Since there’s only two matches this week, I wanted to talk about a couple other things in addition to breaking down the two excellent contests from tonight.
First of all, Mauro Ranallo. I might get a bit of heat for this, but he’s becoming more and more frustrating even on the CWC (much less SmackDown).
There are things about him I really like. He’s passionate and he makes matches feel like a big deal with his excitement. That’s a good thing. But what kills me is the shoehorned references that are so pervasive that they can overwhelm what he’s doing and what the wrestlers are doing. The unnaturally placed popular culture references are bad enough, but I actually find the way he references other performers and matches even more damaging to the presentation.
This isn’t to say references to the outside world are a bad thing in general. They’re often very useful and can add context and history to what you’re talking about. Some examples of good references would be JBL talking about AJ Styles being a former IWGP champion, and that belt being a belt once held by Brock Lesnar when he debuted at the Royal Rumble. That sends the message to the audience that AJ is a big deal and someone they should take seriously.
Another good example would be Bryan tonight when he mentioned lucha legends El Satanico and Blue Panther having trained Gran Metalik, and emphasizing that mat wrestling is an important part of lucha libre. That’s something that an average audience member might not know. In America, because of WCW’s cruiserweight division first and foremost, we’re trained to think that cruiserweight wrestling is all about flips and high flying, but Bryan makes clear that Lucha also has a big tradition of mat wrestling and that builds up how the audience sees Metalik really working holds and controlling the mat against Tozawa.
On the other hand, when you’re constantly referencing other wrestlers whenever someone does a move, it makes it seem like the people you’re talking about are a lesser version of these superior performers, usually puroresu guys. It makes you wonder why you’re not just watching that product instead. Saying "shades of Minoru Suzuki" or "it’s like Frye-Takayama" constantly after every move doesn’t put over the wrestlers you’re watching. It puts over Minoru Suzuki, Don Frye and Yoshihiro Takayama.
Obviously with something where the context of the move is important it’s fine. I have no problem in a vacuum with referencing the great Kenta Kobashi when someone does a Burning Hammer, because it’s such a historically significant move within the fabric of wrestling and its power is directly tied to its usage by Kobashi in addition to just how painful it looks. But talking about Katsuyori Shibata, much as I love the man, when Zack Sabre Jr. does a Penalty Kick has no value in putting over the guy you’re covering, and just makes Sabre look like an imitation.
With that out of the way, let’s get to yet another exceptional night of wrestling from the Cruiserweight Classic.
Akira Tozawa vs. Gran Metalik
The pairing of the two matches tonight was pretty awesome because each showcased the two different aspects of greatness in a wrestling match. The second match was the mental game: Psychology, storytelling, drama and emotion. This match on the other hand was built around being visually incredible with brilliant timing and chemistry and execution and flow with sequences and spots that can take your breath away.
Once again, I thought Metalik looked great on the mat and would love to see him in more maestro style matches, as exceptional as a flier as is, but the mat work here was meant more to build up to its central focus, which was the high spots.
And speaking of the flying, one of the things that really stood out were the suicide dives by both guys. A lot of times suicide dives can look pretty sloppy and lacking in force and impact. These, on the other hand, actually came across like the guys were flying at each other like missiles. And that kind of crisp execution makes them look more impactful and damaging rather than just kind of limply pushing someone towards the barricade.
Another dive that I want to heap some praise on is Gran Metalik’s springboard off the second rope inside the ring to the outside because he hits that thing perfect every time, and the degree of difficulty is so high, which I know from how many times people trip when trying to do it and nearly take headers onto the floor.
This one doesn’t have quite as much to break down thematically as the next match because it was so focused on just being a beautiful looking match, but it absolutely succeeded in that role, largely because of Tozawa’s quick chemistry with Gran Metalik. Dragon Gate having a lucha tradition imbued within the fabric of the promotion surely helped Tozawa work naturally with a traditional luchador like Metalik. And that chemistry enabled even the most complex spots like the rope walk hurricanrana to come across as smoothly as a basic arm drag.
What also made this work is that like many of the more spot-heavy matches in the CWC, they both built to the big spots and let them set in when they came, so the high spots felt like they mattered, rather than just something that happened until they can get to the next high spot. While it had spectacular spots, it also absolutely wasn’t the pejorative idea of a ‘spotfest’ because it did have that structure and build and flow to it rather than a spot, rest, spot, rest format.
Excellent work by both guys.
Kota Ibushi vs. Brian Kendrick
This was simply incredible. This match is why psychology and storytelling are so important, because they make everything that happens mean so much more.
For a minor thing at the start, I love that Ibushi is now doing multi-match escalation logic here, where this time he went straight for the top rope Golden Triangle moonsault, rather than going to the second turnbuckle on the outside, because if he had to escalate in the second round, he knows he has to escalate in the third. Clever bit of learned psychology that is a small bit of attention to detail that can add a little extra logic and storytelling to a match.
But this match was really about Brian Kendrick. What an absolute bravura performance he put in in every aspect from character work to storytelling to emotional resonance to psychology and logic. The story was set up immediately with Ibushi showing his striking and speed advantage and building up the total desperation Kendrick was facing. He was overmatched against Nese, but Ibushi is on an entirely different level of danger. He’s the odds on favorite within the narrative to win the entire tournament. He’s painted as the guy that everyone is hoping to fade as long as they can, but Kendrick had no choice. If he didn’t want the dream to die, he would have to beat Kota.
And he did everything humanly possible to do it. I absolutely loved the way they did the leg trapped in the guardrail spot. Because Ibushi got out of it so quickly and so easily, rather than a Toru Yano style near miss (or even success in the Sublime Master Thief’s case), it really sold the level of desperation Kendrick had so much more. The fact that Ibushi broke it within two seconds of the count reinforced that Kendrick is just throwing anything at the wall even if it has no real chance of actually working. It sold his desperation and hopelessness and the inevitability of defeat so much more.
Then came the big turning point of the match with the turnbuckle neckbreaker that looked truly sickening, which actually had to be re-shot because Ibushi misunderstood the count as it’s a 20 count in Japan, but was edited seamlessly here, so no harm no foul for the televised product. And I think that was the right choice. The ref could have quietly encouraged Kendrick to go get him to cover, but that would have hurt the narrative, because Brian Kendrick’s character would absolutely take a countout win and wouldn’t dream of feeling obligated to win the right way. What an awesome spot that was, though. Extremely clever and even more devastating.
And after that spot, Brian finally saw daylight for the first time in the match. He’d done major damage to Ibushi’s surgically repaired neck and made sure to do everything possible to focus his offensive attack on the neck. This is what a great heat segment looks like. The holds like the cravate, the way every strike was targeted right at the head and neck, he made clear that he was going after Ibushi’s weak point (and setting him up for his finisher to boot) with every offensive decision he made. He never wavered from his target. That kind of consistency makes the heat so much more interesting to watch, especially with the creativity and intensity in which he worked it.
The cravate in particular was a brilliant example of applying a hold rather than grabbing a hold. So often people just sit in a chinlock and it comes across as merely passing the time. Kendrick’s cravate looked like he was going to snap Ibushi’s neck in half with the pressure and torque he was putting on it. And this focused attack also further build the larger narrative of Kendrick’s only edge against his younger, better, faster, and stronger opponent being his superior ring savvy and craftiness.
Unfortunately, no matter what he did he just couldn’t put Ibushi away, going so far as to utilize a Burning Hammer to try desperately to finish him off, but he just couldn’t be beaten, and on this night the result was set in stone. Kendrick came close, but in the end, he fell victim to the Last Ride from Ibushi and the dream was over.
I really can’t say enough about how great Kendrick was in this match. If that is his last appearance, what a match to go out on, but I certainly hope it isn’t, because he comes across like one of the best wrestlers in the world right now and I would love to see him as a regular on Raw, SmackDown, NXT, wherever he ends up.
And what a beautiful moment at the end with Brian Kendrick and his best friend Daniel Bryan commiserating in the ring together with the "Thank You Brian" chants overwhelming Full Sail. The wresting is so great.
"You don’t know what you got until it’s gone."
Kendrick was talking about his own career in the wrestling, but that quote really sums up the Cruiserweight Classic. Aside from particular touchstones WWE focuses on, historical context is something that really goes under-discussed in wrestling. It’s not something people think about much, but it’s something that does interest me, and I think even looking back through the years, what we’re watching right now is a historically great wrestling tournament on the level with some of the best we’ve ever seen.
While the first round, aside from the storytelling masterpiece that was Gargano versus Ciampa, was merely an appetizer of what was to come, the amount of truly great matches we’ve seen from the second round and now the first two of the third round is really incredible.
As great as it is that we have access to so much great wrestling at our finger tips these days, it can often make things feel ephemeral and not historically significant as we’re all just ready to get to the next thing, but WWE has put together something genuinely special here, and it really should be remembered in the same conversation with things like the 1994 Super J Cup, the 2014 G-1 Climax, and maybe even the vaunted 1995 AJPW Champion Carnival if this pace continues through the next five matches. So just make sure to cherish this, because we’re witnessing an instant classic tournament right now.