Monday, June 28, 2010

CHIKARA spells rasslin

The above title is with all apologies and credit to the one and only Gavin Loudspeaker who sang a song with the very same title at a CHIKARA show last year.

So lemme ask all of you out there something... would you drive 6 hours to watch an independent wrestling show with a bunch of wrestlers 99.9% of the population has never heard of in front of a crowd of between 150 and 250 people? I'm going to guess that the answer for most of you is, "What? No. Are you nuts?" Well, I have done just that - three times in fact. I've driven from Pittsburgh all the way out to Easton, PA, to watch a fledgling indy wrestling company known as CHIKARA. If you haven't heard of CHIKARA, don't worry. It's a small company run out of the eastern part of PA that runs 2, sometimes 3, shows a month, mainly in PA.

Yesterday afternoon, I traveled to Ohio to see CHIKARA at the West Park Party Center in West Cleveland. It was pretty much like most venues indy feds run - a Knights of Columbus hall that wasn't that well lit, was bordering on sweltering thanks to a packed house and shaky air conditioning and was about as far from a venue that WWE would run as you can get. Yet I was in heaven.

I found out about CHIKARA strictly by accident about a year and a half ago. Though Pittsburgh supports two thriving indy wrestling promotions, I haven't been to one of their cards in years. However, I haven't been to a WWE event in well over 5 years. Why? Well, money for one thing, and I'd much rather watch RAW on TV so I have easier access to food and the bathroom. So why the heck would I drive more than half way across the state to see a wrestling show with guys who will most likely never make it to the big time? The answer is very simple: I enjoy the hell out of it.

I've been a wrestling fan for 25 years now, and my interest in the "sport" has ebbed and flowed over the years. Yeah, I still watch Monday Night RAW without fail every week, but I almost never see Smackdown. I can't/won't watch TNA. So, with ECW (the real ECW, that is) long since gone, I needed an outlet for the pure wrestling geek in me, the one who marks out at crazy ass moves and stiff kicks and lots of near falls. Let's face facts: WWE has become a very watered down product since it went all PG on us (more on this later). As a result, many of its matches just aren't that good anymore. Oh sure, you'll get some good matches on PPV, but your average TV match is at best a two star affair.

When you go to a CHIKARA card, you're going to see a bunch of young, talented wrestlers putting on a great show for all of the fans in attendance. It's a family-friendly show - no swearing, no rude chants. Most shows have tons of kids in attendance, and the majority of the wrestlers (even the rudos) will sign autographs or take pictures with them. And you know what? They seem to be happy to do it. That's an added notch in my book.

CHIKARA was founded in 2002 by Mike Quackenbush (the company's head booker and one of its top technicos - go look him up on YouTube for some kick ass matches). Most of the roster consists of wrestlers who were trained at CHIKARA's Wrestle Factory, so there's a lot of familiarity with the competitors, most of whom have grown up in the business together. The result is a very professional product despite it being an indy promotion. Is it as polished as your average WWE show? Of course not, but that's one of the reasons I like it. It's raw (no pun intended) and fast-paced and athletic. You'll see moves in your average CHIKARA match that most WWE wrestlers wouldn't (or couldn't) dream of doing.

The real hook of CHIKARA (for me anyway) is that it's very based in lucha libre wrestling. The majority of the wrestlers wear masks and the lost arts of tag team and trios wrestling is embraced by the promotion. Trios matches can be especially chaotic since there don't necessarily have to be tags for wrestlers to come into the ring. On last night's card, The Colony (a trio of masked wrestlers all named after ants) wrestled a group out of Chicago known as Da Soul Touchaz. At one point during the match Willie "Da Bomb" Richardson (who runs at least 350) hit Green Ant (who might be 175 pounds) with a running side shoulder block that nearly launched Green Ant into the back row. I kid you not - if the ropes hadn't gotten into the way, Green Ant would have been launched into the crowd. It was awesome. You'd never see that on Monday Night RAW.

And lest you think that CHIKARA doesn't have storylines. On the contrary, the booking of CHIKARA is intricate and thought out well in advance. Do yourself a favor and go look up BDK on Wikipedia. It's the name of the new super rudo group in CHIKARA that was formed at the end of last year in an angle that took close to two years to come to fruition. Let's see WWE pull something like that off.

Don't go to a CHIKARA show expecting to see a bunch of heavyweights and super-heavyweights. Oh sure, the promotion does have some of both (Claudio Castagnoli and Tursas fall into the respective categories), but most of the wrestlers are less than 6 feet tall and under 200 pounds. But who cares? WWE has gotten it so drilled into our heads that you have to be 6'3" and built like a body builder to be taken serious as a wrestler. Well, I'm here to tell you that isn't even remotely true.

Some of you may be aware of the situation of Bryan Danielson a/k/a Daniel Bryan of WWE NXT season 1. He was fired from WWE for choking the ring announcer using a tie during the NXT invasion angle, something that just doesn't happen on PG rated RAW (ostensibly because of the Chris Benoit tragedy, but I'm skeptical). Danielson has been called "The Best in the World" by many of his fans. The validity of that is up for debate, but there's no doubting that he's one of the best mat wrestlers in the world today, and he's built like an average guy. In other words, he doesn't have that "look" that WWE loves its wrestlers to have. Look or not, I'll pay to watch Danielson wrestle every day before I plunk down whatever it costs to see John Cena wrestle in person.

Danielson chose CHIKARA to make his return to the indy circuit this past weekend. Check out the promo he cut at Saturday's show in Michigan about the WWE's PG product:

Danielson's point is a valid one - you can be PG and family-friendly while still having competitive, athletic, hard hitting matches that are entertaining. Somewhere along the way, WWE stopped caring so much about wrestling and focused more on entertainment. Frankly, I think if they improved the in-ring product, their stagnant ratings would come back to life, but instead they focus on things like celebrity guest hosts that are mostly Z-listers no one gives a crap about. Lemme put it to the powers that be at WWE in simple terms: more wrestling = better ratings.

I can't say enough about how much I enjoy CHIKARA and how well they treat their fans. So, if you get a chance, hop on over to Smart Mark Video and find yourself a CHIKARA DVD to buy. I'd recommend the Best of 2009 in which you get 22 matches for only 20 bucks. And if you live on the east coast, do yourself a favor and check out a CHIKARA show. If you're a wrestling fan and you long for the days of ECW and are disenchanted by the current WWE product, then CHIKARA is what you're looking for. They also have a weekly podcast on Facebook you should check out, too.

Okay, I'm done being a shameless plug for all things CHIKARA. Just check it out if you have a chance. I promise you won't be disappointed.


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Why Detroit is better than Pittsburgh... in baseball, that is

So, I spent my Saturday night watching the Pirates blow a late inning lead. Nothing new there, right? Well, instead of watching them lose at PNC Park, I drove all the way to Detroit to watch them lose to the Tigers. I should preface this by saying that the Tigers are my second favorite team, so I was probably 60% rooting for the home team, if only because they at least have a shot at making the playoffs this year.

Comerica Park, home of the Tigers, is a great venue. It's very expansive with tons of concession stands and a vast variety of choices for food (not to mention Little Caesar's Pizza throughout the park). Granted the Tigers had more land to build on than the Pirates did for PNC Park, so that explains that. However, one thing that struck me right away was the amazing lack of in-game entertainment that's prevalent to the point of nauseating at your average Bucco game. There was no pierogie race, no hot dog shooting, no t-shirt tossing or even any Q&A's with the Tigers' players. All you had was the game, and I was perfectly fine with that.

Y'see, I am one of the few people who actually go to a Pirate game to *gasp* watch the game. Yeah, I know that the on-field product often makes me wonder why I even watch the Pirates in the first place (more on that in a bit), but I just really enjoy baseball. It's not my most favorite sport like it was when I was a kid, but I still enjoy a Saturday night at the ballpark. I don't see a trip to PNC Park as a family outing that consists of waiting for the game to end so they can watch the fireworks or going ga-ga over the Pierogie Race and ignoring most of the rest of the game.

The people I sat by at Comerica Park not only were there to watch the game, they also knew things about the team and actually were there to watch the game and a team that doesn't suck. Granted, a team with Miguel Cabrera (a leading AL MVP candidate), Justin Verlander and Brennan Boesch (top AL Rookie) on it just has to be better than the Pirates, and Jim Leyland can manage circles around John Russell, but I digress...

Back to Tigers fans knowing their team. My friend Mike and I stayed just outside of Toledo, figuring that would be a cheaper option than staying close to the city. So, we were about an hour away. The game started at 7:05, so we were hoping for a relatively quick game so we could get back to our hotel and grab some food and beer at Applebee's before it closed at midnight (by the way... wassupwitdat?). When Mike said this aloud, the guy in front of us said, "Not with Bondo (Jeremy Bonderman) pitching. He's guaranteed for 2:45 every game." Of course, he was right, and of course, the game went into extra innings (with the Pirates losing on a Carlos Guillen walk-off homer in the bottom of the 1oth that I called before it happened). We didn't get back until almost midnight. If it wasn't for the drive thru at Mickey D's and a Meijer grocery store (thank god you can buy beer in a grocery store in Ohio after midnight), we would have been SOL.

Anyway, back to my point... it was refreshing to go to a game with actual baseball fans and not just people out for a night of entertainment. I don't have anything against the latter, but don't give me dirty looks when I boo or yell at the Pirates when they do something stupid (which is rather often, come to think of it). Most of the blame for this has to be placed on the Pirates management, who are more concerned about entertaining the fans then putting a representative ballclub on the field. If Pirates' brass was concerned about the on-field product, then former number one overall draft pick Pedro Alvarez would be in the starting line-up tonight.

Last week, one day after phenom Stephen Strasburg made the Pirates look like a bunch of high school kids in his Major League debut, the Pirates promoted pitcher Brad Lincoln and left-fielder Jose Tabata to the big club. It was the right time for both of them, and seeing as how they're two of our top prospects, it's about damned time. But where is Alvarez? Shouldn't he be playing third base instead of Andy LaRoche? Neal Huntington will tell you that Alvarez just isn't quite ready yet. He needs to hit lefties better or be more patient or some such excuse. Remember, Huntington wouldn't promote Neil Walker because Walker was supposedly a malcontent at AAA Indianapolis (something that not one person believed).

Tonight, Lincoln and Tabata are making their PNC Park debuts. Imagine the walk-up the Pirates would have gotten if Alvarez had been making his Major League debut tonight, which would have been significant because the Pirates normally can't draw above 10,000 fans on your average Tuesday night. Sure, it wouldn't have gotten the kind of overwhelming media attention that Steven Strasburg got for his debut, but I can guarantee you that it would have gotten the Bucs some exposure on SportsCenter and the MLB Network. But, no, Alvarez will be in Wilkes-Barre tonight still playing in the minor leagues. What a missed opportunity, but I'm not surprised.

Speaking of not surprised, no one on the Pirates should have been surprised by how poorly Ryan Doumit played first base over the weekend. He pretty much blew Saturday night's game when he couldn't catch Evan Meek's low throw that would have ended the 8th inning and should have fielded a pick off throw earlier that put a runner at second for the Tigers. What I don't get is why John Russell just didn't put Doumit at DH instead of Garrett Jones. Jones isn't the second coming of Keith Hernandez defensively, but he's tons better at first base than Doumit. For that matter, why was Ryan Church even in the line-up? Why not Delwyn Young?

I realize that the Pirates have very, very few actual Major League players on their 25 man roster, but that's no excuse for some of the line-ups JR has posted lately. At least Aki Iwamura is relegated to the bench, but that also means he's an option for pinch hitting. I have a feeling that once Alvarez is finally promoted that Aki will be on a one way flight back to Japan. Let some other team deal with him and his below .200 average. What a total waste of a trade, one of the many that Huntington has made since he became GM.

I know a lot of people are calling for JR and Neil to get the boot, and I can't say that I'd blame the Pirates if they axed the both of them. At the same time, I'm not sure what good it would do so long as Bob Nutting refuses to spend any money on the big league team. If Bob Nutting isn't the worst owner in sports, he's definitely right up there.

Well, at least Andrew McCutchen has been as advertised, though he was drafted by the previous regime, and Garrett Jones has been a pleasant surprise, even though he was picked up by the Pirates last year as a favor to JR. Of course, that means that the Pirates two best players have little, if anything to do with the GM's ability to recognize talent.

Well, sucker that I am, I'll be going to both games against the Indians this weekend. What can I say? I still like baseball, inept Pirates be damned.



Thursday, June 3, 2010

Random Stuff

Yes, it's another notes blog. As seems to be the case with me, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. So is the case with me and this blog. I really did have the best intentions of updating it a bit more regularly, but something often keeps me from doing it. Perhaps if I don't plan on updating it regularly, I'll do so more often. Reverse psychology on myself? Why not?

Anyway, there's a lot to get to, so I'll start with... Big Ben.

- Yes, Big Ben is back at practice after Pope Roger allowed Ben to play with his little friends again. Look, you all know my feelings on Ben, but at the same time, he did exactly what the Commish asked him to, and he should have been allowed to practice sooner than this week. That all said, by all accounts, Ben has actually lost some weight (gasp!). My uninformed theory? As part of his rehabilitation (read: punishment), Ben has to lay off the beer and booze. And since he's on the wagon and actually, y'know, working out, much of the weight he's put on has suddenly gone away. Ben's never going to have Troy Polamalu's physique, but I do think losing a few pounds might actually help him avoid those rushing linebackers he's had trouble running away from lately. Am I implying that Ben was fat and lazy last season? Bet your ass I am.

Do I think he's 100% serious and sincere with everything he's done and is going to be doing going forward? Well, that's hard to say. He's pretty much hit rock bottom, so maybe the suspension was the wake-up call he needed. Then again, I wonder if anything will get through his thick skull. Remember, this is the guy who survived a horrific motorcycle accident (a life changing event to be sure) and kept right on with his reckless behavior. I'm willing to give Ben the benefit of the doubt, but this is the last time for me.

- Moving on to more mundane topics, I bought a bike last week and rode it in earnest for the first time today (Summer of Me experience). While riding said bike, I discovered something - I am so incredibly and woefully out of shape that it's a wonder I'm able to walk from the living room to the kitchen without getting winded. Oh. My. God. I might have ridden the bike for a good 10 minutes (15 tops) before I had to slowly make my way home, feeling like I'd just competed in a triathlon. Kids, this is what happens when the most physical activity you've had in 3 years is 9 holes of golf the Saturday before Memorial Day (this Memorial Day). On the positive side, at least I got out there and rode the darned thing. Baby steps...

- The first season of WWE NXT ended on Tuesday with Wade Barrett winning the competition. After Daniel Bryan was eliminated, it was pretty obvious that Barrett was going to win. And that's fine by me. He has the best overall package - good size, decent in-ring skills, pretty good on the mic and a unique look. I expect Barrett will be in the hunt for either heavyweight title within a year. Thank goodness David Otunga didn't win. The guy may have a good look (though I'll gladly debate that), but he's not only not that good on the mic, he's a terrible wrestler. Of the 8 wrestlers in the competition, he was definitely among the bottom 3 in terms of in-ring ability. I'm sure he'll be kept around because he's married to Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, but I really hope he gets some more seasoning before being brought up to RAW or Smackdown full time.

As for Daniel Bryan, he's proven the old axiom that you don't have to have a title (or win NXT in this case) to be over. I fully expect that new RAW GM Bret Hart will announce that he's signed Bryan to a contract in the coming weeks so Bryan can continue his feuds with Michael Cole and the Miz. It's hard to believe that Michael Cole is suddenly relevant, but his feud with Bryan has been the best thing on WWE TV for weeks now. I only hope this doesn't lead to Cole actually stepping into the ring because that's something no one needs to see. I could see the Miz asking for a rematch with Bryan to prove that Bryan's victory on Monday's RAW was nothing but a fluke. Or maybe, Hart will announce that if Bryan beats Miz again, Bryan gets a contract to wrestle on RAW. That's just me fantasy booking, but I'll be shocked if this is the last we see of Daniel Bryan.

- Season 2 of NXT starts this coming Tuesday, and it features a pair of third generation wrestlers: Husky Harris, who is the son of Mike "IRS" Rotunda and the grandson of Blackjack Mulligan and Michael McGillicutty, who is the son of Mr. Perfect Curt Hennig and the grandson of Larry "The Axe" Hennig. Now, you may be wondering why the WWE in its infinite wisdom has decided to saddle these two young men with some of the worst ring names ever. I mean, they didn't change the names of Randy Orton or Ted Dibiase or Cody Rhodes so why change the names of Windham Rotunda and Joe Hennig? Well, I think it has something to do with having a name that they can trademark, but it really doesn't make a lick of sense to me, especially after they acknowledged each wrestler's family ties while introducing them on Tuesday night's show. Then again, what do I know? I'm using logic and common sense, and we all know how rarely WWE displays either.

I don't know much about the 8 competitors except for Kaval, who some of you may know as Low-Ki (as he was called on the indy circuit) or Senshi (as he was known in TNA). Do yourself a favor, go over to YouTube and look for Low-Ki matches. I guarantee you that you'll be blown away. His combination of stiff kicks, amazingly athleticism and a move set that rivals Daniel Bryan has made him a star on the indy circuit. I hope that his size won't be a deterrent because this guy is the real deal. Of course, he's been paired with Team Lay-Cool (Layla and Michelle McCool), so I wonder where that's going to go. Anyway, I'll be back next week with a more in depth look at season 2 of NXT.

- So how many of you out there either saw or have seen the controversial ending of last night's Tigers/Indians game? If you haven't seen it by now, you've probably been living under a rock, but here's what happened in a nutshell: Armando Galarraga of the Tigers was one out away from the third perfect game in the last month in MLB. He got the 27th batter to ground to first baseman Miguel Cabrera. Galarraga hustled over to first and beat the batter to the bag by about a half step. First base umpire Jim Joyce called the runner safe (replays showed that the play wasn't even that close) and has set off a firestorm of debate over the past 24 hours about whether or not baseball needs an instant replay system and if Commissioner Bud Selig should overturn the blown call and give Galarraga the perfect game he deserves. I think every sports talk show from coast-to-coast has debated the issues, so I figure I'll weigh in, too.

First of all, Selig should absolutely change the decision and give Galarraga the perfect game. MLB took away Harvey Haddix's 12 inning perfect game and added an RBI to Hack Wilson's RBI record after the fact, so why not do the sensible thing this one time only and change the call. Hell, if you want to put an asterisk next to it in the record book, go ahead, but just do it. It's not going to hurt anyone.

Secondly, Joyce showed some major class by admitting that he blew the call and then apologizing to Galarraga, Jim Leyland and the Tigers organization. I guarantee you that most umps would not have done such a thing, and I have great respect for Joyce because of this. So, those of you out there who threatened the guys family need to get a fraking life. Geez. It's only a baseball game.

Finally, baseball absolutely needs instant replay for all plays that don't involve balls and strikes. My idea? Each manager gets one (and only one) challenge a game. If the manager doesn't use his challenge in a given game, then he loses it. The challenges do not roll over. This will force the manager to use his challenge only in a situation that he thinks will affect the outcome of the game and not challenge a close play at first in the third inning of a 6-1 game. Every other major sports league uses instant replay, so why not MLB? Heck, last night's Stanley Cup Final game had 2 goals that were changed by replay. Yes, the system (whatever they decide to do) will have inevitably have kinks in the beginning, but I really think it's time baseball stepped into the 21st century and make instant replay a part of the game.

- The Pirates finally made a decision that actually makes sense when they named Neil Walker the full time second baseman and sat Aki "How do you say 'Mendoza Line' in Japanese?" Iwamura on the bench (where he belongs). I'm not saying that Walker is the second coming of Ryne Sandberg, but he's got to be an improvement over Iwamura. Now if the brass will finally promote Jose Tabata, Brad Lincoln and Pedro Alvarez, then maybe, just maybe, the Pirates will actually be watchable. Time will tell. I'm skeptical. Of course, I'm skeptical of everything the Pirates say or do, so you'll have that.

- I close on a sad note, offering a heartfelt rest in peace to 80s TV legends Rue McClanahan (of Golden Girls fame) and Gary Coleman (Arnold on Diff'rent Strokes) and acting legend Dennis Hopper (too many credits to mention) all of whom passed away over the past week.