#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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#DiscoveringWrestling #026 – #TorontoWrestling reviews Smash Wrestling’s Gold 2K17

Once again I found myself back in the Phoenix Concert Theatre, where Smash have really found a great home. It’s easy to get to, spacious, well-lit for a wrestling show, they have A/C… what more could you ask for? Well, how about they have a dude making great burritos you can chow down on during the show, and they don’t skimp on the alcohol content in your mixed drinks!

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Gotta admit, they’ve got a killer logo!

The atmosphere amongst the audience was just absolutely the most passionate and energetic I have seen a Smash crowd get. They were abuzz with excitement over the return of Mark Haskins, who seems to have laid a trap in the hearts of everyone who had seen his previous work in the company. James Kee, one of the masterminds behind Smash, told me that Haskins “is Smash wrestling,” he is the paradigm for what they want out of their in-ring action and connection with fans. At intermission people lined up many men deep for an opportunity to buy merch directly from the man, to take photos and connect. During the matches he participated in the audience was a chorus of chants, in the sing-song style of British football, whenever the action focused on their hometown-hero-from-another-hometown. For his part, he put on a killer performance and he absolutely returned the love the audience gave him.

The night was structured as a special kind of Smash tournament. Five qualifiers, concluding in a five man Elimination match to determine the Number One Contender for Tyson Dux’s Smash Wrestling Championship. With that in mind, let’s get to the matches!

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This match was a really great way to open the show!

Match 1: Tarik vs. Lio Rush – Gold 2K17 Round 1

Tarik bails from the ring at the beginning of the match, refusing to engage with Lio Rush. He eventually gets back in the ring and they finally lock up, and the smaller Lio Rush backs Tarik into the corner. Tarik bails from the ring again, and Rush chases after him. They run all around the ring and back in, where they engage in a back-and-forth sequence that shows great athletics from both men. Tarik starts playing with some heel antics to define, fully, his role in the match. Lio Rush gets some loud kicks in, but plays to the crowd for too long, giving Tarik the opportunity to take control with a lariat in the ropes.

Tarik tosses Lio Rush around the ring and smartly plays to his size advantage. They tease an inside-to-outside suplex with Tarik playing the aggressor, but Lio counters his attempts so Tarik just drops his neck on the ropes. He grinds away at Rush, targeting his ribs with a plentiful plethora of elbows. With Rush properly pulverized, Tarik takes him to the corner to set up his backpack stunner but Rush reverses out of it and they brawl. Infuriated, Tarik Irish whips Lio Rush so hard into the corner that he flies between the ropes and crashes hard into the post and then tumbles out on to the floor.

They make effective use of the ten count here, with Rush only back in at nine. Refreshingly, the audience did not chant “10” for every count! Once back in the ring, Rush elbows his way into a sequence built on crazy dodges, kicks, and dives; he presses his advantage with potent fury. Both men then show off huge acrobatics in an insane reversal filled sequence where Tarik keeps looking for, and eventually gets, his backpack stunner, whereas Rush hits video game like spinning kicks and dives all the damn way across the ring with an RVD-esque frog splash. Neither man here was able to secure a pinfall.

In the final moments of the match Tarik hits a huge Go To Sleep and Disaster Kick combo, but can only get a two count. Frustrated, he sets up Rush for an avalanche backpack stunner. Rush escapes and goes for a roll up to surprise Tarik, but Tarik simply sits down on him and, out of heelish desperation, grabs the ropes out of the referee’s view for leverage. With this act he secures himself the three count, and entry into the main event, along with the ire of the entire audience.

This match, overall, was a little shaky at spots. However, the frenetic pacing, exciting action, and emotionally manipulative narrative really brought the crowd alive and set a great, positive tone to start the night off on.

Grade:  B+

In a nice bit of mirroring, post match Kevin Blackwood came out and beat on Tarik with a chair, just as Tarik had done to him post match at the previous show. It’s a feud that looks to be exciting, and Tarik seems to be in a position to really get the hot, new Blackwood really over with the Smash audience.

Match 2: Kevin Bennett vs. Brent Banks – Gold 2K17 Round 1

Bennett is, at this moment, the most on-fire heel in Toronto . Before the show began a promo video was played of Bennett rapping about his participation in the tournament. The audience booed the video into silence. At the start of this match Bennett tried to cut a promo about how his indentured servant, Frankie the Mobster, had been injured and wouldn’t be there as announced. He stood in the ring with his two cronies, starting and stopping, never getting through his promo to any meaningful degree. The crowd absolutely obliterated him with chants of “Shut the fuck up!“, giving the man nuclear heat to the point that they just played his opponents music and cut his promo short. It was a special moment.

Banks starts out the match on fire in his own way, dominating and controlling Bennett right out of the gate. They fight in the ring and out, where Banks manages to get a fan to chop Bennett’s chest. Bennett’s cronies distract him and Bennett takes the opportunity to jump the unawares Banks. Bennett takes control and heels it up, choking Banks with the ropes.  He then hits a cool Tiger Feint Kick into a splash. While the crowd may love to shit on Bennett, they cannot deny he has moves. Bennett tries then to suplex Banks, but there’s too much life left in him.

Brent “Money” Banks dumps Bennett out onto the floor and uses this to give him the advantage back in the ring as well. Banks gets to show how flippy he is in a nice sequence which sees him take out Bennett and his cronies on opposite sides of the ring from each other. All without losing any momentum in the match, so fast that Bennett had no opportunity to recover. He hits big moves but can’t put Bennett away. They do a cool springboard cutter reversal sequence, but still no three count. Banks and Bennett then exchange cutters and pinning predicaments, but neither man comes out on top. Banks then hits a huge knee and shiranui in sequence and has a three count on Bennett but his cronies interfere by pulling the ref mid count. Bennett secures the win after a distracted referee misses one of his cronies crotch Banks.

I get the story but a few sloppy moments and a bit of overbooking lower the grade.

Grade: B+
Match 3: Greed vs. Sebastian Suave – Gold 2K17 Round 1

I was, surprisingly, a little underwhelmed by Kingdom James’s promo work before this match. Usually, as Suave’s heel manager, he really delivers a brilliant, funny in its own way, adapted on the fly hot take against the crowd. This day’s promo just felt tame in comparison.

When the bell rings Greed rushes Suave and levels him immediately. Greed is dominant to the point that Kingdom tries to protect Suave by pulling him out of the ring, but Greed levels them with a Tope Suicida. Kingdom tries to interfere again, but Greed still is too much of a monster for Suave. They go back-and-forth with strikes for a bit and Suave gets a nice neckbreaker in to gain the upper hand. He works on Greed a bunch but Suave cannot get his throws in, as Greed is just too big for his former tag team partner to toss around.

Greed climbs the turnbuckles, but Suave catches him and dumps him with an avalanche belly-to-belly suplex. This, however, does not put Greed down. A huge Suave spinebuster gets him a two count. They exchange strikes again and Suave goes crazy on Greed, but gets caught and eats a TKO for a near fall. They do a submission spot in the ropes where Suave has Greed tied up in what looked like an arm bar from my angle, Greed tries to do a reversal into a powerbomb out of the spot but can’t get it and the whole bit just looks bad. Suave then hits the slowest, but grizzliest, Death Valley Driver on the apron. This only gets him a two count once back in the ring.

Then it is Suave who goes up top, but Greed catches him and hits an avalanche TKO. This would have been the three count for Greed, but Kingdom interferes and puts Suave’s foot on the ropes to break the fall. Greed goes after Kingdom and Suave tries to jump him from behind but gets caught and thrown onto Kingdom. Kingdom distracts the referee again and Suave gets a surprise roll up on Greed for the three count.

Some spots in this match were a bit janky or looked too telegraphed, which lead to the disruption of my suspension of disbelief.

Grade: C+
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I sat next to the most excitable Dalton Castle fan during the show.

Match 4: Mark Haskins vs. Dalton Castle – Gold 2K17 Round 1

Dalton Castle comes to the ring with guest boys, whom I recognized as people I have seen in crew shirts at  Smash shows. The Peacock of Pro-Wrestling gets a whole whackload of streamers, the only time I can remember streamers actually being used at Smash. Both Castle and Haskins look to be huge crowd favourites here.

They start off by feeling each other out with technical grappling, and proceed to put on a great display of both men’s talents as they do flippy stuff in the ropes and tease dives. Haskins climbs the buckles but Castle cuts him off and wails on him with big kicks. They spend a good amount of time just at ringside brawling so far in transitions between ringwork. Castle gets all agro on Haskins and tosses him with a gut-wrench suplex. Castle has him down and starts to drop splashes down on Haskins as he tries to roll away. Castle goes for one too many though, and eats knees. Unfortunately for Haskins he cannot make a comeback. Castle dumps Haskins on the apron and gets a two count for his efforts. He then rocks Haskins with strikes, which only enrages the Brit. Haskins gets into a flurry of strikes and takes control in a sequence capped off by an STF.

Unfortunately for the man garnering the biggest crowd response I have seen at a Smash show, Haskins cannot submit Castle. Haskins just kicks Castle a bunch and then locks in another submission but Castle gets to the ropes. They get into a back-and-forth exchange then Castle unleashes suplex after suplex after suplex after suplex… He just absolutely wrecks Haskins. Somehow this abuse only nets Dalton Castle a two count. They squabble and the ref takes a bump so Castle dick kicks Haskins and then powerbombs him and Germans him for another fucking near fall! A frustrated Castle beats on Haskins a bunch, but Haskins comes back with a big super kick and a jumping rolling transition into a sharpshooter and forces Castle to submit. Haskins moves on to the next round and the crowd eat it up with a big ol’ spoon.

The match was a bit slow paced at times, and the crowd while hot were oddly quiet at points that didn’t warrant it. Castle played with a heelish side to his personality not usually seen, to great effect which helped in really elevating Haskins’ position as a top face. I think the crowd may have been expecting a face vs. face style match and that is why there was the discrepancy in their behaviour.

Grade: B+
Match 5: Scotty O’Shea vs. Evil Uno – Gold 2K17 Round 1

Uno starts the match off by gaining control with chops all over the ring. He has O’Shea so flustered that he doesn’t even offer any real resistance when Uno just bites O’Shea’s foot. O’Shea goes outside to breathe and eventually Uno makes chase, but back in the ring O’Shea takes over with his rope-based offense, using the ring as a weapon to level the odds against the bigger Uno. They go back-and-forth, exchanging control until O’Shea gets a big kick in and humps Uno’s head into the mat.

Uno makes his comeback shortly afterwards with a unique trip and superkick combo which sees  O’Shea’s head repeatedly hitting one of the turnbuckles; it looked pretty vicious. O’Shea  knocks Uno out of the ring and dives on him, but his momentum is turned against him when he is stopped with a big elbow and slammed hard on the apron. His offense not entirely stuffed, O’Shea manages to get a two count off of a chasing moonsault sequence. Uno gets a big superplex for two, and O’Shea tries to comeback again but Uno dodges and gets him in a sharpshooter of his own. They build to a climax, exchanging strikes and big moves, and eventually Uno spins O’Shea out of a Gory Special into a Gotch-style piledriver for the three.

O\Shea seemed less there than usual, and something here didn’t click for me. It was a solid, fun match, but nothing special.

Grade: B
Match 6: Halal Beefcake (Idris Abraham + Joe Coleman) vs. Tabarnak de Team (Mathieu St-Jacques + Thomas Dubois)

TDT jump Halal Beefcake and try to hit stereo Germans but Idris and Joe hold on to each other and reverse it into a meeting of the minds on the Quebecois brawlers.  Halal Beefcake then do their rope-choke push-ups spot, likely only succeeding in angering the burly Frenchmen. They go to dive at TDT and get decked and dumped on the apron for their troubles. This match is built on, and excels because of, how much team offense is used!

St-Jacques gets a big knee drop on Coleman for a two count. They isolate him and beat on him with frequent tags. They double team and mock Coleman. Even at their heeliest, I still cannot help but like these Quebecois! they abuse Joe with stiff strikes and heel double team tactics. Joe gets in a comeback spear and tags in Idris Abraham, the Sultan of Shawarma, who cleans the ring the best way possible, like a man possessed. He stacks TDT in the corner and wrecks them with a dropkick. Halal Beefcake flirt with control here, reversing TDT’s offense into hard slams.

Building towards the climax both teams exchange near falls and pinning predicaments in sequences involving all four men. Dubois gets in his nice moonsault to the outside and then ruins Idris Abraham’s day with a double teamed piledriver into an up-kick assisted powerbomb for the victory.

The crowd absolutely loved this match, and so did I. I thought it was fun and worked all four men in in a way that made them feel like true “teams”, like unified fronts.

Grade: A-
Match 7: Psycho Mike vs. Braxton Sutter vs. Tyson Dux (c) – Smash Wrestling Championship Match

Before this match started I wrote down a note about how I wanted it to develop, what kind of story I wanted it to tell. To me, the budding rivalry between the charismatic Well-Oiled Machines, tag partners recently on the outs with each other, should be the highlight of the match with Dux serving as it’s backbone. I was not disappointed.

The match starts off by teasing that the Well-Oiled Machines might work together and try to wear down Dux as a team, but the great body language from Braxton Sutter – the slightly different turn of his body, the careful positioning of himself in relation to Dux and Mike, and his head motions – telegraphed to the audience the near immediate betrayal we were to see. Before Dux could be attacked by Mike, Sutter hits his, ostensibly, partner with a huge sequence capped off with a spinning fisherman suplex like move. Psycho Mike tumbles to the outside and we are left with Braxton Sutter and Tyson Dux in the ring.

Dux and Sutter brawl and exchange strikes back-and-forth wherein Dux takes control. He punches Braxton all over the ring and locks in an abdominal stretch (which I take more seriously than most North American fans because of my immersion in Puroresu fandom). Right as Sutter looks to make a comeback he eats a surprise Spinning Big Boot from Psycho Mike and disappears from the ring. This leaves Dux to face off with Mike alone.

This time the challenger takes control, as Psycho Mike stomps the shit out of the Wrestling Machine. Beaten down and tired, Dux uses technique to outwrestle, and take control back from, Psycho Mike.  Mike’s strength gives him opportunities, but Dux cuts off his momentum. Sutter then is back in the ring and dumps Mike out of the ring, quickly followed by dumping Dux out of the ring.

Psycho Mike slides back into the ring and now has “the box” from the promos they ran leading up to the event. He teases hitting Sutter with it, but instead stomps on the empty box, unable to fully turn on his tag-team partner. Dux comes back in and a comedy gag spot leads to a meeting of the minds between the Well-Oiled Machines. This is followed by all three men engaging in an extended elbow exchange until all three collapse. The Well-Oiled Machines recover and work together, hitting their tag finisher on Dux, and then Mike dumps Sutter and gets a two count. Dux is back in the mix, and a sequence leads to Dux hitting Mike with the brainbuster and then slamming Sutter on to the prone Psycho Mike with a Death Valley Driver and getting the three count on Mike to retain.

This match had a great story structure with a few funny spots for levity which elevated my enjoyment of it. Truly great character work was on display, serious when appropriate and silly when appropriate. A heavily comedy, or character work, based match could have been detrimental to Dux’s reign, but they pulled this one off rather close to perfectly.

Grade: A
Match 8: Mark Haskins vs. Tarik vs. Kevin Bennett vs. Sebastian Suave vs. Evil Uno – Gold 2K17 Final Round Elimination Match

A title shot is at stake in this main event, as the winner will walk away as the number one contender to Tyson Dux’s championship. The crowd had been built up to some serious hype by the time these men made their second entrances and it really added to the atmosphere. It felt like a big deal.

Right after the bell, Kevin Bennett bails from the ring and just walks about outside, wanting nothing to do with the fracas that explodes in the ring. The action in the ring turns into everyone trying to do a schoolboy roll up on someone else, and to obviously no effect. Evil Uno takes control after some neckbreakers and Bennett tries to sneak a pin on Uno for two. Tarik and Uno have a bit of a brawl, but Haskins comes back into the ring just as Tarik starts to get the upper hand. Bennett tries to sneak in again to get the advantage, but winds up all alone with Evil Uno who wrecks him until his cronies at ringside pull him out.

Haskins takes this as an opportunity to dive on the three of them, and to team up with Uno in just abusing Bennett outside of the ring. Action spills all over the venue as, right near me, Haskins chops up Suave while over on the concert stage used as part of the entrance ramp Uno vertical suplexes Bennett hard.  Haskins and Uno then team up some more to take on Suave and Tarik right near the entranceway, giving Bennett the perfect target for a literal stage-dive Tope Con Jilo onto the whole mess of them.

Bennett and Tarik team up for a bit and beat on Haskins. Tarik stops Haskins from making a comeback with a huge knee strike. The match transitions into one of those classic indie multi-man match spots where everyone is in and out of the ring, getting their stuff in and looking great while doing it. Suave gets a two count on Bennett, and then he and Tarik go after Haskins who comes back, stacks them both onto each other and locks in a combo Boston Crab/Camel Clutch on the two men at the same time. Bennett breaks up the submission hold. We then get the multi-man suplex spot, which is silly but the crowd loves it.  Uno  beats on Haskins and tries to fend off Tarik. Haskins wrecks both of them with flair, and then eliminates Tarik with a Death Valley Driver and strikes. Next Bennett eliminates Suave when he kicks a chair into his face and hits a rope assisted neckbreaker.

Bennett beats on Haskins and Uno but eats double superkicks and then Haskins and Uno boot each other and everyone is down. There’s a fracas and Uno gets Bennett with a huge slam but cannot eliminate him, because Bennett’s cronies pull Uno\s foot to break the count. In response to this, Uno just kills them with some chairs. Back in the ring Uno gets caught with Bennett’s finisher and eliminated. Haskins, looking weak, crawls in and makes a huge energetic strikefest comeback but can’t go for the pin right away. Haskins keeps hitting Bennett with all sorts of big moves for two counts. Haskins gets an armbar on Bennett and the cronies, somehow not dead after Uno’s beating, interfere again so he wrecks them and gets his roll-through Sharpshooter on Bennett to make him tap. Haskins is your number one contender.

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What a way to close the show! Photo taken from Smash Wrestling’s facebook page.

The crowd, rowdy and in love with Haskins, go wild. The match was a bit overbooked for my tastes, but the elimination structure  helped to really build tension towards the end. No one wanted Bennett to win, and they teased him coming out with the victory a lot in those final moments. Great manipulation of crowd emotions.

Grade: A-

Solidly built card with some seriously good wrestling on it, proving that Toronto’s local scene is taking things seriously and trying to break through to the big time. The quality of these shows has been improving steadily, thus far, since I started attending and I wholly look forward to seeing Smash Wrestling become an even bigger name than they already are.

Next month sees Kaito Kiyomiya, whom I watched wrestle for Pro Wrestling NOAH at Korakuen Hall this past January, make his Toronto debut with Smash. This has me excited on all kinds of levels. I’ll be front row for that… and maybe I’ll bring enough streamers for the entire section?

Do you have any feedback or questions? Leave a comment here!

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#DiscoveringWrestling #010 – F8ful Eight #TorontoWrestling Coverage

On March 4th I attended my first Smash Wrestling show, their annual F8ful Eight tag team tournament.  The show was held at the Franklin Horner Community Center in Etobicoke, officially outside of what most people consider to be Toronto proper. I’d been to this remote, cramped, hot venue once before for a Chikara show. This show was to be a farewell, of sorts, between the promotion and venue it had made its home base. I for one will not mourn this remote, hot, and cramped venue. Smash have made the wise decision to move into a more central location, which should encourage more fans to attend regularly. The Community Center isn’t the worst venue I’ve ever attended a show in, but its remoteness (over 1.25 hours on public transit from my door to theirs) made me simply not want to go. To those relying on public transit, Etobicoke is NOT Toronto, and Smash want to promote themselves as Toronto’s premier Pro-Wrestling company. I look forward to seeing the promotion grow into its new home.

Sadly I sat behind that one fan who would yell out random, inane commentary at everything, including video packages that had no hopes of responding to his desperate pleas for attention. It was distracting but I decided not to let it bother me and sat back in my seat, with food, beer, good company, and my notebook to enjoy the festivities. Before the show even began the audience proved itself to be aggressively loyal, knowing all the appropriate promotion-specific chants, and also all the chants that have wormed themselves into all strata of Pro-Wrestling fandom in North America. There is a striking difference, that I miss, to sitting in a Japanese audience and appreciating the show in another way.

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After all these years the Super Smash Bros continue to reinvent themselves and be amazing.

Match 1: #TheBest vs. Super Smash Brothers

This match started off with some simple, solid brawling with #TheBest getting some good moves in, particularly notable was a nice Exploder Suplex, but the Super Smash Bros remained in control for most of the bout. As typical with indie style booking, everyone got to get their thing in the match, making both teams look good. Each side had some impressive tag team tandem offense. #TheBest had a nice top-rope splash onto one of the Smash Bros who was held on his opponents knees after a double-knee gutbuster, while the Super Smash Bros claimed victory with a brutal looking running knee strike by Stu Grayson onto his opponents face while Evil Uno held him in a belly-to-back piledriver, before of course dropping the piledriver.

Grade: B-
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Psycho Mike likes Banana flavoured protein powder.

Match 2: “Oily Beefcake” vs. The Boys of Jollyville

After a video package explained that the impromptu team of “Oily Beefcake” was formed from the combined remnants of Halal Beefcake and The Well-Oiled Machines,  due to each man’s respective partner being down in Orlando for Impact Wrestling tapings, we got off to a good start on this match. The teams had some good back and forth action, with solid mixture of indie style brawling and grappling mixed with comedy spots. The Boys from Jollyville employed some good heelish tactics and came out of the match with the win after Psycho Mike, of the Well-Oiled Machines, threw protein powder in everyone else’s face and decided to get himself too. This resulted in what I believe was a blind fight between the Oily Beefcake partners who thought they were fighting their opponents and led to a Jollyville victory.

I was honestly surprised I didn’t hear any “Fuck TNA” chants like I expected after the general impression a lot of the fans chanting around me gave me. If it were an ROH show i am certain i would have heard that unnecessary chant.

Grade: C+
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I first saw Franky the Mobster something like 10 years ago, and he hardly seems to have aged since then.

Match 3: The Fraternity vs. Kevin Bennett + Franky TM

The first thing I had to note was how odd it seemed that a team based on juvenile beer chugging and Frat-boy jock antics was cheered so heavily. They were the obvious faces heading into the match and were definitely crowd favourites. Meanwhile, Kevin Bennett elicited chants of “Fuck You Bennett!” from much of the audience, even those sitting directly next to small children.

The match itself introduced the audience to the fact that Franky TM was unwillingly forced to be Bennet’s “bitch“, and that Bennett was a dickish heel when he threw beer in the Fraternity’s face pre-match. The match itself was unremarkable outside of a few spots. Particularly exciting moments include an Avalance TKO by one of The Fraternity and Franky TM’s finishing move wherein he dropped his opponent from a Military Press into a Fallaway Slam into a TKO. The match was heavily influenced by the presence of Bennett’s cronies, and while Franky nailed the finishing move, Bennett got the tag and pinfall victory.

Grade: C+
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TDT not being signed yet by ROH baffles me. These guys are great and need more eyes on them.

Match 4: Tabarnak de Team (TDT) vs. The London Riots

Without a doubt, this was the best match of the night and came right before intermission. Before the match even started the two teams were at each other’s throats, with TDT nailing stereo German Suplexes to kick things off. The ring couldn’t contain this fight as it quickly spilled to the outside with some great action. One sequence in particular saw one of the London Riots with a Tope Suicida, followed by a TDT Top-Rope Moonsault to the outside, followed by a Riots Tope con Hilo. These guys may not be the tallest guys on Earth, but this was the Hoss Fight of the card, both teams boasting burliness in spades. The match was big move after big move, and while at times it did appear that TDT were having trouble with the weight of their opponents, it didn’t slow the match or detract from it too much. The London Riots pick up the win with a brutal tandem slingshot into a spear tag team finisher.

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Young Bucks offense done Vader-style.

If i were to give this match any real constructive criticism it would be that they could have, both sides, sold more and slowed the pace down just a bit. It was big moves back and forth throughout the match and it left little room to truly appreciate how violently these men were treating each other.

Grade: B+
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This is just such a great moment, there need be no other shots caught of this match.

Match 5: Sebastian Suave vs. Brent Banks

Suave’s manager cuts a great heel promo before the match to really get the crowd to want “The Sponsored Athlete” to lose. In fact, Suave’s manager was probably the most entertaining thing in the match, as he caused interference in audible, microphoned ways and somehow there was even a mid-match commercial break. Both performers in the ring were obviously very athletic, but the match did nothing for me. Suave wins with a sliding elbow or clothesline, was hard to tell exactly what from my angle.

Grade: C+
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Violence at its most disruptive!

Match 6: Tarik vs. Jimmy Havok

This one got going right out of the gates, with Tarik rushing at Havok and the action quickly spilling outside. From my angle there appeared to be some botchiness with the ropes when they were trying to move the action out of the ring, but it was easily forgotten due to the level of violence and how hyped the crowd was for the match. Before the audience had time to breath Tarik cleared a swathe of fans from their seats and sent Jimmy Havok careening into the plastic chairs like a bowling ball. Once we returned to in ring action, and our seats, there were a couple more noteworthy moments… for good or ill. Tarik absolutely kills it with a backpack stunner against Havok. Havok, however, turns it around promptly and nails a Burning Hammer (or some variation thereof, it wasn’t as snug as Kobashi’s) which Tarik then promptly no sells sending me into a fit at my seat. Whilst furiously ranting about how you cannot no sell a Burning Hammer, Havok picked up the win with what looked like the Rainmaker.

Grade: B
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Greed is one bad hombre!

Match 7: Smash Championship Match – Tyson Dux (c) vs. Greed vs. Scotty O’Shea

This match was all kinds of not-right. At the second entrance theme there were obvious technical issues, the match was announced as a Triple Threat and yet two men were being introduced in a pre-match ceremony when the originally scheduled third man suddenly runs in with a chair in hand, leaving the crowd wildly confused as to the booking. At one point Dux hits a nice outside DDT on Greed, and while a few other big moves standout, such as a great Cannonball into the corner by Greed or O’Shea doing a corner Death Valley Driver to Dux where he slams him into Greed, the match fizzled with the ending. Dux has O’Shea in a Boston Crab and Greed slides in to, from what it looked like, stop O’Shea from tapping to keep the match alive, and then all of a sudden the ref is calling for the bell and telling the audience that O’Shea tapped out… to which the audience promptly responds with a rousing chant of “Bullshit! Bullshit!

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Well, I guess Dux will retain until at least April 9th then, eh?

Post match Jimmy Havok comes out and challenges Dux for the Smash Championship at the next show, and hopefully that match will have a defined ending that is clearly recognizable to the entire audience.

Grade: C
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Fly Stu, Fly!

Match 8: F8Ful Eight Tournament Finals Elimination Match – Kevin Bennett + Franky TM vs. The London Riots vs. The Super Smash Brothers vs. The Boys from Jollyville

Before the match is even underway – and i’m beginning to see a trend towards pre-match action at Smash Wrestling – Stu Grayson of the Super Smash Brothers does an excellent Tope con Hilo to clear out Bennett’s extra goons at ringside. The match, being four corner tag team elimination, is hectic and busy right from the get go. The Boys from Jollville, bearer of the worst tag team name in history, have some pretty good spots here and some great early match chemistry with The London Riots. Of particular note is a great spot where the larger member of the Jollyville team has their opponent in an Airplane Spin and the smaller member is decking him in the face with right hands on each rotation. Certainly spoke to them having character as a unit. Before any one team has had a chance to be eliminated they go out of their way to do a car crash level Tower of Doom spot that elicits a huge pop from the crowd for Franky TM, the man left standing. Franky then nails his Fallaway Slam tossed into a TKO and drapes Bennet over one of the Jollyville fellas for the 3 count and The Boys from Jollyville are eliminated.

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Stu Grayson exists in a perpetual state of “being airborne”.

The first elimination is followed by an awesome sequence between the Super Smash Bros and the London Riots that culminates in the Riots going for their tandem slingshot-into-spear finisher on Stu Grayson who flies out of the slighshot with a knee lift to the guy coming in with the spear. This turns the tables and the Super Smash Brothers eliminate the London Riots with their knee strike/piledriver combination. This match continues to show us how damn good Stu Grayson has become. The Super Smash Brothers have been around for a long time and this latest reinvention has seen them at possibly their best ever as heels, both in psychology and physicality. Franky TM uses Bennett as a weapon against the SSB and things look to be at a stalemate when, out of the blue, Bennett’s cronies show back up and kidnap Evil Uno, taking him behind the curtains and leaving Grayson alone with both Franky TM and Bennett. Franky nails what looks like a Rydeen Bomb (or a Chokebomb) on Grayson and goes to tag in Bennett so he can get the pinfall. Bennett heels it up and commands Franky to do the move two more times before he will allow his bitch to tag out. Bennett gets the pin.

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Rydeen Bomb! 1 of 3.

After the match Bennett grounded Franky TM,  after he attacked Bennet’s cronies,for the next several events, and set up another leg of their slow-burn feud.

Grade: B
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Franky looks like he wants to eat Bennet. Yummy trophy and all.

All in all I left the show satisfied, despite the best match coming at the midway point and the shenanigans that spoiled the title match for much of the crowd. I bought tickets, 2nd row VIP, for their next two events, intent on continuing to delve into the company and excited for the change in venue to a more Torontonian milieu. Smash Wrestling show great promise, and with their established working relationship with Progress Wrestling and their newly formed partnership with WCPW, look to be going places in the landscape of Canadian independent wrestling.

Have you been to a Smash Wrestling show? Do you have any comments or questions? Please leave your feedback here.

Special thanks to Chris Murphy who took wonderful photos and let me share them with you in my blog. You can find his website here, his Instagram here, his Twitter here, and his FaceBook here.

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