PROGRESS’ latest show in Manchester drew inspiration from… graffiti. Seriously! The words “Vote Pies” are scrawled over a bridge that you drive under as you go from Manchester to London. I’m awaiting the more vegan-friendly “Vote Peas”, given that’s on the M25…

The pre-show spiel with Jim bizarrely featured a ring with balloons and glittery “happy birthday” banners taped to the ring. In the end, it was a ruse as a fan who’d “won a bet” and was about to have a photo taken with Jim Smallman in the ring actually ended up proposing to his girlfriend. Thankfully, she said yes and all blushes were spared!

Banter Edition (El Ligero & Dave Mastiff) vs. Extra Talented (Ricky Starks & Aaron Solow) vs. #CCK (Chris Brookes & Kid Lykos)
Well, they found a way to avoid the awkward “the crowd doesn’t know the words to Turn The Page” solution – just have Ligero and Mastiff come out separately. Apparently it was Mastiff’s birthday, so his new theme for today was the copyright-free Happy Birthday song!

Starks and Solow didn’t quite have their “ATTACK! problem” as stomping on balloons sort of made them the guys to boo. As did them not being #CCK… oh, and the birthday card they gave Dave, signed from “Double J Jeff Jarrett and the team at ITV”. Ouch!

That angered the big guy, who killed everyone with German suplexes, including Lykos with one to the floor before nearly taking out his own partner. The tempo remained high as Lykos took Mastiff outside with a ‘rana before the first of many brainbuster attempts went wrong for the wolf.

Starks tries to drop Mastiff with a belly-to-belly, but that was never realistic, although he was able to use gravity to powerbomb him out of the corner as the Americans drew their first polite applause. They combined to drop Ligero with a hiptoss into a backbreaker, but there’s no one team who’s able to grab this match by the scruff of its neck, especially when Mastiff stuffs the elevated Codebreaker deal and gives #CCK a German suplex, dumping the wolf on his head!

Mastiff keeps up his hatred of wolves with a whirlibird neckbreaker and a back senton, before Brookes flattened Solow with a spinning rope-hung neckbreaker as a parade of moves broke out, ending with Lykos taking down Starks with the Vertigo DDT. Ligero avoids a brainbuster then sets up #CCK for an “accidental piledriver”, before Mastiff splasts Starks with a powerbomb ahead of an elevated Mexican Wave and back senton for another near-fall.

Extra Talented hit their Dominator/neckbreaker combo onto #CCK, who come back with one of their litany of “sick fucking tag moves”, this time with Starks actually flipping over from the elevated Codebreaker. Mastiff eats a Full Moon before a slingshot cutter took him to the outside as #CCK got back into it, finishing with the Ink Bomb on Ligero for the pin… which Chris Roberts counted three for, and called for the bell, but the match just kept going? Things fall into confusion as this was either not the finish, or everyone did a good job in acting confused… regardless, this was a really good opener… one which I don’t recall seeing a single tag being made, but entertaining nonetheless. ***½

I’m guessing Starks and Solow were meant to have broken up the cover, and perhaps steal the pin. Anyway, without that, Brookes takes the mic and issues a challenge to them for this weekend’s show in Camden – which turns out to be a number one contender’s shot. That is, “if you’re not on the pre-show or dark matches”… Lykos gets the mic too, but it’s snatched off it as Brookes does the “shut up Lykos” bit, which is still taking some getting used to.

Mike Bird vs. Tyson T-Bone
This was T-Bone’s first appearance in almost a year, having been out of PROGRESS since last year’s Atlas title tournament, and this starts out ugly with a T-Bone headbutt as he whipped the “Ginger Jesus” from pillar to post.

Bird does manage to recover to brawl around the ring, with Tyson being thrown into the crowd, before recovering with a series of back suplexes in the ring for a near-fall. A fireman’s carry gutbuster finally gets Bird some meaningful offence, but they swing and miss with some clotheslines as the crowd seemed to struggle to get into this.

Tyson flings Bird with a release German suplex, but Bird again mounted a comeback with forearms in the corner before a crossbody off the top’s caught… eventually ending with another forearm from Bird as the back-and-forth continued. A sit-out powerbomb almost wins it for Tyson, before a suplex into a powerslam did the job to bring a hard-hitting yet under-appreciated match to an end. Bird’s losing record continues in PROGRESS, and that mixture of two guys who aren’t established here just didn’t quite click as well as it could have done. ***

PROGRESS Women’s Championship: Laura Di Matteo vs. Toni Storm (c)
Laura picked up this title shot by beating Jinny on PROGRESS’ show in Germany – a card that’s not been released in full yet, although PROGRESS dropping that match on YouTube the week prior to this show perhaps tipped off that that was more than just a random match!

The pair open up on the mat, trading takedowns and holds as we get an inadvertent Mae Young Classic spoiler in commentary, before Laura edged ahead, dropkicking Storm into the ropes. Storm’s hip attacks turn things around as the match descended into a striking exchange, ending with a series of clotheslines from the Italian.

A missile dropkick connects as Di Matteo sends Storm outside… and we know what’s next… dive! Uncharacteristically, Laura keeps it on the outside, where she turfs Storm into the chairs in a call-back to what happened during the title match at Super Strong Style 16 weekend as Laura keeps up with more topes in a bid to knock Storm down.

Back in the ring, Laura goes up again as a missile dropkick almost got her the win, before dragging Toni into a grounded Octopus hold… but Storm manages to stand up and backdrop free, before hitting a trapped-leg German suplex on the Italian. The champion continues the resurgence, only to take a top rope ‘rana from Laura, who couldn’t pull herself back up into a cover!

Laura comes in with a Codebreaker, but she ends up running into a headbutt and an Okada neckbreaker slam as Storm almost completed the defence… only to take a massive superkick for a near-fall! That superkick snapped Toni’s head back something rotten, but just as Laura was looking for the finish, Storm hits back with an over-the-knee brainbuster before snapping in with a Strong Zero piledriver for the win. My word, this was really something special – perhaps the best singles match in this title’s short life… and one that should leave you wanting to see a rematch! ****

Matt Riddle vs. Travis Banks
The gimmick for the next few shows is that Pete Dunne’s picking opponents for Travis Banks, since the Kiwi’s picking them for Dunne (in lieu of his refusal to defend the PROGRESS title until the Alexandra Palace show in September). This wasn’t a bad first pick from the champion, it has to be said…

The pair start grappling on the mat as they looked for early submissions, before this turned into a vicious chopping battle as Riddle clearly wanted his chest to bubble up into a different shade of red. German suplexes are traded, before they decide just to leather each other some more with forearms and kicks, but neither man seems fazed until Riddle’s knee strike knocked Banks down.

An Exploder takes Banks to the outside, where he’s joined as Riddle sparks another strike battle with the crowd “ooh”ing and recoiling after each shot. Riddle throws Banks back in, but of course the Kiwi immediately ejects himself with a trio of topes into a fan who stubbornly refused to move!

Back inside, Banks trips Riddle into the corner for a cannonball, but it still remains even and hard-hitting, with a massive brainbuster dumping Banks for a near-fall. But still, they’re throwing bombs at each other, as Banks then ate a powerbomb and a Bro To Sleep… which still didn’t put the Kiwi down.

Banks comes back with a double stomp to the head of a kneeling Riddle, but his German suplex follow-up went awry. You cannot give either of these guys German suplexes… it’s like Kidman and powerbombs. In the end, Riddle catches a Slice of Heaven, turning it into an ankle lock, but Banks rolls into the Lion’s Clutch (Gargano Escape), before they escaped and dumped each other with more simultaneous kicks.

Another barrage of strikes followed as Banks ran into a tombstone slam, but Banks kicked out at one! A receipt’s given, but Riddle kicks out as well, which prompts Pete Dunne to appear on stage with his title belts. That distracts Banks, who turns around into a knee from Riddle, who finishes him with a Gotch-style tombstone for the win. I can understand why people hated the finish, especially since PROGRESS have steered well away from those kind of finishes that WWE have favoured… but that shouldn’t detract from how much you enjoyed a really brutal contest, one that left both men with redder chests and (if you’re into this sort of thing) rehabbed Riddle after his Atlas title loss. ****¼

Chief Deputy Dunne vs. Zack Gibson vs. Chuck Mambo vs. Jack Sexsmith
After gatecrashing PROGRESS’ last show in London, Chief Deputy Dunne managed to sneak past Flash Morgan Webster two weeks’ earlier in Birmingham. Next up on his to-do list was Chuck Mambo and Jack Sexsmith in this four-way that featured the equally-curmudgeonly Zack Gibson. A Zack Gibson who didn’t appreciate being in the ring with a “surfer, a policeman and a joke”.

The bad guys attacked Mambo and Sexsmith from behind, and we start off with those alliances in this four-way… but Mambo quickly drops Gibson with a spinebuster as he goes all Rock on us, but he’s got too many elbow pads and gets knocked down by Dunne as the mayhem continued.

Gibson tries to take down Jack with a Helter Skelter, but Mambo’s dropkick breaks that up as he hits a flip dive to the outside, before the crowd take aim at Dunne with chants of “you’re not a real policeman” and “he’s got no fun on his dick”. Dodgy gear choices, eh? Back inside, Gibson targets Mambo’s arm, before Sexsmith returns to take down Dunne with the LGBDT ahead of a tease of Mr. Cocko.

Dunne escapes and looked for the rope-hung DDT, but instead Sexsmith gets out and teases Mr Cocko… only for Gibson to intervene with a Shankly Gates attempt, which ends up with Zack taking Cocko instead. Mambo returns with a Gory stretch on Dunne, with Gibson coming in to help out with a Codebreaker, before teasing another Shankly Gates as Mambo superkicked free.

Sexsmith takes out a resurging Dunne with the Big Double Stomp Move off the top, before Gibson again wrenches his arm and punches the shoulder as a set-up for the Helter Skelter. In the end though, Gibson’s decision to clear the ring by throwing Dunne and Mambo to the outside proved costly, as Sexsmith suckered him in and scored the win with a small package! That’s pretty much a clean, un-assisted win for Jack over Gibson, which I’d imagine ties the bow on that storyline following a decent four-way. ***¼

Eddie Dennis vs. Pete Dunne
This was the “other half” of the pick-your-poison storyline going on… and it has to be said, on the surface, Peter’s a better picker than Travis! Eddie’s got new gear, and he’s to afraid to flaunt the “Defend Indy Wrestling” banner in the face of his former team-mate… who kicked away the flag as if he were Chris Jericho with a Brazilian flag.

Both men come flying out of the gates with forearms, as Eddie took an early advantage with a uranage before dumping Dunne into the corner with the Severn Bridge buckle bomb. A Next Stop Driver’s teased, but Dunne slips out and heads to the floor for cover. Which included getting forearmed so hard he spilled a fan’s drink!

Eddie’s all over Dunne in the opening stages, but Dunne quickly comes back with a double stomp and a series of kicks as Eddie’s left laying on the outside. Once Eddie beat the count, Dunne took over, stomping on Eddie in the corner before trapping his hand in the turnbuckle to stomp on it some more.

Eddie’s thrown into the crowd, but he rises from the dead and levels Dunne with another forearm, only for the tide to turn back-and-forth as Eddie’s reliant on forearms and chops to get himself in the game… only for Peter to bite and snap the fingers to keep any kind of advantage.

Dunne works into a Pedigree, but he’s backdropped to the floor, here he takes a tope con hilo from Eddie… only to drag him into a triangle armbar back in the ring. Eddie fights free and delivers another crucifix bomb for a near-fall, before catching Peter on the top rope with a hanging superplex! More charges in the corner eventually backfired for Eddie, who fell to an X-plex for a near-fall

A simple forearm from Dunne knocked Eddie into the corner… before that favour was returned as the pair continued to drop each other with kicks and clotheslines, before Eddie’s thrown deeper into the crowd yet again. That crowd brawling continued onto the stage as Eddie’s slammed, before Dunne flips out of a German suplex attempt, only to get dropped with a tombstone!

Back in the ring, Dunne punts Eddie low, but can’t follow up as his Bitter End’s turned into a Next Stop Driver for a near-fall. The Bitter End does come though, but Eddie kicks out, and that’s the cue for Peter to play Paul, as he goes under the ring for a sledgehammer, but referee Joel Allen disarms the champ.

That leads to a ref bump as Eddie accidentally superkicks Joel… so we get the Pedigree as Dunne goes for the sledgehammer again, but he misses and takes another Next Stop Driver. Of course, Joel’s still out, so the cover is for nought. Dunne eventually connects with that sledgehammer on the outside, before chaining together a Pedigree and the Bitter End, just as Joel awoke to count the pin… Pete Dunne ends, and I can sort-of see why this match drew a lot of criticism. It did feel a little like a Raw TV match, with shortcuts a-go-go, but I also get why they did it – in a weird way, it built Eddie up a little, but these “you need to beat me to get a title shot” is going to lead to a lot of strange atmospheres in the build up to Alexandra Palace. ***½

This Sunday’s “pick your poison” sees Dunne face Jack Sexsmith, whilst Travis Banks has Keith Lee… and if you’re a fan of reading into things, PROGRESS are doing a heck of a job in making you think that they’re getting Jack Gallagher “on loan” for a match against Pete sometime soon.

Tornado Match – PROGRESS Tag Team Championship: War Machine (Hanson & Raymond Rowe) vs. British Strong Style (Trent Seven & Tyler Bate) (c)
War Machine were looking to add the PROGRESS titles to their IWGP straps, having outlasted the London Riots last time out in Birmingham. This was changed to a tornado match, or “War Machine rules”, literally just before the bell, setting the scene for the rapidly-familiar PROGRESS car crash tag match!

After the Triple H water spit – at War Machine’s faces – at the bell, BSS quickly regret things as the snarling faces of Hanson and Rowe came right back at them with forearms. Rowe booted away a cricket chop from Trent, who then pulls him off the top rope as Hanson came in to take some machine-gun chops. Kojima he ain’t!

Hanson returns the favour with some gusto, draping Seven across the top rope for a bunch of forearms to the chest, before Rowe caught Tyler and hurled him across the ring with an Exploder. Dives follow from Rowe and Bate as the match remains outside the ring, and of course, Trent chops the ring post, before the crowd scatters as Tyler gets thrown into Trent and a pile of chairs.

It gets a little heated as Bate throws chairs at Rowe whilst Hanson drags Trent by the towel into a forearm, before eventually using said towel to clothesline Trent. Ah, hoisted by his own petard!

Rowe takes Tyler onto the stage with a fireman’s carry as all four men eventually ended up there, before Tyler stumbled into Hanson, who had no problem slamming him on the stage… ending with British Strong Style being dog-piled as Rowe slammed Hanson onto the pair of them to complete the sandwich. Chris Roberts even gets involved, pulled up into a battering ram position like he was the third Bushwhacker, but BSS recover and throw chairs to get themselves back in it.

The action heads back to the floor where Bate throws Rowe into the seats again, before Hanson goes the same way. That ring’s left awfully unused, as Trent brings it into play for a DDT on the apron to Rowe, before Hanson goes to the top rope like a mad man… flying down with a flip senton!

Finally in the ring, Hanson and Rowe combine with a springboard clothesline/German suplex combo on Seven, but an attempt at Fallout is saved by Tyler. The champs mount a comeback, with a suplex on Hanson saved by Rowe as we launched into a parade, ending with a vicious knee to Tyler and… a Trent-a-can-rana?! Nah, just kidding, a snap Dragon suplex from Seven!

Tyler then shows his freaky strength in giving Hanson a lengthy airplane spin, before Rowe headbutts away a tonne of strikes from the champions before Hanson returned with a massive handspring double back elbow, as nimble as if he were a double-sized Will Ospreay!

A double bop/bang punch leads to a double Pedigree from the champs, but War Machine rise up and delivered two of their own before some low blows left War Machine on their knees. Trent goes out for the sledgehammer, but he’s having trouble finding it as Tyler’s knocked out… returning with the tag title belt. Trent’s got the other one to complete a pair of belt shots, before Pedigreeing Hanson onto the belt for the win. A fun car crash, which seems to be PROGRESS and War Machine’s forte. ****

After watching this back on-demand, I’m finding it both easy and hard to comprehend the onslaught of criticism that this show drew. Sure, having a distraction finish and an over-booked match in the two “pick your poison” matches is a little weird given it’s not PROGRESS’ usual fare – but it’s not like it totally wrecked the show.

When you’ve got a show with a blow-away women’s match like “Vote Pies”, and the Banks/Riddle match, unless the rest of it is Vince Russo-level trash, you can’t dismiss it. This was another thumbs-up show to continue the streak.

For those who have been criticising, myself included, it does seem that PROGRESS are beginning to listen to some suggestions – adding a pre-show match to this weekend’s show in London, for instance, along with a rare chapter debut from the ProJo as Never Say Die – Alex Cupid and Dillon D’Angelo make the step up. Baby steps, which we’ll look back upon when we review “Fate Loves The Fearless” after it hits on-demand.