Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, As Good As It Gets
Article & photo by Dr. Mike Lano
(Part one of several)
I’ve had the honor of watching Los Angeles-based Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG and prowrestlingguerrilla.com) grow from its earliest days to the world force and showcase for the highest quality wrestling it remains today. Spearheaded by founder (and long-time West Coast high flying star able to work any style of grappling) Super Dragon, it’s been unusual over its many years for often being able to bring in not just top American, Canadian, European, Japanese, Mexican, etc. athletes; but also from promotions ranging from ROH, TNA, Evolve and many others. Literally the cream of the crop in an ever-changing industry landscape at their Reseda, CA home.
Super Dragon was already a star able to work American and Lucha style in Los Angeles and began working for other promotions like Roland Alexander’s All Pro Wrestling Gym Wars shows in Hayward near San Jose, CA. I used to call it the APW Dojo when I was doing commentary for APW, but it was their full garage and boot camp training center by day. Anyone who’s enjoyed the top notch Barry Blaustein documentary Beyond the Mat saw APW Gym Wars in its glory days. I was Barry’s field photographer during his years of pre-production footage and he’d asked the opinion of me (along with many others of course) as to what and who to maybe focus on as he’d done a lot of indie filming for several years in SoCal and also at TC Martin’s wild Las Vegas shows.
This isn’t a proper bio but more a tribute to PWG. Only Dragon himself and his co-founders could speak with 100% accuracy on how PWG was founded and carefully cultivated and grown into the behemoth phenomenon it remains.
But when it started and their first big card 7/26/03, PWG was blessed with quite a talent pool of great locals to begin with like Chris Daniels, Frankie Kazarian, Samoa Joe, and others who may have cut their teeth on some levels in Rick Bassman’s UPW in Orange County. Bassman had veered from pro wrestling to puroresu and even his own MMA promotion and his school was a farm feeder for a time to WWF and where John Cena was first spotted and sent to OVW and Jim Cornette to really finesse. Bassman I believe partnered or hired Bas Rutten to help train the Mark Kerrs, Mark Colemans and others already established as major MMA stars (I think Josh Barnett too for NJPW) into the far different pro wrestling, worked style.
It was a major hotbed with Melissa Anderson first doing her Cheerleader character (she was a legit one in High School, so again the best gimmicks come from a basis in reality and real life) as the valet for the Ballard Twins from Canada, Suicide Kid and others. Daniels, Kaz and Joe had participated in all the UPW vs APW, SoCal v Norcal interpromotional series too leading up to what may have been Super Dragon’s prime motivation in cofounding PWG (with Disco Machine who’s since retired, Excalibur, Joey Ryan, Scott Lost and Top Gun Talwar) as he was one of the top 8 finalists in APW’s King of the Indies in 2001 (American Dragon Bryan Danielson beat Lo-Ki in the finals). KOI as we all know was equally super influential in RF and Gabe’s formation of ROH with many groups like Jersey All Pro to follow. Super Dragon, Joe, AJ Styles, Donovan Morgan, Black Nature Boy Scoot Andrews, Spanky, Vinny Massaro, Doug Williams and even Figure 4 Weekly honcho Bryan Alvarez were amongst KOI‘s mass of the top top stars brought in. Many of those names would go on in PWG classics too.
In fact well before TNA did it, PWG’s very first card press release advertised that the first AJ Styles vs Samoa Joe matchup would occur (Joe got injured in ROH right before the show and was replaced by Frankie Kazarian, who still tore the house down). PWG took center stage from there.
Those first PWG shows in its earliest years were the talk of the “indie” world to the point where many of the top minds in Japan took notice and were impressed. I hate using that word “indie” because with PWG, ROH, APW, Shine, Shimmer, Evolve, Chikara the word “indie” really doesn’t fit the high calibre, 5 star matches and cards they present with the best possible athletes. And right now PWG has them from everywhere including even more SoCal greats they’ve used in recent years like Joey Ryan, Candice Larae, Willie Mack and others. I’m guessing it was possibly and primarily from PWG that TNA took notice of and hired a lot of SoCal talent starting with Daniels and Frankie, later Joe who was bopping between PWG and ROH, Hashimoto’s Zero-1 on through Joey Ryan’s tenure there and certainly some recommendations re: Melissa Anderson who had at least 3 TNA identities to showcase her incredible ringwork. Certainly their work in APW along with that in PWG was very evident to Jeff J and co. Of course Paul London too from the LaLaWood area with stints everywhere besides in the Whiff with Spanky/Kendricks.
Back to PWG’s first few years of shows (near where I was born and grew up in Los Feliz which was their 2nd-ever venue) with that incredibly precise, cutting-edge booking style they’ve had since day one. I photographed all sorts of dream matches there over a dozen great shows. I was sadly 440 miles from my original Olympic Auditorium homebase Lebell territory in the 60′s and 70′s and unable to cover all their shows as I did APW, etc. up here after I moved North for the cleaner air. From Joe to Chris Daniels facing Danielson, Jamie Noble v quite a few big names when he was allowed to really “go” during his break from WWF/E; the Cuban Assassins Rickey Reyes and Rocky Romero, etc; it took King of the Indies to that next level. Not even ROH was able to use whatever top TNA names it wanted back in the 90′s which PWG did for quite some time along with all the other huge names they brought in. SoCal Val did some ring announcing at her start and was even figure-head commish for PWG; a skill she’s using right now thanks to PWG in Evolve.
Super Dragon has been aided by some he broke in with including Excalibur (another mysterious masked wrestler but Ex retired I’m told, due to an injury) who opens each show and gets the crowd going in addition to educated. It’s almost like a state of the union address when he comes out to talk to the crowd who are into his every word. Last month I came back home to L.A. for Christmas and covered/photographed my first PWG show in 3 years at their current Reseda beloved venue. I believe SD, Excalibur and Joey are the current owners.
Excalibur used humor and seriousness (which is PWG’s unique trademark) in his opening speech for the two days of, and not only discussed with the always SRO audience the haps, news and behavioral requests, but also got them chanting something you’ll never experience anywhere else. From “we conserve water!” to “we recycle!” I was just amazed. Since California is still in its worst-ever drought, hearing a full crowd chant like that should inspire others. Sure, they chant PWG when there’s insane spots and moves; but this may be a total first anywhere on the planet for a pro wrestling promotion. Especially one with the top athletes and state of the art matches.
The tickets go within minutes of being put for sale online (this may also still be the most wired and ‘Net connected promotion ever) as do their DVDs taped from each show. Back to the humor amidst the intelligent booking and you’ll marvel at Villain Marty Scurll shouting “tastes like Prince Puma” when he bit into Richochet’s finger or various other chants the next night against Evolve champ and west coast legend, Timothy Thatcher from the UK (who I might add, is a major Billy Robinson mark as he should be). Each show (and many recur each year) has a great title and at times comic-book/anime/Comic-con type theme like “Taste the Radness, Black Cole Sun (think music), Steen Wolf (think the MJFox film), Free Admission (Just Kidding), Straight To DVD,” etc. spectaculars. There are more traditional ones like “Battle of Los Angeles” and the annual two-night “All Star Weekends,” but they usuallly have fun sub-theme titles too. The first of two Kurt Russell-Mania major global shows occurred at the big Highspots WrestleReunion 3-day Conventions near LA Airport both years of the 3 WR’s in SoCal, and those series of shows were more loaded than usual. Actually, just look at the stars and lineups at any PWG show and they’re more loaded than most any promotion.
From Kevin Steen classics to El Generico, Claudio, Tommaso Ciampa, ACH, Johnny Gargano (who got teased last month about going to NXT), PWG stalwart and still tag champs The Young Bucks (TNA must’ve also taken note of them before signing ‘em), Chris Hero, Alex Shelley, Chris Sabin, the American Wolves, Kendo Kashin as well as SoCal vets like B-Boy who have shown in Lucha Underground on El-Rey Network.
PWG also routinely has a front row area for celebs which over the years has included tv and movie stars (more recently Sophia Vergara and her new mega-actor husband Joe who’s been a PWG regular to one of Ronda Rousey’s celebrated 4HWomen MMA best buds and tons from WWE, from scouts to those just wanting to see “how it’s done and how it can be.” All over the net and even on WWE’s website, Kevin Steen has credited PWG for the hire there, saying how William/Steve Regal invited him to try out after taking in one of his PWG classics. They still have working relationships with ROH and other top promotions which is something great in today’s landscape. Roderick Strong is their current champ (having beaten Kyle O’Reilly over a year ago), The Bucks remain tag champs after defeating Trevor Lee and Andrew Everett last may for the straps.
This is just the first in a series of PWG tribute pieces. PWG reminds me in many ways of the glory days of Japanese pro wrestling in the 70′s to early 90′s. Only the best at their craft were invited to come, and if you got an invite or request to come work in Japan (or nowadays in PWG), you had obviously “arrived.” Kenny Omega has been shining in PWG for quite awhile and now he’s positioned very deservedly as the face of the new Bullet Club since all 4 Whiff/WWE signings. Twelve years ago I wrote about them in Shukan (Weekly) Pro as “The ROH of the Left Coast.” I’m not calling them anything but PWG now. Maybe Guerrilla as in our equally smart mammal prototype that showcases the best warrior guerrillas. Maybe I can find out how and why that name came about because their long-time hallmark logo (courtesy PWG and shown herein) is that of a screaming King Kong. The title of their 92nd show (almost numbered the way UFC does their shows) was Life During Wartime which the hip will know was one of The Talking Heads best albums. Someone (ok SD, Ex and Joey) really know their pop culture! It’s the thinking smark’s promotion in my “book.”
Article & photo by Dr. Mike Lano