It was a long time coming but I finally managed to attend my first live PROGRESS show at Alexandra Palace on Sunday, a mere 95 shows in. And no, I did not volunteer myself for Jim Smallman’s pre-show newbie roast. Even if it was one of his last.
I came into the Still Chasing event curious, not just towards the famed live experience PROGRESS has to offer but towards where the company goes next. The arrangement with WWE and NXT UK compromises some of the ‘punk rock’ tone that made them stand above the rest of the indy scene. Recent shows and the obligatory wrestling angles on social media suggest either significant change or a storyline that will adequately reflect the company’s real life situation is forthcoming. But, first and foremost, was Chapter 95 any good?
Pre-show tag team match: The Knucklelockers (Jordon Breaks & Darrell Allen) defeated The NIC (Charlie Carter & Oisin Delaney)
There really aren’t enough tag teams dressed alike, using collective names (that weren’t appointed by word-mergers online) and making their entrance as a unit. That’s not to say the concept is dead, but it’s certainly still a welcome sight when a show begins with two such entities. You could see the stabilizers from a mile off on this bout, but the pre-show is essentially the place for such endeavours. Perfectly acceptable first-beer action.
PROGRESS Tag Team Championships: Champions Grizzled Young Veterans (James Drake & Zack Gibson) vs Aussie Open (Mark Davis & Kyle Fletcher)
BritWres diehards and casuals alike are all by now well aware of Gibson’s sterling reputation as a wrestling character. That continued in his excellent pre-match delivery, punctated for comedic effect by Drake’s harmonica. Gibson really maximises the grating nature of his vernacular and projects his promos like a star, and if WWE’s main roster PPVs still had any sense of structure at all, he would be a shoo-in for a call-up and successful run in the first match akin to the likes of Road Dogg, Edge and Christian and more before him.
BUT WAIT! Scotty Davis won a title opportunity in the Natural Progression Series the previous day and wants in. His partner: Jordan Devlin!
Triple Threat Match For The PROGRESS Tag Team Championships: Jordan Devlin & Scotty Davis defeated Grizzled Young Veterans (James Drake & Zack Gibson) and Aussie Open (Mark Davis & Kyle Fletcher)
Right, cards on the table: I’m beyond tired of the ‘cashing in’ trope in wrestling, and it’s a particularly bad look on PROGRESS if they really want to maintain their independent vibe, considering how much their benefactors lean on lazy crutches such as that. Fortunately, it didn’t damage the main show opener. All six men continued their stellar work as of late in this action-packed melee, and the eventual harmonisation of the scheduled duos against the gatecrashers was a solid and believable subplot that led us nicely to the eventual outcome.
With Aussie Open’s future up in the air, the result also gives us a clear programme between the new and ex-titleholders, even if the apparent groundwork of all the ‘conspiracy’ tweets regarding the synergy of the PROGRESS and NXT UK titles has been put on the backburner by the Grizzled Young Veterans’ recent misfortune (more on that later).
Pete Dunne defeated Cara Noir
Dunne, unsurprisingly, received a star’s reception. Even more impressive was that the unveiling of Noir as his mystery opponent was just as well received. It was clear that the Ally Pally crowd could be divided into three subcategories: those well-versed in Noir’s work, those familiar with the name via online buzz and those who were getting their absolute first glimpse. As he slowly approached the ring and his name gradually appeared on the big screen, you could hear each of the three react at different stages of the ringwalk before dovetailing prior to the opening bell.
The match was good. Very good, in fact, aside from a couple of cock-ups. My biggest issue with the bout, however, was that there was far too much Pete Dunne. At a point in time where PROGRESS would really benefit from creating new stars, it would have been wise to showcase Noir a lot more in the contest before his inevitable Bitter End. It evoked pinings for the halcyon days of Ric Flair travelling the world, making every regional headliner look like a million bucks before folding them up out of the corner and sticking both feet on the ropes.
That Palace crowd was ready for more Cara and less of the guy who admitted post-match that he won’t be around for a little while, and one would like to believe we could have had what we wanted without defying the assumed mandate that the NXT star could not lose to the up-and-comer. It makes you wonder if any such prerequisites go beyond just the match result.
Moustache Mountain (Trent Seven & Tyler Bate) defeated The Limitless Bros (Keith Lee & Matt Riddle)
For me, this was the best match on the card. Regardless of anyone’s own distribution of snowflakes across Chapter 95, this light-hearted duos bout ticked every box assigned to it. The character work and comedic touches kept the crowd in their collective palms throughout, and Trent’s Ricky Morton to Tyler’s Robert Gibson never ceases to crack a smile.
They worked nicely to a big finish – Seven’s impressive Burning Hammer (or at least, the WWE version of one) to the huge Lee – before the inevitable make-nice between the four babyface performers.
PROGRESS Women’s Championship Match: Meiko Satomura defeated Champion Jordynne Grace
The pre-match hype video featured defending champion Grace complaining that she lacked worthy competition, which is often code for a lack of depth in any given division whether it be personnel or creativity. On paper, Satomura was a great guest to remedy this. Unfortunately, the two proceeded to go out there and trade a bunch of moves in what initially fell way short of their high standards.
Via a quirk of fate, a scary head drop ended up leading to a rise in the crowd’s interest (barring of course that one fan at every show who thinks they are auditioning with their outbursts who took advantage of the lack of noise to shout stuff every five seconds) and for the closing stretch, Jordynne and Meiko remembered their perfect dynamic of beloved underdog and bullying bruiser. The closing stretch was, as a result, great stuff. And Satomura’s crowning moment was really well-received. It’s such a shame that their Act Three was let down by the action before it.
Rumble match: Paul Robinson defeated Chakara, Charli Evans, Chief Deputy Dunne, Chris Brookes, Chris Roberts, Chuck Mambo, Connor Mills, Dani Luna, Dan Moloney, Danny Duggan, Eddie Kingston, Fraser Thomas, Gene Munny, Ilja Dragunov, Jonathan Gresham, Los Federales Santos Jr, Mike Bailey, Millie McKenzie, NIWA, Roy Johnson, Session Moth Martina, Sid Scala, Spike Trivet, Sugar Dunkerton, The OJMO, TK Cooper, Travis Banks, VACANT and William Eaver to become the first-ever PROGRESS Proteus Champion.
This was the first variation of the seminal Royal Rumble concept to appear in a PROGRESS ring. History has taught us that it’s almost impossible to produce a bad Rumble, and this was no exception. PROGRESS wove several storylines, developments and styles into this one match. And it was entertaining. But it was also the catalyst for a headache or two.
I’m not one for the beyond-tedious debate in the online wrestling community needlessly pitting fans of ‘realistic old-fashioned’ rasslin’ against the comic book-esque realms of absurd. I honestly have time for both sides of the spectrum, and anything in between. But consistency appears to be my line in the sand. When one company (or in this case, one match) drifts from one extreme to the other without stopping for air, it takes me out of ‘the zone’. It’s one of the things stopping IMPACT Wrestling from continuing their post-Dixie renaissance. And it’s a trap a Rumble match can easily fall into, especially when any given spectator isn’t intimately familiar and attached to the people and/or storylines involved. The involvement of a referee, ‘52-time World champion’ VACANT and a random dance-off all went down well live. But they overshadowed much of the other action.
Robinson, whose heel work has been stellar and who embarked on a war of words with the show’s top protagonist David Starr in the aforementioned ‘independence vs the machine’ conflict hinted at for some time, went coast-to-coast and last eliminated the unpopular Duggan to seemingly complete a face turn. The new championship allows the holder to decide the stipulations of every title match, and the idea has a lot of potential, no doubt. Defending champions can, erm, champion their trademark match. Cowardly heels could use the power to shaft contenders at every turn until their comeuppance finally arrives. We could even see someone use the creative license to craft their own bespoke speciality.
PROGRESS Unified World Championship: Champion WALTER vs David Starr
I spent as much time as possible reflecting upon the highly-anticipated main event. I tried to take into account the fact we had all been watching wrestling for close to five hours before those final ringwalks, that it’s tough to follow such a wild and varied gimmick match like the Rumble, that the two participants had already had their storyline undercut by the events of the tag title match and said Rumble. But nothing could change my mind, unfortunately. WALTER vs David Starr just wasn’t good.
The incumbent launched a blindside attack before half of the crowd could even get their (planted) Unionize placards up. He immediately went for a powerbomb, only to have it reversed to a Yoshi Tonic for a hot near fall so early on. WALTER’s determination to powerbomb Starr became the closest thing to a cohesive subplot: it was clear that the Austrian behemoth felt one powerbomb would finish his challenger, no matter when he pulled it off. Starr responded by countering each attempt in a different way, showing how ready he was (and how much he feared falling victim to it).
Sounds pretty solid, right? One problem: WALTER connected with a powerbomb halfway through this narrative. On the outside, into the edge of the apron. And it merely formed one brick in the wall of the heel’s heat segment. Non-wrestlers are often shamed if they attempt to criticise the artistic process of the talent, but no clapback in the world will stop me from feeling deeply uncomfortable and a little pissed off when someone takes such a dangerous bump in such a meaningless manner, especially when it renders the best part of their work hopelessly moot.
In general, I’ve struggled to be as into WALTER as most fans are. I think he is a great wrestler, but something about his deal is off. Does he sell too much for a big man? Should he be selling in a more intelligent manner, picking his moments if you will? Is it his ring presence in general? I honestly don’t know, but what should be the next Big Van Vader instead comes across as just another guy, albeit bigger and with obvious talent.
And this was my first live experience of a babyface Starr, but with the ‘independence’ storyline coming across as so stop-start there is little to see outside of the guy who was an obnoxious heel most other places. I never rated his heel work, either. It’s like Steve Corino and Chris Jericho had a lovechild in the 2000s that inherited their exact mannerisms and gimmicks from that fateful, passionate night in a Marriott on the road somewhere. But there’s no denying just how good a performer he is.
Not many on the indy scene can wrestle AND convey emotion at the same time as well as Starr, and anyone who has stepped between the ropes will testify that it isn’t easy. On this night, we didn’t get enough of an opportunity to see that. Thanks in part to the spoiled psychology. Thanks in part to the relative discomfort both men seemed to have in their respective roles. And thanks especially to THAT finish.
Triple Threat Match For The PROGRESS Unified World Championship: Eddie Dennis (w/Mark Andrews) defeated David Starr and WALTER
Do you recall me complaining about the late addition of a third team in the tag title match? Now, imagine someone running that tired trope a second time in the same show. Hey presto! You have a suitable ending to a dour and frustrating main event.
It’s nice that the contract from Hello Wembley was paid off, just in the nick of time. And there’s certainly potential to heel duo Dennis and Andrews running roughshod on future shows – especially if it can somehow bring the teased NXT: UK infiltration storyline back into focus. But eight matches spanning five hours culminating in a regurgitated angle of a main event left me feeling like I picked the wrong show to attend live for the first time.
Chapter 95 could well be remembered as the show that kick-started a great 96, 97, 98 and beyond. But as a standalone effort it left a lot to be desired. Worse, it was a prime example of what many fear about PROGRESS now that is well and truly a WWE feeder group.
The company is at a crossroads, and needs to shit or get off the pot: do they want to rediscover their roots and truly be ‘punk rock’ once again? Or do they want to fully embrace their status as a satellite, as Rev Pro have beneath New Japan? They can thrive in either scenario, but risk alienating a lot of people if they keep pretending they can be both at the same time.
Still Chasing wasn’t without its bright spots, and featured plenty of talent that can step up to be the next wave of stars to make WWE impulsively yell “Mine!”. But on this day, I felt like someone who followed the buzz of Extreme Championship Wrestling to buying a ticket… in 2000. The old spirit of PROGRESS was likely there, somewhere, in amongst the mixed metaphors and identity crisis symptoms on display at Ally Pally. And one can only hope that Smallman’s impending departure doesn’t ultimately resemble that time Paul Heyman showed up at the RAW announce desk out of the blue.