Drew Gulak vs Mike Quackenbush
3rd of December 2016
Logan Square Auditorium, Chicago, USA
Watch the full match on Chikara’s Facebook page.
Supremacy is supposedly over, but Chicago waits for Drew Gulak. Not usually known as a maestro with the mic, he enters to a hero’s welcome and admits – without actually saying ‘NXT’, of course – that he has “some pretty big opportunities coming up”.
A home-grown talent who got his start at 17 in Chikara’s Wrestle Factory training school, Gulak is beloved for his no-nonsense “angry grappling man” gimmick – and rumours abound that if he leaves, beloved Chikara staple Soldier Ant may also take some time off, possibly to grieve. So when Gulak announces that Chikara’s Director of Fun, Mike Quackenbush, has asked him who he might want to wrestle before his exit, the possibilities for this final match seem tantalising.
And out walks Quack.
The crowd explodes. The Director of Fun retired from the ring in 2013, after a nasty knee injury supposedly ended a career that nobody was ready to see at an end. Then earlier this year, he shocked Chikara fans by announcing he’d been cleared for one more match: the fantastic World of Sport-rules bout which marked the retirement from singles competition of Johnny Kidd. It was a relief to see how healthyQuack looked and it was clear he hadn’t really lost a step – I should know, I was on the front row – but surely that had to be a one-off?
Yet here he is, and for once the chant of “This is awesome” that erupts before the match has started feels justified. Chikara being what it is, of course, the chants die down as the audience appreciates the grapple-fest that follows.
It’s not quite a masterpiece, but it doesn’t need to be. Tight submissions and inventive counters are cleverly interwoven, held together with the kind of mat wrestling that would make Zack Sabre Jr weep. The pace is fast, and every time Gulak goes mercilessly after Quack’s knees or legs you can’t help but cringe – he wouldn’t be wrestling if it wasn’t safe, would he? Then he takes a ludicrous bump on the ring apron at the age of 40 in his second match in three years, and you remember that safety is a secondary concern in pro wrestling.
There’s comedy (“Really serious, I’m not going over there”) and tension throughout, and the match gets plenty of time. Gulak gets every chance to look strong, convincingly cutting off each of Quack’s comebacks and working him over without missing a beat. This is peak Gulak, and as good as Quack may be, it’s inevitable that he will have to tap out.
How it defined 2016:
I feel like I’ve spent a lot of this year coming to terms with WWE’s indie signing spree. Hey, I spent most of an article on Sami Zayn vs Kevin Owens from Battleground trying to work out how they actually got there.
But seriously, stop and think about this. A year ago, did you even think the Cruiserweight Classic was remotely plausible? The idea of WWE signing indie wrestlers for a limited number of appearances in a tournament seemed far-fetched. Come on, Vince McMahon supposedly doesn’t even like tournaments that much. The thought that out of all of those performers, people like Jack Gallagher and Drew Gulak would be among the ones who got signed would have been well beyond belief.
At the same time, the Fed’s signing spree raises questions for the future of the indie scene. Chikara really feels like it’s on the up: this year’s UK tour was the most fun I’ve had at a wrestling show, and I hope that the Wrestle Factory can keep producing talent to fill the voids created by talents like Gulak, Kimber Lee and Heidi Lovelace, all of whom are reportedly due in NXT next year. (More female performers in general would be helpful.)
Finally, there’s Quack: the self-confessed gangly, geeky, World of Sport-loving technical wrestler who had to make a niche for himself in an industry that didn’t automatically embrace him. What a year he’s had, retiring a legend whom he admired and respected in a students’ union in Manchester – appropriately, just a few months before World of Sport is due to make a comeback. As if to signal his final acceptance and contribution to the pro-graps landscape, he’s been a special guest trainer at the WWE Performance Center.
I’m happy for Gulak, and I’m excited to see how he develops in WWE. This match really showcases everything his fans love about him – including the rough edges that I hope the Fed won’t try to smooth. There’s an obvious niche for someone like him, which I hope he’s allowed to fill. A feud between gruff Gulak and Gentleman Jack would be all kinds of fun.
Equally, Chikara will be fine without him. It’s proof that a promotion offering something different can cultivate its own devoted fan base.
The bright, comic-book characters and family-friendly ethos are one thing, but it’s Chikara’s commitment to building an inclusive approach to pro-wrestling that really makes it special.
When Joey Styles told Joanna Rose that she looked so good Donald Trump might want to “grab her by the pussy” as they commentated on an Evolve show, Chikara responded by terminating its relationship with Styles. (So did Evolve.) Quackenbush’s passionate blog post on the subject, which also introduced a policy of zero tolerance against “misogynistic, racist, and/or homophobic speech, written or verbal, whether it’s directed toward our cast, our crew, or our patrons”, places Chikara firmly at the forefront of this shift. Let’s hope next year is a good one for them.