wrestling / Columns

Hamilton’s Highs and Lows for December: Hiromu Takahashi, AEW/Impact, The Well Runs Dry

December 14, 2020 | Posted by Ian Hamilton
Hiromu Takahashi

Highs and Lows went well… so here we go again!

As some expected going in, the Best of the Super Junior/World Tag League combined tour hasn’t churned out a stream of bangers… and with some of the higher profile indies in the US reducing their already-limited schedules, we’ve seen a bit of a slowdown.

So, what’s out there to recommend from November?

Hiromu Takahashi vs. Robbie Eagles from the 11/29 New Japan show was my pick of the bunch, with Eagles showing why so many were calling him the MVP of the Best of the Super Junior tournament, despite his fairly low standing.

A slight hair behind, I’ve two more matches for you: from Power Struggle at the start of the month, Minoru Suzuki vs. Shingo Takagi is the delightfully violent match that you’d expect from those two guys… while Ricky Knight Jr. vs. Will Ospreay from Rev Pro’s Epic Encounters 5 was something of a coming of age for RKJ, who’s been raising his profile albeit behind closed doors as much of the European wrestling scene remains on lockdown.

From the “four-star brigade” on my spreadsheet, most of these come from the Best of the Super Junior tournament, so here goes: Hiromu Takahashi vs. Taiji Ishimori (November 15), Hiromu vs. El Desperado (November 18), Hiromu vs. BUSHI (November 20), SHO vs. Robbie Eagles (November 20) and Robbie Eagles vs. Taiji Ishimori (November 25). Notice a pattern? Also, if you’ve got wXw NOW (or want to wait for it to drop on the WWE Network), the Bobby Gunns vs. Cara Noir rounds match from wXw’s Catch Grand Prix sixth week is well worth your time.

Working In Tandem
I had this piece ready to go… and then AEW starts to work with Impact. It’s not quite a piece of news that would make me go “select all > delete” on this column, but c’mon guys!

So yes, on the “Winter is Coming” episode of Dynamite, Kenny Omega and Don Callis ended the show by hopping in a limousine, supposedly destined for Impact Wrestling. Imagine saying THAT two and a half years ago when the Omega/Okada trilogy culminated! 2020’s been a very weird year to say the least, and one that’s seen some rather unexpected working agreements, with Impact and New Japan finally working together, in the form of Chris Bey working this month’s Super J Cup tournament.

While there are many takes on how the Impact/AEW deal will work – ranging from “it’s absolutely fantastic!” to “this is AEW lowering themselves” – it’s at least got people chattering about potential inter-promotional storylines. At time of writing, nothing has begun to play out, so this could just as easily be ROH vs. CZW as it could WWF vs. WCW, depending on what the actual aims are. Is AEW trying to be benevolent and share some spotlight with Impact? Given the news about possible departures, could this be a way to perhaps test the waters ahead of new signings, or if you’re really looking at a pipe dream, could Impact be one of the mooted “developmental” shows AEW is talking about? Will we all just sit back and enjoy the ride? Or could we be standing here in the new year with every single syllable having being analysed to death by fans on both sides?

We all know it’s going to be that last one, right?

Evolution of the Indies
Last month, I wrote about how the independent scene is in the midst of some troubling challenges – mostly caused by a mixture of the current world climate, and no less than *five* promotions in America offering contracts (WWE, AEW, Impact, ROH and MLW). After that piece went up, I was inundated with feedback from folks across wrestling agreeing with it – and sounding the warning sign that the indies are due for a big shock….

If you’ve paid any sort of attention to the British wrestling scene in the last few years, you’ll likely be familiar with the almost meme-like phrase “BritWres is dead!” A warning sign from a section of fans about the damage they perceived the WWE’s creation of NXT UK – and the associated signing spree that continues to this day. No, it’s not spelled the end of the British scene, but much like I hinted at last month in the “Arrested Development” missive, the hoovering up of the top tier… then the middle tier has left its mark.

On the heels of AEW Full Gear last month, it was reported that Tony Khan was starting to be more selective on the indie bookings that wrestlers were taking – suggesting that everyone in the match would need to have been tested *and* that the match they were doing needed to be seen as important. Some took this as a direct reaction to October’s Collective weekend – and the series of positive tests that followed, some of which caused AEW to have to change plans as those positives impacted their own talent. Others suggested that perhaps the viral spot involving Marko Stunt and Effy may have contributed – that was certainly a line of thinking posited by Jim Cornette, but one that perhaps was looking for the worst-case scenario.

So, in the doomsday scenario that everyone who’s under contract isn’t permitted to work the indies, you’re looking at a pool of talent that’s stretched but also suddenly expected to perform at a higher level. Expected to fill gaps that they may not have filled in the past.

A case in point: death-match wrestling. I’m pretty much ambivalent on it – I mean, it’s an extension of wrestling which by its nature requires participants to co-operate, and ats its base level, “what’s the difference between cooperating on a bodyslam or a weapon shot”? In recent times though, a quick look at the results for ICW No Holds Barred’s recent events highlights a few names that aren’t known for dabbling in the “blood and guts” graps – even if they’re staying the hell away from light tubes, gusset plates and barbed wire. Folks like Tony Deppen, Dominic Garrini and Chris Dickinson have taken to either ICW’s chained ring or their newer MMA cage “Pitfighter” gimmick… now, is that because deathmatches are the new hot thing, or is it because those are making up the higher profile shows that are running in the current timeline?

Staying with promotions that are a) running and b) have a bit of a penchant for death matches, you’d have noticed a slight change in the names that are appearing on GCW’s cards – namely, the addition of names out of Impact Wrestling, with the likes of Chris Bey and Rich Swann returning to the cards. Is that a downgrade? Absolutely not, but when you’re seeing different names just plugged into the same “dream matches, no storylines” format, it should be a warning sign.

Eventually the pool of “big league” names will eventually start to run dry… and then, the formula will need to change.

The European Restart?
The past few weeks have thrown plenty of fresh hope for all of us, what with the news of several viable and effective vaccines against Covid-19 being found. So it’s perhaps understandable that some are starting to look at how shows with fans might resume.

I’ve spoken before about how only a handful of shows have run in Europe with fans since March – but in terms of “big name” European companies that have run regularly, you’re pretty much looking at two: wXw in Germany, and Rev Pro out of England (and before anyone fires off in the comments, I know the likes of Championship of Wrestling, Rings of Europe, FutureShock and WAW have run, but wXw and Rev Pro have ties to larger promotions…)

ICW’s return to taping new content, in the form of new episodes of Fight Club for release on the WWE Network has sort-of left PROGRESS out on an island. EVOLVE’s closed their doors, and with WWE’s other European “partners” (for want of a better term) having produced content, what was at one point England’s hottest promotion hasn’t made any noises about starting up again, save for posting some provisional dates for 2021 that, start off being wildly optimistic. While PROGRESS may well have taped stuff in secret, it’s more than likely to have been empty-arena stuff as current UK Government guidelines will be restricting the attendances of such shows until the spring of 2021.

The other question is: just what would those shows look like? Going by how wXw and ICW have done their “covid-era” shows, anyone contracted to WWE is off limits, which takes out a pretty sizeable part of PROGRESS’ roster, in and out of the ring, with new ring announcers and commentators needed alongside the wrestlers who’d be off-limits with those WWE contracts.

For the short-to-medium term around the world, it’s quite likely that the restrictions we’ve had in place will continue – so that’s distanced fans, wearing masks and lots of hand sanitizer, to put it bluntly. Will those restrictions begin to fall as the vaccines start to be rolled out? More than likely, but even then there’s the question of how you proceed from there. Some airlines have already talked about wanting to see proof of immunisation before allowing you to board – and while independent wrestling shows will absolutely not have the budget to do that sort of thing, it could easily be something we see at the very top level, whether enforced by law or otherwise.

Where Are The Young Lions?
The most recent World Tag League/Best of the Super Junior tour has varied in terms of quality of matches – but it has shone a light on something… New Japan’s well of Young Lions seems like its running dry.

While you can certainly point to the pandemic as a reason for a slowdown in recruitment, it doesn’t explain the lack of new graduates. April 2018 was the last time we saw any new faces appear on cards, with Yota Tsuji and Yuya Uemura being the most recent debutants – debuting on the same Lion’s Gate Project show. While Uemura marked his debut with a defeat to Ren Narita, Tsuji’s loss to Tomoyuki Oka (now the Great-O-Khan) perhaps underscores the time that’s passed – with Oka having gone and returned from excursion in that timeframe.

Their debuts came four months after the conclusion of 2017’s Young Lion Cup – a tournament that saw the field of six split into three equal groups: completed an excursion, since gone on excursion, and disappeared completely, with Oka and Hirai Kawato (Master Wato) having returned under new gimmicks, while Ren Narita and Shota Umino went out on excursion before the pandemic hit. As for the other two, well, Katsuya Kitamura’s retirement from wrestling was shrouded in rumour, while Tetsuhiro Yagi and Teruaki Kanemitsu left after injury.

However, something else that 2018 and 2019 did do though, was swell the numbers of dojos associated to New Japan – which brought the likes of Karl Fredericks, Clark Connors, Alex Coughlin, and Michael Richards in for 2019’s Young Lion Cup. Since then of course, we’ve seen Gabriel Kidd have upwards of sixty matches as he stayed in Japan – sharing Young Lion duties with Messrs. Uemura and Tsuji… and while we had seen other faces in the ringside attendant roles in the recent past, including Joe Bailey/Bailey Matthews, we’ve not seen any fresh additions to the legion of pin-eaters.

Hopefully 2021 brings some new blood – if only for the sake of the progression of Uemura and Tsuji, the latter of whom was already being pegged as someone who was up against it due to starting late…

I’ve not been shy about saying that I’ve not watched Raw or SmackDown in well over a decade, so the majority of my episodic wrestling TV watching is currently coming from AEW/NXT (albeit on a week delay there) and the hour-long shows out of NXT UK, NJPW Strong, MLW and whatever wXw is putting out. So, focusing on the hour-long shows, it’s very easy to fall into a pattern, particularly in the current era where promotions are recording shows in bulk to protect themselves from any sudden shifts in covid restrictions.

Since NXT UK came back, one of my biggest gripes is that the shows very much have fallen into some traps when it comes to patterns. Perhaps the biggest ones are how they’re simply not capitalising on themselves. In the months since the show returned, we’ve had two milestone matches – the WALTER vs. Ilja Dragunov title match, and the Heritage Cup final. Both of which were followed up on on the next show with… nothing.

Could you imagine if “main roster” WWE did that? Having a big time main event on NXT one week, then not even bringing it up the following week – be it in video packages, commentary or even one of those in the match appearing for a promo. It’s one of the reasons why NXT UK has been considered a show that’s infuriating to follow. Not for random, stop-start pushes… not for storylines vanishing into thin air… but for things that one week were important being treated as anything but in the aftermath.

Don’t get me started on the (over)use of the 50-50 matches that see them keep someone warm for a future push, often at the expense of someone who’s long-since been slotted at that level. Which is fine if you’re not going anything with them, but since the restart they tried to repackage Saxon Huxley… and kept him in the same spot.

Now more than any other time in British wrestling’s history, WWE’s got the pick of the proverbial litter. They’re pretty much the only game in town – and while the result may lead to contracted guys not working – would it not be more prudent in the long run to perhaps bring in some “enhancement” talent for these shows, rather than to continually put the same faces in the same slots?

article topics :

AEW, Impact, New Japan, NXT UK, Ian Hamilton