GUEST POST: King of Trios – A journey into the heart of hilarious high-flying wrestling

Sidekick Andrew: As we may have mentioned in passing briefly (here, here, here, and here for example) it was CHIKARA’s annual King of Trios tournament this past weekend. Now, being based on the slightly more civilised side of the Atlantic, it wasn’t possible for us to attend personally; but we did manage to secure the services of a special reporter for the weekend. Matt Jones (follow him on twitter, like him on Facebook and buy his t-shirt… something like that.) Enjoy the article: feel free to comment and be nice, or there’ll be trouble. Oh, and don’t forget to click the link at the bottom of the article and buy the DVDs – I’ve a feeling you won’t regret it

PS. Images are Matt’s own, unless otherwise stated

Riding in a cab through dingy South Philadelphia, it looks like somewhere to go if you had a deep-seeded desire to get mugged. For someone who hasn’t been to a major city in a while it looks like something out of a Batman comic.

But in this odd location a throng of very friendly strangers line up outside the reformatted bingo hall that was the ECW arena (now called the Asylum Arena). Walking in, the place is almost unrecognizable if you’ve only seen the dingy 1990’s videos of Tommy Dreamer or the Dudley Boys throwing each other off balconies, or of Chris Benoit breaking Sabu’s neck. Actually, given the claustrophobic camera work usually employed, the Arena is bigger than I expected.

Nonetheless, once the passionate fans of a promotion like Chikara file in, the atmosphere becomes absolutely electric. And make no mistake, Chikara’s fans are extremely passionate, and this is their biggest event of the year. To fudge a Hunter S. Thompson quote – In some circles, King of Trios is a far better thing than the Superbowl, the Kentucky Derby, and the lower Oakland roller derby finals all rolled into one.

The show opens with the lights going low and Chikara’s roster coming out around the ring- a tribute to the recently deceased “Sweet n Sour” Larry Sweeney. Some wrestlers like Mike Quackenbush and Eddie Kingston weep openly as the bell tolls ten times. Then the lights go out and a Sweeney video package plays on the big screen. When the lights come back on, a pair of Sweeney’s trademark sunglasses are in the ring, and the fans chant his name. A bittersweet beginning, to be sure, but absolutely necessary. Sweeney touched the hearts of fans and wrestlers alike in his time.

The mood picks up immediately as we’re thrust into the bizarre world of Chikara, where anthropomorphic ants have kickass wrestling matches with old timey baseball players and marching band leaders.

The contest between Team Osaka Pro (Atsushi Kotoge, Daisuke Harada and Ultimate Spider Jr.) and The Throwbacks (Dasher Hatfield, Sugar Dunkerton and Matt Classic) is almost strictly comedy. Kotoge and Dunkerton have a race which ends with the referee ordering free throws for Osaka Pro on an improvised hoop made of Dunkerton’s arms (Kotoge sinks his first, but misses the second). Classic, a send-up of old school wrestlers, admonishes his teammates for their comedy, insists they join him in Hindu squats and spends much of the match performing the Harvard step test à la Bob Backlund. Not to be outdone, Ultimate Spider Jr. gets into the act, using invisible spider webs to perform Irish whips on Dunkerton and Hatfield. Maybe not the most coherent wrestling match ever, but certainly one of the most entertaining spectacles I’ve ever seen.

On the other hand, the match featuring Mike Quackenbush, Jigsaw and Manami Toyota taking on The Maximos and TNA’s Amazing Red is almost all action. It’s a little odd seeing a female wrestler like Toyota battling men if you’re not used to it, but she fits right in and performs as well as, or better than, any of her male counterparts. After ten minutes of fast paced wrestling, Jigsaw scores an emotional win for his team with Larry Sweeney’s “12 Large” elbow drop.

The main event of the evening brings it all together in match featuring, unquestionably, the most mainstream performers of the weekend. Team Michinoku Pro is comprised of legends in the industry, particularly in their native Japan- The Great Sasuke, Jinsei Shinzaki and Dick Togo. Their opponents are Team Minnesota- Chikara regulars “The Anarchist” Arik Cannon, North Star Express member Darin Corbin and, in some ways the oddest name in the event, Sean Waltman, better known as X-Pac and performing for the first time since 1996 as the 1-2-3 Kid.

The knowledgeable Chikara fans give every participant a great deal of respect (which visibly moves Kid, who is seen wiping away tears). The match features not only exciting high-flying wrestling and solid mat action, but also some great comedy. In what stands as one of the most surreal moments ever, The Great Sasuke and Corbin engage in perhaps the first ever bout of slow-motion hardcore wrestling.

Corbin is well known for breaking out slow-motion in his matches, but seeing a legend like The Great Sasuke partake defies description. The effects are not limited to Corbin and Sasuke, either. Referee Bryce Remsberg and all the wrestlers on the ring apron get in on the act (Togo’s exaggerated, slow-motion cheering is a highlight), as well as the fans who chant veeeeeeeeerrrrrrryyyyy sloooooooooooooowwwwwwlllllyyy. Soon, Sasuke sets up Corbin on a chair and ascends to the top rope. Upping the ante on the comedy, Corbin’s teammate Cannon suddenly shakes off the slow-motion and screams “Darin, stop screwing around!” to huge laughs from the crowd. Corbin complies, and Sasuke crashes through an empty chair.

Slo-mo wrestling is the best wrestling.

In the end, Togo performs a beautiful flying senton on Corbin and scores the win for his team. The fans give a standing ovation to the participants, chanting all of their names at various times. An amazing match to end a top-notch night of wrestling, but the weekend is just getting started.

Saturday afternoon sees the Fan Conclave, Chikara’s equivalent of WWE’s fan festival Axxess. It’s here where it becomes clear what King of Trios really is- the Woodstock of independent wrestling. Legends rub elbows with relative rookies in the industry and all are available to the fans for pictures and autographs. They are unfailingly friendly, and happily chat with fans in an incredibly positive atmosphere (the exception being F.I.S.T.’s Icarus, the most hated wrestler in Chikara, who wanders through the crowd insulting everyone he sees).

There are numerous heart warming scenes. As my girlfriend takes video of the Ant Colony roaming through the fans, Ophidian of the Osirian Portal limbos in front of her and drops to the ground. He begins reading a note written on nice stationary that I notice begins “Dear Ophidian.” He sits and reads for a few minutes before dropping all of his serpentine movements and wrapping a nearby girl, presumably the author of the note, in a big hug.

And even aside from the chance to meet your favourite ants, snakes and (Ultra)mantises, there’s a lot going on. There’s a chance to commentate on matches, a contest where fans and wrestlers attempt to bodyslam Tursas (and the Colony’s Green Ant begins his transformation into Lex Luger), a dance contest hosted by the Osirian Portal, and a concert by Stan Bush. Nobody enjoys it more than “Rock and Roll Ring Announcer” Gavin Loudspeaker, who dances and thrashes around when Bush plays “The Touch.”

A few hours later, the second night of action begins, which sees surprises, thrilling victories and bitter defeats.

One of the most engaging contests of the entire weekend is the first qualifier for the Rey De Voladores, which features El Generico, Zach Sabre Jr, Marshe Rockett of Da Soul Touchaz and the BDK’s Pinkie Sanchez (who sports both some of the funniest facial expressions I’ve ever seen and some incredibly gnarly back acne). The referee for the match is BDK’s Derek Sabato who’s biased officiating allows Sanchez to eliminate Sabre and Rockett. Sanchez has the victory in hand when Chikara’s Director of Fun, Wink Vavasseur enters the arena. Wink forces Sabato to wear a standard Chikara referee shirt, symbolically stating that the BDK will no longer have their own referee. The crowd bursts into the biggest cheers of the weekend, so far, when Generico then drills Sanchez with his BRAINBUSTAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!! (picture a top rope brainbuster, driving the opponent head-first into the top turnbuckle). Sabato begrudgingly counts a slow three, but he could count to 100 – Sanchez is out cold.

The BDK’s night doesn’t get any better as their team of Tim Donst, Jakob Hammermeir and Delirious, accompanied by Tursas, face off against the Colony. In a thrilling, come from behind victory, Green Ant completes his transformation into Lex Luger as he finally succeeds in bodyslamming Tursas (causing Gavin Loudspeaker to literally leap into the air with excitement) and forces Hammermeir to submit to a torture rack backbreaker.

Other notable contests include a heart-wrenching and hard hitting tribute bout to Sweeney by Eddie Kingston and Arik Cannon, a sensational main event where Team Michinoku Pro defeat Quackenbush, Toyota and Jigsaw, and the 1-2-3 Kid winning the other Rey de Voladores qualifier, setting up a match with Generico for the final day.

The crowd seems a little thicker on the final day, with more little kids. Or perhaps it’s simply that a new vendor is here selling a wide variety of wrestling masks, making them much more visible. In addition to the handful of youngsters with Fire Ant, Jigsaw and Osirian Portal masks from the first two days, there’s now a cadre of kiddies running around in brightly coloured Rey Mysterio masks. The cutest, though, is a father and son both in El Generico masks.

No time is wasted as the semi-final matches are held immediately. The match between fan favourites The Colony and The Osirian Portal conflicts the crowd. When the standard duelling chants of “LET’S GO PORTAL!/CO-LO-NY” begin, many fans are chanting both names. The Colony picks up the victory (via a spectacular top-rope neckbreaker) and advance to the finals.

The crowd is remarkably respectful and sympathetic. Handshakes before and after matches, clean breaks and stalemates are all met with cheers. The fans get into the show and cheer their favourites after losses as would little kids- they want to let them know its okay and that they still support them. Chikara is also likely the only place you’ll ever hear wrestling fans chant “SAY YOU’RE SORRY!” as they do during the Colt Cabana vs. Archibald Peck match. Hell, the fans even chant “Holy Poop!” instead of “Holy Shit!” because of the kids present.

The Colony’s opponents in the finals will be F.I.S.T., the 2009 winners, who manage to eke out a victory over Team Michinoku Pro. Chuck Taylor blinds Sasuke with baby powder and rolls him up for a pin (which one imagines was a real “mark-out” moment for Taylor). Icarus hate is at an all time high. One spirited fan in particular screams at Icarus to tap out every time he’s in a submission move, as well as when he’s performing a submission, or is just standing at ringside. He also earns several chants of “PLEASE RETIRE!”

The Rey De Voladores final is a hard hitting and exciting affair that has fans on their feet as Kid and Generico exchange deadly manoeuvres and nearfalls. After kicking out of a top rope version of Kid’s X-Factor, Generico hits the BRAINBUSTAAAAAAAHH!!!!! for the win, and the roof nearly blows off the arena. Kid is completely overwhelmed as fans chant his name. He takes to the microphone and pays tribute to Generico, Chikara itself and the fans. He notes some of the questionable things he’s done in his career, and the fans chant “WE FORGIVE YOU!” He announces that this will likely be his last year in wrestling, and that this may have even been his last match. If it was, he says, he couldn’t think of a better opponent or better fans to go out on. He’s given a long and loud standing ovation from the crowd, and then another from the wrestlers in the back that can be heard all through the arena.

For Sean Waltman, King of Trios meant redemption. After all, he doesn’t exactly have a great reputation among fans. It wasn’t long ago that he was so hated in wrestling that a term was invented to describe it (“X-Pac Heat” – when fans hate the performer, as opposed to the character, and don’t want to see him anymore; some fans say Icarus has the same sort of heat). He’s been seen as a talented performer who pissed it away with drugs and other poor decisions. He was that guy from the sex tape with Chyna, who politicked his way to the top of the industry with his Kliq buddies and never gave anything back- a selfish failure. Some fans were speculating, based on past behaviour, that he wouldn’t even show up for the event.

But at King of Trios a strange thing happened: the man became the Kid, and the kid became a man. Waltman busted his ass in three great matches. He put over his opponent in the ring and on the microphone. He paid tearful tribute to the fans and the company. And if that was Sean Waltman’s last wrestling match, he certainly went out with a lot of class.

That’s a hell of an accomplishment for someone who’s name has so often been used in the same sentence as “Chyna’s gigantic clitoris.” Well done, Kid.

Speaking of redemption, that’s what the King of Trios final is all about. After losing in the finals of the tournament last year, and then losing Green Ant to an arm injury, 2010 was a dismal year for the Colony. The crowd (other than a handful of 3rd row, die-hard F.I.S.T. loyalists) desperately want the Ants to win this one.

After all the comedy and Lex Luger parodies of the weekend, the main event is old school wrestling booking at its finest. F.I.S.T. ground the Ants early on, with Chuck Taylor bashing Green Ant’s arm with a chair during a fracas. That arm becomes the target and F.I.S.T. pound on it mercilessly. The Ants rally, however, and take advantage after Taylor’s baby powder to the face backfires and hit his teammate Johnny Gargano. The match goes back and forth many times, manipulating the crowd with multiple false finishes, bringing their excitement to a fever pitch. Finally, after twenty minutes of tremendous action, the Ants unleash unheard-of offense – a top rope version of their Antapault move. They launch Green Ant ludicrously high into the air for a splash on Icarus that wins them the match and the tournament.

The crowd explodes into cheers: justice has been done. But it’s about more than that. The fans have been feeling the wrestlers’ pain all weekend. As mentioned, they’ve offered sympathy to favourites like Team Quackenbush, The Spectral Envoy or Team Michinoku Pro after their in-ring losses. Moreover, they’ve offered their sympathy for real life losses, as in Kingston and Cannon’s tribute match. After all that, it’s not just the Colony (and Generico, for that matter) who deserve this victory- the fans do too.

After the show is over, there’s one thought that sticks out in my head- Monday Night Raw is going to suck in comparison to this. I’ve been to a show that was family friendly, yet engaging for fans of all ages. A show that saw long suffering heroes finally vindicated as they faced impossible odds. I saw one of wrestling’s pariahs redeem himself, and several legends put over the next generation as they wind down to retirement.

For fans like me, watching the WWE can be an angsty experience. We fret and we fuss over who deserves better, who’s holding the young generation down, who could help the whole company out if they would just be booked to show more weakness, etc etc. These concerns are miniscule, if they exist at all in Chikara. It’s a whole different animal. It’s ridiculous and fun and over the top, but very old school as well (not just Matt Classic either).

Wrestling fans, you owe it to yourselves to check out Chikara. There’s no better wrestling product for kids, but between the humour and the action they can appeal to anyone. Give them a chance. Maybe we’ll see you at King of Trios next year.

Sidekick Andrew: All three nights of King of Trios 2011 are available at www.smartmarkvideo.com – in just another example of awesomeness, the DVDs were released within 24 hours of Sunday’s final! We’ve ordered our here in the Bunker, we suggest you do the same.

playing with boys: in search of the elusive intergender match

A few weeks ago, Michelle McCool was billed as being in an intergender match on WWE Superstars. I was excited. This would have been real progress for the WWE. When I asked which male Superstar she’d be opposing, I was unfortunately informed that it was a match against Beth Phoenix. It was billed as an intergender match to fall in with the Glam-a-Man moniker that Team LayCool had attached to Beth Phoenix. I was disappointed. I love Beth Phoenix, but the dashed promise of the elusive boy vs girl match was a slight letdown.

I got to thinking about why the WWE are so afraid of pitting women against men. On the surface, it’s obvious. This is the PG era, where all WWE programming is produced to be child-friendly. The mere mention of violence against women, even a choreographed wrestling match, would be unacceptable. It would be wholly hypocritical of a company so geared towards entertaining younger viewers to be seen to condone men hitting women.

At Christmas I began playing the Smackdown vs Raw 2010 video game. It doesn’t have the facility to allow intergender matches. As in the shows themselves, mixed tag matches are the closest you can get.

When a male competitor is in the ring, you have to make sure your female competitor tags her male partner in. If you’re playing as a male Superstar and strike one of the Divas, even accidentally, you lose immediately by disqualification. Though, curiously, if you’re playing as a woman and hit a man, you aren’t disqualified. On the 19th April episode of Monday Night Raw, while Luke Gallows and CM Punk beat Triple H down to have his head shaved, Serena was encouraged to kick him. But in no way could Triple H have retaliated against Serena.

Even on TNA, which likes to suggest that it is anti-PG by having half its roster spill their own blood on a weekly basis, there is still a certain awkwardness towards men and women fighting each other. During TNA’s tour of the UK this February, guest writer Toni reported on how Hamada had practically begged Amazing Red for a match, which he seemed loathed to give her. Amazing Red eventually fought and beat her, but only after displaying an obvious conflict of conscience at being in a match with a woman.

IMG: Property Wrestlegasm.Com

I fully understand why the WWE would be nervous of pushing the matter in the current litigation climate. Wrestling struggles to maintain a respectable reputation at the best of times. It doesn’t need an over-zealous parent filing a lawsuit against the company because their son broke their daughter’s sternum copying a move he saw Chris Jericho put on Gail Kim, for example. Bad publicity indeed. But the real contradiction is not Violence Against Women vs PG Programming; it’s Reality vs Unreality.

Professional Wrestling is something of an alternate universe. Wait. That’s putting is mildly. Wrestling is a complete alternate universe where the rules of real life do not apply. This is a world where Rey Mysterio can take on the Big Show and win. A place where seemingly random people run up to CM Punk in the middle of a show and demand that their head be shaved to rid them of their toxic sins. A universe where people are carried out of arenas on spinal boards and carted off in ambulances, only to reappear an hour later with a sledgehammer in their hand to finish the job they started earlier in the show. It’s a world where you can physically and verbally abuse your boss and still have a job in the morning.

If we all have enough sense to understand kayfabe, why should the rules be different for intergender matches? Can’t John Cena’s ‘Don’t Try this at Home’ video cover all aspects of the content?

Ok, so my brother never listened to such advice when we were kids. I was regularly the victim of a Stone-Cold Stunner. But if it’s an adequate disclaimer for anything that happens during the show, why not let it be a disclaimer for intergender matches too? If reality played any part in wrestling, Rey Mysterio would win less matches, the police might like to speak with Mr. Punk to ensure that he’s not taking advantage of vulnerable members of society, Triple H would still be in traction permanently and The Hart Dynasty would have been fired the day after Wrestlemania 26.

Women and men fighting each other should be no more of a concern than placing a 5’6″ man in the ring against a 7’0″ man. It’s not like when Annika Sörenstam asked to play in a Bank of America Colonial golfing tournament on the Men’s PGA Tour, and there were genuine concerns as to whether she would be at a physical disadvantage playing against men. Wrestling is a scripted form of entertainment without the need for real world logic.

Just yesterday I was watching a 2007 CHIKARA match where Icarus, Gran Akuma and Brodie Lee took on Cheech, Cloudy and Sara Del Rey. Sara Del Rey did not seem out-of-place in any way. She was just another performer who played an incredible part in the match. She was not treated any differently because she was a woman. In fact, Brodie Lee won the match by lifting Sara up to his 6’7″ shoulders and slamming her into the canvas for the pin. Nobody thought of it as a guy beating up a girl. Nobody feared that Sara had been abused in any way when he rolled her over and shouted in her face. She just happened to be the competitor who lost the match.

This is the fundamental difference between mainstream, primetime wrestling and independent wrestling. Assumed social responsibility and feared lawsuits aside, women in the WWE and TNA aren’t valued in the same way that women are in independent wrestling. The Divas match at this year’s Extreme Rules Pay Per View was so incredibly insulting that I only continued to watch it because I knew I would have to recap the PPV for this blog. The prospect of a Women’s Title match on a Pay Per View should have been thrilling. Instead, I just peeked from behind a cushion while Beth Phoenix and Michelle McCool fought it out in an ‘Extreme Makeover’ match. This was basically a standard extreme rules match but in place of trash cans, chairs and tables, the ladies had to hit each other with ironing boards, mops, brooms and buckets. They also sprayed each other with hairspray and were allowed used of a large table of make-up akin to that laid out for a grooming challenge on America’s Next Top Model.

I’m amazed they didn’t send Beth Phoenix out dressed as Rosie the Riveter and Michelle McCool dressed as an aproned 1950s housewife. If Creative were concerned about placing the Divas in a match requiring an extreme stipulation, couldn’t they just have gone with a LumberJills match or, even better, a ladder match? They certainly could have ditched the idea of a dumbed-down extremes rules match. The only good thing to come out of this was that Beth Phoenix went away the new and very deserving Women’s Champion.

I’m all for irony. It can be fun. But for this match to have been ironic, it would have needed something opposing to be compared to, and there is very little in the WWE which doesn’t pander to outdated stereotypes. The Raw brand is particularly guilty of this – sending the ladies out to compete in ballgown matches etc. I’m not even saying that women shouldn’t have feminine gimmicks. Strong characterisation is key in all professional wrestling. But when one of the few women in the WWE who looks slightly different to the rest has her face plastered in lipstick because she doesn’t fit the standard physical mold, there isn’t much hope of any genuine intergender matches any time soon.

At least Beth Phoenix was allowed to enter the Royal Rumble this year. I’ve mentioned before that while her dalliance in the ring with CM Punk during the Rumble match was short, it was truly exciting and especially memorable.

It seems to me that intergender matches, when done well, are the sign of a confident and respectful franchise. Until WWE begin respecting and trusting the women on their roster to pull off quality wrestling matches and allow them to be more than just supplementary to the male stars, I can’t see women being pitted against men. I was informed last week that Creative are discussing ways of strengthening the division. Whether this is true or not is anyone’s guess; especially a week after they released both their poster-girl in Mickie James and one of their edgier female wrestlers in Katie Lea. It’s difficult not to be cynical, especially when people like Jim Ross have their reservations about a positive future for the women of the WWE, but I’ll hope for the best. Once you start expecting less than the best, there’s no impetus for those in charge to change anything.