I hit DEFY Wrestling: Mad Kingdom last night. Right before the pandemic, I had tickets for a DEFY show starring The Great Sasuke, plus they co-promoted the Super J-Cup show that S. and I went to in 2019. I thus had warm feelings, plus I’ve heard good things about them, plus Eddie Kingston was main eventing and like so many other fans I’ve been really impressed by his AEW run. So I decided to take a calculated risk and go out to an event.
It was pretty fun! Overall it wasn’t an exceptional show, but three of the matches were good to excellent and every match had something to like. I liked it enough to subscribe to their Patreon and I’m thinking I’ll make this a monthly excursion.
My whole week has been pretty much New Japan Pro Wrestling’s G1 Climax tournament for the last couple of weeks. 19 shows in a month, it’s kind of a crazy pace. This is their big heavyweight tournament of the year every year and for a while it looked like it might not happen but they managed to get a few critical wrestlers back into the country and here we are!
New Japan has a streaming service now, ten bucks a month and you get English commentary too. Usually real time although with the pandemic that’s been delayed a couple of days. All good, the Japanese commentary is enthusiastic.
This is my second G1. I watched last summer’s cause I read a couple of previews that made it sound excellent. I’ve been pretty damned haphazard about wrestling since the Benoit murder/suicide, but much to my pleasure New Japan has reawakened my enthusiasm. I’m a bit unhappy about how they’re booking Will Ospreay, but so far I’ve been OK ignoring his matches. I’ll see how it goes; if they’re really going to put a belt on him I may wind up more unhappy.
Anyhow. One major cool thing about the G1: New Japan doesn’t do a lot of singles matches outside title challenges and tournaments. So you’ve been watching all these great wrestlers compete in multi-man tag matches and it’s cool but MAN wouldn’t it be nice to see Tomohiro Ishii face off against Jeff Cobb one on one without all the tagging in and out?
(Yes, it would, they’re both very strong bowling balls on legs. It was a great match.)
That also means the G1 usually has a couple of matches where the wrestlers are facing off for the very first time in singles competition. That’s also cool.
The G1 is made up of two blocks, A block and B block. Everyone in a block wrestles everyone else in the block, 2 points for a win, 1 point for a draw. Winner of A block wrestles winner of B block for the right to challenge for the heavyweight championship at the big New Year’s event, Wrestle Kingdom. The blocks run on alternate nights so that the wrestlers can get a bit of rest. So you get five matches from block A, then the next show there are five matches from block B.
In previous years, they’ve filled out the show with multi-man tag matches using wrestlers from the other block. (Not that much of a break.) This year, because of COVID-19, there’s one match between Young Lions — trainees — and then right into the five block matches. This makes the shows a tidy 2.5 hours long instead of sprawling 3-4 hour things. That’s been really nice.
Plus there are only three Young Lions in Japan who are ready for ring work, so the three of them are just alternating singles matches and getting way more experience than you’d normally see. This is also very cool and I bet it’ll benefit these guys a ton in the future.
But with an average of over 4 shows a week it’s still a lot of wrestling. And I’m off to watch last night’s final.
Professional wrestling is both a commodity and an art form, and that’s why I can sit in an audience of less than a thousand people in a small ballroom in Tacoma and watch one of the best wrestlers in the world do his job.
Will Ospreay is a British wrestler. He’s 26 years old. In 2007, he was a 14 year old watching this Latino kid called Amazing Red, who in turn was wrestling up and down the East Coast in a string of independent promotions and, for a while, in TNA. Whether or not TNA was the big leagues depends on who you ask. Either way, Red had the room to stretch the boundaries of his craft and Will was soaking it all in. He dressed like Red. He recorded YouTube videos of himself replicating Red’s moves.
I know this because Will Ospreay told us so the other night, after 27 minutes of passionate wrestling against his idol, his voice cracking with emotion. Red felt it too, but he didn’t want to put what he was feeling into words. He just wanted to hug Will Ospreay and speak directly to him, whispers in his ear.
“Look at the names on this belt,” said Ospreay, as he held aloft his IGPW Jr. Heavyweight Championship belt. “Look at them. It’s a crime that your name isn’t among them.”
From time to time someone asks me why I like professional wrestling. It’s a good question, especially since sometimes I don’t like it very much at all. This is the answer. There are so many stories being told at once in a classic wrestling match. Some of them are fictional.
The other night, Will Ospreay and the Amazing Red told a story about a smaller, semi-retired guy battling one of the best wrestlers in the world. Will Ospreay wrestles as a junior heavyweight, but this summer he also competed in the G1 Climax tournament. That’s for heavyweights. Will won 4 out of his 9 matches against some of the best in the world. He’s over six feet tall. Amazing Red is 5′ 4″.
Unsurprisingly, Red wrestled as the underdog and came spitting distance from winning. That’s a pretty great story. Also great: watching these two master craftsmen sell that story. It’s not even remotely believable, except that they both knew how to make each other look good. At one point, Red hit his big match-winning move, his finisher. Ospreay didn’t kick out of it, because that would have established him as clearly superior. He just barely managed to get his foot onto the ropes, which breaks the pin without diminishing Red. Subtle stuff.
They also told a true story about a younger man and the veteran he idolized. Ospreay spent months begging Red to come out of retirement for this match, and obviously succeeded. That emotion was all over the match, and that post-match promo. It was also entwined in the fiction. Would Ospreay forget that he idolized Red and fight as hard as he could? Would he realize that he needed to stop idolizing Red in order to beat him?
They also told a story about two athletes and artists working their hearts out to entertain us. Under a thousand people in the room, and S. and I were in the front row. At one point Red wound up in the lap of the guy next to me. He reached up, grabbed my hand, got ready to pull himself up.
“Should I help?” asked the guy whose lap he was in.
“Nope, let it play out,” murmured Red. He was smiling so hard.
True fact: tens of thousands of Londoners happily attended professional wrestling shows during the 1930s. This resurgence in the “sport” was thanks to one Sir Edward Atholl Oakeley, whose autobiography I really gotta read. (In his later years, long after his wrestling career ended, he became the 7th Baronet of Shrewsbury. Wild life story.) He dubbed his wrestling style “All-In,” since it allowed for wrestlers from a variety of traditions. Sir Oakeley always maintained he was promoting real sporting matches, but given that US pro wrestling had already become mostly staged by 1930, it seems pretty likely that All-In wrestling matches were also fixed.
This phase of British professional wrestling history lasted under a decade. By 1940, the quality of the wrestling had degenerated as demand rose. It became more a spectacle, less a sport, and unacceptable in the eyes of civil society. By the time promoters were running mixed gender matches, judges were handing down decrees preventing public shows.
It’s the week for rich businessmen to enter the political fray, huh? Of the two, I find Linda McMahon’s decision more interesting. Stephen Pagliuca is a fairly bland guy with a fairly bland background. Linda McMahon is also fairly bland, and she’s going to face the same questions about her loyalty to her party, but her background has somewhat more spice.
Her Web site is funny. You can barely tell her last name is McMahon, which is probably for the best. It’s not about Linda McMahon, it’s about Linda, who is barely related to that guy who shows up on your TV on Monday nights yelling at wrestlers. The WWE is merely “a company,” not a sports entertainment juggernaut or anything like that. It’s a pretty tasteful chunk of the Web.
There’s very little there about her positions on the issues. We learn she’s a fiscal conservative, which is poorly defined insofar as she’s not yet committed to supporting anything. That’s about it. In particular, there’s nothing on abortion. She donated to the Republican Majority For Choice, which will be impossible to play down and may sink her in the primary. Pro-choice views are nigh required for a Republican to win in New England, though. Ask Mitt Romney. So I’ll be watching to see how she walks that tightrope.
She’s smart. A lot of the WWE’s business success is thanks to her. She is undoubtedly a better businessman than her husband, who reliably lets emotion get in the way of decisions. She’d be a fierce defender of free speech for obvious reasons. On the other hand, she’s complicit in one of the worst abuses of employees in the United States — the WWE’s “independent contractor” crap, which directly results in drug addictions, ruined lives, and deaths.
In the end, you’d have to guess she’d be a business-oriented Republican, who’d work to keep government small and limited. She would most likely be consistent in that she wouldn’t want the government dictating social mores either. Could be worse; I’ve just never seen any great value in keeping government small while allowing big corporations to flourish. Large organizations are large organizations.
I can’t see it getting that far, though. WWE television programming is a great platform, but the skeletons are too visible. In way too many cases, quite literally.
The Shawn Michaels Story — some repeats, no Bret Hart matches (?), but worth it probably for that hour long match with Cena alone. Said match is not included on the 3 DVD Cena set coming up soon, btw.
Rey Mysterio: Biggest Little Man — the 6 man tag from When Worlds Collide, the Malenko match from Great American Bash 1996, the July 8, 1996 Nitro Malenko match, the Eddie Guerrero match from Halloween Havoc 1997, his Smackdown debut against Chavo Guerrero in 2002, and the Angle match at SummerSlam 2002 are duplicates from his old DVD. C’est la vie. There’s a ton of new worthwhile material, although the old DVD is probably obsolete — the only match that isn’t repeated that’s worth seeking out is a Benoit match. Hm, and a Psicosis match, but still.
At the time I write this, the solid facts are that three people are dead: Chris Benoit, wrestler, and his wife, and their seven year old son. When I heard that news last night I was devastated. Chris Benoit’s death alone would have hit me hard; add a family tragedy to it, and the news horrified me.
Mike Grasso asked me what real-life Japanese pro wrestling (aka puroresu) was like. I can answer that question at more length than he probably imagined, and I’m gonna. Brace yourselves.
There are four distinct styles of Japanese pro wrestling at the moment. There’s a lot of crossover and blending of styles, but at the end of the day the four basic styles remain distinct. The first and oldest is strong style, which is the most like US pro wrestling. Second and third, in no particular order, are puroresu and garbage wrestling. Lucharesu is a cruiserweight style, heavily influenced both by Mexican lucha libre and Canadian technical wrestling. Garbage wrestling is the stuff with lightbulbs and thumbtacks and explosions and fire. Finally, and newest to the scene, there’s shoot wrestling; it’s a reaction to the popularity of mixed martial arts (such as the UFC).
Strong style is more or less the mainstream of Japanese wrestling. Up until the 1970s, Japanese wrestling was not noticably different from US wrestling. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW, then one of the two biggest wrestling promotions in Japan) deliberately moved away from the cartoonish aspects of US wrestling. They made the conscious decision to eliminate false finishes, run-ins, and other gimmicks; they figured they’d attract more fans if they simulated a real sporting event better. It was a huge success. The desire for verisimilitude also resulted in higher impact moves; 80s and 90s AJPW was known for the number of times you’d see someone dropped on their head. Compare this to Memphis wrestling, in which the piledriver was “outlawed” in order to make the emotional impact of the move that much stronger.
Lucharesu really didn’t get going until the late 1980s, although the seeds of the style were sown years earlier. You can trace lucharesu to a classic series of matches between Tiger Mask I and Dynamite Kid. Some will remember Dynamite as half of the British Bulldogs; he was a British-born wrestler who trained in Calgary under the legendary Stu Hart. The Hart family and trainees have always been known for their devotion to technical wrestling; Tiger Mask I was fascinated by lucha libre. The fusion of these influences is lucharesu.
It’s a very quick style, wrestled mostly by wrestlers under 200 pounds. The smaller wrestlers are more agile and able to do more aerial moves than the bigger strong style wrestlers. Lucharesu ranges from the purest forms of the style, found in promotions like Michinoku Pro, to stuff more like the original Tiger Mask/Dynamite Kid series (and more akin to strong style), found in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Either way it’s fast-paced exciting stuff. Matt and Jeff Hardy were strongly influenced by lucharesu. Ultimo Dragon, currently wrestling in the WWE, is one of the best lucharesu guys ever — although he’s a shadow of his former self.
Garbage wrestling is what most people think of when they think of Japanese pro wrestling. I’m not a huge fan of the stuff; a garbage match has to be very good before I want to watch it. It’s essentially strong style with dangerous objects serving as the high impact moves. Instead of getting the crowd into a match by throwing a suplex, garbage wrestlers set themselves on fire and jump from balconies. It’s a valid style but I blame it for way too many idiot backyard wrestlers by way of Mick Foley. It got hot in the late 1980s, and has been up and down ever since. The style is too hard on wrestlers for a garbage wrestler to have a really long career.
Finally, and most recently, we’ve got the fusion of mixed martial arts and pro wrestling. Over the years there have been a number of promotions in Japan which purport to put on “real” martial arts matches. (No, nobody pretends that pro wrestling is real anymore except in the context of a show.) Some of them really do, such as Pride. Some of them don’t. Mixed martial arts is way more popular in Japan than it is over here, and several wrestling promotions are making good money staging either real or faked matches between pro wrestlers and mixed martial arts stars.
A couple of promotions, like the now defunct BattlArts, put on shoot-style matches but didn’t pretend that they were real. In my eyes, this is the apothesis of the style — you aren’t hampered by the need to con the fans, and you can take advantage of the benefits that scripting storylines gives you. It’s a win/win.
This essay totally ignores women’s pro wrestling in Japan, or joshi puroresu. The styles are more or less the same, as far as I know, but I don’t watch enough of it to talk about the subtle differences.