DOUBLE OR NOTHING

May 25, 2019

 

Maxwell Jacob Friedman . . . continues to make me love him by making everyone else hate him.

Aja Kong . . . shows why she’s still, deservedly, one of the most feared names in all of wrestling.

“The Natural” Dustin Rhodes . . . gets added to the growing list of legends who’ve “still got it” in the year 2019.

 

CASINO BATTLE ROYALE

The concept of people entering the battle royal in groups of five is interesting, and being the first show under the AEW banner, there is some doubt about the outcome because they haven’t fully established the pecking order yet. Although it’s a safe bet that Dustin Thomas, who doesn’t have any legs, probably won’t be a main event player. There are some cool eliminations, but the match as a whole is the standard fare with a lot of standing around, while two or three guys work a segment. MJF is the only one who shows any personality, and his being the jerk heel is the only real story to the match. It’s nice to see AEW thumb its nose at the trope of having the babyface seem to win, but get screwed out of it. It seems like that’s about to happen when MJF sneaks back into the ring to eliminate Adam Page, but Page stays on the apron and MJF’s plan backfires.

 

KIP SABIAN vs. SAMMY GUEVARA

Sammy being such a jerk made this a fun experience, and it was nice to see Kip give him his comeuppance in the end by winning. Overall, this is a lot of them taking turns with the flying, and some of it is very overdone. Sammy certainly didn’t need to answer the question “Can someone take the Ibushi moonsault sequence and make it even more unfathomable?” Their ode to Bret vs. Dynamite was a nice touch, until they decided to ramp it up by having Sammy land on his feet and finish the suplex. When they aren’t showing off at the expense of the match having any credibility, it’s a nice little match. Sammy fakes out Sabin and showboats, and leaves himself open for a dive, and the finish is Sammy thinking that he’s got Sabian right where he wants him, only for him to hit knees on the 630, and quickly get finished off afterwards. They didn’t need more time, they just needed more meaningful spots and sequences like that.

 

CHRISTOPHER DANIELS/FRANKIE KAZARIAN/SCORPIO SKY vs. CIMA/T-HAWK/EL LINDAMAN

This needed another five or so minutes for the Japanese contingent to build up some heat and make it seem like Daniels was in danger of losing. But, it’s still fun overall. Everyone gets their chance to show off what they can do, and some of it is quite impressive. There were only two odd moments, both of which came from SCU, the first was just after Sky tags in, and easily dispatches all three members of the other team, it would have worked coming from Daniels, but it was odd to see that from Sky. The other was Kazarian’s near fall with the bridging cradle on Lindaman and the Northern Lights on T-Hawk. It was too cooperative and scripted looking, if he was giving Lindaman an Indian Deathlock or Muta lock, it would have come off much better.

 

The segment on Daniels in the only real story to the match, and once he tags out to Sky, the match breaks down with everyone getting a chance to shine. Sky hits a huge dive and takes out both CIMA and T-Hawk, which leaves the OWE team’s lowest ranked member in the ring with Daniels and Kazarian, where he’s quickly dispatched with their tandem Tombstone. Like the heat segment on Daniels, it would have been nice to see it stretched out a bit longer, with Lindaman trying to hold his own or Daniels and Kazarian putting him through the ringer a bit before finishing him off.

 

BRITT BAKER vs. NYLA ROSE vs. KYLIE RAE vs. AWESOME KONG

The final stretch between Britt and Kylie is the only thing here that’s worth watching. This is structured the same as every other four-way match, with two in the ring and other two outside until it’s time to interject themselves to break up a pin, and let one of them take a break. And it’s even more egregious here, because Kong starts the match by dominating all three, but winds up getting taken out early, even though there shouldn’t be anything that should be able to render her that ineffective that quickly. But, she makes sure to come back so they can do the tower of doom spot, because every multi-person match simply has to work that spot on.

 

Once Britt stuns Kong on the apron, Kylie drops her with a superkick, and then Nyla takes out Kong and herself with the big spear into the steps, the Britt/Kylie portion is quite well done. It doesn’t go for very long, which plays into the fact that Kong or Rose could theoretically recover at any moment, and both of them look like they’d be able to win. The only real black mark is that Britt has to blow off a nasty looking kick to the head. Britt takes the kick and then fights out of a German so that she can take over. It was a loud enough shot that it deserved to be put over more. The finish makes up for it a bit, with Kylie getting a near fall from her German suplex, and walking around in shock and frustration, and letting Britt recover enough to hit a superkick and then quickly capitalize with the Last Shot for the win. If this same amount of time was given to a Britt vs. Kylie singles match, then it’d probably have been worth the time spent on it.

 

TRENT BARRETA/CHUCK TAYLOR vs. ANGELICO/JACK EVANS

There isn’t all that much here that sets this apart from the trios match. It goes about the same length of time and has the same reliance on spots over story. It starts out looking promising when Evans and Angelico are able to work over Trent with their agility and by double-teaming. But, once Taylor tags in, any semblance of story fades away and the match just turns into a spotfest. The work itself is smooth, which is no surprise when Evans is taking so many bumps. But, it’s hard to care too much about what they do, because for all that they do, very little of it seems to truly matter. What’s the point of Trent taking the crucifix buckle bomb when he’s the one that’s getting the winning pinfall? If AEW wants to truly bring back tag team wrestling, and they certainly seem to have a roster that can accomplish that goal, a good start would be scrapping these spot-a-thons and using the time to genuinely build matches and tell a story.

 

AJA KONG/YUKA SAKAZAKI/EMI SAKURA vs. HIKARU SHIDA/RIHO/RYO MIZUNAMI

Watching Aja reminded me of watching the Rock ‘n’ Roll Express in the Crockett Cup from a few weeks before. It’s clear that age and injuries have caught up with her, but she can still bring the goods. Hell, even though it directly causes her team to lose (she accidentally clocks Sakura with it), the Uraken is still put over as strongly as possible, which certainly wasn’t the case in the four-way. The really fun thing to watch is how the story with Riho plays out. After a quick pair-off sequence, for each of the six to have a chance in the ring, the match settles down with Riho getting worked over by Team Aja, and building to a nice hot tag to Mizunami. Mizunami holds her own and puts the match back on a level playing field, and Riho tags in, feeling ambitious, and goes right after Aja. But Aja is still far too strong, and Riho gets spiked with a huge backdrop. Luckily for Riho, Aja misses the back elbow, so she can tag out. But, Riho clearly learns about her limitations within the match. In fact, she makes up for the error at the end after Aja hits Sakura, she dives onto Aja to keep her at bay so that Shida can finish Sakura off.

 

Aside from watching Riho’s story play out, the match itself is fun enough to watch. Everyone has something to add to the mix, and nobody does anything silly. The Aja/Shido weapon battle was harmless fun, although it would have been nice if Shida’s knee hitting the can had led to Aja’s team working over the knee a bit, especially with the finish being Shida getting the pin after a knee strike. But, Shida spent the least amount of time in the match, so it’s not a big deal for the one prop shot to not play a big role. Mizunami was a good foil for Aja, and Riho and Sakazaki both showed off their speed and agility. Hopefully this isn’t a one off for the Joshi stars, although I could see it being one for Aja. It’d be interesting to see how well the American women wrestlers on the roster gel with Riho, Mizunami, and Sakazaki. ***

 

CODY RHODES vs. DUSTIN RHODES

After a bit of a slow start, where Cody establishes himself as the heel and Dustin brings out a few of his classic spots, Dustin takes a bump into the exposed turnbuckle, gets opened up, and this becomes his best singles match in at least a decade (and probably a hell of a lot longer than that). Dustin’s selling of the blood loss and his vision being impaired is masterful, and Cody does a great job of making sure that the cut doesn’t close up for a good long time. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone use the double axe handle since the Macho Man gave it up, and Cody using the Seth Rollins curb stomp is a wonderfully heelish touch. The figure four spot is another awesome moment, besides the visual of Dustin re-defining the term “crimson mask.” Cody hadn’t done a thing to wear down the leg, but, it’s possible that the ref could call the whole thing off, or that Dustin is so out of it from the blood loss that he could stay down and Cody could get the pin.

 

There are a few goofy moments here, like Brandi’s interference (which pays off when the ref ejects her), and Dustin didn’t need to use Cody’s finisher for a near fall, when it had already failed for Cody. Dustin has plenty of more recognizable spots he could have used. The curtain call (or maybe now it’s the Naturalizer) was right there, not to mention the bulldog. And how could a match between Dusty’s sons not have a Bionic Elbow? There’s also the one blown spot, which is completely forgivable with Dustin’s condition. It appears that they lariat each other, which showed that fifty-year-old Dustin could still pull off the inside out bump. The spot ends with Dustin covering for the near fall, even though he appeared to get the worst of the exchange.

 

But, when it comes down to it, this is a match that really needs to seen, rather than read about, in order to fully appreciate what both Dustin and Cody do. Dustin shows that he’s not ready to hang up the boots quite yet, and after this performance, he ought not be ready anyway. The old dog shows that he’s learned some new tricks when he surprises Cody with a Code Red, and he bleeds to the point of earning (however begrudgingly) Cody’s respect. Cody shows exactly how far he’s willing to go in order to win, even if it means needing to Kudo driver his own brother, and Cody proves that he doesn’t need all the smoke and mirrors bullshit that his NWA Title match at All In relied so heavily on. ***½

 

MATT JACKSON/NICK JACKSON © vs. REY FENIX/PENTAJON Jr. (AAA World Tag Team Titles)

They get a little buck wild toward the end, with destroyers on the apron and tandem package pile drivers that don’t mean anything, but, this is far and away the best tag match of the night. It wouldn’t be accurate to classify this is as a spotfest. It’d be easy to see why one might think that, since there isn’t much in the way of body part psych. Pentagon does the Sacrifice to Matt, which Matt sells for the rest of the match, but that’s only in the last few minutes. It does, however, create some doubt about Matt’s ability to hold up his end of the Meltzer Driver, which allows the Young Bucks to retain when Matt holds out.

 

This is certainly one of the more hateful Young Bucks matches in recent memory, the only one that might come close is the PWG match versus Super Dragon and Steen. All four lay in the strikes, and are willing to take some nasty looking shots. Even familiar spots and sequences, like Nick’s running kick on the apron, look and sound like they have a little extra fire behind them. That’s why this isn’t just a mindless spotfest. They’re not interested in showing off. They’re trying to hurt each other, and that intensity comes through. In that regard, the piledriver spots seem to fit in well, but those ought to be match breakers, especially considering that it’s Pentagon’s finisher of choice, and they weren’t. Matt’s use of the El Generico corner brainbuster spot was much better. Besides being a callback to one of the Bucks’ more famous rivalries, it also puts Fenix out of the match and lets them try to finish off Pentagon.  

 

Matt and Nick’s layoff being both a blessing and a curse is an interesting story, and it plays out really well. It first creeps up when Nick tries jumping onto Fenix’s arm, but he pulls away and Nick winds up hitting Matt’s back. It doesn’t seem to do any major damage, which is a sign that the hiatus gave them a chance to heal up, but, it also gives them some obvious ring rust. Just after that, Nick’s dropkick misses Pentagon, and hits Matt, and it’s compounded with Nick being monkey flipped into Matt. Sequences like this are usually used to further an angle that leads to a team breaking up. But that isn’t the case here. There’s no underlying dissension between Matt and Nick that comes to the surface when something like that happens. It just beckons the question if they can get on the same page. The consequences if they can’t are obvious, with the titles being at stake. But, it goes deeper than even that. Matt and Nick won the titles in an impromptu match, after the Lucha Bros had just won them, and there’s the memory that the Lucha Bros had ended the Bucks’ final reign as PWG Tag Team Champions, and also turned them back in a rematch. They know in the back of their minds that the Mexicans can beat them, and this ring rust is simply an extra hurdle they’ll have to clear. Luckily for the Bucks, they don’t spend the whole match making these mistakes, but the question is never completely out of reach. Even something relatively minor, like Nick’s pin after his 450 getting broken up brings it to the surface once again. It’s only a mid level spot, so it wouldn’t have gotten the win anyway, but, Matt was right there to intercept Pentagon and wasn’t able to. In that respect, they’re lucky that Pentagon only wanted to break up the pin, and didn’t have any loftier goals in mind.

 

The match doesn’t have the same emotional impact as Dustin/Cody, but it actually comes close once it’s established how much the Bucks are up against the wall. It’s shown how seriously that the Bucks are taking this match and this rivalry, not just what they do, but also in what they don’t do. They completely jettison anything that looks remotely contrived or could be construed as a comedy spot. There’s no sequence where they set up Pentagon and Fenix in a Tombstone position and then superkick the knees so that Fenix gives his brother a Tombstone. The superkick party sequence is short, and the force that they use shows that they aren’t trying to do some elaborate sequence, they’re trying to win the match with it. It’s one of the most basic concessions that anyone makes when watching wrestling, the idea that everyone involved in the match wants to win it. Both teams take this basic notion and go full speed ahead with it, and the result is an intense and hateful affair. If the other teams on the roster can put in even half the effort that these four did, then AEW could very well become a tag team destination. ***½

 

CHRIS JERICHO vs. KENNY OMEGA

Any match that had to follow the Young Bucks/Lucha Bros would be in trouble. This isn’t bad at all, but, it doesn’t come close to the semifinal tag match. It goes too long, it doesn’t come together all that well, and as a whole it generally feels unfocused. The only real story is Jericho gradually cycling through his finishers, leading up to his debuting the Judas Effect. He’d already announced before the match that he intended on using it, so it’s not like he was keeping it in the bag unless he needed it, a la Kobashi with the Burning Hammer. But, there’s just no reason to assume that the Missile dropkick, Liontamer, or Codebreaker is going to beat Kenny, when we already know that he has something new up his sleeve. It also doesn’t help that the finish comes out of nowhere. Kenny gets up after the Codebreaker and Jericho does the running back elbow and gets the pin. There’s no real exaggeration from either of them to show that Jericho is delivering the death blow. As much as I disliked the way Chris Hero used the elbow finisher, he would still adjust or remove the elbow pad to signal he was going for the big shot. Misawa was much the same way. He had variations on the elbow strike, like the 1-2 combo or the rolling one, to differentiate a regular elbow from one of his finishing ones.

 

The one thing that seemed to be noticeably lacking in the match was Jericho not getting nasty with Omega. The nastiest shots of the match are the original table spots, and those are all Omega doing them to Jericho, even when Jericho hands it back it’s as much due to luck as anything else. When Omega loses his footing trying to balance on the guardrail and gets shoved into the crowd, Jericho tries to get cute and grabs a camera so that can shoot Omega being hurt, and the crowd reactions. He goes back to look at Omega and Kenny spits water in his face and takes control. It’s a good lesson for Jericho to not worry about being entertaining. He stays serious for the rest of the match, but, aside from some crowd playing, he doesn’t heel things up to any great degree. He does take a couple of shots at Kenny’s face after his nose gets busted, but the dropkick works because of the way Kenny bumps, and it’s a typical spot from Jericho anyway.

 

One thing that nobody can accuse them of is holding back. Even halfway through the match, you can see bruises and welts forming, and the hate between the two of them is fully on display during their strike exchanges. The hate is shown in the opening moments when Jericho backs Omega into the ropes and then slaps him in the face, and Kenny instantly returns the slap. He doesn’t give Jericho a chance to gloat or wait for the ref to admonish him. Jericho slaps Kenny and Kenny slaps him back. The bits with table are also good to see in that regard. Jericho gets it out and before he can do anything, Kenny baseball slides and kicks the table back into him, and waits for him to get up so he can do one his dives and once again knock the table into him. Then, Omega goes even further and does a springboard diving stomp onto the table, with Jericho still underneath. Jericho is able to get some revenge with the table, and it happens much later on, so that it doesn’t look obvious. Omega tries to do a Tiger driver, and Jericho backdrops him over the top and through the table. If anything, the table being there is a happy accident. They could have done the sequence from any side of the ring, and Jericho would have done the same thing.

 

Aside from the unfocused nature and a couple of blown spots (most notably the first time Jericho counters the One Winged Angle into a DDT), their work is mostly smooth. There’s an especially nice sequence where Jericho misses a Lionsault, and Kenny follows up with a V-Trigger and tries the One Winged Angel. Jericho sells as long as he can, and he only escapes at the last possible second. Jericho is good about putting over the V-Trigger strikes like he’s out on his feet, and Kenny takes a big bump from Jericho’s dropkick while he’s standing on the apron, and his bump from the last Codebreaker looks like Jericho could have finished off right then. It’s still a good match, and the perfect choice for the main event, but it doesn’t match the emotion from the Rhodes’ match or the excitement of the tag titles match. ***

 

Conclusion: AEW starts off with a bang! The card is a bit top-heavy, but, the only thing I’d really classify as “bad” would be the battle royal. This is definitely a show that’s worth checking out.