Monday, December 22, 2014

2014 Year In Review/2015 Year In Preview: PWG

The year of the Joey and Candice Show
Photo Credit: Devin Chen
Turning my eyes to sunny Southern California...

Promotion: Pro Wrestling Guerrilla

What Happened in 2014: The year started with Mount Rushmore still emphatically in charge. Adam Cole was the reigning and defending World Champion, the Young Bucks held a stranglehold on the Tag Titles, and Kevin Steen was their veteran muscle, backing the team up whenever it needed an ace in the hole. DDT4, the annual tag team tournament, was the first event on the calendar, but the Bucks, who'd won the thing the year before, had to miss out to do a tour of Japan. Steen and Cole were tasked with defending the faith, and while they dispatched Joey Ryan and Candice LeRae in the first round, they couldn't beat out the eventual winners of the Best Friends of Chuck Taylor and Trent? in the semifinals. Cole would then be harangued by LeRae in a match for his title at Mystery Vortex II, but he escaped that one by the skin of his teeth.

The boss group in the PWG yard survived the first two events of the year with their gold intact, but the hordes were beating down their doors. LeRae and Joey Ryan would not be denied for their shot at the Tag Team Championships, but more importantly, Kyle O'Reilly had his sights set on Cole, to finish what Cole had started at the end of the Battle of Los Angeles the previous year. Cole could run no more, as O'Reilly was granted a knockouts-or-submissions only title match at the third event of the year, May's We Sold Our Soul for Rock 'n Roll. He corralled Cole for the win with a Triangle Sleeper.

Earlier in that same show, LeRae and Ryan punched their tickets to the Bucks by defeating the Best Friends. The stage was set for the anniversary show ELEVEN, a Guerrilla Warfare match for the Tag Titles. The match was brutal, even by PWG standards, and the Bucks pulled out all the stops to keep the belts, even gimmicking one of their boots with thumbtacks. However, chicanery, superkicks, and crimson masks couldn't stop LeRae and Ryan, the World's Cutest Tag Team, from vanquishing the Bucks and taking the titles for their own. Mount Rushmore had been stripped of all its gold, and its spiritual leader, Kevin Steen, said farewell to PWG. After losing to Trevor Lee at ELEVEN, he signed a developmental deal with WWE.

Ricochet won the biggest singles tourney
Photo Credit: Devin Chen
With the old threat gone, attention had turned to the most loaded Battle of Los Angeles in the company's history. A field of 24 wrestlers was entered, featuring names like Brian Myers, Zack Sabre, Jr., AJ Styles, and a returning Matt Sydal inclusive of all the regulars within the company. Each of the three nights of the tournament were critically acclaimed affairs, but the most telling story happened after O'Reilly's quarterfinal match with Sabre. Roderick Strong came out and beat the everloving shit out of the PWG Champ, causing him to drop out of the tournament and give Strong a bye into the finals. Ricochet would end up winning, but O'Reilly's attentions were clearly turned towards the longtime indie veteran.

O'Reilly would get his shot for revenge at Untitled II, defeating Strong with the triangle sleeper. However, Strong continued his aggressions, attempting to attack O'Reilly but instead getting head referee Rick Knox. Strong set up a temple of chairs and suplexed the official as a warning shot to O'Reilly. Then, at the last event of the year Black Cole Sun, O'Reilly found that his night wasn't finished after he defeated Ricochet to retain his title that Strong, who was announced as not having made his flight for the show, showed up unexpectedly and demanded a title match. Having been taken to his limits by the Battle of Los Angeles winner, O'Reilly was easy prey for Strong, who ended the year as the new PWG Champion.

LeRae was money in singles or in tags
Photo Credit: Devin Chen
2014 MVP: One could make arguments for Kyle O'Reilly, the Young Bucks, or even Roderick Strong if one wanted to troll some of the members of the wrestling Twitterati, but for me, the answer is clearly Candice LeRae. In a promotion where exciting wrestlers who aren't already in main events across the country are hard to come by, LeRae represented something fresh. She didn't miss her opportunity to run with that ball either, whether in singles matches like her title shot against Adam Cole or the BOLA first round, or more noticeably in tag matches. PWG's tag team scene is ultra competitive and has high standards, and she met all of them and then some. She also was able to make Joey Ryan relevant again for reasons other than a terrible worked Gut Check segment with TNA, and that's worth something in my book.

What's Going to Happen in 2015: PWG enters its new year with Roderick Strong as Champion and the rest of the roster in a state of flux. Public farewells to Kyle O'Reilly and Adam Cole seem to suggest that the long-suspected ROH talent pull-out is real, at least for certain individuals. Strong is a ROH regular, yes, but maybe he's on a per-appearance basis? Who knows at this point. In the meantime, the suspected freeze-out could affect several regulars. ACH, Cedric Alexander, Michael Elgin, Tommaso Ciampa, Bobby Fish, and Matt Sydal are among the regulars who may be not be heading out west for the time being.

Additionally, while Gabe Sapolsky's WWN Live venture isn't prohibiting its talent from appearing in PWG, the venture's expansion into China may make it difficult for other regulars to appear at every show. Johnny Gargano, Chuck Taylor, Biff Busick, Ricochet, AR Fox, Drew Gulak, and Rich Swann (who may or may not be signed by WWE early in 2015 as well) are all regulars who could miss time by taking the priority bookings in China.

With a huge chunk of PWG's roster in limbo, who will emerge as challengers for Strong, Joey Ryan, and Candice LeRae? The Young Bucks are ever-present, but I wonder if winning the belts back from the World's Cutest Tag Team would undo all the goodwill the promotion built up in 2014. The North Carolina talent pipeline might come into play more this coming year as well. Trevor Lee has worked out well for the promotion, which means doors could be opened for other wrestlers from the Tar Heel State. Plus, Southern California remains as fertile for producing pro wrestlers as ever. PWG fell away from pushing guys like the RockNES Monsters, PPRay, and Willie Mack in the past. Could those guys be the bedrock for the future?

My guess is that it won't take too long to find out where the roster stands. DDT4 has been the first event up for the last two years, and while I see the WWN Live guys being available, it'll be interesting to see which wrestlers end up filling the void for the ROH guys who are suspected not to be there anymore. For a company that has long been the standard bearer for the super indie world, it'll be interesting to see how PWG operates in this time of uncertainty.

Lee could be The Man in '15
Photo Credit: Devin Chen
Five Wrestlers to Watch in 2015: Trevor Lee - Of all the North Carolina dudes brought into PWG in 2014, Lee has made the greatest inroads into the company's card structure. He's gotten several key wins, including a victory over Kevin Steen in his last PWG match and one over Chris Hero at Black Cole Sun. He has to be an early favorite to win Battle of Los Angeles this upcoming year, and I wouldn't be terribly surprised if he ended up going into 2016 as PWG Champion.

Chris Hero - Hero is in an interesting spot as an elder statesman. While his career probably won't be taking another leap, so to speak, until/unless he gets signed by one of the "big" companies again, he still has a unique avenue for advancement as a legend of the company. It would be funny to see him adopt the same role William Regal did for him in NXT with a wrestler like Trevor Lee or even a higher level guy like Ricochet. Will he end up being a benevolent oldhead, or will he, like his mentor Mitsuharu Misawa and Misawa's AJPW forebear Genichiro Tenryu, become a grumpy old man?

Pretty Peter Avalon - Avalon could stand to be one of the SoCal guys who benefits most from the talent drain. His face is recognizable to thousands from his run as Norv Fernum in TNA, but he's also got the goods to back it up. He's a preternaturally gifted shit-stirrer, and he can fit in on the card from the opening match all the way up to the upper midcard right now. Will he get the chance to develop into a main event player? If the folks in charge know what they're doing, then he should be in the future plans.

RockNES Monsters - The Monsters can hit the same vein that the Young Bucks did back in 2009/10 as the lovable babyface team that turns bad and rockets into prominence as the few heels in a land full of cheer-muggers. They've already made the turn, and the live crowds boo them. All they need is a spark, which could come in the form of a long feud with the World's Cutest Tag Team. The matches would be off the charts, and with some attention and build, the two teams could end up carrying on the grand tradition of the Tag Titles headlining the anniversary show. Threemendous Four - RockNES vs. Joey and Candice in a ladder match? I'd be down for that.

Brian Cage - The muscular freak of nature may or may not be around for the long haul, as he's caught on with the WWN Live crew and could be headed to China. However, if he's around for more than half the shows in 2015, he could end up being the ace of the promotion finally. Unlike some guys with ridiculous looking bodies, Cage can back it up with feats of HOSSery as well as being able to keep up with the smaller, more athletic members of the roster.

Three Things I Want to See in 2015: 1. The emergence of the next great SoCal indie wrestler - PWG has been known mostly as the "dream match promotion" in the last few years, but once upon a time, it was a gateway company that first gave wrestlers from the West Coast their shine with the established dudes from out east. Without PWG, the scene might not have Joey Ryan, Scorpio Sky (for better or worse on that dude), Chris Bosh, Scott Lost, or most importantly, the Young Bucks. With the talent drain that looms overhead, the company would be best-served in mining the rich talent veins in Southern California and get back to basics. Who can be the next big breakout star who'll turn heads and MAKE promotions like Chikara, CZW, and EVOLVE want to book him? PWG's only job in 2015 shouldn't be making Trevor Lee, but it should include finding that SoCal guy and giving him (or her) the stage needed to bust out.

2. Mine other areas besides the played-out Northeast for outside talent - Look, I love Chikara and can't deny that CZW has a bunch of guys who'd fit into PWG's ethos. But at what point do Super Dragon, Excalibur, and the rest of the folks running the joint realize that other parts of the continent might be as rich in talent if not richer? The Midwest/Rust Belt areas are the obvious choices (and I say that at the risk of PWG finding Ethan Page and making him a main event dude, yuck), but other regions are still rich with talent, especially on the West Coast. Northern California still has a few key promotions, including the stalwart APW and new kid on the block Hoodslam. Imagine Nicole Matthews leading a party of wrestlers down from the Vancouver area. Hell, PWG would be wise to make inroads even into the state of Georgia, where most of the great wrestlers are still relatively unknown to the rest of the country. Philadelphia and New York aren't the only places where great wrestlers are.

3. Exploit the relationship with WWE and become an ECW for a new age - It's no secret that WWE looks to PWG for talent scouting. William Regal has made more than a few pilgrimages to Reseda, and several wrestlers - Solomon Crowe, Sami Zayn, Kalisto, Adrian Neville, and Kevin Owens for starters - all have had extensive experience in PWG rings. It would behoove all parties involved for WWE to form a similar relationship with PWG as it did with ECW back in the '90s. WWE would get a place outside its own developmental territory to gauge talent in a prime-time setting, while PWG could get favors in return like money or even something unprecedented like a spot on The Network (which would be an incentive for WWE to work with them too) and perhaps talent exchange as well. This wish may just be a pipe dream, but at the same time, Regal, Triple H, and the rest seem to project a forward-thinking attitude while running NXT. Partnering with a successful existing indie property wouldn't seem so far-fetched.