wrestling / Columns

Hamilton’s Highs and Lows for January – Ben Carter’s NXT UK Debut, Live Crowd Reactions, Star Ratings

January 15, 2021 | Posted by Ian Hamilton
Ben Carter

Well, December was a quiet month in terms of matches (outside of Japan, at least), so let’s take a quick look at those and move onto some stuff that’s hopefully uplifting.

SHO vs. Hiromu Takahashi from the joint World Tag League / Best of the Super Junior tour ****¼ (12/2)

Hiroshi Tanahashi & Toa Henare vs. Los Ingobernables de Japon (SANADA & Shingo Takagi) from the joint World Tag League / Best of the Super Junior tour **** (12/4)

SHO vs. Taiji Ishimori from the joint World Tag League / Best of the Super Junior **** (12/6)

Go Shiozaki vs. Takashi Sugiura from Pro Wrestling NOAH’s The BEST ~ Final Chronicle 2020 ~ (12/6)

El Desperado vs. Hiromu Takahashi from the joint World Tag League / Best of the Super Junior finals ***** (12/11)

Loudest Reactions Live
Borrowing what’s probably been asked by the Fite TV Twitter account by now (an account which I refuse to believe at times is manned by a human being…) I want to harken back to a simpler time. Nearly three years ago, in fact, for what was the first wXw 16 Carat Gold that I attended.

Picture the scene, going into the company’s biggest show of the year (traditionally, the “middle Saturday” of Carat weekends always draw the biggest crowds), you’ve got a main event announced with WALTER challenging “Bad Bones” John Klinger for the wXw Unified World Wrestling title, complete with a mystery stipulation that WALTER earned the right to throw in… but one he chose not to reveal until the match itself.

Come bell time, WALTER revealed that he owed someone a favour, and this match would be a three-way dance. Cue delirium.

For the background, Ilja Dragunov had won 16 Carat Gold the prior year, and after a feud with his former running buddies in Cerberus – Avalanche and Julian Nero – Ilja looked to cash in his title shot at the promotion’s “Fight Forever” summer tour opener in August 2017… but he was joined by John Klinger in that same match, as Klinger cashed in his title shot, having won the Shortcut to the Top match at the start of July, with the help of the newly-formed RISE group.

With RISE running roughshod over wXw, Ilja Dragunov and former champion Jurn Simmons teamed up with others to try and get back to the top of the company. Jurn would look for help elsewhere as he tried to take the tag team titles from RISE’s Young Lions – Tarkan Aslan and Lucky Kid (now Metehan) – as Ilja would get a shot at Bad Bones once again, this time in the main event on the “middle Saturday” of October’s World Tag Team League weekend.

Once again, Ilja would fall short as he’d lose via disqualification – this time at the hands of Da Mack, who signalled his joining of RISE by intentionally cracking John Klinger with the title belt (I know…) and then admitting it to the referee. Who then loudly dropped an F-bomb before calling for the bell.

Dragunov would get one more chance at the title – at wXw’s 17th Anniversary show. In the weeks building up to it, the promotion’s Shotgun show would drop a fantastic three-part documentary that peeled back the curtain a little on Ilja Dragunov’s life outside the ring:

This was something WWE would later re-do somewhat after Ilja signed up for NXT UK – but in 2017, this was real eye-opening stuff, which called the Klinger/Dragunov match their “final battle.”

Flash forward to December 23, 2017, and that final battle lived up to the name. A bloody brawl that made full use of the no-disqualification rule that was tied to it (and also kept away any members of RISE, lest they be suspended)… but as many expected Ilja to fulfil his destiny in Oberhausen, their expected Christmas present was revealed to be a lump of coal, as a Shadow Driver finally put away Dragunov, deflating the crowd inside the Turbinenhalle.

Things would get a little weirder as Ilja tearfully left the ring, bowing to the crowd on his way out, as the VOD release ended with the words “thank you Ilja.” That was all the promotion said officially about Ilja, with promos on future episodes of Shotgun underscoring that Dragunov was done (“invincible became insignificant” – as one John Klinger promo put it). Of course, speculation ran wild: was Ilja injured? Was he about to sign for WWE? Was there something bigger at play?

All of that was part of the plan – with Dragunov’s return three months later at 16 Carat Gold bursting the roof off of the Turbinenhalle, taking wrestlers by surprise as much as it did the fans, as Dragunov had been hidden backstage before the match. It turns out that things really can be kept a secret after all!

Upward Mobility
This past week saw the debut of Ben Carter in NXT UK – a rather swift conclusion to a signing that caused consternation in some circles, particularly given how bright Ben looked in his brief sojourn with AEW.

So how’d his debut go? Well, all WWE had advertised going in was that he’d be in a talk show segment… so of course, we should have taken that as “silly you, he’s going to be in the main event 20 minutes later”.

The match itself was fine, a 12-minute loss to Jordan Devlin in an impromptu title match, but as someone who’d come in as a hot prospect off the indies, with WWE playing that up in the promo videos, we saw some flashes of Ben’s indie stuff in that match… but why on earth would you do a debut in that form? I shouldn’t be surprised, given that the same talk show segment gave us the unannounced return of Tyler Bate some weeks earlier, but those are really things that you’d at least hype up before the show started airing. You know, so people would tune in and watch it.

I’m not going to do the knee-jerk thing and say after one match that “WWE’s ruined Ben Carter” (AEW don’t pay me enough to say that, and if you believe that, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you…). Sure, I’d have debuted him differently, perhaps in more of an extended match against someone to showcase his style, rather than what was closer to a 50-50 match in defeat with the Cruiserweight champion. But that’s neither here nor there… regardless of wherever Ben landed, the in-ring was never going to be the issue. It was always going to be the surrounds.

My worry comes from looking at NXT UK’s past. No, not that past, don’t look there. I’m talking about their stunning inability to elevate people up the card. For the most part, everyone in NXT UK is at the same level they came in at – which has made for a rather lopsided roster. Case in point: Joe Coffey. Since NXT UK started, Gallus has been around in some form, and he’s mostly been in and around the top of the card. Rather than phase people down, there’s just been a crowd until folks got moved to NXT proper – see the Grizzled Young Veterans, Pete Dunne, Rhea Ripley and Toni Storm for how that worked out.

Without putting too fine a point on things, for the most part, those in NXT UK who weren’t previously used in PROGRESS haven’t gotten much sustained traction – and for that reason, perhaps I can be forgiven for being nervous when it comes to how Ben Carter will fare in a (fragment of a) promotion with only one real singles title for him to chase.

(let’s not kid ourselves, that Cruiserweight belt may as well be on ice while the travel bans and quarantines are still in effect)

Written In The Stars
I wanted to close out this piece with a topic that you’ll either love or hate. Star ratings.

From when I was getting tapes, star ratings were always a short-hand way of sorting out the wheat from the chaff – particularly if you were looking to try out something new and didn’t have the time to (say) sit through an entire year’s worth of G1 Climax matches and realise you’d wasted your money on something that (relatively speaking) wasn’t in your wheelhouse.

As time passed, with more wrestling being available online, more people giving their two cents (be it in reviews, Cagematch or just something as simple as the GRAPPL app), there’s never been more platforms for fans to find out how others received a match. Yet, when other forms of media (video games, music, and movies, to name just three) have a similar culture around them, why is there the intermittent backlash when wrestling fans share their feelings on a match?

To a point, I “get it”. For some, star ratings have moved beyond simple recommendations. For some, there’s the feeling that star ratings have become a way to grab attention. Declare something’s the best thing since sliced bread, and people take notice. Break the scale, they take notice even more. But when that scale’s broken repeatedly, then perhaps its time to hit reset.

For me, ratings have never been scientific – but it’s always been reflective of how something is at the time. I’m pretty sure if I went back and rewatched some mid-00s ROH that I loved, I probably wouldn’t be going the same with ratings as I did at the time, because the way we view wrestling in 2021 isn’t the same as it was in, say, 2006. And why, yes, that is me foreshadowing a new feature…

It shouldn’t be a science, but just like the Simpsons said about giving more than 100%…

article topics :

New Japan, WWE, Ian Hamilton