Welcome to the second part of my review of WWE’s Mae Young Classic, which has been airing in blocks these past two weeks on the WWE Network.
If you’ve landed here afresh, make sure you’ve read the first part of my review covering the first round as I’m going to try to avoid going back over old news (unless it’s something important, like how awesome Dakota Kai is). This review covers episodes five through to eight, from the start of the tournament’s second round to the conclusion of the semifinals.
All of this action was taped the following night after the first round at Full Sail University. 16 women remain, eight go through from the second round over the next two episodes, while the quarterfinals and semifinals take up an episode each.
No major changes to the format or presentation style; the video packages for each competitor before matches remain in place for the second round, but are remixed to be part background, part soundbite about their opponent. No video packages in the quarterfinals, allowing more in-ring action to be squeezed in. In the semifinals episode, with more time to play with, we get hype packages with some new sit-down interview snippets. The winner’s trophy for the Mae Young Classic is on display on the stage throughout the matches, which leads to a few nice moments during the entrances.
The wrestling action is otherwise business as usual, with nominal time limits of 20 minutes in the second round, 25 minutes in the quarterfinals and 30 minutes in the semifinals. As with the first round, however, none of the matches come anywhere near troubling those limits. It’s still a nice touch to announce them though.
Episode 5 (Second Round, 1/2)
- Abbey Laith bt Rachel Evers (pinfall, five minutes)
- Piper Niven bt Serena Deeb (pinfall, seven minutes)
- Mercedes Martinez bt Princesa Sugehit (pinfall, five minutes)
- Kairi Sane bt Bianca Belair (pinfall, ten minutes)
The first thing that needs saying is that Bianca Belair looked a million bucks here. Being in the ring with Kairi Sane certainly does no harm, but Belair will rightly take the plaudits for a great showing. Physically she’s a special athlete, here pulling off an impressive stalling vertical suplex and a perfect 450 splash for probably the best nearfall of the tournament. She also absolutely battered Sane with that hair braid, which got a huge crowd reaction, but the best part about it was how she fed off the energy of that reaction; she looks like that special kind of talent who can make good matches into great matches based on how they sell the little moments in the ring. I’m still a harsh judge of her entrance and pre-match posturing, which to my eye still look more taught than natural, but once the visor comes down everything looks second nature. The script called for the ridiculously popular Sane to prevail here with her elbow drop, but Belair’s time will certainly come.
Also impressive in this episode was Piper Niven, who put an end to the redemption story of Serena Deeb. The match saw Deeb try to overcome a huge mismatch in size by wearing down Niven with headlocks until she could pull off an unlikely suplex or bodyslam. However, Deeb could only keep Niven off-balance for so long and, after dodging a top-rope splash, went for the spear only to be caught and planted by Niven’s Michinoku Driver. The impressive thing about Niven is, whether she’s on offense (she hit a lovely Vader Bomb here) or selling something from her opponent (which she does with great agility for her size), she appears to change gears effortlessly and adapt to working the match at any pace.
In the opening match of the show, Abbey Laith beat Rachel Evers with the alligator clutch following a powerbomb. Asides from an early suicide dive by Laith where a deliberately oblique camera angle masked some iffy positioning, this was very much an exorcism for Evers after her first round match with Marti Belle. The crowd loved this and were on their feet for a double knockout spot after stereo bicycle kicks and a fantastic nearfall after Evers delivered an impressive powerslam from the top turnbuckle. Evers shows great fire and has all the physical gifts to be back in the spotlight in the future, but Laith was every part a match for her here and the right winner to advance.
The least eventful match of this episode was Mercedes Martinez defeating Princesa Sugehit in what was, for the most part, a slow-paced contest. Martinez succeeded in slowing down Sugehit’s lucha stylings and, having kicked out of a nice tornado DDT and escaped the Mexican’s Fujiwara armbar, hit a fisherman buster suplex to get the win. It was fairly clear from her first couple of matches that there were bigger plans for Martinez later in the tournament and there was no need to have her get out of third gear in the first couple of rounds.
Episode 6 (Second Round, 2/2)
- Toni Storm bt Lacey Evans (pinfall, five minutes)
- Shayna Baszler bt Mia Yim (submission, five and a half minutes)
- Dakota Kai bt Rhea Ripley (pinfall, seven minutes)
- Candice LeRae bt Nicole Savoy (pinfall, six minutes)
All the mainstream headlines from this episode concern the aftermath of Shayna Baszler’s win over Mia Yim as Baszler’s MMA ‘Four Horsewomen’ faction – other members Ronda Rousey, Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir at ringside again – faced off with Bayley, Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch who had been wheeled out for one of the regular ‘look at the WWE Superstars in attendance tonight’ spots that cropped up throughout the tournament. It was clearly done as a tease for something in the future and the crowd loved it. However, there was a good match here too, with Yim keeping pace with Baszler’s strikes and throwing in a nice suicide dive and sitout powerbomb, before missing a 450 splash and being caught in Baszler’s rear naked choke. Yim managed to fit a lot into her two matches here and got a good reaction out of the crowd.
The match between Rhea Ripley and Dakota Kai was billed as a Trans-Tasman rivalry between the Australian Ripley and the New Zealander Kai. Ripley looks and carries herself like a star, but at this point in her career the more experienced Kai was the better pick to go on to the quarterfinals. Much like Kai’s first round match, this was a case of the smaller Kiwi hanging in against her bigger opponent though it was a much better-balanced contest and an improvement for it. Kai got the win with the old Alberto Del Rio double-stomp in the tree of woe position.
Better news for the Aussie fans in the match between Toni Storm and Lacey Evans, as Storm won to advance to the quarterfinals. Evans is still a work in progress down in NXT, but continued to show a lot of innovation in the ring here and is especially smart about using the ring environment and ropes. She’ll no doubt become a fixture on NXT in the near future. Storm, however, is the full package and like Mercedes Martinez was booked on cruise control in the first half of the tournament with an eye on the later stages. This was a fairly straightforward affair, ended by Storm’s ‘Strong Zero’ air raid crash over the knee.
The final match of the episode and the second round saw Candice LeRae eliminate Nicole Savoy with her top-rope neckbreaker. One feels a little sorry for Savoy, who as in the first round was technically excellent here and impossible to fault but exited without making as much of an impression in her two matches as the likes of Mia Yim and Bianca Belair. Perhaps it’s just the way the cards fell. Here, Savoy worked the crowd well to get heel heat against the popular LeRae, hit lovely rolling double underhook suplexes and worked nice submission reversals before falling to Ms LeRae’s Wild Ride. Candice LeRae moves on to face Shayna Baszler. I’m sure that’ll go well.
Episode 7 (Quarterfinals)
- Mercedes Martinez bt Abbey Laith (pinfall, nine minutes)
- Shayna Baszler bt Candice LeRae (submission, three minutes)
- Toni Storm bt Piper Niven (pinfall, seven and a half minutes)
- Kairi Sane bt Dakota Kai (pinfall, seven and a half minutes)
The first quarterfinal saw Mercedes Martinez shift into a higher gear, looking for strikes against Abbey Laith while Laith tried to outsmart her with her agility. Jim Ross and Lita on commentary were noting the long-term shoulder injury that Martinez had suffered earlier in her career, and how it may be bothering her in this tournament. Laith managed to get the upper hand with some kicks and, after blocking a suplex onto the apron, hit a clothesline off the top turnbuckle to the outside. Rolling Martinez back into the ring, Laith got a two count and then another nearfall soon afterwards with a bridging german suplex. However, Martinez was able to avoid the alligator clutch and hit her fisherman buster for the win.
Shayna Baszler turned her back on the pre-match handshake with Candice LeRae, which only set the crowd even more firmly behind LeRae, as they had been the whole tournament. This was booked perfectly, with LeRae burning hot for a short time to make the crowd believe an upset might happen before being brutally snuffed out. After taking her opponent lightly at the beginning, Baszler was caught by LeRae hitting a suicide dive into a tornado DDT. From there, Baszler was rocked, with LeRae transitioning from an octopus stretch into the Gargano Escape – which the crowd were rocking for – before Baszler was able to escape. Baszler then caught LeRae on the top rope looking for her neckbreaker finish and dropped her into the rear naked choke. LeRae tapped immediately but Baszler didn’t release the hold for ages after the bell, until LeRae sold it by passing out. The crowd hated that, cementing Baszler as an irredeemable heel. After having her arm raised, Baszler aimed a kick at LeRae, being tended to by her husband Johnny Gargano, before leaving the ring.
Toni Storm and Piper Niven, opponents here in the quarterfinals, are good friends on the independent circuit and worked a very entertaining match here. There was an early lighthearted sequence, transitioning from a test of strength through a monkey flip to each woman upside-down, balancing on their heads and shaking hands, but after that it was all business. Niven looked to wear Storm down with big splashes and the odd crossbody and senton, while Storm was looking for an unlikely german suplex on her larger opponent. Niven hit Storm with the Michinoku Driver that had won her previous two matches but Storm kicked out and, as Niven looked for a Vader Bomb, Storm popped up and finally hit the german suplex off the turnbuckles. Toni Storm then hit a big legdrop off the top rope to put Niven away, after an outstanding tournament for the Scot.
Dakota Kai came out for the last quarterfinal match with her hair down, right knee strapped and visibly limping, suggesting she may have spent time between tapings in the trainer’s room. That seemed to have a slight effect on the pace of this match, but the two women worked a hard-hitting affair that still did a great job closing out the show. Kai’s running facewash boot in the corner was only good enough for a two count, as was her corner yakuza kick, while Sane’s spear is still so effective to pop the crowd as it’s explosive and comes out of nowhere. Kai missed her tree of woe stomp, sold the knee and was caught by a flying forearm by Sane and, after then missing a second yakuza kick, was put away by Sane’s diving elbow. Hopefully more to come from Dakota Kai soon, while Kairi Sane rightfully claimed the final place in the final four.
Episode 8 (Semifinals)
- Shayna Baszler bt Mercedes Martinez (submission, eight minutes)
- Kairi Sane bt Toni Storm (pinfall, twelve and a half minutes)
The first of the semifinals was built around the concept of Mercedes Martinez having been a mentor to Shayna Baszler when she first made the switch from MMA to pro wrestling. For the first time in the tournament, Baszler accepted the pre-match handshake. Baszler opened looking for strikes, but was caught in a lax moment by Martinez, who lit Baszler up with hard strikes of her own in the corner. Baszler went back looking for strikes but Martinez caught her again in the same way, before applying a rear chinlock. The purpose was to play on the idea of Martinez being the teacher and Baszler being the student. Eventually Baszler worked an opening and started to lay in strikes of her own, before hitting Martinez with a nice sequence of of gutwrench suplexes. Baszler locked in a kneebar. Martinez kicked her way out, tied up Baszler’s legs and applied a crossface but couldn’t get the submission.
Both women exchanged strikes on their knees, then Martinez blocked a suplex and hit the fisherman buster but couldn’t cover straight away because of the damage from the kneebar and only got two. Martinez fired up, hit two back suplexes and a german suplex but the fisherman buster was blocked by Baszler who countered with the falcon arrow into the rear naked choke. Martinez stayed in the hold for a few seconds and then tapped out. After the match replays, Triple H, Stephanie McMahon and Performance Center coach Sara Amato came out to the ring to present Baszler with flowers and raise her arm. One place in the finals down, one to go…..
Kairi Sane and Toni Storm came out for the second of the semifinals, with the crowd seemingly split about 50-50 in support. There was some chain wrestling early on, with a cut-away to Baszler shown watching on a monitor backstage. Sane ran the ropes and hit a dropkick, before Storm caught her and delivered a couple of stiff-looking uppercuts. Sane spilled out to the floor and Storm followed, only to be rammed back-first into the apron. At this point, Sane went up to the top and hit a big crossbody to the outside, smacking the side of her face on the entrance ramp in the process. It was reported after these tapings that Sane had suffered a concussion during this match, and it’s not hard to spot where it happened. Back in the ring, Sane applied a Boston crab to work further on Storm’s back, though Storm got to the ropes. Recovering, Storm hit Sane with a german suplex and then her running hip attack in the corner. Going for a second hip attack, she got caught with another great spear by Sane. Both women were down and you could see Sane’s face marked up from where she hit the entrance ramp earlier.
Sane looked for the elbow drop but was cut off by Storm, who hit a delayed cradle suplex for two. Storm then applied a nasty armbar submission which Sane struggled like crazy to escape and the crowd were coming unglued. Sane managed to wriggle out, but Storm went up top and hit the massive legdrop that beat Piper Niven in the previous round. Storm sold her back on the landing and was unable to cover, so Sane was able to regroup, target the back one more time, climb the turnbuckles and deliver the diving elbow right into the kidneys for the pinfall victory. Post-match, there was another presentation of flowers from Triple H, Stephanie and Sara Amato and the episode ended with a face-off on the stage between Sane and Baszler, to sell the live finals from Las Vegas which will air this Tuesday. Two good semifinals that set up an intriguing – if obvious – final match below the beloved pirate princess and the remorseless ass-kicking machine. Another good week’s work.
Last call for lukewarm takes before I close the book on this second block of episodes:
* Picking a favorite match of this block of episodes is pretty tough. All of Kairi Sane’s three matches were excellent, the semifinals match with Toni Storm especially, but a special mention also has to go to the match between Storm and Piper Niven. Sane is already on board, but WWE could be doing a lot worse than pushing contracts Storm and Niven’s way too, as both have huge potential and couldn’t have seized their opportunity better in this tournament. My choice of five favorite wrestlers from this block is therefore pretty easy: Sane, Storm, Niven, Bianca Belair – about whom I now absolutely believe the hype – and Dakota Kai, because I can’t do a Fave Five without including Evie. If you pushed me to replace Kai I’d choose Abbey Laith, who’s also had a very good run of matches here.
* Kurt already mentioned this in his column earlier in the week but yes, I don’t think it’s as simple as saying the Mae Young Classic has or hasn’t been ‘as good as’ the Cruiserweight Classic; format similarities aside, they aren’t really coming from the same place in terms of what they’re trying to achieve. This show, certainly in the first round and in several parts of the second round, has much more of a developmental feel with a number of less-experienced women being blooded and longer-term veterans who WWE have recently acquired being carefully introduced to the audience. Whereas the legacy of the CWC was to launch a new main roster division, one suspects the MYC is more likely to result in a bottom-up second wave of the ‘Women’s Revolution’, with NXT soon to be bursting with possibly up to a dozen more hugely talented women.
* That said….. If there was one area where this tournament was the poorer for not following the lead of the Cruiserweight Classic, it was here in the second round and quarterfinals. The CWC spent three hour-long episodes on its second round and two on its quarterfinals; one more for each than here. Taking a bit more time with these rounds could’ve really elevated some of the matches in the tournament from good to outstanding, particularly with the quarterfinals where all eight women had the talent and experience to wrestle great matches of twice the length. It’s easy to see how the taping schedule would’ve made this impossible though, given the four semifinalists had to work three matches in one evening; the CWC, of course, had less of a problem there thanks to staging its semifinals on the same night as the live final.
* Remember when Brock Lesnar worked UFC 200 and most observers figured Dana White would owe WWE a favor? We may be seeing that here, as Ronda Rousey, still under contract to UFC, will clearly be leading her ‘Four Horsewomen’ into a match against WWE’s ‘Four Horsewomen’ in the near future. Following the ringside confrontation, WWE also shot an unsubtle parking lot skit between Baszler’s support team and Bayley, Charlotte and Becky, while another confrontation is hotly tipped to go down this week during the finals in Las Vegas. Survivor Series in November appears to be the obvious destination right now. A classic elimination match may create the thorny problem of whether you have the MMA faction you’ve talked breathlessly about whenever the opportunity has arisen all get pinned (or, God forbid, submitted) in their first match, or if you have arguably your four most marketable ‘home-grown’ women get wiped out by possibly-part-time newcomers. However, I’m sure that’s a problem WWE will be very happy to deal with once they have everyone’s money.
* On the other end of the scale it’s also interesting to see potential programs being set up, under the radar, in the developmental ranks coming out of the tournament. In the first round, Taynara Conti swatted away the offer of a post-match handshake from Lacey Evans, while in a post-match interview Sage Beckett sounded off about what she called Bianca Belair’s lack of ‘dignity’ and promised consequences if they met again. In another post-match interview after the second round, Rhea Ripley promised Dakota Kai she would be waiting to lock horns again. All of these women are signed to NXT.
* Ah, Dakota Kai. The sooner we see her on NXT the better, in my opinion. However, if WWE doesn’t start calling her corner yakuza kick and running facewash ‘North Dakota’ and ‘South Dakota’ respectively, then I really don’t know what the point is of anything any more.
* The booking of Shayna Baszler in this tournament, when you stand back and consider how her opponents were presented in their video packages and on commentary, has been brutally uncompromising. Baszler took out the bullying victim in the first round, the domestic abuse survivor in the second round and choked out the audience sweetheart after the bell in the quarters (none of whom, before her semifinal opponent, she deemed worthy of having their hand shaken). That’s dark. And she’s taken no shortcuts in the process. Who said WWE has forgotten how to book heels effectively?
* It’ll be interesting to see how the Las Vegas crowd – who primarily bought their tickets to see SmackDown Live – react to the finals, and to Kairi Sane in particular who won over Full Sail University without breaking sweat. If a Horsewomen angle does go down, one suspects the crowd will definitely buy into that; this is an early test of Sane’s star potential under WWE lights and her ability to stay centre of attention.
* Who wins on Tuesday? It all depends upon the relative importance of future plans. If WWE gets seriously myopic about the Horsewomen program, I could definitely see the Mae Young Classic being used as a prop in a Baszler/Rousey-led incursion, with WWE’s quartet fighting for the honor of ‘women’s wrestling’ or whatever. On the flipside, if the NXT Women’s Championship (conveniently vacated on TV last week) comes into play at all – either something like the winner qualifying for a championship match at the next TakeOver, or just being awarded the belt outright – then Sane wins. Not only has Sane signed full-time with the company (no confirmation yet of the same with Baszler), but Baszler’s future business in the Horsewomen program will all be main roster material. Sane is ready to be a star in NXT straight away. Because the Horsewomen feud really won’t need any help getting over and the Mae Young Classic is a developmental-style Triple H baby, I’m confidently predicting a straight-up, heartwarming Sane win. Yeah, I know; Grieve picks Sane, so you should put the house on Baszler.
There’s a half-hour recap show on the WWE Network following Raw on Monday, with the bonus of Tessa Blanchard, Jazzy Gabert & Kay Lee Ray vs Santana Garrett, Sarah Logan & Marti Belle in a six-woman tag. Then on Tuesday there’s a ‘red carpet’ broadcast on Facebook starting two hours before SmackDown Live, with the grand finale going out on the Network immediately following SmackDown.
Thanks for reading and enjoy the finals. I’ll be back here at TJRWrestling with a recap and final thoughts the following day. Until then, let us know what you thought of block two and your favorite matches and performers from the tournament in the comments below.