[This match can be watched for free on YouTube, commencing around the 34 minute mark]
This match was an exhibition, with a six minute and five second time limit. More importantly; it was a lesson in brevity.
As both men stand apart from each other at the beginning of the match, the story is evident before the first lock up. Aldis is the ‘world’s champion,’ clad in sleek black gear with a gold trim – while not the most jacked wrestler ever to lace a pair of boots, he is obviously something of a ‘body guy’ with traps bulging around his neck. His nose is in the air and he is roundly booed by the charmingly rowdy studio crowd. Starks is noticeably smaller but oozes with physical charisma. His brightly coloured gear and cocky sneer with a thumbs down before the first bell are cheesy but in a way that endears him to the audience.
The mannerisms of both are fittingly pantomime, but this is the perfect environment for that.
The opening exchanges echo the pre-match visuals – Aldis gains the upper hand with some straight-forward grappling, and is impossibly amused by his simple takeover, as he cartwheels to the corner and smugly sits on the top rope. The crowd boos, Aldis relishes it. This NWA revival is obviously very humble in scope, but that doesn’t stop this guy from giving it his all, and really buying in. He isn’t Ric Flair – but he puts his all into being the obvious Flair surrogate of this era. Believing his own hype and milking every second of it. The party he’s throwing himself is interrupted by a sharp dropkick from Starks, who poses mid-ring to the elation of the crowd; our guy is being underestimated, and Aldis is going to regret that.
On paper, the match has a very basic formula. On paper.
Starks gets a little bit of shine, Aldis cuts him off. Aldis grinds on Starks who valiantly fights from the bottom. To use the oldest cliché in the book though, what makes this match so impressive is not what they do, but how they do it.
Look, I held my hands up and said it was a cliché!
If two other guys have this exact same match, move for move, on an episode of Smackdown, or Dynamite, or even this very episode of Powerrr; I don’t think I’d be compelled to write about it. The physical charisma of both men meshes wonderfully together, with Aldis not just being unlikeable but conveying a sense of cocksure arrogance that Starks is not on his level. And for Starks, it is pure, uncompromised, raw white meat babyface FIRE.
With the performances of both men, and the resulting crowd dynamic, being so strong – they get an awful lot out of very little, meaning this six minute (and five second) match has a closing stretch that feels just as epic as most of its stadium-wrestling peers. Without derailing this review into complete Cornette territory, 2020 was definitely a year where I grew to appreciate the ‘less is more‘ philosophy in wrestling. And trust me; I love MOVES as much as the next guy. Weaned on peak-PWG during my teens, I grew to love the go-go-go, all action style that defined 2010s wrestling. But we have now seen so much of that. It has permeated every facet of wrestling, minor and major league alike. Companies like NJPW and WWE have adopted the lengthy, near-fall laden epic as their go-to style, and AEW was born directly of it.
So when the heel ‘cut off’ spot for this match comes from Nick Aldis catching a cross body, and turning it into a picture perfect vertical suplex followed by a cocky sneer; I’m all about that. If you can get the crowd in the palm of your hand with the bread and butter tools of pro wrestling, after years of escalation and ‘innovation,’ it speaks to the actual connection you have with that crowd. When Starks hits a desperation Sling Blade to turn the tide of the match, it’s the panicked, gritted-teeth look to the audience that elates them, more-so than the physical performance of the move.
To that end; the finish is buoyed by an incredible performance by Starks. Tweaking his knee on a top rope move, the babyface is set upon by Aldis. After a dramatic attempted roll up to counter, Starks is unable to fend off the Texas Cloverleaf from Aldis (or whatever Brit-themed name he has given it). The champion sets it in exactly as the announcer chimes in to signify 60 seconds remain in the match. While sitting in a submission until the clock ticks down is among the more rote finishes of this genre of match, the performances more than make up for that. Aldis pulls Starks to the centre of the ring, making it seem as though all hope is lost — but Starks fires up one final time. In the style of the classic Hart/Austin spot, Starks pushes himself off the mat and crawls towards the ropes; red-faced, eyes bulging, clawing along to the sound of the roaring crowd who desperately want him to get there. Not to win; that ship has probably sailed with just 20 seconds left on the clock. But they want him to get to the ropes so he can survive and say he hung with the champ.
The bell sounds and naturally Aldis thinks he’s won before he’s informed of the draw. Starks didn’t get to the ropes but he survived nonetheless.
It’s hard to think of a better showing for a guy in the position of Starks than this; hell, even if he won the title that would have felt inorganic and badly timed. This was entertaining in its melodrama, conveyed that Starks is gutsy fighter who can hang at the top of the card, while still illustrating Aldis is ‘The Man’ around these parts. All in six minutes. And five seconds.