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.

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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.