We’re halfway through the year, and my word, what a six months it’s been. January started off with a bang in more ways than one, and in spite of a flat WrestleMania, the first half of 2016 has produced plenty of memorable moments and matches.
WWE’s Japan Raid
January started off with WrestleKingdom 10, held in front of 25,000 fans in the Tokyo Dome, but the biggest news came in the aftermath of that show, as it emerged that four New Japan stars had asked to leave the promotion, with AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Karl Anderson and Luke “Doc” Gallows all gave notice. The loss of three of the biggest members of the Bullet Club, and the inimitable Nakamura naturally tore a huge hole in the company, especially given that Nakamura and Styles had literally just feuded over the IWGP Intercontinental title at WrestleKingdom, whilst Gallows and Anderson had dropped the company’s tag team titles on the same show.
Styles was the first one to exit New Japan, as his loss to Nakamura at WrestleKingdom led to him being overthrown by Kenny Omega in the Bullet Club. The ensuing beat-down at Korakuen Hall served as AJ’s swansong with the company, with AJ wrestling a few shows for the WrestleMerica group out of the state of Georgia, along with the sparsely-attended 5-Star Wrestling tour of the UK.
Despite having been booked into a feud with Kenny Omega for the Intercontinental title (coming off of Omega’s Bullet Club uprising that saw AJ booted out), Nakamura would end up being stripped of the title, before winding down his days in Japan in a bunch of tag matches, ending with a victory on January 30 in a six-man affair at Korakuen Hall, where Nakamura, Tomohiro Ishii and Kazuchika Okada overcame Katsuyori Shibata, Hirooki Goto and Hiroshi Tanahashi.
Anderson and Gallows would continue through to late-February, after building up a rematch against Togi Makabe and Tomoaki Honma for the IWGP Heavyweight tag team titles, but ultimately losing on the second New Japan/Ring of Honor show… at (surprise!) Korakuen Hall
The New Japan Four would end up signing with WWE, but not after an attention-seeking play from TNA, who publicly claimed that they had reached an agreement with Styles, Gallows and Anderson, only for the trio to instead change their minds. That move made TNA look bad, claiming that a verbal agreement had been breached (which isn’t as bad as, I don’t know, consistently paying people late).
Of the four, AJ Styles would debut first, being a surprise entrant in the Royal Rumble – so much of a surprise, that we saw a lengthy shot of Roman Reigns as AJ made his entrance. From there, it was off to the races as Styles had a lengthy feud with Chris Jericho through to WrestleMania, before enjoying a run as Roman Reigns’ first post-WrestleMania challenger, and then a feud with John Cena going into the brand split.
Nakamura’s arrival wouldn’t come until WrestleMania weekend, where he stole the show against Sami Zayn at NXT Takeover: Dallas, whilst Gallows and Anderson’s debut would come shortly thereafter, thankfully remaining as a tag team, forming an alliance with AJ Styles that would come as close to being the Bullet Club without using the full name, logo… or even the WWE’s facsimile with Finn Balor (at time of writing!)
WrestleMania’s Still Going On, I Think
For over a decade now, WrestleMania has been a four-hour long show – not counting Sunday Night Heat or any pre-shows that preceded it. This year, we reached peak WrestleMania and kept going, as the pre-show (which had two matches in it) plus the main card stretched to almost seven hours.
Needless to say, even from watching on TV at home, that was too much.
Granted, WrestleMania had some good moments – Zack Ryder winning the Intercontinental championship ladder match… the women’s three-way for the newly-christened Women’s championship… but we also had a lot of garbage in that mix as well. Like the insanely long Hell in a Cell match that killed the crowd for what was left of the show.
Thankfully, the product has improved since WrestleMania, but we could all do without a repeat of this year’s WrestleMania build, or the show itself!
Sadly, it seems that the concept of increasingly-long shows is here to stay, as June’s Money in the Bank show ran to three-and-a-half hours long, with rumblings that this isn’t going to be one-off either. Which means we’ll be facing ten hours of WWE across three days on pay-per-view weeks… Not good!
In conjunction with WWE’s signings of AJ Styles and co. was the continued change in booking philosophy – or whatever it was that has allowed guys like Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens and the like to become regularly featured characters on TV, rather than cannon fodder.
I can only assume we’ve entered a parallel universe: how else can you explain moments like Sami Zayn vs. Kevin Owens being a pay-per-view feud? Or the WWE-owned parts of the Bullet Club, including the former face of TNA, lest we forget, standing over John Cena on an episode of Raw?
NXT Call-Ups Going Bad
Remember when NXT first started? The view that the “brand” would be a way to warm up talent for an eventual main roster call-up was a good one, as was the insistence that nobody would be called-up without some sort of plan in place.
Finally, an end to guys being called up and left to die on the vine, as we saw so much of back in the day!
Well, not quite. NXT call-ups have a bad track record historically, with guys like Adam Rose and Bo Dallas being the poster boys for “guys who were called up and quickly fell off the radar”. Sure, you can add the Ascension to that list, but at least they had some build-up before they were turned into cannon fodder.
However, WrestleMania season turned into call-up season, with extremely mixed results. Enzo Amore and Colin Cassidy made the move, became a hot act and were thrust into the tag team title picture (at least, before Enzo’s concussion), which was the polar opposite of the Vaudevillains, whose debut was rushed onto the SmackDown after WrestleMania, away from the rabid ‘Mania crowds. They actually got the tag title shot, but will be ripe for a gimmick change anytime soon.
Baron Corbin came up, and since winning the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal, he’s had a couple of pre-show matches and an opening-match feud with Dolph Ziggler that’s now over-cooked. Still, at least Corbin had something… Apollo Crews – who many were surprised wasn’t called up sooner – made the move and has died a death, as he’s spent more time on Main Event and Superstars than he has the main shows.
Still, at least it’s not quite as bad as Tyler Breeze’s push, which went from “get called up with a slightly tweaked version of my NXT act” to “comedy jobber tag team” in six months. Kudos to the creative team that was handling those call-ups!
Everybody Loves Tournaments!
WWE’s announcement of the Global Cruiserweight Series in February – now the Cruiserweight Classic – earlier this year sent the internet into a frenzy, and so it should. Vince’s company has never been synonymous with smaller guys, so for them to have any interest in the division, even for a Network-only show, was a bit of a bombshell.
In retaliation to that, and January’s “raid”, New Japan returned fire by announcing the return of the Super J Cup, after a seven-year absence. Given that New Japan also had the New Japan Cup (March), the Best of Super Junior tournament (May/June), plus the annual G1 Climax (in July/August), we’ll be seeing no less than four tournaments in New Japan this year – with two of them running at the same time.
Now all we need is the rumoured Women’s tournament to come to fruition, and then we’ll be fed up of tournaments!
Britain Comes Good
Will Ospreay’s debut in New Japan didn’t exactly go to plan, with him losing against KUSHIDA in April. When he lost his opening two block matches against Chase Owens and Beretta, the majority pick for the tournament looked to be headed for an early exit – but after winning a stellar, if not controversial, match against Ricochet, Ospreay ended up winning the overall tournament and becoming the first ever British winner of the tournament (and only the second European, after Prince Devitt, now known as Finn Balor).
Still, this had an unexpected benefit… a pay-off for Vader, after his Twitter comments to the Ricochet/Ospreay match got him a booking in London for Revolution Pro Wrestling – against Ospreay – in August.
Throughout this year, this website has been keeping track of some of the better matches from 2016 that have made it to my eyeballs. Now, as I’m only one man (juggling this and a full-time job!), there’s only so much wrestling that I can see. Granted, WWE, New Japan and PROGRESS have been my go-to groups, so my “scratch-pad” has been mostly made up of those shows.
That being said, that the first five months of 2016 gave us fifteen stellar matches (and that’s by my judgment, obviously including matches I’ve not seen, plus those others rated higher), which should be a lesson to anyone that good wrestling is out there – you just need to widen your scope.
And let’s be honest, if you’re paying $9.99 a month for a WWE Network that’s not floating your boat outside of NXT, then why not try Demand-PROGRESS at $7.50 a month, or New Japan World at 999¥/$9? NJPW World even features some stuff from other groups (when their guys are travelling), so that 999¥ will also get you albeit-delayed ROH pay-per-views as well!
TNA – Same Old, Same Old
Another year, another network for TNA, but their financial woes show no sign of abating. In April, there were talks of TNA being sold, with a group called Aroluxe being the primary suitors. At time of writing, no sale has yet materialised, with TNA instead cutting way back on anything they can – including relocating their offices to the TNA Shop warehouse in Nashville.
As well, TNA’s output has been cut back to just the one airing of Impact a week on POP TV, whilst departures from the company this year included the likes of Kurt Angle, Eric Young and Bobby Roode. With the company continuing to shed names that even semi-casual fans may have heard of, TNA’s profile remains in the toilet, and without new funding and a major rebrand, that is where supposedly the second biggest mainstream promotion in North America will remain.
2016 has seen way more than its fair share of celebrity deaths, with the losses of Muhammad Ali, Prince and David Bowie.
Sadly wrestling has been included as well. From the downright tragic passing of British star Kris Travis to cancer this past March, to the shocking death of Chyna barely three weeks later, wrestling has also seen stars from the past taken from us as well. The former Hayabusa – Eiji Ezaki – found dead in his apartment this past March, over 14 years after an in-ring accident left him paralysed. Former ECW alumn Balls Mahoney and Axl Rotten also left us, as did Hall of Fame-calibre stars of the past such as Robert Windham (Blackjack Mulligan) and the Stomper Archie Gouldie.
Whilst nowhere near the tragically high levels of the early 2000s, the first half of this year was a sad reminder of wrestling’s past.
ROH’s alliance with New Japan has paid dividends for the long-running indie promotion, but it’s also becoming a pain for them. Over-reliance on the NJPW roster has led to ROH’s cards inadvertently coming across as “B-shows” when the New Japan guys aren’t there…
Speaking of ROH, their promotion of pay-per-views veered into TNA territory, with shows not getting much coverage until the week-of-the-show, whilst the company’s own TV shows seemingly forgot about the shows as well – how else would you explain away a match between two guys not on the PPV card being on the “go home” edition for June’s “Best in the World” event?
Next week, we’ll be covering WWE, New Japan and the indy scene’s first half of the years, and give our picks for the “half year awards” – how we’d vote in the Observer end-of-year awards if we had to make our calls today.