Darby Allin vs WALTER
Saint Finbar Catholic Church, Queens, New York, United States
(reviewed 06/24/2018) I’m shocked that I loved this. Dismayed. Flabbergasted. Bamboozled. I’ve almost universally hated everything Darby’s done, finding his character to be either irritating or straight up offensive. His wrestling hasn’t been much better, as his highflying was quite impressive but too inconsistent and tied too closely to his character to be enjoyable for more than short bursts of time. On the other hand WALTER’s grown into a frustratingly single-minded figure as of late, growing both overbearing and dangerous with his popular chop-based performances. Throwing the two together sounds like utter disaster to me but somehow it works out just fine. More than fine, really; it’s probably the best possible match these two could have together in 2018.
This was initially booked for WrestleMania weekend earlier this year but an ill-timed injury cost Darby several months on the shelf. He returned with the express intent to make sure that no one in EVOLVE looked down on him or looked past him, desperate for a sense of respect and individual worth. He starts this match with that very much in mind, immediately flooring WALTER with a dropkick. WALTER, probably the biggest star and most capable wrestler on the indies today, quickly recovers and starts laying into his opponent, clearly baffled that this little shit would come at the king so hard. Not only is he thrown off by Darby’s insolence, he’s probably, deep down, disgusted by the man’s entire personality. WALTER’s entire thing is that the ring is holy, that wrestling should be a respectable sport about bettering yourself through competition. Then here comes this ratty twig of a man with embarrassing tattoos and face paint and the inability to have a big match without injuring himself and, on some level, he’s the antithesis of what WALTER represents. And above all else, this kid tries to take potshots at him?
So WALTER hurts him. He hurts him bad. I’ve already talked a lot about how the WALTER chop-driven matches make me uncomfortable, especially in relation to people who aren’t in their physical prime, and I’m not going to pretend like there aren’t some moments here that push the line farther than I’d like. But largely the ass-kicking WALTER lays out here seems to be pretty superficial, as far as his matches go. No one gets their chest ripped open, no one jumps off the top rope to crack their skull on the concrete floor, no one has a lung caved in. Despite all that, this match is brutal and exhilarating in its brutality. I’m not at all invested in Darby or his story but seeing this big piece of shit manhandle him and disrespect him so thoroughly stirs something inside of me. What’s more, WALTER’s thorough beatdown prevents Darby from doing basically any of his dumb character work or his most esoteric moves. He doesn’t have time for any of that between selling for WALTER’s devastating bombs and desperately clawing for any offense of his own. And Darby’s offense here is great, a mixture of his big highflying and simpler, more direct stomps and kicks. He starts going after the big man’s hand in a natural way that feels so much less obvious than every other instance of that tired WALTER hand work formula from the last eight months. When he capitalizes on a mistake from the Austrian he continues to key in on it, but not the way countless other opponents have. Darby’s not a technician. He couldn’t tell you the difference between a wristlock and a keylock. When he attacks WALTER’s injured hand he’s not applying holds or bending digits: he’s just stomping on it, headbutting it, doing what he can because it’s all he can do. When he does pull out a hold, it’s Thatcher’s Fujiwara, a move he’s only familiar with because he’s had it used against him time and again. This entire sequence of hand work speaks more to Darby’s character and his experience—both in life and in his wrestling career—than any number of lame, poorly-edited promos ever could. This tells me what I need to know. This tells me that he’s almost completely unpolished in the ring, a real dumb kid who’s survived misfortune by determination and luck, and when an opening presents itself to him he’s going to take it even if his hands are tied behind his back. The famous Page match still feels like a gimmick to me in that regard but this match, a shot at making his name against THE biggest star on the indies today, feels so much more real than anything.
Per usual, the hand work throws WALTER off his game. It also irritates him in a way it hasn’t since facing Starr in London. He actively uses the hand to attack Darby further, using his own pain to fuel further punishment. His selling both of the physical pain and the mental frustration is great, probably his best selling work of the year that I’ve seen. In the end WALTER seems to have this in the bag as he reverses one of Darby’s springboard sentons into a sleeper hold, a tried and true move that has ended so many previous matches for the big man. But WALTER wants more. He’s pissed off and he wants blood. He turns Darby onto his knees and clubs away at the man’s chest with his injured hand over and over again. He wants to prove a point and in the process loses the match for himself. When he tries to return to the sleeper, Darby rolls over on top of him with the textbook reversal, a move WALTER should be able to escape without blinking an eye, but he’s so focused on teaching this kid a lesson that his shoulders are pinned down for the three count.
There’s this classic moment in wrestling from 2002, where The Undertaker’s defending the WWE Undisputed Championship against Jeff Hardy in a ladder match. Jeff, who’s less than a year away from getting booted by the company, has no real chance of taking the title from the most established star in the company on some random RAW, but you wouldn’t know that listening to the crowd. The crowd is on fire for this kid and he’s giving them everything he’s got, fighting through Taker’s surliest beatdown and clawing his way up the rungs toward the title. The moment’s immortalized by one of Jim Ross’ career best commentary performances, a string of words that reverberate today in the memories of so many fans across the world.
I don’t love Darby. I never have and I doubt I ever will. But there are moments in this match where I could hear those words rattling around in my head. “Climb the ladder, kid. Make yourself famous.”
HOW DOES THIS COMPARE TO SHAWN VS TAKER FROM WM25: I used to love Shawn Michaels. I really did. He was the first guy to catch my eye back when my brother convinced me to watch some wrestling with him on Christmas Day nearly eleven years ago. For a while there, Shawn was my favorite wrestler, this undeniably appealing jackass with the most exciting, most gutwrenching matches around. Before long I soured on his style and found what I thought were superior alternatives from the American indies, from Japan, from God knows where else. I still feel a twinge of the old days from time to time but with few exceptions that man does next to nothing for me anymore. As I said, I’ve never loved Darby Allin and I doubt I ever will but it’s so much more impressive that—for a brief moment in time—Darby was able to endear himself to me more than a man I used to love having what many recognize as his career best match.
VERDICT: Better than Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker from WrestleMania 25