These days, it’s hard to fathom a wrestling product under the WWE umbrella that hasn’t been overexposed and homogenized (the upcoming roster split this week hopefully stopping the bleeding in that regard). Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to like about the main WWE product, but with so much content, it’s difficult to get excited in watching another minute by the time an exhausting three hour RAW has come and gone. Which is why the Wednesday lineup of fresh WWE in ring action is such an anomaly. With NXT & now the new 10 part Cruiserweight Classic (that debuted episode 1 this past week), I feel reinvigorated, refreshed and even…(wait for it) hopeful for the future. Part of the Wednesday awesomeness is of course, Lucha Underground on El Rey Network. (Un)fortunately, LU are wrapping up Season 2 next week with part 3 of their stellar finale Ultima Lucha, so they won’t be part of the “Must See TV” lineup much longer. The silver lining is that the CWC appears to be filling that void quite nicely, coming on right after NXT on the WWE Network. As we all know, NXT has existed as an entity with a show for quite some time, so this isn’t news on its own. But, you add a groundbreaking hour right afterwards that is typically out of the comfort zone of the WWE brass, and it’s cause for celebration (swig of beer for the Cruiserweights).
Let’s start with this past week’s NXT. The entire show (except for a great opening promo by NXT Champion, Samoa Joe), was dedicated to one singular match between Finn Balor and Shisuke Nakamura. A match that has had a few weeks to brew. It was built up to be a big deal with their real life friendship & New Japan history being prominently featured. The match itself was what you’d expect from these two. Slow build with solid storytelling & drama and a great, sensical finish. It was predictable, but the right guy went over, as its time for Balor to spread his wings and for Joe/Nakamura to occur, with each one slowly getting whisked away to the main roster. NXT will be fine, however, with a healthy, hungry & thriving independent scene ready to step up.
Which brings me to the CWC…a melting pot of indie talent from all over the world (even Chile!) entered into a tournament to crown the best at what they do (sorry, Jericho). This tournament will likely serve as a glorified “audition” or tryout for many of the talent involved to gain a slot on a WWE roster down the line. As far as the tourney itself, it’s both extremely refreshing & entertaining. The presentation is about as sports like as you see in modern day pro wrestling, especially WWE. I was riveted by the whole approach. The old school ref instructions was a nice touch. The stripped down, darkened set with aisle off to the side & mini tron on top (if I’m not mistaken, I wished that for Smackdown in a prior column), was perfect for the tone the show was attempting to convey. Everything worked. The combo of Mauro Ranallo & Daniel Bryan has made me re-think my favorite commentary team currently (move over NXT’s Tom Phillips & Corey Graves). Bryan & Ranallo not once bickered with each other, never touted about social media, told stories about the competitors, explained moves performed, were passionate about the action they were calling and treated outcomes like they actually mattered. They even referred to it as Pro Wrestling!HARK! Then, there’s the wrestlers themselves. This won’t be a rundown of every match (only 4 on the inaugural edition, and way too many to come), but I will comment on the standouts. I agree with & understand why Gran Metalik went over, but Alejandro Saez really surprised me. He is quirky and unique in a good way. His selling, facials and mannerisms were on point. He’s also apparently the first pro wrestler from Chile…so that’s something. I wasn’t sure why Ho Ho Lun was given the “W” over Ariya Davairi, when Davairi is clearly the bigger star with unlimited potential. Lun didn’t do much for me, but it’s a subjective art form…just my opinion. Cedric Alexander & Kota Ibushi are the two that I think were the most anticipated for this episode and are the most talked about today after it aired. It’s no surprise that Ibushi shined and his match was a showcase of what he can do. Bryan explaining how stiff Ibushi’s kicks were from his own experience, added even more credibility. As far as Alexander, he lost 20 lbs. to get in the tournament, and his story they featured beforehand told more about him than any time during his ROH run, and instantly made me more invested. Crazy how that works. 1 episode down, 9 to go. More 1st round matches will be featured next week, after another NXT, the final season finale episode of Ultima Lucha, and two days in a row of live WWE main roster shows culminating with the Draft on the first live Smackdown. All sandwiched in between the Battleground PPV on Sunday. The proceeding week will be very newsworthy, hopefully answering some questions on what the landscape of the business within WWE going forward will look like. I suppose there’s still a chance that the brand split won’t change anything at all. Could just be same stuff, different day. Regardless though, one thing is certain…if both RAW & Smackdown still remain unfulfilling when the smoke clears, there is always Wednesday.