#DiscoveringWrestling #001 – 5000 Years of Chinese History (MKW: Middle Kingdom Wrestling) Part 1

For a long while now, I’ve wanted to add my voice to the world of professional wrestling commentary, but I’ve never before understood what I had to offer, or what I wanted to talk about. There are millions of voices out there chronicling the big leagues with fervor and unquestionable talent. I’m no Dave Meltzer, and don’t think I ever could be, and I could never dare compete with the comedic styling of Adam Blampied over on WhatCulture. I am, however, a passionate fan of this most unique of all performing arts, and my passions skew a little to the left of most of the mainstream coverage. So, I’m going to try and find the things that excite me the most and talk about that, and when necessary we’ll have to slide back up to the WWE for a moment or two.

Easily my favourite thing about pro-wrestling is how versatile it is as a medium, and how this has lead to various regions of the world honing and crafting unique interpretations of the art. These interpretations have gone on to influence each other, going through resurgences and disappearances, and hopped all over the globe creating new offshoots and hybrids as they interact with each other. In Japan you have the lauded Strong Style, known worldwide and heralded as the brainchild of Antonio Inoki, but alongside it you have Giant Baba’s King’s Road, Ultimo Dragon’s Lucharesu lineage (as the name implies, a Japanese derivative of Lucha Libre, Mexico’s vaunted addition to Pro-Wrestling), the Death Match scene, the revolutionary Joshi styles, and much, much more. Japan is a tiny country, and yet their output is so varied and innovative, because Pro-Wrestling is limitless. This diversity is found everywhere the art goes, and as time marches ever onward, so does Pro-Wrestling, finding itself in new areas it has never been before.

Even before the WWE’s #CWC (Cruiserweight Classic) announced its list of competitors, I had been on a hunt for information on what Pro-Wrestling was like in places that have yet to hit the global scene, and had come across the name of Hoho Lun, and a mainland Chinese organization he had done work for by the name of Middle Kingdom Wrestling. Pro-Wrestling in China is a hatchling, barely existing, and, in the future, MKW could be standing at the forefront of a national style, like NJPW in Japan. With the power of the internet we have an invaluable opportunity to get in on the ground floor and watch it happen, because they’ve made the exciting decision to put it all up on YouTube (the logistics of this are interesting, considering they operate out of mainland China).  Now, there are distinct Pros and Cons to their decision to get Chinese wrestling onto YouTube ASAP, and I’ll run down the Cons before we move on, because I’d like to focus on the Pros.

The camera work and production values are unique. This one will actually show up in the Pros as well, but it can be a Con. It’s not the smooth work you want, and it’s often many steps below the recordings done by North American indie shows, but between season one and season two, the quality improves a good deal. I’d wager that the biggest contributors to the poor quality are the cameras they are using. Numerous times when the action is in motion and the wrestlers and cameramen are moving about, the camera will go out of focus. This is obviously unintended, as I cannot imagine any wrestling promotion thinking, “Yes, let’s make it more difficult for our viewers to see what’s going on“.  It’s rough but overall this is forgivable. On literally their first show they filmed it and put it online. There are bound to be hiccups, and while they’re unavoidable, it didn’t at any point knock me completely out of enjoying the show.

The commentary is on the weird side, with “characters” rotating in and out between “episodes“. These “characters“, unless I am terribly mistaken, are all voiced by the same two people, and I could certainly do without that. Stability in the announcing team would be best, in my opinion, to add to the atmosphere of the shows. Some of the moves are called right, some aren’t. This is something that even the WWE can’t escape, unless Mauro Ranallo is on the mic (because he’s pretty much flawless). There’s room to grow on their commentary team. I didn’t hate them, like some commentators, but they just felt off. We’ll see how they go as more episodes air.

Y’know, the more I think of it, these Cons are all part of one problem in particular, and this is a problem that literally only doing more shows will cure: They’re green. The company is very young and, based on publicised data, nobody involved has a huge amount of experience in performing in their roles. It can’t be helped, and, most importantly, I can see the potential underneath it all. Some of their spots look awkward or overly telegraphed. It’s natural. I’ve seen that at small indie shows in North America all the time. Their booking is not particularly inspired, but they neither have the history of long-standing feuds nor the depth of roster needed for truly great wrestling booking. In their first season they put their brand-new belt on an American whom I’d never heard of before named Dalton Bragg, and it bothered me at first that they hadn’t put the belt on a native Chinese wrestler. Again, I can’t fault them for this decision. The local talent aren’t as experienced and when they are experienced, they were on loan from somewhere else. Furthermore, it seems Dalton has made MKW his home. He seems, rather surprisingly to me, to have a connection with the attendees. I expect that the numbers in attendance should grow as the shows continue. Hopefully they can get up to a regular touring schedule and draw a steady audience, cementing themselves as the premiere Chinese Pro-Wrestling group.

Now, from a position wherein I recognize that not everything they do will be great immediately, let’s talk about where the shows succeed, and where I see potential underneath the roughness. Remember that unique camera work I talked about? Well, here’s what’s good about it:  the camera seems to routinely luck its way into some really dramatic shots, such as when the massive King Michael is standing across the ring from his opponent, The Slam,  and the camera moves up from behind him to give the viewer a shot of his opponent that highlights their size difference (You can watch that video here ). Now, with the equipment and skill level involved, the effect is dampened a bit, but when I first watched it I knew that this could be done again and to great effect in the future, with more practice and better cameras.

While the image quality isn’t the best, and the production values are amateur, they do this nice slow-motion effect on the end of a match that really spices up their otherwise unremarkable presentation. It’s a little cheesy, and certainly wouldn’t be possible in a live broadcast, but it adds a unique flavour to their shows that I can’t say I have ever seen done before. Sure, some companies will do slow-mo replays, but these guys work that shit right into the match!

The talent in the ring varies, with some performers being rather special considering how recently they had started off in the business. Such as The Selfie King, whom I can honestly say has a great gimmick that represents a distinct portion of the Chinese zeitgeist. He plays up his gimmick throughout his matches, stopping to take selfies on the outside, exuding true heelish arrogance, and at one point he even lays down next to his defeated opponent and takes a selfie with him, staying true to his moniker. He shows some good development between the two seasons, bulking up, growing his hair out a bit, and getting some better ring gear. Then there’s a more veteran Chinese wrestler on the shows: The Slam, a man with one of the greatest ring names ever. The Slam is something like an energetic slightly-doughy Asian Goldberg who keeps a frenetic pace and looks crisp in every moment except for one, and that’s when it appeared he didn’t have all the muscle needed to deal with slamming the massive King Michael. I’d love to see The Slam put on some additional muscle-mass/definition and really look as great as I think he can. But he’s not really an MKW guy, as the announcers will routinely let you know. He’s a champ elsewhere (in reality, the champ of the group that MKW are partnering with to have access to a ring and put on these shows, a group which, if my facts are straight, was founded by The Slam). But I gotta say, the guy who hooked my attention the most, was a Taiwanese wrestler named LenBai, who feels like he understands the Strong Style concept very well, and finishes his matches with a move I can only describe as a Fisherman’s Death Valley Driver. He displayed a vicious streak out of nowhere during the first season, and a half-painted face that really connected with me and makes me want to see more of him. He draws on the mystique of characters like The Great Muta, and exhibits a solid understanding of the psychology involved in properly executing his gimmick.

wrestlers3-768x902Image originally from “Sino Smackdown” article on pigchina.com, link can be found at the bottom of the article.

This is, momentarily, where I’ll talk about the WWE. This year they have arranged for a showcase of global talent in the #CWC, Cruiserweight Classic, that is stunning to say the least. As I watched these matches and I listened to the commentary I began to understand something about the world of wrestling. It is ever evolving and parts of the world are being opened up to it by impassioned people who are seizing the opportunity to put their stamp, their own personal and national identity, on the Pro-Wrestling stage. Hoho Lun, who won his first round match in that esteemed tournament held by the big guys, founded the Hong Kong Pro-Wrestling Federation, and has been in both seasons of MKW TV on YouTube thus far. This young man brought Pro-Wrestling to his home. We in North America live in a part of the world with some of the deepest and richest roots for the industry, leading it in one very big, loud, shiny direction for a long while now as a new style percolates on the indie scene, with uncountable options to meet our needs and an established market for the medium. We cannot really fathom what it would be like to be part of the birth of it, but boy have I always wanted to see what it was like.

No matter what my, or your, concerns are with the quality of these shows, there is an undeniably interesting opportunity and a wealth of underlying potential  to Middle Kingdom Wrestling. Getting in at the beginning of an entire country, the most populous country in the world, discovering and engaging with Pro-Wrestling, authoring its own narrative in the grand history of this art, is an exciting prospect. Where will this go? What will Five-Thousand years of Chinese History do to Pro-Wrestling?

These are questions that I could never begin to guess at the answers to. I’ve studied Chinese history, both in school and in my leisure time, and have found myself lost in countless stories and cultural myths. Their pop culture has maintained strong roots to this history and mythology, with cinema genres that are uniquely Chinese captivating my attention for much of my life (Wuxia cinema is entrancing), and I can certainly see how I, as a western fan of their culture, would try to respectfully adapt their cultural uniqueness to Pro-Wrestling. However, it isn’t my place to do so and I am far more excited to see what their history, mythology, martial arts traditions, and unique perspectives on arts and entertainment will add to Pro-Wrestling when authored by their own hands, from their own minds. I’d wager that in the early years they will hew closely to styles and ideas imported from Japan and “the west” until they find their footing in the art form and then we will see them truly flourish, developing their own styles that are uniquely Chinese expressions of Pro-Wrestling. That is what I am looking forward to, and that is why we should all be keeping an eye on the Chinese Pro-Wrestling scene and Middle Kingdom Wrestling.

Come back next week for Part 2 of my coverage of Middle Kingdom Wrestling. I had the unique and exciting opportunity to interview Adrian Gomez, the man who founded MKW. .

If you’d like to watch all the MKW matches, head over and subscribe to their YouTube channel here, and for more information on the nascent state of Pro-Wrestling in China, there are some good articles from Forbes here and PIG China here. Middle Kingdom Wrestling’s website can be found here.

 

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