If there were empty seats in the Royal Albert Hall on tonight’s first night of the 2018 WWE UK Championship Tournament you wouldn’t have known it, with an enthused crowd filling out the venerable venue and making their voices heard from the moment the show went on air.
Anticipation in certain quarters was high heading into tonight, as WWE sought to build upon their 2017 success in the British Isles with another powerhouse demonstration of the best of British talent, and the evening’s opening contest between 205 Live regular Jack Gallagher and Liverpool’s self-proclaimed number one Zack Gibson fought hard to reach that high standard.
Set against a backdrop of the same football (that’s soccer to you international types) atmosphere that pervaded the entire evening, Gallagher and Gibson’s opening Quarter final contest was the perfect introduction to the newest UK division effort, mixing a World of Sport style focus on ground grappling and patient pacing with the long-since normalised North American melodramatic power game. Driven by psychology, Gibson – playing up to his status of reviled villain made so clear by the wonderful pantomime atmosphere wrought by a willing audience – focussed on Gallagher’s arm, eventually capping their evolving story off with what was to this writer a surprising tap out victory. Its at-times innovative use of space and limb alike capped off a tremendous curtain jerker that saw fit to challenge the rest of the evening’s roster to “follow that,” as they say.
It was down to Dave Mastiff and Joe Coffey to do just that, and wisely the two superheavyweights saw fit to stick to what JR would claim brought them to the dance: their size. The battle of behemoths started in enthralling fashion all its own, pursuing a shock and awe tactic that very simply, very logically saw the two walking tanks collide time and again, body smashing against body in a demolition derby that later gave way to some eye-widening technical displays of submissions and suplexes and more besides. Their earth-shuddering clash impressed with feats of unlikely athleticism to be sure, but it was the simple sense of one-upmanship – of posturing ego snarling underneath the surface – that proved to be the secret weapon of their deceptively character-driven effort.
King of the Mods Flash Morgan Webster wrestled Finn Bálor protégée Jordan Devlin in a physically much smaller match, though the creativity was arguably considerably larger in scope and started with Devlin – the surprise number two heel to emerge from the inaugural tournament from Blackpool last year – talking of unfinished business in his talking head segment prior to the two competitors making their entrance.
Smirking, slapping and sneering his way through the early stages of the contest, Devlin, who entered with fresh swagger and menacing new music, revealed himself early as one of the most detestable competitors in the field. His early mind-games found themselves coming up short in skewing Webster’s focus, however, with the King of Mods proving a game opponent capable of compiling unexpected offensive combinations that repeatedly got the better of the ‘Demon Spawn’ Devlin. Feeling the satisfaction of Devlin getting his ignominious just desserts in those moments speaks to the man’s emerging talent as a character performer.
Arguably a match that watched as a little too choreographed, Webster eventually picked up the win thanks to his high flying offence – a mild disappointment for this fan, as I feel it is Devlin who demonstrated the greater potential with his nuanced character work, and whom I most look forward to seeing again.
The Quarter Finals came to a conclusion with a contest wrestled between New Zealand’s Travis Banks, the so-called Kiwi Buzzsaw, and Ashton Smith – a talent perhaps most succinctly described as ‘Brit-ochet.’
At least, that tongue-in-cheek nickname was the impression left on me as a first time viewer of the similarly athletic competitor who seemed to strive for not entirely dissimilar physical presence – though that he seems a talent still mastering the craft felt self-evident. Perhaps that was why it was Banks who emerged the deserving victor. Seeing the Kiwi Buzzsaw stalk Smith about the ring, growling in feral fashion as he tortured his acrobatic opponent with precision strikes of myriad variety, proved a compelling enough visual to not only have me punch the air with his win but immediately fill my head with daydreams of an animalistically-charged encounter between Banks and North America NXT’s Kyle O’Reilly.
Mae Young Classic veteran Toni Storm, Lisbon’s Killer Kelly and Isla Dawn from north of Hardian’s Wall were provided their opportunity to show the world what the talent among women’s wrestling across the globe can do as they vied for a shot at Shayna Baszler’s NXT Women’s Championship. Perhaps coming up short of the quality of the best of women’s wrestling in WWE today, it was by no means a shoddy effort from the three hungry competitors involved, with the story being its winner – Storm was a run-away success in the 2017 Classic, and her now pending confrontation with Baszler promises to be an enrapturing showdown.
A brief pause in the action then saw Triple H and Johnny Saint together announce the exciting news many of us UK WWE fans have waited a long time to hear – we’re getting our own show! The details of this new WWE NXT UK show remain relatively sketchy, beyond some initial taping dates and its three constituent championship divisions, but that alone is enough to get many of us UK WWE fans buzzing about our short-term future!
Aggression came to define the opening of the Semi-Finals of the 2018 UK Title Tournament as Zack Gibson rattled Flash Morgan Webster with a mocking, overly-aggressive handshake that fed into an explosive start from the ‘Modfather,’ who quickly unleashed the full force of his fury in retaliation. Gibson was able to weather that storm and carve out an advantage, and while the crowd’s antics got under Webster’s skin long enough to provide Webster a lifeline, the aerial antics of the King of Mods came to bite him – one brutal counter on the outside later and Gibson picked up a second, even more convincing submission victory. Considering the authority of Gibson’s second win, it is clear the company see something in him and it would be next to impossible not to agree with them. His screen presence and ring game make for instantly compelling watches.
Joe Coffey vs. Zack Gibson started with the larger man revealing his tell as he clutched the ribs injured in his titanic battle with Dave Mastiff. Not that there was any hesitation on the part of Coffey, who eagerly embraced the fight offered by the martially precise Banks in what revealed itself to be the stiffest, most physical match of the night thus far, aided further by a hot split in crowd support, watching like a fight between a jaguar and a grizzly. Coffey demonstrated just how much he has to offer as a performer – his mixed display even parts size, speed and technical skill was almost British Bulldog-like in its quality – but the wiry guile of Banks saw arguably the better placed opponent for already confirmed finalist Zack Gibson advance onward.
An ill-willed beat down on Banks at the hands of an irate Coffey after the match set up as classical a story as you could want in a pro wrestling tournament – Banks heading in with an injured arm against a brutally physical villain whose submission finish just so happens to target…the arm. Sometimes the simple ideas are the best.
The evening’s marquee match of the 2018 UK Title Tournament’s first night saw Moustache Mountain and reigning UK Champion Pete Dunne take on North America NXT’s Undisputed Era. Not only were British Strong Style carrying the advantage of fighting on home turf, so too did they benefit from their veteran experience as partners and as competitors in the inaugural UK Title Tournament early last year. They knew the country, they knew each other and they knew the atmosphere – this was theirs to lose.
This was a story of back street British grit against Vegas Strip American slick, staged before an electric crowd crackling with a main event big fight atmosphere, featuring two teams relishing their respective roles in both the big picture and individual detail. Anchored around the violently angry feud between Roddy Strong and Pete Dunne, the frenetic pacing, creative set pieces and blistering action earned a mid-match standing ovation that proved this a six-man tag the quality of which we perhaps haven’t seen since the earliest glory days of the vaunted Shield.
Let there be no more debate: British Strong Style are pure pound sterling for WWE.
Some gratuitously glad-handing comments from Shawn Michaels later (would it even be a WWE show if it isn’t needlessly padded out for no apparent reason?!), it was the Grand Final of the 2018 UK Title Tournament that was granted main event honours tonight. We had already seen enough to know that Zack Gibson vs. Travis Banks was going to be wince-inducing in its physicality – a dangerous prospect for the eventual winner, considering their ‘reward’ is to wrestle with Pete Dunne tomorrow night – and it lived up to that promise.
Banks struck an all-business disposition at the beginning, eventuating in forcing Gibson to become even more brutally resourceful than ever before. Wrestled self-consciously in a main event style, affecting the steady pace and shifting narrative that the best headlining matches tend to, it came to follow the modern line of sucking the live crowd into a hysterical frenzy with a hefty dose of narrative twists and false finish that eventually saw Gibson successfully tear off the grisly Banks’ arm and advance to challenge Dunne tomorrow night.
From the hot opening match to the final closer, there was little doubt that Gibson was the stand-out performer of the 2018 UK Title Tournament, and achieved that status in not dissimilar fashion to the way Pete Dunne did last year. A villain truly reviled by the live audience and dangerously capable between the ropes, there’s little doubt, I believe, that the right man walked out victorious this evening.
Now our attentions turn to tomorrow night, and whether or not Gibson topples the Bruiserweight for the UK gold or, instead, meets his match. And as fun as tonight has been, the two hour thirty minute run-time whizzing by, tomorrow’s card promises to be even better.
My name is Samuel ‘Plan and this was my reaction to night one of the 2018 UK Title Tournament.
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