Things are pretty bloody awful at the moment. From Coronavirus to Police Brutality to the continual calls of “Be Kind” on Twitter by people who will be attacking someone baselessly next week, there's very little to really openly, honestly and sincerely enjoy at the moment.
Add to this the fact that a combination of these events has lead to New Japan Pro Wrestling having to cancel multiple tours including the beloved Best of the Super Juniors (BOSJ), a multiple month-long extravaganza pitting some of the best light heavyweight and cruiserweight wrestlers in the world against Flip Gordon.
So even if I wanted to, which I don't, the good wrestling isn't happening at the moment and won't for months still. In lieu of this, I needed a respite, I needed some wrestling but I didn't want good wrestling, good wrestling just reminds me of, well, everything. So I thought to myself, where do I go when I want to feel completely and utterly numb?
I switched on NXT.
So you're probably sat there thinking, hmm, a round-robin tournament formed of two blocks with a singles final, now where have I heard of that before? Oh yes, in every Japanese promotion and probably a fair few others. Going into the tournament, each block contained a similar set up: you had a former champion in the form of Tony Nese and Akira Tozawa, the recently fired Drake Maverick, the shiny, new toy with Jake Atlas and El Hijo Del Fantasma, the obvious ringers in KUSHIDA and Isaiah ‘Swerve' Scott.
And then, WWE fired around 40 of its staff in order to cut costs. They needed to make sure that in a corporation that is set to still have potentially its most profitable year, that they don't shave a few million off this. That's how business works. Probably. I wouldn't know, I'm not a billionaire and thank goodness because the last thing the world needs is more of them.
Going into the tournament, most of the press seemed to focus on Maverick's continued involvement despite being part of the great legion of the fired. Shortly after he was released, Maverick gave an impassioned, tearful promo direct to camera talking about how this was his last chance to prove himself as a wrestler and a man. Maverick's delivery was incredible, enough to briefly make the queasy feeling that WWE making a storyline out of its mass firing go away. Almost.
There was a strong start as Tozawa and Swerve faced off in what would end up being one of the two best matches of the tournament. There were a couple of awkward spots but when they got into the meat of the action, this was a low-key banger with a sick apron cannonball spot by Tozawa. From there we transitioned to a Maverick-Atlas match that was just low-key, despite Maverick playing with the blood, this was merely OK with nothing really notable to it. Atlas' top rope cartwheel DDT is impressive but does seem to require the opponent to stand still for what feels like a long old time.
KUSHIDA vs Tony Nese seemed like it could have been good fun, but KUSH is not a sprint wrestler unless it's with Hiromu Takahashi and this was not given enough time nor Nese given enough threat to feel like anything other than filler. It's interesting that the longest-running former champion in the tournament feels like an utter goob in presentation.
The tournament did heat up with Fantasma reminding us of his god-given ability to execute perfect tope suicidos and he even finished by a very pretty Call of the Hunt fisherman buster in his first match, which was nice. Afterwards, a couple of mysterious Lucha lads who'd previously kidnapped Raul Mendoza and Joaquin Wilde tried to kidnap him but he battered them so they ran away.
Now, a little disclaimer, these matches take place one or two a week for around two months. I say this in case it's not clear because the next match is the other top match of the tournament, it's Swerve vs Fantasma. Possibly due to their existing chemistry from back when they were known as Killshot and King Cuerno, but they managed to put on a tight, well-structured encounter that had a few mistiming issues. Overall, it was very good fun with Swerve subtly heeling it up after being disappointed to lose his first match.
From here, the rest of the round was fairly fine. Seeing Tozawa liberated from being squashed on RAW and being the one doing the squashing is quite good but KUSHIDA and Jake Atlas given a similar time frame felt like they were just getting out of act one when KUSH tapped out Atlas with a Hoverboard Lock float over armbar.
Maverick for the second round in a row had a match that considering all the work that has been put into selling his last gasp at success in the WWE, resulted in a firmly acceptable match. Nese is firmly capable of selling himself as the arrogant dominating figure and Maverick's top rope bulldog finish was a good, out of nowhere surprise. But it still doesn't feel like a story cohering into actually enjoyable matches. Otherwise known as 70% of wrestling storytelling.
The final round of round-robin matches saw Atlas take on Nese in another perfectly acceptable match where Nese brutalised Atlas for five minutes then Atlas did his cartwheel DDT for the pin. Fantasma pinned Tozawa after a solid match that hinted at being a barn burner but never got there and then Maverick got a surprise pin on KUSHIDA to make a triple tie at the top of the bracket, leading to a three-way dance the following week.
With the winner going on to face Fantasma in the finals, there was tension, actual tension to this match with all three men trying actively to win the match and not just do cool shit. Can you imagine? Atlas for the first time in the tournament showed glimpses of the hype behind him, I still don't think he's there yet but he's on the way, the main problem with this match lies in the way the ending was executed. So KUSH had a Hoverboard Lock applied to Atlas when Maverick covered him for the pin, he tapped out milliseconds before Maverick scored the pinfall victory, or at least we are told as such by the commentary team.
Instead of just having Maverick gain a conclusive victory ahead of the final, instead, we have KUSHIDA celebrate before being told he's not won it so just saying “Sure, whatever, you go fight Fantasma instead” because everyone apparently cares more about Drake getting his job back than winning themselves. This would be heartwarming if Drake had been the only one to lose their job but knowing there are potentially 40 other people sat at home while this is going on with nothing to do and no financial support apart from T-shirt sales does sour it somewhat.
In the final, those dastardly suited luchadors turned up and Drake Maverick sacrifices himself to take them out only for him to roll back in straight into a superkick and a Call of the Hunt for the win.
I skipped out any part of the match leading up to that because as much as Fantasma is the right man to hold the title, it never felt like the tournament was as invested in itself as it was in the story of Drake Maverick.
I'm not saying I don't think the sight of Drake getting his contract back wasn't somewhat heartwarming nor that whether he all along had his job or was just good enough to immediately earn it back his performance wasn't emotive and real, it's just that I wish it felt like they'd put as much thought into everything as they did into one central story that was built off having sympathy for only one of the many people the WWE had fired and then thinking that Triple H is a good man for giving that one person their job back.
We had sixteen matches involving eight competitors and yet it seems like they only cared about one of them and they weren't even the one that won. If I intended on jumping back in to remind myself that wrestling could be an escape from the world, it failed, watching wrestling a vacuum doesn't present itself as escapism, more it just feels like a distraction that fails because if you're put in an empty room and told not to think about one thing it's all you can think about.
Has my trip back to the World of Wrestling Entertainment filled me with any questions? Yes, I don't know who the masked wrestlers are, or why KUSHIDA continues to be treated as just another wrestler and sadly confirming that by acting like just another wrestler. But the bigger question is do I care enough about any of them to keep watching? Definitely not.
UPDATE: So I watched the follow-up segment with the reveal that Fantasma was in charge of the mysterious Luchadors, who were revealed to be Raul Mendoza and Joaquin Wilde. Takeaways from it: Fantasma's unmasking and revealing his new name as Santos Escobar was a surprise but one that is well-done, if not just because Escobar is hansy. But mostly I want to ask if Wilde and Mendoza were the kidnappers, who kidnapped them?
All images courtesy of WWE