Welcome back to Voices of Wrestling’s coverage of the Mae Young Classic. The Final Four is in sight for the remaining competitors, and by the end of this show, we will have our semifinal matches decided.
Kevin Wilson gave biographical sketches of all of the competitors in his first round reviews. Rather than tell the same story again, I’ll point you, dear reader, to his reviews of Episode 1, Episode 2, Episode 3, and Episode 4.
Mercedes Martinez def. Abbey Laith
Mercedes Martinez has dispatched Xia Li in Round 1, and Princesa Sugehit in Round 2 on her way to the Quarterfinals, and in both matches she did not appear to be significantly pushed by her opponents. Abbey Laith has been able to best more powerful opponents in Jazzy Gabbert and Rachel Evers to get to this point.
Martinez is exactly where she, and most observers, assumed she would be. As one of the premier women in wrestling, her making it to this point seemed like a fait accompli. For Laith on the other hand, she was considered to be cannon fodder. If she can somehow rally against yet another bigger, stronger opponent, who in this case is also the current SHIMMER champion, it would be a tremendous upset. One thing to watch for though is Martinez seemed to suffer some shoulder damage in her second round match.
Early on Martinez established herself as the aggressor, slapping the taste out of Laith’s mouth, and nailing Laith with a few hard chops. This would be the pattern of the match, with Laith fighting from behind and trying to pick her spots, and repeatedly looking for her money move, the Alligator Clutch.
I know I have been guilty of complaining about how certain stories keep getting told in this tournament, but one of the most rewarding aspects of watching from the beginning has been how the stories keep paying off in new ways each round. Martinez, as the veteran, is smart enough to look for Laith to overextend herself trying to get the move that’s won her the last two matches. But she’s not at 100% due to the damage in the previous round, so she can’t be as aggressive and overwhelming as she had been. She still has enough wherewithal to counter Laith going after the Clutch one time too many and hit the Fisherman Buster for the hard fought win.
I couldn’t tell if Laith actually hurt herself at some point in the match. If not, credit to her for a hell of a sell job, because she kept on moving gingerly throughout the second half of the match. By the end both competitors were showing the effects of three hard-fought matches in a short period of time. Martinez goes into the Final Four as the beleaguered queen still defending her throne. Laith goes into NXT with momentum and established as a fighter and a force to be reckoned with. At this point every match is worth seeing, though this one never really got out of first gear.
Shayna Baszler def. Candice LeRae
Shayna Baszler has left bodies in her wake as she moved through the tournament, dispatching Zeda and Mia Yim. Candice LeRae defeated Renee Michelle and then survived an onslaught of suplexes to score a win over Nicole Savoy.
Baszler is pure, coiled, distilled violence. LeRae is joy and light and flowing movement. These two have been destined to collide since the first two cave dwellers convinced the family in the fourth cave over to come give them beads and meat in return for watching them fight.
No handshake before the bell, and as soon as the match began Baszler was on top of LeRae, continuing the same unyielding attack that wore Mia Yim down so completely in their previous round’s matchup. LeRae did not fold under the initial attack, and her suicide dive into a DDT on the ramp was absolutely beautiful.
After match after match of divided crowds, it was fun to have the crowd treating Candace as the face, and Baszler as the heel. The fans were living and dying with LeRae in a way no one had connected with the crowd before. LeRae going for submissions was a bit of a surprise, but made perfect sense given her opponent. A good idea in theory, but every time Candace would seemingly have something locked in, Baszler would rise up like a horror movie villain. When she dealt with being in a crossface by just standing the hell up with LeRae clinging to her the magnitude of LeRae’s task became clear.
The end came when, for a second straight match, Baszler was able to counter the best shot her opponent could give and instead turned it into a submission that simply could not be broken. Just to rub it in, and because she could, she kept she choke on LeRae long after the bell, until she decided she was ready to let up. Baszler stormed through into the semifinals looking nearly unstoppable.
So this match, as shown on WWE Network, was only 3:12 from bell to bell. That sounds like it should be disappointing. I disagree. I’ve seen fans on Twitter put together lists of the best matches that went less than five minutes. This match can be added onto those lists. They packed a ton of story and action into that time. So much intensity and desperation was crammed into those 192 seconds that I don’t know that I could have taken a 193rd one. Absolute must-watch. Then watch it again.
Toni Storm def. Piper Niven
Toni Storm doffed her tiny hat and waved goodbye to Ayesha Raymond and Lacey Evans. Piper Niven was arguably the underdog in both of her matches thus far, facing Santana Garrett and Serena Deeb respectively, but she’s still here and looking for a spot in the semis.
Piper Niven is big. Toni Storm is not big. Not everything needs a lot of explanation.
The early game of bridge-based Can You Top This was fun, and it ended the only way such a game can rightfully end, with someone getting flattened. All our joys must one day be destroyed.
To give credit where it is due, Niven’s offense looked sharper in this match than I’ve ever seen. At one point she seemed to decide that the best approach she could take would be to throw herself on Storm as many times in a row as possible. It was a pretty damn good plan if you think about it.
Earlier I mentioned how these matches are rewarding those fans who have been watching the whole way. This match was full of such well-built moments, taking advantage of the previous rounds to tell the story of Storm being one step ahead. Three rounds of no one really being able to throw Nevin until Storm hit the belly to back suplex off the ropes. Storm kicking out of the M-Driver after it was instadeath in the first two rounds. Avoiding Niven’s Vader Bomb splash. And knowing that she needed to have a finisher in her pocket that wasn’t the Strong Zero piledriver. A finisher like the top rope leg drop she used to finish off Niven and move into the Semifinals.
Storm moves on, but even at this point in the tournament is something of an unknown quantity. She has defeated two neophytes, and in Niven someone who wouldn’t be considered one of the top threats in the tournament. What is known though is that Storm demands the viewer’s attention whenever she is on screen. As for Piper, while I have leveled my criticisms of her style, I could very easily see a place for her in NXT. She has a very unique skillset, and with a few small tweaks could become a major player. These two kept things energetic, but with it always feeling like a friendly contest. Another really good watch.
Kairi Sane def. Dakota Kai
Kairi Sane has made Tessa Blanchard and Bianca Belair walk the plank in her first two matches. Dakota Kai kicked Kavita Devi and Rhea Ripley to the curb to reach this match.
Two of the best wrestlers in the tournament going at it. Both fan favorites, both unassuming in appearance until they get in the ring and start wrecking opponents.They’ll both kick an opponent’s head into the fourth row with a smile on their faces.
Throughout the tournament I had been feeling a dearth of really good chops, which surprised me given some of the names in this thing. Sane and Kai helped to rectify that early in the match. Chops cleanse the soul and lead a fan to righteousness. They should be taught in gym classes around the country.
In Dakota Kai, Kairi Sane found an opponent who could keep up with the pace she likes to set. Kai keeping Sane off balance with kicks, Sane imposing herself onto Kai with a lightning spear. The strikes in this match were the sharpest and most convincing of any match in this tournament so far.
Given the similar skillsets it was inevitable that the match would turn on a single mistake. Kai missed a top rope double stomp a few minutes into the match. The mistake didn’t cost her the match right then. Instead Sane started to gain a half-step here, and a step there. Kai’s actions being telegraphed just slightly, or taking a second too long to complete a move. A small thing, akin to the twitch of the neck when getting a flush in poker. An insignificant twitch to the rest of the world. To a professional at the top of their game, like Sane is in the ring, that is an illuminated manuscript delivered by a fleet of messengers. Kai was eventually forced to go all-in and attempt another Yakuza Kick at a point in the match when she was obviously losing speed. That was all the chance Sane needed to get Kai into position for the big elbow to get the win.
For Sane, she fought off an extremely hard challenge with class and dignity. She was the prohibitive favorite going into the tournament, and nothing that has happened should make a reasonable observer think otherwise. The best compliment I can pay her is that I have to think she’s living up to the hype around her arrival. Personally I was happy to hear the announcers give a lot of cover to Kai for losing. Saying multiple times that she seemed injured, and putting over how close she came is a good sign. This was an excellent match, and I really hope we get an extended series between these two. This could easily be the next big NXT feud that defines a micro-generation down there. Obvious recommendation to watch.
This was the first episode where I really felt the time constraints stopping matches that should have been given significantly more time. Especially Sane vs. Kai. Give them 20 and let them run with it. The tournament has been kicking into high gear as the field keeps narrowing down ever farther. Only four remain, with the Semifinal matchups looking like:
- Shayna Baszler vs. Mercedes Martinez
- Kairi Sane vs. Toni Storm
Baszler vs. Martinez is made extra interesting due to their being members of the same stable on the indie scene. If anyone would know the weaknesses in the seemingly unstoppable Baszler’s arsenal, it would likely be her closest ally and mentor. Whether that will make a difference is anyone’s guess. On the other side of the bracket the battle for best dressed and a spot in the finals looms with Sane vs. Storm. If it’s true that you have to beat the best in order to be the best, then Toni Storm can stake her claim to that title in the next episode.