Before the dawn of 2018, AAW Pro Wrestling had one more show to put on.

Every year, the Windy City Classic (WCC) is AAW’s crowning show. It is meant to be their WrestleMania. Their Wrestle Kingdom. Their top notch show with big matches. The first AAW show I ever went to was Windy City Classic XI — heck, that was the first live wrestling show I ever went to! I haven’t been to too many AAW shows this year after moving away from their Berwyn home, but the sentimental value the WCC holds for me was too much to let me pass up this show.

So, on a freezing Chicago night on December 30th, 2017, Chris Olson and I trekked to 115 Bourbon Street, the larger venue that AAW uses for its big Chicago shows. We were excited for the show — not just because it had been six months since our last one, or because we were seeing some of our favorites like Dezmond Xavier and Penta el Zero Miedo. WCC13 would also be the AAW debut for WWE Legend X-Pac, aka Sean Waltman. Another stellar night of indie wrestling seemed guaranteed.

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However, things got off to a rocky start before the night began, and they remained tense throughout the show.

When WCC13 was announced, Michael Elgin was slated to take on Rey Fenix for the AAW Heavyweight Championship. Elgin had won the Jim Lynam Memorial Tournament, which meant he had earned the championship title shot. However, the story broke in early December that Elgin was involved in a sexual harassment scandal. Because of this scandal, AAW withdrew the title shot for Elgin:

The opportunity was then offered to Jeff Cobb:

Thus, even before the night began, tension existed between AAW and Elgin fans, who felt cheated out of a chance to see their favorite possibly win the title. Additionally, the story the promoters had wanted to tell suddenly went away — which may explain some of the weird booking for the night.

WCC started out great with a non-championship tag-team match between Keith Lee (who had just been named one of the top 10 pro wrestlers for 2017, along with Matt Riddle) and Shane Strickland taking on Zachary Wentz and Dezmond Xavier.

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The match was a great showing for all four wrestlers, who landed great spots throughout but, more importantly, interacted really well with the crowd. Xavier in particular did a great job as a heel against the crowd favorite Lee. Lee demonstrated why he deserved to be SI’s #10 pro wrestler, pulling off moves not expected for a man of his size. The crowd was hot for the match, and the energy of Bourbon Street was buzzing by the time they were done, with Strickland and Lee, naturally, victorious — and showing respect for their smaller competitors.

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The buzz kept going with the introduction of Riddle to take on ACH for a chance to be the number one contender for the Heavyweight Championship. The crowd began chanting “Bro!” as Riddle’s entrance music began. Clearly Riddle was the fan favorite, and ACH cemented himself as the heel by refusing to hug Riddle before the match began. The match began slow, with Riddle going after ACH’s injuries, clearly marked with the tape on his chest. However, around the 15-minute mark, the wrestlers were clearly energized, and their energy sparked the audience to come alive. A series of near pins furthered the frenzy, between the wrestlers and the fans — and then the bell rang.

Yes, that is correct: the match had been given a 20-minute time limit, and the time had run out.

Now, AAW prides itself on being different — especially different from the WWE. Their tagline has been “Professional wrestling, redefined,” which usually translates into no DQs and no count-outs. And this match was for a title shot, meaning it was supposedly an important match.

So when the bell rang and the match was announced a draw, the audience turned. They started booing ferociously. A “let them fight!” chant broke out. When the ring announcer said that both men would be getting title shots, the boos came back even louder, joined by a chant of “bull-shit bull-shit.” The wrestlers themselves were also visibly upset by what was happening.

And nothing seemed to go right after that.

Right after this match, the only woman to set foot in the ring that night, Scarlett Bordeaux (a manager cum wrestler), said she wanted a shot at the new women’s championship title. She was clearly not wearing a shirt (or bra) under her jacket, making me wonder if she was intended to pacify the male fans after what had just transpired with the Riddle/ACH match. And then — in an era of intense focus on sexual harassment, and with the Elgin situation having changed the night’s main event — she said “Who do I have to do to get a championship match?”

It’s almost as if the AAW promoters decided they would be the biggest heels during the night.

Now, the “joke” was that after she said that, Davey Vega’s music hit, and he emerged. As I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, Vega is a heel the AAW fans love to hate. Rather than suggest anything sexual to her, he wants to take her on as a manager to help his career, thereby perhaps undercutting the sexual tone of Scarlett’s question and turning it into a business proposition based on her successful managerial skills. Perhaps that helped undercut the problematic portrayal, but overall the optics and messaging just didn’t feel right for the situation.

Furthermore, it brought out the challengers for the Tag Team Championship without a proper introduction for their match against the Besties in the World.

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Seriously, I had no idea who the challengers were, why they were mad with Vega, and why they were demanding a chance for the championship. I know I haven’t kept up with the shows since this past summer, but usually AAW does video promos to help explain all of it. The “skit” with Scarlett did nothing to help me understand what was happening. And after what happened with Riddle/ACH, the crowd was not having any of this match. The crowd was barely paying attention, often only voicing displeasure with Brubaker (I never knew which one he was during the match), and it was the shortest of the three opening matches. For a championship match, the challengers were little more than jobbers, and the match didn’t seem to have the respect (from promoters or fans) it deserved.

The return of the ring announcer brought back the boos — every time he stepped into the ring, he was booed, as if it was his fault that Riddle/ACH ended in a draw. He weathered it well, even making a joke of it later in the night, but at this point in time he was there to announce the street fight between David Starr and Eddie Kingston, reminding the crowd that the match could very well spill out into the crowd. When Kingston fights at AAW, the chance is pretty high he will take it past the barriers — he particularly likes the bar at Bourbon Street.

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The match had a couple good spots involving thumb tacks and a barb wire-festooned chair, but they never did leave the safety of the barriers and turn it into a real street fight. At one point Starr teased it, and then took it away as the heel he was. The ending itself was weak. Jeff Cobb came out to help Starr and held a weakened Kingston in a submission hold. Starr then brandished a metal bat and monologued about how he was going to end Kingston’s life — only to barely touch him with the bat’s handle. We were expecting him to try to hit a home run on Kingston’s head, and we got a somewhat whiffed handle shot to the jaw.

Add to that a fan behind me shouting anti-Semitic taunts at Starr throughout the match. Things like “circumcise him!” and “send him to the concentration camp!” and “get him to the gas chamber!” and shrugging off when another fan and I tried to get him to stop, saying that the Holocaust was 70 years ago and he was “just joking.”

Yeah. It was one of those nights.

The crowd really wanted Kingston/Starr to spill out on the floor. While not the main event of the night, that hasn’t stopped previous shows from such a brawl earlier in the show. Well, perhaps not this early — this match should’ve come later in the night, so that it could have been more extension, more brutal, more unconstrained. As with the Riddle/ACH match, it seemed like the promoters were bent on not giving the fans what they wanted. Which is completely fine, and is an angle that the promoters can play up by making themselves part of the problem — think the Authority or Vince McMahon’s entire persona at WWE.

But, again, AAW has tried to position itself as different.

The next match was a fatal fourway that again had the potential for some amazing spots.

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And, overall, it did. The talent in the ring was top notch, but the crowd was still slow to get into it. The energy was there in the ring, but the fans were just not having it. Except for one spot, where Joey Janela seemingly attempted suicide with a dive off the balcony onto all the other competitors on the floor. Those who saw him ascending the balcony either called you for him to stop, or they cheered him on. After his dive, the crowd broke into a “holy shit” chant and called out his name, until he popped up to say “I’m okay!”. Then the match ended, perhaps too quickly, given what had happened — and Janela didn’t even win.

More confusingly, however, was what happened after the match. Teddy Hart, of the Hart family, got on the mic and gave a rambling promo, in which he praised all the fans for being there, saying “Your money, your time, our bodies.” All of which was very nice. What was more nice was how he praised Penta, who remained in the ring, and said he really wanted to wrestle the luchador. Penta, for his part, praised Hart, and said he really wanted to wrestle the Canadian. The fans all wanted the match to happen. And then it seemed like it was going to happen, right there and then, as Hart and Penta made the moves to start the match — all of which the fans were really in to.

And then a ref and the ring announcer came out and put the kibosh on the whole idea, prompting boos from the audience. So, now, the crowd didn’t have a definitive first contender, didn’t see a real street fight, and were robbed of a Penta/Hart match.

The night really never recovered after that.

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Fan favorites the Killer Kult were next, but the crowd was essentially dead throughout it. Wrestlers kept trying to call on the audience for a call-and-response participation, but it was either weak or nonexistent. Which was a shame, because the talent in the ring was great, and Sami Callihan continued to show how wonderful of a heel he has become.

After intermission, the ring announcer came back to introduce the Waltman match, again to a chorus of boos when he stepped in the ring.

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The match itself served more of a nostalgia purpose than anything else. Waltman got in some of his signature offense, and after words gave the crowd the chance to yell “suck it!” in a crotch-chop call-and-response move. But that was about it. At one point, after tagging out, Waltman nearly collapsed in his team’s corner, clearly winded after the exertion. The match itself was short, and saw Braxton/Something winning — which brought the boos back from the crowd. The horrible fan behind me spent the match shouting “We want Chyna!” and “One more night in Chyna!”, referencing the Degeneration X team member Chyna, who died in 2016. That didn’t help matters.

Then it was the final match, the main event for the Heavyweight Championship that had to be changed because of controversy.

downloadI had wondered how the fans would respond when Cobb came out instead of Elgin. For the most part, there didn’t seem to be any Elgin supporters there: I heard no chanting in support of him take hold. I did hear a brief “Fuck Big Mike” chant. The match itself was fine, with Starr coming out to heel it up and try to help Cobb win. The big surprise came after Fenix won, when Cobb and Starr started beating up on Fenix. That brought out the Killer Kult, who defended Fenix.

This twist is weird because Callihan dropped the title to Fenix, and had spent basically a year tormenting the luchador, even having stolen Fenix’s mask. Callihan’s reasoning was that after what they went through, Fenix was family, and he wasn’t going to let Cobb and Starr hurt his family. Twisted logic, but Callihan has been a twisted heel in AAW. More than that, he has always been a fan favorite, so this sorta face move makes sense in aligning him with the fans’ adoration.

But it was definitely the capper to a weird show. Which overall was perhaps exactly what it needed to be, given how downright bizarre 2017 proved to be as a year.

Aside from the altercation with the anti-Semite drunk fan behind me, I loved it. It was fascinating to see how the whole thing unfolded in ways designed not to please the fans, and how the fans responded when they did not get the matches they wanted. Sometimes you have to upset your fans, and not give them what they think they want, so that you can give them something better down the line. Now AAW fans have more Riddle and ACH to look forward to — and perhaps even a Riddle/ACH championship match where they have more time and can really let lose. And they have a Killer Kult vs. Cobb/Starr match to witness — that could be very bloody given the natures of the wrestlers involved.

So maybe to prepare them for a great 2018, AAW had to give the fans one more night of 2017’s aggravation.

Besides, Tetsuya Naito is coming to take on Callihan as part of his February tour. 2018 is gonna be great for indie wrestling.

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