Tuesday, January 3, 2017

2016 Year in Review/2017 Year in Preview: Chikara

Kimber Lee was a huge part of Chikara's 2016
Photo Credit: Zia Hiltey
I'm going to try a slightly different format for these this year, starting with, what else, Chikara. The fun, American lucha libre sensation had quite the 2016.

Promotion: Chikara Pro

2016, Summarized: The company entered 2016 with Princess Kimber Lee as its Grand Champion with a lot of pomp and circumstance and a few challengers, none more notable than the Devastation Corporation. The ornery group of hosses abused and attacked Lee, which caused former ally spurned during the course of the Challenge of the Immortals Oleg the Usurper and the newly-reborn Estonian Thunder Frog to rally by her side. However, the Corporation lost a huge piece in Max Smashmaster, who was fired for assaulting Director of Fun Mike Quackenbush. Without erstwhile manager Sidney Bakabella and now founding member Smashmaster, Blaster McMassive and Flex Rumblecrunch's assault on the Grand Champion faltered. They claimed a consolation prize, the Tag World Grand Prix, however. Their inability to capture the Campeonatos de Parejas ended up angering Bakabella, who returned during the year managing a giant masked wrestler named "Abominous Rex," who disappeared before a scheduled bout with Oleg. However, when Bakabella confronted them at King of Trios to dress them down, Smashmaster returned and destroyed his former partners, who left the company the next day.

Meanwhile, Lee continued to make nice with Oleg and the Frog, but her friendship with Heidi Lovelace started to dissolve, first with a Grand Championship defense and then after Lee lost the title, a series of friendly fire miscommunications in tag matches. Their feud seemingly culminated in a de facto number one contender's match in August where Lovelace scored the pin. Unfortunately for the feud, any further action in their feud that was slated for this coming year has been scuttled, since both have signed with WWE (but both women deserve to be on the biggest stages doing their thing, so it's a net good!).

Mantis was Nazmaldun, but now he's free
Photo Credit: Zia Hiltey
And to whom did Lee lose her title? Hallowicked reclaimed the Grand Championship in England, much like he initially won it the year before. Reclaiming the title was only step two in his big plans for 2016. After promising that his demon rot lord Nazmaldun would finally arrive at National Pro Wrestling Day. The first step was reclaiming the Eye of Tyr from the BDK. They spent the first couple of months of the year pretending to be under the jewel's sway until they ambushed Jakob Hammermeier and reclaimed it. Hallowicked put the cursed artifact to use, using it as a conduit to allow Nazmaldun to claim the body of UltraMantis Black as a vessel. With that action, the other dominoes started falling: Icarus, Obariyon, Kodama, Mr. Touchdown, Kobald, and the returned Jigsaw. The heXed Men as they called themselves ran amok on Chikara, putting down challenges from all who stepped to them. They might have claimed King of Trios as well had they not been disqualified against Team JWP for punishing them with finishing maneuvers without attempting to win the match (castigo de excesivo). Their reign of terror even cost Amasis his mask in a lucha de apuesta against Frightmare. However, in the season finale, the united forces defending Chikara, led by Dasher Hatfield, defeated the heXed Men. While most of the contingent still seems loyal to Hallowicked, Mantis appears to be freed of Nazmaldun's grip.

In other pertinent developments, the man known as Chuck Taylor went on an extended retirement tour in 2015, which caused the copyrights on his actual name to lapse. At National Pro Wrestling Day, people were surprised to see a R&B soul singer who strongly resembled manager extraordinaire Stokely Hathaway come out when Taylor's name was called. As it would turn out, he purchased legal rights to the name, while the former Taylor competed under a variety of new appellations, like Scoot Tatum, Stewie Scrivens, and Rich Mahogany, unable to use any of his old gear, trademark spots, or even old affiliations. The former Taylor was fired before coming back with a vengeance under the name DUSTIN. However, instead of battling with the new Taylor, they surprisingly joined forces to make hay as a tag team. They closed the year with two points towards contention towards the Campeonatos de Parejas, currently held by the team of Moustache Mountain, Trent Seven and Tyler Bate.

Tying up loose ends, in addition to Lee and Lovelace, Chikara lost Drew Gulak to WWE and Soldier Ant to "retirement." It's unclear whether the newly unmasked Amasis, now known as DeSean Pratt, will stick around, although I really hope he will. For the second year in a row, a team outside the company, the Sendai Girls of Meiko Satomura, Dash Chisako, and Cassandra Miyagi, won King of Trios, while Aerostar took home the Rey de Voladores crown. Eddie Kingston ended up violently shaving the head of Jakob Hammermeier at the end of their short yet bitter feud, and neither have appeared for Chikara since then.

2016, Analyzed: Chikara's 2016 seemingly has flown under the radar in some circles, and I blame the residual effects of the company's decision to "close" between June 2013 and February 2014. I wonder if booker, creative director, and Jack of All Trades Mike Quackenbush regrets the decision. That being said, crowds appear to still flock to venues to see the promotion, so maybe the lack of buzz is only contained in a bubble. Anyway, for whatever reason, people who aren't talking about Chikara's 2016 probably should be, because it was, in a word used by former regular and person most Chikara fans like myself miss dearly Jervis Cottonbelly, splendid.

First off, no promotion did long-term storytelling like Chikara in 2016. From the spillover from last year into the big stories of this season, Chikara provided what a lot of other promotions seemed to be lacking, hell, even that the promotion itself lacked from time to time in years past. Story developments appeared to have a little more urgency, and the twists, especially Hallowicked's gambit stealing the Eye of Tyr from Jakob Hammermeier and the surprise twist of Chuck Taylor™ and DUSTIN tagging together.

Your Queen of Trios
Photo Credit: Zia Hiltey
In-ring, the company suffered a little bit from both a lack of guest stars outside of King of Trios and a brain-drain, which made cards lean more on Wrestle Factory grads than anything. Some answered the call better than others, but the in-ring quality didn't match up to the salad years of 2011. Still, each show had at least one match that was entertaining at least. Additionally, the highest end matches stacked up to the best in other promotions, even if the volume of them wasn't as great as, say, EVOLVE. Kimber Lee's Grand Championship defenses against Soldier Ant and Heidi Lovelace especially stand out, as well as the Tag World Grand Prix first round war/brawl between the Osirian Portal and Le Tabarnak de Team.

Chikara also deserves praise for Chikaratopia. The streaming service isn't new, but in 2016, the company made better strides to include more current content, making it easier to stay up to date throughout the year. While I would rather see shows appear on the service instantaneously, I understand it still has distribution agreements with Smart Mark Video that prevent this from happening. Either way, the camera work on the shows has improved from when the company first stopped using SMV as its filming contractors and brought it in-house. Additionally, nearly every combination of commentator in the booth, with the exception of Joey Styles, all were categorically engrossing and informative. Mike Quackenbush deserves the most praise for being probably the best play-by-play announcer in the business this year.

One area where Chikara lagged was in booking decisions at Trios. While the company got the most heat for its decision to advance Team JWP on castigo de excesivo in the Trios tournament semifinals, I thought that was a defensible decision at least. However, having outsiders sweep the three tournaments (Trios, Rey de Voladores, Tag Team Gauntlet) was a poor look. Trios is the only weekend right now where Chikara gets increased outside attention, and to have the guest stars swoop through and win everything important is a cheap, WWE-style move. Additionally, it was the second year that an outside act won both the Trios and RdV tournaments. I get the desire to have the Queen of Trios this year, especially since so much of the year was focused on equality between the genders with Lee's title defense and Heidi Lovelace's ascension to the main event. But at the same time, the all-joshi final coupled with both Aerostar winning RdV and Sean Waltman and Billy Gunn coming out and big-timing at the end of the Tag Gauntlet made Chikara wrestlers feel inferior to the guys imported in.

Trios weekend shouldn't be just some thing that Chikara promotes, it should be a vital part of the narrative, and native wrestlers who are at the Factory shows and on tour all year should be given prominence there as they are in other shows. Chikara had no problem putting both DUSTIN and Juan Francisco de Coronado over Zack Sabre, Jr. during his two guest run matches, nor should they have had one. The same idea should go for King of Trios as well. The pendulum can't swing too far in either direction, and treating the native roster as fodder for guests to me feels just as pointless as bringing in big names just to job them out early on in the proceedings.

2017, Forecasted: Chikara begins 2017 in flux. So many of its top wrestlers are moving on, or their statuses in Chikara are seemingly unknown. Kimber Lee, Heidi Lovelace, and Drew Gulak are all headed to WWE or are there already. DeSean "Amasis" Pratt and Eddie Kingston are seemingly missing in action. And so many of the established wrestlers are on the rudo side. Even without getting into the bulk that still is with the heXed Men, the other major wrestlers in the main event appear to be Max Smashmaster and Juan Francisco de Coronado. Granted, the Colony is still at mostly full strength, depending on whether Worker Ant's still got grievances, and Ophidian will do battle, whether or not Pratt is around to help him out.

Is Smashmaster the next big bad?
Photo Credit: Scott Finkelstein
However, the Grand Championship contendership scene has an interesting situation surrounding it right now. Hallowicked has two potential challengers who have three points apiece. The bad news for him is that both are current fellow acolytes of Nazmaldun, Icarus and Mark Angelosetti. Of course, both were brought aboard when the Lord of Rot inhabited UltraMantis Black's body as a host. How faithful will they remain since Mantis "remembers everything" now is up in the air. Other challengers who loom in the air may be The Big Deal (fka Hornswoggle), "That Ol' Juke Joint" Lucas Calhoun, Wani, Juan Francisco de Coronado, the Estonian Thunder Frog, and Jigsaw. They all have two points.

In the tag team scene, several teams are jockeying for position with two points apiece, but the most curious one seems to be the seemingly self-defeating alliance between Chuck Taylor™ and DUSTIN. They've seemingly gotten along fine enough to get this far, but I wonder how they will coexist further into the future, as Taylor™'s continued ownership of the name that DUSTIN used to propel himself into the stratosphere of Chikara lore still feels like it should be a sticking point. If and when they explode, one might want to be there to catch the fallout. If they do not take the titles from the current Campeonatos, Tyler Bate and Trent Seven (whom you can see on the WWE UK Tournament special in the meantime), then Los Ice Creams and the mucus-soaked team of Cornelius Crummels and Sonny DeFarge are waiting in the wings with two points.

Everything this season will kick off with National Pro Wrestling Day at the Wrestle Factory in Northeast Philadelphia on February 4. The admission will be free for anyone who wants to attend, as has been the tradition for all the NPWD events regardless of location. However, you can and should make a donation to this year's charity, The Superkick Foundation. The only announced event so far has been the recurrence of the Young Lions Cup Tournament, but I expect that more news will filter in soon.

2017, Wanted: First thing's first, aside from the problems I have with the Trios weekend, I would like to see continuance from the current storylines. The last season left a lot of threads ready to be pulled for this year, even with the massive movement on them last year. Chikara has the Nazmaldun story ready to charge into some kind of conclusion this year. The feud between the Chucks Taylor (Chuck Taylors?) could explode later on in the year. Max Smashmaster as the new big threat will be delightful, but only if somewhere down the line, Blaster McMassive and/or Flex Rumblecrunch come back for a showdown. Hell, one could even see a deep dive into the past between Mike Quackenbush, who wrestled in 2016 for the first time in three years, and Jigsaw if/when he gets freed of Nazmaldun's grip and who showed rudo tendencies when he burst back into the scene at the Infinite Gauntlet in the middle of last year. Storytelling has been a strong suit for the company historically, and after a year in 2015 where it took a more circuitous turn in favor of the Challenge of the Immortals, it came back strong. I hope that this remains a strength for the company.

Second, the commitment to gender equality has taken a hit with the losses of both Kimber Lee and Heidi Lovelace to WWE. Team Sea Stars and Solo Darling are the only two regular entities that remain. Darling seems ready for more of an advanced role, but Delmi Exo and Ashley Vox were pure rookies last year and at times, it showed. While I expect them to improve this year, I'm not sure if any of those three women are ready to take the mantel left behind. Even if it's just for a year or so, I would love to see Chikara bring in someone established as a bridge talent. The usual suspects may not be there, however; both Veda Scott and Deonna Purrazzo could very well be in WWE sooner rather than later, and Madison Eagles is injured once again (because why should anything go right for her, right?). I'm not sure who can step into the void for now, but a commitment to gender equality leadership means having women in all facets of the show, competing all along the card. Right now, that scale is tipped mostly towards opening acts.