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WWE Cruiserweight Classic recap, reactions & video highlights (Aug. 24, 2016): Evolution

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With the six participants in the Cruiserweight Classic (CWC) on Aug. 24, I wasn't sure if I was on the network or WWNLive, as we saw six WWN regulars between Evolve and the now defunct Dragon Gate USA on the card.

This episode once again showcased something I love about the CWC, which is the differing styles from match to match. In WWE, sometimes matches can feel a little too similar to one another because of the very specific house style (I'm not saying it's a soft style Miz, I promise! Please don't cut a shoot promo on me!).

Whereas here, Gulak v. Sabre was about as different as could be from Dorado v. Swann, but both were hugely entertaining. I could see any of the three matches being a person’s match of the night depending on their style preferences, because all three were excellent at what they were trying to be.

Rich Swann v. Lince Dorado

This match more than any in the tournament felt like what first comes to mind when you think of Cruiserweight Wrestling because of its history in WCW. This was fast paced, spot heavy, and balls to the wall pretty much from start to finish. The athleticism on display was excellent and both guys pulled off some really tremendous stuff. One particular spot that really stood out was the dive to the floor, because the hangtime that Dorado got was really impressive, but the fast paced opening sequence was also awesome.

The big thing that kept it all together was their chemistry from their history working against each other in both singles and multi-man matches dating back to 2010. The only weak spot of the match were some really weak looking strikes in a big moment undercutting the facial expression Swann pulled that got the crowd fired up. Felt like a major anti-climax. When they stayed in their lane, which was athleticism and flips, this was really good.

Drew Gulak v. Zack Sabre Jr.

This was a really important match for Zack Sabre Jr., who did not receive a particularly warm reception for his first round match after being one of the most touted figures in the field coming into the tournament. This match was a rematch of an excellent match Gulak and Sabre had at Evolve 57 back in March, but very differently contested tonight. The Evolve match was a tactical contest about Gulak being prepared for Sabre’s A-game of going after the arm and forcing him into a B-plan, whereas this match was built around Gulak’s frustration that Sabre is being touted in this tournament as the best technical wrestler in the world and his desire to prove that Sabre is a pretender and that in reality, he’s the best.

What made this match so excellent were the reversals and transitions from hold to hold and how everything built. The counter wrestling on display was tremendous, but it never felt over-rehearsed or inauthentic, it was just a logical, natural, and clever flow from hold to hold, sequence to sequence, and act to act. Some of the counters and reversals were just beautiful and things I’ve never seen from either guy, and they all made sense and fit. I’ve rarely seen Zack’s signature spots integrated as naturally as they were in this match.

What I love about Gulak is that he does this grappling style, but he’s so violent with everything he does. He’ll stretch you, sure, but he’ll also hit those brutal looking rope assisted stomps or that vicious suplex right into the ring ropes. Zack’s flexibility was also hugely valuable here. The way Gulak was able to stretch him was sickening at times in the best possible way. The Gory Special arm cross was reminiscent in its brutality to Sasha stepping on Becky’s arm at Unstoppable to bend it all the way behind her back. That kind of violence and intensity adds so much to his performance.

Another big thing I love in these types of grappling contests is that moment where tempers boil over and things break down for a minute to let that frustration out, and I thought they sold that brilliantly here with the huge palm strike and kick exchange late in the match that got the crowd incredibly hot. And then we went into the really hot finishing stretch shortly after the strike exchange which saw Zack manage to steal one at the end from a guy who had seemed to have the edge in the match but got taken out by one last crafty counter from the technical wizard.

They worked this so much smarter than Sabre’s round one match and it kept the crowd connected and invested in the match throughout. This one is up there with the Gargano/Ciampa and Alexander/Ibushi match as my favorite of the tournament thus far. Credit to Sabre for advancing, but Gulak was incredibly impressive in this match, and I’m hopeful WWE offers him a contract.

Johnny Gargano v. TJ Perkins aka TJP #DreamTeam

First we have to talk about the brilliant decision that they made here to play up an injury that Johnny was going to receive like a month later in this match because of the nature of how the two events were going to be aired. That kind of high level attention to detail is incredible. This was taped around a month ago, and they had already known how the Brooklyn match was going to finish, and thus how to set this match up.

This is why planning ahead is so valuable, because you can add these elements to make stories better. Because of their decision to prepare ahead, it added an extra layer of storytelling to this match itself, Perkins was able to win the match without Johnny (a man NXT might be leaning on heavily sooner rather than later) looking weak in defeat, and him losing here in this spot because of the Brooklyn match after defeating Ciampa in round one adds even more fire to the feud that will be coming between these two partners sooner rather than later.

That look on Ciampa’s face tonight was not the look of a man who was not about to kick Johnny’s leg out of his leg, or I suppose knee out of his knee in this case. Not only was Johnny the guy who lost the match for them in Brooklyn, but now, he beat Ciampa in the CWC and then just lost in the next round anyway, ruining Ciampa’s chances to win the tournament for nothing. I cannot wait for the Gargano v. Ciampa feud to be the focal point of NXT in a few months, and using the CWC to further lay the foundation was an excellent choice.

With that long preamble out of the way, I suppose I should talk about this match itself. I loved the opening video for TJ Perkins here. He’s got such a unique way about him. It’s a real sense of quiet arrogance that stands out. He’s not shouting at the top of his lungs about how amazing he is, instead, he’s just matter of fact about how much better he is than everybody else in this tournament. It makes it even more frustrating but also even more believable. The louder you need to shout about how good you are, often the less confidence you have in the veracity of that. TJ doesn’t need to raise his voice, he knows exactly how smooth he is in that ring.

With the match itself, I thought it was exceptional. Johnny’s selling was tremendous here, and really elevated the match in a huge way. He’s becoming one of the best babyfaces in the business, and I’m so excited about his story going forward, because it seems very clear that he’s being positioned in that Sami/Bayley role as the heart and soul of NXT. In fact, he's already teasing a redemption arc on twitter after his rough few days that might get even rougher soon when Ciampa has had enough.

The spot where Johnny does that dive to the floor and crashes off the bell table was so nasty I audibly gasped watching it for the first time. The finish was perfect as well with Gargano going for the Hurts Donut but his leg being weakened slowed him down and enabled Perkins to lock on the Kneebar and forced Johnny to tap out.

The reaction in Full Sail made this feel like the first legitimate major upset of the tournament. They were legitimately stunned with Johnny going out this early. If I had been handicapping at the start, I would have said Gargano was a major favorite to win the entire thing, but here we are with Johnny Wrestling being eliminated in round 2, and it’s anybody’s tournament to win.

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With three great matches instead of just two, this might somehow have been even better than the first night with Alexander v. Ibushi and Tajiri v. Metalik, but comparing the two isn’t really necessary, because it’s easier to just say that the Cruiserweight Classic has pretty solidly become one of the very best things in wrestling and seems to deliver every week.

The elite eight round should be bananas, because these last eight guys are all extremely talented wrestlers being given carte blanche to show that talent week after week.