This past weekend began and ended (sort of) with me attending live wrestling. Friday night was at the jeffersonville Arena, where I saw the return of former backyard promotion XCF. Monday night was at the Yum Center: Monday Night Raw.
Friday night’s show was one of the most joyous atmospheres I’ve ever experienced in pro wrestling. XCF, as I noted on this blog last week, began with a bunch of kids putting on shows in their backyards. Many of those kids have become notable stars in the Indies, not the least of which was Friday’s ring leader Shane Mercer. Every single one of the guys who came back to play Friday brought their inner child with them.
Shane Mercer promised there was not a dud on the card, and he delivered. Every match was a treat, and the card read like an Indie fan’s dream come true. Credit promoter Terry Harper for some of that. Terry books matches HE wants to see, and Terry’s tastes are awesome. Gary Jay and Lord Crewe tore it up. So did Aaron Williams and Chance Prophet. So did Atticus Kogar and Jason Kincaid, who I swear is the most creative, surprising, and innovating wrestler working today. So did Matt Naff and Kongo Kong, who was represented at ringside by Rodney Rush.
I may have missed something, but it felt like Rush and King expected to play the heels, but when the fans gave Kong a monster (no pun intended) reception, Naff cut a promo that clearly put him at odds with the crowd and lit a fire in Kongo Kong. Like I said, not a dull match on the card.
Fans were also thrilled by some of the surprises XCF sprang on them. No one present ever expected to see Simon Sezz, a huge local favorite, in a wrestling ring again. Yet there he was in the middle of the battle royal that delivered just as much action, comedy, and fun as any Royal Rumble. Aidan Blackhart garnered a similar pop for his entrance, as did Mercer, who surprised everyone by entering the battle royal last.
This was no vanity show for Mercer, however. He was eliminated before the match got down to its final four, and he took the final pin of the night in the main event against fellow XCF original Satu Jinn.
Speaking of that main event, what a once-in-a-lifetime performance that was. Four tag teams squared off in the finale: Mad Man Pondo and Duke the Nuke; John Wayne Murdoch and Satu Jinn; Iron Beast; and Billie Starkz with Mickie Knuckles. The bout started with a mat wrestling display put on by Mad Man Pondo and Shane Mercer. You read that right. Mat wrestling.
I also saw John Wayne Murdoch actually do wrestling “moves” for the first time. I say this not as a critique of Murdoch but as praise. I’m used to seeing Murdoch and his regular tag partner Reed Bentley brawl rather than rassle. Murdoch showed he can work a “normal” wrestling style as good as anyone Friday, furthering my belief he was simply born in the wrong time and would have been a huge star for Jerry Jarrett or Cowboy Bill Watts.
And dang it, Billie Starkz had me a little emotional Friday night. I remember when thirteen year old Billie made her debut in that building, so it was hard not feeling choked up seeing her go toe to toe with “Dad Man” Pondo, taking a Stop sign to the face, delivering a moonsault to her mentor, and then chokeslamming Duke the Nuke on top of him. She’s headed to Japan for the first time this week. She turns 18 next month. She’s headed for the top of the business sooner rather than later.
Fans in the arena had a chance to meet many of the XCF boys during intermissions and after the event, but many also got a chance to meet some boys from other local promotions. I won’t say their names because I don’t want to get anyone in trouble. They weren’t allowed to work the show because of their ties to other companies, but they came anyway as fans and friends. Their inner children came out as well as they cheered on their pals. Friday was all about the love of wrestling. Pure, unadulterated love.
But you know what I found strange? Monday night, I felt the same vibe.
Yes, this was WWE. This was corporate wrestling. This is a show I don’t keep up with for many reasons, with one of my biggest knocks being there’s just not enough wrestling on their TV shows. A week before I tweeted from a treadmill in Planet Fitness that Raw had been on the air a full twenty minutes, and it had been nothing but talking.
Monday started with talking. No surprise. But the talk ended sooner than the week before. The wrestling began, and it felt very different than any Raw or Smackdown I have attended in the past.
No three minute rushed matches. No quick squashes. Every match was given time to develop and tell a story, many of them lasting through at least one commercial break.
It was clear everyone walking that ramp was having a good time. You couldn’t help but feel the energy from everyone who made an appearance on stage or in the ring. Fin Balor and Seth Rollins delivered a great main event. Austin Theory and Dolph Ziggler stole the show, with Ziggler proving that outside Flair and Ricky Morton, no one in the business sells better than him. Matt Riddle and Chad Gable were terrific as well.
Plus, I got to see Io Shirai wrestle in person. That was a treat.
The WWE filled the breaks with fan-interactive activities like the DX Cam and the Undertaker Cam, encouraging fans to mimic their favorite stars. It was fun not only seeing the kids play along, but watching the camera crew in the arena seemingly do the same double take when the camera fell on former WWE star (and New Albany basketball legend) Rob Conway.
And proving Louisville fans never, ever forget their heroes, Shelton Benjamin was welcomed with an “O-V-Dub” chant for his bout with Dominik Mysterio.
Word has it that the atmosphere backstage at WWE has completely changed not that Triple H is in charge. No one’s walking on egg shells. People no longer fear week to week about being fired. Most of the restraints have been taken off roster members as far as social media and outside money opportunities. That looseness backstage translates to the performances in front of the fans. Everyone seems to be having fun again. They’re enjoying being pro wrestlers, and you can’t help but enjoy watching what they do.
If I had to pick one or the other which one would I choose? Sorry, not gonna go there. I enjoyed both XCF and WWE, and I fully expect to enjoy OVW just as much tomorrow night in their go-home show before Thanksgiving Thunder. If there’s any takeaway for casual fans in this blog, it’s this: yeah, WWE has changed for the better. It’s much more fun than I remember the last time I saw it live. But Do. Not. Sleep. On. The. Indies. Do not miss your chance to see and meet rising stars like Billie Starkz. Don’t underestimate the ability of an indie promotion you’ve never heard of – or a long-running indie like OVW – to suck you in with great matches and great, long term story telling.
I will always say you get more bang for your buck at an indie show. Cheaper tickets, cheaper merchandise, and more opportunities to shake hands and take photos with the wrestlers. But the WWE definitely showed me it’s a different company than it was the last few years. New blood has revitalized the promotion just as it did in Louisville for OVW.
This is a great time to be a fan.
Thanks to Terry Harper and Shane Mercer for letting me bring books to Friday’s show. And thanks to Mad Man Pondo and Ref Daffney (formerly known as Girl Fight Champion Aja Perreira) for Monday’s ticket.