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    Sunday, September 11, 2016

    WWE Live Manila (9/9/16): The Smark Henry Review

    Last night, after seven long, long years, WWE finally returned to Manila. I was lucky enough to catch it—and when I say lucky, I mean it in the most literal way. I was not supposed to be there. I wasn’t even supposed to be thinking about wrestling. But my child refused to be born during WWE Manila week, and the wrestling angels (or a wrestling god) parted sports entertainment heaven and gave me a ticket to be there. I told you: lucky.

    On the latest Talk is Jericho podcast, newly crowned WWE Universal Champion (and my personal favorite artist in any field) Kevin Owens tells Jericho about something he and Sami Zayn had long figured out, years before even being signed by WWE: 

    Me and Sami understood something that, like, it’s kind of obvious when you say it out loud, but not everybody realizes it: wrestling is about moments. It’s not necessarily about a match. It’s a moment in the match that’s gonna make that match great. You can have fifteen minutes of the most athletic, incredible stuff, ever, [but] if there isn’t a moment to remember, that match is [just] gonna be another match.

    Last night’s WWE Manila 2016 event was filled to the brim with moments—moments that amazed, moments that highlighted a logical narrative, and moments that seared into the audience’s brains that there is nothing in the world like the awesomeness of pro wrestling.

    Cesaro vs. Sheamus

    Sheamus started the week’s WWE International tour with a dominant 3-0 lead over fan-favorite Cesaro. In London on September 7, the Swiss Superman finally got his first win over the Irish brute. 
    Cesaro entered first to a massive ovation from the crowd. Surprisingly, so did Sheamus. Soon afterwards, though, before he entered the ring, “You look stupid!” chants rose, and the jeers poured in. Sheamus relished everything.

    He looks... pretty decent, actually.

    The match continued the story of the series: Cesaro’s back is hurt, and Sheamus is taking advantage. They wrestled a clean, crisp, hard-hitting match—more violent and physical than athletic and graceful. In the end, Sheamus’ arrogance cost him, and Cesaro managed to execute a Cesaro Swing (10 rounds!) right into a Sharpshooter. Sheamus’ submitted to shouts of “TAP!” from the red-hot crowd.

    I don’t think anyone expected Sheamus to take the victory here. It seemed pretty obvious that Cesaro would make up for his losses, even if the match didn't count in the best of seven series.
    Since neither the element of surprise nor the anticipation of a decisive conclusion to the series were things the two performers could work with, they decided to put on an exhibition of tight, beautiful, logical violence. This, combined with being the first performers in front of a WWE-starved crowd, resulted in a thrilling performance with a riveting conclusion—even if everyone saw it coming.

    Braun Strowman vs. Goldust

    It is surprising how quickly un-Wyatt-like Strowman has become in the weeks since the brand split. He wears the same gear, but he no longer projects the same vibe. Far from being the “black sheep” of a creepy Duck Dynasty cult, Braun is now (merely?) a legitimately scary giant monster man whose value lies in how quickly he destroys opponents. In other words: he’s the sort of guy being built up for a Cena, Reigns, or maybe Rollins, to overcome.
    It seemed that we were far from that point during WWE Manila, though, and that we were in the midst of his monster push. I kind of felt bad that Goldust would fly in here from halfway around the world so that he could get squashed like a bug by the giant youngster.
    Surprise of surprises, Goldust really took it to big guy. It was not the two-minute affair you would usually see on RAW. Goldust simply did not stop attacking—he hit his running cannonball from the apron, and even knocked Strowman down with a single clothesline (remember, not even Brock Lesnar got to do that).  

    Goldust kept exhibiting ruthless aggression until Strowman cut him off just one too many times. The match ended when Strowman trapped Goldust in a bear hug/standing arm triangle choke and rendered him lifeless.
    The shock of wily veteran Goldust not letting Strowman roll right through him held the value of this contest. Goldust’s relentlessness pushed Strowman to go beyond his usual bag of tricks (he didn’t even get to do his reverse chokeslam-that-isn’t-a-chokeslam), and show that he is not just going to coast along as a dominant monster—he will do what he has to in order chew everyone up, and spit them out. 

    Neville vs. Curtis Axel (with Bo Dallas)

    While Heath Slater is off trying to provide for his family on SmackDown, his former Social Outcast cohorts seem to remain trapped in time. Curtis Axel and Bo Dallas came out in their Social Outcast gear and basically looked like the most obvious jabronis of the night—despite the recent mini-push for Bo that built him up for his Shanghai opponent Bin Wang.
    Neville entered to surprisingly loud cheers, and he basically trounced Curtis. He got to show off his awesome gymnastic abilities throughout the match, culminating with a breathtaking Red Arrow after fending off interference from Dallas. Once Curtis was all alone, it was over.
    I considered recording the Red Arrow on video, but I figured others would do it, and that I had to see the move live with my own two eyes. I did, and it was worth it. 

    Neville is amazing, and even if I have no idea what the narrative of his character is these days, it doesn’t matter—he’s a guy people will pay to see, and it will take their breath away, every time. Maybe for RAW's upcoming Cruiserweight Division.

    Triple Threat Tag Team match for the WWE Tag Team Championship: The New Day (Xavier Woods and Big E) (c) vs. Shining Stars vs. Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson

    The three teams put on an enjoyable performance, with the New Day as the scrappy heroes, the Shining Stars as the pandering cowards, and the former Bullet Club as the fearsome bruisers. Primo and Epico flew around for both tag teams after trying to Too Sweet the Club and wiping Kofi’s shirt on their underarms. In the end, after a precisely timed sequence of reversals, Big E and Xavier hit Luke Gallows with the Midnight Hour to retain their titles.
    It was a good match that took a good while to heat up, but the value of this performance was simply the New Day’s prematch shenanigans. Big E’s opening “AWWW MANILA” was did not fail to rouse up an already hyped crowd, and MOA Arena hung on to their every word. They even cheered Big E’s booty dance harassment of poor Jojo (who, we assume, consented to the silliness beforehand, right? Please?). 

    But just like with Neville and his athletic prowess, it doesn’t really matter what the narrative of the New Day is these days—they are a self-contained property that the WWE Universe will pay to see, and it seems like it will be a long time before the thrill of watching them do their thing will wear off.

    Maybe this is what it means to be “over”.
    They ain't booty.

    Big Show vs. John Cena

    Speaking of “over." 
    As a writer and founding member of Smark Henry, I do declare that John Cena has transcended traditional professional wrestling tropes and dichotomies (“heel” or “babyface”), and is now WWE’s greatest-ever example of “over”—a forceful entity that can stand completely on its own, absent of rival, narrative, or motivation, and elicit an organic, visceral, and emotional audience response which dwarfs anything other wrestlers can hope for.
    Big Show was in the ring waiting for Cena’s music to hit, and the iconic dueling “Let’s Go Cena/Cena Sucks” chants were already roaring. Poor Big Show, who visited Manila a few weeks ago to much fanfare, seemed like an afterthought. Suddenly the horns blared, and MOA Arena exploded.
    Many in the crowd started singing along “John Cena suuuucks” to Cena’s theme song, including my Smark Henry colleague Raf Camus. When I asked him why he wanted to do it, he admitted that he doesn’t actually think Cena sucks. “I just have to chant it tonight,” he said. “It’s important!”
    When the Cena Hate started many years ago, the reasons were much clearer: kids and women loved clean cut John, and men and “hardcore” fans hated LOLCENAWINS Cena. These days, though, those reasons fall through the cracks—everyone respects John, and his work is unanimously praised. The kind of noise you make for him is just your personal choice of what kind of adulation you want to shower him with.
    His entrance to his match in WWE Manila proves yet again that John Cena is not merely another main eventer in a brand’s roster—he is a living, breathing Live Emotional Experience, moreso than any Superstar before him, and possibly after him. 
    The story he and Big Show told was that Big Show is, well, the Big Show—the World’s Largest Athlete that no mere mortal can simply overcome. The conclusion saw Show replicate the SummerSlam 1996 Yokozuna vs. Steve Austin finish, with the middle rope “accidentally” breaking, and Cena taking advantage until he could hit an Attitude Adjustment for the win.
    Everyone wondered if this moment was scripted—which means it succeeded.
    After the match, Cena saluted the crowd, and rode off into the sunset. The crowd saluted back. If this was the last time The Great John Cena would perform in Manila, then it was a heck of an honor to be there.
    Oh, it’s worth noting that The Overness of John Cena has empirical transferrable properties: before the match started, the crowd broke out into a chant for AJ Styles—and he wasn’t even a part of the tour. Long live John Cena, the Face that Ran the Place.

    WWE Women’s Championship Match: Charlotte (c) vs. Sasha Banks

    Earlier in the night, video packages featured Charlotte and Sasha Banks each talking about their upcoming title match. Charlotte promised victory, exuding confidence and arrogance. Sasha too promised victory, also exuding confidence and arrogance. Both ladies, through a video screen, elicited roars from an audience that has been re-trained from the ground up to love and appreciate Women’s Wrestling.
    The Boss graces Manila with her presence
    The match told the story of the continuation of their SummerSlam battle: Charlotte as the arrogant champion who has cleanly defeated and nearly injured the fan-favorite Banks, and Sasha as the underdog who was physically roughed up in their previous encounter, and is now struggling to reclaim her title. 

    It started off with the crowd simply appreciating what they were witnessing: loud, sustained chants of “women’s wrestling” filled the arena, and both performers (not characters) seemed genuinely moved. As the match progressed, the story started seeping in, with the crowd cheering Sasha’s every move, reversal, and pin attempt. The reaction reached a crescendo as Sasha locked in the Bank Statement and Charlotte seemed close to tapping out. Suddenly she reverses into the pin combination she used at SummerSlam; Banks kicks out, locks in the Statement again; finally, Charlotte rolls out, and eventually nabs a dirty, rope-assisted pinfall.
    Charlotte exited to boos and respectful appreciation, WWE Women’s Title aloft. As Sasha rose, the crowd showered her with sincere Benoit Loser Applause, as she exited to chants of “Thank you Sasha!”
    This is Women’s Wrestling in 2016: the revolution has forced its way in so deeply that even notoriously shallow Filipino fans couldn’t help but respect and appreciate it. The next step is for the novelty of Women’s Wrestling to seep in to public consciousness to the degree that it’s just, you know, wrestling. And it seems like we’re well on our way there.
    (Although I did worry the crowd was chanting “sexy!” as Charlotte took her shirt off. Turns out, they were just chanting “NXT!” Good job, fans.)

    Chris Jericho vs. Roman Reigns

    After the Women’s Title match, it dawned on us that there was only time for the last two matches on the card. I think it dawned on the rest of the audience too, because mere moments after Sasha exited, the chants died down, and her music faded out, the crowd started buzzing. It was going to be a matter of seconds before we hear “Break the Walls Down."

    The second it started, the whole place exploded. Just a ridiculous pop for the legendary Chris Jericho. “Y2J” chants resounded as he sauntered to the ring, wearing his now-iconic long black scarf. When we got to the ring, he walked towards ring announcer JoJo and took a microphone—which led to yet another massive pop. Manila was going to be treated to a classic Jericho promo.
    The next ten or so minutes was Chris Jericho delivering a masterpiece of a live event promo, lambasting the crowd, insulting the audience, and making local news by offending many of my thin-skinned countrymen
    It was hilarious and it was riveting, and we were eating off the palm of his hand, drinking in the Gift of “The Greatest Gago of All Time."
    When Roman Reigns’ music hit, the place exploded yet again in a mixture of cheers and jeers—kind of like a Cena Lite, without the dueling chants. It was loud, but it wasn’t thunderous Cena loud. Reigns was well on his way to John Cena-like transcendence, but his Wellness Policy violation did him in. I don’t think he has completely recovered yet, and the crowd response showed it. Many people loved and hated Roman—but many more people loved and hated Jericho more intensely.
    The match between them was an entertaining affair, featuring silliness in the beginning (the crowd chanted “You deserve(d) it!” at Jericho after Reigns wiped his underarms with his scarf and threw it in his face), intense back-and-forth action (including both wrestlers’ greatest hits: Lionsaults, Samoan drops, flying crossbody blocks, et cetera), and a red-hot finishing sequence (Jericho arrogantly slaps Reigns repeatedly, until Reigns slaps him back, leading to a quick finisher reversal sequence which ended with a massive spear). When Reigns went for the pin, the entire crowd counted along to three with the referee, and celebrated the decisive victory. 
    Well, of course.
    Smarks can poop all over Roman Reigns as much as they like, but I can attest that it was his in-ring work that organically turned the tide and made everyone in the building root for him. Vince and company might just be right about Roman Reigns—he just needs to stay out of trouble, legitimate or otherwise. He’s as close to a sure thing as they have in the entire roster. It’s just that there’s a locker room full of individuals who might just be even more determined to kick down the door of opportunity and become The Guy That The Show is Built Around.

    Triple Threat Match for the WWE Universal Championship: Kevin Owens (c) vs. Seth Rollins vs. Sami Zayn

    You know, like these three.
    Both Seth Rollins and Sami Zayn entered to thunderous ovation. Zayn’s entrance even roused the crowd to sing along to his music, as all audiences should. But man, when Kevin Owens’ music started, time stopped for me. 
    The narrative of his rise has been well documented in the past two weeks, but it demands to be retold yet again. Here was a guy who was thoroughly underestimated and simply did not look the part, but through sheer talent and an incredible body of work over the years, he kicked and clawed and climbed his way to the top of the mountain. Here was a guy who was a character actor, long considered to be one of the best players in the chorus, but he was never supposed to be the romantic lead—and now he owns the whole damn show.
    Here was a guy who I considered my personal favorite artistic performer of any sort, and now he is the damn champion, and now he is in the very same building that I am in.
    Time stopped for me.
    The King.
    Kevin Owens entered the ring, Universal Title and ten thousand hearts in his hand. Beside and behind him were two of the very best in-ring performers of any generation. The three artists were going to dance the dance of their lives, in the middle of a little city in my little country, and I was breathing the same air as them. Euphoria settled, and the match hadn’t even started.
    The bell rang, and time started moving again. 
    Owens bailed out of the ring twice. Maybe thrice. He kept doing this until Seth Rollins hit a gorgeous somersault suicide dive to the outside, right on Owens’ face.
    The three performers then proceeded to put on what might be the greatest wrestling match that has ever taken place in the Philippines. That’s no hyperbole—they seriously did perform a hard-hitting, perfectly timed, and (most importantly) logical athletic contest. The wrestlers would dance in twos while the third would lay hurt outside, changing places so smoothly, so seamlessly. Both Seth Rollins and Sami Zayn hit their variations on the somersault suicide dive on Owens, and all three engaged in a beautiful series of reversals leading to the climax. 
    What an exciting image, in and out of context.
    Of particular note was Owens’ attempt at a Swanton, Seth Rollins’ frog splash, a combination powerbomb and superplex with all three men, and superkick after superkick after superkick. In the end, Kevin Owens found himself at the right place and the right time, and hit the pop-up powerbomb on his eternal rival. 1, 2, 3. Kevin Owens retains.
    I felt humbled by what I had just witnessed, and gave all three a standing ovation along with many in the crowd. 
    Still the man.
    Owens, of course, being Owens, decided to gloat some more. He tried to hit another powerbomb on Sami Zayn, but Seth Rollins interrupted the attack at the very last second. Rollins and Zayn then proceeded hit the Helluva Kick and the Pedigree on the arrogant champion. 
    As Kevin Owens limped away to the back, Seth Rollins and Sami Zayn stood awkwardly together in the ring. Seth seemed to wrestle as a protagonist, who fought harder and better as he inspired the crowd’s support—but he had not yet legitimately switched moral alignments (or “turned face," in wrestling parlance). This seemed like the moment it would happen. Eternal good guy Sami Zayn offered his hand to the guy who, just weeks ago, gloated about nearly injuring his ankle. Rollins hesitated and teased, tugging at the heartstrings of the enraptured crowd. Finally, he shook his hand, cementing his face turn, and walked to the back as a hero. Sami Zayn remained in the ring, his music started playing, and he celebrated as the crowd sang along to his theme to close the show.
    It was an unforgettable moment on top of a packed three hours of unforgettable moments, and each one built on each other until it hit a fever pitch. WWE Manila was not merely a series of random moments, but a finely curated, tastefully directed experience that achieved Vince McMahon’s ultimate wrestling goal: essentially the entire Philippine wrestling fan community went home that night with smiles on their faces. 
    I know that the smile still hasn’t worn off on mine.


    Mikey Llorin is a Managing Editor of Smark Henry, as well as a teacher, performer, events host, and critic. Mikey writes The Critical, which covers aspects of wrestling through the lens of literary/cultural criticism. He enjoys WWE, NXT, and Lucha Underground, and he has set his critical eye on the Philippine wrestling scene. 

    Photo credits: WWE.com

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    Item Reviewed: WWE Live Manila (9/9/16): The Smark Henry Review Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Mikey Llorin
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