PWG: An Experience That Must Be Seen to Be Believed

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The line formed outside American Legion Post 308 grew long enough to encircle the entire parking lot by 6:30 p.m. Temperatures crept below triple-doubles by this point, but the few hundred gathered at this unassuming building in Reseda happily traded the gradually falling heat outdoors for more sweltering conditions inside.

And indeed, the interior of American Legion Post 308 felt like a sauna, the result of both the July sun beating down; and from the hundreds of rabid wrestling fans packed shoulder-to-shoulder inside the venue.

The cooling units faced as colossal a task as 5-foot-6, 161-pound Lio Rush in his match against 332-pound Keith Lee later on this night, the 14th anniversary of Pro Wrestling Guerrilla.

For the uninitiated, PWG is the premier independent federation in the West. Featuring such prominent names as A.J. Styles, C.M. Punk and Samoa Joe in its early days, PWG has a longstanding reputation for hosting veritable super-cards just about any time it runs a show — which, currently, is roughly once-a-month.

Friday night was no exception, with a lineup featuring New Japan Pro-Wrestling stars the Young Bucks, Michael Elgin, (call him one of either) Trent (or) Baretta and Zack Sabre Jr., all less than a week removed from stellar performances at the NJPW G1 Special shows in Long Beach.

PWG is also a launching pad for stars. Before becoming one of NJPW’s headlining acts, the Southern California-bred Young Bucks came up through PWG. Their continued presence on cards amid a meteoric rise, which now includes national retailer Hot Topic carrying their merchandise, have made Matt and Nick Jackson icons to the Pro Wrestling Guerrilla faithful.

Their entrance to Hanson’s sugary-sweet 1997 pop hit “Mmmbop” Friday elicited a perhaps louder and certainly more enthusiastic response from a crowd of a couple hundred than nearly 50,000 could muster in the Alamodome at January’s Royal Rumble.

Much as the Young Bucks began an ascent in Reseda years ago, PWG hosts a new generation of talent looking to emerge with the federation’s help. The chief candidate Friday was Sammy Guevara, a young wrestler from South Texas with the athleticism, good looks and naturally detestable charisma (in a good way) necessary to be a star.

Guevara’s match with Mexican luchador Rey Horus opened the show with a fast-paced, entertaining bang. Guevara won with a 630 Splash — a top rope flip in which he made 13/4 full rotations — prompting chants of “PLEASE COME BACK!” from the PWG fans.

The show rolled on with one exciting and entertaining match after another, culminating in the PWG World Championship bout between Zack Sabre Jr. and Chuck Taylor. The longtime PWG mainstay Taylor was granted a title shot with the caveat if he lost, he’d never challenge for the belt again.

Taylor’s a well-known and respected face on the indie scene, but hasn’t reached the heights of comrades Baretta and Rocky Romero, nor of the British submission specialist Sabre Jr. Sabre’s arrogant pandering to the crowd and flagrant rule-breaking throughout the main event perfectly fueled the buildup to a climax of Taylor finally reaching the mountaintop.

The show ended just after 11 p.m., a three-hour card gone by with the speed of a single Young Bucks superkick. The audience — previously screaming, clapping, banging their palms against whatever flat surface they could, including the ring apron — was unrecognizable as it dispersed. Adhering to the request of PWG and American Legion organizers, the previously rowdy crowd exited quietly to avoid disturbing the building’s neighbors.

Such is part of the wholly unique charm I experienced with my first PWG show.

To classify PWG simply as an independent wrestling organization with talent-laden cards would be to mischaracterize the fed’s spirit.

A newly made friend at last weekend’s G1 Special helped arrange for my ticket, an endeavor that proved fruitless in several previous attempts over the last four years. He explained as I waited in line in the San Fernando Valley heat each show opens with PWG co-founder Excalibur delivering a monologue to the audience.

Excalibur sets the table with his spiel, some of it repeating — the crowd chanted along when he declared that “every day is Earth Day!” — but much of it unique to the given show. He reminisced on PWG’s 14 years of existence, a remarkable number for any wrestling federation owned by someone other than Vince McMahon.

Like the rest of the show, Excalibur’s monologue was audience-interactive. I previously wondered why PWG, growing in popularity and prominence, continued to run in the tiny American Legion Post 308 when it could almost certainly fill a much larger venue anywhere in Los Angeles. And it is growing in popularity.

Watching these crowd interactions throughout the night, I now understand why.

This intimacy with the audience is as much at the core of PWG as the stacked show lineups. Expansion to larger venues and a perhaps less rabid audience fundamentally changes the soul.

Los Angeles is a fascinating city. You might happen upon a co-star of one of your favorite movies in a camera shop, or walk your dog past a ’90s heartthrob — both of which have happened to me. And that was before Danielle Fishel — Topanga of Boy Meets World fame — showed up in Reseda for PWG’s “Pushin’ Back Forward.”

Thousands of tourists descend on Los Angeles every day, hoping to be a part of the perceived glitz and glamour. The spots in Hollywood where site-seers flock are a facade, however; a veneer of corporatization.

Vice Sports’ Evan McGarvey asked me for my thoughts at the previous week’s G1 Special, and I compared the independent and Japanese wrestling scene in America to the punk-rock scene in which I was immersed for a time as a college student. I attended numerous shows at various old, out-of-the-way and rundown venues in Tucson and Phoenix — places with such names as Rialto, The Muse, Scrappy’s and Club Rio — and saw acts like Goldfinger, H2O, Big Wig and Less Than Jake.

Friday’s PWG experience brought those memories flooding back. American Legion Post 308 was exactly the kind of venue I could envision seeing an act from NOFX’s Fat Wreck Chords label performing for an enthusiastic crowd 15 years ago. The wrestlers setting up makeshift merchandise stands on the ring apron reminded me of visiting the back-wall tables to pick up pins with band logos in the early 2000s.

During that same time in my life, I saw a show co-headlined by Green Day and blink-182 at the home of the Phoenix Suns. Green Day put on a spectacular performance, but the vibe was fundamentally different — less authentic. It’s the difference in watching a college football game at a local pub, or instead going to a national chain like Buffalo Wild Wings.

It’s also the difference in an independent wrestling show and a WWE live event.

American Legion Post 308 might be a forgettable example of the Valley’s prevalent early 1980s architecture for the uninitiated. Having stepped inside, though, I now understand its magic. It’s what I can only imagine entering the Dallas Sportatorium, south Philadelphia’s Bingo Hall or the Elks Lodge in Queens for a wrestling show was comparable.