Saturday, August 20, 2016

Smoke, Mirrors and McGregor

Back in March right before UFC 196, I wrote about my admiration for Conor McGregor's style of self promotion. His way with words was equaled by his unique and successful fighting style in the octagon. It's fair to say some in the fight world want to see the brash Irishman shut up. How do you do that? Normally, you silence them by defeating them. But over the last few weeks, McGregor has shown the defeat hasn't left him speechless by any means. Instead of enhancing his aura, the sharp-tongued fighter comes off looking attention-seeking and petty.

Some may see it as Conor being a self-promoter, but I see it as a distraction from the realization that McGregor will not figure out Nate Diaz a second time around.

Instead of limiting himself to just MMA, McGregor's scope of promotion has extended to Floyd Mayweather and even God himself. Now it has found it's way into the wrestling realm:

“For the most part, those WWE guys are [expletive], to be honest,” McGregor said. “They’re messed up [expletive], if you ask me. Fair play to Brock [Lesnar], he got in and fought, but at the end of the day he was juiced up to the [expletive] eyeballs, so how can I respect that?”

He didn't back away after personalities in the wrestling world came after him, either:

"What's the main guy? John Cena. He's 40. He's 40 years of age. He's walking around in a luminous orange t-shirt and a headband talking about nobody can see him. We can see him right there. He's a big fat, 40-year-old failed Mr. Olympia mother f*cker."

This isn't an exposition to scold McGregor for his lack of knowledge of wrestling. He's got his right to his opinions and freedom of speech. But for a guy who before the loss to Diaz was so quick with his wit and creative with his insults, it seemed rather trivial to challenge athletes from a pre-determined sport.

There were two possibilities. He hastily decided to insult the WWE and wrestlers around the world for the sake of it and to grab headlines. The other intention? It was designed to work all of us and open up the channels for McGregor to get a payday at Wrestlemania 33.

Whether it was one or the other, it seems once again like a way to deter eyes from the elephant in the room: McGregor hasn't improved enough since their last encounter and views this fight with Diaz as a vehice to get "big money". It's no secret McGregor scoffs at the featherweight division he is a champion of:

“It was my idea. I wanted to have my revenge at 170, and they’re crying and complaining about the 145-pound belt, which I just won three months ago. That division was killed, it was dead. Jose went down in 13 seconds. What more can I do? I traveled the world with that man. I finally got him in the Octagon, and he only lasts 13 seconds.
I didn’t see a challenge there anymore. So, I wanted to create interest from a fan’s perspective and my perspective. I want to see them two go at it, with an interim belt on the line. Then I will see people walking around my division with a belt and that will intrigue me. It will make me want that belt again.”

It was a mistake to risk his unbeatable aura back at UFC 196, and a bigger err in judgement to schedule an immediate rematch. The fact is that Nate Diaz is as accomplished at jui-jitsu as they come, and a few months of preparation won't make up for McGregor's shortcomings on the ground.

"The Notorious One" can dominate featherweights by being bigger than them while matching their speed. His advantage comes in the striking department where he can get up close and personal and influence the direction of the fight. But with Diaz's length, McGregor can't get inside to dish out his deadly strikes. McGregor may have once prided himself on his conditioning, but Diaz is a triathlon veteran with an incredibly deep gas tank. I don't see why this second go-around won't be a repeat of the first with Conor gassing out and being vulnerable to any and all of Diaz's fight-ending submissions.

The ultimate irony about the quick-witted Irishman is his unwillingness to do press appearances over the last few months. That got him into hot water with UFC management and cost him his spot on the UFC 200 card opposite Diaz. After "retiring" for a day, it was later agreed the two would meet tonight at UFC 202.

Then mere days ago, McGregor/Diaz boiled to a fever pitch. After the featherweight champion showed up thirty minutes late, the presser didn't last much longer after what I'll coin "The Battle of Dasani and Monster". Diaz was enraged and decided to leave and tossed a bottle of water in McGregor's direction. The champ was having none of it, and responded with not one but two cans of Monster flung into the audience.

Maybe I'm in the minority, but while many found it entertaining and adding to the hype of the rematch- I found it childish and unbecoming of a fighter who considers himself the best in the world and on level with Jesus Christ. 

He would later go on SportsCenter to explain his side, and it once again came off as lazy and immature (NSFW language):
To some that, too may have been a riot. To me, it screamed that McGregor has let Diaz get into his head in some fashion. 

That brings us to tonight. What happens if "The Notorious One" wins? Sure, he'll get his win back. Sure, it's more money for him and added fuel to continue fighting outside his division. But aside from him getting an amount of pride back, it doesn't accomplish much in the big UFC picture. The rematch is unnecessary from a standpoint that there was no controversy the first time around. Diaz outstruck McGregor and finished him decisively with a rear-naked choke.

Yet wouldn't a McGregor win give Diaz an argument for a rubber match? As much as one would think so, UFC despite all their posturing has shown that Conor will eventually get his way and would look to have him move on to another match-up. Diaz's conspiracy case against the UFC would only grow stronger. 

As mentioned above, I strongly believe Diaz will win again. If that does happen, does Conor tuck his tail between his legs, give up the "big fight" match-ups and stick to featherweight/lightweight match-ups? His negotiating power will severely be affected if he were to lose a second fight in a row to the same fighter. Any other welterweight aspirations will be shelved for the foreseeable future, if not permanently. 

If Diaz does win again, no amount of smoke, mirrors or spin will aid the UFC or McGregor. They'll only have themselves to blame for a situation that could have easily been avoided. 

 Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Wrestle Against the Machine

“I’m betting on myself and not the machine. Whether I succeed or fail, it’s all on me.”

Back in May, Cody Rhodes was granted his release from World Wrestling Entertainment- the only company he’s ever known. He didn’t just wrestle there for a decade- he was born into it with his father being The American Dream, Dusty Rhodes. Along with his brother, Dustin (also known as Goldust), Cody forged his own legacy in the WWE. Despite wrestling there for the better part of ten years, his exit seemed premature and far from amicable. 

Like any longtime worker leaving their employer, Rhodes is driven by his desire to test himself and a change of scenery. The grass is not guaranteed to be greener, but with Rhodes’ abilities in ring and on the mic- the sky’s the limit for the thirty-one year old.

Cody’s debut on the independent circuit has been known ever since he released this image of a wish list of matches he wants to have:

Matches would be announced not too much later after the release of the image: Zack Sabre, Jr., Chris Hero, Kurt Angle- with plenty more on the way. Ever since his departure from WWE, Rhodes has kept to himself for the most part. But now as the match is almost here, Rhodes had an extensive and impressive interview with Aubrey Sitterson:

It wasn’t just what he said- but how he said it. Rhodes’ conviction was palpable, and his confidence was very much present as well. It was a superb mix of genuine honesty that brilliantly balanced the line between modesty and arrogance. It didn’t take long for him to establish a commandment of sorts: thou shall not use insider terms. Rhodes did admit it was mostly his personal take, and not that non-wrestlers can’t use them- but don’t be surprised if he cringes when he hears them.

But how did Rhodes get to this point of self-discovery and testing his limits outside of a WWE umbrella? Over the last decade, it could have been a multitude of things that added up over time- but there are a few things that stand out. The first is false promises made to him by management in regards to winning Money in the Bank- not once, but twice. Akin to not receiving a bonus, pulling the rug out from Rhodes only hurt his relationship with WWE. The most recent instance stands out the most, thought.

“When you’re calling NXT ‘Dusty’s kids’ and his actual kid is working there- dressing up as a f*cking space clown is the last thing you want to do.”

The “space clown” Rhodes refers to is his most recent WWE vehicle- Stardust. The character was an advent of sorts for Rhodes, coyly playing off his brother’s Goldust character. It was further evidence of Rhodes making chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what. Some may have folded when given a character with limited potential- but not Rhodes.

He admits his debut seemed boring to himself, but would later find magic with “Dashing” Cody Rhodes. He’d be lumped into Legacy with fellow second and third generation stars Ted DiBiase and Randy Orton. Later after he’d suffer a broken nose from Rey Mysterio, working the real-life mask into a storylines. His evolution was fairly obvious, and a joy to watch. His work with Damien Sandow as one half of Rhodes Scholars was entertaining- but it always felt the son of The American Dream was destined for much, much more.

That brings us back to his “space clown” comment. I can only sympathize with Rhodes, as it seemed like a no-brainer to have him assume his real name and identity instead of a “Jim Carrey impression”. 

Fans in 2016 enjoy realness in their perceived “fake” sport. CM Punk introduced us to a new kind of “real” in wrestling in 2011. Daniel Bryan’s 2013-2014 meteoric rise added to it, and multiple storylines over the last few years have used real life elements to power them.

Yet WWE failed to give Cody the ball following his father’s unfortunate passing- dropping it and letting the star flounder in the midcard. Sometimes Stardust received opportunities on RAW, but was more often used to put over talent and at best take part on a preshow of a pay-per-view. Despite being stuck in the midcard, Rhodes kept plugging away. The first of two instances that led to Cody’s decision to leave was when a writer approached Cody and suggested using the Dusty Rhodes’ tag team tournament as a way to kick off a storyline. This deeply offended Rhodes, and rightfully so.

Then prior to the WWE Draft, Rhodes was told that creative had nothing planned for him.

Let me get this straight- nothing planned for THE Cody Rhodes, during a time where the likes of Rhyno, Shelton Benjamin and Curt Hawkins were being looked at as roster additions? Preposterous.

As Owen Hart was famously known for saying, “enough’s enough and it’s time for a change.”

That change is peeling away the bright lights and big stage on both USA Network and the WWE Network. That change is breaking away from the Cody Rhodes of WWE, and a new version not yet seen on the independent circuit. That change is giving Rhodes control of his future and any success or failure is placed squarely on his shoulders.

Rhodes admits not all of the blame can be placed on an employer in this situation. According to him, a wrestler isn’t just held back by the company. At times, it can be due to laziness from the perceivably-oppressed wrestler. Yet when you throw tomato after tomato at the wall and try to work with them to no positive reception- a change must be made.

Now with him dropping hints such as new ring boots for his match with Angle, or talking about a new not-yet-named finisher, Rhodes has begun to plant seeds for his evolution.

“I’m betting on myself and not the machine. Whether I succeed or fail, it’s all on me.”

Call it what you will. An evolution, a renaissance, an epiphany, a revelation, a reinvention. But whatever you call it, there’s one thing for certain: this next stage in Rhodes’ career is powered by his love of wrestling. He was offered a hefty contract to stay with WWE, but chose to do what he thinks may fulfill him. Like a professional athlete who never experienced college life, Rhodes wants to see what the noise is all about with the independent up-and-comers. Iron sharpens iron, and Rhodes will assuredly improve those he works with- but he’ll likely improve not only because of his hunger but also because of the variety of talented opponents to work with.

Evolve is a fitting name for Rhodes’ first show, as it’s exactly what he is looking to do as a wrestler. 

His first challenge is Zack Sabre, Jr. at Evolve 66 Friday night in Joppa, Maryland.

“He’s not a great technical wrestler. He’s a great wrestler,” said Cody.

With a burgeoning acting career being kicked off with an appearance on season five of Arrow, Rhodes is making the most of his opportunities. But the greatest opportunity isn’t the money and the fame. No, it’s simply for a star in his prime to prove himself on a new stage of a sport he loves.

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Instant Classic: Ibushi Versus Alexander

Wednesday night saw the second round of WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic open up. The first bout saw Gran Metalik defeat Tajiri- but the main event was a match that wrestling fans all around the world have been looking forward to since the CWC bracket debuted: Kota Ibushi versus Cedric Alexander.

On paper, the result looks like this: Kota Ibushi defeats Cedric Alexander with the Golden Star Powerbomb. But when you watch it, there’s so much more that went into making this match an instant classic and possible MOTY candidate. Here’s why.

Professionalism: Like most bouts in the CWC, the match is based on pure competition and not various kinds of typical “wrestling” finishes. There are no distraction roll-ups or cheating the ref. The CWC is predicated on the very best cruiserweights showing why they were invited to the tournament and what they can do. Ibushi and Alexander met in the middle with each showing proper respect to their opponent. There were no egos here- only pride in one’s abilities and representing their country on one of wrestling’s biggest stages.

Flow: The match progressed naturally, starting slowly and building to a crescendo of strikes, counter strikes and possible winning maneuvers. Both Alexander and Ibushi showed their physical advantages early and were essentially even for most of the match. The rapid pace had fans at a fever pitch, and didn’t allow for eyes to leave the ring/screen. Due to the twenty-minute time constraint and the fact that both men are amazing talents, the fans were left wanting more- and that’s not a bad thing at all.

Believeable Offense: Coming into this match, we knew to expect a striker’s affair between two high flyers. Submission/ground-based wrestling wouldn’t be the focus here. Alexander’s back elbows to Ibushi’s head were brutal. I don’t recall seeing ones connect that hard before. Ibushi is famous for his incredibly powerful kicks, and surprisingly his first kick didn’t connect until a few minutes into the match. The buildup was worth it, as it floored Alexander and left you generally feeling bad for “Queen City’s favorite son”.

Later in the match-up, Alexander would hit a sickening chop to the face of Ibushi. Ibushi sold it like he was just hit with a ton of bricks, crumpling to the mat. At one point, Ibushi connected woth one of the most devastating dropkicks, seemingly sending Alexander into a state of semi-consciousness. All of these strikes were incredibly accurate, with neither whiffing even once. This brings us to the next point.

Selling: Offense can only look as good as one’s opponent sells the damage. Both Ibushi and Alexander ran a clinic on showing the effects of being on the wrong end of a great move. (CWC competitor Zack Saber may be a prodigy, but this is where he could improve.)

Ibushi’s selling of the jaw chop was one example. He also sold a springboard elbow by landing on the back of his head and kneeling on the mat before Alexander could pin him to it. Despite those examples, Alexander excelled here. He sold the kicks, chops and Ibushi’s “Pele kick” brilliantly. Alexander staggered, eventually succumbing to gravity as he fell to the mat.

Athleticism: Both cruiserweights are on the shortlist of athletic specimens in the CWC. Agility, balance, coordination and accuracy despite going full-tilt never suffered or looked off. To put it in a nutshell, none of this resembled a Sin Cara match whatsoever. The timing from both was there all match, with counters and pin attempts fast, furious and unpredictable.

Ibushi’s standout athletic moment was his second attempt at his running moonsault out of the ring. In almost one motion, he leaped to the top rope, turned and executed a beautiful backflip. The part that amazed me most about it was that while on the top rope, both feet remained level and never quivered- making it look like he was standing on a flat surface five feet above the mat. A runner-up for him was a corkscrew moonsault from the mat onto a prone Alexander. Yes, a standing corkscrew moonsault was Ibushi’s second most impressive move in this match.

Alexander showed off, too with his landing feet-first after Ibushi attempted the hurricanrana from the top rope. It was hard to tell if the timing was intentional, but nonetheless it was a stellar counter from Alexander.

Competitive atmosphere: The CWC has delivered in spades on feeling like an actual tournament and not just a predetermined series of wrestling matches- and this match was a beautiful microcosm of that.

This didn’t feel like “just a match”. There would be no Dusty finish here. The stakes were evident, as the winner of this would be an even bigger favorite to win the entire thing. The two countering each other with moves and pins showed how badly they wanted it. Near falls and moments of temporary befuddlement showed the desperation of each fighter. This allowed for the audience at Full Sail and at home to get lost in the match.

This was never clearer than when Alexander hit a brainbuster and tried for a pin, with Ibushi kicking out after a close two count. Immediately following the pin attempt, Ibushi didn’t even inhale a breath of air before Alexander dropped him back to the mat with a spinning kick to the head and another pin attempt. After what seemed like 2.99 seconds, Alexander looked absolutely lost trying to figure out the Ibushi conundrum. Which brings us to….

Facial expressions: Alexander edged Ibushi out in this department as well. His ability to convey a multitude of motions with just a facial expression was astounding. I put him right up there with Alexa Bliss in that category. Need an example? Here’s his face at two crucial points: following a Michinoku driver and after the spinning kick to the head:

Virtually mistake- free: There’s not much more to be said than despite a few hiccups, the two were almost flawless. The hurricanrana looked just a bit off, while an Ibushi exploder suplex to Cedric could have ended up a lot worse. Thankfully, both stayed healthy.

Audience: When NXT is at Full Sail, the audience balances a line between being endearing and being too into themselves and sabotaging matches. During the CWC, they are purely fun and add so much to every match (aside from Dar/Singh).

Tonight they were at their best, with a solid “FIGHT FOREVER!” chant following Ibushi’s moonsault. But a moment that stood out to me was when they reacted to Ibushi’s dropkick like Alexander had been put through a table. I don’t recall many times the cameraman cut to a live shot of a crowd after a dropkick, but that’s how good it was.

Their post-match “PLEASE SIGN CEDRIC!” request was perfect and caused Alexander to lose it. That bit of validation was a moment in time, and one fans and the talented star will remember forever.

Announcers: Both Mauro Ranallo and Daniel Bryan have been just as good at the announce table as the cruiserweights have been in the ring, and tonight they were at their absolute best. Ranallo has a bad habit of reaching for pop culture tie-ins during Smackdown Live, but leaves that at the Full Sail door for the CWC thankfully. Bryan’s been a natural and breaks down matches with insight like only he can, and both show a level of announcing intensity lacking on both RAW and Smackdown Live. (Looking at you, Michael Cole and Byron Saxton. Corey Graves-never change.) The announcing duo focuses strictly on the match and not superfluous/irrelevant things.

Not everything in WWE comes off authentic, but this match and everything after it will remain genuine forever. Here’s the audience showing their appreciation afterwards:

Ibushi and Alexander both gave post-match interviews:


The wrestling world was on fire following the match. Here's just a few examples of the universal validation for both competitors:

This may be nitpicking, but there’s a few slight things that may have improved this instant classic:

-It would have been great to see just one Lumbar Check used for a 2.9 count. I understand protecting their finishers, so that’s likely why it was not used.

-The time limit did put a cap to the potential of this match. If not for that, seeing them go 30-40 minutes would be a dream come true.

-The one gripe I have that was in complete control of the WWE was where this match took place in the tournament. It had the feel of a semi-final or even the final match. I would have had the two separated until at least the “elite eight”.

What do you feel made this match special? Anything I left out? Let me know @SeanNeutron.