In just a year, the Philippine wrestling landscape already feels like its shifted. When we last checked in on PWR, we saw their live show from January 2016 which saw Ralph Imabayashi as the newly installed PWR Champion with the Royal Flush chasing at heels. By the time we get more PWR footage in January 2017, we have already entered an entirely new era of PWR and also modern Philippine wrestling.
John Sebastian has ascended to the top of the mountain, having defeated Jake de Leon for the PWR Championship to close out 2016. Where we saw the tease for the debut of Crystal as the first female pro wrestler in the country in January 2016, we know see her installed as one of the most beloved acts in the company. An influx of new talent rounds out the undercard especially in the tag team division where we get The YOLO Twins, the Punk Dolls, and the Deadly Sinns. James “Idol” Martinez, meanwhile, has expanded his pyramid to include enforcer Alexander Belmonte III and beloved “Golden Boy” Chino Guinto.
That’s not to say anything for the significant changes that occurred backstage in PWR. A disastrous event in Batanes led to multiple members of the roster getting stranded unable to get home to their full time work for a couple of days. The fallout from this plus the need to cancel the PWR Terminus 2016 show in December led to the ousting of “Classical” Bryan Leo from the company, a wound that continues to fester even today.
2017 then is a significant period for anyone reviewing historical Philippine wrestling footage for multiple reasons. It is a time of upheaval for the company where they need to find their feet after a catastrophic turn of events in 2016. The fresh batch of talent is thus hungry and desperate to prove themselves ready to support the company while the mainstays at the top of the card are forced to step up their game or flounder in the process.
Another thing that makes 2017 such a fascinating time to examine is that we are spoiled with footage from this time. With one exception, the entire run from the start of the year to the company’s biggest show of the year, Wrevolution X is available to us for free on YouTube. This is the first time that anyone reviewing the history of PWR can actually see the month to month booking and in-ring product of the company for a four month run. It’s a fascinating experience and reveals a lot about what was going on in PWR from a critical standpoint.
I. Jake de Leon is Still the Best
First thing’s first, Jake de Leon is still the best wrestler in the country. The wealth of footage covering his matches in 2017 continues to build his case as the best wrestler in the history of Philippine wrestling. Where the 2015-2016 footage highlighted the energy he brought to his matches and his unmatched connection to the crowd, the matches we have from Jake in 2017 display the versatility that JDL had in his overall game. Jake has four singles matches from this set of matches (not including his run in the Path of Gold 2017) in which he plays entirely different roles yet somehow plays them all to perfection.
In his first match from Bagong Yugto, JDL challenges John Sebastian for the PWR Championship that Sebastian took from him at the end of 2016. This match shows us the Jake that’s become familiar to us from the early footage: an incredibly over and charismatic babyface taking the fight to the top heels in the company.
His opponent John Sebastian displays his own growth in this footage. First and most obviously, Sebastian has ditched the Nakamura trappings from his attire to his offense. While he retains the Boma Ye-esque Killshot as his finisher, Sebastian no longer structures matches around grounded knee strikes, instead transitioning to a more traditional heel champion style. At the same time, he’s also amplified his personality in the ring. He often takes the time to jawjack with the crowd which is both to the benefit and detriment of his ringwork. While it does keep the match entertaining and engaging to the crowd, it does sometimes detract from the tone of his matches (which are meant to be major title bouts) and even stunts the momentum of the ringwork at times.
Together, they work a very simple championship bout structured around Jake working over Sebastian’s arm in order to set up his Inasal Lock (a crossface chickenwing). The addition of arm work to his repertoire really adds another layer of credibility to Jake’s in ring persona. It also adds a new layer of substance to the early stages of his matches as now, he’s no longer just trading holds for the sake of trading holds but actively working towards spots that will be significant in the finishing stretch.
Sebastian does sell the arm in this bout more or less consistently but it’s clear that much of his focus is on managing the crowd’s rowdy and distracted energy. It’s an admirable trait trying to shift the tide of a problematic crowd but it does occasionally undermine the seriousness of the match.
Even then, the two of them are able to work a very hot finishing stretch with many close calls that get me biting even if I know the result of the match going in. It’s a fun championship match filled with classic babyface vs. heel shenanigans which is an environment that Jake always excels in. In fact, had the match had an actual finish, I feel it would have been even more impressive than it already was.
At PWR Live: Mainit, Jake de Leon shows us another layer that we’ve yet to see on the footage so far: the top guy. Working against Chris Panzer, a consistently decent performer from the early years who improved at a good rate by 2017, Jake de Leon is excellent at portraying himself as being an obstacle to be overcome.
While the match structure does show a couple of repetitive tropes (both this match and the Sebastian match start with Jake and his opponent trading finisher close calls in the opening moments), the heat segment that Jake works by attacking Panzer’s arm is incredibly compelling. He goes after the arm with enough variety and energy that he can still play a convincing babyface while still laying the beatdown on the hero the crowd is meant to get behind.
It’s a little hard to root against Jake as a viewer but seeing Panzer struggle against him made for good viewing. Jake flirts with some heelish attitudes, implying that Panzer isn’t ready for the big time, and seeing Panzer fight back brings its own satisfaction. This is a really good match that built nicely to Panzer’s best offense to highlight his strengths to the audience. It’s not a blow away classic but a smart match that efficiently achieves what it sets out to.
But the shining achievement of Jake de Leon’s 2017 is easily his match against “Beautiful” Billy Suede from Wrevolution X.
Billy Suede is an invaluable addition to the PWR roster. Having wrestled on the Canadian independent scene since 2007, Suede comes to PWR with years of experience under his belt and a credibility that no one in the company on the roster could match. While it’s tempting to point to the not-so-polished ringwork in PWR in order to dismiss it, there’s no accusations of inexperience and sloppiness that can be levied at Suede.
Probably for the first time since PWR has started, there is a question as to who the better wrestler is between Jake de Leon and his opponent. And this functions not just on the kayfabe level of a local indie star taking on a world travelled wrestler like Suede but on the meta level as well. Suede is so crisp and polished in the ring that he stands miles ahead of many of the wrestlers on the roster and this match Wrevolution X is a big test to see if Jake de Leon can match that level of quality.
What Jake might lack in smoothness, he more than makes up for with sheer passion. He throws himself at all his offense, giving it a lot more solidity than usual. This is on best display in the opening moments of the match when he thrashes Suede who bumps big time to make Jake look like a star.
What follows is a perfectly paced and fundamentally sound back and forth story of the veteran trying to keep the new hot kid on the block down and realizing he might have bitten off far more than he can chew.
This match is considered a classic in the PWR canon and there’s really no disputing that. It’s an emphatic statement of what Philippine wrestling can be. Attaining something of this standard is a double edged sword though as it significantly raises the bar for the rest of the roster. Now everyone has to reach just a little bit higher and some are, unfortunately, not ready for that leap.
II. The Apocalypse is Still…The Apocalypse
From the start of this project, every single Jake de Leon match I’ve watch has ended up with a three star plus rating. With one exception.
At PWR Path of Gold 2017, the company’s take on the Royal Rumble, Jake de Leon challenged for John Sebastian’s PWR Championship in a three-way All Out War match. The third man in the match? The Apocalypse.
I wrote about my feelings about The Apocalypse in the last write up and nothing has changed. If anything, things might have gotten slightly worse for The Apocalypse. In the ring, The Apocalypse seems to have given up on being portrayed as being an unstoppable force. While on the one hand this makes sense given that very little about his physique is intimidating to begin with, on the other hand it leaves Apocalypse with nothing particularly special to cling on to except our own memories of The Undertaker and Abyss in their primes.
The All Out War match from Path of Gold 2017 highlights all the weaknesses of not only The Apocalypse’s gimmick but also the All Out War gimmick. Both are just sanitized, watered down versions of things that we’ve seen done better in the past. The Apocalypse continues to evoke imagery from Kane and The Undertaker all while trying to structure a match around minimal scary bumps and household items that make just enough sound on impact to qualify as “weapons.”
The best spot of the match is Jake and Sebastian double powerbombing The Apocalypse onto the stacked up ring stops. The thud Apocalypse makes on the steps, far from sickening, is mild. That spot seems to sum up my thoughts on The Apocalypse and the All Out War matches we’ve seen so far from PWR: seemingly major events that just ring hollow in the end.
While I’m harsh on The Apocalypse’s ring work, not all of these problems are his fault. If we look at his first match of the year against SANDATA, for example, we find the problems in Apocalypse’s booking that lead to the incongruity of his work.
PWR creative or Apocalypse himself just never seem to be able to decide whether he’s an indestructible monster or not. In this match with SANDATA, we see SANDATA utilizing classic “chop down the big man” spots by going after The Apocalypse’s leg in the early moments of the match.
And he does. With ease.
Apocalypse is down and stumbling within the first two minutes of the match. Sure, he wins the match in the end but just barely? He’s far from dominating and almost seems like the underdog fighting from beneath for a lot of this match. Yet by the end of the night, we’re supposed to see him as this major threat to John Sebastian’s title and to Jake de Leon?
I don’t think so.
III. The Tag Division Flourishes
Perhaps the brightest surprise from the 2017 footage is the influx of tag team matches. Right out of the gate, we’re treated with a decent showcase between the Deadly Sinns of Mike Madrigal & Vlad Sinnsyk going up against The Punk Dolls of Martivo & Robynn.
All four of these workers are fresh faces to anyone following just by the matches on YouTube and they bring a great vibe of youth and newness to the company. Martivo’s positive portrayal of a gay man in wrestling makes him extremely loveable to the crowd and he backs it up with some flashy (if a little rough) lucha libre-inspired offense.
Mike Madrigal is an absolute revelation. His personality comes across so large and clear even in this first year of his career that it’s no shock that he’s one of the cornerstones of the company in 2019 and moving forward. His dedication to being a loud mouthed troll heel so viciously against the crowd makes for simply joyous viewing. His antics made me laugh out loud more than once not just for the humor of the situation but at my shock at how powerful his charisma was.
Vlad Sinnsyk makes for a decent player in these tag matches with his heavy hands and his sweet Muscle Buster finisher. He is somehow able to get over with the crowd as a babyface for a reason that I just can not discern from the footage that we have. He’s entertaining enough in short spurts on these matches but it’s Mike who draws the eye for me personally.
As for Robynn, she seems to be the most limited of the workers in this particular match. In fact in all her appearances on the road to Wrevolution X, there’s a defined lack of finesse to her movements. Spots are missed a little too often for my taste but I do commend her for giving us the Bahala na si Batman dive off the top rope. Her limitations are most exposed when she works her first singles match on the set against Crystal. Despite walking away with the victory in that match, her performance left a lot to be desired.
But the real stars of the tag team division are The YOLO Twins. Holy crap, are The YOLO Twins good.
Their first match on the set, a tag team match against the Fighters 4 Hire bruisers of Miguel Rosales & Joey Bax was an absolute revelation. Up to that point in the footage, it was easily the best match that PWR had ever put on by a fairly wide margin. And again, this was their first match in the footage that we had.
Their act just came through with such clarity and they milked it perfectly. The spoiled Katipunan rich kids living off the comfort of their father’s paycheck going out to do flashy moves in the wrestling world. It’s so simple and so easily hateable that they were able to draw genuine heat from the ironic and jokey PWR crowds of 2017.
Their match against Fighters 4 Hire demonstrated such a strong understanding of Southern tag formula fundamentals. Isolating Joey Bax as their Ricky Morton, abusing the rules to their fullest extent, antagonizing the crowd. It all gelled so well that by the time Rosales got the hot tag and came in to ragdoll these spoiled brats, you can’t help but pump a fist in joy.
Where the January match displayed their skill at tag fundamentals, their Wrevolution X match against Fighters 4 Hire and Deadly Sinns was just them showing off. A crazed six-man sprint of big spots, big bumps, and even bigger dives, this match takes all the best elements of a PWG spotfest and compresses them into a nice compact package.
I can’t tell you that there’s a lot of substance going on in this match. Sure there’s a traditional heat segment worked but that’s all in service of the big explosion that is Miguel Rosales taking everyone to Barangay Suplex. To follow up that spectacular series of bumps with consecutive dives to the floor is enough to leave the crowd in attendance breathless.
Even the flat finish of Ken Warren using the paper thin belts to “knock out” Mike Madrigal for the three-count isn’t enough to take away from the spectacle. Is it a spotfest? Absolutely. But it’s a three-way match. That stipulation doesn’t lend itself towards psychology that isn’t cliched and forced. Better instead to just throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.
IV. All That’s Chino is Gold
Chino Guinto is the breakout star of 2017. A member of The Network, a playful take on the multilevel marketing pyramid schemes that plagued the Philippines a few years ago, Chino Gunito has absolutely connected with the crowd in an exceptional way.
Although he started the year off with a decent but not great match against Ralph Imabayashi, Chino’s performance in the Path of Gold match absolutely skyrocketed him to the next level. Chino played the ironman roll in the Path of Gold, entering early and leaving late and basically breaking out all the tricks one can expect from a Royal Rumble-lite event.
Chino ran the gamut of heel tactics from taking long breaks in the crowd, brawling his way to the back, ganging up with his stable to dominate the field, teaming up with other heels to take advantage of the numbers game. And he infused all of that with such an earnest charisma, that it was hard not to buy into him as a top level act.
It’s in his facial reactions, the way he projects his emotions to the crowd whether that be shock, determination, and cunning. It’s in the way he carries himself, with a cocky sureness that makes you buy into his claims. Chino Guinto is a big deal and easily stole the show in a 21-man Path of Gold match that even included a surprise return from Bombay Suarez.
Chino’s performance in the Path of Gold might have even been too good. His elimination triggered a slight rebellion from the crowd who had wanted to see him go all the way and win the match. We luckily avoided a 2015 Royal Rumble backlash but with that kind of overness, it’s no surprise that Chino left Wrevolution X with the PHX gold in his hands.
V. Chris Panzer’s Ups and Downs
I’m going to finish off this piece by talking about the man who would leave Wrevolution X with the PWR Championship: Chris Panzer. In the early footage, Panzer was a pretty consistent performer, turning out pretty decent matches. Here in 2017, we find him on a path to the top title in the promotion that isn’t handled quite as well as it could have been.
His first match of the year against Ken Warren was delightful. A sub-ten minute showcase of what these two can do with just enough of a heel edge from Warren to make things interesting throughout. Panzer gets to show off his babyface offense like the Eagle Splash against a guy who can match him in speed and intensity. It’s a great start to kick off his path to the championship.
(Side note: Where the hell is all the Ken Warren footage?)
Unfortunately, Panzer’s run in the Path of Gold match itself is unremarkable. He enters about halfway through the match but doesn’t figure in any of the major spots until his finishing stretch to win the whole match. Now a Path of Gold match with twenty-one competitors has a lot of stories to tell but I had hope that one of the stories would at least focus on the eventual winner and the man soon to become the top champion.
We’ve already discussed the Jake de Leon match from Mainit and Panzer puts in a strong performance there, another up for him.
But the title match. Man, what happened there? The main event of PWR’s biggest show of the year, Chris Panzer vs. John Sebastian, was messy to say the least. Everything about it just felt confused.
The match opens up with some pretty standard fare with both men trading holds. The technical exchanges aren’t the neatest in the world and this isn’t helped by the fact that a lot of the fans in attendance seem more invested in telling jokes to each other than actually engaging with the action in the ring.
Sebastian makes an attempt to draw heel heat by going after Panzer’s face much to the chagrin of the crowd. Otherwise, this first ten minutes is pretty unremarkable. Both guys have shown much better chemistry with other men on the roster and things just aren’t clicking in this segment.
Then ten minutes in, we get a ref bump.
From there, the match just completely changes complexion and becomes a no DQ style brawl. Panzer and Sebastian fight their way to the scaffolding by the entranceway and Panzer takes a great bump doing the Eagle Splash off the scaffolding. This, at last, seems to wake the crowd up to actually watch the match but the follow up is just strange.
Sebastian retaliates by pulling out a ladder that he uses to smash in Panzer’s face. The two then work a few spots around the ladder that might have looked a little better. And all of this builds to Panzer being able to nail the Eagle Splash from the top of the ladder to the mat for the three-count.
What even happened to this match?
If Panzer and Sebastian wanted to work a no disqualification match, why not just book a no disqualification match instead of having the referee lay dead in the ring for half the match? The two big spots off the scaffolding and off the ladder looked great but the stuff in between barely held this match together. Combine that with a rebellious crowd and the unremarkable first ten minutes, and you have a bloated disappointment that just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Obviously, this is all just one person’s opinion but this match reminded me of Cody challenging Kenny Omega for the IWGP Title from the San Francisco New Japan show last year. That match also had a strangely shoehorned in ladder spot in what was meant to be a traditional title match.
This Frankenstein’s monster of a main event just didn’t click with me and its disjointed lack of focus stood in stark contrast to the local classic that JDL and Suede put on just a couple matches before it.
While it does seem that I ended this essay on a bit of a sour note, I must point out that on the whole the quality of PWR improved greatly in 2017. Many of the original members of the roster like Sebastian, JDL, Panzer, and Warren all stepped up their game to meet the demands of a company that was on the brink of disaster.
Meanwhile, the fresh crop of talent like The YOLO Twins, Martivo, and Chino Guinto provided a shot in the arm that helps round out these cards and make them feel much fuller and more substantial than the shows from 2015 and 2016.
All in all, I’m happy with what this footage showed me. No promotion is perfect and while PWR has its very notable flaws at this point, the good stuff shines through even brighter because of it.
Up next on my watchlist, we have PWR Live: Resbak which will feature a two out of three falls rematch between Chris Panzer & John Sebastian. I am optimistic at their ability to structure something a little more cohesive for the rematch and I’m generally a fan of two out of three falls matches to begin with so I look forward to that eagerly. But also, an even more interesting wrinkle in this project awaits. June of 2017 is when we get our first complete pieces of footage from Manila Wrestling Federation.
The growth of Philippine wrestling has just begun.
Photo credits to GMA