Rich Swann v. Jason Lee:
This one was definitely a Rich Swann showcase and it fulfilled that role extremely well. From the start, he came across very well in his video package and that continued in the match. Judging by this match, it seems like Swann is going to get over extremely quickly among the Full Sail fanbase. The "Can You Handle This?" chant in particular seems like it will catch on fast and be a good substitute for "All Night Long" since Lionel Richie licenses are probably fairly expensive.
I don’t have a ton to say about the match itself as aside from some cool athletic flourishes, Rich Swann largely got by on his charisma in this one, but he’s an incredibly charismatic dude, so that worked like a charm, and the standing 450 splash never fails to impress me no matter how many times I see it.
Noam Dar v. Gurv Sihra:
Yikes. At times during this match, you could hear a pin drop in Full Sail. I like Dar in Progress, but for whatever reason these two didn’t click at all. Definitely one of the weakest matches of round one, if not the weakest.
Jack Gallagher v. Fabian Aichner:
This match on the other hand, featuring another Progress mainstay in Jack Gallagher, was one of the best of the tournament thus far. This was one of those matches I’ve mentioned loving throughout my reviews, a match where the underdog really makes a statement and challenges Triple H not to offer them a contract. As great as Gallagher was, Aichner also really impressed me and made me want to watch a lot more of his work. He’s got a great mix of power and exciting athleticism, and his offense looked really good.
As for Jack, one thing I found really interesting was that Gallagher got a much larger reaction from the audience than Zack Sabre Jr, a much bigger star on the US independent scene, managed to get. It says a lot about the potential translatability of Gallagher’s style that his flashy grappling managed to get over with an audience that seemingly might not have been as high on it on paper after what happened with Zack.
Plus, his character and personality is so enjoyable. He’s got an old-timey vibe but it somehow doesn’t come across as out of date, and actually feels current and fresh which seems illogical on its face. I loved the way that one slick reversal instantly got Full Sail on the hook with him, and both guys got more and more over as the match went on. Extremely impressive performance from two guys who weren’t amongst the biggest names when the field was announced, and it’s a shame both couldn’t advance.
Bryan’s crush on Gallagher’s grappling was also a big highlight of another great commentary performance from Daniel, and speaking of commentary, once again, Mauro on the CWC is night and day from how poor he’s been on the past couple of weeks on Smackdown.
And finally, it was great that he got to keep his Progress theme since presumably it’s in the public domain.
Johnny Gargano v. Tommaso Ciampa:
This was just brilliant, one of the absolute best matches of the year. As impressive as the stuff both guys were doing was, what made this match so special was the storytelling. Every move that these guys did from start to finish told the story, and that made all of those moves have so much resonance. Everything that was happening felt like it meant something.
The story was set up before the match began both through their history in NXT as partners as well as the profile pieces done with both men and their subsequent interview. First and foremost, you had their history as tag team partners and friends. Ciampa isn’t just a guy he works shows with, he’s a guy that’s going to be in his wedding. And beyond that, you had Tommaso explaining that he was willing to hurt his friend because winning the Cruiserweight Classic was too important to do anything less, and Johnny emphasizing his heart and resilience as what was going to carry him through.
As exciting as the nearfalls in this match were at times, we should have known that this was going to only end one way. "Johnny Wrestling ain’t done yet" wasn’t just a tagline in a promo, he lived it in this match. On this night, no matter what happened, he was not going to be proven a liar.
As the match started off, they sold the friendship angle. There was no heavy striking, it was just flash pins, quick counters, arm drags, and holds. But Johnny had the edge when it comes to quickness and technical wrestling, and where Ciampa had the edge was striking and violence, so rather than try to reverse his way out of the hammerlock, he did what he does best and leveled Johnny with a hard elbow strike sending spit flying everywhere and the tone was set for the rest of the match.
This wasn’t going to be a friendly exhibition between friends, this was going to be a war.
Ciampa continued to hit Gargano with more and more vicious strikes, and Johnny sold the toll they were taking on him extremely well. Since the switch in styles in Evolve to a more gritty grappling style, Gargano has become such a better wrestler and it really showed here with his selling. After these shots, Johnny knows he’s going to have to fight fire with fire if he wants to emerge victorious and delivers a brutal strike of his own after trapping Ciampa’s head in the turnbuckle and killing him with a superkick and then immediately shows the urgency with a follow up suicide dive.
Just as it looks like Gargano has gained the momentum back, he makes a grave mistake and goes for a signature move that his friend Ciampa knows very well and pays for it hard. As vicious and brutal as a lot of these strikes were, I about jumped out of my chair here when Ciampa countered the Superman Spear with a brutal knee strike that looked like it took Gargano’s head clean off his shoulders and Ciampa goes for the cover, but…
…Johnny Wrestling ain’t done yet.
Ciampa is undeterred by Johnny’s resilience and after a strike exchange that leads them to the ring apron, the hardest part of the ring, as announcers always make sure to tell us, he knows what he needs to do to end it and hits a devastating Air Raid Crash right on the ring apron and rolls him back into the ring for what surely has to be the end of the brutal contest, but…
…Johnny Wrestling ain’t done yet.
And then comes the best moment of storytelling in a match filled with them. As Johnny looks out on his knees, staggering around, Ciampa slides down the knee pad and prepares to deliver the final knee strike to end it but in that moment, everything comes rushing to his head about his code to hit to hurt but not to injure and his friendship with Johnny, and he hesitates. Winning is crucial, but he can’t take it this far, so he pulls his kneepad back up, and the hesitation looks like it’s going to cost him as he gets caught with a superkick. Luckily, he gets the momentum back in his favor after a lariat and manages to his Project Ciampa and it looks like finally it’s over once and for all for Gargano, but, for one last time…
…Johnny Wrestling ain’t done yet.
Ciampa is beside himself at this point, perplexed at what it’s going to take to finally put Gargano away and end this war. He delivers brutal chop after chop, almost begging Johnny to just give up because he doesn’t want to keep hurting him, but Johnny finally manages to counter into a quick pin which Ciampa reverses into his armbar variant which Johnny reverses yet again into a Crucifix pin and finally pins Ciampa through nothing more than willpower, resilience and heart.
And if that excellent match wasn’t enough, the ending was beautiful with Ciampa’s frustration getting the better of him initially and refusing to shake hands, but returning to the ring and embracing his tag team partner and friend, because in the end, their bond is stronger than the war they just had.
And for Ciampa, this isn’t the end. His dream in the Cruiserweight Classic may have been dashed, but judging by the show an hour earlier, he has another huge opportunity coming up in Brooklyn, New York alongside his friend, Johnny Wrestling, a man who showed tonight that his heart is impossible to stamp out.
As good as WWE’s main roster has been at times over the past two weeks, I don’t know if anything can top this two hour block tonight and I absolutely cannot wait for next week with Ibushi/Alexander, a match that got incredibly huge praise at the tapings, and Metalik/Tajiri, which evokes Tajiri’s classics with another crazy luchador many years ago.