As I alluded to in the previous Three Star (Matches) and a Sun piece, Philippine wrestling transitioned into a new era in mid-2017. Manila Wrestling Federation held their first official show meaning that for the first time, we have more than one local promotion to analyze. So while I continue to watch all these matches chronologically and have seen the footage captured from MWF’s show in June 2017, I will be writing about all the 2017 MWF footage in a separate piece.

For now, we turn our eye back to PWR and their new champion. When we last left PWR, Chris Panzer had just unseated John Sebastian in a confused mess of a match that I didn’t particularly enjoy. But Panzer has been with the company since day one and the crowd received the moment warmly. So obviously just because I didn’t like the match, doesn’t mean that the reign was dead in the water.

So today, we’re going to look at the (incomplete) footage from three shows: Resbak, Renaissance 2017, and Bakbakan sa Bayanihan. In terms of volume, I’m actually surprised by how much we have here. I had initially feared that the drop off would be much steeper and we’d be working with maybe one or two matches per show at most. But no, we actually have six matches from Resbak, four from Renaissance, and four from Bakbakan. 

On top of that, we’re lucky enough to have the main events from all these shows which gives us access to Panzer’s entire first PWR Championship reign. Let’s dive in.

I. Chris Panzer’s Troubles Continue

I was highly critical of the Panzer title win for its confused tone switching from classic championship match to watered down ladder match. I also spoke about how I felt Panzer’s been somewhat overlooked in the build up to his win. This may very well be a matter of missing footage as I haven’t watched the promos between shows, there might have been additional context in the 2016 (such as Panzer’s feud with Sebastian), but this is the impression left by the footage we have as of now.

Panzer’s title reign itself has many of the same ups and downs. The things is I don’t think this is Panzer’s fault at all. In fact, he’s one of the more consistent talents on the roster and is generally a positive force on these shows. In fact, outside of the initial title win from Wrevolution X, I wouldn’t call any of his title matches bad at all. Panzer’s title defenses, in fact, all clear the three star mark. 

For Panzer, the reign starts off with a rematch of the Wrevolution X main event in a two out of three falls match. Now, despite my feelings about the Wrevolution X match, I went into this feeling quite optimistic actually. I’m a sucker for a good two out of three falls match so the stipulation gave me some good well from the outset. Also, with the big title win behind them, surely Sebastian and Panzer would work a much more grounded, down-to-earth title defense as compared to the emphatic Eagle Splash off a ladder from last month.

And for the most part, this match makes good on those expectations.

In fact, the first fall of the match might be one of my favorite stretches in any PWR match up to this point. They work a very simple but urgent exchange of holds, Sebastian tones down his overt heel antics for a much more subtle heel game grinding in submissions with ferocity, and it was paced nicely to help prepare us for an extended two out of three falls match. 

The problem arises from the conclusion of this fall. Panzer loses. Clean.

Sebastian nails the Killshot and gets a decisive one-two-three on Panzer. So within ten minutes, Panzer has already eaten a loss in his first ever championship reign. Panzer then goes onto sell the concussive force of the Killshot for a majority of the second fall. This includes an extended stretch where Sebastian mouths off and stalls with the crowd before kicking in Panzer’s head on different sides of the ring. Panzer, our top champion, more or less lies flat on his back as the former champion parades around the ring to jawjack with the fans. It’s not a good look.

Of course, Panzer gets the last laugh in the end, winning the last two falls to retain his championship. Despite the overlong second fall, the final fall comes off well as a nice bombfest finishing stretch to solidify Panzer’s first title defense. 

Yet, I can’t help but again question the decision to agent the match the way it is. Panzer’s first impression made as champion is eating a clean pinfall loss to the man he chased for over a year. For someone who was branded (in kayfabe) as a choke artist for most of 2016, I don’t see how that’s supposed to help his image. 

This match sets the tone for Chris Panzer’s title matches in this first reign. Long after winning the belt, he’s still booked into positions to be constantly overlooked. Perhaps this is to make him look like an underdog in the eyes of the fans. For someone like me who only gets to engage with this footage years later, it feels more like his true battle is against the creative team.

II. Ralph Imabayashi & Jake De Leon Battle For Respect

The first half of 2017 was notable for Ralph for all the wrong reasons. He found himself constantly on the losing end of things despite putting fairly decent performances across all the shows leading to Wrevolution X. At Wrevo X, he failed to capture the PHX Championship and threw a public tantrum that leads to his official heel turn at PWR Live: Resbak.

Lucky for Ralph, this heel turn places him in a feud with the best wrestler in the country. My continued praise for Jake de Leon will come off as redundant to those reading all this series of essays. It is possibly the most boring conclusion that any Philippine wrestling fan could possibly reach. The coldest of cold takes possible. 

So for this section, I want to give some attention to Ralph Imabayashi instead. Early on in the company’s history, Ralph stood out for the way his offense connected much better than most of the other roster. His reliance on kicks meant that he averted the weak punches and hesitant elbows that many others were utilizing at the time.

By the time 2017 has rolled around though, Ralph’s offense doesn’t stand out quite as much anymore. Contemporaries like JDL and Ken Warren have upped their game, adding in nice variety to their repertoires that place them above Ralph. Newcomers like The YOLO Twins and Robynn utilize big bumps and dives to boost their in-ring credibility. Ralph is suddenly just a fairly decent wrestler.

Luckily for Ralph, he possesses what I believe to be the most valuable in-ring ability of any wrestler: fantastic selling.

Ralph gets to show that off in this first match against JDL by displaying a decent amount of limb selling as JDL goes after his arm. While this selling is not nearly as consistent as I might prefer, I do wonder if this is a choice Ralph made to make himself less sympathetic than Jake. Perhaps I’m stretching and providing the benefit of the doubt but there is precedent for wrestlers downplaying their selling when working against a babyface. It’s a valid choice to make in this match especially where his new heel character is being hinted at but not quite confirmed.

By the time we reach this triple threat match for the PWR Championship, this selling is in full effect.

This triple threat is a fun bumpfest with all three guys working big spots. It has your standard triple threat tropes as well. Panzer and JDL team up to go after the heel Imabayashi. They do a three-way standing strike exchange. We even get some interference to take advantage of the no disqualification rule. 

Ralph’s dedication to ragdolling like a piledriven Terry Funk makes this match even more satisfying. There are dynamics to his selling. He goes from a subtle stagger to a full on 80’s style seizure as if playing to a packed house in the Mid South Coliseum. It’s fun and adds a nice layer to what is otherwise just a simple three way spotfest. 

As a quick aside, this match feels indicative of the problems I had with Chris Panzer’s reign. Yes, he comes out victorious in the end, but he definitely feels like a passenger on the already established Ralph vs. Jake feud. You can see the problem from the opening bell. Ralph and Jake stare each other down and Panzer literally has to force himself into the picture. 

The final Ralph vs. Jake match on the set is a Matira Matibay match, PWR’s take on the Last Man Standing stipulation. 

This Matira Matibay match is an ambitious one that wears its influences on its sleeve. The first few moments are a New Japan love letter. Ralph and Jake open up with the Shibata-style strike dares that made his matches with Ishii so famous. There’s no getting around the obvious influences of those matches on this one. 

The problem, of course, with doing Shibata-Ishii strike exchanges is that they only really work if you’re hitting as hard as Shibata and Ishii do. Ralph and Jake don’t. Sure, they’ve got a decent thigh slap game but their back kicks are mild and lack that fleshy thud that define the matches their paying homage too. It’s watered down and only serves to call to mind the superior original.

Luckily, the match takes a turn towards something that these two can actually do quite well: limb psychology.

Jake has really beefed up his arm work in 2017, going after the limb with the precision and intensity that makes me fear for Ralph’s well being. I mean that in the best possible way because Ralph is generous in selling the limb as well. 

As for Jake, he goes into overdrive selling a knee that he tweaks off a bad landing. Ralph goes right for the leg which inevitably becomes Jake’s downfall in a match where the only way to win is to stay on your feet. 

Overall, this is a good match with two fantastic selling performances from both Ralph and Jake. It gets a lot of credit from me for that and also for the ambitious way that they approached the stipulation. As this was under last man standing rules, it might have been easy for Jake and Ralph to structure a faster, more impactful match around weapons and gimmicky but instead play it straight for a more drag out, physical battle. They have my respect for that.

While I don’t think the choice paid off exactly the way they wanted, I still see a lot of artistic merit in this match for its ambition if not its execution. And besides, the selling was fantastic and that wins a lot of love from someone like me.

III. Beautiful Wrestling from the Beautiful One

Billy Suede is amazing. This is a fact that can not be understated to any fans of PWR or new fans discovering the company now. His run in the promotion from February to October of 2017 might be one of the most consistent, top quality runs in the history of PWR. And it was always going to be.

Billy Suede comes to the company with tools that none of the other members of the roster have access to. He was trained by none other than Lance Storm whom he pays tribute to in matches by doing a rolling half-Boston Crab. He wrestled on the canadian independent scene for years, locking horns with current NXT Tag Team Champion Kyle O’Reilly, current British Cruiserweight Champion El Phantasmo, and certified greatest wrestler of all time Bryan Danielson. 

It’s not even a fair comparison to make. Suede comes in with all the tools to constantly steal the show at PWR and he does just that.

We have two Billy Suede matches on this list and while this match against SANDATA is the lesser of them, I feel that it’s highly indicative of Suede’s run with the company. 

To see what I mean by that, let’s take a look at Suede’s opponent in this match: SANDATA. Now SANDATA has been an incredibly consistent performer across all the matches I’ve seen from him. He hovers around the 2.75 star range with three of his seven available matches being stacked one after the other on my rankings.

He’s not a bad performer but he’s not the kind of wrestler given the opportunities to shine in the same way that a JDL or a Chris Panzer might be. He’s often an upper midcard gatekeeper who always has a spot on the card but has rarely progressed to the main event levels. 

Billy Suede came in and wrestled Jake de Leon in his second official match for the company.

The point I’m trying to make is that in terms of both ability and position on the card, Suede is comfortably above SANDATA on the pecking order. It would be easy for Suede to big time SANDATA and dish out a quick loss to him here. And yet, Suede bumps and sells his ass off for SANDATA in this quick match. Suede eats all of SANDATA’s offense and together, they structure a match that plays off both men’s strength and it becomes easily SANDATA’s best match on the set so far. 

Suede’s old school heel shtick combined with taking big bumps from SANDATA make for a nice, dynamic back and forth that serves to highlight the best of SANDATA as well as Billy’s consummate professionalism. 

Suede’s shining moment, however, comes at PWR Live: Bakbakan sa Bayanihan when he challenges Chris Panzer for the PWR Championship. 

I urge anyone who watches this match to please endure the opening moments. For some strange reason, the opening moments of this major championship match descend into indie meme territory. When an incessant fan demands that Panzer-Suede kiss during their staredown (something that happens with absurd frequency here in the Philippines), the two competitors respond by working a comedy spot around the song “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer blasting on the PA system.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s funny taken out of context and both Panzer and Suede work the moment well. It gets the crowd going and it’s not even the most outrageous thing one might see at an indie show. 

Yet, here we have it in a PWR Championship match. Every PWR Championship match on the set so far has been treated with an air of respect and dignity that one traditionally expects from a promotion’s top title. There is definitely comedy on PWR shows but it rarely touches the main event spot. So what this spot is doing here, I have no idea. I must admit that when I first tried to watch this match, the spot made me switch off the video, it was that baffling and off-putting. 

But perhaps I’m having a Jim Cornette moment here and pushing against the relentless progress of independent pro wrestling. So proceed at your own risk. 

The strange thing is as soon as the comedy spot is over, Panzer and Suede kick into a second gear and work a fast-paced sequence that surely would have won the crowd over just as well as the kiss spot. It’s a fantastic piece of ring work too with Panzer doing the smoothest wrestling he’s done on the set since the Jake de Leon match in February. 

They keep up the pace too and by the time the finishing stretch kicks in, the crowd reaches an absolute frenzy. All jokes get set aside, the hecklers get hushed, and all that remains is a crowd of people hanging onto every move that Panzer and Suede set forth before them. Going into this match already knowing the result, I still bought into several of the false finishes that Panzer and Suede build into this match. It’s that good. 

At the end of it all, Suede nails a picture perfect Sliced Bread #2 to get the pinfall on Panzer and take away the PWR Championship. Yet again, Panzer gets brushed aside.

Personally, I can’t complain. Pretty much from his debut, it was pretty clear that Billy Suede was the best wrestler working in the country at that moment. The match against Jake at Wrevolution X solidified his beloved stature with the crowd that recognized the work he put in to help our local scene. When the crowd chants “You deserve it” at him at the end of this match, they’re absolutely right.

It was the right call to make at the time despite the way things would eventually shake out.

IV. All Out War is a Joke…and That Makes it Good

Before I wrap things up here, I want to take a look at the All Out War stipulation. I’ve made my thoughts on it known in the past as well as the wrestler most closely associated with it: The Apocalypse. To sum it up, I’m not a fan.

That’s what makes the two All Out War matches we have from this set worth looking into. One is a perfect example of everything wrong with the stipulation, and the other displays how to work around those problems perfectly.

I mentioned in the last piece that the tag division has been a highlight of the 2017 footage. This match is not that. 

The problem with this match, and with the All Out War matches in PWR in general, is that there’s a certain lack of self-awareness that’s apparent. Quite simply, PWR has yet to fully commit to the hardcore nature of these matches. If you think WWE hardcore matches are watered down versions of their ECW predecessors, then PWR All Out War matches are even more sanitized than that.

Most of the weapons used in these matches are generally safe-looking. I say safe-looking because even when using plastic orocan buckets instead of aluminum trash cans, the jagged edges created when those things shatter can still easily cut a person open. But outside of that, you have household items like strainers, improvised fly swatters, objects that you imagine kids playing at hardcore wrestling would use as opposed to items that give off a real sense of danger.

Sometimes, these matches are able to surprise with how they use those items though. The leafy branch in this match for example is put to good use when Mike Madrigal jabs people in the face with the pointed stem. We even get some traditional hardcore fare here with thumbtacks and tables (really just flimsy looking plywood). Fair play to these four guys for taking those bumps but it makes the other spots look even worse.

It doesn’t help that the chaotic nature of this match doesn’t gel well with the choreographed nature of some of the sequences they attempt. A lot of it is blown, botched, missed, or just down right doesn’t look that great on the footage. It’s a mess salvaged only by two great plywood bumps and Mike Madrigal’s always entertaining character work.

All those complaints I laid out are what make the All Out War match between The Apocalypse and Trian dela Torre so damn surprising and good. 

Trian dela Torre is a former referee and bootcamp graduate who will go on to become a major part of the PWR roster along with his Naughty Boys stablemates. While we’ve seen dela Torre in his capacity as a referee in the early 2017 footage, this is our first chance to see him at work as a wrestler.

The challenge for Trian: how to have a good All Out War match with The Apocalypse to boot. Not an easy task. Trian dela Torre figured out what’s been so apparent about these matches to begin with: they’re hilarious and ridiculous. So dela Torre makes the best decision: lean into it. 

The opening moments of the match are actually pretty good. The Apocalypse moves better than he has in any of the other footage and throws some decent punches. Then Trian starts working the comedy spots and this becomes the best All Out War match out there. 

Trian uses his cunning, trying to trap Apocalypse outside of the venue, and leaning into the ridiculousness of the weapons used in these matches. He utilizes bubbles to blind The Apocalypse, a trombone to deafen him, and GrabCamus to add momentum to his offense. It’s ridiculous. But that’s okay because All Out War itself is ridiculous, Trian was just the first one to take that to its natural conclusion.

V. Conclusion

There’s fun stuff on this set. Outside of the matches I discussed above, there’s a fun six-man tag between The Network and The YOLO Twins & Ken Warren that showcased a lot of good character, a quick sprint between Ken Warren & Dax Xaviera (there is a dearth of Ken Warren footage by the way), and even our first glimpses at future stars Zayden Trudeau and Koto Hiro. 

Despite my mixed feelings about Panzer’s title reign, I feel that he carried himself well in all his matches. He made the most of the opportunities given to him and that’s the least you can really ask for from any wrestler. 

Jake de Leon continues to improve, Ralph Imabayashi embraces a brand new character, and their trilogy of encounters on this set make for a great showcase of their growing abilities. 

And of course, Billy Suede. The Beautiful One made for a beautiful set of matches and the PWR Championship is better for having his name attached to it. Within his first few months in the company, he’s already had two of the Top 3 matches in modern Philippine wrestling on my rankings. 

The bar continues to rise and the talent need to remain hungry to keep up.

Photo credits to Hub Pacheco

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