#DiscoveringWrestling Presents – State of the Middle Kingdom: An exploration of the burgeoning Chinese Pro Wrestling Scene

People say starting is always the hardest part of writing. Particularly when you have something the scope of this subject to cover. But I’ve found this subject has made it harder for me to stop writing.  I first started writing about the nascent Chinese Pro-Wrestling scene in August of 2016, when I took some time out to watch a company I had stumbled across on one of my delves into finding wrestling from places I’d never seen wrestling from before. It makes sense, in retrospect, that Middle Kingdom Wrestling would be my first stop in mainland Chinese Pro-Wrestling. MKW had the distinct benefit of being owned and operated by an American expat, Adrian Gomez, who made intentional decisions to make the brand visible to those outside of the country.

While Middle Kingdom Wrestling was my first window into this scene, they were not the first to break ground for Pro-Wrestling in China, and nor would they be the last. In this very special article, I will aim to paint a broad and informative picture of the mainland Chinese Pro-Wrestling scene, from its shockingly recent first steps, to its latest, boldest accomplishments. I’ll introduce you to the key players, the men responsible for igniting this fire, and those who will carry it into the future.

“But why,” I hear you asking, “should I care about Chinese Pro-Wrestling?”

I have two answers to that question:

The first answer is that, in many ways, China is the future. The international entertainment industry in general has set its sights on China as their changing economic position in the world has led them to become a huge untapped market. While their television, film, and video games have established and entrenched industries, Pro-Wrestling has no such pre-existing footing in the nation. Vince McMahon’s WWE has expressed interest in expanding into the region and set to work on trying to develop Chinese talent in a bid for a piece of the pie. Antonio Inoki’s IGF has taken similar measures. The WWN have toured there and Billy Corgan’s NWA have scheduled a show to break in to the market, neither booked any Chinese talent. This heightened level of international interest in the region, however, has not led to the existing local talent being given much attention at all. The media buzz has been almost sinophobic, only focusing on the names brought in by the WWE for a brief flash and then setting them aside. Herein you will find the real pioneers of Chinese Pro-Wrestling identified and the history of the scene expounded upon.

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The Chinese Entertainment Events organization the NWA partnered with to promote their upcoming show outside of Shanghai put performers on their poster multiple times.

The second answer is that it is a fresh, new, unpredictable scene with an interesting history built upon one man’s passionate shoulders, and a vast depth of possibility lies below the surface. Pro-Wrestling as an art has always found itself transformed, by time and culture, into unique expressions of itself. Core concepts are universal, but presentation and audience expectations, vary wildly from one region to the next. North America, Europe, and Japan have had many multiples of decades to cultivate a wide selection of their versions of Pro-Wrestling. There exists a rich tapestry of influences and exchanges, creating numerous genres and subgenres of Pro-Wrestling within each region. Chinese Pro-Wrestling, however, is very much a teenager, just entering its most formative and developed moments now. This presents us, Pro-Wrestling fans and historians, with a unique opportunity for real-time observation as a new culture engages with, adopts, and modifies Pro-Wrestling into what only China can turn it into. In fact, as it stands, I don’t understand how nobody else is actively excited and talking about Chinese Pro-Wrestling!

Special Notes

First and foremost, I would like to thank “Selfie King” Hong Wan and “Big Sam” Burgess for their invaluable aid in putting together this article. Without Hong Wan’s relentless helpfulness I never would have been able to write this article. He routinely provided me with the latest news in the scene, showed me early OWE information, got me on to WeChat, answered every question I asked him, translated Chinese text for me, and connected me with many other people. Similarly, Sam provided me with honest, nuanced insight into the cultural context of the Chinese Pro-Wrestling scene, helping me to better understand the events and attitudes in play. Without his help this article would not have been as balanced and informative as I have strived to make it. There are many more people who contributed to my understanding of the scene, and I extend my utmost thanks to everyone who spoke with me as I put this together.

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Big Sam hits a Big Boot on “Selfie King” Hong Wan. He would go on to be the 3rd MKW Champion.

Secondly, unlike the WWE, IGF (Inoki Genome Federation) has feet on the ground in China. They operate a dojo in Shanghai, which presently trains approximately eight Chinese talent in Pro-Wrestling. This dojo, I have been told, puts on exhibition shows around the area. Since they operate in China, and with Chinese performers, it is important to mention IGF here as a part of the mainland Chinese Pro-Wrestling landscape. However, as they are simply a satellite of a foreign company, they do not quite belong in the main body of this article. That being said, the criticism I have encountered of their product is useful to help inform our understanding of the tastes of the mainland Chinese pro-wrestling audience. From what I have heard, the exhibitions that the IGF students put on are very Inoki-ism in feel, essentially worked MMA/Shoot fights, which doesn’t seem to go over well with the local audiences. The word I most often saw in regards to this style was “boring.” Also, anecdotally, Wang Bin worked for and was trained by IGF before he was recruited by the WWE.

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“Selfie King” Hong Wan tosses his MKW Championship challenger Big Sam with a release German suplex.

Finally I would like to mention that this article is peppered with links to a tremendous amount of resources, both primary and secondary sources, which I used to build the foundations of this article. If you would like to watch these videos, or follow these performers, or just go down the rabbit hole and learn more about Chinese Pro-Wrestling, I encourage you to open all the tabs you can! I have also made what I would consider to be an army of GIFs which I will be sharing on my twitter account, and possibly elsewhere, to help in promoting Chinese Pro-Wrestling. Now buckle up and trust me, we’ll have more than enough to look at here as it is. To that end, there is no other place to start than with…

The Slam and CWE

When asked about the importance of this man, Hong Wan, second ever MKW champion, told me that “he’s the first ever pro-wrestler in China, every Chinese wrestling fan knows him” and capped it off with “many people are willing to pay to watch him.” The Slam left China to begin his quest to bring Pro-Wrestling home in his late-teens. He was trained in South Korea’s WWA promotion, then returned to mainland China to set up the first ever Chinese Pro-Wrestling promotion in Dongguan in 2004. As the first ever Pro-Wrestler and Promoter in China he would also begin training the talent needed to put on shows. Without an established talent pool and market demand, the early days of the CWE (China Wrestling Entertainment) were akin, in presentation, to backyard wrestling. While their facilities might have been ramshackle, and their gear was without budget, the talent could shine through. These earliest years of CWE were grimy and unpolished and filled with passion, as The Slam strove to establish a foothold for the art and business of Pro-Wrestling in the country.

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The Slam takes the fight to his student, King of Man, in a CWE event in a mall.

While the company has faced its own shares of ups and downs, opening and closing its operations a number of times, their progression has been notable. Not only has the presentation of their product improved over the years, but The Slam has trained almost all of the Chinese talent presently working in the scene. From early forerunners through to current standouts like Gao Yuan, though the two would have a falling out, and Hong Wan, The Slam has trained them all. As a testament to his influence and importance, The Slam isn’t only the father of the mainland scene, but is the grandfather of the Hong Kong scene, having trained its founder Ho Ho Lun as well. While much of The Slam’s students were trained without official facilities, starting in 2013 The Slam would have a series of partnerships with gyms and associations which allowed for more regular training and shows to occur.

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The Slam drops Angelnaut with a TKO at the co-promoted CWE/CNWWE Crazy Fight Wrestling League, Night One.

While the CWE would never rise beyond what one would expect of a struggling indie promotion, time has been on The Slam’s side. Newer events have increasingly higher quality production values and the talent performing on them grows in quality despite having limited opportunities to work and develop their craft in the fledgling market. Passion is, genuinely speaking, what seems to keep the scene moving forward towards betterment more than any attendance figures, gates, or financial backers ever have. Regrettably, not much information is available in English about the CWE’s fourteen year history. Cagematch records only go back to 2012, and you can thank Big Sam for most of that information, but their Youku channel gives further insight into the past. What is of paramount importance to understand is that, between 2004 and 2013 the CWE, and hence all of mainland Chinese wrestling, would more or less develop in a vacuum.

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The Slam’s students, all former CWE roster members, can be found working all over the Chinese scene. Here we see Hell Shark tearing into Jeff Man in MKW.

Once their position as the sole Pro-Wrestling promotion in the country was no more, the CWE quickly developed a noteworthy track record of co-promoting shows with start-up brands. Both CNWWE and MKW benefitted from The Slam’s passion to promote Pro-Wrestling in China when, in December 2013 and July 2015 respectively, they assisted these new upstarts and cross-promoted two-day events with each of them as their first shows.

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M.A., one of The Slam’s younger students, poses with the CWF Fighting Spirit championship.

Presently, it would seem, that The Slam has, once again, had to close down his company. However, even with his operations shut down, The Slam has seen fit to safeguard the future of Chinese Pro-Wrestling. To this end, he has used his connections to get at least one of his students, M.A., a position training with IGF’s Shanghai dojo. Jason Wang, another student of The Slam, is also at the Shanghai dojo and I would suspect he followed much the same path as M.A.. Furthermore, on top of ensuring students receive further training, The Slam himself continues to perform and looks to further his reputation of working with new promotions in 2018. Based on the rumours I have been privy to amongst the Chinese Pro-Wrestling fan community on WeChat, and the reputation the CWE has of opening and closing only to open again, it is possible that we could see The Slam open up shop once again in 2018.

The rise and fall of CNWWE

The humorously named CNWWE (China Nation Wide Wrestling Entertainment) has been described by Adrian Gomez as “an on and off Chongqing based promotion run by a Chinese business man named Paul,” who dreamed of becoming ” the Chinese Vince Mc[Mahon.]” In operation from 2013 to 2015, they produced a total of sixteen confirmed events. Their biggest shows, the two-night Crazy Fight Wrestling League,  were produced in collaboration with The Slam’s CWE, and booked an interesting selection of talent. Along with locals like Gao Yuan and regular visitors from Hong Kong like Bitman, they would book RJM, who went on to be known as Sam Gradwell, and Ho Ho Lun. Both of whom would go on to have connections with the WWE in years to come.

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Gradwell, as RJM, takes to the air against Voodoo and Bad Boy after Bitman sets them up.

After the Crazy Fight Wrestling League the CNWWE would go silent twice, each time for almost a full year before they began to run another series of shows in Chongqing. Again they would book international talent whose popularity and impact on the Pro-Wrestling world would come in to bloom in the years that followed, such as John Skyler, Zack Gibson, and Pete Dunne. They pitted them against the local talent and hit the nail on the head when giving a fresh Gao Yuan the opportunities to work with these men. Many of these matches made film, however the copies that are easily available are all rather low resolution. In spite of the dip in visuals, these matches are actually quite competent. Strangely, while many nights were booked in these runs, each show was at most two matches in length. After their third attempt ended in July of 2015, it seems that the CNWWE are permanently a part of the past.

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Gao Yuan takes the fight to Pete Dunne in one of the later CNWWE runs.

CNWWE’s downfall seems to be directly at the hands of their owner, Paul Wang. “The Drunken Boss,” as he was called by the foreign talent, and the self-proclaimed Vince McMahon of China, may have had money to throw around, but his passion for Pro-Wrestling seemed to dwindle as he failed to make it work. Big Sam explains, “I mentioned wrestling and his response was muted at best; it seemed as if he didn’t care much for wrestling and was more interested in the work I was doing in Shenzhen, working in a supply chain management company.” These sentiments have been echoed by others who have been involved in the scene. Unfortunately, the CNWWE will never have a chance to rebuild for another time, as Paul Wang has passed away.

Adrian Gomez and MKW

Out of all the companies to operate in mainland China, I am the most familiar with Middle Kingdom Wrestling. I’ve covered MKW in my #DiscoveringWrestling blogs and have had the opportunity to interview and correspond with many of those involved in the promotion.. This is neither a surprise, nor an accident, when you consider that Adrian Gomez, the American expat who founded Middle Kingdom Wrestling, made the intentional decision to produce a wealth of content in English. In the summer of 2015, MKW held their first ever shows. Every single match from that two day spread made its way on to YouTube with full English and Chinese commentary. This has been replicated with almost every single match to make tape since. Hosting video content on YouTube makes it inherently more available, and easier to stumble upon. Unfortunately, this feat is not always easy for Chinese operations to achieve. Their product, of course, is available on native Chinese services as well. In this way they have taken extra effort to ensure both Chinese and foreign audiences can engage with their product

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Big Sam is fond of throwing people onto the ring apron.

Not only did they strive to make their product easy to find all over, but they strove to make it the best Chinese Pro-Wrestling show on the internet. They took the tools and aesthetic available to them as a small, upstart company in a country with no established market for the product, played around with it, and put out a product that maximized what they had available to them. They do some unconventional things with their editing and announcing, such as slow-mo replays which they work “right into the match!” and, in the end, their experimentation creates a unique feeling product. Indeed, up until very recently their shows carried some of the overall highest standards, and evolution, of production values in the scene.

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Hong Wan wrecks Tsunami with a Triple German Suplex at the MKW Training Centre.

Without being scientific it seems, as well, that MKW have the highest overall number of non-Chinese, and non- Hong Kongese and Taiwanese, talent to come through their doors. Two out of three MKW champions, including the very first, are of Caucasian heritage, and people like Ash Silva and Big Sam have been regulars with the promotion since its inception. While CNWWE may have booked future bigger names, and may have run more individual matches with each name they brought in, the sheer diversity of talent that MKW bring in is worth taking note of. Often this outside talent, where possible, can be found pulling double-duty on cards, wrestling under a hood and as themselves on the same card. ” Chinese like wrestlers who look like WWE guys,” Sam explains in this interview, “guys from Europe and the USA are well received, especially if they got a bit of mass to their build and an obvious gimmick.” Adrian Gomez, when asked about the difficulty of bringing foreign talent into China told me it’s “pretty difficult to coordinate but most wrestlers want to wrestle in every major country in the world.” Towards that end they are the only mainland Chinese Pro-Wrestling company to have held shows in other countries, and strive to continue building partnerships.

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Ever the cocky heel, Big Sam drops Jason Wang and goes for the pose!

All of this ties directly into Adrian’s mission statement, which he summed up nicely for me in an interview I conducted with him in September 2016, “We just want to give Chinese pro wrestlers and Pro Wrestlers all over the world a platform to be able to wrestle regularly in China and Chinese Pro Wrestling fans a product that they can proudly support as Chinese Pro Wrestling.” To this end, Adrian has strived to set MKW apart from their contemporaries. As this article explains, ” Gomez doesn’t worry about competition… but stresses his character-driven approach differentiates MKW from the rest, ‘[CWF] really prefer the Japanese style… It looks more like a traditional sport. [We] care more about telling stories.'” In line with what I have heard about the IGF exhibitions in China, Adrian would elaborate for meChinese audience[s] don’t react much to chain wrestling. I learned that very quickly, so we changed our focus to offer more entertainment.  We love to make people smile. That’s what we want to focus on.”

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Ash Silva hits a Slingblade on “Party Boy” Gabriel Martini.

In June of 2017, MKW opened their own training school. The trainers have been a mixture of the more advanced local talents, and men Adrian has brought in from abroad, such as Gabriel Martini and Triple T. Were it not for unfortunate non-wrestling events they would have been joined by Toronto independent wrestler Buck Gunderson as well, and he has said he would very much still like to go when circumstances allow. On March 17th 2018 this school will see the graduation of its first student onto a live wrestling show when former MKW referee “The Masterclass” Michael Su makes his debut. From what I hear, Su isn’t the only student ready to move up to an actual show. March 17th’s Wrestle rescue Year of the Dog also promises to have the debut of another American wrestler signed on for a run with MKW, Zombie Dragon.

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“The Statement” Andruew Tang, of Singapore’s SPW, won’t let Ash Silva get away from the headlock, by any means necessary!

Just over a year ago, in an interview I conducted with him, Dalton Bragg told me that “the Chinese wrestling scene starts and ends with MKW.” At the time, there was a semblance of truth to his statement. An argument could be made, then, that MKW was the brand with the best quality and sustainability in the scene. However, while I had once mused that “in the future, MKW could be standing at the forefront of a national style, like NJPW in Japan,” I never saw MKW as a terminating point for the scene. Nevertheless, I never could have foreseen just how much growth the scene would see in the time since that interview was published.

Brad Guo and the CWF

The CWF (Chinese Wrestling Federation) started with a show in a factory in late 2015 to attract investors. It was “founded by Fei Wu Xing, the boss of China’s largest wrestling website ShuaiJiao.com” according to this article, and owned by Brad Guo according to those whom I have spoken to. It is not impossible that they are the same person. Not long after, in May of 2016, they were putting on a rather extravagant card in Shanghai. For this event they brought together many of the best talent available throughout the greater Chinese Pro-Wrestling scene and aimed to blow the roof off of the scene. Unfortunately, even from this very early point, they drew some heavy criticism. In his own words, Big Sam complained that “CWF’s scheduling was very rushed and the organisers arranged the show in an unorthodox style.”  While the show would, in the end, be one of my favourite events I have seen from the mainland Chinese scene, the backstage troubles point towards trouble.

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The main event of the CWF’s Shanghai show pitted Ho Ho Lun and Gao Yuan against The Slam and Jason Lee.

As one of the Chinese companies with the least amount of event info transcribed to Cagematch, I held the false assumption that they had ceased to exist. I was pleased to discover I was wrong when I dug in to their Youku channel, where a variety of matches can be found. It seems that, most often, they would produce filmed matches without the presence of much in terms of an audience. These appear to be for a web series, of some kind, as they are packaged with an intro. Despite this unusual presentation, some of these matches are quite good. The CWF would also serve as another stopping point in the evolution of Gao Yuan, whose importance will be crystallized shortly for you, and at both the Shanghai show and some videos afterwards, his quality would shine forth.

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Gao Yuan and Jason Lee have remarkable chemistry in this near audienceless match from CWF.

Lately the CWF have been low-key, promoting some mini-events, such as mall openings, after their other attempts have seemingly failed to net them meaningful results. Nevertheless, they are still participating in the scene. Hell Shark, a former student of The Slam, is presently heading their training program, but little else is known about their school at the moment. Furthermore, the CWF have helped keep the scene progressing by recently having lent MKW their ring, and some talent, for their tapings. It will be interesting to see what role they play in the future of the scene, as their in-ring product may be the most exciting we have covered thus far for a western indie fan.

Notes on the Role of Hong Kongese and Taiwanese Pro-Wrestlers in Mainland China

It is an undeniable fact that the histories of the mainland Chinese, Hong Kongese, and Taiwanese Pro-Wrestling scenes are interconnected. Hong Kong owes its Pro-Wrestling scene’s lineage, in fact its existence, to The Slam training Ho Ho Lun. Wrestlers from both Hong Kong and Taiwan have worked for pretty much every single mainland Chinese promotion that has opened its doors and, in a strictly literal sense, this doesn’t look to change any time soon. What has changed is the frequency with which these performers are booked in the region, and the reasons why may help to provide some insight into the history, and development of the mainland Chinese Pro-Wrestling scene, as well as the tastes of the mainland audience.

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Hong Kongese wrestler Bitman hits a double stomp on Voodoo, a british expat who lives in mainland China.

It isn’t unusual to see cards loaded with Hong Kongese and Taiwanese talents booked by companies from the first half of the mainland scene’s brief history. It would seem that, between approximately 2009 and 2015, the art of Pro-Wrestling had taken root and developed a larger selection of talent in these regions than it did in the mainland. As such, due to their proximity and experience, they served to flesh out the anemic talent pool for several years. In fact, a 2015 article says that “Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong all boast leagues with some degree of popularity and pedigree,” and goes on to indicate that, in the mainland, “Most estimates suggest there are currently only about 20 wrestlers in the entire country, and a shortage of training facilities or world-class coaches means little new talent is emerging.” However, since then, the number of performers booked on mainland shows from these regions would dwindle.

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King Michael, from Hong Kong, gives Super Daichi, from Taiwan, the stinkface.

The primary, and most impactful for the scope of this article, factor that led to this change was the increase in the number of experienced wrestlers based in the mainland. While the overall numbers of wrestlers in mainland China, particularly natives, has not skyrocketed, the talent has improved. With the maturation of the local crop, and more training programs being opened up by groups like MKW and the CWF, the need to have a majority of the show be imported to run a good show declined. With the need to book less Hong Kong and Taiwan based talent came an increased number of matches being competed in by the mainland talent, which would lead again to them improving further. This has created a positive feedback loop. It also doesn’t hurt that China’s domestic travel, namely by superfast trains, makes travelling from one city to another a far easier feat than one might expect based on North American perceptions.

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Taiwanese wrestler Lenbai outsmarts Tony Trivaldo at an MKW event.

A common sentiment I’ve seen expressed by the local fans is that these performers are presently primarily viewed as bodies used to fill spaces. This calls into question the lasting impact of these Hong Kongese and Taiwanese workers in the mainland. For many fans they were there when they were needed, but few of them are viewed as having any lasting popularity. While several  of them still receive bookings, as the talent pool hasn’t grown so large as to not need any injection of talent from outside the mainland, only Ho Ho Lun is really seen as any kind of a commodity. This certainly stems partially from his long term involvement in the scene, but the far more potent influence at present is his tenure with the WWE.

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Ho Ho Lun, the father of Hong Kong wrestling, goes toe-to-toe with The Slam, father of mainland Chinese wrestling and his trainer.

In the mainland, the WWE is king. The perception of what wrestling is, and should be, has been predominantly influenced by the global titan of the industry. Meanwhile, wrestlers from Hong Kong and Taiwan look up to, emulate, learn from, and compete with Japanese talent. In fact, Ho Ho Lun’s HKWF (Hong Kong Pro Wrestling Federation) has formed alliance with Pro Wrestling ZERO1 that led to their name becoming Kong, and Taiwan’s dominant promotion, NTW (New Taiwan Entertainment Wrestling), has strong ties with DDT (Dramatic Dream Team.) In a conversation I had with Big Sam he expressed to me he feels any performer, no matter the style, should be welcomed into the mainland scene if they have something positive to offer. In a market this fresh, with so few local options available, room can be carved out and fans made if the performers work to get themselves over. It is too early to say that a Japanese-influenced style cannot find its footing there.

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Jeffrey Man, of Hong Kong tag team “The Man Bros,” throws down with Ho Ho Lun in the early days of Chinese pro-wrestling.

But there may be another problem that keeps the Hong Kongese and Taiwanese talent from being viewed as exciting additions to the local scene: they’re still Chinese. Recently Sam explained to me “Hong Kong wrestlers like to differentiate themselves from the rest of China, but the vast majority of Mainland Chinese fans still identify the Hong Kong wrestlers simply as Chinese.” Similar sentiments are certainly transferable to Taiwanese talent as well. This, in essence, creates a disparity in the presentation and perception of these talent which one can certainly see causing some trouble in an industry as known for its egotism as Pro-Wrestling is, no matter how unintentional it may be.

Gao Yuan and WLW

A few months after I had conducted my interview with Dalton Bragg, Gao Yuan, who has undoubtedly risen to become one of the scene’s brightest performers, founded WLW (We Love Wrestling.) They’ve held at least eight shows, as per their Cagematch profile, thus far. Based upon their bilibili page video count I would suspect there are others which have not been documented in English. This is an assumption, however, and one should be mindful as many of the videos on the page are not WLW matches. A selection of the video content the account posts is a collection of Gao Yuan’s matches with other promotions, creating a kind of video resume of his career. Watching these matches you’ll see many familiar faces from shows run by all companies prior. There is, however, one major difference between the way WLW and all other Pro-Wrestling companies in China promote their events. Hong Wan informed me that, unlike their contemporaries, WLW primarily perform as a corporately booked act, at events such as the opening of a mall or a festival, and are most often booked to perform shows for two to three days in a row at the same venue.

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Gao Yuan faces off against Sam Gradwell in a Hong Kong event associated with WLW in early 2018.

From what I have seen it is what you would expect of the scene thus far, with the nice addition of semi-regular Bitman appearances. Their history has been short, and they do not appear to have their own championship as of yet. The only title belt I have seen film of at their events is the CWF’s Fighting Spirit belt. At the end of 2017 WLW were the baby of the Chinese wrestling scene, so it isn’t much of a surprise that there is little meat on their bones to dig into yet. Gao Yuan, however, does need to be talked about. Many of the matches I have enjoyed the most in researching this article have featured him. The level of skill he puts on display in early work with CNWWE tipped me off that I would be in for something special as I watched his career grow in the deep video catalogues of several companies. My feeling here is that, with him creatively at the helm, WLW are likely to turn out matches as they grow that will entertain seasoned wrestling fans.

Huayang Fu, Dragon Gate, and OWE

Aesthetically, and athletically, it is nigh impossible to argue that OWE (Oriental Wrestling Entertainment) isn’t the pinnacle, thus far, in the Chinese Pro-Wrestling scene. The company was founded in 2017 by Huayang Fu, a wealthy businessman who had made his money in film and advertising. While some of the companies on this list have boasted large injections of currency into their ventures, OWE’s budget easily far outclasses the other outfits to have staked a claim to a piece of the fresh Chinese Pro-Wrestling pie. This company came to my attention in January 2018, several months away from its founding and less than a month from it February 2nd 2018 debut live event. I was immediately struck by a pair  of seemingly unbelievable things. The first was that the men whom he had recruited to be his premiere cadre of Pro-Wrestlers were Shaolin Temple kung-fu students, men with an already established understanding of intense athleticism and live performance, some seem to have even performed martial arts stunt work for Chinese film. The second was that OWE had hired CIMA, trained by Ultimo Dragon and veteran performer with arguably Japan’s Number Two promotion Dragon Gate, to be their head coach. They rolled out page after page of hype articles, and gave us a peek into how seriously they were taking this project with training videos as they built towards the date of the show.

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Training footage and an interview with CIMA can be found in one of OWE’s promotional articles.

My head was filled with wild visions of a new hybrid Kung Fu-Pro Wrestling style that would emerge from this pairing of elements. I waited very impatiently for the show to happen, and then for Hong Wan to get links into my greedy hands, so I could see what this new promotion had to offer. I was immediately struck by how much of a production value chasm there is between OWE and all of its Chinese Wrestling contemporaries. Where other companies hold shows in beat-up rings with little to no window dressing, OWE looked shiny, new, well assembled and expensively equipped. OWE boasted a full stage and walkway for entrances, security barricades, multiple TV cameras, a titantron, and all the other accoutrements one is familiar with from promotions with established TV presences.

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The OWE’s video packages before the event were unreal. This wrestle-dancing is unlike anything I’ve seen before.

 

The spike in production values carried on far beyond just the environment and into the presentation of talent performing as well. Before the event started three high quality short intro packages were played. One was a sepia-toned mini Kung Fu Pro-Wrestling film, one was a choreographed Kung Fu Pro-Wrestling group dance routine, and one was a more traditionally Pro-Wrestling themed action vignette in a ring. In this way they inexorably, and immediately, link the notions of Kung Fu, calling to mind the depths of Chinese culture and martial tradition, with Pro-Wrestling. Already, before their men had performed in a wrestling bout, OWE had established themselves as something wholly different than any wrestling product the Chinese scene had seen before. Then they doubled down on being unique and on throwing money around.

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“Mr. COOL” Tang Huachi escapes the headlock and makes a comeback against “Wild Wolf” Fan Hewei.

After a lengthy speech, and another choreographed group dance routine that allowed several members of the roster to show off their personalities, a Chinese Idol Group, SNH48, performed. Normally a musical act wouldn’t be worth a mention when talking about a wrestling show. Herein, however, it actually ties in to the branding of the entire promotion. When it so happened that the first we saw of the performers as wrestlers was in three separate colour-coded matching variations on one uniform, my Idol Culture radar went off. As I would later learn, it was for good reason. Mr. Jie, one of the men high in the ranks of OWE’s management, is the mind running the agency that manages the Shanghai-based SNH48, who are modeled directly after Japan’s massively successful AKB48 idol group. In all honesty, by this point I had decided that there was nothing in Pro-Wrestling I had seen quite like this before, anywhere before. There were still several hours left.

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The Red, Blue, and Black subgroup leaders step up to Masaaki Mochizuki’s defamation of China!

The first half saw members of these teams compete against differently coloured teams, solidifying the subgroups idol feel forever. The matches were fast-paced, flashy, and entertaining, but lacked variety in moves, ring psychology, and enough time for everyone to truly show off their personality. After the intermission there was a costume parade where those on the roster who would not be competing in the second half had a chance to show off their individual character costumes, and put on a show of their personality. This, again, draws upon some Idol Group roots and is also something I have never before seen connected with Pro-Wrestling. The matches in the second half faired a bit better in terms of pacing and psychology than the first half, as the fresh Chinese talent were against foreign heels, most of whom are DragonGate roster members, and some touring Americans. Furthermore, the second half saw the OWE roster wrestling in their elaborate character costumes, instead of in their subgroup gear as the first half did. I really shouldn’t have been surprised by how good these performers were for their first times out as Pro-Wrestlers. Their Shaolin pedigree predisposes them to be good at everything a Pro-Wrestler needs to be good at. Herein, too, the OWE outclasses many of the promotions to have come before it. This is, most certainly, the impact of the kind of money available to them to hire, and train, their roster.

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“The Captain” A Ben (Big Ben) leaps out of the ring and crashes into Masaaki Mochizuki and his nefarious DragonGate brethren.

Downsides are, unfortunately intimately identifiable. There are two versions of the show that you can watch online, the one I linked to earlier, and a shorter edited down version. This edited version suffers from, in my opinion, overly aggressive pruning and incoherent camera cuts. Many of my complaints to do with watching Chinese Pro-Wrestling, in general, have come down to how they are filmed and edited. OWE have, by far, the highest quality video to work from but do an absolute butcher’s job on the product. Gone are are the majority of performers’ entrances, the entire costume parade, match continuity. You name it, they cut it. Even some of the coolest moves of the show. Unfortunately, to get a full experience of the show you have to watch both version, to a degree, as the main event is missing from the original version. The brand has made it clear, both by the ending of their first show teasing their gorgeous championship belt, and on services like WeChat, that they will absolutely be doing more events, including tours. Based on their WeChat information they are also looking to expand their roster further, as they are holding open tryouts.

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For some reason a clear shot of this amazing moment between “Little Vajra” Zhao Yiling and Jack Manley was cut from the edited version.

It is clear, to myself and those I have spoken to, fan and performer alike, that OWE is a very Chinese presentation of wrestling. Their advertising efforts, costuming, presentation, and props all draw inspiration from various elements of Chinese culture. Their title belt is patterned after the Taotie. The individualized costumes they wear reference everything from mythology, to historic martial arts heroes, to modern Chinese street fashion. Even the Idol-ification of the talent owes its existence to the pervasive success of Idol-culture in China. They even had their talent perform a martial arts dance routine on the biggest Chinese variety show during the Lantern Festival.

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At the end of the show, in a moment full of potent meaning, the gorgeous title belt is  lowered from the ceiling.

While these elements and strategies mirror those that have found success with mainstream Chinese entertainment audiences, they have raised the ire of some of China’s Pro-Wrestling fans. One individual even scoffed at the idea that OWE was even wrestling, as he saw it as just a pretty boy Idol group. Furthermore, while talking with some expats living in China about my excitement over how much OWE draws upon Chinese culture and tradition it came to light that the Chinese audience don’t necessarily want things that are presented in a very Chinese way. The Chinese who have money to spend want foreign brands, they are not interested in buying Chinese products unless you call into question their strong sense of nationalism. In my interview with Dalton Bragg he had mentioned that ” Chinese fans demand a certain amount of perfection in their entertainment… and other products won’t be able to compare to the WWE’s production value. Chinese fans won’t tolerate an inferior product and won’t give other promotions a chance to develop.” Contextually there were no Pro-Wrestling groups at the time who could come close to what OWE has achieved in production values, let alone the WWE. Now, however, a new question has to be asked: If a local brand, steeped in Chinese culture, can compete with these production values, can they also overcome the Chinese market’s desire for foreign looking stars, and the Sports Entertainment style of working?

KOPW and The Future

Ryan Chen’s KOPW (King of Pro Wrestling) run their first show in Guangzhou on March 17th 2018. Based upon their promotional materials, they ate looking to make a splash in the scene. Their graphic design game is on point, producing a strong, dynamic logo that brands all of their numerous announcements concerning the impending show. There is an obvious budget behind the promotion, and an interesting, strong array of talent lined up for their first event. They also have a really pretty championship belt and have commissioned the construction of their very own ring, stating in one announcement that “in order to create a good platform, we have found the most professional fight equipment manufacturer in Guangzhou” (quoted with the help of Google Translate.) In these ways they remind me of OWE. However the talent they have scheduled for the event are not newly recruited and trained Pro-Wrestling neophytes, but are instead a competent array of familiar faces and strong foreign bookings. Their lineup features a veritable who’s who of the Chinese Pro-Wrestling scene, having announced booking people such as Gao Yuan, Ho Ho Lun, and King of Man. Not to be outdone by their predecessors, KOPW have booked a handful of international talents, including the PROGRESS tag champions, BUFFA, and Sam Gradwell, who will be returning to mainland China for the first time since he worked with CNWWE in 2015.  Furthermore, at least some of this material will be easily available to everyone, as PROGRESS have announced that the Tag-Team Championship match will be available on their streaming service.

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Tournament bracket for the new KOPW Championship as it stood after Shooting Star had to recuse himself due to injury.

Earlier this year Hong Wan told me that he is both excited and nervous about the future of Chinese Pro-Wrestling.  With an explosion in popularity could come additional government scrutiny. As it stands, Pr-Wrestling in the mainland already faces problems. Adrian Gomez explained to me that they are the “unknown and underdeveloped market, city regulations and access to talent.” Should those who participate in the art of Pro-Wrestling earn themselves a negative reputation it could see further regulations levied specifically against it.  There’s also always the worry about funding. In his interview on KB’s Big Sam says that he’s “seen promotions come and go within China as usually they fail as they try to invest too much and lose all their money after several months.”

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The KOPW Championship belt is one of the sexiest title belts I have ever seen.

With KOPW mirroring the non-Shaolin high-quality elements of presentation and promotion that had me excited in advance of OWE’s debut, I am hopeful that their March 17th debut event can keep the ball rolling on the strong start to 2018 that OWE launched for Chinese Pro-Wrestling. With two new, high-quality players on the field, and the first graduate of the MKW training system making his debut, the early months of 2018 have been filled with a depth of excitement and possibility I haven’t seen in the scene before. Realistically, 2018 looks to be the year to keep your eyes glued on mainland Chinese Pro-Wrestling.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “#DiscoveringWrestling Presents – State of the Middle Kingdom: An exploration of the burgeoning Chinese Pro Wrestling Scene

  1. Very impressive article that you have looked into the Chinese, Taiwanese and Hong Kongese wrestling scenes in so detailed. For me, the all of the Asian promotions outside Japan could be future of this industry. As you mentioned that Asia / South Asia are pretty fresh, almost brand new territories to develop especially in China. It will be also very interesting that what kind of chemistry will be when future wrestling (Asian) mix with current wrestling (Puroresu, Lucha Libre, American and European).

    Like

    • Thank you for your interest. The region is certainly booming and I’m interested in exploring wrestling from the South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, India and beyond after my next article, which will be about the history of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, and Singapore.

      I hadn’t yet thought about what would happen once China has fully developed its own set of wrestling styles. I can only imagine that it will be very interesting and exciting to see how everything involving Chinese wrestling plays out. I will pay attention and document it all.

      But first I still have many facts and cool things to share about the Chinese scene, which will mostly be done on my Twitter account: twitter.com/NuclearConvoy

      Liked by 1 person

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