Welcome to Deadspin’s irregular pro wrestling column, in which Tom Breihan and Ernest Wilkins will comb through the past month or so of superkicks, lariats, and 450 splashes in search of the greatest things that this most American of artforms has given us.
Tom Breihan: Kevin Owens is a tubby, not-particularly-handsome wrestler from Quebec. He wrestles in a T-shirt and gym shorts, his eyes are beady and seem like they’re too close together, and his tattoos are of the “got drunk one night in freshman year and regret it terribly” variety. His entire being seems to burst with some sense of barely-contained violence. Back when he was using the name Kevin Steen, Owens spent a decade and a half wrestling in bars and field houses and American Legion halls on the independent circuit. I once watched him wrestle at an indoor pro soccer team’s practice facility. He is not anyone’s idea of a WWE star. But last Sunday, in his first official WWE main-roster match, Kevin Owens pinned John Cena clean in the middle of the ring.
The thing is: Owens is a fucking amazing wrestler, a brutish physical powerhouse with a wily outlaw charisma and the sort of self-confidence that it’s impossible to manufacture. He does moves that should be absolutely impossible for a man of his size, and he makes them look easy. During his years on the indies, he was a classic case of “if the WWE knew what was up, they’d sign this guy.” But nobody expected him to actually get signed, because he looks how he looks and his matches mostly revolved around him dropping wrestlers on their heads in ways that looked incredibly painful and dangerous. When he did get signed, people were scared that WWE wouldn’t know what to do with him. But he wrestled a fantastic, brutal, urgent back-and-forth match against Cena—easily the highlight of last month’s Elimination Chamber show—and he won. He beat the guy that almost nobody beats. It was beautiful.
Owens’ ascent is an indicator of just how fucking weird the wrestling world has become in recent months. Nobody has any idea what’s going to happen next, and anything seems possible. The WWE looked like it was stuck deep in a post-Wrestlemania rut—and it mostly still is—but then it goes and drops this spectacular Owens match on it. The old rules don’t apply. For instance, the old rule that one network can’t air shows from more than one wrestling company? That’s over now. Destination America is showing matches from TNA and Ring of Honor on the same night. And that night is Wednesday, where wrestling fans already have full plates, thanks to Lucha Underground and NXT. Ernest, what’s your take on all this insanity?
Ernest Wilkins: First, Kevin Owens is a world-class talent. His ascent was going to happen anyway, but thanks to some unfortunate injuries and bad timing, he’s getting the ball earlier than expected. I can say that in the last few years of watching wrestling, I’ve had three moments where I audibly yelled because of something that happened during a match, and Owens is responsible for two of them: his debut against Cena and his win at Elimination Chamber. He’s the truth and everyone should watch him if they aren’t already. I think someone at WWE read our last column (I hope it was Arn Anderson. Hi Arn!) because the usual rut you just spoke of isn’t happening in 2015. The E is in full “Buy this damn network or die trying” mode and because of that, we’ve gotten a bunch of pay per-view level events in a short period of time that have produced some great matches (like the aformentioned Cena vs. Owens). We’re entering an era that modern wrestling fans haven’t been exposed to but harkens back to the days of the end of the territories. Yes, some people will remain loyal to their favorite fed, but if you’re just trying to see some pro graps, you can choose between RAW, Smackdown, NXT, NJPW on AXS, Lucha Underground, TNA Impact and ROH TV. That’s 11 HOURS of wrestling in a week, and all you need is a robust cable package (or you know, access to the internet). It’s the best. Something to think about, though; Are you going to increase your wrestling viewing, Tom? I’m already in a mode where I have to play catch up on shows usually.
Tom Breihan: Too much? I don’t know. But I do know that I’m having a hell of a time keeping up with everything. I’d like to think that I’m a rabid enough wrestling fan to watch everything, but I’m just not built like that. I got kids, so something like Ring of Honor’s toxically shitty announcing team of Kevin Kelly and Steve Corino is enough to keep me from watching unless I know something incredible happened. Wednesday night is a buffet and a logjam at the same time, with both ROH and TNA on Destination America, as well as NXT on the WWE Network. And Lucha Underground, which is in there as well, is so far and away the best of them that I hope it doesn’t get overlooked in the content avalanche.
For the past couple of months, we’ve been calling LU the best weekly wrestling show on TV. At this point, I’m convinced it’s something more than that. Gun to my head, I’m pretty sure Lucha Underground is the best thing on TV right now, in any genre, no qualifiers necessary. It’s got the rich cast, the mythology that’s already been built up over just a year, and the tangible and detailed world that it’s built for itself. And it’s got amazing wrestling, too. The same week Game of Thrones ended with a particularly nasty rape scene, Lucha Underground gave us a fucking ridiculous trios-championship ladder match, with dudes flying through windows and throwing dropkicks off of balconies.
It’s just staggering how good that match was and how good the show in general has been, and I just hope people are watching. As much as I loved Cena/Owens, both as a wrestling match and as a sign of a changing climate, that trios match was probably my match of the month. What was yours?
Ernest Wilkins: May was a tough month! If we’re both agreeing that Owens vs. Cena I was up there, It’s a four-way tie for me between that match, Sasha Banks vs. Becky Lynch at NXT Unstoppable, and a two-piece of Roderick Strong vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi from ROH/NJPW War of the Worlds and the batshit insane 10-man tag match main event from ROH/NJPW Global Wars.
These matches couldn’t have been any more different but every single one of them held my full attention and should be sought out by anyone who’s either been away from pro wrestling for awhile, casual WWE fans who want to see something new or anyone who’s just now starting to watch. Lynch/Banks was a wake-up call to anyone out there who still considers women’s wrestling a “bathroom break” match. Two of the “Four Horsewomen” of NXT (the other two being Bayley and Charlotte) went out there and had a match that was equal parts technically sound and just non-stop energy. It’s a Match of the Year candidate and I’ll fight anyone who disagrees.
As for the ROH/NJPW stuff, the annual double-shot of American and Canadian shows are a wonderful opportunity for stateside fans to see all the puro (slang for puroresu, the popular term for the popular style of pro wrestling developed in Japan that’s more hard-hitting than American style) that they can handle. This year, Roderick Strong—a guy who’s been cranking it out on the indie scene for years who suddenly caught fire this year—and Hiroshi Tanahashi—basically the John Cena of New Japan—beat the dog shit out of each other for 17 straight minutes. (Weirdly enough, this match happened in TNA years ago.) Strong got busted open legit and then everything went into overdrive. If you dug Cena and Owens, check this one out. While we’re showering Strong with praise, he also did his damn thing in that 10-man tag. It wasn’t a technical masterpiece or anything resembling a traditional match. Instead, we got a spotfest that managed to thrill and spotlight everyone who participated.
Here’s the background: The Bullet Club are a stable (originally created by Karl “Machine Gun” Anderson and Fergal “You know might know him now as Finn Balor from NXT” Devitt) in New Japan that formed a few years back. The group now consists of mostly non-Japanese wrestlers like AJ Styles and the Young Bucks, who are presented as evil shit-kickers who will beat your ass, then take your girlfriend. They’re the direct descendants of 90’s stables like DX and the NWO and openly pay homage to both groups by using mannerisms from the Kliq (the real-life crew consisting of Shawn Michaels, Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, Sean “X-Pac” Waltman and Triple H that were responsible for both fake factions in WWF and WCW) including the “too sweet” hand signal and the crotch chop. (Ironically, even though they’re based in Japan, Bullet Club might be the best Southern heel stable in the business since the Fabulous Freebirds.) They went up against a group of Ring of Honor’s homegrown talents (the aforementioned Strong, the brutish new tag team War Machine and the Briscoes, who have been one of the best tag teams on Earth for the better part of a decade now) and just went nuts. Everyone is flying everywhere, there are big spots, finishers on top of finishers, it’s just absolute insanity.
Christ, I’m sweating after all of that. Figure this is a good enough time to wrap it up. We’ll see you all next time.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum. He’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical, and he writes the Netflix Action Movie Canon column for Deadspin’s Concourse. He lives in Charlottesville, VA. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Ernest Wilkins is a writer living in Chicago. He’s written for Gawker, Complex, Pitchfork, Noisey, GQ, Rolling Stone and the Chicago Tribune. He’s 5’11 on a good day, and is also on Twitter.