Dragon Gate USA
Reviewed by Joe Babinsack
These days, it’s hard to find a positive note about pro wrestling. This weekend, the UFC schooled wrestling promoters on building to big fights, letting talent shine and mixing up expectations.
But the amount of booing and boredom expressed by fans in Houston, when watching UFC 136, makes the fans in attendance in Atlanta, a few months back, seem incredibly passionate, informative and momentous.
Pro wrestling fans, at least at the indy level, are in it for the talent on display in the ring. And Dragon Gate USA let’s that talent shine like few other promotions in the business.
In a few years, the American division of Dragon Gate has transformed itself. Not that it has disengaged from expectations of faster than modern speed action, innovation based on Lucha Libre fundamentals (translated back from the Japanese), or unquestionably dedicated craftsmen in the ring. But what DG USA brings to the table, deep in 2011, is a roster no longer dependent upon Japanese names to headline, drive expectations and maintain the momentum.
Mercury Rising took place the weekend of WrestleMania, but Dragon Gate has its own legacy of greatness, foremost of which is a tradition of putting on six man tag matches that makes the rest of the industry look like its moving in slow motion.
Or, to be snide, like a bad UFC match.
But with this installment from Atlanta, a significant change sprung up. No longer is the match comprised of all Japanese talent. And sure, there have been names among past performers who could hang with the best of the home roster, but Mercury Rising turned the tables. Four of the six men involved in this action are not Japanese wrestlers.
But let’s get to that action a little later.
Dragon Gate USA is no longer a new promotion. It doesn’t have the legacy of Ring of Honor, TNA or even high level indy promotions like PWG, AAW, AIW or the IWC, but it does maintain the traditions established in Japan by the core roster, and much of that core roster appears in the States.
With Dragon Gate USA, the expectations are of excellent action in the ring – and sometimes out of it. At Mercury Rising 2011, that momentum was maintained. Over the past few DVDs, DG USA brought out more of a violent style, but that diversion seems to be mostly played out.
Not that Jon Moxley hasn’t established himself as an unpredictably violent fellow, but Moxley is headed to WWE developmental. (Where, by the way, he’ll have that notion drummed out of his devious head.)
What I greatly appreciate with Dragon Gate is a move to spotlighting American Indy talent, allowing that talent to grow, develop and shine, and with Mercury Rising, the exclamation point was struck with several matches and angles.
Entertainingly enough, DG USA is mixing in some storylines, drawing out characters, raising the prominence of guys like Sami Callihan and Arik Cannon, and has even brought Stalker Ichikawa from across the Pacific.
Cult favorite wrestlers, setting up jobbers for expected beat-downs, and a cutting edge style intertwined with introducing various talents from across the world. Seems like Gabe Sapolsky is getting back to his ECW/Philadelphia roots, and, well, no one else does that these days, so why not lean on nostalgia?
Especially when it’s done so well.
Let’s look at the matches:
John Moxley (w/Trina Michaels) vs Arik Cannon
Moxley seems like the modern day version of Tommy Dreamer, albeit a definitive heel, with his violent prone attitude, his misogyny and his small flock of followers. Hmmm, maybe calling him a cross between Dreamer and Raven is more appropriate.
Arik Cannon is punk personified, a beefy, never-say-die veteran with a powerful punch and a hard-hitting style.
I get the match for establishing Cannon as a guy who gives it his all. Then the match becomes a backdrop for featuring Trina Michaels and Reby Sky. It’s not bad, but there’s already another gal in the action (I guess covering the bases for cat-fighting) and that just makes it crazy to have Reby Sky challenging overwhelming odds, no matter how she looks in that outfit.
Lenny Leonard and Chikarason just don’t scream “Catfight!” like Joey Styles, but that’s the only weakness of that announce crew.
Elimination Match: Brodie Lee vs Jimmy Jacobs vs Silas Young vs AR Fox vs Jon Davis vs Hollywood Stalker Ichikawa
What’s awesome about this match is that almost every guy got a chance to be introduced, show their stuff, and it made sense. This wasn’t quite the typical ‘over-the-top’ craziness of the Indy scene, as much as spots that showcased Brodie Lee’s size, Jon Davis’ power, AR Fox’s flying, Ichikawa’s cult personality, Young’s versatility and … if you weren’t paying attention enough to it, the long term storyline of Jimmy Jacobs and his quest for gold.
Masato Yoshino vs Sami Callihan
Yoshino is the Open the Dream Gate Champion at this time. On one hand, the Open the Dream Gate is the biggest belt of the home company. On the other hand, there are already two belts being defended in the DG USA branch, so more belts isn’t exactly a positive.
It’s hard to complain about it, but the other problem is that why the biggest belt on the card is fourth from the top?
Yet the storyline is intriguing.
Yoshino is the ultra-fast, super-talented Champion and Sami Callihan takes it to him. Callihan puts on an effort here, an effort that wouldn’t be appreciated by fans less understanding of the sport. And Callihan’s response is keenly interesting as well. Perhaps a bit overdone, but it plays out a little later.
Well, the little later is after the first half of the show. I like the concept of breaking up an event into halves, and I would love it more if more wrestling promotions started structuring the cards a little differently, making more of a show out of it. By the way, I also appreciated that this DVD didn’t seem to have too many matches.
Danny Steel & CHARADE vs The Sin City Saints
I was about to mention that there were no tag team matches, and apparently there was one scheduled.
Getting back to the positives: the sense that DG USA has try-outs before the event, and elevates some of those participants is a great idea. Maybe once they should do one of those matches, instead of interrupting it.
But that’s a charm ECW had with that guy called “911”, before those numbers became more associated with terrorism than a relatively giant guy who’s choke-slam rocked Philadelphia on a regular basis.
The fun used to be figuring out how to get that spot in. Now, DG USA is pulling out the try-out guys and having them stomped on. Once it was Brodie Lee, and here, it’s Sami Callihan.
I thought the jobbers oversold it a tad, but it was an interesting twist in elevating a guy from lower mid-card. And Arik Cannon getting into the confrontational mode put some more depth into it, although I would have enjoyed it more if this played out over time.
But I am definitely interested in this grouping.
Open the Brave Gate Title Match
PAC vs Akira Tozawa
What can be said about PAC?
This guy has to be seen to be believed. He’s a top notch high-flyer, built solid like a middle linebacker and not like the typical flyer in this company (Ricochet, Swann, Fox). PAC just exudes fire and strength and a daredevil approach, and he seems to work beyond the level of those other flyers.
No wonder he’s got his own belt.
And his opponent, Akira Tozawa, is definitely being groomed for bigger things. The two put on an eye-opening display that launches the upper portion of the card. From the dives to the innovation, from the speed on display to the power moves involved, these guys are the future of Dragon Gate.
Which is hard to define, since Dragon Gate is a generation ahead of its competitors, so I invite the reader to buy this DVD and see what I’m talking about.
Open the Freedom Gate Title Match
YAMATO vs Austin Aries
If someone were to ask me, what should an Indy level Championship match look like, I’d point to this match. From the build to the announcing, from the expectations of Champion and Challenger to the delivery in the ring, this is what a Championship should be about.
Aries is in a position where he transitioned from being the #1 free agent on the indy scene, to signing up with TNA, where he’s showing the world what talent is all about, even though we all fear where he’ll be in another year with those idiots.
Er, excuse me.
But YAMATO is a Champion of Champions, from his dismissal of Jon Moxley at ringside to his viciousness in the ring, to his successful defense of DG USA’s big belt.
If other promotions could capture the grandeur of this match, and establish challengers – especially if they are just moving in for a series or two, then move on – well, that’s what I think pro wrestling is all about.
That, plus having guys deliver in the ring at the level of YAMATO and Aries.
CIMA, Naruki Doi & Ricochet vs Johnny Gargano, Chuck Taylor & Rich Swann
In a six-man matchup that carries forth the tradition of excellence of Dragon Gate, the two Japanese wrestlers in the match aren’t exactly there to be the glue that keeps it together. They’re just 1/3 of the talent in the ring.
That’s what Dragon Gate USA has brought to the style: they have raised the bar of expectations, using home grown talent, and at this point, it’s hard to pinpoint the difference in talent, intensity and creativity between two legends like CIMA & Naruki Doi, and the upstart RONIN faction of Gargano, Taylor & Swann.
And let’s not forget Ricochet.
The whole factional warfare aspect of Dragon Gate fascinates me. I’ve always loved the factions, and from the House of Humperdinck to Degeneration X, the aspect of having a uniform heel (and not heel) association is the way to create storylines, instead of just throwing names out there every show.
Sure, when factions grow too big, or become stale because they’re the same guys every time, it gets old. But if you aren’t paying close attention to Dragon Gate, you will miss the dynamics of the factions ebbing and flowing, shifting and changing, the internal power struggles and the unexpected/expected turns and reshuffling.
Sometimes this isn’t going to play well in DG USA, but we’ve got a couple of Lennies capably handling the explaining part, and exposing the nuances and the attitudes.
Last time most of us saw CIMA, he was the happy face of a faction that did that crazy double-arm-lift fan participation grunt.
Now, the Blood Warriors are giving a particularly vulgar variant of Stone Cold gesturing.
And the crowd is eating it up!
But despite the distractions, storylines and post match run-ins (that I’m mostly ignoring because I’m already too deep into this), the match itself is the star of the show. Well, that plus the action and elevation of Chucky T, Johnny G and R-Swann, who have taken it to the Japanese Talent establishment, and have proven that they can more than just keep up with them.
I’m already at the point where describing the action in the ring pales in comparison to the actual action in the ring, so all I can do is appeal to the reader to buy Mercury Rising 2011 and enjoy it from start to finish.