Previously on All In: Let’s start off the column with something great. There is no “previously on” ALL IN, because even a year ago, this felt like a complete impossibility. Cody and the Young Bucks teaming up to run a show? Sure, that could work. Cody and the Young Bucks selling out a 10,000-seat arena and booking Okada and Pentagon and Fenix and Rey Mysterio and Chris Jericho and GLACIER on the show? What kind of fever dream am I having?
That’s where we begin with ALL IN. If you’re looking for me to be overly critical and tear it down, I’ll be honest with you … I expected my natural pessimism to bloom and find a bunch of reasons why I didn’t like the thing everybody else liked, but about 45 minutes into the Zero Hour pre-show, I was hooked. Five hours later, I was over the moon. This was the Woodstock of independent wrestling; the love letter to the sport you never thought would come from a bunch of t-shirt salesmen with a popular YouTube channel, and it might’ve ended up being just as fun and important as advertised.
Remember that With Spandex is on Twitter, so follow it. Follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook. You can also follow me on Twitter. We are also t-shirt salesmen, but we’re nowhere near as good at it.
And now, the Best and Worst of ALL IN. Hopefully soon to be known as “ALL IN (2018),” or even better, “ALL IN 1.”
Best: MJF Vs. Matt Cross
This one came at us unannounced, and while it probably should’ve ended up on Zero Hour to give the main card more time — more on that in a bit — it was a perfectly fine, fun opener.
You know that Honest Trailer for Avengers: Infinity War where Screen Junkies describes it as, “what could be the best movie Marvel’s ever made, but without a doubt is the MOST movie Marvel’s ever made?” That’s MJF to me. The character, to specify. I don’t know if he’s the best heel ever, but he’s certainly the MOST heel ever. He’s every single heel thing a person can do crammed into one dude, whether it works or makes sense or not, just relentlessly. He’s wearing a scarf! You hate scarves, probably! He’s going full-tilt heel before he’s even out of the entrance shadows, and also the announcer mentions that he’s a heel, and also the referee has to stop and show everyone that he’s very heel, and he has to stop between moves to look at us in the eye and tell us HELLO, I AM THE HEEL. It works. One day he’s going to add a couple of dimensions and probably be everybody’s favorite wrestler.
For a match happening unannounced with no story behind it and no reason for it to exist, that’s probably the best kind of guy to put in the spot. If you put it on a show with stories, it’s … well, I was going to type a hypothetical, but it’s Kona Reeves, I think. Plus, he’s going up against Matt Cross, who is universally liked in that, “hey, it’s Matt Cross,” kind of way. It’s why Son of Havoc randomly became the most over dude on Lucha Underground. You’re just instinctively like, “yeah, THIS guy!” So yeah, total lay-up on the opener.
Best: Great Value Batman Once Again Proves He Should Be Doing This For A Living
We’re all in agreement that Stephen Amell’s a better pro wrestler than he is an actor, right? No shade on his acting, because CW super hero shows and all of their characters all go exactly one speed forever, but he’s such a natural at this it’s hard to even think of him as a TV guy. He just commits to this, all of it, and isn’t just going to wrestle a match with you. He’s not just going to wrestle a GOOD match with you, he’s going to dive off the top rope to the floor and go through a table.
Every time he gets in there he ups the ante, and the next time we see him he’s probably going to be diving off a steel cage, possibly through more tables, possibly while they’re on fire.
And for real, it goes without saying that Christopher Daniels could get in the ring with a sack of potatoes and get a pretty good match out of it. Not to call Amell potatoes, but the most damning criticism I’ve ever read about Daniels is that he’s too perfect, and that (Nitro debut aside) everything he does looks like a pre-rendered animation from a video game. It’s all effortless and perfect, even when it’s wacky and complicated, whether he’s wrestling a serious 30-minute championship match or dancing with a plate of Indian food on his head. I mean, whether he’s wrestling a championship match or HIS GOOD FRIEND is dancing with food on his head. He’s the most reliable performer I think I’ve ever seen in my lifetime of watching wrestling, and when he’s 75 years old he’s going to look exactly like he does now and still be able to do all the moves he does right now exactly the same way. He’s a modern marvel.
Best: Shut Up, I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying
Starrcade ’85: The Gathering forever. The only thing that would’ve made this more heartwarming is if Tessa had continued walking to the ring and in the background, Tully grabbed Magnum in a headlock and started punching him in the eyebrow.
Mostly Best: The Women’s Four-way
While there were a few problems here — mostly the fact that ALL IN only had the one women’s match and crammed everybody into it early in the show, the few moments of uncertain and disjointed action, and that finish, which was definitely not how the match was supposed to end — I can say with certainty that Britt Baker, Tessa Blanchard, Madison Rayne, and Chelsea Green worked their asses off and lived up to the almost unfair pressure, expectations, and hype of being the one women’s match on the show.
It avoided a lot of the common fatal four-way pitfalls, maintaining a pretty steady level of action throughout and not dipping too much into “two people got knocked out outside so it’s down to one-on-one, now switch” late in the match. Tessa Blanchard was obviously the standout here, because Christ, look at her. She looks like she could pick up the other three women in the match and F-5 them at the same time. Everyone played their role well, and the only things I could think of that would’ve improved it would be a real finish, or Stephanie McMahon showing up and taking credit for everything.
Oh, and a quick shout-out to Dr. Britt Baker DMD for walking out to Adam Cole’s old entrance theme, if only to remind us (1) that he’s dead in this universe, and that (2) Undisputed Era’s theme is like four hundred times better. Boom. [writes remainder of column by playing laptop like a guitar]
Best: Maybe We Didn’t Get Starrcade ’85, But We Got Starrcade
I’m going to get in-depth about why FLIPS ARE BAD or whatever later, but I just want to take an entire section to say ALL IN could not have possibly booked a match more completely up my alley than Cody [Rhodes] vs. Nick Aldis.
First of all, thanks to the hard work of Dave Lagana and company, I got to see 10,000 people in an arena losing their mind for the ebb and flow of an NWA World Heavyweight Championship match in 2018. That’s a saintly miracle I (comma we) couldn’t have even imagined a few years ago. Second of all, the most dramatic thing in the entire match was a springboard to the floor featuring Cody getting his consciousness knocked into the Spirit World, and it captivated an audience of people mostly there because they love a YouTube show and the Young Bucks. That rules. Third of all, I couldn’t have juxtaposed those ring entrance entourages any better. Cody (a Rhodes, just to mention that again) shows up with Brandi dressed like Britney Spears, Diamond Dallas Page (!), GLACIER (!!!!!), Tommy Dreamer ( … sure!), and Pharaoh, pro wrestling’s greatest living dog. RIP Pepe McMichael. And then on the other side you’ve got TNA Magnus showing up with Sam Shaw, representing the worst murder storytelling Impact Wrestling has to offer outside of the Hogwarts Express and LAX block parties, the WWE guy who somehow had the worst segment on the Greatest Royal Rumble, and motherfucking Jeff Jarrett. JEFF JARRETT, y’all. He could’ve walked to the ring with the reanimated corpse of Stalin and it would’ve only been slightly worse.
This match ended up feeling like a love letter to the 1980s and the 1990s at the same time. Everything an NWA Heavyweight Championship match should be, really. It was melodramatic as hell, featured unnecessary “managers/valets getting involved to take a bullet for their mans” spots, had a random run-in in the middle to stall for time with Daivari pushing around the referee and getting a Diamond Cutter (note: he still does that better than anybody), and jumped right back into ’80s pathos. It was like a ’90s match stuffed inside of an ’80s match, really. A pro wrestling turducken.
Plus, you can’t help but feel your heart grow three sizes watching a bloody Cody — the Rhodes kid who somehow came out of the womb 50% Dusty Rhodes and 50% Nature Boy Ric Flair — clutching the Ten Pounds of Gold his father held back when he was little. The emotion in his face and his entire body is so palpably real, and karmically it’s this perfect ribbon on the present that was ALL IN for him. He put everything he had into a show, and it all worked. All of it. 10,000 people cheered the most natural heel in wrestling’s championship victory, because he fucking EARNED it, even if he was the dude booking the show. Which is also very Dusty.
I just wish Dusty was still with us to see the moment with his own eyes, but I know he was up in Heaven somewhere doing hilarious WCW Saturday Night commentary for his kid with “6:05” on his boots. I could type “I wish Dusty was still here” about any match, really.
Best: Following Up That Emotional Moment, Here’s A Bunch Of Violence And An Army Of Inflatable Ghost Penises
I’m not even the 100th person to say this, but the biggest miracle of this show is that it existed at all. A bunch of wrestlers made a YouTube show so popular it was able to bring multiple wrestling promotions together under the banner of a tee-shirt store and sell out a 10,000 seat arena in Chicago. And not only that, it was a show that, and this cannot be overstated enough, paid off every single angle on the YouTube show. I can’t even count on WRESTLEMANIA to pay off WWE ANGLES from the MONTH BEFORE WRESTLEMANIA anymore, and these dudes made 120 episodes of a show with an actual, big-box-office payoff. Unbelievable.
I think most of the show still works, even if you don’t keep up with the show or know what to make of the few BTE clips they showed throughout. For example, the give you enough info to know that Adam Page is a crazy guy who may have killed Joey Ryan in a fit of passion, who now wants to kill this other guy named Joey. Then, when it looks like he’s going out on top, he gets his comeuppance in the strangest way possible. Like something out of a Terry Gilliam film, not too far removed from, say, Braun Strowman turning over a parade float full of Mardi Gras mascots and winning the Tag Team Championship with a 10-year old.
It’s even better, though, if you follow the show and know that Adam Page got jealous of everyone loving Joey Ryan’s “dick flip” viral videos, because he thinks HE is the guy with the big dick, so Page exposed Joey as a “penis pretender” who paid off his opponents to take the YouPorn Plex bump. Which of course led to Bar Wrestling, where Page and the Elite confronted Joey, Page got dick-flipped for real, and was made to drink Joey’s pee. So then he became so consumed by his hatred that he developed a split personality, or as Bill Hanstock described it, a “dark passenger,” that murdered Joey Ryan with a telephone. And that he didn’t notice he had a blood stain on his cowboy boots until the other guys pointed it out, which caused him to start being haunted by the boots, which then started talking to him, so he threw them out and went barefoot for the past few months, even at signings and Starrcast, because they were the main evidence linking him to the heinous murder of Famous Dick Wrestler Joey Ryan.
Anyway here’s a Beach Break off a ladder through a table in a match that involved a backflipping valet (who rules) and a barrel from Cracker Barrel.
And of course that leads to the post-match run-in, in which Joey Ryan gets a magical, life-giving boner (or something) (via pre-taped video from the scene of the crime) and reemerges from penile purgatory with a “phalanx of phalluses” to dick-flip Adam Page and have him carried away by inflatable dick druids. Because pro wrestling is the best thing in the world sometimes, and also you should never watch it with family members of people you love, because they might ask you to explain it.
Real quick, I have to make sure to give a Best to the ALL IN commentary team: Pro Wrestling Guerilla paterfamilias Excalibur, Ian Riccaboni (who I affectionately refer to as “Poor Brennan”), and Don Callis, former South African military cult leader. When Dalton Castle joined them for the Zero Hour battle royal, it was as close to perfect as commentary’s gotten on American TV in years. In fact, the only time all night when they weren’t on was during the women’s match, when Mandy Leon and Tenille Dashwood dragged them down.
Seriously, “phalanx of phalluses” came from them, as did describing Marko Stunt jumping on your back as being “like somebody throwing a half-filled backpack at you,” and the lengthy aside about Punishment Martinez’s relative “Encouragement Martinez,” who is actually the meaner of the two. Even if they weren’t as good as they were all night, seeing Excalibur on national television and hearing him say “do the deal,” “nobody kicks out of the falcon arrow,” “TOpe CON-hellO” and the rest on a PPV with a crowd of 10,000 made my heart extremely happy.
Best: Maybe The Best Battle Royal Ever?
I know I usually avoid the pre-show on shows like this, but I’ve got to give it up for the “over budget” battle royal. I mark out for normal, boring-ass punch-in-the-corner battle royals, so this one blew my damn mind. There is SO MUCH going on here, and it’s so perfectly placed and timed that it’s nearly a work of art. The punching and kicking in the corner was never, ever the focus … instead, it provided a kind of “frame” for the center of the ring, allowing people to go in and out of it and get their moment to shine. And seriously, EVERYBODY in this match got a moment to shine. ALL OF THEM.
We got the Best Friends teasing a hug, being interrupted, and finally getting it in. We got Moose vs. the World, and Marko Stunt being a living Toejam & Earl supporting character, and Jordynne Grace hossing up and powerbombing (and eliminating!) Brian Cage. We got Bully Ray stepping in to ruin literally every feel-good moment in the entire match, we got Austin Gunn being a bizarre dick-happy clone of his dad, we got Tommy Dreamer garbage fights spots … hell, they even managed to tie together a serious angle (Flip Gordon’s ongoing quest to get booked for the show) with a COMEDY angle (the Chico El Luchador stuff) by having Gordon dress as Hijo del Chico, get taken out by Bully Ray outside the ring before he even got in, and then doing a combo Santino Royal Rumble/Dean Malenko Ciclope to win the match. I could watch this start to finish five times in a row and not get tired of it, and if I step back from appreciating what actually makes one-on-one pro wrestling matches so great for a second, this might’ve been my favorite thing all night.
Worst: This ROH Title Match
Hey, it’s the “Best and Worst” of ALL IN. I’ve got to “worst” something, right?
Sadly, the battle royal set up the only thing all night I didn’t like, which was the Ring of Honor Championship match getting turned into Comedy Jay Lethal versus the Christian Laettner of this ALL IN Dream Team. Flip Gordon is more or less the drizzling shits, and while Jay Lethal’s good enough to carry pretty much anybody to an entertaining match, he can’t do it with a de-emphasis on what makes him so good, and a HUMONGOUS emphasis on a TNA comedy angle from 11-years ago.
I get that the Lethal stuff also paid off an angle from Being The Elite — Lethal got hit in the head with a door and saw Macho Man’s brother, Lanny Poffo, so now when he gets hit in a particular way he switches personas — but the very last thing a show like ALL IN needed were extended WWE homages and parodies. The Shield powerbomb was bad enough (although it, too, paid off the Bully Ray being a bully angle from Ring of Honor), but Flip Gordon “Hulking up” was comedy wrestling comedy straight out of 2010. And it wasn’t usually funny back then, either. Plus … are we supposed to like Hulk Hogan again?
And the grand bummer of it all is that the ROH Championship is supposed to be, I don’t know, prestigious and important, right? And this is ROH’s match on the show? Seems like a missed opportunity.
Best, But Not My Favorite, Somehow: Kenny Omega Vs. Penta El Zero M
It feels weird to type it even two days later, but the closest I came to disappointment in the big matches on the main card was the “dream match” between Kenny Omega and Penta El Zero M. Pentagon Jr. Pentagon Dark. The pissed-off ninja skeleton, whatever you wanna call him. While it was happening, I went from “oh my God I kinda hate this match” to a more reasoned, “this is the kind of match I’m not a huge fan of, and they gave me a Starrcade-ass NWA Heavyweight Championship match and a battle royal on the show and Okada’s coming up so what am I complaining about.” After thinking about it for a minute, I’ve come around to it, but it’s still (strangely, and unfortunately) not my favorite match on the show.
The thing you have to realize about the match is that ALL IN did the best thing a long wrestling show can do: present a variety of “types” of wrestling, so you’re not watching one thing over and over. WWE and Ring of Honor (and the EVOLVE-esque stuff Ring of Honor gave birth to) are big offenders, as they usually only do one or two things and beat you over the head with them. ROH will have a comedy match here and there, and everything else (and yes, I’m generalizing, but … well, generally) is finisher kick-outs and crazy unearned escalation. WWE does the “good” WWE main-event style match and the throwaway TV match with almost no variation, and your level of enjoyment more or less comes from how much you like the people in the match. Nearly everything on ALL IN was a little different, and that ruled.
So the peace you come to with this match, if you think about it, is that it’s Lucha Superman vs. Puroresu Superman. It’s two perversely overpowered comic-book dudes you want to see throw bombs at each other, and that’s what it is. Kenny throws like 35 V-Triggers, there’s a package piledriver on the apron that barely matters, there’s a BROKEN ARM SPOT that barely matters — Kenny’s just no-selling it like 30 seconds later — and so on. And if you just realize that it’s two Supermen going Superman on each other, like it’s the fight at the end of Man of Steel, it’s great.
Plus there was no way the core four from Being the Elite (or five if you count Page) were going to lose on this show, and also one of the people wrestling is the current IWGP Heavyweight Champion, so of course Omega wins. It’s its own thing, and for that, it’s brilliant. It’s like the one-on-one version of the main event. It’s just guys you like doing stuff you like without any story, so they do it all, and you like it, and that’s great.
p.s. Penta was robbed
p.p.s. forever Team Cody
Best, And Also My Favorite, Somehow: Party Marty Goes Heavyweight
Since his entire ring entrance was about it, I don’t feel bad admitting I was one of those smarky a-holes who saw Kazuchika Okada vs. Marty Scurll announced for the ALL IN card and thought, “really? Marty Scurll?” Don’t get me wrong, Marty’s fantastic at what he does, but this is sixty-five-stars-in-the-Tokyo Dome Okada, against the guy with the wacky umbrella who does that fake-ass chicken-flap finger break thing several times in every match. I know y’all love it, but a guy chickenwinging his arms really hard to smack against his sides and make a loud pop to try to convince us that he’s breaking (or dislocating) people’s fingers over and over with no consequences makes the worst smark alarms in my shitty brain go off. I can suspend disbelief that a guy can turn into a literal dragon or travel through time to fight himself in a wrestling match, but for some reason I draw the line at “he keeps breaking people’s fingers but nobody has broken fingers.”
Anyway, that paragraph is why I shared the (bad) opinion of a lot of people that hey, Okada is Okada, he should be wrestling Pentagon if you’re making a card full of dream matches. Or Rey Mysterio! But what we got not only told the brilliant, card-ready story of the former “Party Marty” wanting to prove himself as a heavyweight against the very best and hardest heavyweight in the damn world, but the story of an indie darling looking to prove that he’s more than an umbrella and some finger-snapping … he’s a fantastic g.d. pro wrestler who can put on the match of the night on a card full of Matches Of The Night.
I don’t think I could’ve loved this more. Okada’s the best wrestler in the world at one specific thing: making you go, “okay, THIS is the finish,” and then something happening that subverts your expectations. “Subverting expectations” is the best thing you can do to pop people who write about wrestling for a living, because we’re tired of even most of the stuff we like because we’ve seen it a billion times over decades and decades of watching wrestling. That’s why (I think) Meltzer loves Okada matches so much. I was hoping we’d get dopey mid-life crisis balloons Okada, but I’m so, so thankful we got the man going FULL RAINMAKER.
There’s a lot of conversation going around about this match going “too long” — about 12 minutes too long, if you believe what you read on the Internet — causing the main-event to get truncated and rushed and Marty to get ousted from the post-show in-ring celebration … but shit, guys, it’s Kazuchika Okada. If you’ve got Okada on your show, let him go as long as he wants. It’s going to be better than the flips, don’t FTR me. Let the painters paint, brother.
Also Best: The Flips
Like I said, the show had a little of everything. The few complaints I have are mostly:
- it was hella rushed, which wasn’t their fault, and what rushed it was more up my alley anyway
- the voice yelling WE GOTTA GO HOME AT 11 sorta took me out of it, but what can you do
- it was a weird hodgepodge of teams, with Ibushi getting cut-and-pasted in with the Bucks instead of Omega, and either Rey Fenix or Bandido being cut-and-pasted in in place of Pentagon Jr. and Flamita respectively, so it wasn’t the core group of guys who work so well together on either side
- I would’ve a billion percent booked the Bucks in a normal tag match, where they are modern masters, and maybe booked Kota Ibushi vs. Rey Mysterio as a one-on-one match, because that was pretty unanimously considered the best part
On the positive side, Rey Mysterio was dressed like the goddamn Wolverine, and the night got a bonkers little chaser to perk everybody up after four-ish hours of wrestling and send everybody home buzzing. It was the cherry on the top of a beautiful pro wrestling sundae, so yeah, it wasn’t ice cream and it wasn’t even whipped cream, but all it had to be was the cherry. I’m going to move on now and pretend that metaphor worked.
Oh, and before I forget …
Hilarious Best: CORAZON DE LEON M
I can’t finish up this column without including the guy who had to be there to truly make it a piece of counter-culture pro wrestling art, Chris Jericho, seen here dressed like a depressed Peter Criss. Jericho shows up to attack Kenny Omega, but doesn’t just do a run-in … he does a full ECW blackout, somehow magically replaces Pentagon in the ring, has also DRESSED like Pentagon complete with under-mask face paint to add like 0.5 seconds to the overall deception, and then SHILLS HIS CRUISE MID-BEATDOWN. Standing ovation, seriously. It’s the most Chris Jericho thing that’s ever happened, and that’s saying a lot. A lot.
Anyway, instead of a Raw report today I’m just going to fantasy book ALL IN 2: STILL IN, and hope that’s what the Ring of Honor/New Japan show at Madison Square Garden ends up being. I don’t have a full card yet, but Goldust gets to be there this time, and somehow we end up with Velveteen Dream vs. Hollywood Hogan. Hey, it’s pro wrestling in 2018. Anything can happen.