Survivor Series led the way for another strong week for professional wrestling on WWE and AEW programming. In singles champion vs champion matches Roman Reigns beat Drew McIntyre and Bobby Lashley defeated Sami Zayn. Asuka fell to Sasha Banks and Street Profits knocked off the New Day. NXT saw Toni Storm turn heel and the build for War Games begin to take shape. AEW had the last word in preparation for Winter is Coming. Jon Moxley suckered Kenny Omega, Abadon frightened Hikaru Shida, and the Dark Order once again tried to lure Adam Page into their fold.
The Fighting Illini return to Champaign, Illinois motivated after a canceled postseason campaign incited Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn to withdraw from the NBA draft. The Illini are intent on chasing an NCAA title. Joining them in their quest for basketball immortality will be a mixture of top 50 prospects, seasoned seniors, and unexpected international gems. How good will Illinois be and is a trip to the Final Four a possibility for them?
The Rise of the Fighting Illini
Last season they led the Illini to an impressive 21-10 record best win percentage since 2010., They also finished fourth in the Big Ten winning 13 of 20 games against conference opponents. Illinois was a strong defensive and rebounding team, not an uncommon style for a Big Ten club. They were also known for getting to the charity stripe effectively, ranking 13th among all Division I teams.
Struggles were very apparent for Brad Underwood’s side: perimeter shooting ranked 297th in attempts and percentage, and turnovers, a lowly 269th. The only bright spot from the outside was sophomore guard Alan Griffin who shot over 41 percent while the team as a whole shot just over 31 percent.
The team was projected to make it to their first NCAA tournament since 2013. All of that changed once the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The virus dashed fans’ hopes at watching the Illini navigate a deep run in the tourney. Dosunmu made the All-Big Ten second team and Cockburn won Big Ten Rookie of the Year, a small consolation in a year that could have been much more.
Dosunmu and Cockburn looked to be headed to NBA futures, but unfinished business is still ahead for the dynamic tandem. On July 31st Dosunmu released a video on his Twitter.
“My dream has been to play in the NBA, but first I need that national championship.” – Ayo Dosunmo/Twitter
Later that same day Cockburn announced he will be withdrawing from the NBA as well to join Dosunmu, backing the orange and blue for one more season.
It wasn’t all good news over the summer, Alan Griffin, the team’s only sharpshooter transferred to Syracuse, and senior Andres Feliz, who was second in assists (2.9), rebounds (5.0), and third in points (11.0)) graduated.
The subsequent lockdowns in Illinois have hindered practices and training for Illinois. More of the onus was placed upon the players to stay in shape, eat well since regular structured offseason activities were not always possible.
The Freshman recruits
The incoming freshmen looking to fill in the gaps include Puerto Rico-born Andre Curbelo and Illinois’ own Adam Miller. In just the first three games Curbelo and Miller have had an enormous impact. In the opening contest against North Carolina A&T, Miller and his fellow Morgan Park High School Alum Dosunmu scored 28 points to beat the Aggies by a score of 122-60.
Miller went six of eight behind the arc helping Illini surpass the school record of three-pointers made in a game with 17. Against Chicago State the next day Curbelo contributed 18 points off the bench in just 20 minutes and was a big reason why the Illini routed the Cougars 97-38.
The last time the Fighting Illini were ranked in the preseason top ten in 2004 they went all the way to the national championship game. That team featured Deron Williams who would go on to have an incredibly successful NBA career. Will this team echo the Illini of old, or will the inexperience of this team leave them wanting more again?
The talent in Illinois is extraordinary, with more depth than any in Brad Underwood’s previous teams. Junior Giorgi Bezhanishivli, a former starter for the squad is a versatile forward that could add some experience to a bench that features mostly underclassmen and transfers. Underwood for his part has coached his previous schools to four straight NCAA tournament appearances for Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma.
The big unknown for this team is who will provide consistent offense when Dosunmu is on the bench or in the midst of a cold streak. Cockburn is a tremendous defender and physical presence on the inside but has been completely shut down on the offensive end by some of the premier Big Ten defenders like Iowa’s Luka Garza who held Cockburn to just six points in their first meeting last year.
Adam Miller could be that necessary spark. Miller averaged 21.5 points on 71% in his first two appearances but had a much tougher game against Ohio and it nearly cost Illinois due to Miller going without a bucket on the perimeter in a tight 77-75 against the MAC opponents.
Arguably the biggest key for a successful season has to be limiting turnovers. Averaging over 12 turnovers a game gave away too many chances for a team that prides itself on effort plays and high basketball IQ. Dosunmu needs to play within himself and trust his talented squad. His 81 turnovers were the fifth most in the Big Ten and will have to be improved if a national title run is in the cards.
Overall Illinois has a good chance at positioning themselves at the top of the big ten with a potential high seed going into Indy. A lot could hinge on the limited but important senior leadership of Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams who have spent every year under Brad Underwood’s tutelage.
Both are currently in the starting rotation but have been unheralded heroes of a core ripe with potential. Keep your eyes on Champaign this Wednesday as Illinois faces another top ten opponents in the number two ranked Baylor Bears.
Drew McIntyre regained the WWE championship, beating Randy Orton and setting up a champion versus champion match with Roman Reigns. Elsewhere on Raw the New Day retained their title over the Hurt Business. NXT also had two title defenses, both Leon Ruff and Io Shirai held on to their gold over Johnny Gargano and Rhea Ripley respectively.
On dynamite Jon Moxley inadvertently revealed his wife Renee was pregnant with their first child in a promo for Kenny Omega. Will Hobbs turned heel, and the death triangle reunited with the return of Pac in a match against the Blade. Finally, the legend and legacy of the Undertaker are discussed in a preview for a possible last ride on Survivor Series.
NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal is no stranger to the world of professional wrestling. Despite making appearances on WCW and WWE programming multiple times the big diesel has never had an official match. Will AEW and Cody Rhodes finally pay-off the fans and O’Neal’s dream, or will it turn into a nightmare?
Celebrities and pro wrestling have a long and storied history. On paper, it’s a win-win. Fans feel the excitement of worlds colliding. Seeing an actor, athlete, or personality crossover with a John Cena, Sting, or Roman Reigns creates buzz. For the celebrity, entering the squared circle can fulfill a lifelong dream and create iconic moments. In execution, most matches are heavily gimmicked and are a mixed bag at best. For every windfall, there seem to be two or three disasters when it comes to expectation vs. result.
A celebrity match doesn’t have to be the most technical, the appearance doesn’t even have to be very long, but fans want a satisfying build and payoff. One of the best examples of both has to be Vince McMahon vs. Donald Trump in the battle of the billionaires. Back when Trump was the host of the Apprentice, he and Vince went back and forth on Raw one-upping each other, with Trump famously dropping “thousands of dollars” to the audience on fan appreciation night.
The feud would culminate at Wrestlemania 23 in a hair vs. hair match Bobby Lashley vs. Umaga with special guest referee Stone Cold Steve Austin. Vince and Umaga lost, and McMahon paid with the loss of his locks. Trump for his part, even took a stunner from Stone Cold, albeit not the prettiest of selling jobs from the current president.
For a more recent example, Pat McAfee stunned most of the internet wrestling community by having a high quality against NXT superstar Adam Cole at Takeover 30. Many people were doubtful the former punter turned sports entertainer could back up his talk on the mic. In the storyline, McAfee had only two weeks to prepare to fight Cole, despite the limited experience he impressed with his athleticism, charisma, and overall ring awareness.
Most long-term fans of wrestling would rather forget most celebrity appearances and while it’s impossible to list all of them there are a few examples that especially stick out as being excruciatingly bad. Basketball fans will remember the endless self-promotion of the Ball family and Big Baller Brand in 2017. LaVar Ball and his sons LaMelo and Lonzo Ball were featured in an ill-fated segment on the June 26th episode of Raw.
In one of the worst Miz TV segments, Miz talked with LeVar about the possibility of joining BBB. After awkwardly squabbling with the Ball’s and LaMelo mistakenly saying the N-Word live on air, the wrestler formerly known as Dean Ambrose (now Jon Moxley) broke up the segment by announcing he had joined BBB.
This year WWE fans were reminded that just because an individual is gifted in traditional sports doesn’t mean that translates well to the ring. Rob Gronkowski, arguably one of the best NFL tight ends of his generation, hosted this year’s Wrestlemania. Gronkowski captured the 24/7 championship but showed little potential in the ring or on the mic. The former Patriot star ended his brief wrestling career when he rejoined former teammate Tom Brady in Tampa after being traded to the Buccaneers.
Will Shaq Work
You either learn from the past or you are doomed to repeat it. This is especially true for Tony Khan and Rhodes in their attempts to recruit the legendary seven-foot plus hooper. Shaq was scheduled to appear in Wrestlemania 33 against the Big Show, but the constant changing of plans “messed it up” according to O’Neal himself. The big Aristotle could also land in the camp of Gronkowski as an athlete that can’t transition to the wrestling world. The now NBA analyst is nearly 20 years older than Gronk and is unlikely at best that he could wrestle a full match one-on-one against Cody and give the fans a satisfying finish.
If Last week’s dynamite is any indication AEW could see its very first mixed tag match as a promotion. Jade Cargill, a newly signed AEW talent and former college basketball player spoke on behalf of Shaq last Wednesday. She interrupted Rhodes in the center of the ring, and gave a long-winded speech, dubious of Rhode’s claim of being a “giant killer”. The segment was punctuated by a strong Brandi Rhodes promo. A tag match would properly limit O’Neal’s in-ring time while hopefully maintaining the star power. The biggest concern is Cargill who also has limited ring work.
Khan has a tough challenge ahead of himself and several variables are incredibly hard to control. If anyone associated with the feud has to be quarantined for Covid-19 exposure or positivity the entire contest could be postponed. The longer this builds, the more likely something could go wrong. My first reaction is skepticism. So many great ideas AEW has had have fallen by the wayside despite the company and performers’ best efforts. The Matt Hardy debut, championship builds starting and stopping, and Will Hobbs’ push being paused multiple times creates worry and casts doubt.
The optimist in me sees evidence that both Rhodes and Shaq will make this work. Both men are under contract for TNT and have partaken in creative advertising before. Each individual is already invested in this so it will be more difficult to back out of. AEW has already successfully had some notable star appearances including a segment in which Chris Jericho brawled with Mike Tyson. Plenty of pitfalls await this feud, but AEW has a chance to make an iconic moment with Shaq if they play their cards right.
The Full Gear Pay-Per-View finally happened. New champions crowned in the Young Bucks and Darby Allin in their respective matches against FTR and Cody Rhodes. Other champs had better fortune. Hikaru Shida and Jon Moxley kept their titles. WWE had high stakes matches of their own. Johnny Gargano lost his North American title to Leon Ruff. Sasha Banks overcame her past to hold on to her belt over her long rival Bayley. On Dynamite, Pac made his return to break up Eddie Kingston’s family.
In the go home show for AEW Full Gear, Jon Moxley had a war of words with Eddie Kingston. The Young Bucks narrowly avoided severe injury as Adam Page and Kenny Omega saved Nick and Matt from a viscous assault from FTR. Cody and Darby Allin continued to circle each other days before their Pay-Per-View collision.
NXT was chock full of shenanigans. Dakota Kai, with assistance from Raquel Gonzales, gave Ember Moon her first defeat since her comeback. Toni Storm defeated Shotzi Blackheart with interference from Candice LeRae. Halloween continues to haunt Cameron Grimes as he lost to the timesplitter Kushida after the return of Zombies.
Hell in The Cell and Halloween Havoc, and Dynamite all were great shows in terms of work, story and atmosphere. HIAC featured Roman Reigns defeating his fellow Samoan, Jey Uso in a brutal but dramatic match. Sasha Banks got her revenge on Bayley, and Randy Orton secured his 14th world championship over Drew McIntyre.
Wednesday night was no ordinary NXT. For the first time in over 20 years Halloween Havoc returned to the WWE. Johnny Gargano beat North American Champ, Damian Priest in a Devil’s Playground match. Johnny’s better half, Candice LeRae was unsuccessful in her attempt of dethroning Io Shirai. Pat McAfee returned to reveal he was the mastermind behind Ridge Holland’s attack and recruited the already deadly combo of Danny Burch and Oney Lorcan.
AEW continued to build toward full gear, as the finals of the number one contender tournament for the AEW championship was set with Kenny Omega winning over Penta el Zero Miedo and Hangman securing his spot over Wardlow. MJF tried to convince Chris Jericho he belongs in the Inner Circle which sets up a confrontation at Full Gear against Le Champion. Eddie Kingston made another statement in his win over Matt Sydal as he looks ahead to Jon Moxley.
NXT versus AEW on Wednesday dominated discussion this week. As a last minute replacement for Undisputed Era’s injured Strong and Fish, Oney Lorcan and Danny Burch defeated Breezango to become the new tag team champs. Kushida outlasted Tommaso Ciampa and Velveteen Dream in a triple threat match. Ember Moon won her return match but was attacked by Dakota Kai afterwards.
Dynamite’s world title tournament featured all four first round matches. Moving on was Jungleboy, Rey Fenix, Adam Page and a refocused and refurbished Kenny Omega as the fearsome cleaner, who destroyed Sonny Kiss in just a few seconds. MJF and Chris Jericho had dinner and then performed an unexpected musical number. Elsewhere on WWE programming Mustafa Ali was revealed to be the hacker.
The WWE draft separated New Day members Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods from Big E. The superstar shakeup switched brands for many notable names like Charlotte Flair, Miz and Morrison, Seth Rollins, and Rey Mysterio. On the Wednesday night wars, NXT had its sights on Halloween Havoc with Shotzi Blackheart as the host and competing in one of two number one contenders’ matches on the Card. Every championship was defended on AEW including a brutal match between Jon Moxley and Lance Archer.
Kevin Lee Davidson been wrestling in top level promotions such as Evolve, Ring of Honor, IWA-Mid South, Glory Pro, and AAW. I catch up with KLD on what wrestling has meant to him, how he improves and perfects his craft and of course some of his greatest opponents and matches. X-Pac, Scott Norton, Buff Bagwell, and PCO were big highlights in his independent career, but KLD also learned from some of the greatest teachers in wrestling like Norman Smiley, Michael Elgin, and Eddie Kingston.