Evolve 67 Live Thoughts

August 20, 2016 in Brooklyn, NY

 

Evolve was at St. Finbar Church’s Gymnasium in Brooklyn for the first time as opposed to their usual La Boom location in Queens to provide easier travel to those (like me) making a double header out of this afternoon show and NXT Takeover at the Barclay’s Center later that night. Decent venue size and setup-wise, but there was no AC so it was BRUTAL in the heat department being mid-August in NYC and all. I felt bad for the poor wrestlers.

Ethan Page continued his role as “gatekeeper” of sorts for the roster facing new talent out of their seminars. Here he squashed Kobe Durst handily and cut another promo begging the absent Johnny Gargano to forgive him before Gargano departs the indies in Sept.

Tony Nese has been looking better and better every time he wrestles and I had been impressed with Peter Kaasa in Evolve before his injury and tour of Japan, so the next match seemed like a potential show stealer. Sadly they never quite got on the same page and while fine, this match didn’t live up to its potential. Kaasa seemed uncharacteristically sloppy, especially when on “defense.” Still had nice moments (these two are great in the air and wowed the crowd at times) and was good overall, but odd flow and the previous mentioned things held this back.

 

 

The two matches I was most looking forward to were next, and both Matt Riddle vs Tommy End and Zach Sabre Jr. vs Cedric Alexander delivered big time. Riddle is INSANELY good for his level of experience and in particular showed how far his selling has come during this match. His full commitment to the intricacies of pro-wrestling and his dedication to improve are on constant display. He and End beat the high holy hell out of each other and if this was in fact End’s goodbye to Evolve it was a perfectly fitting one. Would love to see a rematch later in these two men’s careers.

Apologies for the cliche, but Sabre and Alexander put on a clinic, and just edged out Riddle vs End for best match of the show. Sabre showing signs of a cocky bastard personality (which is new for him in Evolve) was amusing and excellently integrated into the flow of the match. Zach’s really taken it up to another level recently and is the most consistently near-flawless performer in the business. Everything he does has precision and meaning, and the crowd was enthralled both by the excruciating looking pretzels he kept tying Cedric up in as well as the vicious strikes he delivered once he turned it up late match.

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Alexander has also been on the roll of his life since debuting in Evolve and working in the CWC. He looks faster and crisper than ever, and more than held up his part of the bargain in there with the greatest technician in the world. Just incredible work from these two, and this and Riddle vs End are easily worth the price of the replay alone if you haven’t seen them. Sabre cuts an arrogant promo after the match further shows signs of heel tendencies. Should be an interesting direction for him going forward.

 

 

Cody Rhodes made his indie debut the previous night at Evolve 66, and continued the transition to his post-WWE career here against Chris Hero. Leading up to the event Drew Galloway had made overtures that Rhodes would be joining his crusade alongside Hero, ECIII and DUSTIN (the former Chuck Taylor) against Evolve and its heroes. Rhodes emphatically turned him down going into this match against Hero. They wisely decided to go for an intense brawl template for the match to keep things reasonable as Cody adjusts to Evolve’s style. He looked good from what I saw, although they fought all over the arena so there were chunks I missed. Cute sequence saw Hero grabbing a sign from a fan with an image of Dusty and trying to hit Cody from the top with it, only to have Cody block, take it, give his dad a kiss and then put the sign down and continue attacking Hero. Galloway eventually ran out to blast Cody in the head with a cowbell behind the refs back, setting up a deathblow from Hero for the pin. Hero worked HARD here to make the NYC crowd, who worship the ground he walks on, boo him and cheer Cody. Good match, which set Cody up as a solid face and built a feud with him and Galloway’s faction.

Galloway and Hero cut promos calling Rhodes an idiot for shunning them, then Drew Gulak runs out to save and calls out Timothy Thatcher (c) for their Evolve title match. I’m a big fan of Thatcher and haven’t soured on him as much as other fans this year and while Gulak isn’t a favorite of mine he’s more than capable of great contests, but this was the epitome of the wrong match at the wrong time in front of the wrong crowd and bombed miserably.

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The basics of the match weren’t bad, but they had a planned template and stubbornly stuck to it despite losing the crowd early, never even TRYING to vary their formula and get the fans back into it. It hurts to say it but I expected better from both given their experience and talent. Thatcher’s methodical domination did fit with his post match heel turn, but with that kind of story Gulak needed to be doing much more to make the crowd buy into him, including things like more expressive selling, more exciting and impressive comeback spots, and just generally trying to raise the crowd energy in the face of the plodding monster Thatcher was playing. Bad night for a couple of pros.

I’m torn on Thatcher’s victory. The crowd was more than ready for him to drop the title, but Gulak is not a good enough face to carry the company after slaying the monster. I worry about that with all of Catch Point actually, as the only member of the group that are now the defacto top faces of the company that is legitimately, consistently cheered is the one actively trying to stay heel. As for Thatcher, while I feel the match story building to the heel turn was extremely counterproductive to the redemption angle that’s been running all summer as well as to the excitement fans should have had about him finally beating Gulak in Evolve, it was responsive to the fans changing attitude to him and gives a different course to pursue as his reign continues.

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The turn was emphatic though, as Thatcher just lays waste to Gulak after the match in response to Gulak finally showing a little respect and offering Thatcher a handshake. Tracy Williams tries to save (why just him?!), but ECIII and DUSTIN (c) attack and destroy his knee while Thatcher leaves Gulak in a heap for Drew Galloway’s (c) crew of vultures to pick at. Galloway grabs a mic and tries to lure Joey Styles to join them as their mouthpiece.

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Fred Yehi and TJP FINALLY run out and the no-DQ six man for the Evolve Tag Team titles starts. Williams is brought to the back though, leaving it 3-on-2 for a bit. There had to be a better way to do this, as Yehi and TJP looked liked idiots not coming out to help their stablemates earlier. Don’t know if Williams was written out due to injury here. If not, he was the wrong person to remove as he’s the most interesting member of Catch Point save for Matt Riddle. Speaking of Riddle, where the hell was he during all of this? He needs to be called out be EVERY other member of Catch Point at the next show to have this make any sense whatsoever.

Various combinations of members traded moves in the ring while DUSTIN painstakingly set up a crash pad of chairs for himself to be sent into later in the match. Ethan Page came out after a little while to make the teams even. The crowd was excited throughout this, which helped a lot and is a credit to the charisma and instincts of the wrestlers involved, but objectively the action wasn’t great and I don’t think this will come across as well on “tape” as it did live. A botched finish really cooled things down too, as the ref stopped counting before 3 with no kickout by TJP after an Awful Waffle from DUSTIN. The Waffle has been treated like flaming death as a finish, so I’m going to guess it was the ref screwing up and not TJP forgetting to kick out. I can’t imagine him kicking out of the Waffle only to eat an immediate piledriver for 3 was the planned finish.

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Rhodes ran out to save and clear the heels, then Joey Styles came down to respond to Galloway’s offer by insulting every member of Galloway’s alliance and setting up Galloway and Hero vs Gargano and Rhodes as Johnny’s farewell to Evolve on Sept 11 in Queens. Styles comedy was meh and his part wasn’t needed. Rhodes gives a solid end of show promo to wrap things up and reinforce him as a potential cornerstone face of Evolve going forward.

 

Overall

Let’s be honest: the two main events weren’t remotely what they should have been. But I still appreciate Evolve trying to give a wide variety of match types and trying a little too hard and trying to shake things up resulting in having a couple aspects fall apart is INFINITELY better than federations that phone it in or play it so safe everything’s boring. As I mentioned above there are still two matches I think are worth the replay on their own, along with a fun brawl from Hero and Rhodes. While not up to their usual standards overall, even on an off night there’s plenty to enjoy at an Evolve show.

Mild recommendation, and fingers crossed for things to get back to normal and come together better both in the ring and storyline-wise going forward in the wake of Thatcher’s turn and Rhodes introduction as a top face.

 

NXT Takeover Brooklyn II Live Thoughts

August 20, 2016 in Brooklyn, NY

Last year’s NXT Takeover Brooklyn was a great show and an incredible experience overall. Add in an opportunity to see my favorite wrestler live for the first time since she was signed, and possibly the most charismatic wrestler in the world for the first time ever, and I was beyond excited for NXT’s return to Brooklyn.

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Small fortuitous moment on the way in, as the location of our seats took us right by the announcers table for the pre-show. Was neat to see them so close.

The pre-show portion was a decent enough way to kick off the festivities. As with last year whoever was in charge of match order was spot on and made the wise choice to send out surprising crowd favorite “Perfect 10” Tye Dillinger out to open against Wesley Blake. Dillinger has been gaining steam and the soft face turn of simply booking him against heels is the right way to go with him. “Murphy’s Better” chants greeted Blake alongside constant cries of “TEN” for Dillinger from the loud crowd, and while basic this match was a great start to the show.

The Authors of Pain are a bit plodding for my tastes, but they have some impressive power spots and bring something new to the division, and TM61 at least got to show a little life against them before being squashed like pancakes.

Moving on to the show proper, No Way Jose vs Austin Aries was again a perfect choice to start with. Aries is always crazy over in NYC and looked sharp and motivated, and Jose somewhat surprisingly hang in nicely and had a good portion of the crowd behind him by the end. I personally don’t really care for the gimmick, but Jose’s coming along very well and is clearly putting in a lot of effort to be the best wrestler he can be. That’s all I ever ask from anyone, and kudos to him. Despite the cheers he received Aries stayed well within his heel persona and mannerisms, which paid off big time when Hideo Itami (KENTA) saved Jose from a post match attack to a huge reception and loud boos for Aries (again, a huge accomplishment in Aries friendly NYC). Even better, Hideo was allowed to break out the GTS, which had the crowd going WILD.

Speaking of the crowd going wild, I had maintained before the show that while Ember Moon (Athena) is a phenomenal athlete in general, if they wanted to get her over instantly all they had to do is let her keep her finisher. Sure enough, she ended a short debut contest against Billie Kay with her “diving corkscrew stunner” (the obviously-was-always-going-to-be-renamed “O-Face”) to send the fans into an absolute frenzy. Decent enough match before that too, although the finish is all anyone will remember. I like Kay’s new look and heel tendencies, which should bring fresh life into her character, and Ember’s entrance and red contacts add a nice distinctive feel to her presentation. And as a huge fan of Shimmer it was a special treat for me to have two matches on this card exclusively featuring Shimmer alumni.

The almost Wrestlemania-like pageantry  done with NXT Brooklyn entrances is awesome in general, and one of the best was next as Bobby Roode practically descended from the heavens on an elevated platform as his AWESOME theme music echoed throughout the stadium as nearly everyone sang along. Perhaps not great for a heel, but it certainly adds to his presence and made him look like an immediate star.

On the other hand, poor Andrade “Cien” Almas was totally sent out to die in his ridiculous getup trying to work face against Roode. He tried, but NYC’s pre-established bias combined with Cien being a little sloppy at times made the task impossible and Roode was the clear favorite no matter what dastardly things he did. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Roode using the pump handle slam as a finish, but while it’s not one of my favorites either a derisive heel like Roode is better served by a no nonsense finisher than something flashy, so I don’t mind it that much. Great debut for Roode in terms of presence and being memorable, but match was nothing and their going to have a hard time getting him over as a heel instead of being cheered.

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Between the CWC first round match and their ascension up the tag ranks in NXT, Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa have been given a lot to work with recently and have been consistently knocking it out of the park. I was a big fan of both on the indies and it great not only to see them gets these opportunities but also to see their incredible chemistry as a team. The arena was fairly rabid in support as the duo came out for the NXT Tag Title match against The Revival (Scott Dawson and Dash Wilder) (c). The Revival are the best old school style team I’ve seen in ages, and I get a total Arn Anderson and <insert random AA partner name here😉 > vibe whenever they wrestle.

The match was fantastic, with natural babyfaces Gargano and Ciampa constantly getting the better of the champs until Dash and Dawson would cheat for the advantage and then grind away at the “upstarts.” Finish could have been a touch better executed, but overall this was excellently built and performed and was neck and neck with the other two title matches for best of the night.

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Time to show my bias: Kana (Asuka) has long been my favorite wrestler in the world, and as I wrote about after Takeover Brooklyn last year her surprise appearance there left me floored and intensely curious about her future. So with all due respect to all the other amazing athletes on this show, Asuka (c) defending her NXT Women’s title against Bayley is the match I went to see.

 

It delivered.🙂 Maybe not quite up to last years Bayley vs Banks title match due to a lack of believable points at which Bayley looked like she could have defeated the champion, this was still an incredible back and forth contest that I enjoyed a touch more than their first encounter. The buildup was great and the continued story of Bayley now knowing what she was getting into and being determined to use that knowledge to defeat the undefeated provide a compelling backbone to the match. The crowd was appropriately split and behind both competitors, and while Asuka showed a bit of her bullying tactics neither really worked heel.

 

I would have reversed the order of them kicking out / escaping each other’s finishers, as Bayley being the first person to ever break the Asuka Lock without getting to the ropes made it quite obvious Asuka was kicking out of the Bayley-to-Belly she received seconds later. Still it’s an appropriate way to show toughness and determination in big matches and worked brilliantly in that respect. I know there have been some complaint about Asuka steamrolling the division, but Bayley got to push her further than ever and Asuka’s win here was the right call. Her long, dominant reign will eventually make a star when someone unseats her (like say, Ember Moon down the line).

 

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Show of respect between Asuka and Bayley after the match, then the champion left first to allow Bayley some spotlight to hug her compatriots at ringside and essentially say goodbye to NXT. Great stuff. Was such a treat to see Asuka wrestle live again.

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As I previously mentioned Roode’s entrance was fantastic, and Asuka, Bayley and Ember all had impressive ones as well, but NOTHING was going to top Shisuke Nakamura coming out to a live violin version of his theme song. before his NXT title match against Samoa Joe (c). The presentation was top notch, with numerous rotating spotlights on the violinist giving way to red lights when Nakamura came out. As with Roode the entire crowd was singing along. Was incredible to be there live.

The no nonsense champ glared his way out to the ring as normal, providing a nice contrast to the flamboyant and charismatic challenger. As good as Joe is, there was no split crowd here. They built the story and tension between the two perfectly leading up to this, and Nakamura’s eccentric charm had the audience FIRMLY behind him.

I’d never seen Nakamura wrestle live before, and it was a privilege. This was two professionals holding the crowd in the palm of their hand and beating on each other until one fell. Worthy main event, and the title change was a HUGE moment. NXT now has two undefeated champions reigning over their singles divisions.

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Overall

What a follow up to last year’s historic show. This was possibly a touch better, featuring three incredible matches on top and a strong undercard with big debuts. Not as many surprises as last year, but sometimes things should be predictable because they are logical and appropriate. The atmosphere live was absolutely electric and a joy to be a part of.

I said it last year and am happy to say it again: shows like this are why I watch wrestling.

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Return to Skunk Corners Review

“Ninja librarians aren’t as different from school children as they think.”

Return to Skunk Corners is the second book in the Ninja Librarian series. It’d be easy enough to pick up on the general situation and characters so it is possible to start here, but the overarching plot is a direct continuation of where the first book left off so it really is best to start at the beginning.

Like The Ninja Librarian, Return to Skunk Corners is a collection of stories told to us by the titular town’s unlikely school teacher, Big Al, who’s duties and perspectives have been significantly changed by the appearance and influence of Tom and his mysterious ways, both of the ninja and librarian variety. The town has started to come together, but can they stay that way?

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I have idea how I missed the fact that the incredibly fun Ninja Librarian had a sequel until now. But I supposed it’s better late than never to enjoy this wonderful … well, return to Skunk Corners.😉

This sequel is longer than the first book and has more ongoing, connected plotlines underlying the individual stories, but those stories still retain the “campfire” feel and individual completeness that they did in The Ninja Librarian. At its heart this book continues to be the story of Al and Tom and their roles in the town, but numerous members of the supporting cast get significantly fleshed out and have their own subplots and growth throughout the book. This aspect takes an already fun, engaging series of stories and adds considerable depth to both the titular town and the narrative as a whole.

Big Al remains a perfect point of view character, learning how to deal with change in Skunk Corners as well as some things about herself she never knew. Her “voice” is natural and endearing, and draws the reader right in to the point where they care about the fate of Skunk Corners and its residents as much as Al does. Themes too numerous to list are expertly woven into the stories in folklore like fashion and are conveyed unobtrusively and naturally via unfolding events, various characters’ reactions to them, and Al’s own pragmatic yet caring point of view.

There were a couple elements towards the end I didn’t care for, but I understand why they were there and overall they’re a very small bump on an otherwise excellently built and executed collection of stories. They also set up some intrigue for a potential continuation, if we’re lucky enough to get another installment of this great series.

Somewhat surprisingly Return to Skunk Corners not only lives up to the high bar set by The Ninja Librarian, it actually exceeds it in some ways. As with the first there were smiles aplenty to be found in this book along with poignant, dramatic, and even dark moments. It all comes together beautifully and  I’m so happy to have had the chance to read more of Al’s adventures. I can only hope there might be a third book in the future.

 

Ninja Librarian Review

The Ninja Librarian is a collection of stories told to us by Skunk Corners’ unlikely school teacher, Big Al, who watches with fascination as an older gentleman comes to town one day. The stranger means to reopen the town library, which no one in town thinks they have a use for. But a funny thing happens when they try to scare him off: he calmly reaches into his pocket for something that isn’t a black handkerchief after all…

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Completely absurd in premise but wonderfully realized, these stories follow Al and the ninja librarian (Tom) as problems large and small pop up, and are solved, in Skunk Corners. The writing captures the feeling of tales told around a campfire, and I’d imagine would make for great out-loud reading to children. However there is a depth and flow here that makes The Ninja Librarian equally enjoyable for adults. Big Al is an excellent point of view character and has a “voice” that makes this volume very easy reading and hard to put down.

Check any preconceived notions or predisposition against the off-beat at the door and experience a book that does one of the best things good stories can: make the reader smile a lot.

Yotsuba&! Volume 13 Review

Yotsuba&! is a slice of life manga about a somewhat strange little girl. While I highly recommend reading it in order the previous books aren’t a prerequisite.

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Yotsuba’s grandmother comes for a visit. Yep, that’s the volume.

Yotsuba&! has always been about the titular character’s everyday adventures and the humor that arises from them, but I feel like some of the magic is missing from this entry (outside of a wonderfully simple sequence of Yotsuba making her way through her house in the creepy darkness of the night). Her usual whimsy and uniqueness seems toned down just a tad and it isn’t as engaging to watch her interact with her grandmother as it feels like it should be. There’s nothing bad nor out of place for the manga here, but I didn’t find this volume nearly as fun nor captivating as previous ones.

Not much else to say. Unremarkable volume in a fantastic series.

 

“There are some people in the world who are just too evil to exist.”

Thieves and Spies is volume 30 of Stan Sakai’s samurai epic, Usagi Yojimbo. I recommend beginning with Vol. 1 of course, but the tales here don’t really depend on long running story lines. There are some returning characters it would help to be familiar with, but the gist of anyone we’ve seen before is well conveyed, so this isn’t a bad place to start overall.

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For those who are new to Usagi, a comment from my review of Vol. 1 on Sakai’s choice of medium that has remained relevant throughout the comic’s long run:

“The use of amorphous animals as the characters might seem unusual to first time readers, but it gives Sakai more visual diversity and symbolism to play with, and is executed with such finesse that it quickly becomes impossible to imagine the book without this choice. Don’t mistake the presence of animals as people as a sign this is a ‘kid’s book.’ Usagi Yojimbo covers a period of war, political unrest, and an unhealthy level of danger and can get dark and bloody at times.”

This trade opens with a three part story, and follows with four shorter ones.

“The Thief and the Kunoichi” features the return of some familiar faces and has an interseting set of circumstances placing some of them at apparent cross purposes. The length gives everyone a chance to shine a bit, and this is a strong start to the volume. It was great to see my favorite ninja back, although on the other hand a certain reccuring thief is moving more and more away from “charming rogue” and into “selfish to the core and unlikable” territory. I expect there will be consequences on the horizon.

There’s a dark edge to entire volume, and the remaining four stories all have overtones of selfish and cruel people valuing themselves and their desires above the lives of others. It could just a be a coincidence that these stories were told in succession, but more likely I feel that Sakai is building to some larger crossroads point for Usagi. All four stories are conflict heavy, featuring a one-armed swordsman, a samurai escort on an unusual job, a foreign dignitary with ruthless curiosity, and a promised bride under attack by bandits. All are equally intriguing and provide interesting variations on similar themes.

Thieves and Spies is a serious and thought provoking entry in Sakai’s epic, and is another excellent read as per usual for this series.

King City Review

 

“I’m all there is.”

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Tom Wade is a cop driven by doing what’s right. So while he’s not beholden to every rule and law he’s ever met, the corruption in the major crimes unit he’s assigned is too much to overlook. He secretly helps the justice department build a case against the others, and when their successful prosecutions are over and the dust settles, he’s promptly given a “lateral move” by a police chief who felt Tom should have come to him so things could be “handled quietly.”

Tom’s sent into a part of King City so bad it no longer has an official name on the map so it can be more easily forgotten, with only two unwanted rookies for staff (one who is the definition of unexceptional and one who has the “gall” not to be while also being a woman and black) and the thinly veiled insinuation that there will be no backup, no support, and no hope.

The brilliance of Goldberg’s tale in Tom’s approach to the difficulties that arise, and a writing style that provides vivd detail while keeping everything moving at a compelling pace. Tom doesn’t care about opinion nor playing nice, just about doing his job and sees his exile into the area nicknamed Darwin Gardens as a chance to do police work somewhere where it will matter. The procedural, mystery and relationship elements all rise naturally from the story and characters and blend amazingly well. There are some small conveniences of plot here and there, but generally everything is reasonably character driven and organic.

Overall King City is a captivating, excellent police procedural with a fascinating main character and a tremendous supporting cast.