For an explanation as well as the history behind VOW Social Distance Santa, please read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. All matches from VOW Social Distance Santa that are available on YouTube can be found on a playlist:
Taz vs. Masato Tanaka vs. Mike Awesome
September 19, 1999
Chants of “You sold out! You sold out! You sold out” lit up Odeum Expo Center for Taz as he stood in the ring, ready to face Masato Tanaka for the ECW Heavyweight title. Covered in streamers thrown in for Tanaka as the crowd were completely against Taz as he was prepping for his big move over to the WWF. Taz begins accosting someone in the crowd, who is it? It’s Mike Awesome, in the most 90’s vest you’ve ever seen. Taz starts goading him into the ring and into the match all whilst telling Paul E. that he’s getting him numbers and buys. Taz really was one of the coolest guys in this era. He had that badass aura about him and it always did feel like he could genuinely fuck you up. I mean his music did say beat me if you can, survive if I let you. As a youth when the phrase “FTW” grew popular, I found out my friends had a very different meaning for it, that being for the win but for me, it always meant fuck the world. Thanks Taz!
Going back to the show, with the baddest m’fer on the planet wanting to face two men and this match turns into a THREE WAY DANCE with Tanaka straight away diving right onto Mike Awesome. ECW as a whole isn’t a company I know the ins and outs of but I have watched a lot of Tanaka and Awesome’s feud. It is how I became familiar with both mens work, it’s nearly criminal that Awesome wasn’t a bigger deal in the bigger companies, great worker and he had the size they always wanted. So seeing these two work together to eliminate Taz and guaranteeing us a new champion is huge and feels like such a special moment. “Holy shit” echoing through the arena and the whole roster filling up the aisles, everyone says goodbye to Taz whilst Awesome and Tanaka just start laying into each other followed by a mad dive by Awesome, stopping the crowd singing “Na Na Na Nah”, just for a brief moment. Chaos ensues with big chair shots to the head, and tornado DDTs onto the ramp and plenty of top rope moves from Tanaka, the crowd are now fully invested and red hot for this match. Tanaka at this point is already holding 2 other championships and he has been pushed big as the favourite – even before Awesome got involved. The crowd are willing Awesome on and launches Tanaka into a table with the quintessential Joey Styles “OH MY GOD”. Awesome it was and Awesome is on top. The roster is still looking on and the tension in the building is palpable. Every member of the crowd is hanging on every move, with roars for every single thing. There’s nothing more in wrestling I love than hearing an invested crowd, it adds so much more to an already great match. Thunderous exchange between the two and finally Awesome wins with an Awesome bomb through a table, To use a corny phrase, everyone is in a frenzy and it rips the roof off of the place. It’s an emotional moment at the end with the goodbye to Taz as he hands over the title to Awesome. It feels really important and it’s special.
I feel like this match is like a time capsule for the time period and it really made me wish I was older so I could’ve been a fan in 1999. I really enjoyed it and really the top matches and moments in ECW really is stuff that is still great to reflect and look back on today. Who would’ve thought back then that Masato Tanaka would be having top tier matches in 2020 and in the WOTY discussion, albeit further down the list! It also makes me think what could’ve been with Mike Awesome as previously mentioned, forever remembered as an absolute king. Finally Taz, who would go on to commentate for WWE, TNA and now a company spearheaded by Dusty Rhodes’ son. Wild!
Kota Ibushi vs. Tomohiro Ishii
G1 Climax Day 10 – 7/28/18
Before I watch this match, I have to tell you, I have zero recollection of it. I know for certain that I watched every single match of the 2018 G1, and I definitely fucked around on the internet after every show. I even listened to every episode of the Super J-Cast during the tournament. It was the first time time my girlfriend was exposed to me doing something like watching an entire month of Japanese professional wrestling shows, and she took it like a champ. We live together now, and we’re locked in our home because of a global pandemic (have you heard?) so one can forgive her being less of a sport about it. She’s lying behind me on the couch, and just pulled a blanket over her head at the warning that I’d be putting this match on.
Well, her loss maybe? It’s got a 4.77 on Grappl, but I wasn’t on Grappl yet when it happened. On Wreddit I don’t appear to have commented on any threads about this show (day 10 of the G1). I remember specifics about multiple other matches from both men in this tournament. I remember what I was eating during Ishii/Naito, and I can dig up a text exchange where I rave about Ibushi and ZSJ’s match to a sleeping co-worker while it happens. (I guess that’s not really an exchange, unless you count when he wakes up and says, “oh ok ill watch it.” I later text him “fuck meltzer naito/ishii was better than omega/goto.”) I remember being weirdly let down by Ibushi/Omega and I remember Ishii/Omega being my favorite match of 2018. But this? I got nothin’. So I suppose I should hit play.
The first half of this match does a good job of portraying a clash in strengths, which is something I always appreciate in pro wrestling. Ibushi is often noted for his striking abilities, but they mean little to a Stone Pitbull, and his openings come when he’s able to utilize his advantages in speed and athleticism. Ishii on the other hand, is a mindless clobbering machine. He corners Kota and bludgeons him with alternating fists and elbows that connect with the sort of sickening thuds that make you put your hands over your mouth and whisper, “oh, baby no.” Ibushi slithers out of holds and finds small windows in the battering to connect with a pristine huracanrana, and a dive that feels like it’s happening in slow motion and should be accompanied by a swell from the string section. It’s gorgeous and disgusting, like the best wrestling is, and yet it makes total sense I wouldn’t remember a lick of it. Ishii and Ibushi are top caliber magicians in a wrestling ring; this is simply what they do.
The two brawl out into the crowd, and I begin to think, “Of course, this is why I don’t remember it. It turns into a boring crowd brawl.” And of course, I’m wrong. How typical of these two to somehow make the crowd portion into pure fireworks. Ibushi lands another ‘rana and climbs the railing to perform a moonsault off the god damned balcony onto Ishii, before dragging him back to the ring. The sequence happens in such a relatively breezy manner that it might seem ripe for Cornette-esque, blathering criticism — another meaningless and dangerous high spot. But you’d be wrong! The match is beginning to tell a neat little story, and Kota doing a backflip from fifteen feet up in the air is simply him taking his last give-able fuck, and lifting it high to flutter away like a dove.
As such, back in the ring he’s a different person. His expression is blank, he’s become what the internet has lovingly referred to as “Murder Kota”. The tone of the match is altered, he’s completely levelling Ishii with every blow. Reaching a near-primal state, the two revert to what they know best and take turns dropping one another on their respective necks, displaying impressive repertoires of variations on the high-angle german suplex. We mercifully enter the closing stretch when Ibushi sets phasers to kill and begins landing, ahem, REPEATED CLOSED FIST STRIKES TO ISHII’S THROATS. Gadzooks, right? The crowd is practically breaking plates over their heads when Ishii reverses a Kamigoye attempt into one of his own. We’re treated to one of my favorite Ibushi-isms: when Kota wants to sell an especially impactful blow, he doesn’t writhe and scream or mug for the camera like a cartoon character. He just looks like a lifeless doll whose limbs have been left grotesquely contorted. It’s chilling.
Anyway, yadda yadda, after a mildly-exhausting but well-earned lap of finishing teases, Ibushi closes Ishii out with his own Kamigoye. Kevin Kelly says it best as Red Shoes counts the pin: “Jesus Christ, what a war.” In seventeen minutes the two tell a story that most matches that break thirty couldn’t dream of. I did remember the moonsault off the balcony of course, but I couldn’t have possibly told you who Kota landed on. And maybe therein lies the shortcoming of the G1; so much of it blends into this long fever dream of nutty pro wrestling I watched when I probably should have been sleeping. And there are so many G1 classics from these two who could blame you for losing one? But watching this match now, on its own, with my girlfriend groaning behind me, I’m not certain I could possibly forget it. ****¾
As for who gave it to me, my guess is Jack Beckmann, but that’s mostly because I cheated and checked the VOW review he wrote where he dropped a five-piece on it. At first I was a little disappointed in being given a recent match that I’d already seen, but this was a total treat.
Genichiro Tenryu (c) vs. Stan Hansen
AJPW July 27, 1988
We’ve been social distancing here in Tokyo for almost a month now, so I’m not sure why I waited a week to watch this. I don’t think I’d never seen this match before, but it won the 1988 Tokyo Sports Match of the Year. In short, this was a great gift: basically, made up of classic aspects that are unfortunately missing from modern day Japanese wrestling.
The selling here is incredible. Tenryu gets attacked during his entrance and does a great job of making Hansen look like a monster throughout. Tenryu bleeds all over the Nagano Civic Gymnasium with the fans hanging on his every move, hoping that he can overcome the belligerent Texan. I won’t spoil the finish, but this is an easy watch and highly recommended. I’m going to guess this is a gift from either Gerard Di Trolio or Kevin Hare. ****3/4
WSX Rumble: Justin Credible vs. Teddy Hart vs. Kaos vs. Chris Hamrick vs. Alcatrazz vs. Puma vs. New Jack vs. 6-Pac vs. Vampiro vs. Youth Suicide
Wrestling Society X #1 January 30, 2007
In a roundtable review of the Neil Breen film Double Down, RedLetterMedia’s Rich Evans exasperatedly described the movie as “nothing but stuff.” That’s also an apt description for the WSX Rumble, a match filled to the brim with STUFF. But such is the way for Wrestling Society X, a wrestling show that would feel right at home in one of the Jason Statham Crank movies. There is so much madcap mid-2000s craziness jammed into each episode’s 20-minute runtime that you’d half expect Chev Chelios to waltz through the curtain and start a wild shootout with Disco Machine and Ruckus. It’s a serious case of overstimulation, as literally everything about WSX is loud, over the top, and in your face. The ring announcer practically pops a blood vessel in his head introducing the matches. The commentators are brash and obnoxious. There are visual and audio sound effects, camera shaking, Teddy Hart and New Jack are involved. This is not a clean and respectable wrestling show, this is Def Jam Vendetta come to life.
Just look at the WSX Rumble. Two guys start the match and every 45 seconds a new guy comes out. A wrestler is eliminated when they are thrown over the top rope and hit the floor. Sounds rather typical, right? Well once all ten entrants have entered, it turns into a ladder match. (The Ultimate X Gauntlet match from TNA Victory Road 2007 worked in a similar manner.) Hanging above the ring are two contracts, and the two wrestlers who can climb up the ladder and get the contracts will then wrestle for the WSX Championship on the next episode. And if that wasn’t enough, the ring is surrounded by tables, live electrical wire, and a horizontal steel cage wall rigged with explosives.
Every time a wrestler is thrown over the top rope and eliminated, they go through a table. Without fail. The only times when they don’t are A) when New Jack steps through the ropes and for some reason the referee says he’s eliminated, and B) when Luke Hawx hits a backdrop suplex on Kaos (not Kenny) off the apron, sending them tumbling into the electrical wire. Huge sparks shoot out, Emperor Palpatine lightning flies onto the screen, the camera shakes, BOOM! Normally a big spot like that would be given its own space in a match, but just two seconds prior, New Jack does a dive off a balcony and elbow drops Chris Hamrick through a table. Then Alcatrazz gets superkicked off the apron through a table. Those three spots happen one after the other in the span of FIFTEEN SECONDS; that’s how packed to the gills this bad boy is with STUFF.
Zakk Wylde is a guest on commentary. Yes, that Zakk Wylde from Ozzy Osbourne and Black Label Society. WSX, similar to Lucha Underground, featured live musical guests that would perform at the start of each episode, including BLS, Pitbull, Good Charlotte, and Three 6 Mafia. There are actually a bunch of comparisons to make between WSX and LU. You have an unconventional venue known as the WSX Bunker, a scrap metal palace with oodles of grime, right down to an artificially worn-out ring mat like you’d see in the shindiest of indies. There’s the “underground” nature of the show as well. And the roster featured many notable U.S. indie stars working alongside veteran wrestlers and international talent; watching the whole series you could see Tyler Black, Jimmy Jacobs, Matt Sydal, Jack Evans, 6-Pac, Vampiro, Arik Cannon, Masato Yoshino, Genki Horiguchi, New Jack, Chris Hamrick, Joey Ryan, Ricky Banderas, Human Tornado, just to name a few.
But anyway, Zakk Wylde. He doesn’t add much to the commentary, but he does have a few gems. When 6-Pac hits the Bronco Buster on Teddy Hart, Zakk goes, “Dude, I do that with the wife every night.” Later on when New Jack smashes a guitar over a referee’s head, Zakk shouts, “This is what the music business needs!”
6-Pac grabs one of the contracts to secure his spot in the WSX Championship match. Shortly thereafter, Youth Suicide (an actual wrestler’s name) climbs the ladder to grab the other contract, but Justin Credible pushes the ladder over and Mr. Suicide flies right over the top rope, landing on the steel cage wall that’s rigged with explosives. The explosives do indeed “explode,” as huge sparks and smoke billow up to the ceiling in a majestic cascade of lights and sounds. BOOM! The camera once again shakes as the announcers scream to high heaven. Vampiro (another connection to Lucha Underground) eventually fights off Credible and gets the other contract. Vampiro would go on to defeat 6-Pac with a Tombstone Piledriver into an exploding coffin to become the inaugural WSX Champion. On an unrelated note, Vampiro was the main booker of WSX. How ‘bout that.
A few months ago for VOW Secret Santa, I reviewed Michinoku Pro’s Great Space War 2015, which is very similar to this one in how absolutely manic and wild it is. But while the Great Space War takes its time to unfurl the myriad of wonderful STUFF that it brings to the table, the WSX Rumble is its speedfreak ne’er-do-well distant cousin that crams everything in in less than ten minutes. It’s simply not a match I’d recommend because so many others have done it better. As for who gave me this match, I seem to recall Taylor Maimbourg recently mentioning in the prestigious VOW Slack Chat that he was rewatching some WSX, so my guess is him.
Bas Rutten vs. Masakatsu Funaki
Pancrase September 7, 1996
So is this what the kids call “grapplefuck”?
As you can tell from that comment, I am not an aficionado of the shoot style wrestling. I have not watched any RINGS or Battlarts. In fact, the only matches in this style that I have really watched were a pair of highly lauded matches from the 2019 Bloodsport show during Mania weekend last year (here’s my tweet length review: Takeda/Gresham – great, Suzuki/Barnett – meh).
All that I know about Pancrase is that Minoru Suzuki was heavily involved in it. I know that it has a strong MMA influence, but I am not sure if it is shoot-style wrestling, worked MMA matches, pure MMA, or some confusing blurred line situations. Being gifted this match for the VOW Social Distance Santa, I have decided to use this column to document my initial reaction to this type of pro wrestling, rather than a detailed move-by-move analysis. I am avoiding any deep dives on the background of the match, the wrestlers, or the promotion, as I just want the match to speak for itself and my impression to be purely based on that.
My biggest takeaway from this entire match is just how different the presentation is from typical professional wrestling. The way the fighters carry themselves is very much in the spirit of competition and combat sport and not the dramatic, feud-style pro wrestling that dominates my viewing. Even late into the match, after a rope break or other separation the two men will shake hands before going right back into brutal strikes. You aren’t getting a disrespectful Tanahashi slap to the face or Okada-style cockiness from the fighters in this one.
The crowd reactions are also quite different. From the very start of the match, the audience does not have the audible buzz and baseline level of noise that most wrestling events have. They are much quieter and more reserved during long portions of the match, and I don’t mean that in a Nick Aldis sort of way. Whenever there is a takedown, counter, or big strike the audience erupts into gasps and cheers. Anytime the fighters stand back up after a grappling sequence there is a nice round of applause, as commonly occurs in regular pro wrestling as well (it feels weird to call it “regular”, not sure exactly the best way to put it). There are also multiple instances of the audience calls that anyone who watches Japanese puro will be familiar with.
However outside of those moments the crowd is extremely quiet. This is made even more noticeable by the sounds of the wrestlers. The way the match is presented you can hear the footsteps of the two men as they maneuver around each other in the ring. At times it is like a rhythmic march as the two inevitably move closer and closer to their violent clash. Once they are off their feet and grappling on the ground, the sound of the struggle is quiet striking. You can hear very clearly as their hands slide across each other and they try to get into the best position and gain an advantage. The shoot style comes across to me as a form of wrestling where every little movement matters and the production of the match and the quiet focus of the crowd really brings it across in this match.
The camera work is also unique as whenever the two are grappling it is typically presented with an overhead camera view looking straight down from above the ring. This is fantastic, as it really lets you see the wrestlers and what they are doing in a way that would be missed with the typical pro wrestling camera angles.
Ultimately though, the question when watching a match isn’t about the production and the camera angles – it’s about the enjoyment obtained through experiencing it. The criticism of the grapple heavy shoot style is often that it is boring. “It’s just people laying on top of each other and/or rolling around on the mat.” And I have to say, I definitely did feel that criticism at times watching the match. But rather than just come on here and say “I think this is boring,” I would rather try to figure out why I, and perhaps others, think that way.
Much like the unique aspects of the presentation I initially discussed, I think it is the juxtaposition with “typical” pro wrestling that makes the shoot style hard from some, myself included, to fully enjoy. Coming at this from a pro wrestling fandom (I have watched very little MMA in my lifetime and have very little interest in it at all), I can’t help but have a pro wrestling mindset while watching the match. With that in mind, there are two big differences in this style that can lead to a disconnect from someone used to and expecting the traditional pro wrestling style.
The first is the lack of “moves.” Now, I don’t mean “movez” in the sense that I am bored by any match without poison ranas, dives to the outside, 450 splashes, and the like. What I mean is that in traditional pro wrestling the match is often structured around wrestlers hitting moves on each other or countering those moves in very clear and obvious ways. Whether it be a hammerlock, arm drag, DDT, powerbomb, or lariat, as I am watching a wrestling match I can often do the play-by-play in my own head. I can identify the moves that are being performed, attempted, or avoided. In the shoot style the majority of the struggle is in trying to get in any move at all. The drama is in the way the fighters look for openings, position themselves, and move their limbs around. They are kind of in a “move limbo” where, at least to my untrained eye, I end up just waiting for a move. I wait for a submission hold to be locked in or a strike or takedown to occur. This is waiting becomes even more difficult as my vocabulary of pro wrestling moves has become mostly meaningless, as the repertoire of shoot style holds is completely foreign to me. So instead of seeing something and going “oh, he’s got him in a keylock (or kneebar, or something)”, I end up just wondering if anyone is getting any offense in at all. Is there even pain or damage being inflicted?
That brings up my next point and that is the lack of selling. Now I don’t mean that in a Road Warriors sort of way or a negative way at all. Honestly, in the context of MMA-style fighting it makes sense. Why would you want your opponent to know you are in pain or have an injured body part? However, because of that it is hard for me as an audience member to know if the fighter is in pain or not. I can see the fighters grab at each other’s ankles and legs and do what looks like some sort of painful maneuver, however without clear selling of pain from the other fighter I am unsure if the move has actually been locked in, or if they are still struggling to get it applied correctly. This is why I prefer pro wrestling to MMA. I want the fighters to be focused on emoting and communicating to the audience. In pro wrestling it is a performance in which the crowd is the primary focus and the goal is to be appreciated by them. In MMA (or shoot style), it’s a competition and the audience is secondary to the action in the ring.
Now, that being said, after the periods of grappling, the two just start to tee off on each other for the last few minutes of the match in a way that I would imagine almost all wrestling fans can appreciate. Bas does a cool counter where he pushes off with his legs and sort of backflips up to a standing position. This leads directly to a strike exchange and in the end it looks like Funaki has his nose legitimately broken. At that point Rutten smells blood in the water and targets it with vicious punches, palm strikes, and knees. Funaki is great as a valiant baby face here and even has an equivalent of a “kicking out a 1” where he stands up at a 4 count after getting knocked down. It comes off as less of a “fuck you”, fighting spirit type of moment though, and more as a foolhardy but still endearing underdog determined to keep fighting.
After writing this, I had the thought that I am sure many have had when watching these type of matches – if they cut out all the grappling and just do the strike sequences this would be a great 5-8 minutes match. On second viewing, I appreciated a little more the way that the grappling wore the two fighters down to the point where they would be able to land their strikes on a weakened opponent. However, I ultimately still come down on the side of – “the last few minutes of that rocked, but I didn’t enjoy (or maybe understand, or appreciate) all the mat work leading up to it that much.”
In the end though, I am glad that I was gifted this match for VOW Social Distance Santa. I can pretty confidently say that I do not believe I would have ever watched this match without it. It was a great way to be exposed to a different style and era of wrestling, and while I don’t think it’s my cup of tea, I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more shoot style matches going forward.
Thanks for reading and everyone stay safe and healthy out there.