By: Richard ‘Benno’ Benson
British Wrestling Experience
“Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences”
Those were the words of David Starr when he took the microphone and cut an entirely out of character promo after losing his wXw Unified World Wrestling Title vs. wXw Career match to Bobby Gunns in what was certainly the most talked-about news story coming out of wXw’s biggest weekend of the year.
Described by Starr himself as a “mutual decision”, the exact details of the story are unknown with the unwillingness of either side to expand further fuelling speculation in the days after 16 Carat Gold as to the real reason for Starr’s exit. If it is pressure from WWE that has led to Starr’s bow from the German company as speculated by Dave Meltzer, then there is a litany of likely motives to choose from as the reason – from Starr’s stomping on the NXT UK title belt during a match with WALTER in OTT in 2019, to his Twitter spat with Gabe Sapolsky over alleged non-payment of workers, to his vocal attempts to unionize wrestling both in Europe and on a worldwide basis. For wXw, with their likely inclusion on some potentially forthcoming WWE Network tier looming, severing ties with Starr – a vocal critic of that service, seemed inevitable, outside of some headache-inducing compromise where he would appear outside of whatever wXw content is headed to the WWE’s streaming service. For Starr, even if his very public misgivings as to how wrestlers are compensated for their likeness being used on WWE’s service could be satisfied, from his point of view, any potential compromise, such as the “We The Indie” founder curtailing his political speech when appearing on wXw shows, would seem a red line both from an ethical point of view and from a credibility point of view for a wrestler who has blurred the line between real-life activist and wrestling character like no other.
The situation sums up the position Germany’s biggest promotion finds itself in 2020, not dissimilar to Progress Wrestling in the UK – the company through a special relationship with WWE, seems to be in a period of change and uncertainty, and while this weekend was an unparalleled business success with a record 1600 people converging on Oberhausen’s Turbinenhalle on Saturday night despite Coronavirus concerns that would have likely rendered the event canceled if it were scheduled just one week later – questions abound about the direction of the company, both from a creative standpoint and from the unavoidable feeling of shadowy WWE influence throughout the weekend.
The first night of 16 Carat Gold 2020 kicked off with one of the better matches of the weekend in Mike Bailey taking on Chris Ridgeway. Ridgeway who is fresh off a second tour with Pro Wrestling NOAH in Japan looked better than ever with obvious improvements in both his conditioning and in his execution with the man from Barrow (or Merseyside as he is now announced) going strike for strike with Bailey in as hard-hitting a match as you’ll see. Bailey for his part looked tremendous in the match, winning with his Flamingo Driver finish (think Miss Elizabeth on Randy Savage’s shoulder into a reverse Piledriver) putting him through to the second round in a tournament in which he would be a standout. Other first-round highlights of Night One included a superb big lads battle between Shigehiro Irie, returning for his second 16 Carat tournament and Black Taurus making his own impressive debut, with Irie picking up the win after some hard-hitting big moves, the most impressive of which being an incredible Samoan Drop from Irie, jumping from the top rope to a middle rope and then down crashing to the mat.
Less impressive big lads action was Alexander James match with Lio Rush replacement Jeff Cobb (Rush was pulled by WWE the week of the event). James having based himself in Germany has become a stalwart of wXw, but this would be one of many appearances throughout the weekend where he would flatter to deceive, for the most part only being there as a body to bump for Cobb’s spectacular offense, with the crowd only really coming alive when Cobb hit his Tour Of The Islands finish after 15 minutes of dull action.
Also in the first round, Eddie Kingston beat Daniel Makabe in a style clash of a match that perhaps didn’t hit as high as expectations due to how vocally in support of Kingston the local crowd was, despite his attempts to position himself as a heel against the Canadian technician. Perhaps Makabe’s choice to wear a Chelsea football team shirt didn’t ingratiate himself to fans either, but he would have bigger and more crowd-pleasing moments (and shirts) later in the tournament. Other matches included a disappointing Jurn Simmons vs Lucky Kid match that saw Kid, the year after his heralded win at last year’s 16 Carat Gold essentially get squashed, beaten after being distracted by a mystery logo on the big screen – and a pair of good but not quite great matches where local favorite The Rotation took a shock win against Puma King and a similar match where another homegrown star Julian Pace, took on Puma King’s often partner Bandido and lost. Neither Rotation or Pace looked entirely out of place in there with King and Bandido, but neither match was strong enough to give much indication that either is ready to take that next step up in their careers either.
The final first-round match of night one was the wXw in-ring debut of Cara Noir, with the Black Swan’s entrance to Tchaikovsky’s haunting Swan Lake getting over huge with the Oberhausen crowd, leading to a huge pop when Noir tapped out wXw regular Marius Al-Ani, in a more than solid match that faced a tough task being the ninth match on a 10 match card. Noir is a wrestler currently on the run of his career with his unique presentation and in-ring style getting over in any building he is placed in. The final match of the night was non-tournament action with the wildly popular Jay AA team of Absolute Andy and Jay Skillet, a makeshift team from October’s World Tag Festival who have stuck, beating unlikely Tag Festival winners Pretty Bastards, Maggot, and Prince Ahura. Though taking place in front of a tired crowd as the show ran late, this was well received by the Turbinenhalle as Andy particularly continues to get monster crowd reactions out of very little, with the comedy back and forth between him and Skillet providing great entertainment. Pretty Bastards for their part, ended their tag reign as it began, unconvincing, with their act continuing to look low rent and feeling like something out of wXw’s mid-2000’s “Long and Thick” and “69ers” indie tag team past, complete with feather light indie offense and bad stripper comedy. The change here, even if to another comedy tag team (albeit a much more over and physically convincing one) felt a particularly welcome one.
Earlier in the day, Ambition, the company’s annual shoot-style wrestling tournament took place. The tournament has become a tradition on these big wXw weekenders, the first taking place a decade ago, with winner Bryan Danielson in 2010. This time out it was a tournament built around British Colombia’s Daniel Makabe who impressed in October with a strong showing losing in the Ambition Wildcard Edition final to NXT UK’s A-Kid. This year Makabe got the nod to go all the way with wins in strong matches against Kevin Lloyd, Scotty Davis and against Chris Ridgeway in a worthy final where Makabe this time donned an Irish Football shirt drawing big cheers from the traveling Irish contingent early on. It wasn’t all cheap pops though, as Makabe earned his way to a big ovation from the native German crowd when he tapped out Ridgeway with his Cattle Mutilation variation with strong limb work throughout, in a very good example of the style of match Ambition looks to popularise. Makabe, like Tim Thatcher before him seems poised to be a cult hero here in Germany as a wrestler who has nothing less than 100% commitment to his less than mainstream style.
The highlight of this year’s Ambition show though came outside of the tournament action, with the pairing of two sets of wrestlers at the opposite ends of their careers. Firstly, Northern England’s best-kept secret, The Young Guns of 18-year-old Ethan Allen and 19-year-old Luke Jacobs followed up their attention-grabbing shoot-style match at Tetsujin Hybrid Wrestling in Manchester, with a strong first half main event. While not going as all-out as the famed Manchester match that got them their booking here, this was a perfect introduction to the two young grapplers with hard hits and great technical wrestling aplenty. The match had a great establishment of each’s preferred role, with Luke Jacobs the bigger of the two being a fantastic bully dominating most of the match and Ethan Allen being a superb underdog selling for the majority of the match before a rear-naked choke and armbar combination with additional kicks to the head in the style of Zack Sabre Jnr, led to a well-received come behind win, and huge chants for the team post-match.
At the opposite end of the scale, shoot-style legends Daisuke Ikeda and Yuki Ishikawa competed in the semi-main event of the night as the afternoon’s “Super Fight” and pulled back the years to deliver a match as good as anything on the weekend, with a hard-hitting battle that seemed every bit a shoot, with both swinging for the fences and trying to take each other out culminating in some rough-looking punches to the head and a running head butt from Ikeda that took out both men and got a standing ovation from the Turbinenhalle. This was a spectacle unlike any other on the weekend with a fully engaged crowd right to the final second when Ikeda went down as he had started the match, fighting with everything he had and only barely staying down for a 10 count from the referee.
The 16 Carat Gold tournament began proper in the evening, in front of a sell-out 1600 people, with a couple of fun quarter-final matches as the random draw first pitted Cara Noir against Jeff Cobb in another strong match for Noir, with the capacity crowd reacting even louder here than Night One for his entrance, even if there was a smattering of interesting boos when he finally tapped out crowd favorite Cobb, who was great here as the second level boss standing in the way of Noir and the finals. It would be interesting to note if the result would have remained the same if it was Lio Rush in Cobb’s spot, or if the tournament was reshuffled by the 205 Live star’s no show. Also strong was the second quarter-final match as Eddie Kingston blew through The Rotation, who looked better here as an underdog, rather than being presented as a flyer attempting to be equal to Puma King as he was cast in Night One’s upset win. Kingston cut a fantastic short promo after the match indicating he intended to play spoiler for the remainder of the weekend. Kingston’s long stay in Europe has been an unexpected gift thus far in 2020.
The other two Quarterfinals included the likely match of the tournament between Bandido and Speedball Mike Bailey – a match so good that it saw the ring pelted with money in a show of appreciation for the wrestlers who had to duck to avoid coins being thrown by overly enthusiastic fans from all corners of the venue. The match itself was a timely reminder of just how good both men are with Bailey picking up the win after a contest that took place at breath-taking speed with incredible precision, with big spots including one where Bandido leapfrogged a Bailey shoulder block to the outside, continuing to jump to the top rope on his leapfrog and in one motion hitting an Asai Moonsault to Bailey who had landed on the outside. The match continued as such with big near falls including a handspring reverse ‘rana from Bailey and a reverse Go To Sleep from Bandido before the Ring Of Honor man was finally put away by Bailey with a move that can only be described as Fisherman Fallaway Slam from the top rope. Both men earned the piles of notes and coins they left the ring with, in a match that many on the night were calling 5 stars and one that absolutely will be worth going out of your way to see once it drops on wXw Now.
Less impressive was the other Quarter Final pitting Jurn Simmons against Shigehiro Irie which had an impossible task following Bandido and Mike Bailey before it, with the hard-hitting but plodding match taking place in near silence at points and never quite moving into second gear before Simmons hit a Piledriver to Irie to a lukewarm response, booking himself as the lone wXw regular in the semi-finals.
Elsewhere on Night Two, the Young Guns Ethan Allen and Luke Jacobs continued their stellar weekend with a win in a wacky Jay AA Wildcard Tag Team gauntlet that main-evented the first half and was most notable for its final 10 minutes as the Guns traded big strikes and holds with their mentor Chris Ridgeway and his partner Scotty Davis, as well as a highly entertaining section of the match that saw Levaniel distracted by his own microphone time as he cut a speech to the crowd, unaware his assigned partner CZW owner DJ Hyde was being taken apart in-ring by the impressive makeshift team of monsters Avalanche and Black Taurus. The show also saw an ill-advised Alexander James promo and squash of Alpha Kevin, designed to further the Raw-like story of James bullying his real-life girlfriend Killer Kelly at ringside, and a perplexing match where Daniel Makabe, fresh off his afternoon Ambition tournament victory, lost to never happening mid-card heel Marius Al-Ani.
The Main Event of Night Two saw David Starr lose to Bobby Gunns in the aforementioned title vs. career match. Though disheartening in the result, and subsequent fallout, this was a very good match, carried by the performance of Starr, who was tremendous fighting from underneath from the moment he missed a suicide dive into a row of chairs for the cut-off, right through the final third of the match where he attempted to battle through an arm injury and hit Han Stanson Lariats using both his fresh arm and the injured body part. The crowd, which was 99% in favor of Starr with the exception of a minority of holdouts clinging to Gunns’ popularity from tournament weekenders past, did go quiet for the last few minutes of the match, which could be attributed to its length and perhaps Gunns’ shortcomings as the primary aggressor in the match. In the building though, it did seem like from the moment in the match Starr kissed the wXw belt before Gunns could use it as a weapon – as if to kiss it goodbye, it was a crowd fully aware a Starr loss was coming, with the absolute silence following the Emerald Fusion finish from Gunns, indicating that the sadness of fans who had grown attached to Starr as one of their own, had legitimately sunk in with the very real-life story coming to the forefront of everybody’s minds. Starr’s aforementioned fantastic post-match promo was gutting and very real, leading to a particular morose feeling crowd leaving the Turbinenhalle, even after one of the better in-ring days in tournament history had taken place before them.
After an afternoon matinee “We love Wrestling” show that featured a solid but less than spectacular WALTER vs Shigehiro Irie match with WALTER fresh from Saturday’s 600 capacity NXT UK Coventry tapings and the Young Guns losing in their tag team title match to Jay AA after Saturday gauntlet in a fun but throwaway tag, Night 3 started proper with two very good 16 Carat Gold semi-final matches with equally surprising results.
Firstly, Mike Bailey beat Jurn Simmons, taking out the lone wXw full-time roster member in a match that was one of Jurn’s best, with him looking strong as the big foil to Bailey’s Tae-Kwon-Do inspired offense with big Suplexes and Powerbombs, before eventually succumbing to an impressive-looking Flamingo Driver for the win. The second semi-final match saw Cara Noir continue his shock run in the tournament with a big Sleeper assisted win over Eddie Kingston who through his work and mic performances had convinced most he would be making it all the way to the final here. The two strong matches were unfortunately followed by a poor women’s title match as Amale defended her title against Stephanie Maze in a match where the gulf in class between champion and challenger has rarely been so apparent, with the match mainly seeming to take place to further continue the ill-advised Alexander James and Killer Kelly angle that seems a waste of the talents of the now apparently independent and readily available to wXw again, Killer Kelly.
Elsewhere on the show was one of the best matches of the weekend with the traditional “flippy tag” made up of eliminated tournament competitors and others in for the weekend, with this year’s version pitting Julian Pace, Jeff Cobb and Bandido against Puma King, Black Taurus and curiously, flag-waving Viking, Hektor Invictus – a big man heel usually kept to wXw’s matinee and Inner Circle training school cards on these big weekends. Hektor for his part worked well as a base for some of the more crazy flying of the other competitors, with the big highlights in the match coming when Bandido squared off with another big man, Black Taurus, who showed he can do high flying Lucha style as well as anyone else in the match. For the second time this weekend, this match led to fans showering the ring with coins and notes, adding to Bandido’s already plentiful collection for the week.
On the opposite end of the scale, this was a show notable for a very different match with Tim Thatcher’s wXw goodbye after signing with WWE coming in the form of a dream partner match with Thatcher teaming with his hero Yuki Ishikawa against Isihkawa’s Ambition nemesis Daisuke Ikeda and Thatcher’s former Ring Kampf partner WALTER. The highlights of this were when Ishikawa and Ikeda were in the ring together, continuing the previous day’s battle, as well as the unexpected personal rivalry between WALTER and Yuki Ishikawa with the two going back and forth both before and after the match as well as in it, as WALTER did everything in his power to sell big for the Battlearts legend. The bittersweet match came to an end with simultaneous winning Fujiwara Armbars from Thatcher and Ishikawa, with tremendous post-match scenes as the entire wXw locker room came out on to the stage to congratulate Thatcher, before true to form he shunned the spotlight and refused to cut a promo, leaving the arena via the quiet second backstage exit, leaving the wrestlers and the fans to chant his name in unison and celebrate his wXw career without him.
This was unfortunately followed by the weakest part of the show when Ilja Dragunov and Avalanche’s wXw Shotgun Championship match was turned into a three-way at the last minute for reasons unexplained, as NXT UK’s Alexander Wolfe joined the match and got a monster pop from the wXw faithful as an unadvertised surprise for the second year running. The match itself was just OK, carried in large part by a wXw crowd ecstatic to see Wolfe regain the Shotgun title, but was followed by both a lengthy promo from Wolfe and then an attack by the largely unknown team of Abdul Kenan and Aytac Bahar, who were eventually joined by the former Lucky Kid, now wishing to be known as Metehan, who turned heel and cut his own lengthy promo. This was a poorly thought out section of the show and largely nonsensical, with Lucky Kid apparently being revealed as the mastermind behind a logo for the new faction “Ezel” that had been appearing on-screen during wXw shows (and had distracted Lucky himself to lose his match on Night One). As an attempt to rehab Lucky Kid following his terrible 2019 and worse 2020 in wXw, this fell flat and puts him in a role as pseudo-Seth Rollins, complete with pseudo-AOP, which appears to work against his strengths as the universally beloved babyface who it is hard to believe won 16 Carat Gold 2019.
The tournament’s second-biggest story came in the form of its night three finale, wherein the main event, Cara Noir choked out Speedball Mike Bailey with his Blackout sleeper for what at the beginning of the weekend would have felt an unlikely result to 2020s 16 Carat. The match itself received split reviews on the night, with it’s Johnny Gargano NXT Takeover main event style clearly not being for everyone – but it did seem to work, with the majority of the Turbinenhalle being behind Noir at the peaks of the match, something that would have seemed exceedingly unlikely with Bailey being so beloved in wXw and Noir being a relative unknown prior to this weekend. If the last 5 minutes of Noir and Speedball refusing to die and at times even seeming reluctant to hurt each other further can be described as overly dramatic, then there’s no character who fits such a style more than Noir. To that end, it worked, with both men putting in the work the epic main event style required and delivering a dramatic end to the weekend of wrestling and a memorable if the somewhat confusing end to 16 Carat Gold 2020.
Make no mistake, the wrestling here throughout the weekend, while perhaps not living up to the lofty heights of some previous classic Carat years largely delivered, however, the doubts some fans left the Turbinenhalle with, even after such a good weekend of in-ring wrestling come both in the form of goodbyes fans weren’t ready to make and some head-scratching regarding the booking throughout the weekend and confusion over the decision to go with a push of newcomer Cara Noir so heavily. If that decision was born purely out of how over Noir got on this weekend, or simply a prediction that would be the case – then that is one thing. The members of the crowd who would rather see Speedball Mike Bailey or a wXw regular win the tournament will surely accept that. But, if this was a decision similar to Progress, another WWE partner, who have put their world title on Noir in recent months – a decision that usually, leads to such wrestlers inevitably signing NXT UK contracts, or having a contract already ready to sign- then that is the future many wXw fans, particularly traveling fans, are wary of.
Though such worrying can be written off as a tinfoil hat conspiracy from fans who are paranoid at any and all WWE involvement in the European scene, on a weekend where David Starr left the company under such unfortunate circumstances, fans are skeptical as to the future of wXw in it’s new WWE adjacent era. They’ve seen it happen before with Progress Wrestling in the UK, who at their creative height, took a partnership with WWE leading to their three most financially successful years, but equally, their three most creatively bereft ones, as the company operated under a cloud of NXT UK lends, rescheduled dates on a few weeks notice and suffered from a lack of leadership or focus, with the business and attendance losses only now starting to be really felt.
Right now wXw is also absolutely having it’s most financially successful years. But the alarm bells are ringing with its creative direction. Thus far, wXw has handled their WWE affiliation far better than Progress, with a more upfront business-minded attitude than the wide-eyed, “happy to be working with the wrestling company of their childhood” attitude that foiled the Progress owners. The question in 2020 and 2021 will be which version of itself wXw continues to be. A still somewhat independent company at the top of European wrestling that holds it’s WWE relationship at arms length and remains it’s own professionally run largely independent entity – or, WWE Network fodder that loses that hard-earned identity and has too much WWE interference in its day-to-day booking, ultimately suffering from the consequences of its own lack of free speech.
Richard ‘Benno’ Benson can be heard bi-weekly on The British Wrestling at POST Wrestling and is a co-host on the GRAPPL Spotlight Podcast.