A stacked card marks PROGRESS Wrestling’s return up north to Manchester for the first time since May, this time returning to its usual home-from-home in the form of the O2 Ritz – only a two- and-a-half hour journey from my home in North Wales as opposed to the four hours that lies between me and the Electric Ballroom. Having decided to attend on a whim, I once again struck gold on Twickets and secured three front row tickets for myself and my friends Innes and Steven.
With this being my first venture to the Ritz, first impressions were less than favourable. A failure in the venue’s ticketing system meant having to scan through a boatload of spam email to find the name of the original buyer of the tickets, which was less than ideal. However, once inside, things started to look up.
Jim Smallman’s opening speech was the first indication of how well the venue’s acoustics encapsulated such a lively crowd. I’m not sure if this was a one-off, but this is definitely one of the most rabid crowd I have ever been a part of. I would even compare the atmosphere to that of the inaugural WWE United Kingdom Championship Tournament at the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool, an event that I will always hold in high regard.
Kicking off the in-ring action was Eddie Dennis taking on ‘Speedball’ Mike Bailey in what was the latest addition to the card, but definitely not one to sleep on. Going into this match, I had no inkling of what to expect from Bailey, having not seen any of his previous work. Playing on Dennis’ height and reach advantage, the first half of the match consisted of Speedball’s evasive techniques that he made look totally effortless with the ease of which he utilises them. After he hit his opponent with what I can only describe as a ‘Corkscrew Shooting Star Press’, the match started to take a turn into a more strike-heavy affair. What Bailey lacked in height and reach was compensated for in his martial arts background that made a striking battle a level playing field. After showcasing one of his signature 450-knee-stomp, Bailey went for the pinfall for only a two- count, before heading up to the top rope for a second attempt, but to no avail. Dennis moved out of the way before connecting with his patented Next Stop Driver to pick up the one-two-three for the Welshman. Both competitors received a standing ovation from the Manchester crowd, and rightly so. Speedball definitely impressed me with his speed and accuracy, whilst Dennis played his role perfectly throughout the contest.
Another PROGRESS debut saw Manchester’s own Lana Austin take on Isla Dawn, the latter of which impressed me at her last showing at the Ballroom against Millie McKenzie. Surprisingly, this was not my first exposure to Austin, as she competed against Su Yung at the Impact vs. UK show held at last September’s Wrestling MediaCon, in what I remember to be quite a well-received match. The crowd were definitely in favour of their hometown representative in this case, even booing Isla Dawn which I thought was a tad unnecessary. This bout offered a more mat-based contest to the opening match, which I think played to the strengths of both women and helped to break up the card on what was looking to be a strike-heavy card. As firmly as I am on the Isla Dawn hype train, I wouldn’t say I enjoyed this more than her match with McKenzie last month, but it definitely showed that Austin can hold her own in the PROGRESS women’s division and I don’t think I’d be alone in welcoming her back. A victory for Dawn sees her as a potential world title contender in my eyes, and I certainly hope to see her as a mainstay at the top end of the women’s division.
Next up, we had what was undoubtedly the match of the night, as the ‘Killer Import’ Jordan Devlin faced off against rising star Chris Ridgeway. Opening with some shoot-style grappling that was right up my alley, the match quickly progressed to Ridgeway’s stiff strikes and Devlin’s impeccable power offence including multiple piledriver variations, with his signature package piledriver being the one to pick up the victory for the Irishman after a very hard fought contest that elicited a well-earned standing ovation from the crowd, both during and after the match. After the match, Paul Robinson came out to call out Ridgeway who laid in the corner in defeat. Calling him a ‘pretty boy’ amongst other things, with the basis of his argument being that Ridgeway does not live up to his name of being ‘hard as fuck’, something Robinson prides himself on. I feel like Chris Ridgeway has been on the cusp of breaking out for a long time, and a long-term programme like what seems to be on the horizon is exactly what he needs in my opinion, as he’s certainly showed
his impressive capability in the ring against the likes of Drew Parker and Mark Davis in the Natural Progression Series, and the likes of Kushida amongst others in Revolution Pro Wrestling’s British J Cup tournament.
To my surprise, Devlin vs. Ridgeway was followed by another match that promised to be a barnstormer as David Starr went toe-to-toe with the highly-anticipated return of Ilja Dragunov who came up short at his big money fight with Pete Dunne at Wembley. This was nothing short of being absolutely sensational, despite having to follow such high-octane action. The Zar has a presence about him that is completely unmatched by anyone else and is unique to him – something that translates much more when watching him live in the building than it does on the VOD. The match featured stiff lariats and wince-inducing chops that sent clouds of misty sweat into the rafters in-between textbook grappling that Starr is known for. It only took a couple of minutes for me to realise that The Jewish Canon is pound-for-pound one of the hardest hitters in the game – a trait that seems to be consistently overlooked due to his incredible grappling ability that is always a pleasure to witness. Despite giving it their all, the match ended in a double- disqualification after the ‘Kiwi Buzzsaw’ showed up to beat down both men. Sporting some new ring attire, Banks cemented himself back at the top of the pecking order, creating the mouthwatering prospect of facing Dragunov and Starr in the near future – a good thought with which to close out the first half.
After the interval was spent apologising to Travis Banks in person for turning on him, the show was underway again, kicking off the second half with Aussie Open defending the PROGRESS Tag Team Championship against the ‘Calamari Thatch Kings’ consisting of Chris Brookes and Timothy Thatcher. The crowd was noticeably quieter at this point, which I think hurt the first half of the match which consisted of CTK controlling the match before Aussie Open’s comeback started to reignite the crowd with Fletcher’s outside dives. In contrast to the last chapter, it was the Aussie Arrow that secured the pinfall victory to retain the titles this time, through the questionable means of a roll-up pin on Chris Brookes, who himself had attempted the same thing on Fletcher throughout the contest. It was a fun match that made both teams look good, despite not quite shifting into the same gear as the triple threat at the Ballroom last month.
On to Trent Seven’s PROGRESS Atlas Championship Open Challenge, which was quite a spectacle in its own right. With WWE in town, the possibilities for Trent’s challenger were discussed amongst the fans more than usual, especially with it being known that Mikey Whiplash was set to face a mystery WWE opponent at ICW on the same night. Answering the challenge was Liverpool’s No. 1 Zack Gibson, which I found surprising as Seven had defended the Atlas Title against Gibson on Friday night at the WWE Live event in Brighton. The difference this time was that Trent retained the title in a mere five seconds with a crossbody, leading to a thunderous reaction from those in attendance who all shot up to their feet in unison, still not having fathomed what had just happened. PROGRESS co-owner Glen Joseph came running down to ringside after the match holding a stopwatch that showed the match as finishing in exactly five seconds, when the crowd started chanting “Five! Five! Five!” – a wonderful callback to when Seven had lost to Matt Riddle in six seconds at SSS16 two years ago.
After the match, James Drake seemed embarrassed by his teammate, with both men exchanging anger-fuelled shoves leaving Gibson sitting in the ring. It seems tensions are starting to build between the Grizzled Young Veterans.
Time for the main event. Reigning PROGRESS World Champion WALTER vs. #1 Contender Mark Haskins, accompanied to the ring by his wife Vicky. Although I don’t think many people expected Haskins to walk away with the gold, everyone was talking about how good this match was going to be, and it certainly delivered. With the champion controlling the early stages, Haskins found an opening to hit a brutal-looking double-stomp from the top rope before wrenching in the Sharpshooter that WALTER reversed into a rear-naked choke through the utilisation of his massive core-strength advantage. The leader of RingKampf proceeded to hit the crowd-favourite Haskins with a Tombstone Piledriver which only obtained a two-count. Frustrated, WALTER positioned Haskins for the Fire Thunder Driver to retain the title after one hell of a hard fought battle that saw Haskins become inches away from a second world title reign on multiple occasions.
This match did exactly what it said on the tin. Haskins evading WALTER’s power offence and strong strikes with the intense agility that only he can bring was a sight to behold. We’re only two title defences into WALTER’s reign and we have already witnessed two outstanding contests with two world class performers in Zack Sabre Jr. and Mark Haskins. If this quality of match becomes a consistency, then the main event scene in PROGRESS right now is in a very healthy place and I cannot wait to see who is next to take the challenge to the Ring General.
Overall, Chapter 78 is one of the best wrestling shows that I have ever attended. The electric atmosphere that the Ritz provided meant that there was not a single dead match on the card and I’m certainly looking forward to returning to the venue next month. Lana Austin is a good addition to the growing women’s division and the tension between the Grizzled Young Veterans can only lead to an exciting storyline.
The standout performer in my opinion Chris Ridgeway who I am now very high on after the quality of match that he an Jordan Devlin put on, and signs point towards him becoming a mainstay in PROGRESS which can only result in more standout matches as Ridgeway continues to make a name for himself in British Wrestling.
Chapter 78 completes my live wrestling fix for the time being until the NXT UK tapings in Liverpool at the end of the month, followed by Chapters 80 and 81 in Manchester and Sheffield respectively. You can discuss wrestling and sausage rolls with me on Twitter @DeiOwen. Thank you for reading and I shall be back here on The Indy Corner next month!
– By Dei Owen