Three Star (Matches) and a Sun: Observations on Early PWR (2014-2016)

ProjectsThree Star (Matches) and a Sun

As a Filipino wrestling fan, something that I crave to see more of is a discussion of Philippine wrestling footage on a more international scale. The only way to facilitate that type of discussion is by combing through the footage that local promotions have made available to us via the internet. The footage released on YouTube is the only way to see any of the matches from the Philippines without attending a show live as no local promotion has yet to launch a streaming service or set up a long term partnership with a television station.

So in my hopes to start a thorough analysis of local matches, I have decided to embark on a comprehensive watch project. Every match available online that has taken place for a Philippine wrestling promotion from its revival in 2014 up until the present day. This does not include Joshi Jam which I consider a primarily foreign effort given the talent line up and it also does not include highlight reels or clipped matches which means that the first few episodes of MWF Aksyonovela also don’t count.

As much as possible, I will also attempt to watch these matches in chronological order. This will likely be disrupted by the now weekly release of fresh Aksyonovela footage but as much as possible, I will attempt to see things as they happened in order to get a better view of the broader developments that occurred through the years.

By the end of this project, I hope to have comprehensively ranked every match available to me as well as assigned each of them a star rating based on my personal five star scale. Odds are I’ll end up creating a Top 10 or 20 PH Wrestling Matches video on YouTube as the culmination of the project.

Along the way though, I’d like to jot down some of my impressions that the footage has left on me. Part of this is to simply keep track of my own thoughts regarding everything I’ve seen and another part of it is to hopefully shine some light on the history of the local wrestling scene–warts and all. 

Over the past few days, I have watched every available match (to the best of my knowledge) that has been released between 2015 and 2016. At this time, Philippine Wrestling Revolution was the sole professional wrestling promotion in the country and they would remain that way for the first three years of the industry. The footage I watched starts with a single match made available from PWR Vendatta 2015 along with all the matches from PWR Live in August 2015, PWR Terminus 2015, and the first PWR Live show from 2016. 

I. Rumbling on Rappler 

The first thing to note is that the for the first year of their run, PWR ran out of the Makati Cinema Square. While the venue invokes nostalgia for those who have followed the scene from the beginning, it’s quite clear that the location is far from ideal. The primary problem is that there is no proper wrestling ring to work in. Instead, we have a wooden stage set up with boxing ropes padded by interlocking rubber mats that would be far more at home at your local nursery than at a pro wrestling event. Given that the venue lacks literally the bare minimum piece of equipment for pro wrestling, it’s actually a small miracle that we got the quality of wrestling that we did.

That’s not to say that what we got was great. In fact, most of these matches from this time, I struggle to even classify as good. For the most part, we get varying degrees of passable with a few stinkers thrown in as well. But for a group of completely unknown wrestlers building a scene out of nothing based in a venue that didn’t have an actual ring, an average quality of “okay” is pretty amazing. 

The Makati Cinema Square set up is fully on display and immortalized on the PWR Live August 2015 show that PWR produced with help from Rappler. This show is available in full on YouTube and in terms of production quality, this is the best we’ll ever see from PWR. The video is crisp and high quality. We’re treated to multiple angles of excellent quality and we even get a commentary team of Nissi Icasiano & Rederick Mahaba  who play the standard babyface play-by-play with a heel leaning color commentator dynamic. 

From this card, two matches stand out above all the others. First is the PHX Championship tournament match between Mayhem Brannigan and Miguel Rosales. 

These two guys bring such different vibes to the match that just stand out. Brannigan’s aura can be summed up as “scummie 2000s indies.” One could easily see him running early CZW shows, doing stupid bumps off of absurdly elevated heights. Rosales, on the other hand, has a much more down-to-earth sense of ability to him. Across all the matches I’ve seen of him so far, he has some of the best looking offense with his power moves and decent strikes.  

These two guys went out and just threw everything at the wall with reckless abandon. A pair of hurricanranas to open to a hot start, a couple of nice topes to the floor, Brannigan getting busted open on the ringpost (only to go directly into his comeback without selling). It’s the very definition of a spotfest–doing every move possible to get a good reaction from the crowd. And by sheer force of willful spectacle, they won me over.

It’s not a good match by any stretch of the imagination. Control segments transition with little to no effort, seemingly major spots are sold for fractions of a second, and there’s of course that trademark awkwardness and sloppiness that mars a lot of these early PWR matches. But even that has its appeal. Again, scummie 2000s indies. Two guys who just wanted to show off what they could do and how they would go to pop a crowd. It’s the very definition of working way too hard instead of working smart.

The second highlight from this show is the PWR Championship match between Jake De Leon and “Classical” Bryan Leo. This is a match that makes the absolute best of the bad situation the venue provides by working an old school style championship bout. Given JDL’s very public love of Dusty Rhodes, it’s not hard to see what the influences for this match is. It has its roots in the 80s style of babyface working against the heel champion and their bag of tricks. 

Even at this early stage of his career, Jake de Leon displays some of the signature assets that will mark him as the country’s top performer. Already, he runs the ropes and leans into his offense with a wild abandon that grants him far more credibility and legitimacy than a lot of the roster. He and Leo also structure the match around sound dueling limb psychology that allow them to smoothly transition between babyface shine and heel heat. Watch the way that Leo attacks the neck and the small instances that the injury bothers JDL even when he’s in control. It’s an understanding of psychology that speaks volumes of the talent on display.

Even Leo gets to show off his selling chops in this match, missing the First World Express and crashing knees first into the turnbuckles. He even has a leg crumble spot which is a spot that I will never not mark out for. His facial expressions are also on point here, being just entirely despicable and unlikable. 

JDL and Leo have a good match here. Genuinely good, north of the three star mark. Unfortunately, they’re still trying to work an old school wrestling match in an environment not built for wrestling. The terrible set up fights against them, lending awkwardness to Jake’s Hampas Lupa splash or his Nigel-style rebound lariat. Inexperience and the environment cap this match in the knees, but it still remains one of the stand outs of the early years of PWR.

II. Folding Up the Royal Flush

Luckily for PWR, they would transfer to a much better venue by the end of 2015. The iAcadmey Auditorium in Makati boasts a much better set up with a stage that works as both a tron and an entranceway, an even distribution of the crowd around the ring (as opposed to MCS where the crowd were seated primarily across from the hard camera), and–thank the heavens–an actual honest to God wrestling ring.

The increase in ring quality is immediately noticeable with the workers not having to work with lose ropes. Still, much of the roster is still incredibly inexperienced and that lack of polish comes through on the footage. Despite this, we get a pair of gems in the form of Jake de Leon working two tag team matches against The Royal Flush pairing of John Sebastian & Main Maxx. 

In the December iteration of the match, Jake de Leon partners up with Bombay Suarez. Bombay’s an interesting figure to me in this rewatch. He appears to be positioned as probably the number two babyface in the promotion next to JDL despite never getting the chance to hold the PWR Championship before his retirement. Bombay’s not the best wrestler on the roster nor does he feature in the best matches but he has an intangible draw to him that Total Extreme Wrestling fans can only term “star quality.”

Something about Bombay just comes off as so effortlessly cool. The confidence that he carries himself with, the fact that he’s built slightly larger than most of the roster, his indieriffic gear that calls to mind guys like Homicide or B-Boy. He just ticks the boxes for me as a viewer and he felt like a much bigger deal than his ringwork might show. If there’s one thing I can credit his ringwork for though is that he got what’s essentially an enzuigiri over as a finisher. Well played, sir.

In January 2016, JDL teams up with Mark D. Manalo instead. Manalo, a jobber character whose name is a Filipino pun on “Mark Won’t Win,” made an incredibly compelling Ricky Morton in this match up. While his offense isn’t anything to write home about (to say the least), his selling was incredibly compelling. I was surprised at the degree I found myself empathizing with him as the beaten down babyface and his attempts to fight through this disadvantage came across really well. 

But it takes four to tag tango and the pairing of John Sebastian and Main Maxx work the Southern tag formula incredibly well. Sebastian in particular shines as a smarmy, douche heel working control segments. Even decked out as a Shinsuke Nakamura tribute act, Sebastian’s own personality gets highlighted with his mouthy in ring style and cockiness. And even as a Nakamura tribute act, Sebastian isn’t bad either. He throws knees with the same ferocity that Nakamura did at his peak and he even hits a decent Boma Ye (or a Killshot as Sebastian calls it).

In the December tag against Bombay & JDL, Maxx doesn’t leave the best impression. He’s the most stilted and hesitant in the ring and the other three in the ring do overshadow him quite a bit. He seems far more confident when January comes around though, displaying a subdued swagger that serves as a quieter complement to Sebastian’s more outwardly brash heel antics. 

My quibbles aside, I thought these two tag matches were the highlights of the first two iAcademy events. Jake de Leon is a fantastic hot tag, utilizing his speed and connection to the crowd to absolutely fire up the audience once he gets his hands on those dastardly heels. The match in January 2016 is probably the best match we have on footage from that year. Manalo’s sloppiness in the ring might mar it for some but his sympathetic selling and a textbook use of Southern tag formula really elevate the experience for me.

III. Imabayashi Ascends to the Top

The last thing I’ll point out from these shows in iAcademy is that we see the start of Ralph Imabayashi’s PWR Championship reign. From a booker’s perspective, I can understand the idea to put Ralph on top. Ralph delivered pretty consistently in his outings throughout 2015, having better strikes than most and tapping into some great facial expressions when working NJPW-inspired fighting spirit spots. 

The Shibata influence is clear with Ralph, who utilizes the Shibata corner dropkick and even incorporates headbutts and slaps in a similar fashion to Shibata. It’s a dangerous influence to draw on however. Shibata built his career upon having dangerously realistic offense in his matches. It’s a quality that literally ended his career. It’s a high ceiling to reach for to be sure but I feel that this worked in Ralph’s favor in the end. By overreaching, he does end up standing out on the roster by having some of the better looking offense in the promotion. 

Ralph works hard in his matches but for one reason or another, things just don’t come together in the two title matches we have on record here. His title win against Bryan Leo, for example, is marred by a crowd that appear to have mentally checked out. Even though Leo and Ralph structure a pretty sound title match, the RevoNation at the iAcademy that night didn’t seem to have it in them to buy along with the big fight feel that the two workers were going for. In fact, it was mostly the shock of a title win that got the crowd going in the end. 

His first title defense, on the other hand, is pretty much dead on arrival based on his opponent. His challenger, Apocalypse is a feature player on these early PWR shows in what I can only imagine is one of the side effects of building a roster from scratch. Apocalypse as an act just never clicks for many reasons.

Firstly, just looking at him, most wrestling fans can see the role that he’s cast in. The mask, the black get up, the “creepy” theme song that would later turn itself into a meme chant that pretty much killed any chances of Apocalypse being genuinely intimidating. These are all qualities we’ve seen in the past, Apocalypse is a combination of tropes taken from The Undertaker, early Kane, Abyss, and Mankind. 

The thing that those workers have that Apocalypse doesn’t is blatantly obvious: actually intimidating builds. Undertaker, Kane, and Abyss were six foot plus monsters that dwarfed their opponents. Their size alone made them intimidating whereas Mankind supplemented his rounder frame with impeccable crazed character work.

The Apocalypse is just kind of tall. Not towering, just sort of tall. He’s not even the tallest person in the promotion as some of the PWR trainees are taller than him when they’re meant to be the horrified ragdolls in his presence. 

Add on top of all that the fact that when Apocalypse isn’t using weapons, things just don’t click in the ring. He doesn’t have the impressive power that a gimmick like his demands and his finisher is…what is it even? Some kind of Air Raid Crash that makes the opponent land on their belly instead of having the attacker absorb the brunt of the bump. It just doesn’t look right.

While Apocalypse did have an incredibly fun and chaotic All Out War brawl with Mark D. Manalo in December (including taking a genuinely impressive bump off the stage through a non-breakaway table), as a threat to Ralph’s title, it didn’t work. It didn’t work for the crowd in the iAcademy whose biggest reactions during the match came to complain about not being able to see the action being wrestled on the floor. I appreciate the narrative ideas Ralph and Apocalypse try to incorporate with Apocalypse working over the arm to neutralize Ralph’s Sonic Crusher (a monster heel doing limbwork???) but even that piece of clever booking couldn’t quite bring this match together.

IV. Conclusion 

All that being said, the 2015-2016 footage we have from PWR are actually an easy watch. Perhaps I’m biased as I have a nationalistic sentiment towards these early matches but I had very little trouble going through them. Even through matches that I considered actively bad, I found myself thoroughly fascinated as someone discovering the histories of local wrestling for the first time. 

Perhaps watching all of these matches is a bit of a big ask for most fans. I can’t really actively recommend too many of these matches. But for those who are already fans of Philippine wrestling or are newly invested in these workers (which I consider myself to be), there is a historian’s joy in combing through this footage. 

There are small quirks that only four years later already feel anachronistic. After 2016, PWR footage would no longer include live commentary, for example. Many of the wrestlers on these cards are no longer involved with the scene–Bombay, Brannigan, and Rosales, for example. 

And for someone like me, who wasn’t there to attend these shows as they happened, there are pieces of the puzzle that just can’t be put together. There is a vast void in the available footage that only gets even wider as we progress in this project. From just period I covered in this piece, we’re missing several key matches that I’d love to have unearthed for either their potential quality or their historical significance.

Just briefly, I’d wish for the complete footage of Jake De Leon’s first title win against Bombay Suarez and the subsequent title cash in of Bryan Leo. We’re missing the full footage of the All Out War tag team match that saw Mayhem Brannigan dive from the Makati Cinema Square mezzanine. We’re missing most of 2016 which includes the debut match of Crystal despite having the footage of the set up. The lost 2016 footage also includes Bombay Suarez vs. Ken Warren who we have minimal footage off from these early shows, even more JDL vs. Royal Flash tags, and John Sebastian’s PWR Championship win in a Bacolod Strap Match.

There’s so much left to be seen and so much left to be released. So far though, it’s been a fun ride through the start of PWR. After this, however, we’re spoiled with footage as 2017 is one of the most covered years in PWR’s history. So we have that at least to look forward to. 2017 is also the year that other players come to the fore in the Philippine wrestling scene. So we’ll have much more to dig our teeth into from that year. 

Photo credits to Hub Pacheco

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *