WrestleMania week is invariably a dizzying experience, and the one that recently sprawled over the course of a full week in and around New York City was no exception. There were way too many shows this year spread across too many locations, and even sleeping in my own bed every night, not attending any WWE events (a wise move, given those fucking blinding lights ruining another overlong WrestleMania live), and doing minimal venue-hopping, I still found myself fighting to stay awake during at least one afternoon show. Last year in New Orleans I went to eight shows from Thursday afternoon through late Sunday night, but one was WrestleMania, one was WWN’s WrestleMania wrap-up party featuring the monsters of Kaiju Big Battel, and one was the supplementary action at WWE Fan Axxess. This year, between Wednesday and Saturday nights, approximately a 78-hour period, I went to nine, all but one of which was an indie show and four of which were on Thursday alone. It was, in retrospect, a strange and masochistic choice, overly difficult and weirdly exhausting. I loved it, of course.
Here, for everyone who wouldn’t or couldn’t sacrifice their well-being on the altar of wrestling, is a rundown of the best and worst and weirdest shows of WrestleMania week. If you want to see what you missed, most of these shows are available to stream via the FITE internet PPV app or the Independent Wrestling TV or Highspots Wrestling Network subscription services.
Wednesday, 8:00 p.m.: With my friend Matt getting pulled into producer duty, my ride to Pizza Party Wrestling in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey was suddenly leaving too early. So I rolled the dice on taking a New Jersey Transit bus from Port Authority, which ended up being relatively painless during rush hour. The venue, the Phil Sheridan Building, is Ridgefield Park’s local Knights of Columbus hall and perfect for smaller independent wrestling shows. There’s a small stage for the announcers and hard camera, a snack bar, and a great atmosphere. It’s difficult to get to without a car, but you knew that when you read the “New Jersey” part.
I met up at the venue with a bunch of my southern friends, who had driven or flown up for the weekend, and settled in for...a very strange wrestling show built around a main event bout between Fred Yehi and Daniel Makabe. The undercard was the weird part, and entertaining enough—a weird mix of more known talent, like Australian standout/NJPW star Robbie Eagles, and largely unknown Jersey wrestlers. The crowd was mostly there for either pizza and/or the main event, which delivered as advertised. It was an intense struggle built around technical wrestling, and it benefitted greatly from a setting that put everyone close to the action. It likely would have lost something in even a high school gym-sized venue, but in this unassuming space it popped hard. Check this out when it hits YouTube.
Thursday, noon: I arrived a few minutes late for Independent Wrestling TV’s Family Reunion, the first of 11 shows in three days at The Collective, Game Changer Wrestling’s hub of events at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City. This one was a straightforward selection of matches from different promotions carried on the IWTV streaming service, plus some inter-promotional showcases. It was fun overall, but the highlight was the main event, where St. Louis Anarchy’s Gary Jay and Jake Parnell did battle for 20 minutes in a “last man standing” match. This was the second time I’ve seen them against each other live and they were as violent as expected. Which is to say they were extremely violent, chopping the hell out of each other, going through chairs and doors, and fish hooking each other with a disconnected turnbuckle. Between that slugfest, an all-action six man tag team match from my friends at Southern Underground Pro, and fun undercard performances from local favorite Mike Verna and others, it would have been worth the price of admission. However, admission was free with my IWTV subscription. Even better!
Thursday, 4:00 p.m.: Time for the now-annual experimental show of the week, Game Changer Wrestling Presents Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport, a no-ropes, MMA-inspired kumite. The first show, which was produced by future WWE-signee Matt Riddle, sure looked like the weirdest event of the 2018 weekend, but even with some hiccups it delivered a fun, brisk show that was widely well-received. The concept was refined this year, with clearly defined rules and competitors who mostly had legitimate fighting backgrounds. Even with the stronger MMA aesthetic, though, the card maintained the variety and broader insanity of the first try. Every match was different from the next, and there were plenty of pleasant surprises.
As this was my vote for the best overall show of the week, I will run it down in a little more detail. Killer Kross, the sociopathic heavy in Impact Wrestling, had his breakout match with Davey Boy Smith Jr., a modern twist on early Japanese faux MMA. Technician Jonathan Gresham had the card’s one style-clash match with MMA fighter turned death match specialist Masashi Takeda, and it was brilliant. Catch wrestlers Timothy Thatcher and Hideki Suzuki had a sort of ’70s style bout resembling a old school world title march, which the crowd ate up. They went even more nuts for the war and spectacle of Barnett vs. Minoru Suzuki minutes later. Because there are so many more hours of wrestling to address, I will just encourage you to check out the whole show. It’s worth it.
Thursday, a little after 7:00 p.m.: I rushed out of Jersey City to join Deadspin’s own Dan McQuade at WrestleCon Supershow at the Hilton in midtown. As is tradition, this show was built around surprises, and because last year’s were gigantic—most notably Minoru Suzuki and NJPW “ace” Hiroshi Tanahashi—some fans surely showed up with unrealistically high expectations. NJPW had their own show this year, though, and wrestlers from Japan’s Dragon Gate promotion cancelled due to visa issues, which meant some of the surprises were revealed in advance as a make-good. That included the legendary Jushin Thunder Liger, who books himself internationally with NJPW’s permission. None of that should take away from this being not just a great show, but a massive success. The sold-out crowd of about 1,800 fans brought in over $100,000 in gate receipts.
The two biggest advertised matches—NJPW’s Will Ospreay vs. ROH’s Bandido and a battle of stars from Mexico’s CMLL, Dragon Lee vs. Cavernario—both delivered in a big way. Fans even threw money into the ring after Lee-Cavernario—a match that you can watch in its entirety for free, by the way—as per Mexican lucha libre tradition. Liger, the greatest junior heavyweight in wrestling history, got the loudest reaction of the night in a lighthearted bout that teamed him up with X-Pac, WWE’s best smaller wrestler of the ‘90s, and The Hurricane, WWE’s longest-reigning cruiserweight champion. The show also featured multiple strong performances from the Mexican talent, with newcomer Arez standing out. Only one match really underwhelmed—Zack Sabre Jr. and Shane Strickland are both fine performers, but this was the wrong kind of style clash—really underwhelmed. Otherwise it was an incredibly high quality show.
Unfortunately, it started late due to the late arrival of the athletic commission-mandated ambulance, which meant that…
Thursday, 11:30 p.m.: Despite splitting a Lyft to save time over the train, I arrived in the middle of the third match of Absolute Intense Wrestling’s Slumber Party Massacre in Jersey City. With 500-plus fans in the building, this was probably the best-attended Jersey City show not thrown by Game Changer Wrestling. It was a good one, too, and the crowd was electric throughout.
More than that, it was an entirely authentic AIW show, with company regulars in every single match and talent from their wrestling school up and down the card. Japanese legend Shinjiro Ohtani was also there, but AIW had been flirting with that kind of star import before this card, and Ohtani’s opponent, Eddie Kingston, is an AIW mainstay. That match tore the house down and capped an incredible night for Kingston, who had also wrestled Masato Tanaka, Ohtani’s former tag team partner, just four hours earlier at Supershow. There was solid action up and down the card beyond that, from a trademark AIW spectacle in the form of Scott Steiner vs. [Horn]Swoggle to an intense Nick Gage-Mance Warner brawl that nearly ended up in my lap. Figure an awesome atmosphere into the equation and this may have been the most purely fun card I saw.
Friday, 3:30 p.m.: I finally did it. I opted to let myself sleep instead of going to WrestleCon’s U.S. vs. the World card. This was a self-care move, but I was also saving energy for Black Label Pro’s Adventures in Wrestling in Jersey City. I was greeted by my friend and BLP color commentator Sarah Shockey on the PATH train, which seemed auspicious, and we walked to the venue with stops at Duane Reade—Sharpies, for her to sign the artwork she did for the show—and TrueValue Hardware, so that I could get some protective goggles and masks. I will explain that shortly. I had not managed my sleep well, and started to lose my resolve/energy a bit during this one. It was not the fault of anyone involved. WrestleMania Weekend just takes it out of you.
I managed to get back up for the big matches, especially the show closer of Jonathan Gresham vs. Japanese indie wrestler Shigehiro Irie, an athletic powerhouse who stepped in as late replacement for Dragon Gate visa casualty Masato Yoshino. While that might might be more interesting stylistically on paper, Irie impressed and the crowd reacted at a level they hadn’t for the rest of the show. It was a good time overall, although the opener, Ethan Page vs. Kobe Durst for the BLP Title, was hard to watch at times as a result of an overload of hard shots to the head.
Friday, 8:00 p.m.: Ah yes, time for Game Changer Wrestling Presents Joey Janela’s Spring Break 3, Part 1. Joey himself opened the show in his return from knee surgery against his friend Marko Stunt, who was making a surprise return from a broken leg. It was one hell of an opener, a creative thriller that featured the two somehow fighting while crowd surfing. Things swiftly took the typical surrealistic turn that defines Janela-produced shows, as Tony Deppen hit the ring to challenge a fan from the crowd. At August’s Lost in New York show, Stunt became an overnight star answering a similar challenge from KTB. This time, Deppen chose a fan with no legs sitting in a wheelchair on the stage. Obviously, the “fan” was a trained wrestler—Dustin Thomas—but the shock of it and Thomas’s flying moves blew the roof off the place.
It got weirder. The Invisible Man took on his brother, Invisible Stan, who had previously tried to murder him. (Don’t ask.) Skilled wrestlers can absolutely put on entertaining matches featuring a nonexistent human, but how do you have a match between TWO nonexistent humans? A uniquely skilled referee, it turns out. Bryce Remsburg, with the help of a cooperative crowd—and one well-placed string—somehow totally made it work. Within hours, it got him booked with new national startup All Elite Wrestling. Not bad for a night’s work.
About the mask and goggles from earlier: I got them for the main event death match, in which Masashi Takeda and Jimmy Lloyd smashed each other with fluorescent light tubes for eight minutes, sending mercury dust into the air and small pieces of glass—pieces too light to pick up velocity and do damage to most of the body, thankfully—flying into the crowd. After the show, I hang with some of the GA/TN contingent at their Airbnb for a while before heading off to get some sleep before...
Saturday, 2:00 p.m.: I headed back to midtown to check out the last two hours of WrestleCon, which had three floors of ballrooms filled with vendor tables. No autographs or photo ops for me, although I did pick up a bunch of old magazines from the AIW table, some cool NJPW fan-art charms and lapel pins, and an action figure of Kemonito, the little blue monkey lucha libre mascot. (Again, it’s best if you don’t ask.) Thankfully, I had time to head home to drop off my bags and come back to midtown for…
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.: ...Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wrestling’s G1 Supercard at Madison Square Garden, the first ever non-McMahon pro wrestling card held at the current MSG. It turned out that the pre-show, featuring the Honor Rumble battle royal, had actually started much earlier than the announced 7:30, but the show itself got off to a great start with ROH TV Champion Jeff Cobb knocking off NEVER Openweight Champion Will Ospreay to leave with both titles. From there, a frustrating pattern quickly emerged. The all-NJPW matches and the inter-promotional bouts requiring negotiated outcomes were all good to great; the all-ROH matches, though, were without exception overlong slogs. As with last year’s ROH show at Lakefront Arena, this was all just too damn long; unlike last year’s show, Ring Of Honor’s MSG debut also featured the crowd-killing debuts of former WWE and Impact Wrestling performers who entered the company as square pegs to ROH’s round holes.
And yet Kota Ibushi’s win over Tetsuya Naito was probably the best match I’ve ever seen live at MSG, so I wasn’t TOO bothered when I had to leave early for…
Saturday, midnight: ...Jersey City, where it was time for Game Changer Wrestling Presents Joey Janela’s Spring Break 3, Part 2: The Greatest Clusterfuck. The plan had been for the show to start more or less on time...but that was with the idea that the MSG show would be over by 11:00, giving everyone plenty of time to get on the PATH. Since a significant portion of the ticket holders hadn’t shown up yet, they ended up delaying the start until about 12:40, at which point Janela hit the ring. This time, he faced Jungle Boy, the son of the late Luke Perry, who had returned to the ring just the night before and picked up a win here.
The night’s potential highlight was next, as the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express, who are now in their early sixties, turned back the clock to have a great match with Impact Wrestling Champions LAX. This wasn’t smoke and mirrors, either: Robert Gibson looked as fast as he did in his prime, while Ricky Morton did as much physically as he has in years, even diving to the floor. The post-match was arguably the emotional highlight of the week, with LAX in tears as they saluted their elders. Gibson tied his bandanas around Santana and Ortiz’s wrists to signify a passing of the torch.
As for the titular Clusterfuck, Spring Break’s ersatz Royal Rumble? There were something like 60 people in it, and it ended without a winner when a contingent of female wrestlers—led by Australia’s Shazza McKenzzie—invaded the place, tore up the ring, destroyed the referees, broke light tubes on Jimmy Lloyd’s head, and dragged out a semiconscious Janela, stripped to his underwear and defaced with lipstick. Shazza had been calling Janela a sexist for weeks on Twitter for not having women’s matches on the show.
Then the feed cut out on the internet pay-per-view, and the show wrapped up amid “IS IT OVER?” chants. As I walked outside at 3:00 a.m., I encountered a bloodied Jimmy Lloyd smoking a cigarette. It was a relief to know that I wasn’t going to WrestleMania, which was slated to start in just 14 hours. Nothing was going to top what I’d just experienced.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.