Welcome to Deadspin’s irregular pro wrestling column, in which Tom Breihan and Ernest Wilkins will comb through the past month of superkicks, lariats, and 450 splashes in search of the greatest things that this most American of artforms has given us.
Tom Breihan: So WrestleMania didn’t suck! It was pretty great, actually! The WWE can make some infuriating decisions sometimes, but they know how to put on a big show when it’s time to put on a big show. Sunday night’s show had a ton of great moments: The awesomely dumb D-Generation X/NWO faceoff, Ronda Rousey throwing Triple H, Rusev coming to the ring in a motherfucking tank. And it also had a main event that turned out completely riveting even if one of the two guys in it really shouldn’t have been there. Brock Lesnar and Roman Reigns, it turned out, told an amazing story: Brock the unstoppable monster, just mauling the shit out of Reigns at will. Reigns too stupidly brave for his own good, kicking out even when he should stay down and lucking into one big opening. I was so caught up in their story that I completely forgot about the possibility of Seth Rollins coming through and cashing in his Money in the Bank contract. And yet that’s what happened: A slimy bad guy walking out of Wrestlemania as the champion even without pinning Lesnar. This was great, grand-scale, unpredictable pro-wrestling storytelling, and it’s the first WWE show in a while where I couldn’t wait to see what came next. What did you think, Ernest?
Ernest Wilkins: Mania was amazing. It was kind of wild watching the reaction from mainstream outlets. I knew the Rousey thing was going to get covered, but SportsCenter aired match highlights! I can’t remember the last time I saw that happen on ESPN. One other thing to keep an eye on: Last night featured a majority of matches featuring NXT developmental alums and less of the usual Attitude Era nostalgia, save for the Sting vs. HHH match (a contest that would have been the craziest thing in history in 2001) and the tease of Rock vs. HHH next year in Dallas. The roster is getting younger, and there appears to be a resurgence in focusing on in-ring talent. You can see the direct influence of hard-hitting independent promotions like Ring of Honor on Monday nights and now NXT itself will become a version of an indie, as the promotion is set to become a touring brand with its own monthly specials later this year. With new faces, bigger spotlights and former fans who have lapsed watching starting to tuning back in, we might be entering a new era of WWE: Call it the Network Era? The $9.99 Era?
Tom: I remember watching last night and thinking that after the first couple of matches, Wrestlemania was a bit short on the former indie wrestlers who have been the best thing about the Fed in recent years. Instead, the focus seemed to be back on big guys: Cena and Rusev, Undertaker and Bray Wyatt, Lesnar and Reigns. (That’s not even a complaint. I don’t think there was a single bad match on the card last night. Even on the preshow, people were busting their asses.) But then, in the main event, a former Ring of Honor world champion swooped in unexpectedly and won everything. So yeah, I think you’re on to something.
On the Raw after Wrestlemania, a couple of NXT guys made their main-roster debuts, and it’s always a blast when that happens. In this case, they were both smaller guys who do a lot of flips, and guys like that have a history of getting lost in the shuffle on the big shows. I don’t think that’ll happen in either of these cases, though. Kallisto is a ridiculously talented luchadore who can do things that seem physically impossible, like the flip he did off of Cesaro’s shoulders last night. Honestly, the best thing that could happen to him is breaking away from his current tag team partner, the cursed luchadore Sin Cara. I have a feeling he’ll be around for a long time. And then there was Adrian Neville, now I guess just Neville, the compact young Englishman whose Red Arrow finisher is less a wrestling move and more a trapeze stunt. I wasn’t crazy about the cape he wore to the ring, but there’s no way to watch this guy and not get geeked.
Both Kallisto and Neville have put in serious time on, like, PWG and Dragon Gate USA shows, and now they’re getting their shot on the big show. That’s a beautiful thing.
Ernest, did you have a favorite moment from Wrestlemania? Or from the crazy-ass Raw the night after?
Ernest: I’ve got favorites from both, actually. From Wrestlemania, there was the ending to the Seth Rollins vs. Randy Orton match. The RKO Outta Nowhere meme has been well-documented, but man, this might be the best one. Seth Rollins is a freak of an athlete and Orton always knows how to turn it up for a big show.
As for the Raw after Mania, while the debuts of Kalisto and Neville made me really happy as a NXT watcher, there’s only one moment that could earn this spot for me.
I lost my mind during this segment. Brock flipped the announce table (Sidebar: was Monday night the first time the English announcer table was destroyed BEFORE the Spanish announcer table?) pinning JBL and Booker T to Lesnar’s F5’ing Michael Cole so hard he lost a shoe, the whole thing might have gotten a bigger reaction than Rollins did winning the title the night before. Speaking of, let’s pause for a moment of silence.
Tom: God, I didn’t know it was possible for me to love Brock Lesnar more. I don’t think there’s a better way to turn Full Psycho Babyface than to pretty much end Michael Cole, the announcer whom everyone hates, on live TV. Elsewhere on the dial, TNA has a new champion, too, though it’s not a new-new champion like the one WWE has. In London, Kurt Angle, maybe the only important Attitude Era wrestler who is still active but not working for WWE, beat Bobby Lashley to win his sixth TNA title. Leaving aside the fact that Angle is 46 years old and nowhere near his peak, this was fun!
You told me to watch this one, and I probably would’ve skipped it otherwise. But TNA always seems to have a bit more urgency when they’re taping in London, a place where they actually have fans and can count on a reaction. And Angle and Lashley match up well. They’re both bald, grossly muscly physical-specimen types with legit shoot-fighting backgrounds, and they pretty much just wound up and smashed into each other for 20 minutes. They didn’t really tell a story with the match, and nobody sold much of anything. But they’re both human fighting machines, and they just threw constant nasty shots and submissions at each other until one of them couldn’t do it anymore. It reminded me a bit of everything that happened during that one Angle/Lesnar Wrestlemania main event, before Lesnar spectacularly messed up a shooting star press and landed on his head.
Ernest: Yup! That’s still the second-biggest WWE botch of all time, after that time Owen Hart broke Stone Cold Steve Austin on an errant piledriver.
I like TNA, and have been watching for way past the point that I probably should have. The former #2 company in America (that honor belongs to NXT now, but that’s technically a 1 and 1A situation) is unfortunately known for the missteps it’s made (Google “Jeff Hardy Victory Road 2011” to get an idea of what i’m talking about) and not utilizing world-class talent like AJ Styles, Samoa Joe, Christopher Daniels, Kazarian, Matt Morgan, the Young Bucks ... (Christ, that’s depressing) while overdoing stables and factions to a point of burnout and seeming to book biweekly title changes.
However, if we’re going to crap on them when they mess up, they should get the benefit of the doubt when they excel. TNA has booked women’s wrestling better than the WWE has for years. Their Knockouts kick various flavors of ass. TNA homegrowns like Bobby Roode and James Storm have been putting on great matches while former WWE names like The Hardyz, MVP and Bobby Lashley are really playing up their strengths. Since moving to the Destination America network, they’ve attempted to reboot the brand and focus on fresh feuds and developing characters that I want to see wrestle. Funny how that works, huh? I’d recommend going back a few weeks and watching the Hair vs. Hair match between Rockstar Spud (a metrosexual imp playing underdog) and Ethan Carter III (former NXT wrestler Derrick Bateman, who went from just another guy to one of the best heels in wrestling the past 5 years). It was brutal, it was a good match, and it was a great piece of wrestling TV. Also, it’s been very interesting to note that, given the downright fucked up history of African-Americans in professional wrestling, TNA’s top feud for a decent portion of 2015 has centered around a black champion and a black #1 contender who leads a heel stable and it’s treated as completely viable and normal ... you know, the way it should be. (TNA made note of this too, proudly advertising a MVP vs. Lashley title match the last week of Black History Month in February.)
While we’re talking about non-WWE stuff, you recommended a match from Lucha Underground that I’m still in shock about. (Also: RIP to Perro Aguayo Jr.)
Tom: That hair vs. hair match from Ethan Carter and Rockstar Spud was a great bloody Memphis-style brawl, but the bloodiest match I saw in the past month was probably also the best—better than anything at Wrestlemania, even. Lucha Underground has has a long-simmering feud between Mil Muertes and Fenix, two masked luchadors. Mil Muertes’s whole thing is that he’s a representation of death—kid who was buried in rubble and saw his whole family die during a Mexico City earthquake and who came to embrace death. He’s an old-school brawler who’s built like a brick shithouse. Fenix, meanwhile, somehow represents life; the announcers talk about how he dies and comes back to life like that’s a real thing. Naturally, death personified and life personified were feuding over a girl.
That feud culminated in a Grave Consequences match, which is pretty much the exact same thing as a casket match but with Mexican Dia de los Muertes signifiers mixed in as well. It got brutal like a motherfuck, with these two guys fighting all over the warehouse set where Lucha Underground holds all its matches. Mil Muertes tore Fenix’s mask halfway off and left him bleeding puddles all over the floor, and still Fenix, who you’ve got to imagine could barely see, was still hitting crazy moonsaults off balconies. I’d say it’s the best wrestling match I’ve seen since the Lesnar/Rollins/Cena triple threat at the Royal Rumble.
At this point, Lucha Underground and Justified are the only two TV shows where I get actively pissed off that I have to wait a week to see the next one. It’s not just the best wrestling show on TV. It might be the best show, no qualifiers necessary.Did that one knock you sideways the way it did me?
Ernest: It was amazing. Puerto Rican hardcore brawler Ricky Banderas is under the hood as Muertes so I knew it was gonna get bloody but that was a whole other thing. Also, FENIX GOT HIT WITH A CASKET.
HOW, SWAY? I don’t even know. Any last words before we wrap this up?
Tom: Indie rock dorks already know this, but the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, one of our great working songwriters, just blessed us with a full album about pro wrestling. Darnielle grew up watching the stuff from the Southern California territory in the late ‘70s, and the new Mountain Goats album Beat The Champ is dedicated entirely to guys like Bruiser Brody and Chavo Guerrero, Sr. I love it. And side note: Earlier this month, I took Darnielle to a Chikara show in North Carolina, his first wrestling show in 35 years. My piece about that will be up on Stereogum this week. You?
Ernest: I was going to talk about the renewed sense of excitement about wrestling the next few months, from the next NXT special to Samoa Joe’s farewell run in ROH to the usual good stuff from New Japan, but that Rollins/Orton RKO got me hyped, so here’s a bunch of dope ass RKO’s from over the years.
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. Follow him on Twitter.