WrestleMania 33: Looking Up at the Lights, and Going Out on Your Back

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The Undertaker salutes the end of the greatest career pro wrestling will probably ever see. Credit: WWE

As someone who attaches emotion and meaning to everything I enjoy, WrestleMania is a very intense week for me, from the floods of tears during the Hall of Fame, to the Christmas-like anticipation for the event, to the awe I have watching it that will never go away. WrestleMania’s come and go, and whether they are good or bad, they are always significant – the platitudes about it being the ‘showcase of the immortals’ and ‘WrestleMania moments’ are, incredibly, not really exaggerated. I enjoyed WrestleMania 33 which I found to be consistently enjoyable, even if it lacked a real show-stealer match. The moment I can’t shift from my head (the reason we’re here) came at the very end, when Undertaker, after struggling to his feet following a loss to Roman Reigns, started to leave his gear in the ring. If there’s one thing Taker has always excelled at, it’s exuding meaning and emotion (despite often being near emotionless outwardly), and after he removes his hat for the final time, he takes this huge breath, a sigh not quite of relief, but of rest. The ride is finally over, and he can rest. I immediately burst in to tears.

I am going to write the qualifier I have seen several people write. The Undertaker wasn’t ‘my guy’, and yet there is something about him that seems to engender total respect and reverence. He’s not the best talker, but he is the best character; he’s not the best wrestler, but he does have some of the best matches ever. He understands wrestling and performance better than anyone, and takes it seriously, and everyone respects him for it. He might not be your favourite, but whenever you hear a gong, or see him toe to toe with someone, you know, almost by definition, that something significant is happening. He’s the best of pro-wrestling, and represents 20+ years of some of the most vivid, memorable years of it.

Perhaps that is why he is loved so. He has been a legitimising backbone of this crazy travelling roadshow we love and has dedicated himself to it longer, frankly, than his body would allow. He helped build WrestleMania and created many of it’s most special moments. His passing of the torch and leaving the ring no longer a warrior may well be a crucial moment in wrestling’s future, and it was sure one of the most moving in wrestling’s history.

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Undertaker, leaving his iconic hat and coat in the ring, symbolising the end of his storied career. Credit: WWE

Though I am more than happy to wax eulogistic about Undertaker’s career though, that beautiful end is only around half of the reason i’m writing this. Undertaker was the main reason I decided it was ‘now or never’ for attending WrestleMania 30 – I decided that I had to see him on his greatest stage before I lost the chance, I had to see that entrance. And I did. For that event though, I chose to wear a Bray Wyatt shirt. Bray has been a real darling of mine ever since I started watching him on NXT, and there are certainly similarities to Undertaker in him, mainly in his dedication to a character which bends the rules other characters play by, occasionally traipsing in to the supernatural. Wyatt, in fact, is a far better talker than Taker ever was, and with his commitment to every part of his character, I had never been so excited about the future of a wrestler and my related enjoyment of them.

The difference between him and Taker is, and remains, that it’s never really gone anywhere. At WrestleMania, I had the honour of seeing ‘The Streak’ broken, and the joy of seeing ‘Yes-tleMania’, but under that, I had the disappointment of seeing Wyatt fall to Cena when a victory could have really set him along the course of a phenom himself. The next year, Wyatt lost to Undertaker fairly handily to help Taker recover from the loss of the Streak, and then last year, Wyatt made the best of being booked alongside The Rock, but would never be able to overcome Rocky being important and easily murking him and his family. Wyatt has never won at WrestleMania, or really won a significant match on a big stage. His strength of character and performance though has seen him recover of late to the point where John Cena insisted on putting him over clean for the WWE Championship. A significant achievement for sure, but it lacks the historical significance that the real top guys have propping them up. The significance, say, of defeating The Undertaker in his final match.

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The Rock, delivering the People’s Elbow to Bray Wyatt at WrestleMania 32 after quickly dispatching the rest of the ‘Family’. Credit: WWE

Writing this isn’t intended to throw shade at anyone other than the decision makers who booked Wyatt to lose this year, not even Orton, who probably could have spoken up to lose as Cena had earlier.

Part of the respect that the Undertaker commands without demanding it, is that he will always do what’s best for the business, and rule #1 in that regard is that, when you go out, you ‘go out on your back’, giving someone else the chance to profit from it, and by extension, the business. Roman Reigns has become something almost other to wrestling. For his part, Reigns has grown quietly but enormously as a performer, especially in recent months, and he was a big part of making Taker’s final match powerful and entertaining. He clearly hasn’t been handled quite right though, to the point where, regardless of his performances, he will be booed. Fans treat him like the most boring or lazy denominator almost regardless of what he does. Usually, the honour of ‘retiring’ The Undertaker would be the biggest lay-up of all time to stardom for a persons career, but whether that happens for Roman, remains to be seen. The hope is that either he will somehow inherit Taker’s inherent respect value (after all, this was a metaphorical transferring of ‘the yard’ to Reigns), or he can build a white hot heel run from his actions.

With Wyatt though, there is a feeling of complacency on management’s part in a way that may be due to his success at portraying the character. Losing in itself has never really seemed to damage Wyatt – he can always ‘turn it on’ and be mesmerising. But after years of constant losing on big stages, it’s hard not to see diminishing returns from him, regardless of his exceptional efforts. He recovered miraculously from it when he was reduced to comic jobber to The Rock, but this slip up when he had returned to his most powerful may be even more damaging.

Everything about his match at WrestleMania 33 seemed geared to be his moment, to showcase him in a way that suited only him. The most memorable part of the match was the recurring projections of imagery of death, disease, and pestilence on to the ring. Regardless of what people say in retrospect, coloured as it is by the match result, at the time, fans were losing their minds over this, including me. It was different, and though simple, was shocking due to both the fact it had never been done before, and the nature of the imagery. Initially, Orton and everyone else involved sold these projections. That is until Orton hit a trademark unexpected RKO for the win to become a 13 time champion. Wyatt falls short again.

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Though later mocked by some, the various visuals of decay projected by Wyatt on to Orton and the ring were shocking, and unlike anything ever seen before in WWE history. Credit: WWE

Again, with no disrespect to Randy Orton, why does he need a 13th championship here, at a time when Wyatt could have taken a big step towards lasting significance? The disgusting projections even provided him with a ‘get out’ for the loss. What do we get from this? Orton doesn’t need a win basically ever these days and can have whatever feud management want down the line. It has been suggested to me that this was the natural ending of the story – a point I understand, but it is also important to realise that sometimes (not often) the bad guy wins, and it could have lit a fire under Orton too. Meanwhile, Wyatt seems almost goofy for trying his antics in a loss. Even if he wins his rematch, it’s on a much smaller stage. If Wyatt wins this match as it was produced, he gets a big showcase win, a championship retention, and a memorable WrestleMania moment; what happened instead was people viewed him as a loser and started mocking the projections too. Once again, he was forgotten, looking up at the brightest lights there are, with management neglecting the gift he is. What happens to him in the weeks following this year’s WrestleMania and at next year’s Mania will be very telling about how damaging this was. I hope i’m wrong.

Most losses aren’t significant gestures to the future as Undertaker’s was, and it is there that him putting Reigns over in his final match will hopefully benefit him. There is a chance though, that it will just further complicate Reign’s relationship with the fans and be wasted. Further, Reigns is already treated like a top guy, and clearly will be going forward. It’s just a shame that another veteran in Randy Orton couldn’t put over Bray in a similar spot, and so the difference between Undertaker and Wyatt remains – one is an outlaw that went out on his back, and the other is a pretender that has been left on his back for three WrestleMania’s in a row. I can’t help but wish the stars had aligned a little differently, and the best Bray Wyatt had faced Underataker this year. Not only would their characters have gelled well once again, but Taker’s final sacrifice would have had the definite result of making Bray Wyatt, overnight, one of the most significant superstars in the world.

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After the fans were gone and the ring was being taken down, Undertaker’s hat and coat remained untouched in a startling and moving show of respect. Credit: @samirkh75387729 on Twitter

Thank you Undertaker.

 

 

 

 

Ideology and Effective Parliamentary Opposition

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The Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn across from Prime Minister Theresa May credit: ITV.com

The role of politicians with regards to their duty to voters has been muddied, in the West at least, for decades, but I think the role of the politician in the UK was thrown in to disarray, drastically, with the sweeping to power of New Labour in the late 1990’s. It’s not my intention to discuss New Labour in any real detail, but that change continues to have an impression on today’s political climate, As has been argued by Adam Curtis in mesmerising fashion, Tony Blair and New Labour saw an appetite for power to be taken away from the ideologies of politicians, and instead trusted to the target-based culture of the free market; promising to improve health and education by placing targets under the noses of teachers and doctors, and letting them achieve them by any means they could. It is this shift away from ideology that this article is concerned with, and especially with relation to the role of ‘The Opposition’ in Britain’s political chambers.

Current Prime Minister Theresa May, forced by the Supreme Court to hold a Parliamentary vote on the UK leaving the EU, recently announced an bill for Brexit that revealed a preference for a ‘clean’ and decisive withdrawal from the EU. Eschewing attempts to negotiate a place for the UK in the European single market, May announced a plan to ‘Brexit’ as quickly as possible while exploring trade deals internationally to compensate for potential losses from the withdrawal. It is in this context that the role of the opposition, led – officially – by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, has come under scrutiny. Corbyn announced that he would be instructing his Labour MP’s to support Theresa May’s bill, ostensibly because he wanted Labour to support the result of last year’s EU referendum result where the majority of those who voted, did so to leave the EU. While Labour publicly opposed Brexit, it was deemed that the democratic will of the voters should be respected. In isolation, this is reasonable, but the move was met with lots of opposition by many people, including many of his supporters in a way which further splintered the Labour Party, and the idea of parliamentary opposition.

Labour MPs found themselves in a dilemma: most Labour MPs opposed Brexit, and felt that the traditional centre-left ideals of Labour did too; but the referendum result was not only democratic, but was supported by roughly two-thirds of Labour constituencies. They have been asked to decide on which way to vote regarding Brexit, but have different responsibilities pulling them in often conflicting directions – as representatives of a constituency, as representatives of a party, as representatives of their own ideals, and as representatives of the official opposition.

There has been a lot of criticism of Corbyn’s decision to back the government’s bill on Brexit exactly because they are the opposition to the government, because it has been seen by some as giving Theresa May something of a ‘free pass’ to Brexit – something that has been seen as him not doing his job as opposition, and negligently assisting Theresa May’s agenda. That suggests, though, that the leader of the opposition exists simply to frustrate the government, an approach which has been roundly criticised in the case of the likes of Mitch McConnell and House Republicans in the United States as selfishly frustrating the business of government for political gain. Surely ideological opposition should oppose governments based on their ideology rather than based on the idea of playing a role that doesn’t necessarily relate to their stance. This raises the central question of this piece: what is the duty of the opposition in British politics, is it effective, and does it make sense philosophically?

The Labour Party, which on the surface at least has moved back towards traditional socialist values following the less ideological period of New Labour rule, is an independent political party with it’s own manifesto for power. While this will respond to the current political climate as well as the manifesto of the governing Conservative party, Labour’s manifesto is based, ultimately, on it’s own political values, not all of which are at odds with those of the Conservatives. Where the parties differ, it is based on ideology, and it is in this climate where political ideology is seen as naïve, sometimes self-indulgent, and even sometimes, undemocratic, that a political party can be expected to act a certain way simply because they are in official opposition to government. Later the same week, Theresa May stated that she and the British government officially was explicitly opposed to waterboarding, but this is something that Labour agree with, as most do, but as the opposition, should they be criticising May’s denouncement of waterboarding? This may seem like an obvious example, but it follows that if it is not the opposition’s job to oppose the government on every issue, they can’t be expected to on any specific issue.

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Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the faces of ‘New Labour’ were also the faces of a new, less ideological politics credit: The Independent

There is no doubt that having a public figure challenging the government is a valuable idea that should be preserved, but if they are expected to simply react negatively to the government, regardless of their own ideology, the role becomes, in actuality, apolitical; something along the lines of an auditor. What is lost is a sincere ideological debate, in which each party can set out their respective ideological stall and let the public decide. This is compounded by another shift magnified by New Labour – towards politicians setting out manifestos they think will get them elected, rather than ones they believe in. New Labour worked hard to move away from their traditional socialist identity and moved significantly towards the political centre to appear more moderate and therefore, more electable. This was incredibly successful, leading to over a decade of power; but who was it that was elected? New Labour were a new party in more than just name and as time progressed, the difference between them and the Conservatives became less and less tangible, embracing the free market and hawkish tendencies more than ever before. This is a shift from the public expressing themselves through voting for parties who represent the closest thing to the vanguard of the time, to parties chasing the vanguard themselves for power. The power is empty – the result of essentially campaigning for a role that has been defined by others (the media, press, lobbies, and extremists with the loudest voices). Like the role of the opposition, it is almost an apolitical, managerial role that ignores, on a daily basis, political ethics. Politicians devise policy because they think it will appeal to voters, rather than formulate what they think is best for humanity, and let the people decide on if they are right.

This is what I advocate for, though I am not confident it is an approach that will return any time soon: political parties build manifestos based on their beliefs and ethics, and the people vote for whichever set of ideals they agree most with. In comparison with Labour, who changed their ideals  for votes, this is something the Greens – to their credit – have always done; only wanting to be elected with a mandate to pursue policies they believe in, and not seeking power under any other terms. So then what of the role of the opposition? If the opposition is just the party which came second in the election, then it sets up this contradiction of roles again. Well, the answer, I believe, is to formalise the opposition as what it already is: an apolitical body which publicly challenges the sitting government on all issues; a Devil’s Advocate, you might say – and what’s more, this job shouldn’t be that of another political party, but of an independent public body. The usual, natural worries around things like corruption and politicking, especially with regards to state funded mouth-pieces, are totally countered by the nature of the role – if their only job is to challenge governmental policy, then not doing that job would be completely obvious. If their job is to raise a counterpoint to governmental policy, there is nothing to do but argue against the government. If the government advocate for tax breaks for a certain group, the opposition devise an argument for that being a bad idea; if the government want to intervene militarily abroad, the opposition argues against it. It would be a role that is essentially purely debate based and would be best suited to lawyers rather than politicians.

I think this would secure a dependable, effective opposition, rather than the responsibility essentially being inherited by the party receiving the second largest count of votes, while freeing up that party to put forward their ideological case for power without having to do so in relation to the government – a trend which I believe is responsible lack of true progressive change in Britain in the last 20 years. It won’t of course, stop parties chasing the vocal vanguard – usually more right wing, and represented by the powerful tabloid press – altogether, but I do think it would help create conditions in which parties could offer a more sincere political ideology for the general public to vote on. Of course, since Donald Trump is prancing all over the established “rules” of politics, it’s hard to say for sure what the political arena will be like after the next few years, but I think this system preserves the two elements that are crucial to a healthy democracy – effective opposition, and debates over political ideology.

How I Was Blindsided By The UK Championship Tournament and Fell Back in Love with UK Wrestling

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The scenes as Tyler Bate becomes ‘King of UK Wrestling’ Credit: Sky Sports

A recent article of mine considered the WWE’s UK Championship, what excited me about it, but more largely, what concerned me. I won’t rehash that here, but the result was a slight dampening of my excitement for the tournament. Nevertheless, I tuned in like a lot of interested fans from Britain and beyond, live over the weekend, and by the end of night two, I had joy in my heart, great memories, and a new top 5 favourite wrestler.

I have a lot of different interests in my life, as well as an increasing amount of obligations, and the result of that has been a real struggle to keep up with not only just indy wrestling but even WWE shows. On a weekly basis, I try to cover RAW, NXT, and Lucha Underground, and anything beyond that (usually ICW and the odd Japanese match) is a bonus. So going in to this tournament, I actually wasn’t that familiar with most of the field bar fellow Glaswegian, Wolfgang. While that is less familiarity than many of good wrestling twitter friends have with the field, I think it is probably the level of familiarity casual fans might have with the field, and it is from that perspective – among others – that I think this event was a success as many of these unfamiliar talents shone brightly and staked their claim to a future in the business. I will give do an annotated ranking of the field based on my impressions later, but first, I want to talk about the benefits of the tournament structure generally.

Watching the first night, I was enjoying the tournament. The setting of the Empress Ballroom, a place I have visited many times in my life having lived very close to Blackpool for a number of years, was perfect. Blackpool embodies the best flavours of the British style, it has a gritty glamour coming from a mix of carny magic, end-of-the-pier humour, and working-class hard work; and with William Regal overseeing it all, the setting was perfect. The wrestling was good too. Each match was fun, there were some cool, stiff spots, and there were some highlights including Jordan Devlin cheap-shotting Danny Burch for some major heat, and Pete Dunne’s end-of-show assault on Sam Gladwell which provided a nice narrative bridge over to night two. Maybe it is clear from my tone, but while I certainly enjoyed night one, I was by no means blown away. I was intrigued by Devlin and Dunne, but even then, it was still largely just a passing interest. By the end of night two, I was obsessed with Dunne. What I have since realised is that the careful booking of night one set up for a very powerful night two.

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The beautiful, historic, Empress Ballroom in Blackpool which hosted the tournament. Credit: Sky Sports

Tournaments of course build towards a final, so from a practical point of view, it makes sense for them to not blow the doors of night one and have to top it when it matters the next night, but at least in this case, night one played a very crucial role in setting the scene and defining the players. All 16 got to wrestle on night one and all 16 got to set out their stall and define their character and role in the tournament. Some who would go on to play major roles, including the eventual finalists, got to do even more between main-eventing and being the aggressor in the overnight angle, but everyone got to define their place in the tournament narrative.

As the tournament progressed to night two, the matches didn’t get any longer, but the intensity of the matches did grow, starting hot with the intensity of Sam Gladwell seeking revenge against Pete Dunne, Wolfgang and Trent Seven trading stiff shots and near-falls, Tyler Bate shocking himself against Wolfgang, and then stunning himself against the Bruiserweight. Just as the setting hearkened back to traditional British wrestling style (albeit with more contemporary move-sets), the booking was also very traditional, and that was at the heart of the joy of this event. Every match on night two was a pretty black & white face vs heel match up with the exception of Wolfgang vs Bate during which Wolfgang acted far more heelish than before in attitude if not in act; all leading to the undoubted top face taking on the undisputed top heel in the final.

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The tournament final with popular face Tyler Bate facing off against greasy heel Pete Dunne. Credit: WWE

As the tournament progressed and the pieces moved around, it became clear that the likely final would in itself also tell a very traditional story. Heel vs face, tutor vs student, and dastardly cheat vs injured hero. WWE on it’s grandest stages really struggles with this in the modern era, but this tournament and the finals exemplified how to do it perfectly. I want to talk about the individual wrestler’s later, but by the end of the show, Dunne had become a fascinating, must-see character to me. His actions were so cheap and brutal that he brought with him an electric anticipation and the promise of relished violence. Up until the semi-finals, many of the wrestlers had made an impression of me, but no one like Dunne – that was until Bate’s victory over Wolfgang with the crowd rising to their feet in unison as he hits his finish, at which point, Bate started standing out to me too as a great wrestler and determined babyface to counteract him. In the context of this tournament, they were made for each other.

I called Dunne attacking Bate from behind after the semi-finals – at this stage it would have been almost disingenuous for him not to, and that set up a traditional – almost cliche – story of the cocky heel cheating to get ahead and the injured face who is terribly injured and can’t possibly win but by God he’ll try anyway! Before the finals, I couldn’t see past Dunne winning, but as the story set itself up, it was clear it was only going one way, and despite the predictability of the result in that contextthe climax was no less satisfying. Dunne was undoubtedly the star of the show, but Bate became a star too and set up a very intriguing title picture going forward when the weekly shows start. The 19 year old incredible talent having a target on his back and a pissed off Dunne chasing him is going to make for a great challenge, especially as Dunne becomes more desperate.

I also have a more positive outlook about the upcoming UK WWE Network show now compared to when I wrote about WWE being potential cultural appropriators. I think the crucial element will be the the upcoming series will be produced in the UK rather than the US, and as a result, won’t have the same problem at least of unfavourably overlapping with the main roster. There won’t be any ham-fisted British section of RAW and Smackdown with red, white, and blue ropes or something. It will be a self-contained show from which i’m sure talent can be called up to the main roster, but otherwise, like NXT, it will be it’s own universe. It’s disappointing that the smaller home nations only had one representative each, and i’m not sure that Irish competitors should be included at all, so I hope that in future shows and tournaments that is rectified as each country certainly doesn’t have a lack of talent. There are also still issues around WWE defining British wrestling to a mainstream audience, but at the least, I am more confident that the show is going to be entertaining and successful without having to fit in with the whole other world of the main roster.

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Pete Dunne in maroon, fur, and with his mouth-guard which provides a unique look. Credit: Sky Sports

Since the end of the tournament, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, how great some of the talent is, when the regular show will start, and especially Pete Dunne, who’s understated and perfect ring music, I have been playing to myself all day. I started not knowing most of the talent and being a bit underwhelmed by the prospect, to having a new top 5 wrestler and being super excited about British wrestling and it’s place in the world. And all it took was simple storytelling and good wrestling. Fancy that.

So as promised, I will now rank (this is the world we live in) the wrestlers from the tournament, based purely on my memory of the tournament and the impression each man made. Some are at a disadvantage from losing in their first match, but that can’t be helped i’m afraid, and some still made a good impression despite that disadvantage:

16) Saxon Huxley
I don’t want to be too hard on Saxon as this was the first time I saw him, but he dropped like a lead balloon with me. His promo about believing society is an illusion and liking books seemed like a real stretch and didn’t translate to his action at all. He came out with a weird strange that just had me questioning his choices, and mixed with his wrestling not standing out much, he couldn’t get over with me. Maybe it works elsewhere, but this time, Huxley was just a joke – literally with many of my twitter pals.

15) James Drake
Drake suffered from being the second most important competitor in a pretty dull match after Cole couldn’t stop talking up his opponent Joseph Conners. Drake’s promo was by the numbers and he did nothing else to really stand out.

14) H.C. Dyer
Watching Dyer’s pre-match promo, I was quite interested in him. The calm way he described getting pleasure from striking people was interesting and gave him some intensity, though it seemed to be all he had. Though he smartly managed to translate the promo to his match with some nice striking, he got overshadowed by Trent Seven in a short match during which he didn’t do much to stand out.

13) Roy Johnson
Roy Johnson’s lack of experience told quite strongly in his appearance, both in the way he spoke and to a lesser extent, how he wrestled. He wasn’t a bad dance partner for Dunne though and he was at least offering something different to most of his contemporaries in terms of his ‘wavy’ gimmick. With some more experience he could be quite an exciting competitor, and he was a welcome change of pace in the field.

12) Dan Moloney
His high placement is almost exclusively due to his pre-match promo. Again, he was a good opponent for Mark Andrews, but that match was more about showing the high-flying Welshman. Despite that, Moloney’s intense promo about things he’d seen and how he had no regard for anyone else’s safety spoke to the sort of dark promo I generally like.

11) Joseph Conners
Conners was at an early disadvantage when Cole made him his early pick for the tournament. Though Cole gives off the impression of a respected and knowledgable veteran announcer (which he os of course), his history of nonsense and general lack of popularity makes him, for lack of a better term, an uncool person to be associated with. His opening match with James Drake wasn’t much to write home about though he elevated his game against Andrews in the second round. Some decent working, but another somehat bland character that said he was intense more than showed it.

10) Tucker
Tucker didn’t get much of a chance to showcase himself being in only one match, but he was a good part of a good match with Tyler Bate which headlined the show. Bate was the star of it, but he was helped by Tucker who made it a good match and seemed like he could go over. His Super Duper Kick looked good and he could no doubt play a good role in future outings.

9) Trent Seven
This is probably a lot lower than most would have him. Seven is clearly loved by parts of the crowd, and as a wrestler, he has a pretty cool stiff style, but from the start, he rubbed me up the wrong way. His character is that he has facial hair. It’s basically all he talks about, and it’s hardly even unique when you consider there is Tyler Bate in this tournament and Jack Gallagher elsewhere in WWE who gets how to do a full-blooded gimmick that involves that sort of aesthetic rather than the aesthetic being the gimmick. If Trent Seven shaves his facial hair, who is he? Another good wrestler.

8) Danny Burch
Danny Burch made quite a leap here. On NXT, he has had impressive moments, but is basically a jobber. Here, he was in the shape of his life, and played a gristled veteran perfectly. He wrestles very neat and powerfully and seemed a totally different prospect here. I was surprised that he went out early in fact because it seemed there were more depths to mine with him. Hopefully he can take that veteran edge to upcoming shows if he doesn’t go back to NXT.

7) Tyson T-Bone
Tyson T-Bone was totaly unlike the rest of the field, even the ones who stood out because this guy just seemed like a guy who got by with fighting. I don’t know if there are many travellers who have made it to the wrestling scene because it seems like it would go hand in hand with it traditionally, but it seems pretty unique. Tyson had a really warm rogue style character and gave us the line that he asks the Virgin Mother for forgiveness whenever he hits someone. He managed to somehow mesh well with the more traditional style of Wolfgang and had a good match.

6) Sam Gladwell
When I first saw Sam Gladwell, he was a little close to home. As I mentioned I used to live in the area of Blackpool, and he just seemed a little too earnest while seeming quite pale and even sickly. Boy though, Gladwell really got over with me, partly with thanks to others and booking. His first match wasn’t anything too incredible, but after being attacked by Dunne, he came back the next night with a great intensity. His match with Dunne was really good, and he played his character of pissed off victim looking for revenge but falling short perfectly. He went from being a bit of a local goober to being a fiery local hero.

5) Jordan Devlin
Ignoring the fact that Devlin isn’t British, he started off in a bit of hole resulting from his pre-match promo where he talked about being Finn Balor’s student – the problem being that he styled himself almost exactly after Balor. Given how he acted later, that may even have been an intentional setup to a frustrated character. His match with Burch was hard hitting and fun, and though the finish was quite confusing, it made an impression. I thunk the blood was probably a coincidence which further muddied the water, but the dusty finish was something Devlin totally took advantage of. The superkick after the match made an impact, but what I liked more was his post-match promo in which he complimented himself on a ‘convincing’ victory. Great heel stuff and part of a good match.

4) Mark Andrews
I don’t want to be too disrespectful but I found Mark Andrew’s character pretty milquetoast with his high-fivin’ antics. Saying that, Andrews sttod out in the ring. More than a high flyer, he did high-flying things that were extra impressive and crisply executed. Each of his matches were strong to very strong and he got over pretty well. He reminded me a lot of Evan Bourne, leading me to calling him Ifan Bourne (sorry), but that’s certainly no insult.

3) Wolfgang
I’m pretty biased here in that Wolfgang was the only wrestler i’d seen significantly before the tournament, and I generally enjoy ICW, and always enjoy Glasgow folk, but here, Wolfgang sure cemented himself as a big talent. There are a lot of big hairy Scottish guys, and many are talented, but Wolfgang has that and more. He showed off his entire moveset at the tournament, flipping all over the place and no matter how much you see that, it’s always amazing seeing someone with that sort of body do that. We also proved himself really easy to like, but when he went up against Bate who got more adulation, took it in his stride and acted in a more heelish manner. He certainly impressed and was one of the most memorable parts of the show.

2) Tyler Bate
Tyler Bate was a slow burner with me. Though I like the thing in his promo where he names his different fists and showed how he’s sucker punch people with his left (that’s a Stan Laurel move, by the way), the way he delivered it was kinda lame. His match with Tucker was good, but it was really his semi-final with Wolfgang where it all came together. The clash of styles was fantastic, and Bate started to show a really deep and emotional level of wrestling. I will never forget that moment, not when he gets the 3 count against Woflie, but when he gets him up for his finish because the crowd goes WILD with anticipation for him winning. That is a specific kind of magic that only wrestling can create, and it was the start of an emotional final chapter of the night. Him getting over his teacher while carrying a severe injury was, as I say, cliched, but it was the right move and it really worked. He is a great choice for champion, and for crying out loud, he’s only 19. He could be a very big deal in the future.

1) Pete Dunne
And then we have Pete Dunne. In retrospect, I noticed Dunne from the start. It’s just a small thing, but in the promotional videos before the event, there were glimpses of each guy, and with respect, about 10 of them look very similar to each other. The person who stood out to me each time was Dunne with his mouth guard. I didn’t think much of it, but now it’s clear that that’s just part of what makes him great. Dunne had my attention at the end of the first night, but even then, it just seemed like an interesting angle, but by the end of the night, he was the most intriguing, exciting talent by quite a long way. One thing that was clear even after the first night though was the magic chemistry he has with Regal. Wearing maroon, intense, dastardly, and wrestling incredibly stiff, the comparison is impossible to ignore. People come up with dream matches for Regal consistently, but this is the one that makes most sense, and if Regal does have one more match in him, this would be perfect. Dunne is like a second coming of Regal, but with his own edge on the character – he has a lot of Regal’s qualities, but adds a level of impatience and entitlement which make him all the more slimy and easy to dislike. There’s so much more, and I won’t write at too much length about it, but from not being afraid to look slimy and horrible with his hair all over the place and the effect of the mouth-guard, to following through on his character away from the promo which is something a lot of the guys here didn’t do. In his promo, he said that he wouldn’t let anyone get in his way to his title, and he showed this throughout the tournament. He beat up Gladwell to get an advantage, he attacked Bate from behind to get an advantage, and then mercilessly went after them to try and win. For all the talking each wrestler did, too, I would argue that it was only really Dunne who stood out as consistently dangerous and brutal. The short Japanese history he refers to in his promo shines through in the way he suplexes and throws people down or on to things, melding it with the traditionally British trait of using the ring as a weapon. He fell short in the tournament, but I think it could create even more of a monster. To me, this is the most exciting wrestler in my universe right now.

Valuing Contributions: Defining the MVP Award and Who Should Win it for 2016/17

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The front-runners for the 2016/17 MVP award. Credit: USA Today

The NFL has made a concerted effort to be relevant throughout the year, despite being, at its very longest, a 6-month proposition competitively. This has led to some genuinely fascinating parts of the NFL calendar like the start of free agency and the draft, but has also led to the somewhat burlesque elevation of events like the combine. The NFL awards are certainly a worthwhile and interesting part of this calendar coming as it does at the crux of the post-season, the night before the Superbowl. Sometimes these awards are near foregone conclusions, but this year, there is wide debate about an unusually broad field of contenders for the MVP award. Just as the NFL is building itself a cottage industry though, so are the many analysts and TV personalities who are paid to debate the game. What has become clear – partly by the variety of contenders for the MVP award – is that the understanding of what constitutes the MVP is unclear, and possibly even undefined.

MVP, to patronise for a second, stands for ‘Most Valuable Player’, and the problem seems to stem from people’s definitions of ‘Value’ in the game. Is it simply the best player, or is it something else? The confusion is obvious when you go through the popular runners and riders, and so I will go through them, argue who I think should win the award, and consequently, what the MVP is. These can be split in to three broad groups:

The Greatest

Tom Brady

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Credit: cheatsheet.com

I count myself as one of the many, shall we say, Patriots-skeptic fans of the game, but to me, it is near clear that he is the greatest QB of all time (just as Bill Belichick is the greatest coach of all time). This year is no different – his skills seem evergreen coming out of one of the greatest regular seasons of his career, topped by an all-time record 28-2 TD to INT ratio. He continues to be probably the best player in the league, but his detractors (in terms of winning the MVP) point to the fact that he missed 4 games as a reason for him not to be eligible for the award, but the issue is really what happened in his absence. Having missed the first 4 games through suspension, the Patriots went 3-1 with backup Jimmy Garrapolo winning the three games he played before Jacoby Brissett started behind centre in a losing effort. Without Brady, the Patriots and his backup rolled over opponents, pointing to the fact that the success of the team wasn’t reliant on him, regardless of his talent. Had the Patriots won not won a game or won only one or maybe two games, there would be absolutely no question about the rightful winner of the MVP.

Aaron Rodgers

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Credit: USA Today

As I write this, Aaron Rodgers is in red-hot form, leading a six-game winning streak for the Packers which he publicly called after Green Bay fell to 4-6 amid a collection of underwhelming performances with Rodgers himself looking limp at QB. Rodgers took the team on his back, finishing with 40 TDs and 7 INTs (none of which came during the 6-game winning streak), and a 104 passer rating. It is an incredible streak of performances which has made the Packers offense near unstoppable, and Green Bay one of the favourites to make the Superbowl. Rodgers seems to be playing on a level above everyone else at the position, making heart-breaking clutch plays after seemingly impossibly escaping pass-rushers, and the level of play during this hot streak has made Rodgers a popular candidate for MVP. As true, and as great as that is, the fact remains that through those first 10 games which necessitated the hot streak to make the post-season, Rodgers was part of a significant problem in Green Bay, and while the sheer quality of his play in the latter half of the season can’t be ignored or devalued, it is my view that the MVP must both be valuable throughout the season, but also mustn’t ever be a problem for the team as I believe Rodgers was. He lit a fire under himself and started an incredible run which may end with a Superbowl ring, but the MVP is based on the regular season, and his first 10 games of mediocre play undermines his case for the award.

Consistent Production

Dak Prescott

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Credit: USA Today

Rookie QBs picked in the 4th round don’t do what Dak has done this year. Barely anyone does. When Tony Romo went down with another back injury, most assumed that the Cowboys faced another losing year helmed by backup, sub-standard QBs; what the Cowboys got though was an exemplary season with a historic offense which had Dak as it’s central figure. Dak was no mere figurehead though – gaining incredible chemistry with the likes of Cole Beasley and Jason Witten while playing very clean ball having scored 23 touchdowns to 4 interceptions and matching Rodgers’ 104 passer rating. His other passing stats are someway behind contemporaries Rodgers and Ryan, but he shared a great deal of his touches with Ezekiel Elliott in a way those QBs didn’t with their running backs. Dak never single-handedly blew opponents away, but playing so well and leading arguably the most untouchable team in the league under such pressure, and with such a large shadow as Tony Romo being cast over him as a rookie, is an incredible feat.

The question with Dak, though, is how much he really elevated the Cowboy’s play. There’s no question he played very well and very clean, but how different would the Cowboys have been with a healthy Tony Romo? You can’t base anything on Romo’s one successful drive in week 17 against Philadelphia, but based on Romo’s past, it seems fair to assume that, at the very least, Romo wouldn’t be much less productive than Dak. Depending on the offensive style Dallas would employ with Romo under centre, there may have been more turnovers, but there may also have been more production. As good as Dak was, he scored 0 or 1 touchdown in over half of the regular season games he principally played in. While I would never claim that Dak was a placeholder, I think it is fair to question whether he added so much production to the offense as to merit an MVP award.

Matt Ryan

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Credit: Panic Button

‘Matty Ice’ is the first candidate on this list who I think demands serious consideration for the MVP award, and now that he has been named to the All Pro team, he may be the fovourite to win. It feels somewhat unfair to pair Ryan in the same category of consistency as Dak Prescott, simply because Ryan’s consistent production is much more searingly productive than Dak, or indeed, most quarterbacks in the league this year. Rodgers pipped him to the post in terms of touchdowns, but he was far ahead of the other candidates in terms of yards, led the league in terms of passer rating with a 117 mark, while recording the highest ever yards per attempt over the season for QBs with over 400 passes. The statistics are impressive, but more impressive is how relentless Atlanta have been this year with Ryan under centre. In previous years, they have burned hot for stretches, but fallen off under significant challenge; this is something that never happened in the current regular season, with the Falcons finishing the year a demolition of the Saints.

There are lies, damn lies, and statistics, and while I don’t think Ryan’s incredible numbers are deceiving, it is interesting to consider them in the context both of previous seasons and with the rest of the Falcons offense. While this is definitely Ryan’s best season, his production has always been very impressive to the point that him being even more impressive perhaps packs less of a punch. More importantly perhaps, the Falcons had a stellar and somewhat forgotten backfield  of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman who supplied a third of Atlanta touchdowns and around a quarter of Atlanta offense. This doesn’t denigrate Ryan’s fantastic season, but it does help explain why he may have been able to take his performances to the next level. Without their production, Matt Ryan and the Falcons may not have been able to be quite so dangerous. As suggested though, Ryan would be a worthy MVP, just not my choice in this competitive season.

‘Jenga Pieces’

I don’t have much time for Dave Dameshek and his irritating brand of dad comedy, but his podcast – when you eat around all that – does contain some insightful and interesting discussions and analysis, and one talking point he raises frequently is that of ‘jenga pieces’, i.e., players who are so crucial to their team’s success that them being removed causes the whole operation to crumble. It is this property that I have always understood MVP to measure – the inherent value a player has to their team’s overall success. It’s with this in mind that I have made my pick for MVP.

Derek Carr

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Credit: Oakland -247sports

Derek Carr isn’t quite my choice for MVP, but given my definition of the award, I think that Derek Carr’s heart-breaking injury in week 16 may have – strangely enough – made his case about as strongly as possible. Before his injury, Carr was settling the league alight at the helm of the red-hot Oakland Raiders. Ultimately, he didn’t match up to the other candidates in terms of dominance, and between their rushing attack and pass rush it was clear that Carr wasn’t the only powerful cog in Oakland, but Oakland’s fate after losing Carr has been very telling. Where Brady’s replacement, for example, picked up where Tom Terrific left off, Oakland seem to have collapsed, turning a team in control of the #2 seed and a viable threat to the Patriots in to a #5 seed who aren’t favoured to win more than one post-season game. In short, when Carr went down, the Raiders appear to have followed, and it is in that fact that Carr’s inherent value – be it in terms of skill, or even in terms of leadership and motivation – is very powerful.

Ezekiel Elliott

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Credit: ESPN.com

My choice, considering all of these great candidates, is a difficult one for me to concede as a Giants fan, but the Cowboys have picked up a possible all time talent in Elliott, and more than that, a piece that has been central not only to their success, but to their style of success.

There are some very immediate arguments against Elliott being especially singularly valuable, but I think they become weaker in the context of how the Cowboys offense has succeeded this year. The first is that his impact has been essentially shared with another candidate mentioned, Dak Prescott. Returning briefly to my argument against Dak though, as well and as clean as he played, the talent he replaced (when he last played a full season) was comparable in terms of many stats, and in most, compared unfavourably. It is only his security with the ball where Dak has the edge. That’s not insignificant, but it’s also something that points more to a game manager than a game winner. That’s not a knock – Dak has led the team incredibly well under a hell of a microscope in Dallas, but it just doesn’t make him MVP.

So if the improvement isn’t at QB, it has to be somewhere else, and judging by yards and points scored, it’s at running back. Last year, Darren McFadden had a nice season, running for 1,089 yards and three TDs. This year, Elliott blew that – and all other RBs – out of the water on his way to the rushing title, rushing for 1,631 and 15 TDs. Elliott was seriously endangering Eric Dickerson’s rookie rushing record before being rested in the final game and was able to prove himself as an adept receiver and pass-blocker which is also crucial to any pass offense. The comparison with McFadden also helps to combat the second fair complaint with Elliott winning – the all-decade offensive line blocking for him. Of course Zeke playing behind this line helps him, but any argument that his success is simply because of the line is fraudulent. What Darren McFadden proved, perhaps, was that any decent RB could run for 1,000 yards behind this line, but Ezekiel has done that and way more.

This is where I come to my point about the Dallas offensive system. In the past, their running game was important, but ultimately, their success was down to Tony Romo being explosive. This year, Dallas have been using Zeke to shorten the game, control the game, grind down opposition defences, and protect their own defense as much as possible from opposition offenses. The Cowboys were successful at this, having the second longest time of possession for the year. The Cowboys were used to going on long, crushing drives, with Zeke as the hammer driving them forward most of the time. Even in 3rd and long situations, Zeke was frequently capable of backbreaking long runs to keep moving the chains. That, mixed with his goal line production which saw the Dallas ground game contribute a much higher proportion of touchdowns this year. Zeke’s exceptional play supported the rest of the offense and the rest of the team to many of their wins this year, and without him, there would have been much more required from Dak which would have required him to push the boundaries a bit more and risk his reputation as a safe pair of hands. The Cowboys have blown out a few teams, but have also won a lot of close games over the course of the year, and the recipe for those wins is usually that of controlling the game, and that is what Zeke was central to this year and what has made him so valuable. The most valuable. Just about.

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A final point: if we agree that ‘value’ in the MVP race has this ‘jenga piece’ definition, is it worth creating a new, less vaguely-defined award for the Player of the Year? Personally, I think so as it would also clear up the definition of MVP and help celebrate more players and more contributions. If that were a category, I would give the award to another player I have to through gritted teeth – Tom Brady.

The Connecticut Raiders: Will WWE’s Diversification Create a Stylistic Suppression?

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The unveiling of the locked-in talent for WWE’s UK tournament. Credit to Wrestlezone

The influx of diverse, international talent to WWE that has accelerated over the past year is in many ways a positive shift for wrestling from a top-down perspective. WWE being the undisputed mainstream leader in professional wrestling while making a Cruiserweight show and upcoming tournaments for women’s and British wrestling jewels in their Network crown gives those divisions arguably more significance and recognition than ever before. Something strange has happened with the Cruiserweights though – following the acclaim of the Crusierweight Classic and the excitement for the impending division on RAW, interest in the division has decreased rapidly. This could be due to lacklustre booking, but there it was perhaps the opening salvo of a more insidious trend from WWE; one of humouring, appropriating, and watering down styles to the detriment of everyone involved.

This entire article should be prefaced with a very clear determination: the introduction of the Cruiserweight Classic, 205 Live, and the Upcoming Women’s and UK tournaments provide a huge upgrade on the previous slew of secondary programming that was available in Superstars and Main Event. These were shows which featured great talent, but due to them just being extra shows full of under-carders, they felt like insignificant drains on time.

These new demographic-based platforms are certainly not the same kind of afterthought. They feature self-contained feuds, challenges, and championships which instantly gives the action more gravitas (whether you enjoy the booking, however, is another matter). The problem is that that this gravitas doesn’t carry over to their main roster appearances. The Cruiserweights are instead brought out as a sideshow act with little opportunity to establish a character to the RAW audience or even to talk to them. They get their own ropes, and their own scripted platitudes from the commentators. This setup, strange as it is, could gain momentum if the action matched the speed and unique style of the Cruiserweight Classic, but instead their appearances on RAW feel like a watered-down version of the CWC style, mixed with the classic WWE style of wrestling, and so, save for a few highspots, the action doesn’t even particularly stand out. Imagine it this way: how damaging would a WWE ‘Lucha Classic’ in which they hired the likes of Pentagon Jr, El Dragon Azteca Jr, Fenix, Drago, and King Cuerno, and then had them all wrestle like Alberto Del Rio? I loved Del Rio at times, but that being popularised as Lucha would be a troubling prospect, and I fear that something similar is happening with the cruiserweights.

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The Cruiserweights have ‘arrived’ on the main roster, but they seem like outsiders. Credit: WWE

As it stands, the Cruiserweights are barely in the same ‘Universe’ as the main roster guys. Kalisto and Neville have gotten involved, but they seem to have to trade in their main roster credentials to do so. There doesn’t seem to be any prospect of Cruiserweights getting involved in another championship picture, and so it’s hard to place where they stand in the universe. With the purple ropes and the arms-length treatment of the Cruiserweights, they are simply portrayed as a less significant sideshow who can’t live up to the hype that was built for them.

What is more concerning in the case of the upcoming UK show as well as the cruiserweights is that, there is some degree of appropriation and softening of the styles involved. I’m a fan of the WWE style generally, but I also value the diverse range of styles around the world, and while even WWE could never, and probably aren’t even trying to, subsume the styles, the influx of talent to them and the incorporation of their style in to the WWE style will affect at least the perception of the different styles among audiences. I think it’s clear, so far, that the Cruiserweights haven’t been replicating some of the feats they had on the indy circuit, and while it remains to be seen with regards to the UK tournament, it will be interesting to see if they will be able to fully showcase the stiff, technical style of the UK when they start making weekly shows. WWE rightly loves to remember this fondly in the likes of William Regal and Fit Finlay, but if the UK division goes the same way as the Cruiserweight is currently going, it will amount to a sad appropriation – and conservatism – of the style.

The reality of WWE stealthily raiding talent from federations around the world is nothing new, but it seems to certainly have accelerated in the last year or two. Of course, WWE are well within their rights to source this talent, and in many ways as mentioned before, it is good for wrestling generally as it broadens WWE’s stylistic output and provides beloved indy wrestlers with well-deserved financial and career opportunities, it does simultaneously deplete the more accessible talent that local indy fans can enjoy, and as in the case of the UK tournament, not always for noble reasons. WWE reportedly only pulled the trigger on that project in response to them being unhappy with the prospect of ITV’s World of Sport reboot being shown on a more visible platform than WWE’s regular programming here in the UK. Of course that still wouldn’t make a dent in the WWE’s profits or success, but they are so predatory that they simply won’t allow it, leading them to the move of signing wrestlers to their upcoming tournament, and even – reportedly – no-compete clauses with televised competitors, regardless of whether they ever appear for WWE.

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Glasgow and the UK lost the ‘Best in the Universe’ when WWE signed Nikki Storm, Credit: ICW

As a native of Glasgow, I’m lucky enough to have internationally-respected ICW on my doorstep, and while I’m excited for the futures of the likes of ICW alums Nikki Cross and Big Damo, and am excited about the opportunities new talent will get at the indy level to replace them, the sheer aggression of WWE’s recent programming moves are concerning, and it’s because of the apparent shift in motivation. It seems to be less about creating a diverse roster that will appeal to a more international audience, and increasingly about creating content and protecting their business model. I don’t get the feeling that any of the new cruiserweights can really break out beyond their division, and I feel even less confident about the upcoming UK division which seems to have been set up with an arbitrary aggression rather than a plan to make stars. WWE is already achingly overexposed, but the only shows that matter, and are really treated like they matter, are RAW, Smackdown and NXT.

In the case of the upcoming Women’s tournament, I have fewer concerns, actually, with regards to how significant the participants will feel after it’s finished. WWE is signing female talent left, right, and centre, and seems keen to take women’s wrestling more seriously, even if they don’t always succeed. Cynically however, part of the reason the participants in this event may be safer points to the very problem they are addressing: that they are being treated like a niche product in themselves compared to the other niches they are exploring, which are all subsets of male wrestling styles. My one concern is  relatively small because it represents a gigantic improvement from the days of the Attitude Era, but again, with WWE having the biggest platform, they will subconsciously redefining what women’s wrestling is to the mainstream audience. Bayley and Sasha in Brooklyn is my personal female wrestling nirvana (one of my wrestling nirvanas regardless of gender, in fact), but while, with some, it’s a controversial proposition, there are some incredible female wrestlers doing incredible work with men – thinking especially of the work of Lucha Underground. The power of that work will not be diminished and inter-gender wrestling will continue to exist around the world, but as women’s wrestling becomes more prominent and significant in WWE, and what they do or don’t becomes more impactful, it could be that those paying attention to it see the women wrestlers as elite, but then see a normalised version of them tagging out of challenges with men. That not only limits their art and the stories they can tell, but in my opinion, provides a mixed message for the young boys and girls who are watching.

I desperately want to be proven wrong in my concerns about the new shows and influx of new talent, but until these new initiatives start to feel like they really constitute part of the significant future if the company, it will continue to produce great matches by great wrestlers that feel like they are limited in the impact they can have due to their presentation. As I have said previously, the impact of this may be small as alternative wrestling seems only to be growing worldwide, but it will certainly be interesting to see whether WWE’s demographically-based broadening of their umbrella has the effect of similar conquerors: water down and incorporate.

Lucha Underground, WWE and the Importance of Quiet Time

Introductory Note: I am a very big fan of Lucha Underground, the unique presentations it’s given us, and what they are broadly trying to do. I also know that given the near universal acclaim for the federation, aspects of this article could come across as contrarian. Frankly, maybe it is, but that comes from a high standard I have held Lucha Underground to since the first season.

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The explosive finish to Pentagon Jr’s central role in Lucha Underground’s first season. The quiet time between this and the start of season 2 allowed for Pentagon to become even more infamous and made his return to the Temple in season 2 even more anticipated. Credit: cagesideseats.com

As a person who has been interested in writing for a long time as well as enjoying various narrative driven forms of entertainment, I have recently been thinking about pacing, and more specifically, the importance of ‘quiet time’ after re-watching the excellent Super Bunnyhop video on the topic with regards to video games. Naturally, I soon began thinking about quiet time in relation to wrestling, and that will be the main focus of this article. WWE doesn’t – and takes a degree of pride in not – allow any real quiet time while Lucha Underground, split as it is in to seasons, does, but with mixed results.

Though i’m aware there are other federations – Chikara, for instance – who present their wrestling in series, the only one I’ve personally consumed in consecutive order is Lucha Underground. In a period where television ‘box-sets’ are probably the most revered form of visual entertainment, Lucha Undergorund has fit in with that trend by having long episodic seasons with respective ‘Ultima Luchas’ serving as season finalés; and for me as a wrestling fan, this was a new and welcome world. From a starting position of being just another new wrestling product, Lucha Underground used episodes with logical arcs within a unique, pulpy, and somewhat supernatural universe populated by a couple of handfulls of determined, fleshed-out characters to become arguably the most respected wrestling project in the world. This ride culminated in Ultima Lucha, an event where stories were paid off or evolved via fantastic, high-octane matches. Then it dis something almost unheard of in wrestling when the heat is white hot – it pressed pause:

Not only was it objectively beautiful television, but it actively invited you to rest – the phrasing of that tweet saying “Good night.” is no mistake. Series 2 of Lucha Underground didn’t appear for nearly 6 months, and in that time, there was nothing else to do but to reflect on what we had seen, and look forward to a new series. During the series, I loved the wrestling and many of the characters, but it was in the intervening months and discussions with fellow fans that the beauty of it came to it’s highest clarity. I longed for Pentagon Jr and fell in love with his theme music, playing it on endless repeat, I argued the case for LU’s unflinching inter-gender matches, and I wondered at how far LU could go with the signing of possibly the greatest Luchadors ever (and among the greatest pro wrestlers ever, period). I also realised that beyond their matches being great, Lucha Underground was actually built on marquee matches that totally reinvigorated established gimmick matches such as the casket match and the ironman match almost like a calling card, while also providing a strong structure for the first season’s arc. I rooted for the wrestlers and promotion to return, and when it did, it did so with a huge amount of good will and currency to keep trying new things.

That is the essence of the benefits of ‘quiet time’ – when you are enjoying something, it having the ability to pause or slow down provides you with the opportunity to reflect either actively or passively, on what the story is, or what you are enjoying  about it or not. The Super Bunnyhop video of course uses the excellent example of narrative video games, but it applies to any form of narrative-driven entertainment. It’s why ‘special events’ in wrestling usually have a less consequential match or two, sometimes with comic relief, between a marquee match and the main event; you can reflect on the marquee match and get it out of your system, take a breath, and be ready for the main event. It’s also why fantasy booking is so prevelent between wrestling fans (and indeed, outside of wrestling under different auspices). It’s because when you are enjoying a storyline or a wrestlers work (such as, recently, The Miz’s Talking Smack promo), you become extra engaged and become keen to join the journey being presented. On the other hand of course, it rears it’s head when fans aren’t enjoying the product. Wrestling engenders loyalty – for it’s sins it embraces fans in to a dysfunctional family, and when you love something like that, you want it to be better. So when the show fades to black, and you’re angry about Cena or Reigns winning (or whatever your preference is), many people thing ‘it would be so much better if…’, and you get to live that fantasy out, if even in your head. Outside of wrestling, quiet time is why season premieres and finales are so significant – they are preceded by or followed by it, which in itself marks it as significant, and provides fans with that crucial time for reflection.

When you’re having your mind blown by a fresh, innovative and exciting federation filled with brutal, high flying, and emotionally charged action set in a supernatural temple, the weekly episode of Monday Night RAW started to really struggle to grab your attention. I have said to many people in private that, for it’s sins, I think WWE ultimately does the best overall job of presenting high quality, compelling wrestling (WrestleMania 30, for instance); however it goes through waves of staleness, sometimes feeling like it’s spinning wheels until WrestleMania season. While some of that can be righteously blamed on lacklustre writing and a business model which clearly favours pouring resources and creativity in to it’s January – April programme, it is notable that WWE programming never stops. Less than 24 hours after the end of each year’s WrestleMania, which is one of the few places where stories are ever conclusively wrapped up, WWE and it’s fans are right back in the saddle for the annual, crazy, Post-Mania RAW. After 4 months of intense build to an insane spectacle though – post-Mania RAW aside – the WWE noticeably slows down, seemingly mailing in a month or two of wrestling.

In a sense, this period is a still a form of quiet time by virtue of how noticeably slower and less explosive it is, but there is still no real opportunity to reflect because the wrestlers you’ve just watched make history are off doing something else and there are new stories to focus on. Not only are the writers and general production notably a gear or two lower in the period, but many of the wrestler clearly are too – still working hard of course and having some cool moments, but taking a natural step back following WrestleMania. At a time when WWE seems to suffer from injury bouts with a degree of regularity, the wrestlers seem to be in need of down time physically as well as mentally, and this has been something I’ve supported for a long time, despite the fact that WWE’s business acumen means that such a move is hugely unlikely.

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HHH’s return from injury in 2002 came with much emotion and fanfare, despite the fact that he was a top heel before his injury. Credit: WWE

The brand split complicates this somewhat as they work on a different calendar, but speaking broadly, I think a ‘Good night.’ moment – admittedly with a much more sports-like, explosive tone – at the end of a WrestleMania could help create a more focused and efficient product. Can you imagine how hyped pretty much everyone would be for the first Monday Night RAW following a 2-month layover? Rested wrestlers, writers who have had time to plan stories in advance and fans who have missed seeing their favourite wrestlers and have missed regular accessible wrestling while reflecting on what happened at a historic WrestleMania event; all of this points to not only ratings and a better product, but a more beloved product. A microcosm of this that does currently occur in WWE is when wrestlers return from long injury layoffs or just time away from the show. Regardless of whether wrestlers are heels or faces, their returns are nearly uniformally – though partly depending on their standing beforehand.- met with huge pops. ‘Returns’ often feature among my favourite wrestling narrative moments, and I think the reason is that it represents an instant change to the landscape (see:’Universe) and usually reinvigorates the show.

On a bigger scale, where everyone essentially returns, the ‘season premieres’ of RAW would be huge cultural events in the wrestling world and maybe beyond. To extend the concept somewhat, I think that with a ‘mid-season finale/re-premiere’ after Survivor Series, for instance, and taking one or two PPVs out of the calendar, I think the pacing of the WWE calendar would be much more effective at facilitating exciting, interesting storytelling and programming more consistently.

Now, to return to Lucha Underground’s Temple, I’m going to, on face value, contradict a lot of what I just argued.

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Joey Ryan was a big coup for Lucha Underground’s second season, and while entertaining, his role on the show was part of a (so far) poorly defined sub-plot that didn’t really amount to anything. Credit: Lucha Underground

Well, not really, but I would like to take some time to critique a slow downturn in quality from Lucha Underground from that Ultima Lucha high-point and do so while cautioning that ‘quiet time’ alone isn’t an automatic benefit for storytellers. Specifically, while the period was great for the fans, the writers and showrunners got ever so slightly out of their groove. The limited roster of carefully drawn characters was populated by quite a few more characters who seemingly received slightly less attention each. Taya entered the Temple and became a well-drawn, easily established character following her match with (they call him) Cage, but compared to that, characters like Daga, PJ Black, Kobra Moon, Maripoza and more seemed directionless and – relatively – unimportant. Of course, as the number of characters grew, the share for each, and for each story’s quiet time, lessened. Matches always came thick and fast in Lucha Underground but initially there was a more manageable array of characters that meant each one could be reflected on.

While the addition of Rey Mysterio, the king of luchadors, made sense, the influx of indie talent untimately damaged the series. My impression of the second series was that it took a long time to get any sort of momentum and shortly after, it was time for Ultima Lucha Dos. The mainstay gimmick matches of Aztec Warfare and Grave(r) Consequences remained, but didn’t seem to add anything fresh like they did in series one. Finally, the impact of Ultima Lucha Dos seemed diminished as the tight booking of season 1 seemed to fade away with Black Lotus’s long awaited debut being interfered in, Pentagon’s journey to the top being spoiled, and the whole thing being spread over 3 ostensibly normal episodes to allow for it all. It felt less special and less impactful, and getting back to the concept of quiet time, I think that if there wasn’t such a long layover, the showrunners wouldn’t have added so much padding to the production and season 2 would have been executed with much more satisfaction. The quiet time could have, and maybe should have been used to help improve the show even more from season 1, but in reality i’m afraid that the devil made work for their idle hands.

Marty the Moth brandishes a missile - this was how 'WMD's were used in this great match which was spoiled by empty aesthetics.

Marty the Moth brandishes a missile – this was how ‘WMD’s were used in this great match which was spoiled by empty aesthetics.

The matches happen at the same rate as always, but you may not see some characters for a few weeks – but instead of that providing quiet time to reflect, memories of their character and purpose are almost saved over with recency bias for other people you have seen more recently. These cracks have really started to show now that season 3 has begun. Roughly the same amount of talent remains, but everything seems more rushed and less well designed. For me, a great example was the WMD match. As ever, the wrestlers ‘left it all out there’ – objectively, it was a great match with a great finish, but it seemed like much more than ever before, the story elements were skin deep. Marty the Moth had suggested he was ‘done’ with Killshot, but it seems LU bookers liked the idea of an army themed match and so we had WMD. The fantasy universe of LU means it can give it’s gimmicks more (or ‘graver’) consequences. Speaking of Grave Consequences, we know no one really died, but the incredible presentation based on the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ and Konnan never being seen again in the aftermath really gave that match mythic status. With ‘WMD’ how do you live up to that? Wrestlers use guns as melee weapons, which is insane, they use 20th C-looking weapons crates which seem at best, as dangerous as other surfaces, and at worst, flimsy. Worse was Matt Striker who just seemed to take it as an opportunity to throw in as many ill-judged war puns as possible, including some incredibly ill-thought-out comments about Syrian refugees and Melissa Santos being potential ‘spoils of war’. This was a great match spoiled – for me – by the empty aesthetics of it that couldn’t live up to the WMD moniker.  It would have been saved to a large degree by calling it something like a ‘Warzone’ match which would set the scene without clipping it’s wings. That is down to the talented by bloated roster not being able to fit in to a 1 hour-per episode season and writers rushing to fit too much in to each episode and not being able to dedicate as much effort to their marquee matches living up to their excellent track record of previous marquee matches.

That seems a lot more scathing than the show – which I still very much enjoyed at times – deserves, but as I say, the stellar work of season 1 raised it’s standards for me. Shortly after the end of Ultima Lucha Dos, it was revealed that Lucha Underground would be back after just over 1 month. Suddenly, it started to seem that Lucha Underground was maybe being rushed through, and the welcome breath that the break between season allowed before seemed to be lacking. Knowing how far Lucha Underground is now taoed in advance, and that large parts of seasons 2 and 3 were taped back to back, it’s clear that while there is still a (much shorter) break between seasons, it is no longer part of the creative process of the show. The break feels like just that, a pause, and not a deliberate point of reflection for the viewer that gives us time to miss the show; and while the diminishing return I have found with Lucha Underground is a slow one, I already personally feel that the lack of quiet time between Lucha Underground seasons has hurt the quality of season 3 which feels like it’s just picking up where the second series finished rather than creating new and interesting story arcs. That may not even be accurate, but the lack of quiet time to stop and smell the roses has masked whatever identity the third season has so far.

Lucha Underground season 1 was perhaps the most successful and noteworthy wrestling achievement, at least in terms of quality, in recent wrestling history, and seasons 2 and what has begun of 3 are certainly still loaded with great, brutal, innovative matches – I just hope it can reclaim some of the attention to detail and efficiency it once had, and continue to be a treat.

 

How I Would Ruin The Olympics for a Lot of People

Female-Sprinters

It’s hard to pick a cover picture for this sort of topic, but this picture illustrates at least some of what the Olympic Games to be. Credit: femalecoachingnetwork.com

This article is meant as a more informal opinion piece about the Olympic Games and the sorts of sports that are played and showcased there. It will be full of spurious and potentially demeaning opinions of certain sports and their relative merit. It is based on my view of what an ‘Olympic’ sport should be and is therefore not meant to completely demean the value of the sports discussed, but rather simply trying to restore a higher level of prestige – even if it’s just in my eyes – to an Olympic medal.

With that in mind, I have gone through the whole Olympic catalogue and decided whether I think each competition should be involved, stating which should remain, which should be removed, and why. It would be helpful then to know what I think the problem is. When I think of an ‘Olympic’ sport, I think of the ultimate in physical achievement, partly due to their ancient association with Zeus and Mount Olympus, and partly because of the nature of most of the original events which were contests of the most basic human measurables – speed, power, strength, endurance. Now my parameters have a degree of flexibility based on things like tradition within the modern era, but these are the sort of things I had in mind when deciding what made the cut. To earn an Olympic medal should always be a remarkable athletic achievement above most others to be remembered forever, but seeing some of the people who win medals these days, no matter how talented they genuinely are, really bothers me. Spoiler alert: BMX didn’t make the cut.

First of all, I will go through those sports which did make the cut. This should be quite quick as most of them should fit the broad characteristics I have set aside.

sopita

Weightlifting is one of my favourite sports – brute strength, technique, danger, satisfaction. Credit: bangkok.coconuts.co

So without further ado, here are the sports which I believe deserve their Olympic status:

Unless stated, the sports listed are open to both male and female athletes. That will come in to play later in the article.

Freestyle Swimming – 50m, 100m, 400m, 800m (women), 1500m (men).
Swimming (Backstroke) – 100m, 200m
Swimming (Breastroke) – 100m, 200m
Swimming (Butterfly) – 100m, 200m
Swimming 400m Individual Medley
Swimming 4×100 Medley Relay
Swimming 4×200 Freestyle Relay
Swimming 10km Marathon

Running – 100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 10000m
Running – 4×100 Relay, 4×400 Relay
Marathon
Hurdles – 11om (men), 100m (women), 400m, Steeplechase
High Jump
Pole Vault
Long Jump
Triple Jump
Shot Put
Discus
Hammer Throw
Javelin
Triathalon
Decathlon (men), Heptathlon (women)

Cycling Road Race
Cycling Team Sprint
Cycling Omnium
Mountain Biking Cross Country

Boxing Men – Flyweight, Bantamweight, Lieghtweight, Welterweight. Middleweight, Heavyweight, Super Heavyweight
Boxing Women – Flyweight, Lieghtweight, Middleweight
Judo Men – 66kg, 81kg, 100kg, +100kg
Judo Women – 52kg, 63kg, 78kg, +78kg
Taekwondo Men – 58kg, 80kg, +80kg
Taekwondo Women – 49kg, 67kg, +67kg
Freestyle Wrestling (Men) – 57kg, 74kg, 97kg, 125kg
Freestyle Wrestling (Women) – 48kg, 53kg, 58kg
Greco-Roman Wrestling (Men) – 59kg, 75kg, 98kg, 130kg
Greco-Roman Wrestling (Women) – 63kg, 69kg, 75kg
Fencing (Foil)
Fencing (Team Foil) (Men)

Weightlifting (Men) – 56kg, 69kg, 85kg, 105kg, +105kg
Weightlifting (Women) – 48kg, 58kg, 69kg, 75kg, +75kg

Canoeing (Men) – C1 1000m Sprint, C2 Slalom, K1 200m Sprint, K2 1000m Sprint, K4 1000m Sprint, K1 Slalom
Canoeing (Women) – K1 200m Sprint, K2 500m Sprint, K4 500m Sprint, K1 Slalom
Rowing – Single Skulls, Double Skulls, Quadruple Skulls
Sailing (Men) – RS:X, Laser, 49er
Sailing (Women) – RS:X, Laser Radial, 49erFX
Sailing – Nacra 17

Simone Biles

Possibly the hardest sport to eliminate because of how impressive it is, but if victory is based on an opinion and not straight-up objectively beating someone, it’s out. Simone Biles deserves all the plaudits she receives though. Credit: npr.org

Ok, now for the meat of the exercise, what sports should be removed from the Olympic games and why:

There are quite a few sports at the Olympics which are extremely impressive and athletic, but that are problematic because of how they are won. To cut a long story short, the following sports should be removed because victory is based on the artistic interpretation of judger as opposed to one athlete objectively defeating an opponent – aesthetics come before the sheer physical prowess, and so they don’t belong at my version of the Olympics. They are:

All Diving, Synchronised Swimming, and Gymnastics

The bulk of the cuts come for the least interesting philosophical reason, but an important one nonetheless. This is really trimming the fat. As suggested earlier, part of this exercise is to champion the prestige of an Olympic medal, and especially a Gold Olympic medal. The more disciplines that earn a medal, the less prestige there is; and there are many sports, regardless of their merit, that offer dozens of medals across different categories based on things like weight-classes. Consequently, if a nation is particularly good at a single sport that offers a lot of medals, it inflates their position in the medals table – foe example with Great Britain and cycling. With that in mind, having gone through the different disciplines, I cut some that I thought were superfluous and possibly ‘half-way houses’ between more major disciplines which made the cut. The events that fit in to this category were:

Swimming – 200m Freestyle, 4x100m Freestyle Relay
Running – 1500m, 5000m
Cycling Time Trials

Boxing (Men) – Light Flyweight, Light Welterweight, Light Heavyweight
Judo (Men) – 60kg, 73kg, 90kg
Judo (Women) – 48kg, 57kg, 70kg
Taekwondo – 68kg Men, 57kg Woman
Freestyle Wrestling (Men) – 65kg, 86kg
Fencing – Épée, Team Épée, Sabre, Team Sabre

Weightlifting (Men) – 62kg, 77kg, 94kg
Weightlifting (Women) – 53kg, 63kg

Sailing – Finn, 470
Rowing – Coxless Pair, Leightweight Double Skulls, Leightweight Coxless Four
Canoeing – C1 Slalom, C1 200m, C2 1000m

With the canoeing, some of the classes were cut not just because of the padding of medals, but because there were some classes exclusively for one gender, so they – the K1 500m for women and K1 200m and K1 1000m for men – were first against the wall.

There are some sports which have such mainstream appeal and high standards of competitions that the Olympics are almost a bonus. The Olympic games, again as part of their prestige, should be the undisputed pinnacle of every Olympic sport, but for many, they are not, and so we see a more casual and lower standard of competition than would be seen elsewhere in the sport. No more was this more obvious than with Golf, where most pro golfers avoided it in droves while footballers, with a few notable exceptions, got on with the start of their seasons while football medals were being competed for in Rio. It is also the case that teams of more than 4 players at the very most share the duty of playing so much that it really dilutes the idea of individuals winning medals. With up to four people in a team, no one can hide, but squads like in football or basketball, for instance, it is very possible that someone will ‘earn’ a Gold medal after being carried by more talented team mates, and that makes a mockery of the prestige of a gold medal. The sports for which the Olympics aren’t their pinnacle and for which there are large squads often overlap, and those disqualified for that reason are:

Basketball
Football
Golf
Rugby Sevens
Tennis
Hockey
Rowing Eights

This is no judgement of these sports, and objectively, they are great to watch, but they just undermine the prestige of the Olympics or don’t quite fit. It was particularly hard to eliminate hockey and, surprisingly, tennis. Hockey is a very traditional Olympic sport, but the team problem remains. As for tennis, it’s an individual, physically demanding sport which is valued by most tennis players, but it still pales in comparison to the majors, so it’s out.

Rio Horse

The horse does the bulk of the work, the rider gets a gold medal. If you’re dressed like that, you’re probably not the one exerting yourself. Credit: rio2016.com

If most of those sports were eliminated because of the sharing of the efforts, another category of sport to be eliminated are some where the effort is shared with some equipment or facilitator. Those sports are:

Equestrian
Shooting
Archery

Archery was another sport on the bubble – it takes a lot of skill, no doubt and is an ancient discipline, which works in it’s favour. The problem with archery though, as with shooting, is that as talented as the shooters are, they are essentially operating equipment, which is something anyone can do. They will be infinitely more accurate, but while it’s impossible for a lehman to outrun Usain Bolt, it is imaginable that even as a fluke, I could hit the same target as an Olympian as long as I could use the gun or the bow. Far more ridiculous though is equestrian. I’m sure the riders train hard and have a lot of skills, but the physical effort and achievement is really the horses and while they get no recognition, the riders get OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALS for hanging on.

Now I won’t lie, I will take a bit of joy in this next section. Some of the following sports also fit in to other categories, but I am saving them for here because they deserve it. In short, these sports, among other things, are just kinda crappy sports. I mean no disrespect to the participants – live and let live, and i’m not claiming I could beat the ‘Olympians’ – but I don’t have a problem disrespecting the sports. These are:

Badmington
Table Tennis
Cycling Team Pursuit
Cycling Individual Sprints
Cycling Keirin
Volleyball and Beach Volleyball
Walking
Handball
Water Polo

Walking is certainly requires a huge physical effort, but what’s the point of walking when there are running events? The cycling team pursuits are quite exciting, but are instantly eliminated because the whole team doesn’t even have to finish. In a team sport, if a member can’t finish, YOU LOSE – but not at the Olympics. In individual sprints, the riders spend half the time not sprinting. That’s not a sprint and while i’m sure it’s super tactical, it’s anti-Olympic in my view. Similarly, the keirin suffers from being a bridge too far in extending the idea of riding a bike – cyclists sprint for the line after following a motorised bike they can’t overtake for half the race, so why are they even cycling that bit. I’m yet to see any sort of decent explanation. Out. At least these sports, for their faults, involve great physical effort; badmington, table tennis, and volleyball can be played by anyone without any great effort and as good as i’m sure the players are, if you’re handing out Olympic Medals, it shouldn’t be for sports which people don’t think twice about playing in their back yard or conservatory. That leads us to two sports which I legitimately found offensive, namely handball and water polo. Imagine the ONE-dimensionality of basketball, but without nearly all of the skill and effort. Players throw the ball in the net, which seems more cheap than anything else and while watching a game, I saw a goalkeeper make 1 or at most 2 saves the whole game, so easy is it to score. It’s unbalanced, boring, and comes across like a game someone made up at a party. Imagine that, but with players slowed down by water and it being somehow easier to score, and you have water polo. Have at it if you must, but you’re not getting a gold medal for it.

Finally, there is a miscellaneous category for sports that don’t seem to fit well as an Olympic sport for various reasons that don’t quite fit elsewhere. They are:

Swimming 200m Individual medley
BMX
Modern Pentathlon

God they really do give out probably a literal tonne of cycling medals eh? For BMX,, there’s probably some personal bias involved – the event looks demanding enough, but it’s just so … lame, like a millennial, cleansed version of mountain biking. Now I love multi-sport events, they are among the most challenging and physically draining of all, but in the case of modern pentathlon, it involves shooting and horse riding, and as they’ve been cut, this whole event has to be too. Finally, and most banal, the 200m individual swimming medley was cut because it kinda duplicated the 400m medley whithout utilising the four different swimming disciplines that you would expect from a true medley.

By the end of the Olympic Games in Rio, 2016, there will have been 306 Gold Medals awarded, but if it were up to me, that amount would be cut by 154. And that’s how i’d ruin the Olympic Games for around half of the competitors and millions around the globe, for a short time at least. Imagine if every four years, the best physical athletes in the world fought over just 152 Gold medals – still a lot of action, but with the fat well and truly cut. Winning a gold medal, or any medal, would mean that much more. I may be being a puritanical fantasist (if you know me, that’s nothing new) but I genuinely believe that that would actually make the Olympics more satisfying, returning it to it’s rawest elements of physical battle, the ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat. But that’s just me, I like to spoil your fun, especially if you play handball.

I am contemplating taking the events I have kept in my hypothetical, pure, Olympics and make a true medal table for it to see who really is the greatest. If I do that, you will see it below after the Games. America will still probably win.