After a very WWE article last week, Rolling the Dice has given a much nicer mix to sink my teeth into. As well as my usual trips into McMahon-land, I’ve got two matches from Japan as well as a match from Mexico to enjoy. Like always, there is a mix of the good, and the not so good, to enjoy. Without further ado, let’s get started.
Steve Austin vs The McMahons (Ladder Match for control of the WWF, King of the Ring 1999)
If anything, this is a perfect match to showcase Vince and Shane’s willingness to do most things to put over their company and to create an interesting product. In some ways, the content of the match is irrelevant due to the nature of the participants, but the crowd red hot for the whole of the contest, which really does sum up the development of all three characters in the ring as people who the fans have some connection to, whether positive or negative.
A lot of the match works because of Vince and Shane’s willingness to ‘show ass’, and look stupid, from Shane’s stupidity in attempting to replace himself with Steve Blackman (GTV and Shawn Michaels as commissioner fixing this before bell time) to the McMahons trying to give each other a leg up to bypass the usage of the ladder completely. Unlike some matches between non-wrestlers and wrestlers, the McMahons are never really made to look like they can be competitive against Austin, and you are left waiting for the moment that will cause things to turn in their favour. This match also made me long for the old PPV sets, as Austin whips each McMahon several times into various ladders, before pulling the ladder structure as a whole down on them in a fairly safe but visually impressive spot.
In reality, for a match I remember being really exciting, there actually doesn’t feel like a lot really happens outside of a few big spots, though it feels like there is a sense of ‘if it works, it works’. Shane gets elbowed through the announce table, Vince gets suplexed off of the ladder, and the Stunner is a ridiculously over move. The moving briefcase stops Austin picking up the victory, and in some ways, kills the tension as it doesn’t seem like there is any way for Austin to win from that point. Luckily, the match finishes shortly afterwards; Vince and Austin are toppled off of the ladder by Shane, allowing him to run up the ladder and grab the briefcase. A solid match made more interesting by the booking around it as much as the action in it.
Triple H vs Jeff Hardy (Number One Contender Match, Armageddon 2008)
Unlike the previous match, this is a match that feels completely stymied by the booking around it, as well as the limitations of the men in the ring. That isn’t a knock on Triple H as much as a knock on Jeff Hardy, as this match and the way it was booked required him to bring passion and fire to the contest at points, something he just never felt capable of. Unless he was flying through the air, it felt that Hardy struggled to tell a story in the ring. Considering that he had never felt on the same level as Triple H, large sections of the match felt anti-climactic, especially with the overarching ‘respect’ storyline neutering a lot of the action.
As would be expected from Triple H, he is the one that begins to bend the rules, and it feels like the question left hanging in the air as the match progresses is the willingness of Jeff Hardy to get down and dirty where needed. Hardy pulls a punch at one point of the match, leading to a Triple H slap. Where’s the fire and emotion? H gets a return slap after Hardy goes back to Hardy 101 with a legdrop and dropkick combo. Not enough, and just as it seems to be heating up, it slips back into being fairly bland.
We do get a couple of bigger spots, but they seem to be in lieu of actual ability to tell an engaging story – Hardy is pushed off of the top rope to the outside and a missed swanton both see Hardy landing bumps that impress, but when it comes to his time on offense, his moves are woefully thin on impact. To top it all, Hardy wins with a jacknife pin out of nowhere. Without the context surrounding it, I can only assume there will be more down the line (and a Triple H turn), but it made a wrestler who has always been positioned as lesser win through a flash pin, rather than in a manner that would at least have felt a little more comprehensive. Just not for me at all.
Jumbo Tsuruta & Great Kabuki vs. Genichiro Tenryu & Ricky Fuyuki (AJPW 22/10/1989)
The dice rolls and sends me to Japan as two big tag teams meet in 1989. I know he was a name, but it does feel odd to have Kabuki teaming with Tsuruta. This match is mostly going to be about the ongoing fued between ex-tag partners, Tsuruta and Tenryu, and even in the early exchanges, the crowd is hot and they know how to tease big spots for maximum effect. It was always likely to be Fuyuki who ate some prolonged offense, and it is his leg that is targeted early on, only for Tsuruta to drop the leg and square off to Tenryu following a teased interference. Their hatred for each other is all over this tag match.
Although his strike offense is a little hokey for my liking, Kabuki brings the fire to the match at several points, including launching himself at Tenryu after repeated intrusions into the ring and getting busted open on a ringpost spot. However, the fans are an octave louder whenever we see Tsuruta and Tenryu in the ring together, and their dynamic bursts of strikes are a joy to watch. In an interesting development, Tsuruta plays face in peril for a sizeable portion of the match, with Tenryu resorting to using a chair to take out his foe. The quick tags between the de facto heel team gets under the crowd’s skin quickly, and annoys Kabuki, who eventually just jumps in to stop the beatdown.
Whilst fun, the finish of the match does feel a bit of a letdown. Following Tsuruta breaking up a pinfall following a powerbomb on Kabuki, Kabuki is able to pick up the pin via roll-up on Fuyuki after a collision caused by a Tenryu whip. I wanted something more definitive, but with the nature of Puro, finishes (and therefore wrestlers) are often protected within the finish, so I can understand why this turned out the way it did. Still, a very enjoyable match that makes me want to see more of Tsuruta vs Tenryu in any format.
Giant Baba vs Harley Race (NWA World Heavyweight Title match, AJPW 09/04/1980)
I hated this match.
I can only apologise to anyone who enjoyed it, but it did absolutely nothing for me, and that is considering the effort that Harley Race put in to make this something at least semi-watchable. I’ve never seen Baba wrestle in a singles match, and this doesn’t exactly inspire me to seek out anymore. The pace is glacial, and it Harley Race channelling Mr Perfect and Shawn Michaels to make Baba’s offense look effective at all. Baba relies on strikes and headlocks all too often, and the excitement (if you can call it that) comes from Race, whether he is hitting the ringpost on a missed charge into the corner, or dropping Baba with a suplex at ringside.
It doesn’t help that the booking of the match and the referee are actively bad. During the middle section of the match, there are several one counts (several one after the other), which when added to the slow referee, just means that no tension is really built on the lead up to the finish. Everything just feels awkward. A Baba piledriver is one moment where Baba offers me something, and it forces Race to put his foot on the rope. A return piledriver follows shortly afterwards, but when he misses a headbutt, it gives Baba the opportunity to hit a weak dropkick and a clothesline to get the victory and win the title. Just awful on every level – I feel sorry for Race more than anything.
Brock Lesnar vs The Undertaker (Summerslam 2015)
Sometimes it is a matter of perspective and context as to how you feel about a match. Watching this with some friends and a few beers, I really enjoyed this match. In the cold light of day nearly a year later…eh.
That is not to say that it doesn’t have its moments. The wrestlers both know what they are capable of at this time in their career, and they stick to what they know. Outside of finishers and signature moves, there is very little else on show outside of punches and kicks. This was never going to be a return to the brutality of their Hell in the Cell match, but it became a match that was spot, rest, spot, rest, spot.
What really was the story? The lengths the two men have to go to to beat each other? This story has been told many times better, and without the need to finisher/kickout spam to force drama upon a contest. The Undertaker would get hit with three F5s, including one through a table, whilst Brock Lesnar would be taken down with a tombstone and a Last Ride, yet all these moves would lead to kickouts. It is a false economy, and probably the reason why I’ve heard very little about this match since it was contested, and doubt I’ll hear much about it in years to come. Considering what Lesnar and Reigns were able to do earlier in the year, this just comes across a bit silly.
It isn’t helped by the finish. Though I understand the need to try and keep both men strong, the tap out of Taker and the ref/timekeeper miscommunication just didn’t really work. It would be explained away well by replays, but it was confusing in the moment and took the fans (and myself) out of the contest. The low blow and the subsequent Hell’s Gate/Lesnar middle finger finish was a cool visual, but felt played out to a muted crowd still trying to get their heads around what had just proceeded it.
El Hijo Del Santo vs Espanto Jr (UWA World Lightweight Title Match, 10/04/1988)
A match that is almost the polar opposite of the previous contest is last this time, and it is an excellent match between El Hijo Del Santo and Espanto Jr. in UWA. I know of El Hijo Del Santo, but have never seen any Espanto Jr. This does mean that I’m sure I will miss some of the subtleties of the style, but considering my lack of Lucha knowledge, the work is simple, effective and engaging. Caught on handheld camera, this only helps build a sense of atmosphere as the crowd are hot for the whole half hour this match lasts.
What I like most about the trading of holds in this match is that everything feels simultaneously smooth, yet a struggle. These aren’t just holds for holds’ sake – every move is a counter or a reversal that makes sense. An early example sees a headscissors hold by Santo being turned into a pin by Espanto shifting leverage, forcing Santo to bridge out, twist his hips and dump Espanto down to the mat. Simple, indeed, but a really effective base to build the match around. Espanto does begin to show more heelish tendencies as he uses his foot on the rope to assist with a submission hold, but as soon as the match speeds up, it feels that he just can’t compete with Santo. A flapjack style move followed with a surfboard gives the crowd favourite the primera caida.
Almost as if he realises he can’t match Santo for speed, Espanto uses the segunda caida to land some bombs; two clotheslines that get a warning for hitting around the throat, two snapmares that have Santo bouncing hard off of the mat. He even manages to outwit Santo for the segunda, blocking a charge with a headbutt, landing a picture perfect crossbody, throwing his opponent with an admittedly awful powerbomb, and locking in an arm submission on the arm he has targeted ever since Santo injured it upon colliding with the turnbuckle.
The tercera is great, as it successfully builds on the work of the previous caidas. Espanto continues to target the arm, whilst Santo tries to raise the pace once again and defeat Espanto with cradles and submissions. The sense of panic the crowd feels when Espanto has Santo down is palpable, and we almost have fans in the ring prematurely following a beautiful dive off of the top by Santo. Just as it feels Santo might have the match, Espanto uses a Russian legsweep to return to the arm and (with assistance from the ropes) wins the tercera. A really good match, possibly made even better coming off of the Lesnar vs Undertaker match. Outside of two dives, all of this was simple throws and good submission work.
That’s that for this week. I already have my mates for Episode 4 picked out. Believe me when I say that I go from the sublime to the ridiculous. As always, comment as you see fit and let me know what you think.