The WrestleMania Era 2.0 Podcast, Complete Season 1

Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you’ve been well as we all continue to navigate the upside-down world in which we live.  This year has been beyond strange.  Accordingly, I have been leaning heavily into the pro wrestling world for an escape.  Out of the chaos (and with other inspiration) came an idea to revisit my book, which gave some needed objective(ish) shape to the greatest wrestler of all-time conversation others falsely insist is too subjective.  In podcast form this time around, presented weekly over the last two months over at WrestlingHeadlines.com, I broadened that discussion. 

Much has changed since I wrote The WrestleMania Era in 2013 (last edition published in 2016).  The wrestling world is decidedly different today than it was then.  New promotions are up for consideration, which could fundamentally change the ranking process by way of additional data.  There has also been 4.5 years of WWE history added, along with wrestlers like AJ Styles throwing their names into the mix.  In August and September, I was joined by guests who helped me break down the evolving history of the business and shape the latest set of rankings. 

Season 1 Podcasts

Introduction, with a Reassessment of Batista’s WWE Career

AJ Styles and Where New Japan and Impact Fit in the WrestleMania Era Rankings (featuring Rich Latta)

Where Does Daniel Bryan Rank Among the All-Time Greats? (featuring Mazza)

Chris Jericho in the Pantheon and AEW’s Place at the WrestleMania Era Roundtable (featuring Sir Sam)

Seth Rollins: The Architect of the Best Overall Resume of the 2010s?

Season 1 Finale Introduction

John Cena: The Greatest of All-Time Part 1 (featuring David Fenichel)

John Cena: The Greatest of All-Time Part 2 (featuring David Fenichel)

2020 NBA Playoffs Running Diary

Pre-Playoffs Stage-Setting: The NBA’s return has been glorious, the quality of play fantastic and the quality of the television product surprisingly great in the “bubble.” I did not get to watch a ton of basketball during the seeding round, but Damian Lillard was the must-see player, well-earning the MVP he was awarded for his efforts. Luka Doncic was also incredible and his playoff legacy will be something I look forward to following for years. Too bad, by the way, for the Phoenix Suns; they were awesome, going 8-0 to finish off the “regular” season.

August 18th (Round 1): Rockets vs. Thunder is supposed to be the premier match-up of the opening playoff round, but I’m not seeing how that’ll happen if tonight’s Game 1 is any indication. Embodying the spirit of their injured second star, Russell Westbrook, the Rockets played with a frenetic energy, particularly on the defensive end, that could be dangerous moving forward. The Thunder looked disinterested by comparison. This is a huge post-season for the well-rested James Harden, and his Rockets look like they are going to give anyone they play fits, presuming they move forward. I assume they’ll play the Lakers, but color me unimpressed by LeBron and Co. I’d like to see Anthony Davis dominate and step into his role in the spotlight on a #1 seeded team; he looked rather lost to me in a Game 1 loss to Dame Lillard’s Blazers, as did the Lakers in general.

August 19th (Round 1): The Jazz vs. the Nuggets is going to be a series. Utah was really impressive in bouncing back to win Game 2. I’m a notorious hyperbole machine in my sports entertainment columnist other life, so take this with a grain of salt: the Jazz could make a run if they can get by the Nuggets.

August 21st (Round 1): Boston still has a trustworthy Big 3 in Tatum, Brown, and Walker. It’s clearly going to be Celtics vs. Raptors next round and Toronto will be justifiably favored given how they’ve played all year, but Tatum will be the best player in that series and he strikes me as the type who will revel in the challenge of defying predictions; he did so two years ago when Boston made a run to the Conference Finals and he just has that look right now. So does Kawhi Leonard in the Clippers vs. Mavs series, which seemed to flip with Doncic getting bullied around until he rolled his ankle; it looked to me like the Clips got in Luka’s head early and he never recovered.

August 22nd (Round 1): I got my first extended look at the Heat today and they played the kind of basketball that I most enjoy watching, moving the ball around fluidly to open players and making the art of getting open shots look easy. One of my patients is a high school teammate and friend of Bam Adebayo, so I’m invested in Bam’s success by extension; the first-time All Star was very impressive, well complimenting Miami’s shooters and its top star, Jimmy Butler, and being disruptive defensively. There’s a lot of chatter about the Heat being able to knock off the East favorite Bucks. I could clearly see why today against a Pacers team that beat the Rockets, Lakers, and Heat in the seeding games en route to going 6-2.

August 23rd (Round 1): BOOOOM! In a world obsessed more with moments of greatness than the process of greatness, I’m sure that Luka Doncic’s game-winning step-back three pointer at the buzzer to tie the Mavs with the Clippers at two-two in the series will be what everyone remembers, but that he did so after gutting out a monster triple-double (43-17-13) with a sprained ankle in a game when his sidekick, Porzingis, didn’t play? That’s what I’ll remember. Luka is a legend in the making.

August 24th (Round 1): Man, it’s so nice to have the NBA back. To have missed playoff basketball this year would have been very disappointing for this near 30-year pro hoops diehard. Whether I catch an entire game or just a few minutes, I’m thankful to have the NBA Playoffs in my life now as much as ever. Cheers to my all-but-blood-brother, Jeff, for so many years of great basketball conversations. Cheers to my little sidekick, Rudy (Le Champion of dogs), for faithful basketball viewing (and listening to me and Jeff talk about sports generally) since 2007; the Ru has seen the entire LeBron playoff-era.

As to game action, the Miami Heat looked as smooth as silk again to me. They are clearly good; looking forward to seeing how things go down with them and Milwaukee.

August 25th (Round 1): Glad to see that the Nuggets had the fight to get back in their series. Since my initial post about them, I certainly was not expecting them to go down 3-1 to the Jazz. I would have banked on that one having been 2-2 through the first four games. Jamal Murray is so streaky. Jokic is a beast, but when Murray is on, they’re dangerous and a legit threat to most of the West. Murray reminds me a little bit of Allan Houston in that way. He can be inconsistent, but you get the sense that someday the Nuggets may make the Finals because he got white hot for 80% of his Playoff games one year.

Can’t wait for this Game 5 between the Clippers and the Mavericks. This is what it’s all about. We’ve not seen meaningful basketball like this since the NBA Finals in June of 2019….(2 hours later)….well, it wasn’t a 30-0 run, but it felt like it when the Clippers asserted their dominance over a depleted Mavs team. It’s like Doc Rivers told them before the game, “Release the Kraken!” That was an annihilation.

August 29th (Round 1): Even more thankful to have basketball now. Rockets vs. Thunder Game 5 turned out to be a lot like Mavs-Clippers Game 5 (Blowout Blvd. is too crowded a street). I had not watched the West 4-5 match-up since the first game, but I was just as impressed with the Rockets energy. I figure if I can feel from my red chair that Harden and Westbrook have a golden opportunity to make a run in this most unusual year and silence the critics (I’d count myself among them) who like both guys but see them as built more for regular season basketball than the playoff pressure-cooker, then surely they’re feeling that too, only times twenty. Rockets vs. Lakers, who answered the challenge after their Game 1 loss to Portland (especially Anthony Davis), offers some fascinating storylines if we get there. LeBron vs. Harden…yes please.

August 30th and 31st (Round 2): My initial impressions of the East Semis were as follows: Boston has the three best players on the court – not just the best but the three best. Siakam looked decidedly mortal; meanwhile, Kemba is clearly relishing the opportunity to play meaningful playoff basketball, Jaylen Brown seems like he is on a mission, and Tatum is becoming elite before our eyes, which is something that long-time basketball fans love to witness. And, perhaps the biggest headline, Miami looks every bit on the Bucks level. Jimmy Butler left Philly to be the main guy on a Finals contender; he wanted to step up and he has stepped up, building on his battle with Kawhi a year ago. Giannis has to score at will from the paint, I think. It’s going to be interesting to see how the Bucks respond because, don’t look now, but the Bucks and their star may just not be built for deep playoff success. They need to a find a different gear; the really good teams and coaches know how to get them out of sync. It’s time, Giannis. Time to become a legend. Butler is ready to ascend at your expense.

September 1st (Round 1): It doesn’t get much bigger than a Game 7. Young stars, my friends. We’re coming off the LeBron 8 straight Finals run and the Warriors dynasty. I think many fans are ready to see the next generation make their marks. I’m moments from watching tip off; Murray vs. Mitchell…should be good…watch out for Jokic tonight!

Called it! The Joker stole the show! I don’t care what the “experts” say about low scoring games, at least not in a case like Nuggets vs. Jazz Game 7; that was an incredibly compelling game.

September 2nd (Round 2): The Bucks just don’t have a star who can create his own shot deep into the fourth quarter of a tight playoff game. Giannis would be wise to study Tim Duncan tape. There’s too much Kevin Garnett in him (taking jump shots instead of planting himself in the low post). Credit to Miami, which found a way to win a weird game that the refs decided with two odd calls on the final two shots…the Bucks found a way to lose.

September 3rd (Round 2): I started to write about the Celtics going up 3-0, but OG Anunoby nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer and made me start over. Wow! What a shot! In direct opposition to the questionable whistles to end last night’s ECF Semi, this game ended on two brilliant plays. I wonder sometimes if a team like Toronto has something akin to muscle memory when it comes to their belief that they can win despite being down 2-0; they gutted out a narrow Game 3 win last year in the Conference Finals, nearly going down 3-0 in the series then just like they nearly went down 3-0 tonight. The Celtics are a young team whose young stars have been in the NBA’s Final 4, but it’s games like this one that younger teams have to learn how to bounce back from.

September 4th (Round 2): I was telling my friend, Jeff, after the Bucks went down 3-0 that Giannis reminded me right now of mid-2000s Dirk, who seemed to be sprinting toward the pantheon in 2006, lost in the Finals, came back the next year even better, won MVP, and then won just two Playoff games despite being the heavily-favored 1-seed. The Bucks needed their fans and a crunch-time scorer. They have neither. How Giannis responds to this post-season will be fascinating. Dirk redeemed himself. Can Giannis? Speaking of redemption, James Harden and Russell Westbrook both need it this post-season. The Rockets feel like the wildcard team that could up-end the Los Angeles narrative in the West given the lack of home-court advantage in play. I’ve watched them play five games, and in all five they have played with tremendous energy on offense and defense.

September 8th (Round 2): Wrestling and family time took over the weekend, but I came back to watch the Bucks go down in 5 to the Heat. Crazy turn of events for Milwaukee! Pre-playoff conversation revolved, in part, around whether or not this would be the year that Giannis took the leap from superstardom into the rarified level of greatness associated with champions. Out in Round 2. Now, we’ve got all the “trade Giannis because he’s going to leave anyway” columns coming out. Really tough break for a small-market team. Miami is dangerous. They’re playing great and now have all the confidence in the world.

September 11th (Round 2): Pretty amazing how quickly the Lakers have been flipping early-in-the-series narratives after game one losses in both rounds thus far. They adapted with gusto each time and now it looks like LA is going to wrap it up in five games for the second consecutive round. As for Boston vs. Toronto, which was an excellent Game 7 tonight, my hat is off to the Raptors for battling back and making it a memorable series with OG’s buzzer-beater to avoid going down 3-0 and then bouncing back from a Game 5 shellacking. Boston, as I said previously, had the three best players on the court and won because of it, but after temporarily underestimating the heart of a champion, the Raptors reminded the world that they were more last year than just Kawhi’s heroics. Cheers to them. How about Tatum’s Kobe tribute purple shoes? Celtics green and Lakers purple…the modern NBA! The Clippers may regret letting the Nuggets back in their series when they could have gone for the kill, by the way.

September 15 (Round 3): Excited for the Eastern Conference Finals, which feel wide open to me. I’ve been so impressed with Miami’s style of play. Boston, meanwhile, has got some truly gifted young players coming into their own. Will Butler be able to steal another narrative, this time from Jayson Tatum, who looks poised to ascend like many thought Giannis would this year? Butler ripped championship-ascendance away from the 2-time MVP. Tatum has Jaylen Brown, though. Bam Adebayo matching Brown’s series in his own way could swing the series. I have a feeling we’re in for another Game 7.

(3 hours later)…Bam delivers the greatest block in my 3 decades of basketball watching to seal Game 1 in overtime!!! Absolutely fantastic. Tatum looked incredible for most of the game, but Butler showed veteran savvy down the stretch. Awesome game overall, with tons of momentum swings and big plays from start to finish. Tyler Herro and Goran Dragic were the difference makers, the latter making huge plays down the stretch and the former keeping the Heat in it early when the game threatened to get away from them. Boston’s perimeter defense was great in spurts, but the Heat continue to showcase the kind of moxie that wins championships. They are truly scary. Stevens vs. Spoelstra is another great coaching match-up.

Jeff texted me the Clippers-Nuggets Game 7 result as I was finishing up my recorded viewing of the East Finals Game 1. Wow. Epic fail by LAC. Epic comeback for the Nuggets…again!

September 18 (Round 3): LeBron has to be salivating at the opportunity before him. The Clippers were the quiet favorites all year, mostly based on what Kawhi proved he could do last year in the Playoffs; the entire season, I needed to see how the James-Davis combo would handle Killer Kawhi and his deep compliment of supporting players in a playoff series before I truly believed the Lakers could win the title. That expected obstacle removed, you have to think that LeBron is like a shark smelling blood in the water. When is the last time a LeBron team felt like the heavy favorite to win the title? 2013? It’s a situation to relish for player whose only remaining goal is to catch the shadow from Chicago. For that reason, Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals was unsurprising in how it played out in the big picture (the details of the foul trouble for Denver and Dwight Howard’s Super-Sub performance could not have been easily predicted). There are still questions for the Lakers to answer, but when the hardest question on the test is taken away, it’s easier to get an “A,” which in this case is the NBA Championship.

September 19 (Round 3): This is a must-win game for the Celtics, obviously. They need to knock Miami off its game and shake their surging confidence. The Heat have experienced no adversity in these playoffs, while the Celtics a week ago scored the knockout blow in Round 12 of their knock-down, drag-out with the Raptors. I like the Celtics if they can put Miami on their heels a bit, but that’ll be easier said than done. Don’t try to tell me momentum isn’t a real thing; it’s the law of attraction at work, spurring on belief that a huge goal can be achieved. Miami has so much momentum right now. They rely on a lot of young guys without playoff experience, so if you’re Boston, you’ve got to try to instigate some adversity.

….and after Game 3, mission accomplished for Boston. Now it’s a series!

September 20 (Round 3): Anthony Davis is the perfect compliment to 2020 LeBron. When James joined the Heat, he was still learning how to be a champion, something his friend, D-Wade, knew all about. LeBron needed Wade’s championship experience. When he went back to Cleveland, James needed a hungry young star like Kyrie Irving to navigate the difficult task of wanting to prove himself and stay in his lane at the same time. For three years, Irving accepted the challenge. Now in Los Angeles, LeBron basically needs AD to step into the limelight and be who he was, at first, in Miami. James is Wade and Davis is James. If the game-winning, buzzer-beating 3-pointer to put the Lakers up 2-0 was an indication, AD is in the process of that rare and beautiful ascendance referenced numerous times throughout this running diary.

September 27 (Round 3): The unexpected passing of my oldest dog, Lucy, put a damper on my basketball viewing this past week, rendering the NBA Playoffs something that just happened in the background while I tried to get my bearings. By the time I found steadier ground, the Lakers had finished off the Nuggets. I did catch LeBron’s stellar final few minutes of Game 5. I’ll readily admit to being a huge fan of his growing legacy, so it’s awesome to see him back in the Finals, even if it’s for the Lakers. It’s hard to think of them as anything but the favorites, no matter who comes out of the Eastern Conference Finals, during which the Heat have proven a little bit better and a little bit better coached than a very good and very well coached Celtics team. If the Celtics tie the series tonight, I’ll take them to win Game 7. I still believe they have at least two of the best players on the court in Brown and Tatum, who have a lot of deep playoff experience for their ages.

NXT Takeovers Ranked (#16 to #30)

NXT celebrated the five year anniversary of perhaps its most significant show ever on Saturday night. Takeover XXX did not fully live up to the standard set by the best of is predecessors, but as soon to be definitively stated, there’s really no such thing as a bad Takeover. NXT’s special event brand is the best in pro wrestling over the past half decade, so in honor of its 30th show, here is the first half of the thirty Takeovers ranked, with the Top 15 on display at my old stomping grounds, wrestlingheadlines.com.

Tie for Last Place: The original Takeover and Takeover: Fatal 4-Way

For all I know, these hold up well to long-term scrutiny, but I did not truly adopt NXT into my wrestling viewership habits until the third Takeover in December 2014.  I have watched the top matches from these cards, but the investment was not there.  As such, very little stands out about these original Takeover cards.

#28: Unstoppable

My memory of Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch skewed my perception of this overall show.  That match was so good and continued the upward arc established by Banks vs. Charlotte six months prior that it made me forget that this was the weakest Takeover of my personal history with the brand.  Sami Zayn being injured certainly did not help, as it prevented him and NXT Champion Kevin Owens from delivering the logical follow-up to their somewhat controversial yet outstanding title bout from the previous Takeover.

#27: The End

There are two matches on this card that could swing your opinion toward higher or lower ranking position: Nakamura vs. Austin Aries and the Steel Cage main-event between Balor and Samoa Joe.  NXT, by June 2016 had already created an expectation of greatness each time out, so my opinion that the aforementioned pair of matches (which formed the foundation for this event) were merely quite good skews my ranking toward the lowest tier in Takeover lore.  I could watch American Alpha vs. Revival matches all day, granted; the Tag Title show-stealer was not, however, enough to off-set two not particularly memorable headlining bouts and a couple of other ho-hum matches.

#26: San Antonio

It is interesting to look back on this show within the context of NXT history.  Nakamura and Bobby Roode represented an era along with Samoa Joe.  They were top stars from other recognizable promotions that were presented extraordinarily well with WWE production values.  In a workrate-driven enterprise, though, they routinely had the show stolen from them.  At San Antonio, Nakamura and Roode was the only match given the chance to shine, and shine I certainly thought that it did.  I rate their match higher than most, boosted in part by their dynamic entrances and their places at the time in NXT lore.  The rest of the show was skippable.

#25: Orlando

In discussing The End, I mentioned the swing matches that could sway an event’s ranking.  The triple threat Tag Title match would be the swing for Orlando.  To me, it was like a basketball game that seemed headed for a distinction among the best ever, only for the final minutes to be riddled with technical fouls and a late one-sided surge, causing the overall game to be memorable but not as good as it could have been.  Roode and Nakamura followed up their San Antonio match nicely (again, much higher rated by me than most) and Asuka vs. Ember was a rock solid first chapter in their underrated rivalry, but I would say this show was a better tag title match climax away from jumping up five spots.

#24: London

We need a London II for my UK brothers and sisters in wrestling fandom arms.  The original was a rock solid show without a true peak.  Joe vs. Finn Balor was right at the 4-star level, the Revival did some good work with The Realest Guys in the Room, Bayley carried Nia Jax to a surprisingly good match, and Asuka combined with Emma for the latter’s best ever match, but great matches have become a dime a dozen in Takeover history and the lack of a standout performance that echoes through eternity renders this show a little bit lesser historically even if it was the better than the sum of its parts. 

#23: Brooklyn II

The second half of the show was very engaging, if not a little bit disappointing.  One hallmark trait of Takeover in the modern era has been the ability of the talents to rise to the challenge established by excellent matches early on the card.  DIY and the Revival absolutely killed it in August 2016, but unlike a lot of the Takeovers that followed, their contemporaries struggled to rise to the challenge.  Not to say that Asuka-Bayley II and Joe-Nak were not good matches, but Dallas earlier that year proved that most of the card could knock it out of the park on a bigger stage and that just did not happen when Takeover returned to Brooklyn. 

#22: XXX

**Recency bias alert** / I was texting with my pal, Dave Fenichel, throughout the show, and before the main-event, we were both really impressed with Takeover XXX.  Cole vs. McAfee was as good as it could have been (praise to AC, sign McAfee); Kai vs. Shirai overcame an ugly botch at the word go to have a very good women’s title bout; Balor vs. Thatcher was a really good change of pace; the Ladder Match was absolutely fantastic.  So, four for four going into a big time fight between Keith Lee and Karrion Kross.  Then, the most boring match in NXT Takeover history took place, as Lee and Kross stunk the joint out inexplicably.  It’s 2020…you can tell a story, but 20-minutes of arm locks and strikes was the most off-brand thing NXT could have possibly offered in its headliner.  Bummer.  I feel bad for both of those guys. 

#21: Chicago II

Admittedly, the 2018 and 2019 concept of taking a hot rivalry and running it over and over again on Takeover did not appealed to me, and thus I felt the Gargano vs. Ciampa headlined Chicago show to be a mixed bag.  Lorcan and Burch vs. Undisputed Era to open the show was absolutely excellent, as was Velveteen Dream vs. Ricochet in perhaps the forgotten classic of the franchise, then there was a considerable downshift in quality before Ciampa and Gargano delivered in their New Orleans rematch.  Should Triple H have chosen to let Ciampa and Gargano have a standard match like he did with Johnny Wrestling and Adam Cole a year later, I think I might feel slightly more enthusiastic about this show, but to basically run variations of a similar gimmick for three straight Takeovers?  Helluva match, but the least engaging of the three.

#20: War Games

Black vs. Dream challenges Ricochet vs. Dream as the leader in the forgotten classic category, its strengths being more in storytelling than in aesthetic magic making it more of an engaging rewatch than some of its flashier peers.  It was the standout match on this card, in my opinion, even though 2017 saw the return of the iconic NWA/WCW gimmick.  War Games was a wild experience.  You could call this first NXT iteration another good example of a swing match.  I’m in the “very good” camp on it, but I can see how others would love it or hate it as opposed to more middle place position.  It was certainly fascinating to see it after a near 20 year absence.  McIntyre vs. Andrade was quite good too. 

#19: Toronto II

Perhaps it was a victim of its time.  By last summer, Takeover expectations were always enormous, so it did not feel in the moment like NXT put its best foot forward with its return to Toronto.  Cole vs. Gargano III felt like overkill, even though it was still great by conventional standards.  Io Shirai vs. Candice LeRae stole the show, but nothing else really rose to that level, in terms of establishing a legacy from bell-to-bell.  That said, it was still a really good show in the “there’s no such thing as a bad Takeover” era.  The main thing holding it back is one of the two or three worst Women’s Championship matches in Takeover history, a real missed opportunity for Mia Yim to breakout on NXT’s top stage.

#18: Respect

The enduring legacy of the Banks vs. Bayley Ironwoman Match sets an otherwise above average event apart.  Aided by a night built around the inaugural Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic, which itself endures well, Banks and Bayley’s superb rematch from their all-time classic in Brooklyn is among my personal Top 6-8 NXT matches, showcasing Banks at her absolute storytelling zenith and Bayley in a role that reflects back as vital to the growth of NXT in 2015 (as well as putting on display the unlimited potential her character had on the main roster before Vinnie Mac fumbled her ball at the 50 yard line, an egregious error that took her years to overcome).  Name 5 more memorable moments than Sasha stealing Izzie’s Bayley headband…

#17: Chicago

2017 was an interesting year for NXT.  It was the first time that the brand had to truly reload, with all of its original cornerstones having moved on.  Frankly, the black and gold adapted quite well, as evidenced by shows like this one, which helped establish the aforementioned “NXT Takeovers are never bad” template mentioned previously.  Tag Team wrestling got its well-earned and to date only main-event; Tyler Bate and Pete Dunne burst onto the North American scene with a rocket-buster and blew the tag team ladder match out of the water, but the end of the DIY chapter in NXT’s greatest-ever rivalry was certainly memorable too.  The rest of the show was good, as well, highlighted by a nice challenger-of-the-month win over Hideo Itami by Roode.

#16: Rival

The Takeover formula was still being developed here.  It really was not until 2016 that they figured it out and even later that they stuck with it.  Rival was the tale of two halves, the first three matches completely and utterly forgettable and the last three matches totally and utterly unforgettable.  The main-event is the swing match for sure, with Owens vs. Zayn opting for storytelling over the headlining style we would later see from the brand, but it watches back as a tremendous change of pace from its NXT Takeover main-event peers.  In the semi-main, the Women’s Revolution earned its moniker with the Fatal Four-Horsewomen-Way.  Tucked underneath those title bouts was the Neville vs. Balor match that set the tone for the rest of the night; Takeover eventually got away from having much of a true mid-card, but if it had established it across the years, Neville-Balor might’ve gone down as the Savage-Steamboat in NXT special event lore. 

The Best Movie of the 2010s?

With sincere hopes of basketball season lasting smoothly from its playoff start date this week to its conclusion in mid-October, I am writing this to give a nod to the longest Movie Season I’ve had since officially creating the label back in 2013.  Typically, I spend extracurricular time on movies (at home) from after the NBA Finals have concluded until the end of August, right around the start of college football season.  This year, with the traditional basketball season peak postponed, I have been watching a lot of movies since early April, hence the rewatchable conversations on this blog.  Last weekend, a memorable Movie Season 2020 (presumably) closed out with a bang, a replay of one of my favorite films in recent memory: A Star Is Born.

I saw the 2018 powerhouse Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga performance at the theater with my wife, loved it, and had not seen it since.  Sarah bought me the Blu-Ray for Valentine’s Day last year, but the organic desire to rewatch it had simply not hit me until recently.  After my second viewing, I highly doubt that much time will pass before my third.  What a truly outstanding movie! 

The initial 30-minutes pack quite the emotional punch, setting the stage for the experience to follow.  Cooper’s opening salvo, featuring the awesome “Black Eyes” song in the first scene, a lot of booze, and his best Sam Elliott voice impersonation, might well belong in the Hollywood pantheon before all is said and done.  Rarely if ever has there been a more powerful character introduction; in film, as in life, it is challenging to get to know someone in a really short period, but sometimes it does memorably happen.  Jackson Maine (Cooper) is a good dude and a substance abuser; a kind soul with a-hole tendencies; a man with a dark past who, despite the rock star status, never escaped it.  Quickly, you find yourself holding your breath for the next two hours, hoping that the deeply flawed but sympathetic persona does not meet the tragic end foreshadowed from the outset. 

Gaga, meanwhile, is a revelation as Ally, reshaping my entire perception of her (I was never a fan of her music or her over-the-top gimmick in pop culture).  She pulled an Alter Bridge and found the real, though.  A Star Is Born, indeed…Gaga is a movie star.  Ally is incredibly likeable, a genuine person whose success feels well-earned by the time she belts out “Shallow” with Maine on stage just a quarter-hour after killing it in a drag bar, an applause-worthy role reversal from uber-talent who’d given up on her dream to being gifted a grand gesture from the universe.  The flattering “all-time” comment made about Maine’s intro?  It could easily apply to Ally too.  She hits the big stage with Cooper for the film’s signature moment and song at around the half-hour mark; the hair on my arms stood up in the theater when she began the chorus (“I’m off the deep end”) and did again on replay last weekend.  Hypothetically, a reworked version of the movie could have built up to that moment for over an hour or more and been the film’s climax.  It is impressive that the moment carried so much weight with so little build. 

The soundtrack is truly Cooper and Gaga’s co-star.  The music performed by Maine and Ally so seamlessly flows through the film’s run-time, overtly aiding in the story’s progression, Ally’s in particular.  Pop music is not known for its storytelling prowess, so when she ditches the piano and the soulful lyrical stylings for the catchy beats, the choreographed dances, and the comparatively inconsequential vocals, it seemingly changes what she is about.  Jackson’s suicide, it has been said, was his attempt to save her from his downward spiral, but it could also be said it was intended to save her from herself, intent as he was on making sure that she maximized her opportunity to speak to people with her music and as obvious as it was that he was unhappy about the career arc she was following under the management of the movie’s (non-alcohol) antagonist.  Maine, I think, sees in Ally someone pure and untainted who has something important to say.  The final scene returns her to that purer state, ironically singing a song that he wrote that she is performing in memorial tribute to him. 

Songs, in addition to those previously mentioned, like “La Vie En Rose,” “Maybe It’s Time,” and “Always Remember Us This Way” fill the movie with awesome music and take you through a range of emotions that, along with the stars and the excellent supporting efforts from Andrew Dice Clay (as Ally’s dad) and Sam Elliott (as Jackson’s brother), make A Star Is Born an enormous success.  A scene each that stand out from Clay and Elliott – stand out might be too soft, really, because these scenes add the kind of depth to the movie that push it up the rewatchable rankings for me – are when Clay is carrying Cooper to the shower after the titanically embarrassing moment at the Grammys, speaking to his son-in-law in a way that any father of a daughter can relate to, and when Elliott, upon hearing Cooper tell him that it was not their dad that Maine idolized, but Elliott’s Bobby, backs his truck out of Jackson’s driveway with his eyes welling up.  With rare exception, my primary expectation of a movie is for it to make me feel something.  A Star Is Born gives me the feels. 

And so that brings me back to the hyperbolic headline about this being the best movie of last decade. That is probably a topic for an hour long podcast once I’ve figured out a formula that logically suits the subject, but with the songs (and concerts) providing great entertainment and the drama deeply striking several emotional chords, I certainly would consider it a candidate. It’s a real cinematic triumph.

Remembering My Mother-In-Law, Mary Kay Newman

For Mary Kay…

One of my low-key favorite things about visiting the Newman house is the little kitchen marquee – the tiny chalkboard sign above the cabinets with a welcome message.  “What’s it going to say,” has become a part of my routine thoughts when I first walk in the door.  This week, it read, “Try to remember MK.”  Well, that’ll be really easy, Mary Kay.

I’ll remember you as someone who gave great hugs; as someone who appreciates a good hug, I’ll remember you as a Top 1% hugger. 

I’ll remember you as someone who put love first, as the pastor at our North Carolina church often says; you led with love and those awesome hugs were full of that love. 

I’ll remember you you as someone who challenged me and made me think about some things differently; I hope I did the same for you. 

I’ll remember you as the first person who comforted me when I got back from seeing my dad for the final time, which segued into you meeting Jordan for the first time. 

I’ll remember you for finding a quiet moment or two at the boisterous Newman family gatherings for an often overstimulated guy like me who at times gets overwhelmed by continuous noise; it was those brief and endearing conversations that most made me feel at home and comfortable. 

I’ll remember you as someone who I grew to love; I don’t say “I love you” to many people, so I actually remember the first time that I replied to one of your genuine “We love yous” with an authentic, equally genuine, “I love you too.”  I was sitting in the parking lot of a department store getting your advice about something I was considering as an anniversary gift for Sarah, who is of course the reason I will always remember you.  I’ll always remember the mother of the greatest gift God’s ever given me; I’ll honor you by loving her forever.  

So, goodbye, Mary Kay.  May the joy you brought to the world in life be amplified infinitely by your spirit.  I love you and I’ll miss you….I won’t have to try to remember you.  

Sincerely,

Chad

My Top 10 (Late to the Party) Game of Thrones Moments

At the beginning of June, my wife and I came back with the kids from visiting my parents and decided to go with the beach vibe’s flow, and in our continuing quest to maintain our sanity, we decided to FINALLY watch HBO’s Game of Thrones. We were consumed by it from the first days of June until July 22nd, highlighted by an entire season viewed inside a Blowing Rock, NC bubble during our anniversary weekend. Surrounded by reminders at the resort that the world was battling a pandemic (virus and mindset), we watched “GOT,” as it became known in our house; we ate great meals and we watched GOT. It was during that weekend that I decided to write this column when we had finished our journey through Westeros, the North, the Iron Islands, King’s Landing, Dorne, and beyond. What a show it was, and though I can appreciate the controversy of the conclusion, I’m going to focus on the things that I liked.

#10: The Adventures of Bronn of the Blackwater

Numerous characters among the secondary and tertiary players in the giant game of chess that was the GOT Universe had arcs that led to satisfying moments. Brienne of Tarth comes to mind in that category, as do Theon Grayjoy, Tormund Giantsbane, and Samwell Tarley. The most enjoyable of those characters gets the nod on this particular list. By a hair over Giantsbane the Wildling, it’s Bronn (Sir Bronn eventually), whose comedic timing was as valuable to GOT’s TV show quality as his fighting skills were to Tyrian and then Jamie Lannister in the storylines. From random guy hanging out in the Vale of Arryn to the Lord of High Garden and a member of the King’s council, Bronn never failed to add an element of entertainment to such a heavy-weighted emotional show. So, it’s not one moment, per say, but a series of them that land Bronn and his outlook of the world to this list.

#9: Hodor Means “Hold the Door”

There are lot of proverbial chess pieces in Game of Thrones, but few main characters ever felt like they lacked purpose. Hodor was a prime example of GOT offering payoffs along the journey that created deeper emotional connections to on-going, bigger storylines. Bran Stark embarked on an interesting quest from the first few episodes on, and Hodor was his protector for several seasons. When it became clear that Bran was an integral part of the show’s future, Hodor sacrificed himself to save the future Three Eyed Raven. While he was being attacked by soldiers of the dead, we saw into the past, when a young man’s mind is temporarily merged with future Bran visiting his father’s memories. It was Hodor, back when he was just an innocent boy named Wylis. He had the vision in that moment of his future self holding the door shut so that Bran could escape the army of the dead. That was when he lost his mind and became a simpleton who could only say “Hodor” (hold the door). His purpose was to protect Bran, and it was heartbreaking to watch him take his purpose all the way to his own demise; when the dead army was eventually defeated, I remembered Hodor’s sacrifice, which made the Night King’s death more cathartic.

#8: The Army of the Dead Snuff Out the Dothraki Army

The battle between the living and the dead is teased from the very first scene of the very first episode; it had to live up to the eight seasons of hype behind it. Tonally, I loved the choice for the music that played throughout the episode, which had its entire 90-minutes dedicated to the grandest battle in GOT history. I greatly appreciated many other parts of the Battle at Winterfell too. Yet, it was the opening scene that was most memorable. It was a moment that emphasized the sheer gravity of the coming threat, the Dothraki charging into the darkness with flaming weapons right at the oncoming army of the dead, then within 30 seconds seeing hundreds of flames snuffed out from the point of view of the forces closer to the Winterfell castle. The episode became a classic David vs. Goliath tale, with the dead army completely owning the living’s greatest warriors making it clear just how much.

#7: Sansa Flips the Script on Little Finger

Lord Baelish added a complex dynamic to GOT, weaving his web of lies amidst several admirable attempts to help protagonists, albeit all benefiting his own plot. Sansa Stark got caught in the web, which ultimately took her from one living you-know-what right into another. She was the show’s most sympathetic character, like a girl reading Seventeen magazine and dreaming about princes getting teleported into the real world of the 15th century, when cruel leaders like King Joffrey and Ramsey Bolton pounced on her weaknesses. Sansa overcame the odds, though, and during the final two seasons came into her own as a leader, herself, ultimately the Queen of the North. Best exemplifying her transformation from the early seasons until she rose like a phoenix out of the ashes of her past was the moment when she outwitted Lord Baelish, who was plotting to turn her and Arya against each other.

#6: The Mountain vs. The Mandalorian

There were a couple of fight scenes in the show that stood out, but one in particular sits on the iron throne of GOT battles. Setting the stage well were the stakes. Tyrion Lannister’s life was on the line…again. He was practically the narrator of the series, offering eloquent commentary to the madness of the period in human history when GOT took place. Losing him wouldn’t have felt right. Representing him was the Dornish Oberyn Martell, played by the same actor who starred in the Disney+ hit, The Mandalorian. On the opposite side of the fighting pit, representing Cersei Lannister, was the Mountain, the enormous knight of the King’s Guard. The irresistible force meeting the immoveable object, essentially, the battle was fascinating and emotional. Oberyn wanted revenge on the Mountain for killing his family members and kept yelling about it repeatedly as he chopped the giant down for size…but he talked too much and proceeded to meet his demise in a way that will stay with me like Tara’s death (via Gemma) in Sons of Anarchy. It was brutal, but very memorable.

#5: “This is Jon Snow; He’s King in the North”

After Robb Stark died, Jon Snow became my top guy. His brooding, quiet confidence was reminiscent of serious Thor from the first two standalone films in the MCU series. He was a character that deserved to be around until the end, earning every bit of the credibility he gained from start to finish. Yet, it is one particular moment that stands out to me among the rest, and it is not a battle scene or his being raised from the dead or even one of his fleeting moments of happiness. No, it is when Sir Davos introduces him to Daenerys, she of the half dozen or more nicknames, proudly rattled off by her supporters like Apollo Creed before his fights in the Rocky movies. The first Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen meeting begins the show’s two season climax; it generated an aura of the weight that the moment logically carried. Then, Sir Davos countered the Queen’s glorious (and wordy) introduction with his show-enhancing dry Irish wit. “This is Jon Snow…he’s King in the North.” Drop the mic, Sir Davos; you stole the show.

#4: King Joffrey Meets His Doom

Game of Thrones created quite a few visceral moments, including but not limited to the fist-pumping joy of seeing certain characters get their comeuppance, and for me none more so than the sniveling little weasel-monster, King Joffrey. I think I started clapping. I also think it was expertly placed in the series, building him up to peak wholly unlikeable levels and then taking him out of the picture at just the right time. He was the show’s top heel by my estimation; he had no redeeming qualities whatsoever and accordingly made disliking him as easy as breathing. So, needless to say, gruesome as it was, watching Joffrey meet his maker by poison was quite satisfying.

#3: Tyrion Lannister is The Man

Without question, the most likeable character on Game of Thrones was Tyrion Lannister. He was the smartest guy in the room in a relatable way; an everyman. Perhaps it would also be just to call him the most interesting character on the show. Admittedly, the palpable, deeper connection to him was never there for me like it was for someone like Jon Snow – maybe in that way his often held title of “Hand of the King” is appropriate, for he was the glue that held the show together, the unsung hero more than the true, show-closing protagonist – but his value was immeasurable. I’m testing the boundaries of what can be considered a moment, I suppose, so I’ll narrow it down to this: seeing him at the head of the table, running a country, in the finale’s final minutes, was not quite as satisfying in a heart-warming way as Joffrey’s death was in its way, but it was close.

#2: The Red Wedding

Frankly, this one is a bit odd, because I’m adhering to the column title’s charge of picking the most memorable moments, but this was probably one of my least favorite episodes. It is memorable to me because it was shocking. This was Season 3, Episode 9, and up to that point Robb Stark was my guy. I had developed rooting interest in several other characters by then, as well, but without question, I was buying a lot of Robb Stark stock. “The Red Wedding” took the wind out of my sails, simultaneously making it clear that nothing was off limits moving forward. I knew there were 8 seasons of this show, so from this episode on, Sarah and I were well aware that we could get to the series finale and everyone but one major character could be dead; if Robb and Catelyn Stark were not around for the long-haul, then…yeah. It was also memorable for being, to me, the most emotionally gut-wrenching moment of the series, particularly when Robb’s wife meets her end moments after telling Robb that she wants to name their baby, Ned.

#1: Arya Stark, from Little Girl to Hero

Given the way that things turned out for Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, whose complicated arcs left us feeling just short of like we’d been punched in the gut, Arya’s storyline progression was like a rated R version of Hermione Granger in Harry Potter. She was clearly a future badass from the out-set, but she developed as a character in ways that took you down into the depths with her, which made it all the more satisfying when we got to experience the joy of seeing her endure it all and wind up saving the world in perhaps the most memorable (in a positive way) episode of the final season (the climax of the war against the dead). I resonate strongly with rebels right now. Cheers to Arya for being the rebel with a cause that gave Game of Thrones perhaps its most fitting character conclusion to an eight season epic.

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.