyes that turned on him immediately were hard not to notice; even the dogs (dogs?) seemed to be staring at him cross-eyed. “Babe, are you okay,” Aja asked. “You saw the alert right? Schools are closed.” Babe? Is that me?

With no room in his headspace left to process additional information so early in the day, Takada acknowledged his apparent foolishness, kissed his wife and kids (and dogs) and got in his car to leave under the guise of checking in at the clinic. Okay. Let’s just get out of here, find a place of serenity, and figure out what the hell is going on.

The drive was like that state of consciousness you reach when you can tell what you’re doing, but at the same time it’s as if you are floating next to yourself, watching your own actions. This town Takada was driving through was familiar enough that he was driving with a purpose toward a destination he clearly knew. It was not, however, his home. This is America. Oddly, there was nobody on the road, like driving through a movie scene. After parking at his clinic, he got out of his car and heard nothing but nature, peaceful and disturbing all at once. Takada walked downtown to a tea/coffee shop he had passed on his drive. People in store windows who he did not recognize but who clearly recognized him pointed fingers of shame in his direction, their scowls so loud that he need not hear the details of their scolds. He took a deep breath near the entrance of the tea shop. “Iron Goddess of Mercy, let your nectar of life infuse me with clarity,” he said quietly to himself (please have it available here).

He pulled at the door into the tea shop, but it was locked. Again, he pulled, and then even tried to push, but to no avail. The tea shop’s owner, a middle-aged woman wearing a surgical mask, who apparently had become attuned to the sound of her locked door rattling, came to the window in the door and told him in a both annoyed and matter-of-fact tone, “We’re closed.” Noting and then pointing to the shop hours on the window, he simply and kindly asked, “Why?” She rolled her eyes and walked away.

Takada sat down on the bench outside of the tea shop, then pinched himself increasingly harder three times, both hoping that he would wake up and just to see if he could feel pain (I cannot recall ever having felt physical pain in a dream). The instinctive rubbing of his leg that followed the pinching would have confirmed that the pain, at least, was real had his attention not been diverted to the police officer walking toward him. It was his friend, Minoru (who owns a restaurant in Osaka…), but he was wearing a gas mask with a clear face pane. “Tak, what are you doing, brother,” he asked. “You have to get inside. Where’s your mask?”

Gathering himself and taking another deep breath, he looked at his friend and said, “‘Ru, I need you to pretend I woke up from a coma this morning and you’re catching me up on the world I’ve come back to. What is going on? Why do I need to go inside and why did you ask me about a mask? Why are schools closed? Where is this place? And why can’t I seem to get my much-needed cup of tea?” Minoru smiled at first, but when Takada did not change his expression, the officer simply asked him, “Didn’t you check your phone?”

Pulling the device from his pocket, he unlocked the screen and saw the morning message still prominently featured. The alert on the phone read, “Code Yellow: Infectious Disease Warning. Lock down to commence in 12 hours. Make immediate preparations. God help us.”

“‘Ru…are you messing with me,” Takada asked. “Look, you as well as anyone know that I don’t like to be screwed around with like this, not on my birthday (it’s my birthday…) or any day. So, if this is some kind of elaborate charade you and Aja are playing, my head feels like it is about to explode and I would appreciate you just letting it end here and now.”

Minoru was taken aback. His eyes were wide and his mouth agape. It took a lot to render his friend speechless. He’s not messing with me. Minoru changed suddenly and became uncharacteristically stern when stating, “Dude…I don’t need you messing with me today. You know how crazy days like today are. I’m supposed to arrest anyone who fails to comply with the edict. If you’re outside, masks are required, and it better be for a reason other than trying to enter a shop that you damn well knew would be closed today. I have a lot to get done before the lockdown. So, get inside or put your mask on. Better yet, just go home. This isn’t the time for another one of your goofy speeches. I love you and respect what you do, but people are in danger and we need you to comply.”

Okay

Seeing his friend since grade school snap at him and leave signaled to Takada that it was time to get going (no answers coming from Minoru), so he walked (sulked?) back to his clinic, which was apparently closed today anyway.

The next few hours were a blur. Dream or not, though, these were the details of his reality, as discovered through the use of his cell phone: he woke up in or was dreaming about the year 2022; his family, clinic, and friends were in a small town in North Carolina and it seemed that the world had reverted back to a more primitive understanding of healthcare. Anoroc was the world’s fifth “global killer” in two years, a virus thought to spread like wildfire to an unsuspecting population. The lockdown was the government’s chosen response, hoping to prevent mass infection. So, this has all been a dream. Takada reasoned that he was in his bed in Osaka, reliving the events that his father had told him about – the events that had brought about what he knew to be the “Healthcare Revolution,” which drastically altered the way that the world thought about infectious disease.

Confident that he was dreaming indeed, he returned home. By then, he had reached a place in his mind where, now that he knew he was dreaming, he could enjoy seeing out the remainder of the events until he woke up. Cool, I’m an American living in a time of crisis to remind me how good we have it now…let’s see where this goes. Unfortunately, his wife’s greeting when he came inside snapped him out of his excitement. “Babe, it’s your dad,” she said solemnly. “He’s in the hospital. They think he has Anoroc and they are preparing extreme measures to save his life.” Takada often dreamed about seeing his dad again, but never like this. His father died a decade ago.

He usually loved dreaming about his dad, hanging out with him as if he was still alive. It put a smile on his face when he woke up. The news (in this dream) that his father was hospitalized, however, blurred the lines between dream and reality once more. “I’ve got to get over there and prevent them from using those measures; he doesn’t need them,” Takada said matter-of-factly.

“What do you mean he doesn’t need them,” his wife asked. “They’re his best chance to stay alive.”

The furrow in his brow was so pronounced that he felt like it might be cemented permanently. Straining to maintain his grasp on the situation, he replied, “Aja, don’t you remember from Health History class that those measures killed more people than they saved? Iatrogenic deaths from the treatment options of the early 21st century got so out of control that they completely flipped the focus of healthcare. Remember that quote from the American inventor that was on the wall at school? What was his name? Edison? ‘The doctor of the future will give no medicine, but will instruct his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease’? I need to get my dad out of there! He just needs to let his body fight the virus! I can save him this time! Let’s go! I’m going!”

As Takada headed for the door, Aja moved swiftly toward him while demanding the kids go upstairs to their rooms. Blocking his way to the garage, she said, “Babe, I know this kind of thing bothers you, but you just have to let this go. I don’t know what you’re talking about right now. Take a breath. Let the doctors do their job and save your dad.” Incredulous, Takada fired back, “You know better than this, Aja! The germ theory of disease was definitively disproven for the last time before we were even born! You don’t know what’s going on? I don’t either! It’s like I’m stuck in a Tozawa film. If I can spend another second with my father, though, I’m going to try! Stay here, please. I need the drive to get my head right.” Aja pleaded, “You shouldn’t go anywhere in the frame of mind you’re in. The way you’re talking…are you okay? Please just stay.”

Before Aja could say another word, Takada had pushed past her and gotten in the car. I award this dream negative 1 star and can’t wait to wake up. He made his way to the hospital and struggled to keep calm as he fought his way through media trucks. Apparently, something was being filmed just inside the hospital, adding to his frustration since he could not get in the front entrance. Everyone stood there in surgical masks like it was…well, it was 2022…so like people did back then (or now…or whatever!). Nobody paid much attention to him at first and he could hear loud and clear the “state representative” while making his speech.

The most memorable part was this: “…so I’d like to remind all citizens to remain quarantined from 7PM tonight until this virus is contained. As in previous years, public safety is our number one priority, and for the good of your fellow man, you need to stay in your homes indefinitely as infectious disease experts handle this situation for us. Only necessary workers will be allowed outside of their homes until this crisis is averted. Stay calm if you are among the 85% of workers on the non-essential list; stimulus checks are the primary topic of legislation set for one week from today, and we hope to make electronic deposits within 8-10 weeks. The Anoroc vaccine is currently undergoing human testing and should be available in 12 weeks at the latest, and once completed will be ready for every citizen. After vaccines have been given, life can return to normal. The National Guard has been deployed to protect us from anyone who fails to comply with the governor’s edict; necessary force has been authorized. Please just be patient and stay home. It is in the best interest of all Americans.”

It’s amazing that anyone ever thought this was necessary or OK…

After the speech concluded, Takada tried to go into the hospital’s front entrance, but was forcibly blocked. “Sir, you need to leave immediately. No visitors are allowed in the…”

Takada cut off the lady when he spotted a familiar face and yelled, “Hey,” hopeful that she knew him like he seemed to know her. “Dr. Takada,” she said, walking swiftly toward them. “What are you doing here,” she asked. “My dad is here. He…has some unique things in his health history that he’s often not forthcoming about…and I’m his healthcare power of attorney,” he improvised. She nodded affirmatively. Thank goodness. “Ma’am, I’m the head nurse on the floor that Dr. Takada’s father is on,” his acquaintance said to the lady. “I’m going to take him up there and confirm a few things.”

She handed him a mask. “You’ll need this, of course.” He begrudgingly put it on.

When they reached the door of his dad’s room, Takada gasped. There he was. Tagomi Takada. It had been 12 years. Tears welling in his eyes, he said hello. His dad turned to him, smiled, and said, as he had ever since Hirochika had earned his doctorate, “DOCTOR Hirochika.” It sounded strange hearing that nickname in English, but he barely cared; hearing it at all was a dream come true.

After a few minutes of idle chatter that ended with his dad commenting on another cancelled American football season, Takada was consumed with motivation to get his father out of there. “Dad, we need to bring you home,” he said. Tagomi replied, “But I don’t want to get Aja and the kids sick.” Takada pressed. “You won’t. I promise. Trust me.” His nurse friend (name tag reading T. Austin) re-entered the room. “Excuse me, Dr. Takada, but what’s this about taking your dad home? He can’t leave; he has been confirmed as an Anoroc patient…”

“Who do I need to speak with to get him released to my care,” he asked. Dream or not, I want to spend as much time with my dad as I can. Nurse Austin was joined by a man in a hazmat suit, who she introduced as “Dr. Johnson, the medical center’s infectious disease expert.” The man spoke directly and rather condescendingly to Takada. “Mr. Takada, your father is scheduled to undergo mandatory treatment for his condition.”

Tagomi spoke up. “I told them I feel fine.” Takada’s father informed him of how he was at the grocery store preparing for the lockdown when, several minutes following a few sneezing episodes common to him during allergy season, he was escorted to an ambulance and taken to the hospital. Apparently, someone had called the authorities because he sneezed. This is ridiculous. Why does nobody else in this room find this ridiculous? “Pardon, but you’re saying my father needs mandatory treatment, you made him come here, and you called my wife to tell her that he was dying….because he sneezed,” he asked, trying to hide his own condescending tone.

“Yes, Mr. Takada, that is correct,” said Dr. Johnson. “The state has retained authority during this time of public health crisis to protect the citizens at large by admitting anyone with symptoms that could be related to Anoroc. It’s for your own…”

Takada interrupted, “Really, doctor? He sneezed. It’s allergy season. Besides, if your theory about this virus were true, nobody would be alive to refute it. Please release my father to me and I will handle his case personally. Does that sound acceptable?”

Dr. Johnson looked at Takada as if he had suggested he set the hospital on fire. “Absolutely out of the question,” he sneered. “It’s time for you to go, Mr. Takada.”

Frozen in that moment, Takada thought about when his dad died and how in the years that followed he had emotionally struggled with the idea that he had not advocated strongly enough on his father’s behalf; he had never been able to shake the thought that he could have done more to save his dad. In Takada’s world, his father had never even met his grandkids. It was then that Takada figured to have discovered that the point of this dream was for him to put to rest his lingering shame and advocate for his father’s health with uncanny zeal. After that, he would wake up, tell Aja about it, retell it to his emotional counselor, and move forward without regret.

With a burning fire in his belly, Takada unleashed 50 years of wisdom on them all. He drew quite a crowd during his impromptu lecture, which he had given hundreds of times before. Among the on-lookers was the state representative whose speech he had heard earlier. Takada explained that the philosophical errors which had led the United States to far outpace the rest of the world combined in pharmaceutical usage and consequent deaths from adverse reactions, at a rate higher than any other condition including heart disease and cancer, finally caught up with Americans in 2024. That was the year when the latest in a series of viral infections caused the country as it had been known to break; the economy was in shambles, the people sicker than ever and feeling hopeless. The president who took office that year, elected largely because of his healthcare platform, brought in experts from countries who had health systems that were thriving – the American system had for decades been considered the world laughing stock because it produced the worst results but cost the most. Takada’s uncle was part of the team from Japan.

During President Johnson’s two terms, healthcare in America was completely overhauled. The world came together to study health less from the viewpoint of what causes people to become sick and die and more through the lens of what causes people to remain alive. “Each person carries his/her own doctor inside and we are our best when we give the doctor inside a chance to work” became the primary motto of the Healthcare Revolution. The germ theory, the linchpin of the pharmaceutically-driven, disease-based model of healthcare, was eventually disproven unequivocally through several long-term, worldwide research projects confirming that germs preyed on unhealthy hosts. Rather than concentrate nearly all resources on creating chemical concoctions to rid an infected, unhealthy body of germs, funds were heavily reallocated to studying the various avenues through which people could optimize health; the statistics were staggering, as within twenty years rates for the most common causes of death (iatrogenic/pharmaceutical-related fatalities, heart disease, and cancer) plummeted.

Takada’s uncle’s research on the terrain theory, which states that healthy bodies are well-equipped to prevent disease, had already been making huge strides for Japanese healthcare. It became one of the foundational pieces of the Revolution. By 2030, American use of pharmaceuticals had dropped by 50%. There was no more reliance on the germ theory to perpetuate the fear of disease, and thus no more need to lockdown the country whenever a new virus was discovered. Healthcare research, within a decade, had completely shifted its focus to prevention, with Health taught in schools alongside language and mathematics. Takada continued his Health History lesson for several more minutes.

By the time that Takada had earned his doctorate in health sciences, the world economy was booming like never before, with coordinated efforts to reduce the pollution that the 20th century had created and that the early 21st century had perpetuated. In Health History classes, it was written in wonderment how much the fall of the pharmaceutical industry as it had been known seemed connected to the return to prominence of America’s worldwide reputation. Mass shootings plummeted. Political turmoil calmed considerably. The ideals of the western world had long been shaped by America, and the western world followed America’s lead when it broke free from the shackles of its dilapidated healthcare system, which was not just causing an inordinate amount of deaths from the methods professed to save lives, but also causing generally poor health, malaise, and weakness. The food, the water, the medications, the cleaning products, etc…it was collectively the by-product of a strange fascination with trying to treat the human body as a petri-dish for science experiments; and it colossally failed.

“My uncle had so much respect for President Johnson,” Takada told them in closing. “He used to tell us that many people referred to President Johnson as the second coming of the Messiah because the cultural shift that he initiated was of Biblical proportions. He changed the world truly. By 2070, few of the problems that you concern yourselves with now even exist. So, again, I’m taking my father out of this facility. Infectious disease doesn’t spread the way you’re claiming, my dad’s body may have tested positive for Anoroc, but it is quite clearly self-containing it and he is not a threat to spread it unless you drop him in a room full of already ill people and have him sneeze directly into their faces. Dad, gather your things.”

Moments later, Takada’s world became fuzzy. He felt a sharp pinch in his neck and everything went dark. His last image before losing consciousness had been of his dad, hand outstretched toward his. He longed to reach out and grab it, but he had been subdued.

Well, I advocated for my dad. Now, it’s time to wake up from this roller-coaster of a dream and get back to the real world. I’m thankful that I got the chance to see what it must have been like for people who could see the ridiculousness in the approach to disease back in those days, but having not grown up in that world, I don’t know if I would’ve had the strength to endure the insanity. How could anyone in their right mind believe something so illogical? It’s terrifying. The January 2070 World Health Journal stated that the number of viruses we encounter daily is 1.23 million. To convince the world that one virus was stronger than the human body designed to fight off millions per week? Uncle once told me that western medicine in the early 21st century was the dominant religion of the culture; so few questioned its teachings, even though its failures were consistently epic across a half century. Not even childhood illness skyrocketing at alarming rates was enough to jar people out of their faith in a false prophet; instead they eventually accepted required doses of nearly 100 chemical concoctions in just the first few years of life. To live in that world? Oh my. To have my children grow up in that world? Unimaginable until now. Thankfully, we live in a wiser time in human history.

Takada awoke feeling cold and groggy. Light filled his room and he heard the sound of Aja’s voice. Thank goodness. His eyes tried to adjust to the brightness. He began to roll over, but something prevented his movement. “It’s going to be okay, babe,” Aja said. “Just let them help you. You’ve got Aronoc too.” His attempt to reply was muted somehow; he couldn’t speak. He struggled to move his arms and legs; they were each shackled to a hospital bed. Dr. Johnson came into focus above him.

Mr. Takada,” he said, “This will only take a moment. I assume you consent to the mandatory Anoroc treatment. It’s for your own good.”

-THE END

(This short story was written as part of my on-going trek through Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. He advised in the introduction to just go write something and do it with zeal)

Cast Away, and What Makes a Movie Rewatchable

Cast Away, up until recently, was not a movie that struck me as particularly rewatchable. Some films seem better suited to the original viewing only, and the 2000 Tom Hanks performance on a deserted island had previously fit that bill for me. However, a recent listen to one of my favorite podcasts, The Rewatchables (on the Ringer podcast network), made me reconsider. The podcast championed the film’s most engaging scenes and decisions regarding the score as some of the century’s best film-making, so I sat down earlier this week to put those ideas to my personal test. In doing so, I started thinking about what makes me so prone to rewatch movies.

I’m one of those people that can watch a movie fifty times (or over a hundred in the case of my favorite from youth through college, Top Gun). Why? No doubt at first because my father found a great deal of entertainment in doing so and it was a pattern of his that well suited me. Then, at some point, it became a natural instinct to seek joy in it. Rewatching movies, simply, put me in a good mood. Later, I started to notice that movies brought a little something extra to the table when of a particularly good quality.

Top notch filmmaking across every genre shares the ability to connect to us psychologically. Die Hard is a blast of a movie to rewatch if you’re looking to be entertained; everyman tough guy John McLean, iconic ’80s heel Hans Gruber, Nakatomi tower, a couple of memorable supporting players, and a sprinkle of emotional depth for “seasoning” combine for an all-time Top 10 action flick. Cast Away was sold to me as rewatchable because of its weighty emotional punch; the near-engagement sets the stage for a gripping plane crash scene, then the island plot (with making fire, Wilson, et al, complimented by the inspired decision to feature zero musical score, sucking you into the bigness of Chuck’s desperate reality. It’s all about what it brings to the table for you, psychologically.

So, at this point, I think my desire to reinforce positive aspects of my life is the main thing that makes movie rewatching so enjoyable. It’s like catching up with an old friend. Sometimes, the conversation makes you laugh at your memories, at others it makes you feel a deep resonance or nostalgia or lucky; maybe it makes you think about it for days after because it was so interesting. Honestly, at this point in my life I appreciate opportunities to get into a deeper state of feeling, but without any pressure from real life. Movies have proven to me their ability to draw emotion out of me, so I rewatch the ones that do so very effectively.

The best thing about re-watching a movie is that you catch little pieces of the art-form that you may not have noticed the first time. Viewed in the right frame of mind, those artful moments can stick with a person forever. I, for one, think that to be the underlying magic of the movie watching experience. Cast Away is ripe with those moments. In my recent rewatch, the scene that really stood out to me was the climactic conversation that Chuck (Tom Hanks) has with his best friend over twice losing his beloved Kelly. The message was palpable: you can lose everything, overcome great obstacles, regain a lot, and still not get what you wanted most, but “you never know what the tide may bring,” so you just keep pressing forward.

So, yeah…Cast Away is definitely rewatchable; probably too heavy for it to make my regular rotation with other Hanks films like Big, A League of Their Own, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, or Catch Me If You Can, but thanks primarily to Hanks and his masterful performance – he made me care about his relationship with a volleyball as if it were a dog and pulled hard at my heartstrings when he lost Wilson at sea – Cast Away is highly rewatchable.

The End

An Existential Look at WrestleMania 36

My relationship with WrestleMania certainly is not what it once was. Whereas it used to be the event that gave my pro wrestling fandom its yearly shot of adrenaline, helping me get through the doldrum periods of a never-ending calendar of events, in recent years my philosophical disagreement primarily with the usage of modern stars and the bloated, “more is more” presentation style left me jaded with wrestling’s grandest stage. Without the medicinal boost of enthusiasm each spring, my WWE fandom was dying.

WWE has played a huge role in my existence, as those who know me best can attest. If I’m passionate about something, I take it very seriously; in accordance with that mindset, if something causes one of my passions to sour, it is to me very serious. My message to my kids in the dedication I wrote for my second book stated, “Nothing you are passionate about is trivial” and I stand by my unbridled enthusiasm for this wonderfully whacky performance art-form. Only through writing this article did it fully sink how awfully weird it has been to have reached a place where AEW and even New Japan rather than WWE are my go-to sources for pro wrestling. WWE’s brand of sports entertainment is my oldest past-time, dating back to 1987.

A separation from my WWE fandom needed to happen, though. Some can watch and be alright with WWE doing the equivalent of, if the NBA was scripted, “booking” Michael Jordan at 50+ years old and a shell of himself for the NBA Finals every year (and extending the Playoffs to include every team, too, #endrant). I no longer could. To paraphrase a famous Triple H promo, “Evolution passed WWE by.” CM Punk once said, “Everything that happens in WWE could be better.” When I started to feel like the vast majority of everything happening in WWE could be WAY better and the product had suffered from a half decade of devolution, that was when I knew it was time for a change.

WrestleMania this year, however, took on a very different context, what with the stressors of real life quite challenging to escape.

Like a lot of things I had been grappling with, my recent issues with WWE did not seem to matter and I was borderline desperate for their brand of escapism, especially in the absence of any other sports to consume as healthy distractions; that dynamic combined with several months spent recharging, ironically, through isolating myself from the WWE product made me more than willing to give WrestleMania a clean slate to connect with me on as deep a level as it could.

Knowing their backs were against the wall, I went into the show with my curiosity piqued to see how they would handle the adversity of having no crowd. Personally, I had already been conditioned through AEW Dynamite for three prior weeks to watch wrestling with zero live audience factor, so the weirdness was largely gone already for me (though I, myself, have written for a decade that the level of audience participation is one of the key factors in evaluating the overall success of the pro wrestling performance). To be a wrestler, though, whose professional existence has been built on engaging people to elicit their reaction? And at an event like WrestleMania known for packing 75,000 or more into a football stadium fashioned by WWE for ultimate exhibitions of grandeur? The lack of a crowd, for wrestlers and for WrestleMania, was an enormous hurdle to leap.

WWE had not faced any significant adversity in a long time. It is a company that I feel has coasted on its historical reputation for years now, content to milk nostalgic resonance for its past at the expense of its present product’s quality (albeit not its financial bottom line). COVID-19 forced WWE out of its comfort zone like nothing else in a decade has. I think that, as they often have in eras gone by when they needed a big hit, WWE and its performers truly stepped up last weekend. WrestleMania was innovative, splitting up the event across two nights instead of exhausting its loyal viewers with another monstrous 7 straight hour spectacle and using the largely untapped genre of cinematic wrestling (as modern pioneer Matt Hardy dubbed his baby) to put a uniquely definitive stamp on the 36th Showcase of the Immortals. It also, to my immense appreciation, put the bulk of its focus – from the opening video montage to the run-times of the matches to the chosen victors of said matches – on the current generation of stars.

I’m thinking only hindsight will fully contextualize the following statement, but I loved WrestleMania this year and walked away from it feeling as good about where WWE is headed as I have in several years. Most importantly, I just had a blast watching it in the moment. I watched Night 1 on Saturday live and then Night 2 Tuesday without spoilers, giving myself the most opportune times on my schedule to best appreciate their presentation and avoid getting sucked into my old critical patterns. My second favorite act of all-time, Edge, came back from a nine year retirement and had a match that I thought echoed Bret Hart’s praise of it looking and sounding like a real fight; my namesake, Drew McIntyre, won the WWE Title in the main-event; my daughter’s favorite wrestler, Charlotte Flair, furthered a legacy that is beginning to legitimately look like her father’s; and again those cinematic productions were tremendously well put together (see more in-depth match thoughts here at my old stomping grounds). I needed catharsis, and WrestleMania was cathartic.

Going through the rough patch in my relationship with WrestleMania has been akin to having an on-going political argument with a best friend that neither of us could quite move beyond to resume our friendship as it was previously, and COVID-19 subsequently became the thing that made us realize that our squabble no longer mattered enough for it continue impacting our relationship. I’ve made some new friends, if you will (in AEW and New Japan), that I enjoy hanging out with a bit more than WWE right now, but it feels good to know that a trying time has built a bridge for me and my old pal WrestleMania to reconnect and get back on good terms.

Zen in the Art of Writing, Part 1

Years ago, one of the friends I made through our mutual love of sports and entertainment suggested we together embark on a journey through Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, but while I bought the book, the project with my buddy, Shane, never came to fruition. Sports being my primary escape from the real world and sports being currently inactive, however, I have been seeking other avenues to avoid allowing my world to get too serious; and I happened across Zen. I thought I’d go through Bradbury’s book on my own. I will share here my musings, chapter by chapter. If you feel so inclined to join me, this is a link to the book.

The preface is where I’ll start my musings because, frankly, the preface was rather eye-opening. I don’t interact with many people who enjoy writing as much as I do, who find the escape in it like I do, or at least I have never talked about that joy and escape with many people before. I imagine that, if I did, what Ray Bradbury wrote about writing in the preface would be an underlying theme of each conversation.

He talks about writing being a way to process the world through art. God I love that way of putting it. I’ve not thought enough about the art of writing to reflect on the various things that I’ve written over the years as me processing the world through it; I guess I was too busy writing to think much about why I was doing it. I shudder to think, though, of what my life would look like without the written word.

So much of my life has revolved around writing. It has been for me a therapeutic exercise, for my mind what jogging is for the body; it has been my outlet to escape from the real world; it has been one of my greatest passions, having written two acclaimed books under a pen name and thousands of articles about sports entertainment and health; it has been my language of love, my preferred method of expression to the people I care about most; it has blocked out the noisy world that tends to trap me inside my headspace, where lies plenty of self-judgment among other things.

In the closing lines of the preface, Bradbury says, “Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together.” To be honest, if not for the written word, I might always find myself picking up pieces of me and never be able to start the day whole again before jumping onto the next landmine.

After thinking about it for several days, I think what I appreciate most about writing is the focus it brings, which speaks to Bradbury’s point about using it to process. I wear my heart on my sleeve, ever decreasingly volatile but assuredly worthy of the label “an emotional guy.” Writing is a way to express myself carefully, with emotion still but in a far more controlled manner. I’ve always felt that my best written work clearly exhibited my passion for the subject matter, but in an efficient presentation that left little doubt as to my central point. Words can be messy and emotions make them messier; the spoken word is the most frequent harbinger for the messiness (with social media “writing” vying for first place on that list for reasons on which I’m still marinating). Life is messy, of course, but writing gives some better structure to the mess.

Processing the world through art, though? I guess I had never thought of it that way. Though I can certainly vouch for the feeling of artistic achievement I’ve had after finishing a piece that I just knew in my bones was top notch, there have been but a very few things I’ve written that I’ve honestly thought of as “art.” This writing project, going through the book, is going to be spent exploring the art form.