Have you ever had that friend who tried and tried for years to get to climb to somewhere better? And they finally feel so close, only to have it ripped away?
That’s the beauty of Sheamus and his struggle against Intercontinental Champion Gunther at WWE’s Clash at the Castle.
It’s a match that’s seen a lot of praise, even to this day. It’s been the discussion ever since, with Sheamus receiving a rare five-star match rating from Dave Meltzer (yeah, I’m sorry for bringing up ratings, but for the sake of the narrative, this feels important to add). WWE themselves have run back various matches to call to this epic wrestling rivalry. The Imperium/Brawling Brutes Donnybrook Match, the Royal Rumble, the triple threat at WrestleMania. All of it, coming from this and the Smackdowns that preceded it.
After losing an opportunity to face Roman Reigns in Cardiff, Wales at Clash at the Castle, Sheamus found through his own brute force a consolation prize that would more than make up for it – a chance at a title he has not won. His great white whale, his El Dorado. The Intercontinental Championship, held by The Ring General, Gunther.
When I first heard about this, I was excited. During an era where I was overwhelmed by the departures of wrestlers I knew and the rise of ones I didn’t, Sheamus was one that caught my eye. Whereas everyone was flying all over the place, being the standard wrestler, or being a comedy act, he stood out. The pale Irishman with the orange hair was a mighty competitor. He was stiffer than most. His elbow strikes and the Beats of the Bodhran in particular are standouts in his match formulae.
Sheamus, who would normally feel like a big guy, would have periods of stagnation while still putting on great matches. As wrestlers are wont to do sometimes, he would fall to the wayside on the card. Despite his time with Cesaro in The Bar and his on again, off again feud with Drew McIntyre, it was hard to find him being able to stand out. There’s only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
Enter, his new dance partner.Gunther.
Relatively new to WWE’s main roster, the former Walter had written the book on pain and agony with the palm of his hand. Holding the NXT UK Championship for almost 900 days and having a history on the independent scene (highly recommend his matches against Will Ospreay and Tomohiro Ishii), Walter was a big deal, and as Gunther, he proved that a name is but a name when you can carve your legacy through your own might.
Both Gunther and Sheamus were up for the challenge. Whereas many foes in their careers were but mere fodder, they knew from the instant they met that this was going to be a fight. From the moment they locked eyes, they knew. I know that sounds more romantic than intense, but watch for yourself. This is like the matches in Pro Wrestling NOAH, where the stare tells a story and makes a match feel all the more important as you piece together what the opponents may be thinking.
As Sheamus is accompanied by Butch and Ridge Holland to the ring, the Brutes await Gunther, with a reunited Imperium with Giovanni Vinci, fresh from NXT, joining his brethren once more.
Tension is already high with everyone in the ring. The crowd is buzzing and electric – the Welsh mass singing the hymn of anticipation as Gunther and Sheamus’s cohorts are unable to hold back.
Amid the ensuing brawl and the sea of chants and song resonating in deafening fashion, Gunther and Sheamus stand there in complete silence; the world to them is quiet, save for the sound of their heartbeat pumping blood. Only one sound will break that silence, and it is one that would live on in memory immemorial.
Once their boys were fighting in the back and the bell had rung, a work of art began and fans were left with a visceral memory.
Immediate clobbering commences, with both men delivering strikes that echoed into the Welsh night.
Gunther gains an early momentum, delivering hell upon the Celtic Warrior, straight-up manhandling him, only for Sheamus to fight back. He’s no mere mid-carder or jobber. Fighting, to him, is akin to oxygen to most mammals.
The power of Gunther is the Austrian’s only saving grace each time Sheamus attempts the Beats of Bodhran. Not only are these men brutish bulls, but they’re smart too, and quick to the draw.
The pain delivered to Sheamus, the battering and the flesh colliding is his mistress, and she would leave her mark on him. His chest turns about as red as his hair, the welts serving as a reminder of the demands in standing toe-to-toe with Gunther. This isn’t a match with Triple H, John Cena, Daniel Bryan, or CM Punk. This is a hungry beast that knows what he needs.
When the chops and slaps and elbows befitting a Japanese match fails to quell the desires of the veteran, submission is the only way. With the pincers of the Boston Crab firmly grasping Sheamus’s legs and a crossface are both denied, the Ring General has to change his game plan once more.
This aging dog isn’t going to be put down so easily. This old fiddle still plays, and it plays a seasoned and sweet tune.
Unyielding, unrelenting, the sweat and perspiration flies in the Principality Stadium in Cardiff. Sheamus has never been brutalized to this level before and he has met his match. Though his eyes are blue like waves in a sea, they carry angry tidal waves and the fire that breathes life within his soul. This is Sheamus’s fighting spirit. Though Gunther holds wrist control to hinder any escape, Sheamus fights on and breaks through.
A move that has eluded the Irish wrestler, he sounds the drums as the Beats of Bodhran are finally played; the crowd is the vocalist, chanting along with each thud and thwack wherever Sheamus employs it.
The crowd roars through the rises and falls that carry the song of war. This combination with the lengths both men go to is enough to put ice in my veins, flowing adrenaline through my body, and rock me to the bone. The sensation of air getting choked from the emotion lodged in my throat and the urge to watch from glassy eyes keeps me glued. Each time I have to see this epic story, I feel this.
The old and reliable White Noise from Sheamus bears no fruit; the grapes are inches from reach. There’s no reacting, no melodrama, there is the understanding the fight must continue, so the need to fight on maintains. He who hesitates, is lost.
The tenderizing, grimacing action that has me clutching at my own chest can’t help but keep me on the edge of my seat – the bruises, the welts, and the blood isn’t enough to deteriorate the Celt. With a Celtic Cross, he almost gets the pin, to no avail. He attempts a Brogue Kick, again to no avail.
It has to end at some point – it has to. Gunther knows this. With a powerbomb and a surprise lariat, he is able to at last get the pin and so sustains his long-standing and important Intercontinental Championship reign. He can rest easy tonight with hospitality befitting a general. The mat is sacred and it has been given tribute.
For Sheamus, he’s left in defeat, but he gains so much more. He gains a moment that not even gold can grant. The love of the UK fans washes over him. He has naught to do but take solace that he had nothing left to prove. The IC belt may be his last goal, but he has nothing to be ashamed of. He put on a fight among fights. The same he’s always set out to do.
As a longtime fan of Sheamus, even when I was no longer a fan of professional wrestling, seeing him brought to this level of acclaim and praise fills my heart. He’s a part of the conversation now. Every moment he’s given a chance, it means so much more now. All because he was given a chance to shine.
Wrestling touches us in so many ways. From the Omega/Okada or the Pentagon/Villano matches of the world, it is times like these where wrestling feels like something more than what we’d expect. Where wrestling, and all the emotions that come with it, are real.
For the Celtic Warrior, the fight will forevermore match on, and to commemorate the story of Sheamus, I’d like to call upon a verse from an Irish ballad, The Rising of the Moon.
“Out from many a mud wall cabin; eyes were watching through the night,
Many a manly heart was beating for the blessed warning light.
Murmurs rang along the valleys to the banshee’s lonely croon,
And a thousand pikes were flashing by the rising of the moon.
By the rising of the moon, by the rising of the moon
And a thousand pikes were flashing at the rising of the moon.”