Report from the Fort: Best Wrestler (Female)

As Rae mentioned in her previous post we have split the “Best Wrestler” award into male and female categories. Not because we feel that female wrestlers are in any way inferior to male wrestlers, but due to the way they are portrayed. For the most part, they are very different entities. It would be lovely to think that this won’t be the case by the time next year’s awards come around, but I’m not that hopeful. In my “Best Match” award I explained how the idea of “gender free” wrestling is becoming more prevalent on the independent scene, but in the world that WWE occupy, it’s not going to change much soon I’m afraid.

With that said, on with the show and our final look back at 2011…

If you’ve read any of the previous awards this year, or for that matter, anything else we write on the blog or Twitter, then this winner should come as no surprise. We are unabashedly in awe of Sara Del Rey. In a year in which we were cautiously optimistic in the WWE Women’s division, only to be let down with Beth’s (hopefully forced) “we’re just giiiiiiiiirls…” whining and Natalya’s inexplicable losing streak, Del Rey has gone from strength to strength.

A wrestler rather than a model (although Rae would like to point out that her thighs are the stuff of legend and her own training aspiration) Sara managed to have a banner year in CHIKARA, beating the likes of Claudio Castagnoli, winning the annual Cibernetico match and wrestling her idol Aja Kong. Add to this her continued appearances for the likes of SHIMMER, her ROH run as part of the Kings of Wrestling, and appearances for a number of other promotions and 2011 certainly stacked up as the year that everyone finally agreed she is one of the best wrestlers in the world.

One thing that Rae and I both find admirable is that Sara has always been very vocal about the end goal of her career. In an age in which many fans, wrestlers and promoters are incredibly dismissive of the WWE’s output (particularly the Diva’s division), Del Rey has continuously stated that she would like to be signed to a WWE contract. As a fan of the intimacy independent wrestling affords, it’s easy to be selfish and hope this doesn’t happen. You can imagine the cries of dismay as her FCW name is revealed to be Stephanie Queen and she jobs to Kelly Kelly after a few weeks. But let’s be honest, financially the WWE is as good as it gets. Not only that, but the worldwide exposure is second to none. Sara knows what she wants, and it’s admirable that she hasn’t succombed to the easy elitist route of “Indie > WWE.”

With the likes of Kings of Wrestling teammates Claudio Castagnoli and Chris Hero already in FCW, as well as fans and friends such as CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, Beth Phoenix, Awesome Kong and Natalya, it will hopefully only be a matter of time before the call up comes. When it does, I’ll look forward to seeing her on my TV every week.

Report from the Fort: Best Wrestler (Male)

Before we move on to our man of the year, a quick word on why we decided to choose a male and female wrestler of the year, rather than just one person. We don’t feel that, at least in mainstream wrestling, men and women get the same crack of the whip at the moment. They don’t occupy the same space in the same way. Are we happy about that? Definitely not. But we wanted to recognise both separately this year and, of course, we consider both male and female awards to be completely equal. If we’re still plugging away at this by next year, maybe we’ll change things around and make it a mainstream and independent award. For now, here’s our number one bloke of 2011. 

The problem with American collegiate athletes, is that they can appear a little dull on the surface. During the years in which I spent large amounts of time trying to make sense of the magnitude that is  American college sport, the bizarre and alien cattle market that is a draft proved my point. Neither college sports nor a draft system operate in British based sports. Every boy who ever held up his sateen professional jersey in front of draft day flashbulbs seemed as generic as the next.  The thing about these kids though, is that they don’t need to be interesting and have sparkling personalities. They’re expected to court the media to a point, but ultimately, as long as they’re scoring points, they’re winning at life.

But what about collegiate wrestlers who want to make the jump from amateur sport to sports entertainment, where they can make some cash if they work hard and wink at the right people? How do you go from a place where only being able to move matters, to a place where you also have to sell the movement like an actor playing things up for those sitting in the cheap seats at the back? It’s not easy, especially if you haven’t had the benefit of learning the craft of audience engagement in front of demanding indie circuit crowds.

One man who has made that leap work is Dolph Ziggler. Dolph had a brilliant 2011 and is proof that paying your dues in the mid-card under various guises for however long it takes pays dividends. It doesn’t happen often, but Dolph Ziggler is a true all-rounder. The full package. In 2011 he was World Heavyweight Champion, albeit for just 11 minutes and 23 seconds. He held the United States Championship for six months, his mic work was continually spot on, his partnership with the magnificent Vickie Guerrero continued to be an enormous source of fun, his appearances on Zack Ryder’s YouTube show had us pawing at out computer screens and, most crucially, his matches never disappointed. We had no choice but to make him our man of the year.

Basically, Dolph Ziggler’s such an astute showman that, whether he’s in the ring or on the mic, people definitely pay attention when he’s around. Even his haircut and change of hair colour sparked all kinds of internet debate about character identity and branding. Here’s to 2012, Dolph Ziggler. We’re watching every move. But not in a creepy stalker kind of way. Not most days anyway.

Report From The Fort: Best Major Shows

I know, I know… bloody Andrew going on about bloody CHIKARA again. But there’s a reason for this, and it’s pretty simple. Are you ready? Here it is…

…CHIKARA are just that good.

There, pretty simple isn’t it when you see it typed out like that. CHIKARA are, by far, my “desert island” wrestling promotion. The one company I would choose above all others if I was inexplicably stranded on a desert island and somehow only given access to one company’s back catalogue. The wrestling is of a standard that has caused both Rae and myself to forget to breathe on more than occasion. The storylines are complex and spanning a matter of months, if not years in some cases. The characters are well rounded, funny and captivating. Most importantly of all, CHIKARA (more than any other large-ish promotion) has a real family feel to it. Not just “family friendly” but “family.”

Outside of the blog, I do some design work for a couple of small UK indie promotions. Promotions that are getting decent buzz both here and abroad, but still pretty small compared to CHIKARA. Despite “working” for these companies, and being on speaking terms with the promoters and some of the wrestlers, I still feel a closer bond to CHIKARA than to any other promotion.

They were the promotion that got me through the post-Benoit period when, as a father of two young children, I felt that the WWE wasn’t something I was sure I could watch. They helped me convert Rae to the joys of indie wrestling, and provided some very happy memories of her joy at discovering the likes of Claudio and his tiny trunks. They were the company that, as a blog, made us promise to visit Philadelphia for King of Trios one year (rather than rely on the kindness of guest writers.) In short, the only thing that could have made CHIKARA better for me would be for them to be within travelling distance.

And then, towards the end of last year, they announced that their season finale would be available to watch live on iPPV. Finally, a chance to watch a CHIKARA show live, and not just any CHIKARA show. This was the season finale, the show to wrap up all the stories from 2011, and to finally crown the inaugural CHIKARA Grand Champion.

I’m not very good at writing about emotions on here, Rae is much better at that than I am (being a girl and everything) but it really did mean a lot to me to be part of that family for those few hours. With great match after great match, and one of the most important main events in CHIKARA history, even without the emotional impact this would be a show I would recommend to anybody. You can buy the DVD obviously, but even better (and keeping in theme with the whole “bringing CHIKARA to you worldwide” ethos of this show) it’s available for only $9.99 as a digital download.

Do yourself a favour and at least check out the trailer below. If the wrestling appeals to you, buy the show. Once the storylines, promos and, yes… emotions, all kick in you’ll be hooked and my work here will be done.

I know, I know… bloody Rae going on about bloody Money in the Bank again. But there’s a reason for this, and it’s pretty simple. Are you ready? Here it is…

…it was fucking amazing! 

We’ve spoken at great length about the WWE Money in the Bank Pay-Per-View, and we’re conscious of avoiding repetition. But the steady build towards that main event during this show was palpable. A frond of electricity crept through every single match in anticipation of the finale.

It touched the then professional nice-guy Daniel Bryan’s blue briefcase win in the Smackdown match with even more fairy dust than it would have without that looming last match. The indie kid did good. What was in store for their main eventing indie kid? I was one of the first to criticise removing the MITB match from the Wrestlemania card and plonking it into another gimmicky PPV. But somehow, it seems to have worked.

Randy Orton and Christian were at full throttle, Orton continuing on his transition from villain to hero. Lest we forget Randy’s loopy announce table tongue work. At this time too, Mark Henry’s star was ascending, Alberto Del Rio had properly arrived and this all taking place with the bristling undercurrent of ‘is CM Punk really leaving for good?’ Magical.

Report from the Fort: Best Match (Rae’s Picks)

Andrew posted his favourite matches of 2011 yesterday. Here are my two awards winners….

Winner: CM Punk vs John Cena (WWE’s Money in the Bank: July 17th 2011)

What exactly do you want from the perfect wrestling match? Hitting the right balance for one viewer is tricky enough. Trying to cultivate a match that speaks to the masses is quite another. What CM Punk and John Cena managed to do at the 2011 Money in the Bank Pay-Per-View was truly remarkable.

If the Rock’s reappearance at last year’s Wrestlemania was designed to engage the casual fan who largely turned its back on the WWE once corporate branding turned the sex and violence soft, Punk and Cena’s match came about to mobilise current fans becoming complacent with the product. And, oh, did it succeed!

I wrote about the match the day after it took place in such a state of emotional, sleepless exhaustion that I had no idea whether what I’d written was brilliant or complete dross. Trusting my colleague’s wisdom, I took Andrew’s advice that I should post it immediately. Thankfully, to lovely feedback. By Tuesday there were whole sentences I had no recollection of writing whatsoever. There are events where a level head are mandatory when putting fingertips to keys, but the impact this match had was so strong, only stream of consciousness ramblings would do.

I rewatched Punk and Cena’s match a little over a week ago. I wondered if I would feel the same way about it now, knowing how the tale was punctuated. I wondered if the months of following stories would have washed away all those flailing emotions. I pondered this right up until a couple of minutes before the match started. Then I stopped. My heart started beating faster and I felt a rush of slight breathlessness as that incredible Chicago crowd noise assaulted me through my speakers.

When wrestling first drew me into its fold, the most intriguing thing of all was that grey space between reality and fiction; where you’re not fully convinced that what you’re watching is real, but it feels liberally speckled with truth at the same time. This match wasn’t the most technically precise display of wrestling that ever was, and I do love repeated nearfalls and cartoon-like “Why don’t you just DIE?” grimaces. Technically accurate does not a great story make. It didn’t need to be perfect because it had intense passion. In Punk’s possibly real contract ending and in John’s threatened firing, the story had potentially cataclysmic, game changing consequences that stretched way beyond just the two of them. When that’s your base, everything else takes care of itself.

Winner: The Throwbacks + Matt Classic vs Team Osaka Pro (CHIKARA King of Trios 2011 – Night One: 15th April 2011)

The morning after I watched this year’s Royal Rumble, I was in the back of a taxi chatting with the driver about the previous night’s TV, as you do. On finding out that I had spent three hours of my evening watching professional wrestling, he was stunned. “You? YOU!? Really? What a dark horse!” He also went on to joke that wrestling was not my hobby, but my downfall, and looked blankly as I responded to his question about my favourite wrestler with ‘CM Punk’. Apparently, in loving wrestling, I am a walking contradiction. Maybe I should have been offended. But hey, how often do you get to appear enigmatic in the company of strangers?

Explaining a love of wrestling to non-fans isn’t easy. I often wonder how I might convert them if I just had one match to do it with. One match, where they have a lightbulb moment and come over to my side of the fence. You might expect me to select that much discussed CM Punk vs John Cena at Money in the Bank match.  But I happened to watch a large chunk of it with non-fan company last week and either had to explain the storyline in great detail, which I didn’t actually mind, or had to suffer the ridicule of just loving it to begin with. I minded that rather a lot.

I’m paraphrasing slightly from the second Kayfabe Comedy podcast here, but if we accept that wrestling is ultimately very silly, and that CHIKARA do silly better than anyone, a CHIKARA match is the perfect introductory match. At King of Trios 2011, The Throwbacks and Matt Classic vs Team Osaka Pro had the ultimate newbie match. Before the action even gets under way, enough grin inducing, beautifully timed, slapstick comedy has taken place as to make everything that happens during the actual match feel like gravy. There’s competitive running of the ropes, makeshift basketball and Matt Classic’s in-match yoga moves. By far the most engaging character is Sugar Dunkerton, currently absent from CHIKARA for very personal reasons. Here, he shines.

There are some brilliant spots from both teams and there’s no complex story to explain, apart from maybe Dasher Hatfield’s stitch-face. No crowd sells silliness like a CHIKARA crowd and if this match doesn’t make you proud to pay wrestling forward, you might be needing a break. As well as being a great introduction to wrestling for novice fans, it’s also an effective antidote for when seasoned pros like ourselves get a little jaded. I recommend keeping a copy in your medicine cabinet.

Report From The Fort: Best Match (Andrew’s picks)

We were struggling to narrow down our award to just one match. One of the many things we enjoy about wrestling is that it’s so varied, and there are many contenders for best match, all for different reasons. As such we have picked two matches each, both of which meant a lot to us for different reasons. Rae will be posting hers shortly, but in the meantime…

Winner: Sara Del Rey vs KANA (CHIKARA’s Klunk In Love: Oct 8, 2011)

We’ve declared our undying affection for Sara Del Rey on the blog before, and those affections are indeed unwaning. Not only one of the best female wrestlers in the world, she is arguably one of the best wrestlers in the world full stop. Other than the all female promotion SHIMMER, possibly no company has done more to reward Del Rey’s skill than CHIKARA. In a company featuring wrestling ice creams, temporally displaced Egyptian snake gods and evil (yet devilishly attractive) insect overlords, something as petty as human gender is unlikely to be an issue to success.

When I first took it upon myself to introduce Rae to CHIKARA, one of the matches I showed her was a 2007 bout between Icarus, Gran Akuma & Brodie Lee and Cheech, Cloudy & Sara Del Rey. I don’t think it would be an overestimation to say that Del Rey played a pivotal role in her indoctrination, inspiring not only a love for indie wrestling, but also a typically insightful post on intergender wrestling

KANA on the otherhand, is maybe less known to a wider audience, although 2011 was undoubtedly her “breakthrough” year in the west, with a successful tour of the US taking in CHIKARA and SHIMMER. Having trained and shared a room together early on on their careers, the idea of the two wrestling each other was thought of by many as a dream match.

Then...

...and now

That they were having a match at all was great news. That CHIKARA had the courage and the belief (not only in the wrestlers but also the fans) to make this match the main event of one of their shows gives an indication of just how highly they are thought of. And that faith was more than rewarded with what was easily my match of the year. Not just for the quality of the match (which was amazing) but also in what it stands for. In a year in which the female division in the WWE has often dropped down to levels that can only be described as “risible,” it’s important to remember that there is excellent female wrestling out there.

From SHIMMER’s continued successes to CHIKARA’s Joshimania weekend, from Anarchy Championship Wrestling’s gender-neutral shows to the growing popularity of Quebec’s NCW Femme Fatales, from the UK’s Pro Wrestling EVE to their Japanese partners in Ice Ribbon, there is more female wrestling of a quality that puts many male wrestlers to shame than ever before. Yes this stuff is harder to access than WWE or TNA, and yes you might have to brace yourself for accusations of slightly ulterior motives (believe me, I know) but you will be rewarded with some of the best wrestling that’s out there at the moment… from wrestlers who are possessed of dedication, talent, determination and, coincidentally, ovaries.

Skip to about 4 minutes in the following video for a clip from the match

Winner: Mike Quackenbush vs Eddie Kingston (CHIKARA’s High Noon: Nov 13, 2011)

I’ll be writing more about how much I enjoyed CHIKARA’s first ever iPPV later, but this match is one of the reason’s why the show worked so well. I know I’m coming across as an unabashed fanboy, but one of the thing’s CHIKARA do so well is create emotion through stories and this match, the culmination of their 12 Large Summit tournament, was no excecption.

The tournament was held throughout the 2011 season to finally crown the inaugural CHIKARA Grand Champion, and was dedicated to the memory of CHIKARA alumni Larry Sweeney who took his own life early in the year after a long history of mental illness. In one corner was Mike Quackenbush: founder and head trainer at CHIKARA, and one of the most talented technical wrestlers currently in the US. In the opposite corner was Eddie Kingston: one of my favourite wrestlers and a close personal friend of Larry Sweeney. Kingston is by no means a technical wizard, but he is an amazing brawler, and his promos are second to none – including this gem he released in the run up to the show…

That promo would probably be enough to earn this award by itself to be honest, but the match more than lived up to it. With nearfall after nearfall, a teased Quackenbush heel turn, and the entire roster surrounding the ring by the time the final bell was rung, it was an amazing match, and an honour to get to watch live. I realise this might sound like hyperbole, but it’s true – I genuinely felt like part of something special watching live from my bedroom over in the UK that night, and it’s thanks to moments like this that I love wrestling. Thank you CHIKARA

Report from the Fort: Best Villain

Our pillow fort here in the Wrestlegasm Bunker is starting to sag. If anyone’s in the area and has five spare minutes, please be a doll, come round and fluff up our pillows for us? We’ll pay you in cheese puffs. While we wait, I’ll crack on with our next award, for the people we love to hate.

There aren’t many pure villains around these days. We have plenty of bad guys and angry girls, but what we’re talking about is moustache-twiddling, Disney-esque villainy. It’s one thing to want to beat down everyone in your path to victory, damning the consequences as you go. To have a devilish plan that not only gets you to the top, but also takes you down the most dastardly route possible is quite another.

A rare breed of wretch was reborn this year in the form on John Laurinaitis. We hate him. No, I mean we really hate him. Johnny’s 2011 incarnation had all the Machiavellian qualities of Vince McMahon without any of the deranged likability. His behind-the-scenes campaign to bring Triple H down from his lofty managerial perch while playing dumb in public made me want to throw rotten vegetables at his face. It was his influence that forced our beloved Beth Phoenix to wander down that vomit inducing ‘We’re girls. We need protecting. Wah-wah-wah’ path when he ushered the roster towards a vote of no confidence in their leader.

Every time John appeared on screen, I gave out an enormous and genuine sigh that said ‘Urgh. This guy. WTF does he want this time?’ There’s also the fact that he’s allegedly an even bigger dickhead in real life, which only ramps up our loathing further. Here’s to you, John Laurinaitis. We look forward to your pending demise, beginning with CM Punk’s heart stopping character assassination at the end of this week’s Raw and the inevitable repercussions of punching Mick Foley in the kisser.

Honourable Mention: goes to Kharma. There aren’t many wrestlers who can fill not only their opponents but also the audience will palpable terror after just a second of crunching piano chords and a spine chilling cackle. Even watching her WWE debut again now I get a genuine, slightly fluttery feeling in my chest. The kind of internal tremor that reminds me why I love wrestling so much.

For purely selfish reasons, it’s a shame her plan to trim the Divas division and make it her own was so short. But we can hardly be angry with a woman for disappearing for the sake of motherhood, as debated earlier in the year. Whenever Kharma’s ready to return, we’ll be there, peeking from behind cushions, hoping she doesn’t catch our eye. EEK!

Report from the Fort: Best Newcomer

As Rae mentioned in her Best Newcomer award, we’re eschewing the lure of the country show with its home-made preserves and tombola stalls. Rather, we’ve kicked off our shoes, slipped into our favourite pyjamas and took up residence in the pillow fort section of the Wrestlegasm Bunker to discuss this years winners. I’ll miss the excellent scones we got to sample last year, but crumbs and pillow forts don’t really mix anyway…

We struggled trying to find a recipient for Best Newcomer this year, and while I’m quite ashamed to say that Archibald Peck completely slipped my mind until just now, we ended up looking to FCW for our winner and the graphic’s been made up now and everything. Sorry about that Archie.

The trouble is, this year just hasn’t been one for newcomers. For all of Punk’s rhetoric about the winds of change moving through the landscape of the WWE, the “debuts” of 2011 tended to be returns such as Kevin Nash, Booker T, The Rock and HHH. Over in FCW however, along with Wrestlegasm favourite Claudio Castagnoli, the erstwhile Jon Moxley debuted as Dean Ambrose and quickly became a bit of an internet sensation after feuding with Seth “Tyler Black” Rollins, CM Punk and, most notably, William Regal.

After a debut interview in which he epitomised the word “grubby” and put a huge smile on Regal’s face, he went on to have a trilogy of matches with Seth Rollins, culminating in a great 30 minute effort showcasing two of the indie talents that have made it into developmental.

Following on from his Rollins feud, and a chance to challenge CM Punk at another FCW show, Ambrose moved onto Regal and the two of them brought the best out of each other, both in promos and in the following match in which Regal finally gets to be himself in the ring again.

In a promotion where the majority of the talent are still trying to find a personality beyond “tanned muscley bloke” Ambrose stands out as the greasy-haired kid from the dodgy estate that you always felt would get you in serious trouble one day. He’s got a great future ahead of him, and we’re very happy to present him this award – probably his first of many.

Honourable Mention: goes to Mason Ryan. Can you guess who might have decided on this one? Much like the interstellar radiation still detectable from the big bang, I’m sure that in the furthest recesses of the Bunker you can still hear the faint echoes of the immense squeal let out by Boss Lady Rae when she saw this photo on a Tuesday morning last January.

While it would be extremely generous to say that Ryan has set the WWE alight with his in ring prowess and fly-away hair, never underestimate the power of local bias. My love for Regal is no secret, and the same goes for Rae and her homeboy from the ‘Diff. As for me, I’m always happy to see more UK wrestlers getting a break in the US, and I’m still hopeful for Barri (as we in the know call him) to improve and become better in the ring as time goes by.

PS I’m well aware that, much like last year, neither of these guys are actually “newcomers” having had careers over the last few years, but for the sake of the awards, we’re taking major company debuts as counting

Report from the Fort: Best Commentary

After a week of deliberation we have finally decided on who should win our illustrious awards covering the last 12 months. They’re based on our own opinion and on the wrestling we were able to watch during 2011. There is no science or points system. It’s just stuff we liked more than other stuff.

Last year we invited you to join us at the Best in Show Awards. It was a jolly affair taking the form of a country show; complete with baking competitions, large vegetables and home brewed beer. This year we’re just a little too weary for all that. We’re still crawling out of our December hibernation nest. So this year we’ve built a pillow fort in the Bunker and we’re not moving until we’ve handed over every award. Basically, if you won something and actually want the trophy, you’ll have to pop by and pick it up. Just make sure you take your shoes off before you enter the fort.

We’ll be releasing these posts gradually throughout January. Starting with…

If you think about it, wrestling commentary is a curious thing. Unlike sports commentators, wrestling announcers already know the outcome of the matches they illustrate with words. Done badly, it can seem as pointless as the voiceovers on Total Wipeout. But done well, commentary can be as integral to the brilliance of a match as the action in the ring.

We’re all in on the game. We all know the theatre that is professional wrestling means that everything that takes place before us has been predetermined. What we want from the announce table are words and delivery that make the story infinitely more exciting. For that reason, we can only give this award to Bryce Remsburg.

He may consider himself a referee first, but Bryce’s CHIKARA commentary is so exciting, I defy anyone not to feel completely involved in the matches he announces. He already knows how the match will play out, and yet you wouldn’t know it. What comes across more than anything is that he’s a fan loving what he’s watching. That kind of enthusiasm is infectious and we think a lot of the mainstream announcers could learn something about engaging an audience from Bryce. We bloody love you, Mr. Remsburg.

Honourable Mention: goes to Matt Striker. You might be forgiven for wondering if he’s still employed. Especially if you live in a country where WWE Superstars no longer broadcasts on television. But he’s still there, plugging away, begging to be heard, winning our hearts.

We don’t know why Matt was so swiftly relegated to the locker room. It doesn’t seem that long ago he was at the Wrestlemania announce table rocking his tux. Matt was originally sidelined to make way for Booker T’s return after last year’s Rumble. Somehow, he never made it back to a big show. We’re pulling for you in 2012, buddy.