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    Thursday, March 22, 2018

    Art of War Wrestling Genesis: The Official Smark Henry Review



    All hail the king.

    With the formal debut of Art of War Wrestling—the third active pro wrestling promotion in the Philippines—the greatness of "Classical" Bryan Leo has finally returned to the ring after a year-and-a-half absence. And not just that, he's become the first man to hold championship gold in two local promotions, not to mention the first three-time heavyweight champion of the modern age.

    But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Genesis, which was held at the posh Valkyrie Night Club in Bonifacio Global City, Taguig, was a promising maiden show for a company that's been talking smack about both their other competitors since day one. For all its flaws, it showed off an ambition and bravado that sets it apart in the scene.

    Let's digest the pieces one by one, Warriors!


    What We Liked


    He Hails From A First World Country



    Not gonna lie, it felt good to see "Classical" Bryan Leo finally back in the ring after a tough personal stretch that's made him possibly the most controversial, divisive talent in the industry. Whether you love him or hate him, he's proven he's unbreakable. Hats off.

    His many haters will call his shtick lazy and uninspired—it's the exact same thing he used to do in his early career, down to the catchphrases, attire, and talkpoints—but the truth is, he doesn't need to change things up. The man is naturally charismatic and magnetic, and a gifted heat magnet who had no problem turning the entire Valkyrie crowd against him in a blazing two-minute promo accusing everyone of being the sons and daughters of pokpoks and jeepney drivers, while likewise establishing his main event foe, Pete "The Nuke" Baldo, as a fearsome, explosive babyface anybody can get behind. His chains and counters were as crisp as ever—we loved his arm-wringer into a Pelé kick, for instance—and his in-ring facials are among the best in the game.

    Nuke, on the other hand, may still be raw and unpolished, but he's got a massive upside. His arsenal of high-powered moves like snap powerslams, spinebusters, and short-arm clotheslines had Bryan Leo reeling and the crowd electric. Time and again, Leo tried to tie him up in knots, only for Baldo to bust out a power move to stymie the Classical One's best efforts—pretty much the narrative of their whole match.

    Unfortunately, Nuke's chaotic power ended up as his undoing. A misguided Irish whip to Leo outside the ring ended up with an older gentleman from the audience splattered all over the floor—a man who, it turned out, was former URCC Heavyweight Champion Tiger Pajaro, also a member of AOW's executive board. Back in the ring, Nuke seemed to have the match and championship sewn up after blasting the First World Man with a massive spear, only for Pajaro to enter the ring and break the pin. This left a confused Nuke open to a monster Royal Flushdown from a revitalized Leo. One three-count later, and Art of War had its inaugural champ.

    Critics may have called out Bryan Leo's championship win as both tainted and anticlimactic, and they're not entirely wrong. We do wish the impromptu introduction of the Art of War Wrestling Heavyweight Championship could have been crafted with more of a dramatic build-up, and that a less convoluted ending could have been written for the match itself. But hell, gold is gold. What matters is that right out of the gate, a target has been set for the whole AOW roster to chase in the months to come. Leo hasn't lost a step in the ring, doughy physique notwithstanding, and Nuke has established himself as a talent any promotion would be glad to have on his roster.

    Give these men more time and a better match structure, and they're entirely capable of blowing the roof off.

    Winner AND NEW AOW CHAMPION: "Classical" Bryan Leo via pinfall

    The (High) Proof Is In The Pudding; 730 Tempest Is Pretty Great



    Speaking of talents with great upside, we need to point out how solid AOW's tag team scene is. The high-octane opener between the rugged RazaeL and the smashmouth Uno Salvador of High Proof, and the agile, dynamic pairing of Zera and Ace Clark under the name 730 Tempest was absolutely the right way to kick off the Art of War era.

    RazaeL has an easy-going tough guy swagger that combines the best of every backstreet goon character in Philippine cinema with the garbage-style brawling of original-era ECW. He connects well with the crowd, with great mannerisms that sold who he was as a character. Salvador, on the other hand, is a legit mountain of muscle with the compact power of a Batista or Brock Lesnar. His mobility was remarkable as well, with a massive Yakuza Kick that nearly decapited the smaller Ace Clark. Count us in as OG fans.

    But if anyone stole the match, it would have to be the acrobatic Zera. His Tetsuya Bushi-inspired styling was pretty cool, if unoriginal, while his array of aerial moves had the crowd popping with awe. His moveset isn't the most unique either; an offensive flurry consisting of a 619 attempt, a top-rope seated senton, a wheelbarrow facebuster, and a flying splash was clearly cribbed from a Rey Mysterio greatest hits playlist.

    But you know what? It was all fun to watch. If anyone on the roster was crippled most by the shoddy ring set-up—more on this later—it was him. His botched 619 due to the loose ropes was cringe-inducing. But the dude adapted, and we have to say we're looking forward to more of him in the future. We just hope he gets a sense of who he really is. It would be a shame if all he'll be remembered as is as a generic luchador rip-off.

    Ace Clark didn't get too much time to shine, but he did get to nail the glory of the finish after knocking RazaeL out with a Shining Wizard.

    Winners: 730 Tempest via pinfall

    Welcome to Bang Bang Alley




    You wanna see Kanto Terror done right? Check out AOW's brooding basagulero, The Hybrid, from Bang Bang Alley, Cubao. Partnered with the brash bombshell Rogue, who claims to be the "true" Queen of Philippine Wrestling, they're an intriguing couple with some fun chemistry who could run some nice storylines just based on their force of personality alone.

    Hybrid is no technical wizard, but he's a convincing slugger whose variety of chops, punches, and powerslams had his opponent, "The GodKiller" Dabid Ravena, on his heels almost from the get-go. A nice release German suplex had the crowd chanting "Suplex City!" and the value of Rogue as his partner became apparent as she physically assaulted a battered Ravena whenever the referee was distracted.

    Now let's talk about the GodKiller.

    He's a man who had the fortunate (or unfortunate) distinction of being the first talent featured in AOW's promo video, setting the tone for the rest of the promotion. To be honest, we weren't sure how to respond to him; his character profile on the company's Facebook page suggested he'd be a typical snobbish "born with a silver spoon in his mouth" blue-blood, but his in-ring carriage suggested he was more of a likeable good guy. We do like him, but think he needs to tighten his fundamentals and conditioning. His athleticism is undeniable, especially with an early surprise jackknife pin that nearly got the win, but his comeback sequence involving a Triple H-style facebuster, a couple of lariats, and a tired Three Amigos rolling suplex combo showed the guy's gas tank was running on fumes. The ring shape will come, but the potential is there, at least.


    By all rights, Ravena should have taken the decisive pinfall win after dodging a charging Knee Trembler attempt by Hybrid and countering it into a high-angle twisting Samoan Drop he's dubbed "Godfall," only for Rogue to storm the ring and take out the ref, leading to a DQ loss for her ward. An impressive Samoan drop of her own on the larger Ravena had the crowd jeering, and allowed Hybrid to come in with a man-sized steel chairshot to the GodKiller.

    Winner: Dabid Ravena via disqualification

    Catfight City



    But this is where things got interesting.

    Rogue snatched the mic away for herself, declaring both herself and Hybrid as the absolute best Philippine wrestling has to offer, and demanding for someone brave enough to get down to the ring and face off with her.

    Enter Project Z: a seemingly innocent mermaid-haired lass in a frilly dress and a cat headband who wanted nothing more than a handshake from Rogue. Unfortunately, all she got was a slap, which led her snapping and disrobing to her fight gear: a black lingerie-inspired outfit that had the boys in the audience hooting with approval. A leaping neckbreaker took Rogue off her feet, leading to an intense catfight. We're looking forward to what the future brings in resolving the tension between these two women.

    Big Baller, Shot Caller


    Calling it now: Art of War's CEO Brian Finigan is the most likeable authority figure in the local pro wrestling scene.

    Unlike the prissy, uptight Mr. Sy of PWR, or the loose, languid Commissioner Mike Shannon of MWF, Finigan carries himself with a cool swagger that makes him both relatable to the average audience member, while still carrying the gravitas to call the shots over the rest of the roster. The chants of "Shane-O-Mac!" that filled the air were well-deserved, and he set himself up nicely as a proper foil for "Classical" Bryan Leo.

    Half-Machine, Half-Monster



    Say what you want about the gargantuan Machine, but he's got a unique, impressive look that easily had the crowd in the palm of his hand throughout his abbreviated squash of "Flex" Rex Go, who ironically didn't look like he's done much flexing at all in his life.

    A quick Knightmare Slam was all it took for Machine to get his win, but what was truly entertaining was seeing the run-in ambush attempt by a gangly, awkward jabroni named Cherry Gerry whose 15 seconds of fame consisted solely of getting splattered on the mat with a vicious standing chokeslam, and polished off with a humiliating bitchslap.


    What We Didn't Like


    The Night's Ultimate Kontrabida: The Ring


    We get it. A proper pro wrestling ring is expensive as hell to make. Every other pro wrestling promotion in the country has had to go through a painful year in the rickety old Makati Square Arena boxing ring for their first few shows as a sort of rite of passage. But the ring that served as the Genesis battleground was truly awful. When the company's own CEO has to justify in his introductory promo the quality of the ring as a donation from the company's sister mixed martial arts promotion URCC, that's never a good sign.

    The ropes were painfully loose and saggy, making it a hold-your-breath moment any time anyone tried to run the ropes, and contributed to quite a few misses, including the aforementioned 619 attempt by Zera, and a near-disastrous bottom-rope wipeout by Cherry Gerry. The canvas itself was uneven all over the place; we're just glad nobody sprained an ankle just navigating that minefield of a surface.

    It's a shame that a company that had gone to all the pains of hosting their debut show in a world-class entertainment complex like Valkyrie had to settle for hand-me-down ring, especially with both PWR and MWF now rocking some true professional rings for their own shows. We're sure a better one is forthcoming as soon as the company starts to make some real coin, but for now, it's the biggest black eye on the show.

    What A Rush



    Here's another reason to hate on the ring. The backstage buzz is that the ring crew arrived at the venue at 4 PM, which is what led to the nearly two-hour delay before the doors opened. What makes it worse is that Art of War only actually had the venue apparently booked until 9 PM or so, which forced several matches to rush straight to unsatisfying finishes.

    On the one hand, it was a refreshing change of pace to know a wrestling show could be experienced in a tight two hours, rather than the four-hour slog you normally get from the other company's shows. But on the other hand, it left so many of the roster shortchanged—which sucks if you've been training ten months for your ring debut.

    Case in point: the enigmatic Silent D, who came to the ring accompanied by the manic cackling Oni, with a shared mission of "making the world a happy place." His intergender match against Starling was basically a two-minute bust, with a cross armbreaker practically the only true offense he got in. Starling took the duke with a single spinebuster. This led to Oni announcing that Starling's true challenger was, in fact, a hulking woman in black named Jiara Frost, who ended up destroying Starling in a short and snappy catfight.


    This was no five-star classic due to both first-night jitters and the overall pace of the show; Starling in particular seemed a bit tentative on both a monkeyflip attempt and her finishing spinebuster. But who are we to talk smack about anyone who's actually invested the time, sweat, and effort in actually becoming a pro wrestler instead of a keyboard warrior like us? We're sure everyone involved will improve with time.

    Winner: Starling via pinfall


    Rejected




    In theory, we truly dig The Society Rejects John McQueen and Brandon Ward. Hailing from the Red Light District and matching garish yellow bodysuits, they've got fuccboi painted all over them. We're just not sure if pairing them up against Desolation, the team of "The Filipino Dragon" Ali Mina and "The Asian Nightmare" Ken Cifer was the right call.

    Don't get us wrong, both teams tried hard. The Rejects were appropriately cocky, blowing kisses to Desolation's manager Ava Lord, and pulling off multiple ref distractions to keep throwing Desolation off from their groove. Some nice crisp chains and headlock takeovers were on display, but there were enough mishaps as well to distract from these fundamentals. A couple of attempted double-teams went nowhere, while the guys seemed lost in the ring at times.

    Again, time will take care of problems like these. We think all four men were promising, especially the Rejects, who took home their maiden victory with a thudding Snapmare Driver, and Cifer, who has a quiet intensity to him despite his short, stocky build.

    We'll give these guys space to grow. We're convinced they all have it in them.

    Winners: Society Rejects via pinfall


    Can't We All Just Get Along?


    This needs to be said: all the mud-slinging going on between the three local Filipino federations has got to stop. When it happens online in isolated, individual cases, it's easy to ignore. But for a company to take the approach Art of War has, which is to throw shade at the two other more mature companies as the heart of the main promos in their first-ever show, is needlessly ugly and divisive. Hearing The Machine call out the wrestlers in attendance from the other promotions was legitimately awkward, and probably took down the fun level by a couple of notches, while Bryan Leo's snide digs at PWR for lacking "real athletes" were a bit of a buzzkill.

    This doesn't mean we don't get it. It's marketing, after all. But after hearing fans speak up in various online communities about how the scene doesn't need to get any more fractured than it already is, and that it's getting to be wearisome and a massive turn-off, Art of War may want to reconsider their scorched earth approach to making a mark. If anything, the public is hoping for unified mega-shows rather than turf wars and cliched "invasions." It's up to Finigan, Leo, Machine, and company to decide how they want to tackle this.

    Will all three companies have it in them to be proverbial bigger man in this brewing turf war? Frankly, we don't know. The Manila Wrestling Federation put on a nice, statesmanly gesture in showing up in full force to support the new kids in town with their whole roster in tow. The Philippine Wrestling Revolution sent a smaller, more modest contingent, but that's understandable, given the tensions between key personalities in their respective management.

    All these potshots were fun at the start, but a scene as young and raw as ours truly doesn't need any more fragmentation.

    Conclusion



    Genesis was announced with massive bravura behind it. The obvious question was whether the boys and girls of Art of War could live up to their smack-talking and lofty promises.

    As a whole, we think they pretty much hit the mark in showing off some #LEGIT athletes and trained fighters in a pro wrestling environment, while making the best use of "Classical" Bryan Leo as their centerpiece talent. DJ Dash Calzado was marvelous in his role as hype guy throughout the whole evening, keeping the crowd energized and engaged with his banter—think of him as more of an MC than a classic ring announcer in the mold of PWR's Poch Estrada. It's amazing how they pulled together a crowd of 400 for their debut. The splashy venue seriously rocked, giving a unique fan experience for anyone who's gotten used to the "black box" venues favored by both PWR and MWF lately. My wife and I both agree this is the most overall fun we've had at a wrestling show in ages.

    Did it make history? Probably not. The ring sucked. Some matches felt rushed. Rookie nerves were on display. But as they say, when you aim for the moon and miss, you still may end up hitting a star. And the company is brimming with great potential new stars in the forms of RazaeL, Pete Baldo, Uno Salvador, Zera, Hybrid, and Rogue, and we'll be genuinely invested in seeing how Year One unfolds.

    We can't avoid the rumors as well of former ECW Original Chilly Willy—who trained the whole roster free of charge the last ten months—walking out on the company over an alleged business disagreement; what kind of implications will this have on the continued in-ring development of their scrappy, energetic crew? We don't know, but we hope management can keep the ship steady over their first few sure-to-be-chaotic months.

    Solid B- from us for this worthy debut. We are most definitely fans.

    Post-Show Awards


    Star of the Night: Pete "The Nuke" Baldo
    Match of the Night: High Proof (RazaeL & Uno Salvador) vs. 730 Tempest (Zera & Ace Clark)
    Moment of the Night: The Machine turning Cherry Gerry into a grease spot

    *****

    What did you think of Art of War Wrestling's debut show, mga ka-smarkada? Did anyone in particular impress you? Are you as big a fan of Nuke, High Proof, and Zera as we are, or did you think someone else was a bigger stand-out? And be honest with us: what did you think of that ring?

    Let us know your thoughts, and we'll see you at the next show.

    *****

    Disclosure: Smark Henry is independently run and managed by a group of Filipino wrestling fans, but includes members affiliated with the Philippine Wrestling Revolution.

    Photos are taken by and property of the legendary LeAnne Jazul of Rappler.
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    Item Reviewed: Art of War Wrestling Genesis: The Official Smark Henry Review Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Unknown
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