Photos (c): http://robbrazierphoto.com/

The last show of the year for PROGRESS sees the company run their first ever show outside of London, hitting the north of England in Manchester, where they will run shows bi-monthly from here on out. It’s a bold move for the promotion, which has its roots and fan base firmly planted in Camden Town, but along with its move to VOD allowing the product to be seen by a national and international audience, PROGRESS is expanding beyond just being a ‘local’ indie and has its sights set on being a force of independent wrestling, not just in the UK but around the world.

Their main event for this first Manchester show sees Zack Gibson and ‘Flash’ Morgan Webster in their first ever PROGRESS main event, as they battle Will Ospreay for his PROGRESS Championship in a triple threat. The big match of the card though sees Zack Sabre Jr. return to PROGRESS to take on Tommaso Ciampa in his third straight outing in the promotion. It’s a battle of big time indie names with PROGRESS Championship implications.

Brit Wres Roundtable guest Callum Leslie joins RJ Singh on commentary for this show, and will be a regular commentator for future Manchester shows. He has a wealth of knowledge about the history of PROGRESS and did an excellent job here bringing up relevant information to add to the matches.

Mark Haskins vs Bubblegum

Bubblegum is an immediately repellent character, shoving his hand into his crotch before flipping off the crowd. There is no love for him from his hometown crowd as he antagonises them. He’s announced as from the ‘Blue side of Manchester’ and makes his entrance wearing a Manchester City Raheem Sterling shirt, which is a sure way to piss off most in attendance (and Brit Wres Roundtable’s Rob Reid especially). This all helps Haskins retain his popularity in front of the new crowd. Haskins has really risen in skill and popularity in 2015 to become one of PROGRESS’ best performers at every single chapter, and he displays his incredible ability again here. Much like the story of the Haskins/Robinson match from Chapter 23, Haskins here is presented as simply better than Bubblegum throughout. Bubblegum can keep up with Haskins but it’s clear his only chance of winning is to cheat and take shortcuts. Both guys are veterans and every move they hit looks good, and the match goes at a quick pace and never relents; it’s a standard opening match with minimal emotion but plenty of action. Ultimately Bubblegum can’t find any sort of advantage and Haskins hits his beautiful combination manoeuvres, ending with a Michinoku Driver-into-Armbar for the satisfying win. Haskins has been made to look very good since his title match loss to Ospreay, and he may be in line for another title match early in 2016. His performances would certainly warrant one. **½

Natural Progression Series Quarter-Final Match
Ashton Smith vs Kyle Ashmore

A second North vs South matchup to begin the show sees PCW regular and PROGRESS debutant Ashton Smith go against ProJo graduate Kyle Ashmore. Smith has an impressive physique, is already popular with the Manchester crowd and looked very confident here. Ashmore however looked out of his depth in a singles match here; he’s still fresh out of wrestling school and the moves he attempted in this match were far too ambitious for his level of experience. This isn’t too much of an issue, but executing moves dangerously is, and on a couple of moves Ashmore used, such as a Death Valley Driver, he didn’t help Smith properly and he could have landed very badly. A few more botches from Ashmore, including a failed Frankensteiner and messing up the finish, meant that this match fell flat for a lot of its duration. The energy of Smith kept it going though, and his winning was the right call. He’s much more suited to the big Chapter show stage right now and mixes the tournament up a bit, since the other three NPS semi-finalists are all ProJo graduates.

Smith joins Sebastian, Pastor William Eaver and Damon Moser in the NPS Semi-Final. The matchups for that are yet to be announced.

FSU & Jack Gallagher vs The Origin

Callum Leslie outlined the issues between all six men in this match very well, adding lots of meaning to what could otherwise be seen as a fairly throwaway match. Mastiff blindsided Gallagher when he joined the Origin, Eddie Dennis has lost to them more than once due to interference, and Nathan Cruz has been a thorn in FSU’s side for a long time pre-Origin. Dennis looked so much more confident with his tag partner Mark Andrews by his side for the first time in a year in PROGRESS; he has floundered as a singles wrestler but really flourishes in FSU.

Despite all of Leslie’s background information, this match still suffered from feeling a bit meaningless. I would compare it to a 6-man tag match from any episode of RAW between feuding rivals. The action is solid and it’s great to see FSU back together and hitting double team moves, but The Origin don’t give enough away to make offence against them feel meaningful. They are shit-stirring heels and every time they win they are building towards a big, satisfying comeuppance loss down the line, but their individual matches are not coming off as interesting because they are not being beaten up enough to the point where they are in a believable position to lose. FSU and Gallagher’s offence is too ‘pretty’ to feel like they really want to pound the Origin into dust, and they have to battle the aforementioned feeling that nothing in this match is significant at the end of the day. The Origin once again sneak out a tainted victory; the payoff is coming and should be a lot of fun, but there was nothing to sink one’s teeth into here. **

Zack Sabre Jr. vs Tommaso Ciampa

Time for the show to really pick up with this big-time matchup, where ironically enough, Sabre Jr. is more of an ‘import’ than Ciampa, since this is Ciampa’s fourth Chapter appearance in 2015 compared to Zack’s second. A talking point for the commentators throughout this match is Ciampa’s losing streak though; he is 1-3 in PROGRESS with three straight losses, the first of which was to Sabre Jr. This gives him a clear shot at being the babyface in this match as he tries to redeem himself with a big win, but once again Ciampa plays ‘moodswing’ and switches between clean-cut face and aggressive dick heel multiple times in this match. It’s confusing and something he’s been doing throughout this PROGRESS run. Hopefully he drops it if he joins the NXT roster full-time, because it never goes over well with me and tends to detract from his matches.

Luckily, this match was so intense and so exciting that any qualms about character changes were quickly overpowered by the awesome action. Ciampa has certainly now mastered hitting satisfying strong strikes and bullying opponents with power moves, and Sabre replied with his own unique array of strikes and his always gorgeous counters and submissions. I’ve been critical of Ciampa in PROGRESS but a lot of the time, his matches have been disappointing because the booking and story elements have gotten in the way of taking the match from ‘good’ to ‘great’. Here Ciampa was allowed to let loose and have more than 20 minutes to tell a pure wrestling story, without any uncharacteristic ripping apart the ring or Mexican waving with fans, and he had no better opponent to do this with than Sabre Jr. Zack is imperious in the ring and made Ciampa’s strikes look devastating, while Ciampa’s evident anguish and desperation after getting locked into Sabre’s Armbars, having tapped to him at SSS16, really put over how dangerous Sabre Jr. is. Ciampa made it to the ropes though and the match continued.

From here, the drama rose to a fantastic peak, as Sabre Jr. looked to lock in any and every armbar variation possible after kicking the crap out of Ciampa’s arm. Ciampa’s size and strength benefitted him here, allowing him to shrug off the smaller man, but he was always perilously close to getting locked in and submitting. Ciampa cleverly put his right shoulder pad on his left arm, adding extra protection against Zack’s attacks to his arm, prompting Zack to go after his leg instead. A fantastic sequence towards the end of the match saw Ciampa attempt to hit Project Ciampa, only to be almost reversed into another Jim Breaks Armbar. He stomped on Sabre’s head to get out of it though and then applied his own Jim Breaks. After this flurry, the match turned into an ‘overtime’ situation, with both men completely spent but still fighting at full force. Ciampa hit Project Ciampa but couldn’t take advantage, instead both men got to their feet at the same time and acknowledged each other’s effort with a handshake before a quick series of strikes and reversals. Zack had the upper hand and performed a bridging pin, but cockily folded his arms as he did so. Ciampa reversed into his own pin and got the three, stunning Sabre Jr. Ciampa acknowledged Zack as ‘the best’ post-match, showing lots of respect for his defeated opponent. Where both men go from here is an exciting prospect, but for now, this was one of the best indie matches of the year, and certainly in the top three matches in PROGRESS in 2015.****½

Sumerian Death Squad vs London Riots

This match would be described best as a ‘cacophony of violence’. Immediately the four men turned this match into an all-action fight; there was no mucking around like there was at Chapter 23 when The Origin were involved as well. Neither team chose to be particularly observant of traditional tag team rules after the opening minutes, as the illegal partners frequently got involved as the match broke down into wild sequences of moves. It was all very satisfying action though; no brawling around the arena but rather the entire match was focussed within and around the ring, allowing both very talented teams to finally showcase their true skills after a couple of Chapters spent kicking and punching around the arena. Tommy End especially was incredibly impressive here, throwing wild yet beautiful knees and kicks around like only he can. At one point he even hit a spinning knee strike in a manoeuvre that I doubt many other people on the planet could accomplish. His highlight of highlights though was a beautiful moonsault out of nowhere onto one of the Riots on the outside. End completely took over this match with his intensity and unparalleled striking ability, and forced the other three men to meet him at his level. Everyone worked hard here, with Dante fulfilling his end of the SDS bargain with some hefty-looking power moves, adding emphasis to double team moves set up by End. The Riots threw themselves around the ring and hit some very good-looking double team moves.

In the end though they were outclassed on the day, with the SDS isolating James Davis and destroying him with a Black Mass. They had the win but End broke the pin, deciding instead to punish Davis, due to the issues the teams have developed with each other. SDS showed off the vicious, evil side of their characters; they are faces, but not necessarily good people, and they displayed that here. They chose to drop Davis headfirst onto a chair instead of winning the match, and when RJ Singh tried to stop them, End kicked him in the face. This was not a heel turn as such since the Riots had pissed them off before, but it showed that the SDS are not saints, nor did they ever claim to be. This only adds fuel to the fire of this now very interesting feud. ***½

Rampage Brown vs Marty Scurll

This is another big singles match for Scurll’s development of his heel character. He has effectively stripped away everything that was joyful and popular from his old persona and now enters to depressing a techno dirge, wears leather pants, and has exchanged flamboyance for anger. This is Brown’s biggest match on a PROGRESS card for quite a while, and he looked ready for the occasion, ditching the shirt and looking very much like the top guy he was in 2013. The pair did not mesh very well though; the size difference between the Heavyweight face and Jr. Heavyweight heel made for an odd dynamic and neither man really seemed to know how to work around it. Scurll did not adapt his offence to fighting the bigger man and focussed more on playing to the crowd and ensuring his character work was strong than producing a strong in-ring match. The pace was methodical to highlight Scurll’s vicious side, and while this aspect of the match was effective, it hurt the overall quality of the match. Brown took control towards the end of the match, but a well-placed umbrella shot on the apron from Scurll knocked him out, allowing Scurll to pick up another sneaky win. This was not either man’s best performance ever, but it was another necessary step for the new Scurll character to make. He is now very well established in his heel role and figures to be a very significant part of PROGRESS in 2016. **

PROGRESS Championship Match
Will Ospreay (c) vs Zack Gibson vs ‘Flash’ Morgan Webster

Ospreay began this match like a cheeky little shit, waving to the crowd and letting rivals Gibson and Webster battle it out while he relaxed in a corner. It’s absolutely nowhere on the horizon, but Ospreay showed that he could be capable of turning around his current super-likable character into a cocky heel in the far future. Just something to think about.

Ospreay has become such a great all-round performer in 2015 and he really showed his skills here, anchoring the three-way and making his opponents feel very comfortable in their first main event in PROGRESS. Despite their issues being prevalent heading in, Gibson and Webster actually spent very little time fighting each other; most of the match saw Ospreay fighting either Gibson or Webster and adapting to their styles very well. Webster’s ‘flips and flying’ offence looked better than ever when paired with Ospreay, the British master of the style, while Gibson looked very credible when attacking Ospreay’s arm and making him scream in pain when locking in an armbar. Perhaps because of Ospreay’s excellent selling for him, Gibson appears to be a big threat to Ospreay’s title towards the end of the match, as his attempts at locking in his armbar on both Ospreay and Webster become more and more decisive as the match went on. Each time though, his man made the ropes or the third broke it up. Webster never looked like a threat to the title though, and perhaps he never will be reach that level in PROGRESS. He certainly doesn’t quite have the skillset yet. Gibson though is a great heel and has a domineering ring presence, so could become a regular main eventer as his career continues. Gibson got a fantastic nearfall when he broke up an Ospreay pin attempt after he hit a 450° Splash on Webster; Webster’s kickout got a fantastic reaction as the crowd breathed a sigh of relief. Webster turned the match around and hit Gibson with his own 450°, but failed to notice Ospreay climbing the turnbuckle behind him. Ospreay hit his 630° Senton finisher on both men to break the pin at a two count, then scored his own pinfall on Webster. A very fun three-way, overshadowed by the real main event of Ciampa/Sabre Jr., but still a match that is well worth watching. Gibson acquitted himself very well here, while Ospreay once again had an effortlessly fantastic performance. ****

Post-match, Scurll attacked Ospreay and demanded a title match at Chapter 25 while threatening to stomp on Ospreay’s leg with a chair wrapped around him. Jim Smallman obliged, but Scurll stomped anyway. Compared to Jimmy Havoc’s similar gambits from earlier in the year, this came off as very tame; Scurll has nowhere near the same aura as Havoc to make this sort of thing anything more than an excuse to get us to Ospreay vs Scurll. That is a major protected match in PROGRESS, and one where Ospreay’s title is in real jeopardy.

Final Thoughts: Ciampa vs Sabre Jr. is a must-watch match for all fans of indie wrestling, while the main event and Riots/SDS filled out the card well. The show started slow but those matches ensured this was a strong final entry to the promotion’s year of shows. PROGRESS is one of the most exciting wrestling companies in the world as we enter 2016, and expectations are very high for next year.