wrestling / Columns

Hamilton’s Highs & Lows For November: WALTER vs. Ilja Dragunov, Storyless Matches, More

November 18, 2020 | Posted by Ian Hamilton
NXT UK WALTER Ilja Dragunov

Since the vast majority of October’s pick of matches came from the G1 – a tournament we’ve already recapped here on 411 – I’m going to try something different this month in place of “The Lookup”.

So first, if you’ve not had a chance to watch much wrestling in October, here’s some of my recommendations… and yes, that Collective weekend feels so long ago. I’ll be filtering out the G1, since we already covered that here.

Lee Moriarty vs. Daniel Makabe from SUP’s Swing of the Axe on October 9 is my personal match of the month. As much as flashy flips and dives can make you go “ooh”, sometimes all you want from a wrestling match is something that looks like a battle of wills. A battle between two guys with the same style wanting to see who was the better man – without necessarily resorting to cheap tactics.

Elsewhere from the Collective, take a look at:

Lee Moriarty vs. ACH – GCW For The Culture (****¼)
Tom Lawlor vs. Homicide – GCW Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport 3 (****¼)
Chris Dickinson vs. Jon Moxley – GCW Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport 3 (****¼)
Dezmond Xavier vs. AJ Gray – GCW For The Culture (****)
Lee Moriarty vs. Jonathan Gresham – GCW Joey Janela’s Spring Break 4 (****)
Jaden Newman vs. Anthony Henry – SUP Swing of the Axe (***¾)
AR Fox vs. 2 Cold Scorpio – GCW For The Culture (***¾)
Violence Is Forever vs. Besties In The World (c) (Davey Vega & Mat Fitchett) – Black Label Pro Threat Level Noon (***¾)
Alex Shelley vs. Lee Moriarty vs. Tre Lamar – AIW Thunder in Indianapolis (***¾)
ACH vs. Lio Rush – GCW Joey Janela’s Spring Break 4 (***¾)
ACH vs. AJ Gray – Glory Pro Are Ya Wrestling Son? (***¾)

Other stuff from October that’s worth your time…

Isaias Velazques vs. Alex Shelley from the Black Label Pro Turbo Graps 16 Final…
Emil Sitoci vs. Bobby Gunns from the season 2 finale of wXw Shotgun 2020
Imperium (WALTER & Alexander Wolfe) vs. Ilja Dragunov & Pete Dunne from NXT UK
Zack Sabre Jr., Taichi & DOUKI vs. Hirooki Goto, Tomohiro Ishii & YOSHI-HASHI from the first night of New Japan’s Road to Power Struggle

Oh… and of course, WALTER vs. Ilja Dragunov from NXT UK TV. So many people have that ranked as their match of the year so far, which is very 2020.

Right, now onto “the gripes”…

Basic Booking
In this current part of the pandemic, it’s become pretty clear which promotions are running (with whatever level of precautions)… and it’s also clear who’s “in play”, even if promotions are running ad-hoc events, or taping stuff in bulk.

With all that in play, what exactly is stopping the indies from running storylines? The knock on promotions like GCW is that the vast majority of indie shows these days is “dream matches” rather than build up to anything. Yes, I know GCW currently have a storyline with Ricky Shane Page and Nick Gage (which is currently on ice), but what about the rest of the shows?

Some indies could be forgiven for being put off doing anything long-term, because of the risk of WWE or AEW signing away a key part of their storyline – which could force them to wrap it up quicker than expected or just suddenly drop it, causing further issues coming out of the story. So… who is doing this, and if not, why not?

We’ve seen wXw and Rev Pro tape a lot of content ahead of time, both in the form of Shotgun (and the ongoing Catch Grand Prix shows), and Rev Pro’s Epic Encounters specials. Now, while the latter has been dogged with technical and production issues, there is a very good argument to be made that, in the Epic Encounters bubble, Rev Pro have done a damn good job of booking a core cast of characters.

Across the four shows, we’ve seen Dan Moloney, Kyle Fletcher and Ricky Knight Jr. all step-up and stake a claim for a British Heavyweight title shot. In Moloney’s case, that was through extending a winning run that he carried through from the “pre-lockdown times”, while Fletcher and RKJ’s win in a tag team match led them both staking their claims… even though part of this was sped-up by RKJ losing his Southside Speed King title to Michael Oku (and seemingly put the rematch on the back burner for now).

So far, Fletcher’s had his title shot (and lost), while RKJ did the same with his on November 15… as for Dan Moloney, well, a shock loss to Mad Kurt seems to have put him out of contention, with Dan and RKJ now having to win the vacated Southside title in order to get a shot at Will Ospreay’s title. The big problem for Rev Pro for me – and it has been for a while – is the production values. Longer-term viewers (or those who’ve just watched some of their Live at the Cockpit shows) will know what I’m referring to. Wandering cameras, smudged lenses, out of focus shots…

Going back to the original point though – you shouldn’t need to have a closed set and a restricted roster on hand to be forced into telling stories. While I’m always a sucker for “dream matches”, I would much rather have my wrestling tell a story – with a beginning, a middle and an end. Do that, and you’ve got my interest, and most likely, my money…

Arrested Development
It’s a sign of the times, but there’s a lot of guys getting signed for “on the job training.”

The “ideal candidate” for a contract has changed through the years. For a long while, in WWE, barely anybody who wasn’t ripped or at least 6’ 5” wasn’t getting signed. Then, when the indies got hot, it was best summarised as “anyone who was getting buzz” – although at that time, the indies were chock full of guys who had carved out a name for themselves, having not been picked up before… but you can only go down that route so long before the pool empties.

Especially once you consider the proliferation of promotions offering contracts – with TNA/Impact and ROH being joined by MLW, WWE’s NXT expansions and of course, the newest big fish in the wrestling pond that is AEW. Add in the current world situation, and things have gotten a little more expeditious. Look at AEW – when lockdowns and travel restrictions hit, a decent chunk of their roster was put on ice overnight. Gone overnight were the Death Triangle, gone were the imports from Japan such as Riho and Yuka Sakazaki… the names who came in from Europe, such as Shanna, Bea Priestley and Jamie Hayter. Those gaps in the roster, you’ll notice, hit the women’s roster particularly hard, but that leads to a whole new argument for another day.

As the current pandemic isn’t letting up, and wrestling promotions are continuing to run, you’re seeing something we always see: a desire to freshen things up. Especially when you consider the “Wednesday Night Scuffle” dynamic that continues to exist between AEW and NXT – you either bring in new faces, new gimmicks, or things threaten to get stale. We’ve seen that on both sides, particularly during the summer when it felt like almost every other episode of NXT and Dynamite was a special for one reason or another.

So, how do you scout talent when the indies aren’t running as much as they used to? I mean, ues, you can look at old tapes, but that’ll only get so you so far.

Back in July, I talked about how AEW’s inflation of Dark was a positive, if only because it was giving indie guys a payday. Since then, we’ve seen a bunch of those names getting signed. Will Hobbs put pen to paper and is starting to build up wins – and establish himself in a feud with Team Taz. Preston Vance was plucked from relative obscurity to becoming part of the Dark Order alongside another graduate of Dark in Alan Angels.

Other names suspected to have signed or at least be in the discussion based on their performances on Dark include KiLynn King, Lee Johnson, Max Caster, Anthony Bowens and Griff Garrison – with the swelling of the AEW roster leaving them in pretty good place for that rumoured “third show” that may hit the airwaves in 2021, while generally giving them more options and more depth for their entire product.

However, with the indies in general being over-fished, you’re invariably getting different levels of talent. For every Anthony Bowens whom had people vouching for him for years, with seven years of experience, you’ll be getting someone who isn’t quite as polished. Anna Jay got signed with just six matches under her belt (per Cagematch), while over in WWE-land, a similar move saw Aleah James get signed with a shade over 30 matches to her name.

Without getting all Jim Cornette on this, but “back in my day,” because wrestling does of course have a record of taking athletes from other sports (mostly American Football) and shaping them into wrestlers. Heck, Bill Goldberg is perhaps the best example of transplanting someone from one sport and turning them into a star in wrestling (with El Gigante… perhaps not). But those are very lofty goals.

Ridge Holland – currently on the injured list on NXT – is perhaps the best recent example of that. Leaving the sport of rugby league, he began training and quickly caught the eye of WWE scouts. Problem was, without much of an indy career to speak of, there was no way he was getting a visa – so off he went to work the UK indies briefly, working for the likes of NGW, 3CW and (briefly) Defiant, until he was able to get that visa. Sure, it wasn’t until late 2019 when Ridge made TV regularly, for NXT UK, before the worldwide shutdown led to him becoming a part of NXT (until the injury), but even with that accelerated development, with indie dates and NXT house shows, you were still looking at three or so years of regular gigs before being “ready.”

How does this look in the current era? When your AEWs of the world are only running once a week (well, twice if you count the Dark tapings without fans), and WWE’s just doing TV, there’s fewer and fewer chances to get reps in – no matter how much you’re doing in practise rings or at your mate’s wrestling school.

Is that necessarily a bad thing? That all depends on how new faces get introduced – but if you’re expecting someone really new to hit the ground running, then expectations all around ought to be tempered.

Let’s Tie These Together
This past weekend saw Alex Zayne have his final match with Game Changer Wrestling – and despite having appeared for Ring of Honor and New Japan this year, he’s not been announced for the upcoming Super J Cup… so draw whatever conclusions you wish.

Unlike some other signees, there’s not been much hand-wringing over Zayne’s departure for whichever pastures he’s off to. While Cagematch has a 2007 match listed, and nothing else until 2013, let’s take the “worst case” scenario and just attribute the last four and a bit years on the indies that saw him hold HOPE Wrestling’s Young Guns title (from a British promotion… despite him not having wrestled in Europe). Promotions like IWA:MS, 3-2-1 Battle!, Without a Cause were some of his mainstays, before breaking out last summer as part of GCW’s Backyard Wrestling show.

I remember watching that show and being overawed – and of course, Zayne was brought back, adding bookings from many other promotions in the meantime.

That in turn led to a brief tour in Japan with Big Japan, OWE, and the now-defunct WRESTLE-1 before he returned to the States for a ROH debut against Bandido, and some dates with New Japan’s US-arm. Then “2020 happened.” GCW would be one of the first companies in America to spin up again, using Zayne frequently – again in their Backyard Wrestling show on July 4, and in several other scrambles. Thing is, with no storyline or any kind of direction, these were just matches. There was no storyline in the works (save for the base “who’s the better man?” story, which most of the time wasn’t being played up), no feud being built to… it was “just matches.”

Would being part of a storyline or a feud across the indies have changed the decision? Maybe, maybe not, but at its most transactional level, if all you’re getting out of wrestling is the performance side, and the offer is there, then you may as well be getting paid well for it. Especially in the uncertain times we’re still in…

How’s The UK Scene Looking?
With the UK joining a lot of Europe in having a second lockdown, it’s almost a lock that there’ll be no new shows running in what’s left of 2020… so how do things go in 2021?

While you can point to shows running in the US and Japan without any major flare-ups (outside of perhaps the Collective), there’s not been that many shows actually run in the UK with fans in attendance. Save for Futureshock in Manchester and WAW in Norwich, fans haven’t been at shows regularly since March… not that there’s been that many shows running.

In the intervening period, there’s been questions raised about just where wrestling sits within UK law – and for the most part, it looks to be in the same boat as theatrical performances. What that means is, assuming that venues take the relevant precautions, shows could be resuming once generalised lockdown restrictions are lifted. Those Futureshock shows in Manchester ran as double-headers with a very limited card – with no more than a dozen names across the two shows. The main question though, is who’s going to blink first?

article topics :

Alex Zayne, GCW, NXT UK, Ian Hamilton