Welcome back to the second review of the Mae Young Classic, this time looking into Episodes 3 and 4. For those who missed the prior post, here’s a handy link.
When last we left the tournament, we’d gone through the first eight matches, and so far, eight competitors have moved on to the later episodes (specifically episodes 5 and 6, which we’ll get to later). This week focuses on the remaining eight matches to determine the other half of the quaterfinals competitors, and also features the debut of what is expected to be the one of the other can’t miss prospects to emerge from this tournament.
Let’s get down to business.
9.) Toni Storm vs. Ayesha Raymond
Toni Storm is a relative newbie in the wrestling world, as she’s worked for about a year in Japanese promotion Stardom, but is otherwise a relative unknown on the world’s stage of professional wrestling. Astonishingly, she’s also without a WWE contract at this time, despite clearly having the sort of presence and aesthetic the WWE is known for wanting, despite trying out twice in Australian training camps held by the company.
Ayesha Raymond is otherwise known in England as Ayesha Ray, and has been active in professional wrestling for about eight years at this point. She’s trained by the Knight family, of which Paige is a member, for reference purposes, and she’s definitely got a unique look coming into this match, thanks to some interesting Cats inspired facepaint, a six foot build and gear reminiscent of Awesome Kong.
The Match was mostly fine, though astonishingly enough, the worker who seemed more comfortable in this match was the one who’s been working for one year, Toni Storm. Storm looked completely natural in the ring, managing to make her astonishing Mad Moxxi-esque aesthetic endearing, somehow, and working a style in the ring that felt unique but also Japanese flavored (owing to her time in Stardom, one supposes). Raymond, on the other hand, wrestled a fairly basic match when she was in control, and while she was fine, she was also largely unexciting, leaving Storm to take the lion’s share of the crowd response, aside from some very light heel work.
My Final Thoughts are that Toni Storm is all but guaranteed a WWE contract after that match, simply based on her aesthetic and crowd response. She 100% has it, and she’s got a goofy enough presentation and aesthetic that NXT would love the crap out of her with little to no convincing. Raymond, on the other hand, feels like the sort of worker who’d be a fine hand to have in your undercard, but is probably not on WWE’s radar, as she’s technically fine in the ring, but mostly doesn’t have any of the flash of other workers in this tournament. It feels weird saying that about the Amazon with cat face paint, but here we are.
10.) Kavita Devi vs. Dakota Kai
Kavita Devi is the first Indian woman to compete in a WWE ring, according to her bio, and she’s apparently a trainee of the Great Kali through his training school in Punjab. On one hand, this is a great opportunity for Devi, who goes by the ring name of Hard KD in India, as she’s got a fantastic look for wrestling, and an instant positive in thanks to the association with Khali. On the other hand, Khali is quite possibly one of the worst wrestlers in the modern era and has legit killed a dude in the ring, so who knows how Devi will actually perform.
Dakota Kai is another indie darling in the tournament, as under the ring name Evie, she’s competed all over the US and Australia for a few years now, in addition to working for Stardom for a bit. She’s generally quite talented in the ring, thanks to a few years under her belt and a wide variety of opponents across a wide variety of environments, and her gimmick has more than a passing resemblance to that of pre-main roster Bayley, which can only work out in her favor here. She’s also working with a WWE Developmental contract as of December, so that’s good.
The Match was basically Dakota Kai wrestling herself, as Devi has the fundamentals down, but is, to bring back a phrase from the prior piece, “green as goose shit.” Devi showed a fundamental understanding of what her character is supposed to be, combining some agile offense (top rope armdrag) with power aesthetics (tossing Kai aside during dropkicks), but this match was 60% Kai throwing herself at the ground to make Devi look like a killer before putting her away. It was mostly a showcase for Kai’s selling and ability to call a match in the ring, and honestly, it’s everything the Zeda/Baszler match should’ve been, vis-a-vi carrying a green worker to something watchable.
My Final Thoughts are that Dakota Kai is going to be something, sooner rather than later, but I’m honestly really interested in seeing what Kavita Devi can do long-term, and I’m kind of hoping WWE picks her up and trains her from here. She showed a good idea of wrestling here, and while she’s clearly not amazing at this point, she’s got size and definite talent, so I’d love to see her become the next Bull Nakano, rather than the next Tamina Snuka.
11.) Bianca Belair vs. Sage Beckett
Bianca Belair is another WWE hire who was picked up before she’d had any time to develop herself in the world of wrestling; she was actually apparently big in the CrossFit scene before developing an injury that took her out of it, and ended up in NXT because Mark Henry was willing to back her up in getting into it, as she only signed up for training on a whim one day. Belair has appeared a handful of times on NXT proper, usually acting as a jobber, so this won’t exactly be her first go-round or anything, but it might be the first chance she’s given anything approaching a significant match to work with.
Sage Beckett is probably better known to more diehard wrestling fans as, sigh, Rosie Lottalove, because Vince Russo is mentally twelve years old. She’s been in wrestling for about a decade, originally debuting at a larger size (hence the shitty gimmick name) back in 2007, and she spent about five years working the indies, Japan and TNA (so, the indies, ho ho) before retiring due to injuries, only to come back two years later and over a hundred pounds lighter, whereupon she tore it up in Shine for two years before being picked up on a developmental contract by WWE. Not too shabby, all in all.
The Match was… functionally there, honestly. Belair used her long hair as a whip at one point during the match, which feels like it should be grounds for a DQ if we’re being honest, but beyond that, the match was functionally and technically fine, but utterly nondescript in its overall structure.
My Final Thoughts are that, honestly, this match might be the most obvious example of the WWE’s specific wrestling style not being terribly exciting for less imaginative workers outside of the Cruiserweight Division. That’s not to say Belair and Beckett are bad, but that they haven’t really developed into characters or work styles that define who and what they are, so this was just a series of moves between two people who haven’t gotten to the point where they understand everything yet. It’s not aggressively bad or somewhat promising, it just… is.
12.) Santana Garrett vs. Piper Niven
Santana Garrett is another “how is this woman not signed to WWE” story in a long list of them, it seems. Debuting in Florida back in 2009, Garrett has worked indie feds all across the US, in addition to Shine and Stardom, but her most notable run in wrestling was probably working for TNA under the name Brittany. During this period, she, sigh, went from being a plucky face to a lesbian stalker before finally settling on hooking up with Samuel Shaw, a dude playing a pastiche of Dexter Morgan and Patrick Bateman… whereupon she chose not to resign with TNA and Shaw was basically phased out of existence while she went on to go do literally anything else. Garrett has also had at least one tryout with WWE in recent years, and if she doesn’t have a contract by the end of this tournament, someone needs to be fired.
Piper Niven is more commonly known as Viper, the name she works under for Insane Championship Wrestling, a wrestling promotion based out of Scotland. Outside of being Hamish Black’s favorite women’s wrestler (probably), she’s also the only worker in this tournament working at the size she works, but unlike most larger ladies in wrestling, who are either depicted as murderous monsters or comedy characters, Piper presents herself as someone who just seems happy to be here, which is… actually pretty cool, honestly.
The Match was amazing, frankly, and is the closest thing we’ve seen to a straight-up competitive ass-kicking contest out of the tournament so far. Piper and Santana left it all in the ring in the small amount of time they had allotted, and this was easily the best match of the show by a country mile. About the only thing I could’ve found fault with was Garrett using Eat Defeat as a transition move when Mia Yim used it as a finisher last episode.
My Final Thoughts are that I’m honestly astonished at how this match played out, if only because I kind of wish both women could’ve moved on in the tournament. This, again, speaks to my earlier complaint of how some matches were clearly structured to ensure that there are four awesome matches to end these episodes with, when it would’ve been better to pair some of these awesome workers up with the greener kids and put the awesome workers into the second round instead. Honestly, both of these ladies deserves a good shot on NXT, and I hope they’ll both get it.
13.) Candice LeRae vs. Renee Michelle
Candice LeRae is, say it with me now, yet another “how is this woman not signed to WWE” story, though she may have a contract at this point (it’s honestly hard to tell). Her story, however, varies quite a bit from the other women in this tournament, thanks in large part to one man: Joey Ryan, he of the penis capable of hiptossing people (AKA the YouPorn Plex, seriously). LeRae spent several years working in the indies before ending up in the company Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, where she worked a storyline that ended up getting her into intergender matches in addition to standard women’s matches, until she ended up forming, ahem, “The World’s Cutest Tag Team” with Ryan in 2015. Beyond that, she’s worked for all of the standard wrestling companies you’d expect to see in this list, as well as, astonishingly, Dramatic Dream Team, AKA DDT, AKA “the wrestling company that had Kenny Omega wrestle a blow up doll and an eight year old,” so… that’s definitely an accomplishment.
Renee Michelle is… not in a position to top LeRae’s story, but her tale is still weird, as she was introduced into wrestling by Duane Gill (AKA Gillberg) and trained by Chigusa Nagayo, AKA “one of the best goddamn women’s wrestlers in Japan,” so she’s walking into the tournament with a hell of a pedigree if nothing else. Beyond working for Shine, however, she’s a relatively underground commodity at the moment, but that could change in the near future, especially with a solid showing here.
The Match was mostly fine; while Michelle is clearly greener than LeRae, it wasn’t nearly as bad as some other cases in the tournament, and she held up her end of the match well enough. LeRae was clearly the star here, however, as she was instantly over with the fans, and the fact that she’s married to Johnny Gargano wasn’t lost on the fans or the interviewers, making for a neat storyline for her path in a tournament she is absolutely not in any position to win, but whatever.
My Final Thoughts are that Candice really needs to ask Gargano to put in a good word for her in real life, because she’s dope as hell and should be tearing it up on NXT on the reg.
14.) Lacey Evans vs. Taynara Conti
Lacey Evans is another wrestler WWE picked up pretty early into her career, so outside of her odd moments popping up on NXT there’s not a lot to say about her. She was a Marine at one point in her life, which the WWE mentions several times during this match, but beyond that the only thing of note is her character aesthetic, which is “1940’s pinup model,” and… well, between her military service and the Americana gimmick, I’m guessing she loves America a whole lot, is my point.
Taynara Conti is, in another first, the first Brazilian woman to step foot in a WWE ring, and may or may not have a developmental contract at this point; there’s… not a whole lot of information on her so it’s honestly hard to tell, though the fact that she has a WWE Twitter account and indicates on it that she’s an NXT star points to “yes.” Beyond her limited wrestling experience, she’s also got a black belt in Judo and a blue belt in Jiu Jitsu (I would presume BJJ specifically), so she’s got the potential aptitude for wrestling if nothing else.
The Match was clearly a match between two people who know how to “get their shit in,” as they say, but have no idea what to do between their moves. Conti’s throws looked like poetry in motion, but she looked lost when asked to fill in the space between, while Lacey has a couple of solid and unorthodox moves in her skillset, but nothing to do outside of them. They didn’t gel terribly well when they weren’t doing their spots, either, and this feels like two people who just need to work on the psychology to get better, as they seem to get their characters and movesets fine otherwise.
My Final Thoughts are, since both women have contracts with WWE and I don’t have a significant opinion of either, that I appreciate JR shouting out Pat Patterson winning the IC Title in Rio de Janero during this match.
15.) Nicole Savoy vs. Reina Gonzalez
Nicole Savoy is an independent wrestler who’s most notable for her time in Shimmer, where she goes by the moniker “Queen of Suplexes,” because she’s basically Tazz, mechanically speaking. She’s also trained in MMA under Josh Barnett, though she apparently bases her wrestling style more on Madusa (presumably during her Alundra Blaze period), so she, in theory, has a lot to work with here.
Reina Gonzalez is most notable for auditioning for Tough Enough, not being picked, and getting signed to a developmental deal anyway, making her yet another wrestler to be more successful than literally anybody who made the top four in that last season. Gonzalez has appeared in a small handful of matches on NXT, but this is basically her first chance to shine as a worker proper.
The Match was basically your bog standard big vs little match, and while it was functionally similar in terms of the skillsets of the workers involved compared to the prior match, it benefited immensely from both workers having an idea of how to fill in dead space, making it far more enjoyable to watch. Gonzalez focused on playing the power wrestler here to solid effect, and while Savoy focused on her MMA background instead of her “suplex machine” gimmick, the match mostly worked… save for an odd spot where Savoy was supposed to be working the arm from an over the shoulder position, but the visuals didn’t give a clear view what was happening.
My Final Thoughts are that Savoy has a solid ring presence and awareness, and so long as she lives up to her “Queen of Suplexes” gimmick in the next round, she’s going to go places. Gonzalez, however, actually showed a solid awareness of who and what she is, more so than other, equally green workers in this tournament, and I’d be surprised if she’s not on NXT regularly by the end of 2018.
16.) Tessa Blanchard vs. Kairi Sane
Tessa Blanchard is Tully Blanchard’s daughter and Magnum TA’s stepdaughter, if you don’t know what that means I don’t know what to tell you. She’s awesome and it’s a goddamn crime that she doesn’t have a contract yet.
Kairi Sane is otherwise known as Kairi Hojo, and is far and away the other odds-on favorite to win this whole tournament. She’s also the only Japanese entrant into the tournament after the whole Io Shirai situation didn’t pan out (dammit), but look, Sane’s a six year Stardom veteran, one of the best women’s wrestlers today, and a wrestling pirate, what more do you want here? Tessa Blanchard v Captain Harlock, let’s do it.
The Match should’ve been the tournament final, are you kidding me with that elbow drop? Seriously though, this was easily the match of the first round, as both Blanchard and Sane are amazing workers and they had excellent chemistry together, and the end result was simply magical. Watch this if you haven’t, it’s just bliss.
My Final Thoughts are that this needs to headline a Takeover in 2018. Beyond that, I get why the WWE wanted this huge of a match to end the first round, but honestly, nah, this should’ve been booked later, Blanchard should’ve moved on to a later round.
Well, with the first round of the tournament over, the second round looks like this:
Abbey Laith vs Rachel Evers: Kimber Lee vs Rachel Ellering is probably going to be a big deal, and I would expect it to be a waaaayyyy better outing for Evers here, but Laith may have a hard time topping her match with Jazzy. Betting on this one as a dark horse “best in show.” Probably goes to Abbey.
Princesa Sugehit vs Mercedes Martinez: This one feels like it’s going to be a styles clash, but not specifically a bad one per say. I’ll be interested to see how this pans out, and while I don’t think it’s going to top any charts, it’s almost definitely going to be entertaining as hell. This one almost certainly goes to Martinez.
Nicole Savoy vs Candice LeRae: If Savoy’s suplex background is as good as her gimmick claims, this is going to be a big deal match, and might potentially be match of the show. I’d bet on LeRae here.
Mia Yim vs Shayna Baszler: Welp, if this match ends up making Baszler look better than her first round match did, Yim basically deserves a contract at that point. I love Mia, but she’s doing the J-O-B here.
Kairi Sane vs Bianca Belair: Not liking the style matchup here, but if anyone can get this over as a big match, it’s Kairi. Belair’s going home here, no question.
Dakota Kai vs Rhea Ripley: Well, Kai already carried an inexperienced worker to a solid match, and Ripley’s definitely not that green, so this should be a fun time. No reason Kai doesn’t take this here.
Serena Deeb vs Piper Niven: Tough call on this one; I’d have to say it’s going to be good, at the very least, but I’m going to go hedge my bets and say Deeb takes it because she’s the worker everyone knows.
Lacey Evans vs Toni Storm: I feel like this was on purpose for reasons outside of match quality (IE, dueling aesthetic oddity), but as a match it’s gonna be… interesting, shall we say. I’m expecting Storm to take this one, mostly because I think WWE wants her sooner rather than later.
We’ll be back with Episodes Five and Six soon, if only to see how badly I guessed.