Disclosure: I participated as a sponsor of Dexcon Dekada.

Our weather is both extreme and fickle. This past April represented the worst possible peak of the Philippine summer, with multiple days across a period of weeks recording all-time high heat index numbers in the capital of Metro Manila. Stepping out of properly ventilated buildings was actively discouraged and classes were cancelled due to the risk of children suffering heat stroke. Every time one stepped out onto the street, the air smelled charred, and even indoors any room lacking air conditioning would be thick with hot, prickling heat. It is an ugly, unpleasant time.

The weather never tempers, it only turns.

When the heavens open, they’re slow to close. Every rainfall comes with the implicit threat of a typhoon lurking just round the corner. They come to us strung together in chains, battering the cities with rain. They’re persistent too. Their power gets matched with an obscene stamina, lingering for days on end until rivers and sewers overflow onto our roads. The flooding happens with such regularity, most people in the city know to expect it with the changing of the seasons.

In the days of extreme climate–wet or dry–there’s a saying that goes around. “The Pinoy is resilient.” Our politicians have said this about us for years, and it’s true to a certain extent. As a people, we have learned to wipe the sweat from our brows or wade through the muck to get to the next day. We can do that, but really, only because we must. In place of institutions and structures to aid us in difficult times, the only thing to fall back on is a resilient spirit.

The only other option is death.

Inside Brawl Pit Bulusan for Dexcon Dekada.

It’s a gloomy day as the fans congregate outside of Brawl Pit Bulusan. The rain has been nonstop for close to twenty-four hours at this point. There’s no shade outside the venue other than a patio umbrella by the street, so all the fans are directed to a cafe next door to wait until doors open. The cafe’s buzzing with business, it’s obvious that everyone there is either watching or working at the show to come. Wrestling shirts both local and global mark the intentions of the cafe’s clientele for that afternoon. Now and then, familiar faces of the performers reveal themselves. Glance over your shoulder at the right time, and there’s a glimpse of blonde hair disappearing around the corner heading back to where the wrestlers are stationed behind the venue.

The weather is a relief though. Unlike most of the regular wrestling venues in Manila, Brawl Pit doesn’t seem to have a built in air conditioning system. Instead, on this day at least, there’s the dour weather aided by industrial sized Iwata air coolers strategically positioned around the gym turned arena.

There’s a comfortable hum of excitement as the seats start filling up. A natural thing at any pro wrestling show, but most certainly here for Dexcon Dekada. Zack Sabre Jr.’s here, after all, the New Japan star making his debut in the Philippines to wrestle a Filipino dream match. Looming over that excitement is an uncertainty though.

Much like the weather in the Philippines, the pro wrestling industry can be fickle and turns on a dime.

On May 25th, the night before the big show, local pro wrestling promotion Manila Wrestling Federation announced it would be ceasing operations. A statement released on their official Facebook page explained that the promotion’s production company TBT Multimedia was “canceling all MWF-branded live events and productions this year and beyond” with “[no plans] of forming any new professional wrestling promotion or produce any professional wrestling event.”

The statement was the final nail in the coffin for MWF after a series of public setbacks over the last few months. The first came at the April 14 MWF Kasaysayan event when it was announced that president Veronica Litton had relinquished her position as president of the company. Announced to take her place was longtime producer and on-screen talent, William Elvin. Despite announcing the MWF Republika event for May 12th at the Kasaysayan tapings, the company would then release a statement just four days before the planned show announcing that they would be postponing the event due to “logistical issues that…might threaten the company’s sustainability.” Two days later, on May 10th, William Elvin posted to Facebook to reveal that he was cutting ties with the company and the pro wrestling industry as a whole.

Before it closed, MWF had become the most tenured of the currently active pro wrestling promotions in the country, a distinction that made it the de facto top promotion in the Philippines. The year prior, they signed a weekly television deal with Rock of Manila TV to air their events as a weekly MWF Aksyonovela program. They had initially lined up eight event tapings for 2024, all to be held in the University of the Philippines–a venue closely associated with their initial rise in local popularity in 2019. Between the TV deal, their modest but fan-pleasing venue choice for the year, and even collaborations with Japanese promotion Kyushu Pro, MWF’s 2024 had looked to be a promising year of steady growth for the company.

And then, just gone.

There’s a notably somber tone to the wrestling at Dekada. Intentional or not, the closure of MWF casts a shadow over the proceedings. Every local worker on the show was either an MWF talent or wrestled regularly on MWF’s events. Even helping out at ringside, handling ring announcing duties, and manning the tech booth are familiar faces from the now defunct promotion.

Strangely, the actual card’s structure feeds into the uncertainty in the air. The first two matches start the show with heel victories. Visiting Singaporean tag team The Horrors put away Robin Sane & R O M É O in a well-structured and breezy opener, followed by Rex Lawin making quick work of Razael and AFAM Steve in a three-way. It’s Main Maxx that breaks the run of downer endings by defeating longstanding heel Dabid Ravena before intermission.

Main Maxx speaks to the crowd after defeating Dabid Ravena.

The heel wins keep on coming though. Chelsea Marie, despite typically getting favorable reactions from the crowd, tends to read heelish especially after playing a more antagonistic role in a tag match the month prior and then roasting Dexcon on screen matchmaker Linus at this event (it’s possible my read on this is off though). She gets a quick win over Kanto Terror. Then, Jomar, who stole a victory against Tajiri recently by appropriating the mist, defeats mentor Fabio Makisig before both take a sincere turn appealing to the crowd to support their goal of raising funds to take an excursion to Japan. Then, while there are no strict babyface/heel divides in the semi-main event tag, sentimental fave and Philippine wrestling pioneer Pinoy Bulldog and his young partner Zera take the loss against WUW International Tag Team Champions Turn Zero Kill.

It’s an odd night. The wrestling is pretty much what one expects from the typical Pinoy indie wrestling show. A little awkward, lacking polish, but a good amount of fun regardless. Everyone puts a brave and determined face on–the show must go on, of course–but the underlying sense of devastating loss can’t help but permeate even the cheeriest of the proceedings.

As the night goes on, several talents take to the mic to address the situation in the vaguest ways possible–mostly manifesting as forward-looking calls to support local Pinoy wrestling while very vaguely gesturing at the recent closure. Most of the promos take on the same tone of perseverance and gratitude as the unified talent statement that dropped in response to MWF’s closure. “Kailanman, ang Pinoy Wrestling ay hindi mamamatay sa aming mga puso,” they wrote. No matter what, Pinoy Wrestling will never die in our hearts. It is a rallying cry that, at this point, has no public concrete plans attached to it, no system or institution to break the fall. Just that same Pinoy spirit that all of us know a little too well.

It’s community and it’s resilience. Not chosen, but thrust upon us.

As his theme song reminds us, Jake de Leon has long carried the mantle of “Mr. Philippine Wrestling.” He’s been at the top of the modern Philippine wrestling from the very beginning. Always pushed and presented as a main event talent, and always improving at the rate expected of one in that time. Comb through the footage that’s on YouTube (as I did a few years ago) and it’s clear to see that Jake was always the best of the bunch. There’s a reason that if one asks the average Pinoy wrestling fan who’s the best in the country, you’re almost always going to get Jake de Leon as the answer. There’s good wrestlers, there’s promising talent, and then there’s Jake de Leon. There’s a reason why despite being a heel for the last two years or so, it’s not hard to find fans who can’t help but root for Jake.

However, there’s a reality to being “Mr. Philippine Wrestling.” Through no fault of Jake’s own, he’s a big fish in a small pond. It’s an impressive accomplishment when one considers that just a decade ago, there was no pond to begin with. Before the modern Pinoy wrestling scene started, there was no formal pro wrestling to speak of in this country. No training schools, no decades long traditions, only scattered memories and VHS tapes of 80s Pinoy wrestling gathering dust on a shelf. The work of creating any scene to begin with is a miracle in and of itself, and Jake has been at the forefront of that charge for ten years now.

But even then, the scene set up here isn’t ideal. In an archipelago of over 7000 islands, every active wrestling promotion is tightly concentrated in the national capital of Metro Manila. In 2024, none of these promotions even regularly run month-to-month, with two to four month breaks between events being common. Independent bookings to neighboring countries are possible but can be a financial burden, unless a foreign promoter is generous enough to cover your travel fee. All of these factors mean that being a full-time pro wrestler–something difficult but possible even on the independent level somewhere like America–is a borderline impossibility in this country. That means that everyone has to earn their livelihood in other ways, which makes the difficult prospect of thriving as a wrestler in the Philippines exponentially harder. It is hard to get the experience, the reps, the exposure one needs to become a successful pro wrestler, let alone a great pro wrestler.

And the fact that Jake’s as good as he is in spite of all that is why he’s important.

If Jake is a big fish in a small pond, Zack’s a great white. If you’re deep enough in the trenches to be reading something here, then there’s no need to explain Zack Sabre Jr.’s importance to pro wrestling. One of the great independent wrestlers of the 2010s, a multiple time champion internationally, a mainstay of New Japan.

The match here plays on a classic pro wrestling story. It’s the best in a small area taking on someone often recognized as among the best in the world. It’s built on the question: can the local guy get on the same level as the great? If we’re being totally honest, the answer to that question more often than not in these scenarios is “no.” But that’s not really the point of that trope when done right. It’s much more about pushing past one’s ceiling in defeat, taking a pound of flesh before going down.

It also works because it feels good to root for your guy, even if he can’t seal the deal.

I wasn’t entirely sure what reception Zack would get in the building, if only because it’s natural to feel awed by a visiting superstar. It’s a big fucking deal that he’s here, and there’s an excitement and electricity to seeing him in the flesh after all this time. But once that initial elation dissipated, everything fell exactly into place how it should: the crowd defended their own.

It doesn’t take long for the signature “Seven Nation Army” chant of “Oh Zack Sabre Jr.” to transform into “Boo Zack Sabre Jr.” And that’s exactly the kind of energy that I think this match needed the most. A straight up “dream match” is all well and good, and probably a lot of fun. But drawing a line in the sand makes it all the more high stakes and relevant. Zack is an outsider, and Jake is carrying the burden of Philippine wrestling: MWF gone, future uncertain, and one of the best in the world standing in his way.

It works too because Zack’s naturally much better at playing heel. He’s so gifted at being a prickish instigator. Those crowding little shoves he does before every match always come across so smug and antagonistic. Against Jake too, Zack has a considerable size advantage–a dynamic Zack’s often on the opposite end of–which makes those shoves all the more believably imposing. The size disparity helps other aspects of this too. It’s easier for Zack to stand his ground and talk shit in a way that feels suited to the dynamic. Unlike in New Japan when Zack standing and trading can feel forced, here absorbing Jake’s elbows and brushing past his kicks just feels like the natural conclusion to come to.

Jake’s work over the last two years has made him really stand out as a heel, but he’s able to apply enough of those skills towards a strong hometown babyface performance here. For one, his excellent bumping means that he’s pinballing around the ring for Zack while staying sympathetic. For another, the arm work that he’s been using to pick apart opponents and set up his Inasal Lock submission now feels like a more dogged and determined strategy in the face of a much more fluid and vicious opponent. Jake’s arm work might actually be the most consistent throughline through the match. At this point, Zack’s propensity for shifting strategies (and arguable lack of focus) is well-known, but Jake sticks to the arm early on because it works. It’s a neat little way to fluster Zack early, make the outsider realize that this match isn’t going to be a dog walk.

Playing the game of limbwork against Zack is a losing battle though, of course. And Zack in control here is a delight. There’s all the usual stuff you expect from him–the twisting of joints, the torturing of limbs, even some of his meatiest uppercuts. But it’s also one of Zack’s more animated performances in a little while as well. He’s always been a shittalker in ring, but he revels in the passionate atmosphere in this cramped building. He’s flipping off the crowd, mooning them, scolding the referee. It’s great heel work that makes this visiting superstar come across as national enemy number one.

He spends the match shifting between leg and arm work on Jake. If I’m being honest the leg work stands out more, if only for how much more violent it comes across throughout the runtime. At one point, Zack pulls one of Jake’s shoes off and throws it into the crowd to make Jake’s foot all the more vulnerable. Deep into the match, he even repeatedly kicks Jake’s foot into the wooden ring steps. If I’m being entirely objective, the finer details of long term selling aren’t entirely there from Jake’s performance. That or, it’s just a little harder to catch live and in the moment, but there’s no big arm or leg crumbles at any point here to really look to.

That being said, I think one thing Jake does extremely well is put over the physical toll the match has on him overall. What might be lacking in a more specific form of limb selling, we do get in spades with a more general sense of exhaustion. To this point, he plays a lot of this so much smarter than other similar indie epic-style matches. For example, when the elbows start flying, it’s much rarer to see Jake just stand and trade with Zack back and forth. Instead, he takes a much more compelling approach of bumping, crashing against the ropes, actually selling the goddamn thing. At the point that the two square up, seated face to face, and start throwing hands, Zack’s the one that gets the advantage. It looks he’s got Jake too, so that when Jake finally stands his ground and eats those big lariats without dropping, it feels so much more momentous.

In short, Jake lets himself take a beating, so that when he fights through, it means something.

The choice I appreciate the most from these two is their refusal to fall into the trap of needing to make Jake feel like he can get Zack. He has his hope spots, he’s defiant and stands up to Zack, but it’s hard to say that there’s a point where Zack feels comfortably out of his depth. What’s much more important though is that Jake makes it so much fucking harder for Zack than the latter was expecting.

About twenty plus minutes into the match, Jake kicks out of a Michinoku Driver.

It’s at that point I start chanting at Zack, “You can’t beat him.” The chant grows but Zack notices that it started with me, and he takes the time to say that whatever he does next is for me. He nails Jake with some PKs and continues the punishment, but Jake just doesn’t stay down. Even at the very end, seconds left on the clock, it’s not that Jake ran out of time to get some grand victory. It’s Zack that has him in his clutches, squeezing the life out of Jake de Leon until the time runs out.

Zack couldn’t fucking beat him.

Zack Sabre Jr. and Jake de Leon bow to each other.

It’s such a glorious surprise. Maybe it was hubris, maybe it was the humidity, but Zack Sabre Jr. couldn’t get it done. On a night following one of the most crushing losses to the local industry, Jake de Leon survives. He doesn’t win, it’s hard to say that he even gets close. But he doesn’t go down, and he denies the outsider what should have been a guaranteed victory. I imagine it’s the closest I’ll get in my live viewing experience to something like Zack getting that surprise second fall on Dragon in 2008, or maybe Daniel Makabe getting the best of Timothy Thatcher in 2017. “Mr. Philippine Wrestling” does it for the home team, and for one night it’s enough. He endures, he remains resilient.

The only other option is death.

One Comment

  1. As a saudi i admire snall wrestling promotions in countries that normally don’t have that privilege. I know there dubai pro wrestling which is a middle east power house. But it’s good to see stuff like a Philippine wrestling scene or scenes in African countries. Seeing small regions getting their day in the sun is glorious. In a world where the US, Japan, and Mexico rule the industry this was a great article to read.

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