Every week on Place to Be Nation, a combination of correspondents review one match from the world of wrestling that YOU as the viewer should seek out!
CHIKARA has a streaming service called Chikaratopia that streams all CHIKARA events in company history for $7.99 a month. In addition, the match we are doing this week is available for free on CHIKARA’s Facebook page.
Drew Gulak is leaving the independent scene after signing with WWE. He was asked by Director of Fun, Mike Quackenbush to compile a list of 15 wrestlers that he would like to work with. Quack was #2 on that list and this is only the second match Quack has wrestled in this year.
There’s been a distinct uptick in the number of indy goodbyes by folks signed to the WWE recently, from TJP’s departure from Evolve to Johnny Gargano’s lengthy farewell tour. The latest is Drew Gulak, whose last several months in Chikara have had his eventual departure hanging over them — so of course the traditional encore match is a natural place to stage a true fare-thee-well for Gulak.
Chikara, as a wrestling company, is generally good at making things feel important when they need to, by contrasting those moments and storylines to the more relaxed form of storytelling it uses when they don’t necessarily need to be important or serious. Bringing out Director of Fun Mike Quackenbush for what is now an extremely rare wrestling appearance is one more way of putting over the importance of the event. Quack is heard from the Commentation Station on most Chikara shows, but is not a constant on-screen presence, especially now that his in-ring career is effectively over. (He comes across as quite unselfish for a promoter, actually.)
Even aside from its context, the match itself is a fine effort from both wrestlers. Quack does a lot of selling, owing to the intent to give Gulak a showcase, Quack’s injury history, and his understandable ring rust. Given that, it’s a remarkably smooth affair, quick-paced for something so replete with submission holds. It really is a showcase for Gulak, displaying how big a fish he can be in this pond before moving to the ocean.
Drew Gulak is the best matworker in the United States, At this point I don’t think there is a close second. Here he proves it yet again in a unique match dynamically and based on the scenario. He deserves all the success in the world and hopefully he can carve a niche in WWE.
Mike Quackenbush entered retirement in 2013 but as all pro wrestling retirements go, the right opportunity at the right time tends to lead a pro wrestler back to their most comfortable surroundings. Earlier this year he was given the chance to have Johnny Kidd’s final singles match and he could not resist. It makes this match all the more important while showing how much respect Quack has for Gulak on his way out of the territory.
The match itself was blissful. It was a true competition between student and teacher without much hogwash. I want to point out that there is a segment from a series of Gulak dropkicks to an electric pin exchange where the bout hits a lull. They take it to the apron for a bump which seemed squeezed in. The apron bump itself by Quack was properly gnarly but I can’t help but feel that it fluffed the match rather than enhance it. If that’s my biggest gripe though we are doing alright. There are several times where Gulak blasts Quack either while in a submission or to maintain control delivering one. Mixing up his striking into his grappling added an extra layer of grit for sure. Then when they went into full fluid grappling and it is some of the best of that kind you will see all year. It is a cliche at this point to note a cliche but there were no wasted motions in those exchanges. Not a step too many taken to get into proper position. No sluggish movements in order to prep for the next move. Stunning. The finish is out of nowhere without being a detriment in the slightest. You really should be going out of your way to watch this.
There is a lot of history here. Quackenbush and Gulak may not have a big history of feuding with or even really wrestling each other but they have both been big parts of Chikara behind the scenes for years. Quackenbush has a big of a reputation for being difficult to work with, as much visionary type leaders can be. Meanwhile, I took a peek at my wrestling database of choice to notice strangely enough that while Quackenbush & Gulak have very rarely been in match with each, Gulak and Soldier Ant have never tied it up in competiton. On the contrary, Soldier Ant and Quackenbush have worked quite a lot in the past.
From the opening this match could probably have easily fallen into exhibition territory as it’s Gulak’s graduation match and Quackenbush has been known to have less than sporting outings in his career. It would not be further from the case though as Drew brings the gritty realness he is so loved for taking it to Quackenbush so rough you almost wonder if maybe there is some pent up tension from their history behind the scenes. Gulak not only works holds on the mat but also has some very brutal looking strikes the whole way through. Quackenbush does not miss a beat for a man that has had all of two matches in the past three years. Quackenbush as always is a very skilled and athletic worker but the emotion and selling in this match really come through. I can’t imagine that there isn’t some real emotion here helping drive both men. Everyone in this match is very vocal through something I don’t always praise as it can seem weak for storytelling or even minor league. In this setting and with the increase in recording capabilities to pick up in ring audio being more vocal in wrestling is quickly becoming an important part of any wrestlers game. In this match the vocality of both wrestlers and even the ref actually add a lot to the emotion for me.
After wearing each other out for nearly twenty minutes with stomps to the back of the head, headbutts to the body, slams, suplexes, and unique holds these two decide to quicken the pace. Late in the match they trade counter pins attempts and charging attacks they are well conditioned being able to pull this off so late in the match and it’s very impressive. Quackenbush is caught looking for one of his many wacky Quackendrives with a sleek backdoor slide into the dragon sleeper by Gulak. Post match Quackenbush puts over Gulak and the crowd is sent home happy for Drew and he goes on to the next phase of his career
When I was made aware of this Quackenbush/Gulak affair, I was for one surprised as I was under the impression that Quackenbush was far gone from his in-ring competition days due to injuries and just being more of a wrestling ambassador these days for CHIKARA. That certainly led to intrigue as I’ve appreciated his technical ring work and savvy and wanted to see it in action against a guy like Drew Gulak.
They really did a good job in this making Quack look like a man with something to prove, that he wanted to show he had one last great effort in him. Gulak helped push that image by tying up Quack in knots, slamming him leg first repeatedly into the ropes and smacking him around real snug-like. It built up to the point where Quack wasn’t going to take it lying down and he fought back, and fought back in a large way. The match progressively got stiffer and stiffer because of this and it really was built up to well and bless Quack for taking a brutal apron bump at this point in his career.
As expected with these two, there were just some impeccable counter wrestling sequences and pin exchanges keeping you on the edge of your seat. Quack certainly can still hang, especially in those types of situations. I felt that the finish was a bit flat as it saw Quackenbush go for a Quackendriver only for Gulak to slip out of it and turn it into a Dragon Sleeper for the win. A surprisingly hard hitting match that of course had some wonderful technical aspects as well. I’m always game for neat one off matches like this one and this certainly is one to watch.
Indy wrestling at its most pure core is about the journey you take with the guys and the development. That sense of comradely is unparalleled by the “evil corporation” that is WWE. CHIKARA at its best does provide a real sense of family and blending of relationships. The show this match is featured on also had a beautiful retirement ceremony for Soldier Ant because he was blind when both his antennae were removed. That is a wonderful combination of the zaniness but logical steps CHIKARA can take to differentiate itself in the indy wrestling landscape.
Now you have Drew Gulak discussing “big opportunities” and who should answer the bell but Mike Quackenbush. The encore gimmick in CHIKARA is usually cute but not really consequential and a general way to send the fans home happy. This was not the case here. This was only the second match that Quack had wrestled in three years and once he rushes to the ring and the match begins, this feels like a chill inducing moment.
Quackenbush’s big opportunities have passed him by. He has done a stint at the Performance Center as an adviser and has his niche indy promotion but a run in the spotlight of the largest wrestling promotion in the world is gone. The Crusierweight Classic did provide an opportunity for someone like Gulak to get his name out there and eventually get signed. These two guys are generation parallels which makes this entire match more than just an exhibition of fabulous wrestling technique. Both are white, generic North East guys that wouldn’t and haven’t been on WWE’s radar until recent vintage. Both have certain indyriffic traits from Quack’s constant gaudy gear to Gulak’s other gimmicks that he marches around the independent scene portraying.
This match cut any gimmickry and was a straight maestro lucha showcase. The work and hints of animosity that crept out gave the match the extra oomph to make it a triumph in storytelling in addition to technique. Zack Sabre Jr and Gulak had a mat masterpiece in many people’s eyes on the EVOLVE November show, but I appreciated this one more for the narrative and tinges of hatred that creeped in. Like playing basketball with your little brother, you love the guy but want to prove you are the best. That freedom that you can push them to the limit and still be loved and accepted is also what helps propel the competition to the next level.
I have watched this match three times now and been in awe each time coming away with more notes from the work that is represented. Some of the reversals and roll ups are great in that both competitors seemed glued to each other. The escalation is also presented beautifully climaxing in Gulak giving Quack a back suplex on the ring apron which makes me cringe every time given Quack’s current health in regards to his back. This is CHIKARA. Not scavenger hunts and playing Guess Who with the workers. At the core, it has been a breeding ground for comic book episodic storytelling and colorful gimmicks. In addition to that, the factory tries to institute a base of grounded fundamentals utilizing a mixture of lucha and Japanese grappling styles. Gulak personifies that more than anyone else throughout company history. Good luck at the big show Drew. As a parting shot, he gave CHIKARA the best match in company history since Quackenbush vs. Eddie Kingston at High Noon. ****1/4