Welcome to Slammer Jabber, your weekly look at all things professional wrestling. This week barely needs an introduction, because if you are a wrestling fan you'll be aware what a mad week it has been. Wrestlemania, NXT Takeover, NJPW/ROH at MSG and more. It has been quite the week. With so much to cover (and I can't even touch on the many, many many amazing indie shows I have yet to watch on demand from the weekend) we'll do this vaguely chronologically and start with the big NXT show from Brooklyn last Friday.
The weekend kicked off in style with NXT: Takeover New York, which on paper looked to be one of the biggest events of a packed wrestling schedule, and I’m happy to report it did not disappoint. The five match card had something for everyone, but the match that most will be talking about featured the battle for the vacant NXT championship between Adam Cole and Johnny Gargano in a 2-out-of-3-falls match. With Tomasso Ciampa injured this was somewhat thrown together, but both men did a great job of making Gargano seem like the traditional strong babyface in the face of some iffy booking since the summer, while Cole did brilliantly as the cocky heel. Of course, with this being NXT both men were over like rover with the crowd anyway, but that Cole was able to overcome that and get the crowd to rally around Gargano is a testament to how good he really is. A fantastic main event, with a lovely scene afterwards with Ciampa returning to celebrate with his former enemy and his wife Candace LeRae, which was a nice touch on top of an already excellent moment.
The other four matches on the show were able to match the high standards that the main event set. War Raiders vs Ricochet and Aleister Black was an intense, fast-paced opener with some huge spots and some excellent sequences all of which provided a fine send-off for Ricochet and Black. Shayna Baszler retaining her title against Io Shirai, Kairi Sane and Bianca Belair was a major surprise, but the match itself was very fun with all four women getting moments to shine. Walter vs Pete Dunne was superb, physical and although the result was predictable it was definitely the correct call. Finally, Velveteen Dream vs Matt Riddle was perhaps my favourite match of the whole show, with huge personality from both and some great exchanges. The loss doesn’t hurt Riddle and this feels like the first chapter in what could be a rivalry that goes on for years to come.
NXT has a habit of stealing the show from the main roster when it is paired up with the big ppvs on these weekends and this was no exception. A fantastic card with no shortage of top matches and some very interesting developments in terms of the immediate future of NXT.
While NXT put down a marker for the weekend, it was felt in most quarters that the NJPW/ROH G1 Supercard would equal or surpass the WWE developmental brand. In some respects they did achieve this, but arguably the Supercard was ultimately more of a mixed bag. The main event between Kazuchika Okada and “Switchblade” Jay White was very good, although it didn’t quite match up to some of the elite level Okada main events from the past few years. This isn’t something to lie at the door of Okada or White, it just didn’t quite seem to come together on the night. It wasn’t bad by any stretch, it just felt like it never quite reached the extra gear to put it in that elite bracket. Still, the title change was the logical outcome and makes quite the statement for NJPW, crowing a new champion in MSG feels like a proper shot fired in their global expansion
There does feel like a very clear divide between the good and bad on this show, and the good seemed to be the New Japan matches while the bad more often seemed to involve ROH competitors. We’ll focus on the positives. As expected Will Ospreay vs Jeff Cobb was a fantastic clash of styles that made for a fun outing. Dragon Lee vs Bandido vs Taiji Ishimori was a great high flying affair, and Lee winning the belt was both a surprise and equally a logical move given that Hiromu Takahashi will hopefully be back at some point in the relatively near future and it was against Lee that he suffered his injury. Tetsuya Naito vs Kota Ibushi was a near-classic on par with their outing a few weeks ago, and the title change frees up Naito for a big role in the G1 presumably. Zack Sabre Jr and Hiroshi Tanahashi had a very good outing, although not on the level of their previous outings. The Great Muta making an appearance in the nostalgia rumble was a great moment, and it was lovely seeing Muta involved with NJPW again. The ROH Title ladder match was very good, but it felt like it was all about Matt Taven and Jay Lethal with Marty Scurll a virtual afterthought. That said, there were some nice ladder spots and having another big title change helped make this show seem more impactful and important. Unfortunately, the rest of the show including the street fight with Bully Ray, Juice Robinson, and eventually Mark Haskins, Flip Gordon, Shane Taylor and Silas Young, as well as Rush vs Dalton Castle were pretty average, especially in comparison to the NJPW crew. Kelly Klein vs Mayu Iwatani was the major exception, with both women putting on a great back-and-forth affair, although the introduction of Velvet Sky and Angelina Love a decade after they were at their peak seems like a huge step in the wrong direction for the Women of Honor.
Leaving Minoru Suzuki, Tomohiro Ishii, Hirooki Goto and others off the main show in favour of the ROH guys definitely shows the gulf in talent and demonstrates that NJPW may have outgrown their relationship with their US partners. A very good show, but one that definitely sets the tone for the future of both companies and where the power lies in that relationship. If anything New Japan could probably have sold out this show on their own, and frankly it would have been a better card for it.
Hall of Fame
Although the Hall of Fame was a bit of an afterthought this year, it hit the headlines for an incident involving Bret “the Hitman” Hart. The WWE legend was on stage accepting the induction for The Hart Foundation, when one absolute idiot decided to storm the stage and try to bundle over Hart. He was swiftly dealt with, and arrested (although not before Dash Wilder and others got in some well-deserved shots) but not before startling everyone involved and possibly hurting one of the all time greats of professional wrestling. Thankfully Hart was ok, and despite some minor hip pain seems to be unscathed. The culprit, who I won’t give the oxygen of attention that naming him here would provide, apparently was attempting to protest the idea of women headlining Wrestlemania, which in itself is pathetic but using that as a reason to attack a Hall of Famer is beyond disgusting. Sadly, I suspect this might mean that fans are no longer allowed to attend that Hall of Fame in future years, which would be a crying shame but it would be understandable from WWE’s point of view. A down note on an otherwise excellent weekend.
Without doubt Wrestlemania is the biggest show of the year, and apparently someone took that idea literally as this was one of the longest shows WWE have ever put on. Including the pre-show the whole thing ran to a total of 7.5 hours, which made for a testing endurance marathon for both those watching at home, and those in attendance. However, unlike the past two years, this was a memorable and mostly very enjoyable event. The event started with a bang, after a brief Hulk Hogan appearance, we got a surprise early Universal title match which was a lovely way to set the tone and pace for such a lengthy show. Seth Rollins and Brock Lesnar had what can only be described as a sprint of a match following a pre-match beat down from Lesnar. It was exciting, heated and did exactly what it needed to do; make Rollins look like a star. Lesnar might be off to UFC, or he might not be but either way he did a really solid job of elevating Rollins here.
Luckily, WWE sensibly placed the next few matches to keep the crowd energised. Randy Orton vs AJ Styles was solid, although not as spectacular as it perhaps might have been. The Smackdown tag title four-way was frantic, chaotic and just what the show needed at this point, and although I was certain The Usos were dropping the belts they looked really strong in retaining here (at least for now, more on that later).
Shane McMahon vs The Miz was arguably one of the biggest highlights of the whole show. It helped that this feud felt personal in a way few other matches on the show did. The involvement of Miz’s Dad was inspired, and the big stunt to finish was both spectacular and clearly very safely done without compromising the wow factor involved. The falls-count-anywhere stipulation again provided a nice bit of variety, and nicely broke up the card.
The women’s tag title match also offered a nice surprise half way through the show, with a more than respectable showing from the four teams and a majorly shocking outcome. Few would have picked The IIconics to be going home with the belts, but I am delighted for them. They are tailor-made for this role, and they are far better as a unit than as individuals which makes this a sensible move all around. I do feel a bit for Sasha Banks and Bayley who could perhaps have done with a longer reign in order to legitimise the new titles, but plans change and Peyton Royce and Billie Kay will benefit far more from carrying the belts than Banks and Bayley will.
The build was convoluted, and there were certainly bumps in the road getting there, but Kofi Kingston vs Daniel Bryan was arguably the best match, and the most emotional story at Wrestlemania 35. Kofi put in a star-making performance, and Bryan was every inch the heel to Kingston’s heroic babyface. In years to come, no matter how short or long Kofi’s reign may be, we will be looking back on this as an important moment I feel. Even at silly-o-clock in the morning I was up out of my seat, full of genuine emotion, and seeing Kingston get the win was magical. If you watch nothing else from this show, go and watch this match.
Unfortunately, it was after the elation of Kofi winning that the fatigue began to set in. Samoa Joe vs Rey Mysterio was a speedy squash, making Joe look dominant and preventing an injured Mysterio from aggravating his issues. Roman Reigns vs Drew McIntyre was fine, but lacked the emotional heft it probably warranted, being so late in the show. The segment with Elias and John Cena was genuinely one of the best segments on the show, providing a nice nostalgia moment and something to break up a very busy Wrestlemania. Triple H vs Batista had a decent brawl, but it went way too long, and didn’t do much for the energy levels of the audience. Also Triple H not coming out as Thanos seems like a huge missed opportunity. Baron Corbin vs Kurt Angle further deflated the crowd who were hopeful of a switcheroo, but instead got a Corbin win. Kudos for Angle performing a picture-prefect moonsault though. Bobby Lashley vs Finn Balor was actually pretty good, but in front of a crowd that was burnt out even “The Demon” wasn’t going to be enough to breathe life into a match that few truly cared about, and one we've seen so many times before.
Finally, after many, many hours we all got the match that everyone had been waiting for. Ronda Rousey vs Charlotte vs Becky Lynch, and these three women definitely delivered. Charlotte doing the helicopter deal in tribute to her father and Rousey having Joan Jett play her to the ring marked both out as huge stars, but in a sense Lynch coming out without those superstar trappings conveyed her as an even bigger star and underscored her credentials as the peoples champion, and the crowd favourite. The match itself had a few issues, including a nasty bump from Ronda on the outside, and a few missteps here and there, not least in the out of nowhere finish. However, none of that mattered. At the end of the show, the biggest star in the company was stood tall with the two top belts that she could possibly hold, and that alone made for a great visual and a stunning end to a lengthy, but actually very good show.
Raw and Smackdown
With so much to cover this week, and with the “Superstar shake-up” meaning both TV shows were slightly less eventful than in previous years immediately after Mania, we’ll summarise a bit here for the sake of my typing fingers and your mind grapes.
The whole winner-take-all Seth Rollins vs Kofi Kingston angle was always going to end with a non-finish. Anyone who was expecting different was deluding themselves here. Rollins cut a nice celebratory promo (on a night of celebrations), and Kingston getting involved was a nice bit of fan service. The match was, of course excellent, but the crowd reaction to The Bar getting involved and it making a tag match was sad to see, in a weekend where WWE really did try and give fans what they wanted for the most part.
We did of course get some big returns on this show. Sami Zayn was a nice addition to things, and although he lost his match to Finn Balor, it was both enjoyable and spawned a fantastic post-match promo from Zayn essentially chastising the self-entitled crowd. It needs to be seen to be believed, but Sami is perfect for this role and I am very intrigued to see where it goes. The Undertaker also made a fun return interrupting Elias (in a similar vein to Cena the night prior, sans rapping of course) and looked to be in very good shape, despite not being on the Mania card. We also got a debut, with Lars Sullivan interrupting a pretty terrible segment with Baron Corbin and Kurt Angle, looking like a monster in the process. We also got a goodbye, as Bobby Lashley took out Dean Ambrose, effectively writing him off, with his contract expiring imminently. As he left he actually got quite a nice ovation, which shows he'll be welcome back if he does return in a year or so.
Elsewhere, the women’s division had a busy night. Becky Lynch cut a cracking celebratory promo, berating Charlotte and Rousey, only to be interrupted by a Lacey Evans walk on that actually delivered, as rather than turning around she got physical with Lynch. This was a great proper introduction for Evans, and she should make a cracking first feud for Becky as champion (although unless they plan to unify the belts I imagine she might drop one of the belts to Evans, or because of Evans’ interference in the next few weeks). In addition Alexa Bliss made her in-ring return following a period of inactivity and fresh off her hosting duties at Wrestlemania, with a strong win over Bayley. This seemed like a refreshed, revived Alexa who had been crowded out of a busy division on the red brand. Meanwhile, the tag division heated up with Zack Ryder & Curt Hawkins vs The Revival, and Ricochet & Aleister Black vs Chad Gable and Bobby Roode providing some solid wrestling action for a hungry New York crowd.
Finally, we had a very odd vignette with a puppet that appeared to be a buzzard appearing from a smoking cardboard box. Many have suggested this will be the long-awaited return of Bray Wyatt, and although I’m not sure this is the right direction, if it gets him back, on TV in a new, updated persona then let’s give it a whirl. Besides, worst case this should give up some great material to laugh at when if all goes wrong. Wyatt has the ability to make many things work, as witnessed with lots of odd turns during his WWE run. Let's hope he can make the best of this, if it is indeed signalling his return.
On the Blue side of things, we got a lovely cap on the weekend with a celebration from The New Day and new WWE champion Kofi Kingston. Ok, yes, The Bar got involved again and alongside Drew McIntyre (who was reportedly injured on this show somewhere, although that is yet to be confirmed) they had a fairly throwaway six man tag against The New Day, but seeing Kingston return to Smackdown as the top dog was brilliant and outshone anything else on this show. The post-match with him celebrating with his family would melt even the iciest heart.
Becky Lynch cut a promo on Lacey Evans, but Evans got the last laugh attacking Becky afterwards, I’m all in for a match between these two. With several weeks of TV to cover, you can certainly make a case for a nice slow build for “The Man” vs “The Lady”. The Hardys vs The Usos was one of the matches of the weekend for me, as Jeff Hardy and even more so Matt Hardy turn back the clock again and again. The title change was unexpected, but very I can certainly see the reasoning. The post-match attack by Lars Sullivan was suitably impressive, and I liked that it echoed the debut of Brock Lesnar in 2002, who also attacked the brothers Hardy. Sami Zayn decided the crowd weren’t worth it, which was better than even cutting a scathing promo on the audience. Sami has been great, both here and on Raw, so I have high hopes for his immediate future.
Aleister Black, Ricochet and Mustafa Ali vs Andrade, Rusev and Shinsuke Nakamura was complete filler, but all six men put a shift in regardless to produce a fun mid-card match. The IIconics proved just how much fun they are likely to be in this role as tag champions, although the biggest intrigue came from Paige stating she was bringing a new tag team to Smackdown next week (if it’s Mandy Rose and Sonya Deville I will be very disappointed). The segment with Shane McMahon and ring announcer Greg Hamilton didn’t really do it for me, but it did further establish Shane McMahon as the egomaniac character he’s been cultivating. Finally, we got a very exciting confrontation between Samoa Joe and Braun Strowman, and although they’ve battled before I forgot how exciting a combination that could be, and now I’m desperate for them to end up on the same brand after the Superstar Shake-up.
Both Raw and Smackdown were very solid this week, with lots happening, but it is hard not to feel a bit deflated by the lack of monumental occurrences on these shows. I understand that everything will change next week and they don’t want to do anything too significant before the roster shake-up but I also can see how fans may feel a bit short-changed. That said, in a weekend where WWE have really done plenty for fans in terms of getting the outcomes that everyone wanted (Angle-Corbin aside), these were very good, functional episodes of Raw and Smackdown.
Well, that is it from me for this week. I will be back at the same time next week with a look at Raw and Smackdown with the big Superstar Shake-up, as well as whatever major stories break in the next seven days. In the meantime, keep it locked here at Screenjabber for all the best movie, Blu-ray, DVD and video game reviews, as well as all the latest news, podcasts and more. Until next time, so long folks.
PHOTOS: WWE.com & Dave Saffran/MSG Photos