PROGRESS went up north for the final “regular” show of the year – and one that saw David Starr get another shot at the title.

We’re at the O2 Academy in Shefield, sorry, Sheffield for what’s Jim Smallman’s penultimate show… I’m just sad they didn’t go to a seaside location for this one. That’s make the pun complete. Speaking of jokes, Jim’s opening banter includes a newbie’s hole-y sweater, Wetherspoons food, and booing Waitrose. Standard stuff. Commentary’s from Glen Joseph and Matt Richards…

Primate vs. Mark Andrews
When it comes to chapter shows, there’s a real north/south divide for Primate… while Mark Andrews was going it alone, sending Eddie Dennis to the back. We get the customary middle fingers, just to remind us he’s the baddie here.

Primate tosses Andrews around with some Beele’s from the off, before an overhead belly-to-belly almost saw Mark land on his head. He scarpers to the outside, but Primate follows and ends up pulling him into a pop-up flapjack on the ring apron to boot. Andrews grabs the rope to avoid a powerbomb, then flew off the apron with a stomp to the back. Back inside, Andrews hits a neckbreaker for a near-fall, before a low dropkick drew another two-count. Some release Germans follow after Primate was stomped on, sending Andrews into the corner ahead of a gorilla press powerslam that almost ended things. Primate tries to spear Andrews, but gets stomped… he manages to land the spear to counter the Stomp 182 as Andrews was hell bent on getting his flashy stuff in.

The Stundog Millionaire follows from Andrews, as does a tope, before he met Primate back inside with a shooting star press for the win. Eh. Andrews flips the crowd off anyway to reset to being the baddie, despite all the flashy stuff, and that shooting star press is suddenly deadly… either that, or it’s Primate’s kryptonite. **¼

Grizzled Young Veterans (James Drake & Zack Gibson) vs. Anti-Fun Police (Chief Deputy Dunne & Los Federales Santos Jr.)
You know the score: Zack cuts his promo, gets some boos. Apparently they’ve been in PROGRESS since day one. Well, one of you has more than the other. The “WWE superstars” are here to make some “pocket money” and have some fun. A little too close to the bone…

Chief Deputy Dunne interrupts as Santos comes through the crowd, looking for a suspect. He finds it, sweeping Drake off the apron before Zack Gibson “took Jim Smallman hostage”. Way too many people wanted Jim dead…

We start with the Anti-Fun Police “pistol whipping” Zack, before the No Fun Nada/Midnight Hour almost made this a quick match. The former PROGRESS tag champions are back, with Drake’s spinning heel kick to Santos getting a near-fall before a double-team slam to the big man got them a little closer. They keep pushing with a double-team clothesline for a near-fall, then a seated cobra clutch, but Santos got free and brought in Dunne, whose tope and back cracker helped turn it around, leading to a nice Gory stretch/cutter double-team that almost got the upset. Another turnaround from Drake has Dunne on jelly legs, leading to the Making Towns Doomsday Device for a near-fall/

Dunne avoids another double-team and gets a tag out, allowing Santos to come in with a double clothesline, then a double Flatliner… but Dunne tries for a double-team and gets taken outside for the double-team backbreaker. Santos is left on his own, but he’s able to hit a spinning heel kick to Drake, only for more double-teaming to backfire as Gibson lifts Santos in for the Ticket to Mayhem… but Dunne pulls Gibson out, leaving nobody to help as Santos fell back on Drake for the pin. Because he’s big. They tried with the comedy, but this simply didn’t work with me. Cameo appearances from WWE stars don’t do anyone any favours at this level. PROGRESS is bigger than this, I thought. Still, at least the upset win gives the Anti-Fun Police something to work with, but it all depends on if they get the bookings to follow up on it. **

PROGRESS Proteus Championship: Chris Ridgeway vs. Paul Robinson (c)
This was Ridgeway’s first PROGRESS outing since Super Strong Style 16… but he’s been busy in Japan since then.

We’re working under knock-out or submission rules here, with Ridgeway feinting kicks early on before Robinson stung him with a palm strike. Ridgeway took it to ground as Glen seemed to be treating this like It’s a Knockout, going all Stuart Hall on his commentary before Ridgeway rolled in for an ankle lock that was kicked away. A kick from Ridgeway helped take down Robinson, but the champion’s back up to miss a dropkick before he lands a palm strike. Ridgeway retaliates in kind, before a punch to the gut knocked Robinson down as a cross armbreaker looked to follow. Robinson gets free and throws a nice head kick, which had Ridgeway on his arse… but the challenger’s back with a PK as both men were down.

A Dragon screw takes Ridgeway down awkwardly as Robinson keeps up with a heel hook, but Riddy rolls into the corner, as we have no rope break… so he climbs the turnbuckles and went in with a stomp as he had to be inventive to get free of the hold. Ridgeway goes for the ankle next, but the pair roll outside as Robinson grabs a fan’s chair… and whacks Ridgeway to break the hold. If it works, it works. Back inside, Robinson’s spear lands as he followed up with some Danielson elbows to the side of the head, then some ground and pound, only for Ridgeway to roll back in with a Fujiwara armbar. After letting go, Ridgeway hits a punt kick, but Robinson refuses to stay down, then again from a headbutt, before Robinson countered a guillotine by diving to the outside, taking Ridgeway with him.

Robinson’s busted up, as he’s placed in a chair for some kicks… but he slips out and puts Ridgeway in it, then hit a curb stomp off the apron as the ref then waves off the match. These knockout-or-submission rules are making for some flash finishes, albeit ones that also feel flat. This was a decent slugfest, but it just felt like something was missing… **¾

Best Two Out Of Three Falls: Ilja Dragunov vs. Cara Noir
Ilja’s all painted up as Cara Noir… mind games. Expect a LOT of theatrics here. Glen.

We’ve got some Christmas Ilja chants before the bell… remember the 12 Days of Rampage? Ilja and Cara start with a handshake and a tender moment, and of course the crowd chants “kiss”. The wrestling starts with Ilja escaping a rebound German, before “Stinger Ilja” went for an Airplane Spin. Cara ducks a Konstantin-Spezial clothesline as we have a stand-off… a crossbody from Ilja’s caught, but the pair continue to swing and miss on a rope-running series as Cara eventually hits a dropkick. The Blackout sleeper follows, but Ilja rolls out and sized up for a shot at Cara, but didn’t take it before the pair posed like a curtain call. GLEN.

Ilja strokes Cara’s belly as he went down to a knee, and then the bell rang because Ilja… tapped out?! To what? To Cara’s beauty? At least he could have given him flowers. Everyone’s confused, as Cara Noir seems frustrated at WINNING. Jesus. He superkicks Ilja and goes in with body blows, before a shotgun dropkick took the Russian into the corner. Ilja’s right back with Torpedo Moscau, and that’s 1-1.

We’re now into next-fall-wins as Ilja took Cara Noir outside and leapt onto him, then followed up with a back senton into the crowd. Back inside, Ilja blisters Cara with chops, before a back senton drew a near-fall… and a line on commentary that mentioned how Cara “went as limp as Chris Ridgeway did”. So… this should be a stoppage, right? Of course not…

Cara’s back up, but he’s whipped into the corner for a knee, before a knee drop off the top drew a near-fall. Ilja conducts the crowd as he went for a Gotch-style powerbomb, but Cara Noir fought free, only to get dropped with a forearm to the back. A clash of heads follow, but Ilja strikes back with some knees as Cara then staggered back into Ilja’s embrace. No cover, because theatrics. GLEN.

Cara Noir headbutts himself out of Ilja’s grasp, but Ilja just picks him up to hit a death valley driver into the corner for a near-fall. Ilja sets up for another Torpedo Moscau, but Cara Noir’s still down. SO PIN HIM. Ilja picks him up, but Cara flops down again, and the crowd LAUGHS at this slice of pantomime. At least Ilja ran in with a kick before Cara hit a headbutt… then played dead before he popped up and went from 0-100. A German suplex and a neckbreaker’s good for a near-fall for Cara, who began to build up momentum with a barrage of kicks. Cara grabs Ilja by the hand as we do the curtain call, but Ilja snaps out with some body blows and a big pump kick. A brainbuster follows, before Cara was taken up top for a superplex… but Cara rolls through and followed up with a Blackheart Buster after the impact. From there, Ilja looked for another Torpedo Moscau, but Cara counters with a Blackout sleeper… only for Ilja to try and break it up by falling on his back. Cara doesn’t let go though, and despite Ilja trying to counter, he needs to climb the ropes and fall to break the hold… it doesn’t work, as Ilja has to roll back to get a pinning attempt, before a teardrop German suplex led to a near-fall.

From there, Dragunov heads up for a back senton, but Cara’s quickly back with a shotgun dropkick. A clothesline seems to run out of steam, as Ilja swivelled back in hard, before more clotheslines led to Dragunov’s Konstantin-Spezial that finally found its mark. A double clothesline puts them both on the deck, before we got back to the weird stuff. Ilja kisses Cara on the forehead, but gets dropped with a package piledriver and that was enough for the decisive fall… and an appreciative standing ovation to boot. This got good towards the end, but this was what I was fearing about Cara Noir – because he’s a gimmick, they went in way too heavy on the theatrics. If the crowd ate it up, I’d have forgiven it, but when some of this stuff is drawing crickets and laughter… you have to question the direction. Still, if this is the end of the feud, we’ll probably get these guys as a tag team – and if we forget the first two falls in this match, they genuinely had a cracking feud. Perhaps the best in PROGRESS this year… but they had to spoil it, eh? ***¾

The post-interval banter revolves around Bargain Hunt, Jim announcing that he wants his daughter to take the last photo of him in PROGRESS, then an impending vasectomy…

PROGRESS Women’s Championship: Jinny vs. Meiko Satomura (c)
After returning in Manchester a few months back, “Jinny Havoc” managed to earn a title shot by beating Toni Storm. It’s led to this match as Meiko was making her second defence of the PROGRESS Women’s title… and it’s a bigger test than her first challenge.

Meiko started by taking Jinny into the corner, complete with a clean break, before a drop toe hold led to some scrambling on the mat. A snap suplex gets Meiko a quick pinning attempt, before a high-angle Boston crab turned into an inverted bow-and-arrow, which Jinny countered out of with a roll-up. Meiko gets free and looked to grab the arm of Jinny, but headscissors get Jinny free… only for Meiko to land some knees as the pair stayed close. A running forearm in the corner traps Jinny, before Satomura rolled Jinny into a half crab, switching up into a camel clutch as Jinny looked to be getting to the ropes. This is all awfully one-sided… and you know what that means.

After a backbreaker, Jinny began to put on the brakes, and started to retaliate with forearms that sent Meiko outside. She follows her with a tope, which gets a delayed two-count, before a seated surfboard forced Satomura to survive as she eventually slipped out of the hold and into the ropes. Forearms from Jinny keep Meiko in the ropes, but Satomura responds in kind before a DDT lands. The cartwheel knees miss, as Jinny replies with a knee strike for a near-fall, before Satomura countered an Acid Rainmaker into a Fujiwara armbar… but Jinny gets to the ropes. Another DDT from Satomura leads to the cartwheel knee for a near-fall, and now Meiko’s starting to show some frustration… so she pulls up Jinny at two after a death valley driver.

From there, Satomura lands a forearm strike, then goes up top for a frog splash, but it still doesn’t put Jinny away… and from the kick-out she rolls up Meiko for the flash win! Jinny survived and stole the win there, and I guess there’s no dates in Europe in Meiko’s immediate future? Commentary painted this as Meiko underestimating Jinny, but this just felt underwhelming. **

Kassius Ohno vs. Timothy Thatcher
Jim addressed Thatcher having his gear stolen the previous weekend – so Thatcher’s out in the MMA shorts.

Ohno’s not exactly in a rush to engage with Thatcher, in what was their first match in three and a half years. They start by working over the arms, before Thatcher found a leg and looked to roll Ohno into a half crab, only to roll him over for a quick pinning attempt. Thatcher tries for the arm again, but neither man’s giving any quarter, at least until Ohno found his way through with an abdominal stretch.

Thatcher gets free, but his cross armbar ends with Ohno in the ropes, before Kassius tried to work a standing surfboard stretch, only for it to get reversed as Ohno rolls free. Ohno grabs one leg, but kicks away the other knee as he took Thatcher down, moving his focus across that left leg. Ohno stands on Thatcher’s ankle, then hit a back senton for a two-count before the work continued on the leg. Ohno mixes it up with a knee drop, but he stays on Thatcher as he worked over the ankle with a modified figure four, only for Thatcher to free himself as he teased a deadlift gutwrench suplex… but Ohno goes back to the leg with a toe hold. Firing back, Thatcher kicks Ohno from the ground before a rebound belly-to-belly opened the door, leading to a mounted sleeperhold from the recently-unseated wXw champion.

Thatcher tries to club away some more following a rope break, but Ohno’s back on the leg, only for Thatcher to break free and hit an enziguiri. Ohno doesn’t go down though, and is quickly back with a sharp piledriver for a near-fall. As the ref checks on Thatcher, Ohno stomps on Tim’s head, before he took off the elbow pad and began to wallop Tim with some elbow strikes. Ohno runs into Thatcher, who grabs him and hits a palm strike… but the knee gives out as Ohno hits back. A forearm strike’s headbutted away, as Thatcher made a desperate bid to grab Ohno’s arm… it works too, as he pulls in with a Fujiwara armbar for the submission. Looking on GRAPPL, the early ratings for this was below the “Gentleman’s Three”, and I’d be inclined to agree – the match felt way too slow-paced, and while Thatcher gets his first singles win of the year, I’m not sure if it means anything given both of these guys are hardly regulars here. ***

PROGRESS Unified World Championship: David Starr vs. Eddie Dennis (c)
After Eddie Dennis cashed in his contract and added himself to the main event at Alexandra Palace, David Starr’s finally gotten another singles shot at the title – with nobody looming in from the sides a la Seth Rollins this time.

Except Eddie’s got an ace up his sleeve. He low blows Starr before the bell and tosses him outside, where he stomps on him in time to that long ol’ list of nicknames, which ends with another nutshot from Starr. I mean, as tributes to Jim’s vasectomy, it’s a decent one, I guess.

Starr fired back with chops as Eddie staggered around the room, heading to the bar where Eddie chopped the wall in error. None of that’s called on commentary, because they’re giving us the back story in lieu of a video package, since they don’t have a live feed… anyway, they keep brawling towards the merch tables, where Starr drops Eddie on a table… which didn’t break. They head back towards the ring, where Starr hits a trio of dives… with the last one whiffing as Starr ended up face-first in a chair. Eddie pulls Starr into the ring as the bell goes, and hits a Severn Bridge for a two-count before Eddie tried to throttle his way to a win. Starr gets in, but his suplex attempt is blocked as a wild lariat from Eddie put him down for a knee drop, then a cravat as he tried to keep the challenger off his feet. Starr clings to the bottom rope to avoid being pinned, but he can’t avoid forearms from Eddie, before he reversed a suplex that bought him some time. A Violence Party follows in the corner, before some running forearms and a trip allowed Starr to surprise us all with Cattle Mutilation.

Starr rolls through from that into a seatbelt clutch, before a sliding splash into the corner had Eddie rocked. Heading up top, Starr sails in with an elbow drop for a near-fall, before some clotheslines and a headbutt to the hand ended with Eddie throwing more forearms ahead of a swinging side slam that almost ended it. Another Severn Bridge is countered with a ‘rana as Dennis was sent outside, with Starr following with another dive, but they end up setting up some chairs on the floor, which backfires as Eddie took a spinning suplex through the two chairs.

Eddie somehow gets up first, as he threw Starr aside amid a count-out tease… but the challenger gets back in and hits a Product Placement for a near-fall, then went up top and got caught as a superplex brought him back in with a bump. Starr’s shrugged off as he rushed in for a Blackheart Buster for a near-fall, before he was caught by Eddie for another Severn Bridge – a far cry from the Han Stansen he was originally aiming for. More forearms from Eddie rock Starr, who tries to fire back as he bounces up from the elbows, then threw a bunch of his own before rolling Eddie into a Republican Remorse. That’s the cue for Mark Andrews to run out… and the referee instantly runs out to stop him. Eddie realises and taps, knowing it means naff all, and after Starr realises what’s happened, he ducks a belt shot… then hits one of his own as Eddie almost lost the title.

Andrews hangs around but gets crotched in the ropes as a Han Stansen almost gets the win, before Starr went back to that Republican Remorse. Eddie gets to the ropes to force the break, before Starr looked for a Trapped Arm Bob Fossil… but Eddie squirms away and back body drops him into the buckles. That looked nasty. For some reason Mark Andrews head up top, and he gets crotched again as a counter to a Next Stop Driver led to Starr and Dennis squashing the ref in the corner. So many random nutshots here, eh? With no ref, we’ve another Han Stansen and a Trapped Arm Bob Fossil from Starr… but Andrews flies in off the top with a shooting star press, before rolling Eddie on top, and the ref miraculously recovers to count the pin. Mark celebrates like it’s his belt, but the night ends with David Starr coming up short yet again… and apparently mouthing his goodbyes to the crowd to boot. ***½

PROGRESS’ latest effort in Sheffield was a bit of a mixed effort, with some stuff paying-off, and a lot of decisions that simply fell flat with the crowd. Dennis left with his title, and no obvious next challenger – and it’ll likely be the new year, and a new era, before the next direction becomes clear. We’ve been through a lot of the perceived downsides to 2019 PROGRESS. There’s a group of fans who think that this has become a lesser priority compared to the other gig the guys behind the promotion have. For my money, that’s an incredibly harsh opinion to genuinely have, even if Jim Smallman leaving for a full-time WWE gig adds fuel to the fire. For me, it’s been the accumulation of a lot of little things.

For instance, while match quality is a subjective thing (and a quick look at things like GRAPPL will show that fans aren’t rating these shows as highly), and you can argue to a point that using WWE stars for one-offs help when you’re establishing new faces (the key word being establish), there are things you can’t dispute. In another era, the main event here would have been built up with a pre-show video package and made to feel somewhat important. Instead, Eddie Dennis’ first title defence ended up feeling disposable, in spite of the back story. In a little over a week PROGRESS have their annual Unboxing mystery show, with the only thing you know going in is that this is going to be Jim’s final show. With the rest of the show a mystery, then any pronounced signs of change if there are indeed any, will begin to be shown in the new year.