Hanamikoji Review (First Impressions)

Emperor S4’s version of Hanamikoji attracted me with its beautiful art and some good word of mouth, but I didn’t know much about the game going in.

Simply put: it’s fantastic.

 

hanamikoji

 

This edition has a classic Japanese theme to it. Seven oversized cards representing Geisha (female artisans) placed in the center of the table. For each Geisha there are 2-5 associated item cards which will be played on either player’s side, and whoever has more of that Geisha’s items played at the end of a round wins her favor (represented by a victory marker). If at the end of any round a player has won four Geisha markers or has markers for Geisha worth a total of 11 “charm value” (value on Geisha cards, corresponding to the number of her items in the deck), that player wins the game.

If neither player satisfies a victory condition, another round is played in the same manner except victory markers are not reset. So you can win the favor of a Geisha that your opponent did in previous rounds, but any claimed Geisha will never be “neutral” again during the game.

 

The key to the game is in how cards are played. Each player has four action tokens and will use each exactly once during the round.

  1. Pick one card to play face down that will count for you during end round scoring.
  2. Pick two cards to play face down that will NOT count for end round scoring.
  3. Pick three cards to reveal. Your opponent then chooses one to play on their side of the board, and you play the other two.
  4. Pick four cards to reveal and separate them into two pairs. Your opponent then chooses one pair to play on their side of the board and you play the other two.

 

So in a round each player will see a total of ten cards in their hand, but three of them will end up on the opponent’s side for scoring and two . This “pick and choose” system is easy to understand and teach but creates significant strategic depth. Every step is a difficult decision, from deciding what order to take actions in to picking which options to present to your opponent.

 

img_6845

 

The gameplay design here is phenomenal. You can essentially only ever guarantee a single card in your hand each round is going to count for your own scoring, and the psychology and  strategy of picking what options to give your opponent are vexing in the best possible way. The fact that a single item card is discarded face down before play begins adds the perfect amount of uncertainty and luck, is while players can make reasonable guesses about hidden cards in play things can never be fully counted out.

 

img_6849

 

 

This is an abstract game at its core, and as such the theme is lightly integrated and honestly could have been anything. But the chosen theme fits well, and the gorgeous art style and graphic design really do enhanced the game significantly.

 

img_6848

 

.

 

Overall Hanamokoji is a wonderfully deep 2 player game with simple mechanics that comes together beautifully. I’m quite excited to play it again soon.

Wave 12/29/16 Live Thoughts

December 29, 2016 in Tokyo, Japan

My only Wave show this trip was thankfully their big one: Thanksgiving Wave 2016. It felt a little more serious overall than the Wave show I saw last year, although there were still comedic antics in the undercard.

 

wave122917

 

Note: My camera broke the night before and I hadn’t replaced it yet, so I unfortunately don’t have any action photos for this show.

 

1) Moeka Haruhi & Hiroe Nagahama vs Yako Fujigasaki & Yuki Miyazaki

I honestly don’t have much to say about this one. Solid but unspectacular, with nothing that particularly jumps out in my memory either in negative terms (botches, etc) or in exceptional ones (a standout performance or compelling hook). Serviceable opener.

2) Ai Shimizu vs Fairy Nipponbashi

Things opened with an amusing idol worship angle, as Fairy was starstruck with Ai and once she had greeted the voice actress she left the ring satisfied and headed towards the back. Ai, wanting her match, talked to the ref and whatever was then conveyed to Fairy (and the crowd) convinced Fairy to come back and start the contest.

I wasn’t familiar with Ai, who won Ice Ribbon’s Triangle Championship since my last trip and would be defending it at Ribbonmania a couple days after this show, so was very curious for my initial look at her. To be honest as far as first impressions go this wasn’t the best. Most of her offense revolved around her strikes, which looked extremely weak and unconvincing.  Her offense looked a lot better in the subsequent matches I saw featuring her on other shows though. She also does a fantastic rope walk spot (in the style of the Undertaker) halfway around the ring that’s a striking signature.

Fairy’s end of the match was all comedy, from “magic” hip tosses to use of a lightsaber. Nothing offensive, nothing I personally found that entertaining. Meh match for me overall, but was kept mercifully short.

 

img_5535

 

3) Elimination Match: Yumi Ohka, Mika Iida, & Hikaru Shida vs Kaho Kobayashi, Rina Yamashita, & Natsu Sumire vs ASUKA, Kaori Yoneyama, & Sawako Shimono

All three trios were nice, complimentary combinations. I was especially glad to have an opportunity to see more of Iida, and she was impressive here. She was also paired with two wrestlers I’m quite familiar with and like a great deal, so I was behind her trio despite them being the defacto heels here. I was surprised then they were the first eliminated, although it made sense given where the match was going.

I saw Kaho & Rina tag last year, so this was nice extension of that. They work well as a unit. Great back and forth interaction between teams both in the first segment and after Ohka, Iida & Shida were eliminated.

 

img_5537

 

After getting the  team’s victory Rina appeared to move on to other issues and challenged her teammate, effective immediately.

 

4) Kaho Kobayashi vs Rina Yamashita  

This was as good as it could be for being so quick (literally a couple of minutes). Kaho fought valiantly but Rina put her away in pretty short order. These two could tear the house down in a “real” match.

Kaho’s other teammate wasn’t to be left out, and challenged the exhausted youngster to yet other match.

 

5) Kaho Kobayashi vs Natsu Sumire

A touch longer than the last, and Kaho pulled out the victory here to the crowd’s delight.

There was a longish segment afterwards with Gami coming in and presenting something to Kaho, which I later got clarification was due to Kaho going on a tour wrestling in Mexico. Should be a great experience for her.

 

6) Ayako Hamada & Gran Hamada vs Kyoko Kimura & Hana Kimura

The generational angle here was of course immediately obvious despite not being privy to the buildup. Beyond the parent / child teams facing off, the dynamic of one “child” member (Ayako) being of similar age to the opposite “parent” (Kyoko) and the resulting age range of participant going from 19 to 66 and experience range from 9 months to just under 45 years made this a unique spectacle.

Everything was all about the intrigue and the people involved much more than the actual action. A suitable and notable occurrence that was a privilege to be at no doubt and I certainly understand the limitations on Gran Hamada at 66 and appreciate him still performing for us, but I found they didn’t quite create the drama needed to overcome the slow pace of the match, possibly due to going a bit too long.

 

7) Misaki Ohata 10th Anniversary Match: Misaki Ohata & Mayumi Ozaki  vs Hiroyo Matsumoto & DASH Chisako

As no Sendai Girls shows fit my trip, it was a real treat to see Dash chosen to be a part of this match (which I was already excited for as Misaki’s a favorite of mine) and thus give me one opportunity to see her wrestle. This was a fitting and fun “tribute” match.  All four wrestlers were clearly enjoying themselves, particularly Misaki having an absolute blast playing heel alongside Ozaki.

 

Main Event) Regina Di Wave Title Match: Yuu Yamagata (c) vs Ryo Mizunami 

I’ve seen Mizunami a fair bit both as part of Avid Rival (her team with Misaki Ohata that held both the Wave and Ice Ribbon tag team championships at the time of this show) and her trips to the Shimmer promotion in the US. She’s a powerhouse with great charisma in the way she performs and carries herself in general. They built to the right outcome here, with Mizunami toppling Yamagata to claim Wave’s top prize.

The match itself was decent and allowed Mizunami to properly shine at points, but I find Yamagata’s ring style slow and not compelling when she’s on offense. So her playing dominant champion in contrast to Mizunami’s perseverance wasn’t a story that played to her strengths and I felt it could have been better given the talent levels involved.

 

To close the show Ohata was announced as the winner of Wave’s annual “Zan-1” tournament / belt and became the #1 contender to her own tag title partner’s just won Regina Di Wave singles championship.

 

img_5534

Fun photo op with me wearing a Misaki t-shirt and Misaki wearing her newly won Zan-1 title belt.

 

As with last year, a lot of the appeal of this show was seeing numerous wrestlers I didn’t get to see elsewhere. The quality was up and down, but there was a point to everything and the angles were interesting even when not executed perfectly.  I also particularly enjoyed the trios tag and subsequent angle with Kaho, Misaki’s match, and getting to see the well deserving Mizunami crowned champion.

Evolve 79 Live Review

February 25, 2016 in Queens, NY

Here’s a quick rundown of a phenomenal show from Evolve I had the privilege of enjoying live this past weekend.

 

evolve79gallowayriddle

 

1) Jason Kincaid vs ACH 

Jason Kincaid is killing it with his new gimmick, and ACH has been on a tear since leaving ROH and entering Evolve with something to prove. They put on exactly the strong, high energy opener I was hoping for here. The outcome was never in doubt given the story of ACH’s quest for a shot at the Evolve title, but they still managed to keep things exciting. ACH’s bemusement at Kincaid’s unusual offense made a great backbone story for the action.

 

16991689_1563808643644325_3481929902402632536_o

 

2) 4-Way Freestyle: Fred Yehi vs Chris Dickinson vs Austin Theory vs Anthony Henry

Yehi was in this as a result of failing to unseat Thatcher the night before. Strong dynamic here with Dickinson and Yehi alternately working together and trying to win on each’s own with the newcomers Theory and Henry taking advantage of every opening  to try to swing things their way. I like both Henry and Theory from what I saw here (and the previous night on ippv), although Henry needs just a touch more polish as his impressive offense lost some impact both nights by not being hit cleanly enough so wasn’t quite getting the reactions it should have. Still a very good debut weekend though.

 

16991956_1563808733644316_4919416658218838192_o

 

Great finish with Dickinson, who was exactly the right choice for a strong win here, getting a pin on Theory to kind of steal the victory from Yehi who looked to have Henry finished with the Koji Clutch. More tension between the Catch Point members that look destined to face for the tag titles, but Dickinson offers the CP handshake and things seem fine for now. Nice slow build on that angle.

 

3) Jeff Cobb vs Jaka

Behind the double main, this was the match I was most looking forward to, and man did it deliver big time. Cobb is just so smooth in application of his phenomenal power, and Jaka’s hard hitting style made him the perfect opponent leading to an excellent match that had the crowd going nuts.

 

16804394_1563810893644100_2296949086387404679_o

 

Highlights included a delay vertical superplex that just barely missed the ceiling lights and an absolutely jaw-dropping toss-and-catch German suplex by Cobb. Tour of the Islands finally puts down the tenacious Jaka to reestablish some momentum for Cobb after losing to Galloway the previous night. Jaka and Dickinson are very quickly becoming integral parts of Evolve, and both had breakout performances on this show. As for Cobb, the crowd simply adores him.

 

4) Tracy Williams vs Keith Lee

While Lee’s new to Evolve, he’s a 10+ year veteran of the sport, and it shows. His mannerisms, body language, and just the general way he carries himself all speak to knowing the nuances of his craft extremely well.  He also moves in ways unexpected for someone his size, and it all comes together in such an impressive way that he was immediately loved by the crowd.

 

16903208_1563808110311045_3664135098802742207_o

 

They worked a brilliant match here, with Williams starting hot and doing everything and then some to sell the idea of having a legit chance against the monster. Really this had foregone conclusion written all over it after Lee defeated Sabre at Evolve 78, but he and Williams built things beautifully to a fantastic nearfall after an avalanche angle slam on Lee(?!) that the crowd totally bit on.

Just excellent stuff from both. Lee came off like an absolute star and the crowd’s chomping at the bit to see him against more of Evolve’s top tier talent.

 

5) Ethan Page vs Darby Allin

First of two big grudge matches for the night. This wasn’t announced or listed as no-DQ, which was an unfortunate oversight given the angle of the match. Page dominated this and eventually handcuffed Allin (with help from the Gatekeepers). Allin gets up and tells the ref he’ll continue, and fights off Page with all his might until the bitter end. Page eventually puts him away though, and he and the Gatekeepers then put Allin in a body bag as Page cuts a scathing, derisive promo saying he’s killed his first career and will now refocus on the Evolve title to nuclear heat. The Gatekeepers then carried the sealed bag with Darby inside right out of the arena.

 

17015997_1563806313644558_2416363310564024327_o

 

I ended up torn on this whole thing. I still feel Allin really needs to scale things back before he kills himself, and WHERE THE HELL WAS EVERYONE ELSE DURING THE POSTMATCH?! Sorry, but the company’s top faces really look like assholes staying in the back while Page is literally STUFFING SOMEONE INTO A BODYBAG. Particularly with Yehi getting righteous about something else later and everyone coming to ringside after the main event. You can come out to congratulate the champ but not to save Darby’s life? Seriously?

On the other hand, it’s hard to criticize the angle here despite not liking the logic given the incredible reaction it got. The audience was RABID in support of Allin and hatred of Page, and the two of them played their parts to an absolute T. Incredible stuff, despite my personal reservations.

Given the way it played out I kind of hope it leads to Darby becoming Page’s protege when he returns, taking issue with the exact thing I pointed out above and embracing an “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em” philosophy.

 

6) Matt Riddle vs Drew Galloway

I’m a certifiable member of the Bro bandwagon, so was chomping at the bit to see Riddle and Galloway go to war. And that’s exactly what I got. Between Page and Galloway Evolve has two of the best heels in the sport, and the latter was perfect here trying to put down the upstart who spurned his invitation. As I’ve gone on about extensively, Riddle is insanely impressive for his experience and can work any kind of match deftly.

 

16992270_1563810463644143_848120738246301960_o

 

Both really dug in on the appropriate level of tension and resentment for the story, resulting in a fantastic atmosphere and huge crowd reactions. The beat the hell out of each other to the crowd’s delight.

 

16836062_1563806706977852_7415266300348298721_o

 

I was (pleasantly) surprised with result, as I thought Galloway would win to build momentum going into the WWNLive title match and put the babyface behind the 8-ball in the first encounter of the feud. But Riddle pounding Galloway into defeat then being sneak attacked again worked just as well to keep things going.

 

16991892_1563806770311179_1066787837370558393_o

 

Williams and Yehi came out to save Riddle from being piledriven on his own Progress Atlas title belt, then Larry Dallas (with new bodyguard Earl Cooter) broke the news that all three members of Catch Point were in the WWNLive title match. Ending makes more sense now, as it didn’t occur to me that they’d use Riddle’s Style Battle win to sneak him into that match. Yehi offers the Catch Point handshake, but the group dynamics continue to be an issue as Riddle declares he’ll win and walks off.

Yehi calls him out as not being a team player, but the angle is suffering the same problem as when Gulak did the same a while back: Yehi has a point as Riddle hasn’t been there when his teammates need him but he’s far more loved in the crowd’s eyes so is immune to criticism. For example, Yehi’s accusing “it’s not your show Matt”  was met with a “YES IT IS!” chant from the fans. We’ll see how it all goes.

The title match will be quite interesting.

 

 

7) Evolve Championship Match: Timothy Thatcher (c) vs Zach Sabre Jr

The previous title match between these two at La Boom was one of my favorites of 2015, and I was beyond thrilled when this rematch was confirmed. I’m pleased to say this turned out just as good.

 

16991926_1563809696977553_1964807500905556164_o

 

The support for Zack and heat for Thatcher was incredible. Thatcher finally seemed comfortable in his heel role, hitting all the right notes to whip the crowd into a frenzy. I’m a huge fan of both, and while a lot of fans have (understandably) cooled on Thatcher’s work during the last year he’s provided a solid core from Evolve to build around during his reign. And when he’s on, he’s one of the absolute best around. Sabre’s one of his greatest opponents, and this was a fitting crescendo for Thatcher’s dominance.

 

16819516_1563806950311161_3122384521375990958_o

 

Zack eventually tied Thatcher into knots , and after a few perfect moments of building anticipation Thatcher submitted and the crowd ERUPTED at the crowning of a new champion.

Thatcher teased respecting Zack and handing him the belt, but when All Ego jumped Zack to make a point Thatcher decided to drop the belt and just leave instead. Nice way to keep him a heel. ACH saved Zack and talked Zack up while making it clear he was also coming for Zack’s title, then most of the roster came out to surround the ring in respect to the new champion. Zack gave short, heartfelt comments about inclusiveness in wrestling. Classy move that if possible makes me adore the man even more.

 

Overall

Simply one of the best overall shows I’ve ever attended (despite a few logic issues which may go away as things unfold in the future). Kudos to all involved.

Santorini Review (First Impressions)

Had been really looking forward to getting to try this out, as both the concept and aesthetics looked fantastic.

santorini

The basic game of Santorini hits the easy to learn yet hard to master sweet spot all abstracts strive for. Each player has two builder pawns on the board, and a turn consists of picking one to move one space in any direction then building one level (as appropriate) on an adjacent space to the moved builder. When builders move they may change levels (up one or down as many as they like), and a player wins if they get a builder on level three of any building.

Adding strategic choices are two restrictions: a fourth level can be built on buildings, capping them and preventing builders from scaling them, and if any a player can’t legally move one of their builders on a their turn they lose the game.

img_6842

It’s a wonderfully realized abstract that I immediately enjoyed. There’s a depth to it that will take some time to get a firm grasp on, like any good game of this type. It also supported by beautiful, high quality pieces. The theme doesn’t matter much for the base game, but the aesthetics are great and do add a “centerpiece” feel to the game.

In addition, the theme DOES matter for the included variants. Each player can pick a character to play (based on Greek Gods and Heroes) that grants them a specific powers. The powers make Santorini a COMPLETELY different game, adding asymmetry and numerous new strategic options that must be considered. One power we played with even added an alternate victory condition for one player.

Players HAVE to significantly adjust playing style depending on both their own power and opponent’s, which is great as it takes a phenomenal base game and changes it into something equally compelling. Both versions great and indicate impressive longevity for the game as players experiment with various pairings of powers and likely also switch back and forth with the base game.

img_6843_trim

Rules are also included for the forthcoming expansion, with explanations of the new powers. There are also pieces and variant rules for playing with three people or even four (with team rules), although it’s mentioned the game is really designed to be one one one.

Put it all together and Santorini is an wonderful game that clearly had a lot of effort put into every aspect to present to really make it something special. Thrilled with how this one turned out.

Farewell Kellie: A fan’s personal look back on a(nother) great career

I’ve been anticipating writing this since the Shimmer 90 tapings last November. After losing the Shimmer title she had just won the previous day back to Mercedes Martinez, Kellie Skater gave a thankful and heartfelt speech that felt very much like “goodbye.” However nothing was announced or concrete until yesterday (2/23/17), when Kellie gave a “thank you / goodbye” speech at a Stardom event at Korkuen Hall confirming that she was retired from professional wrestling.

img_4097

As an avid fan of the Shimmer promotion throughout its history, I’ve had the privilege of watching Kellie grow and transform during her career. She had been wrestling a little over two years when she made her Shimmer debut on May 2nd 2009 during the Volume 24 tapings, and would wrestle in 66 matches over the course of six and a half years. With her announcement at Stardom, it’s official that her last match was against Mercedes Martinez at Shimmer 90.

Kellie entered Shimmer as a comedic heel whose bark was bigger than her bite. Her charisma really made the gimmick work, and as she cheated and stole her way to victories over light competition fans got majorly invested in see the brash loudmouth get her comeuppance. They went crazy on the occasions more formidable opponents got their hands on Kellie and made her pay for her arrogance. Unsuccessful outings against Cheerleader Melissa (hearing the crowd collectively gasp as Skater dared grab Melissa’s pom-poms and mock her deadly opponent was fantastic) and Amazing Kong spring immediately to mind.

Yet the very next show the “Rate Tank” would be back out bragging as usual about being “indestructible.”  It had just the right amount of delusional overconfidence, and made for an entertaining story. Add it her and Shimmer’s announcers playing up her “suspect” protein shake (“ROO ROIDS!”) that she would partake in during matches and ridiculous boasting and Kellie an annoyance that just wouldn’t go away in the very best sense possible.

But beneath it all, Kellie had excellent technical skills anchoring her matches, and that were always improving. On the back of a long string of strong outings, particularly against visiting Joshi talents, Skater was slowly but surely winning the crowd over despite (or perhaps partially because of) her antics. On Shimmer Volume 50 Kellie would gain her first major victory in the promotion by defeating Yumi Ohka, signaling her moving up the card and transitioning into a viable threat. Watching the transformation as Kellie continued to develop and grow as a performer was a treat.

However her singles ascension would be delayed a little as two shows later she would team with Tomoka Nakagawa for the first time, forming arguably the best team in Shimmer history, 3G (the Global Green Gangsters).

IMG_2189_trim

3G t-shirt by ShuperCousin Designs singed by Kellie and Tomoka.

The dynamic of reformed heel and crowd darling Skater trying to reign in the underhanded instincts of not-quite-former-yet heel Nakagawa was fantastic, and 3G were instant fan favorites and title contenders.

Their feud with then reigning Shimmer Tag Title Champions Nicole Matthews & Portia Perez (the Canadian Ninjas) spanned several volumes and culminated in a wild no-DQ, no-countout, no-time limit contest in which Skater and Nakagawa finally overcame the nefarious Ninjas to claim their spot atop Shimmer’s tag team division.

They’d keep ahold of that perch for two years making 13 successful title defenses in a reign that spanned 16 volumes. They didn’t relinquish the titles until Tomoka retired in April of 2015, when during her final weekend they lost the championships to the Kimber Bombs (Kimber Lee & Cherry Bomb). Their issues with the Ninjas would continue on and off during that time, including involvement in involvement in a great no-DQ, no-countout war that spilled through the crowd and all over the venue  alongside Madison Eagles & Jessica Havok against the Canadian Ninjas and the Kimber Bombs, as well as Tomoka choosing one last 3G vs Ninjas encounter for her final match.

Skater and Nakagawa had incredible chemistry as a team and produced several of the best tag team matches Shimmer’s ever had. Kellie’s style fit perfectly with that of Shimmer’s visiting Joshi in general, and my favorite matches of hers (which are also two of my favorite Shimmer matches of all time) were multi-woman tags involving numerous Joshi talent.

IMG_1175

On Volume 67 3G teamed with Mia Yim to face Tsukasa Fujimoto, Akino, and Kaori Yoneyama in an incredible contest that simply has to be seen. In the main event of  Volume 74, in Tomoka’s penultimate match, Kellie joined her alongside Misaki Ohata & Hiroyo Matsumoto to face legends Aja Kong, Dynamite Kansai, Kyoko Kimura, & Mayumi Ozaki in a dream match beyond anything I ever thought I’d see in Shimmer. I was lucky enough to attend both of these events / matches live and they represent everything I love about pro wrestling. Admitted in both there was a lot more going on than just Kellie’s involvement, but she shone just as bright as anyone else and played a major part in these amazing moments.

With her partner retired, Kellie focused on reestablishing the upward trajectory of her singles career, and got several huge wins over stars such as Sonoko Kato, Courtney Rush, Ryo Mizunami and others leading to a shot at Madison Eagles for the Shimmer title on Volume 84. A countout victory seemed to set up a rematch, but instead Kellie would be attacked before the match and Madison’s resulting open challenge saw Mercedes Martinez making a surprise return to Shimmer to take the title with help of her new proteges Nicole Savoy and Shayna Baszler.

IMG_1107

This all set up for what seemed like it could be a long feud between Kellie and the newly dubbed Trifecta. In the main event of the first show of the next set of tapings Kellie pinned Mercedes in a tag match, and was granted a title match on Volume 87. It seemed the epitome of foregone conclusions, with Mercedes getting an establishing win over a top contender to set up a quest for Kellie to finally get the elusive Shimmer championship she seemed destined for. Turns out she was destined sooner than I thought, and she won the title from Mercedes to the crowds shock and delight. As I’ve referred to Kellie’d grown into one of the (in not THE) most beloved wrestlers in Shimmer and the audience roared in support of the new champion.

Kellie would defend the belt in solid matches against Vanessa Kraven and Cat Power, then to end the weekend Mercedes received a rematch. Warning bells about a possible 3S style reign started going off, and sure enough at the end of a hard hitting match where Trifecta put on a master class in heel tactics Mercedes regained the belt to a chorus of boos. Kellie then cut the promo I talked about at the beginning, which gave no details but felt like “goodbye” and left me wondering if her weekend long reign was to make sure she received her well deserved time with the title in case that was her last appearance in Shimmer. And we now know it was.

IMG_5478

Like with Tomoka, the vast majority of my experience with Kellie’s work is via Shimmer, but I did see her wrestle on Shine ippv’s and was lucky enough to see her live at Stardom. She was clearly respected wherever she went and always gave 110%.

img_0760

Thanks to Kellie for a career’s worth of incredible devotion to her craft and everything she put into entertaining us. It’s greatly appreciated and you’ll be dearly missed. Best of luck in whatever the future holds.

Ice Ribbon 12/31/16 (RibbonMania) Live Thoughts

December 31, 2016 in Tokyo, Japan

The buzz for this year’s RibbonMania was firmly centered on the final rounds of the tournament to crown a new Ice Cross Infinity Champion after the title was held up due to a time limit draw during Tsukasa Fujimoto’s defense against Tsukushi in November.

The development was interesting, as Tsukka had successfully defended the championship against a majority of the roster and seemed on pace to be challenging her own previous record for most defenses during a reign right around the time she’d be facing the woman she defeated to win the title. Instead, a few matches short of that the title was held up and a tournament to crown a new champion begun.

 

img_5763

 

There were no surprises in the early rounds, so coming into Ribbonmania the remaining competitors were the vacated champ (Tsukka), the opponent that forced the vacating of the title (Tsukushi), the prior champion Tsukka had won the belt from (Risa Sera), and the wrestler who ended Tsukka’s prior reign (Kurumi).

 

1) Ice Cross Infinity Championship Tournament Semi-Finals: Risa Sera vs Kurumi Hiiragi 

 

The vacating of the title instead of continuing on course for Tsukka attempting to break her own record seemed to open significant potential for some sort of shake up. Kurumi in particular looked like a monster in the last dojo show before this event.

Which made it even more surprising that she never felt like threat to Risa here. This was a good match, but didn’t have the urgent edge it needed. Risa felt in control during throughout, when her surviving a dominant Kurumi would have been a much more suitable, better story.

In a nice touch Risa remained at announce table to watch the match unfold and see who her opponent would be in the main event.

 

2) Ice Cross Infinity Championship Tournament Semi-Finals: Tsukasa Fujimoto vs Tsukushi

Coming into Ribbonmania I found the semi-final matches being determined by random draw to be quite telling. I was certain it meant we’d get this match in the semis, and that it’s winner would fail to win the title in the finals. Otherwise the brackets should have been set up for a possible rematch of the bout that vacated the title to happen in the finals.

 

This was the spirited contest expected from these two, who know each other extremely well and have styles that mesh nicely. Tsukka winning with the Japanese Ocean Cyclone Suplex, a move inherited from the mentor of both competing wrestlers, seemed rather definitive. Unfortunate, as Tsukka solidly winning here begs the questions of why Tsukushi was the one to force the vacating of the belt in the first place.

Also, Tsukka’s victory unfortunately killed any remaining drama in the tournament. Risa vs Tsukka is the match that definitely should have headlined had the title never been held up, but as a payoff for a tournament that seemed to promised at least some unpredictability it was by far the least interesting way for things to turn out. The result of the main event instantly became a forgone conclusion, and I could feel a lot the energy go out of the crowd. The post match staredown between Risa and Tsukka got minimal reaction.

 

3) 7-way: Hiroe Nagahama vs Kyuuri vs Maika Ozaki vs Mio Momono vs 235 vs Tequila Saya vs Uno Matsuya  

This was originally scheduled to be a six-woman tag match, but shortly before the event Mio Momono was added to the match and it became a 7-way contest where eliminations could happen by pin, submission, or being thrown over the top rope to the floor. I’d been at Mio’s pro wrestling debut in NYC as well as seeing her in a fantastic opening contest at Marvelous’ Christmas Eve show, so was quite excited for her Ice Ribbon debut.

 

img_5679

 

It was an extremely fortuitous change, as they really made the most of the format and this was much more interesting than IR’s traditional random 6-man would have been. EVERYONE got a chance to shine at various points, including Ozaki showing off her strength with a double torture rack, innovative multi-person moves and pin attempts, and an incredible sequence where Uno was thrown to the apron and went crazy trying to stay in the match running halfway around the ring on the apron while everyone inside tried to knock her off. The effort from all seven wrestlers was phenomenal, and they really got the crowd fired up for several sequences.

 

 

Excellent match overall, and one of my favorites of my trip. In the end Saya got to look strong somewhat surprisingly hanging in until the final two competitors, but the expected (and rightful) wrestler won when Kyuuri pinned her with the Fisherman suplex. Great showings for all involved. Really hope to see Mio continue to wrestle in IR.

 

4) Triangle Ribbon Title: Ai Shimizu (c) vs Maruko Nagasaki vs Manami Toyota

This was a straight up slaughter, which made sense but also meant not much interesting was going on, particularly when the champion was one of the people being dominated. Adding to the awkwardness was an uncharacteristically botched move off the ropes from Toyota early on, but she acknowledged it and played it off to keep the match moving as smoothly as she could.

 

img_5711

 

Both defending champion Ai and challenger Maruko were just outmatched by Toyota, who powered through everything either tried on her and simultaneously pinned them both with a moonsault to win the Triangle title. Very short and effective for what it was, but Maruko in particular could have been made a star here by hanging in better against the legend.

 

 

It’ll be interesting to see what’s done with Toyota as champion. The very nature of the title means she’ll likely eventually lose the championship without being pinned for it, so the value to the roster of her reign will be in how her challengers in the meantime look in defeat.

 

5) Miyako & Jun Kasai vs Tank Nagai & Kengo Mashimo (w/ Mio Shirai)

Like last year, Miyako’s Ribbonmania match was a mixed tag affair. The action was quite strong until end, with Miyako being (perhaps unwisely) fearless in the face of her larger, male opponents. They brawled into the crowd early, then returned to the ring to trade some pretty high impact slams and strikes for a bit.

 

 

Unfortunately things veered into uncomfortable territory for the finish, with Miyako taking Mio Shirai hostage with a pair of scissors held to Mio’s throat. Ugh ugh ugh. It of course eventually backfired, Mio got free, and Miyako was chokeslammed to give her opponents the victory.

REALLY not a fan of realistic weapons being used (particularly with blurred levels of humor), even with Miyako’s usual ineffectiveness in using them.  Would much prefer Miyako stick to her comical weapons (beachballs, etc) instead of exaggerated ones (knife-like objects, guns, etc). Match was good until then though.

 

6) Maya Yukihi Trial Series Match 7 of 7: Maya Yukihi vs Nanae Takahashi  

Throughout 2016 Maya underwent a “trial series” of matches against high profile opponents. She’d previously faced Manami Toyota, Mayumi Ozaki, Dynamite Kansai, Kyoko Kimura, Hiroyo Matsumoto, and Risa (her regular tag partner and only victory of the series), leading to this final match against SEAdLINNNG’s Nanae Takahashi.

This was exactly what I expected: an ok match with Nanae dominating. Maya was never portrayed as having any real chance of pulling off the upset.

 

7) International Ribbon Tag Title Match: Avid Rival (Misaki Ohata & Ryo Mizunami) (c) vs The Lovely Butchers (Hamuko Hoshi & Mochi Miyagi)

I was a bit trepidatious headed into this match, as I generally don’t care for the Butchers’ gimmick, and signs seemed to be pointing towards them dethroning my current favorite tag team for IR’s tag team titles. Mizunami won Wave’s (her home promotion) singles title the night before, and Misaki was declared her #1 contender. Between the roll the Butchers had been on and the new status quo in Wave, it would have made sense for AR to begin dropping their tag titles here.

 

 

But I find Hamuko and Mochi vastly more entertaining when they get serious, which they did here to great benefit. They went toe-to-toe with Misaki and Ryo, leading to an excellent match.

A particular highlight was an intense lariat exchange between Hoshi and Mizunami, who both throw them with incredible force.

 

 

In a pleasant surprise for me, Avid Rival persevered and retained their International Ribbon titles when Misaki hit her beautiful Sky Blue Suplex (bridging half wrist clutcth tiger suplex) on Mochi. Kudos to all four here.

 

Main Event) Ice Cross Infinity Title Tournament Finals: Tsukasa Fujimoto vs Risa Sera

So as a result of winning the semi-finals earlier in the evening, Tsukka and Risa faced off here for IR’s top title.

 

 

Technically speaking, I thought this was a great match. The atmosphere and lack of crowd heat really hurt it though, as I thought it was pretty much the epitome of the “wrong match for the wrong crowd.” More specifically, it was the wrong match for the story they chose to tell.

It was instead exactly the match they should have had under the original trajectory of Tsukka’s title reign. This match would have been PERFECT as the end of Tsukka plowing through everyone else on a quest to best her own defense record just to run into a determined Risa dead set on proving she could reclaim her title from the woman who dethroned her.

 

img_5839

 

However without Tsukka’s streak still in tact to add drama and uncertainty not one person in arena bought a Tsukka win here. Now predictability can actually be an advantage when done well, as I praised Ice Ribbon for regarding their New Year’s Eve show.

But here the tournament was sold on the possibility of the unexpected, which made a back and forth contest between determined rivals the wrong framework for the finals. Both competitors should have been conveying desperation here (or better yet someone else should have advanced to face Risa, or the whole tourney been skipped).

 

img_5872

 

Risa’s a great champion for Ice Ribbon, and she and Tsukka worked a strong match here. But the ringwork and stories must work together, and the booking let them down resulting in a lukewarm crowd for what should otherwise have been a huge moment.

 

 

As usual the Ice Ribbon roster spread among the fans after the show to thank everyone for coming. Always a nice touch.

Overall I enjoyed myself quite a bit, but some of the booking decisions worked against the action and as a result live Ribbonmania came across as a good show that should have been a great one. It’s very likely it will play better on DVD though.

Evolve is Bro: Matt Riddle’s Ascension

“I was looking for someone to carry Evolve once I left. I guess I found him. She’s all yours, Bro!”

 

IMG_1689

 

The crowd roared in response to the above words from Johnny Gargano to close Evolve 69 in support of their chosen hero, Matthew Riddle.

It was a moment that, if not unthinkable, would have at the very least been extremely hard to predict when Riddle debuted in Evolve on 10/17/15. I was unfamiliar with him before Evolve, so at the time actually thought he had even less experience than the eight months he’d been in professional wrestling (although he’d only wrestled a dozen matches in that time, all for Arena Monster Factory).

Two main discussions/rumors were surrounding Riddle going into his first weekend with the promotion: his MMA background and his participation in Evolve possibly being part of getting him ready for a WWE contract.

So “Deep Waters” did not get a particularly warm welcome from the Evolve crowd right away. “You can’t wrestle” chants would follow him for a bit, perhaps at least partially rising from worry of someone undeserving coming in and plowing through more established talent. Thing was, even from his first matches against Jonathan Grisham and Chris Dickinson a couple of extremely interesting things were noticeable for those paying attention: Matt Riddle wasn’t trying to do MMA in a wrestling ring, and he was far from undeserving.

From the start he was committed to learning and excelling at the specifics of pro wrestling as it’s own art form. His MMA background certainly influenced his style (to great effect I might add), but he was in Evolve to WRESTLE. He embraced the nuances inherent in his new sport, and he was good. Very good. Better yet, Riddle improved every single time he got in the ring. As I mentioned in a spotlight piece on rising stars back in July, I’ve never seen ANYONE develop as fast.

Equally adept at mat wrestling as he is with vicious, brutal looking strikes, Riddle’s able to work a variety of styles based on his opponent and always turn in a compelling, engaging performance.

 

IMG_9376

 

This is where I’d say he won the fans over little by little, but objectively it didn’t take much time at all. By the time I first saw him wrestle live at Evolve 67 on 3/19/16, a mere five months and seven matches after his debut, Riddle was already incredibly over as a heel and it was clear his skills were respected. The “you can’t wrestle” chants were gone and the audience was booing him because of his character while still clearly showing respect for his skills. The boos wouldn’t last much longer either, as Riddle was just too good for the crowd to resist cheering, and the controversial finish in the main event that very night where Timothy Thatcher ended Riddle’s undefeated streak would actually be the first step towards a double turn for the participants.

 

16992270_1563810463644143_848120738246301960_o

 

Said undefeated streak could have been everything the pre-debut doubts about Riddle were concerned with. A new, unproven talent unfairly plowing through established stars and crowd favorites. Instead his devotion to his new craft was apparent from the first second he stepped into an Evolve ring, and Riddle enthralled the fans through angles including joining Catch Point, feuding with Thatcher, etc. The undefeated streak served its intended purpose of establishing Riddle as a prominent threat, and any win over him in Evolve is still a huge deal capable of instantly putting his victorious opponent in line for a title match.

And again, most importantly he just kept getting better and better every single time he got into the ring. He was comfortable and confident against world traveled opponents with tons more experience, and had particularly incredible matches against stars like Chris Hero, Zach Sabre Jr., and many others.

Going into Evolve 69 tension had been teased between Riddle and his Catch Point teammates, with Drew Galloway making overtures to have Riddle join his unit and help him destroy Evolve from within. When Riddle came out as DUSTIN and Galloway attacked a defenseless Johnny Gargano, crowd apprehension turned to delight as he attacked the duo and rescued the Icon. His full face turn and crowning as Evolve’s new centerpiece was complete, and the cheering was deafening.

The adulation has only increased since, and Riddle has continued to consistently knock it out of the park against the likes of Chris Hero, Jeff Cobb, DUSTIN, etc. This coming weekend he’ll face the debuting Anthony Henry in Joppa, MD, then the following day I’ll have the privilege of seeing him again in Queens as the issues with Galloway come to a boil in a big grudge match.

IMG_1779

Matt’s extremely friendly and approachable, and I’ve talked to him numerous times at Evolve shows in Queens at La Boom. His enthusiasm about wrestling is genuine and contagious, and it’s been a delight seeing his excitement as the crowd came around and the “Bro!” chants grew in number and volume with each subsequent appearance.

Perhaps the most impressive thing is how much further Riddle could conceivably go. He performs at a downright extraordinary level for his experience, which has just passed a mere two years in the business. He has all the tools and commitment to be a huge success wherever he goes, be it the multitude of other indie promotions he’s steadily collecting championships in, or an eventual WWE/NXT run. Forgive the cliche, but the sky’s the limit for the “King of Bros” no matter what the future has in store for him.

But for now Evolve is definitely “Bro,” and I couldn’t be happier.