As of this writing, we’re fresh from the finish of Bragging Rights, the latest PPV in WWE’s overcrowded schedule. A lot of the event centered around Wade Barrett holding John Cena in his thrall against his will. It’s another chapter in what’s been a really good run for Barrett’s short-termed WWE legacy. I thought the show NXT was a fantastic concept, followed by an interesting second season (as long as you ignore the trainwreck final episode) and a hilarious self-aware third season where the commentators are open to how awful the show is. The Nexus storyline has been top-notch outside of random unfortunate instances that you can’t blame on the writing. Injuries, stupid firings, temporary deportation and even the stupid ending of Summerslam was improvised from time restraints.
Now it’s in an entertaining stage where John Cena is forced to follow orders from Wade Barrett or get fired. Wade has been demeaning him on a weekly basis, but it’s showing more ripples than just Barrett vs. Cena. Wade has been alienating himself from his Nexus peers by focusing far more on himself than the team. Cena is beginning to raise the ire of his friends in the locker room because he’d rather attack them based on Wade’s orders than be a jobless millionaire. A lot of it is borrowed from the Shawn Michaels/JBL storyline from a couple years ago, but it’s stronger here. For one, the villain is a man in his first year in the company, rising up and only getting better, as opposed to being a dude long past his prime like JBL.
But there was another “forced lackey” storyline this kept making me think of and the more I look back on it, the more I realize it was one of my all-time favorite wrestling storylines. When I think of my favorite angles, I think of things like Jake “The Snake” Roberts vs. Rick “The Model” Martel or Ric Flair vs. Mr. Perfect or “Stone Cold” Steve Austin vs. The Rock (and by that I mean joining all their different feuds into one overarching story). The one in question isn’t even a WWE story, WCW, TNA or even ECW. No, it’s from the wonderful world of CHIKARA.
Since CHIKARA is far from mainstream, I thought I’d take some time to go over the angle for the uninformed.
Readers might recall that CHIKARA is my indy wrestling fed of choice. I’ve talked about CHIKARA a lot here and I’ve stated the wackiness of the product, but it isn’t completely dependent on it. Sure, they have storylines like a wrestling knight whose tag team partner is a younger version of himself pulled out of the timeline and they end up feuding and have a match where the loser is thrown in a time machine. They would have a tag team named 2.0 change their gimmicks and become the Badd Boyz, leading to a Badd Boyz vs. 2.0 match where the Boyz win by count-out due to 2.0 not showing up. There was a time when two wrestlers had a no-time-limit falls-count-anywhere match that went outside until the cameraman lost track of it and it continued to the next night’s show at another venue where there was finally a winner (23 hours and 36 minutes, longest match ever). Not to mention the time a tag match took forever to start up because two of the guys were too busy having arguments about the Sega CD.
Thing is, not everything is goofy in CHIKARA and even when they are silly, the booking is really good. They like to build each year up as a season with a basic main storyline with enough of an ending during the finale that would lead to the next year’s big angle. Our storyline here is one that mainly takes place during the year of 2007, but with more than enough lead-up and aftermath. It focuses on this man, Claudio Castagnoli.
The 6’5″ Swiss powerhouse could be argued to be one of the best performers in the world. It’s still a complete wonder why he isn’t tearing things up in the WWE right now, considering he’s a total package. He’s got size, strength, speed, agility, good psychology, a good look and loads of charisma. As a heel, he’s an egotistical, bullying Swiss banker with more money than you. As a face, he’s the chillest dude you’ve ever met. I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
We start with these two guys, Mike Quackenbush and Chris Hero.
Quack is the guy behind CHIKARA and both he and Hero trained students at the CHIKARA Wrestlefactory at the time. During the beginning of 2005, they put together a multi-day tag tournament called Tag World Grand Prix. Quackenbush and Hero entered together as the Superfriends and made it to the finals against Claudio and his partner Arik Cannon, calling themselves AC/DC. Hero turned on Quack and joined the other two to start a trio called the Kings of Wrestling.
While logic might dictate an immediate Quackenbush vs. Hero match, it wouldn’t come. Hero ducked out of every offer out of fear and the two only interacted through tag matches. Over time, Cannon was kicked out of the stable, leaving it to Claudio and Hero as the Kings. This would lead to the 2006 Tag World Grand Prix where the Kings of Wrestling won the finals and earned their spot as the first ever Campeones de Parejas (fancy way of saying tag champs. I’ll just say tag champs from now on).
The Kings of Wrestling dominated the tag scene for the next year. Quackenbush, Hero and Claudio were all basically the top tier in CHIKARA, so it’s no surprise that such a team would be unstoppable. Over time, they took in a couple new members to their stable. Meet Icarus and Gran Akuma, also known as FIST.
In a unique little touch, we had a tag team with another tag team as their protégés. FIST lacked the size, experience and universal respect that their stablemates had going. Especially Icarus. Man, people do NOT like that dude.
I should mention that one doesn’t simply get a tag title shot for being in a feud with the champs or anything like that. There are rules in the company that state that a tag team needs to have three consecutive wins in order to gain a title shot. During the weekend of the 2006 season finale, there was a one-night tournament set up called Zero to Hero (and Castagnoli) where one of eight tag teams would earn their three wins in one go and have the title match the very next night.
Shockingly, FIST won. It was the mentors defending against the protégés. The match went 2-out-of-3 falls and ended with Gran Akuma pinning Claudio to win the titles. Prior to this, Hero and Claudio were holding multiple tag belts from throughout the indy scene and thanks to Claudio, they dropped every last one of them. This was because Claudio had been signed with the WWE! Hey, good for him!
This was also an excuse for Hero to command the new tag champs to put the boots to this loser. Soon the faces came out to save Claudio and Quackenbush gave him a touching farewell speech, ending with the crowd giving Claudio a standing ovation. A day later, the 2006 season of CHIKARA was at an end and it seemed like we had seen the last of Claudio.
Sad to say, his WWE career didn’t pan out. Due to budget cuts, they dropped him before he could do a single match under their banner. Ridiculous. To think that the company would put so much behind someone like Ricky Ortiz, yet Claudio got dropped without a fair shake.
In the beginning of 2007, CHIKARA did away with the Tag World Grand Prix and went a step above with the King of Trios. Sixteen teams of three would compete in a three-day tournament. Chris Hero wouldn’t take part due to being in Japan, so FIST inducted up-and-comer Chuck Taylor into the Kings of Wrestling. Meanwhile, the comedy team Los Ice Creams said that they’d be competing with a mystery partner to round out their trio.
The first round of the tournament featured the Order of the Neo Solar Temple (UltraMantis Black, Crossbones and Hydra) taking on the Los Ice Creams trio. El Hijo Del Ice Cream and Ice Cream Jr. were gimmies, but just who was this third member?
Known as A Very Mysterious Ice Cream, the 6’5″ well-dressed mystery man helped the team advance. Many jokes were had at the obviousness of his identity, including UltraMantis yelling to the ref that this man was guilty of “double-dipping”. They met FIST and Chuck Taylor in the second match, where the mysterious one left the gags behind, ran out and cleared the ring before unmasking and revealing himself to be a furious Claudio Castagnoli. Politely, the fans waited until the reveal to start up their “WELCOME BACK!” chant. Sadly, Los Ice Creams lost. The Kings of Wrestling trio went on to the semi-finals. Interestingly enough, the Akuma/Icarus/Taylor trio is the only team to compete in all four King of Trios tournaments.
Claudio wrestled as a solo act from there on, not playing to the crowd, but still getting much of a following. He still fought and defeated face wrestlers, but the fans wanted him to get his revenge on Chris Hero for his betrayal.
A match was set up between Mike Quackenbush and Claudio Castagnoli where the winner would earn a match with Chris Hero. Chris Hero was on commentary for it, saying that he should get to choose his own opponents and joked about challenging a wrestler named Equinox. Equinox would become a player in this storyline down the road, so I should probably go over him for a sec. Equinox was a Mexican luchador in a red and blue mask who gathered steam in his debuting days, but it quickly petered out due to his sloppiness as a high-flyer. He fell down the card and became known as one of the company’s resident jobbers.
Quack vs. Claudio was a superb match, though I sadly can’t say so much for the main event that followed it. Claudio defeated Quack and won his chance to get revenge on Hero. A couple stipulations were added. First, Quack would be the referee. Second, servitude was on the line. If Claudio won, Hero would be his butler. If Hero won, Claudio would have to rejoin the Kings of Wrestling.
On the night of the match, it was revealed that Hero had aligned himself with “Sweet ‘n’ Sour” Larry Sweeney, an over-the-top throwback to every charismatic heel of the 80’s. Sweeney showed up during the match and distracted Quack enough that Hero could give Claudio a low blow. Knowing that he just missed some blatant cheating but powerless to do anything about it, Quack begrudgingly counted the pin. Claudio was back in the fold against his will.
Due to his ever-expanding ego, Chris Hero was no longer scared of Quackenbush and offered to give him that singles match. They way he figured it, Quack had improved somewhat over the last two years, but Hero had improved far more. Quack shook his hand, twisted his arm and the match was on.
Meanwhile, the Kings of Wrestling was splintering. On one side, you had Chris Hero, the reluctant Claudio Castagnoli, Larry Sweeney and Mitch Ryder. On the other side, you had Icarus, Gran Akuma, Chuck Taylor and “Canadian Dynamite” Max Boyer. Boyer’s gimmick was that he believed he was the third step in the evolution of Dynamite Kid and Chris Benoit and he dropped the gimmick about a month before the Benoit incident. So good timing on that guy’s part. Anyway, Icarus had grown tired of Hero’s orders and figured that he and his younger crew had already proven themselves superior, so they broke into their own sub-stable. A match was made of Hero/Claudio/Sweeney vs. Icarus/Akuma/Taylor. It would take place the night after Quack vs. Hero.
The long-awaited Quack vs. Hero exceeded the expectations. It was played up that the two knew each other better than anyone and knew what kind of strategies to expect from each other. How do you put away someone who knows your every move? For Quackenbush, the answer was elementary. Create a new move. Late in the match, Quack took Hero and put him in… this thing.
Hero tapped and Quack had won. He coined the new finisher the CHIKARA Special and took satisfaction that Hero was vulnerable to it. He said that he’d teach that move to all his students as a way to make Hero look like a chump. Despite that, it was still a strong weekend for the company’s top heel.
The trios match between the two Kings of Wrestling stables had the fans cheering for Hero’s side, mainly because 1) they had more goodwill from their in-ring experience, 2) they had a tweener on the team in Claudio and 3) they didn’t have Icarus in their ranks. Although Icarus’ side won, Mitch Ryder grabbed a microphone and told them that they shouldn’t be fighting. He also took a second to chastise Claudio for not embracing his role in the team and all the good it would do his career. With his speech done, Hero and Icarus embraced and the Kings of Wrestling became a full stable of eight members. As an addendum, sometime after, Boyer would cut ties with the company and be replaced with another young heel Shayne Hawke.
The Kings of Wrestling became a major force in CHIKARA, holding every available title and winning nearly all of their matches. Claudio even took to being Hero’s partner again, moving him back to his heel roots as they took apart the smaller teams on the roster. One might think that they were setting up another match between those two and FIST for the tag belts.
Instead, things went another route. Hero started losing. A lot. In a match with rising face Lince Dorado, Hero tapped out to the CHIKARA Special. Claudio and Hero had a tag match against Lince and El Pantera and Pantera made Hero tap to the CHIKARA Special. If Chris Hero was Superman like his logo suggested, then this was his kryptonite. By the time an eight-man tag match ended with Equinox of all people making Hero tap to the CHIKARA Special, Claudio had lost his faith in the fearless leader and tormentor. He’d annoy Hero with a knowing smirk at times and the duo would get in their share of arguments.
It would all come to a head at CHIKARA’s annual Cibernetico event. Cibernetico is a cool monster of a 16-man elimination tag match with added gimmicks. Rather than tagging whoever, there’s a batting order for who goes in next. If one team wins and there’s more than one wrestler remaining, that team has to fight it out amongst themselves until there is only one winner. For that year’s show, the teams were set up based on Kings of Wrestling member Mitch Ryder’s feud with the luchador Lince Dorado. It was the Kings of Wrestling vs. Lince and his lucha buddies.
As you could probably guess, the match was especially long. At one point, Hero eliminated Equinox and proceeded to stomp the holy Hell out of him as he tried to roll out of the ring. Hero and Claudio ended up getting into another disagreement after a miscommunication and it was a sure thing that Claudio had had enough. Hero, Claudio and Ryder all survived against the eight luchadors and immediately after, Claudio went on the warpath. He destroyed Hero and made him tap out to the CHIKARA Special. Then he went after Ryder and eliminated him with his patented finisher, the Ricola Bomb. Claudio was the sole survivor of the match and had become a full-fledged face.
For reasons I can’t remember, Claudio was allowed his freedom from the Kings of Wrestling and dedicated the rest of the season to vanquishing them piece by piece. He’d challenge various members to matches and went through them one-by-one until having a match signed against Chris Hero. Claudio Castagnoli vs. Chris Hero was signed for the third night of the 2007 season finale weekend.
The first show was scheduled to have Hero and Shayne Hawke team up together, so Director of Fun and maker of matches Leonard Chikarason offered Claudio to be a part of it if he could find a partner. Only seconds later, Claudio had pulled over a confused Equinox and forced him to take part in the match. Equinox vs. Hero was also signed for the second night of the weekend.
For the first night, the tag match ended with Equinox surprisingly pulling out the win with a backslide pin on Hero. After the match, Hero had a total fit and beat down on the luchador, making an additional challenge for their upcoming match. Hair vs. Mask. If Hero lost, he’d shave his head. If Equinox lost, he’d lose the mask. It was agreed.
It was a strong match and up to that point, the best one Equinox had ever been apart of. Sure, we all knew Hero had it in the bag, but the drama was there in spades. To the joy of everyone in the crowd, Equinox put Hero in the CHIKARA Special. Then to their shock, Hero was able to kick his way out of it and escape. On commentary, Quackenbush was confused and horrified. He knew the way to counter the move, but kept it a secret to only a select few. How did Hero know this? Hero proceeded to defeat Equinox and had him remove his mask.
Everyone got to see that Equinox was not Mexican, but just a white dude with a beard and long hair, crying. Hero gave some backstory as a way to taunt the man. He always had an idea of who he truly was, but had to be sure. Vin Gerard was a student at the CHIKARA Wrestlefactory who learned under Hero, but didn’t have what it takes to see the training through. He started missing days here and there until stopping his training all together. Then, as Hero described, Gerard simply learned some Spanish, got a fancy mask and tights ensemble and told the company that he was a wrestler from Mexico. That earned him a spot on the roster over those who trained harder and earned their masks and spots. Now he was exposed for who he truly was.
Hero left, proud of his win and the fans in attendance were still behind Vin Gerard for the sake of sticking it to Hero. As Gerard walked up to the entrance, the other masked wrestlers of the CHIKARA roster stood in his way. Without saying a word, they glared at him and threw his bags to him. Excommunicated, Gerard walked out the exit in his wrestling gear, all by his lonesome.
Coincidentally, although he didn’t have a match, Gerard showed up at the next night’s show. He was spotted outside the arena, still wearing his tights and dragging his rolling suitcase, as if he literally walked from venue to venue overnight.
Hero vs. Claudio was supposed to happen on the third show of the weekend, but it hit an unfortunate snag. During the penultimate contest, Lince Dorado badly injured himself with a Shooting Star Senton that nailed his head into the mat way too hard. It was a little too horrifying and the crowd and wrestlers agreed that ending the show was a good idea. Despite being the season finale, another show was added a couple weeks later for free at Penn State.
Hero mockingly came out wearing Equinox’s torn mask to a chorus of boos. Now, by this time, the Kings of Wrestling had already been losing their luster outside of Claudio’s streak of wins. FIST had lost the tag belts to the team of Hallowicked and Delirious. Chuck Taylor had lost his own title, the Young Lions Cup, to his rival Helios. All that was left was for Claudio to finish off Hero once and for all.
And so he did. After a hard-fought match, Claudio nailed Hero with the Ricola Bomb and pinned him clean in the middle of the ring. Having truly won the war, Claudio left to the cheers of onlookers. Hero, on the other hand, had to endure the crowd jeeringly chanting, “HEEEEEROOOO!” and pointing out that he was crying. Rolling out of the ring, he finally snapped and screamed at everyone to shut up. This only fueled the fire and he walked away furious and defeated. He hasn’t been seen in a CHIKARA ring since.
It was a well-told story from start to finish that had the right people win at the right time and pushed the younger talent. The talented wrestler who heads the company found a way to ultimately keep himself from being Jeff Jarrett/Verne Gagne/Hulk Hogan/Kevin Nash and shoving himself into the center spotlight. With an indy crowd, you have to try harder to get the dramatic reactions needed to tell a good story and they had that in spades. More importantly, it pushed forward new stories without retreading. If only the nWo could have pulled that off.
Despite Hero’s absence from that point, the company moved on. His chastising of Vin Gerard could be considered a passing of the torch, as the 2008 season was mostly dedicated to the former jobber rising up and taking his revenge on nearly everyone who wore a mask and looked down on him for his decisions. Mike Quackenbush made it his mission to find out just how Chris Hero came to know the counter to the CHIKARA Special in a plot that involved betrayal and brainwashing. Claudio was for a time involved in a storyline with Larry Sweeney, Mitch Ryder and Shayne Hawke that sadly went nowhere due to Sweeney and Ryder breaking ties with the company before there could be any real payoff. Claudio remained the top face of the company for the next two years and took to action in defeating any overpowering heels who needed to be taught a lesson.
Claudio couldn’t stay a face forever, but perhaps that’s a story for another day…