As we begin 2014, we’ll soon be flooded with various awards articles & “Best of” lists for 2013.
You aren’t likely to find any of the men in this piece on many “Wrestler of the Year” lists or in “Best of” articles. In fact, chances are good you may not have heard of most of these guys. By my unofficial count, collectively these men probably worked less than a half dozen high profile main events, yet they often managed to steal the show. Among them, we’ve got a jobber, a bodyguard, a character who appeared in three total matches the entire year, a guy who spends most of his time as a manager, and a dude best known for being bullied by Ryback.
In no particular order, these are my unsung heroes of 2013, the seven men who made the biggest impression on me with the least amount of fanfare.
Check out the highlighted links to give this article an interactive feel, including some of the best matches of each of the seven men.
Ricky Starks - You’ve probably seen “Absolute” Ricky Starks, and you don’t even know it. He was pressed against a wall by Ryback, getting potato salad slapped into his ear, before promptly being put through a catering table.
The running gag among fans in the Texas/Louisiana area is that Starks has a hot feud going with Ryback. About a year before the infamous catering incident, Starks did a job for “The Big Guy” at a Smackdown taping (where he also did a televised job for Jindar Mahal). Take those WWE appearances, toss in his Ring of Honor debut this past June, and add in arguably the first long term sustained main event push of his career for Austin’s upstart Inspire Pro Wrestling, and Starks is quickly putting together an impressive resume for a young wrestler barely five years in to his career.
When I interviewed Starks in August, I was surprised to find out he’s a full blown wrestling nerd and puro head, who not only closely follows the Japanese scene (including watching all nine nights of this year’s New Japan G1), but like a lot of fans, falls into YouTube wormholes and finds himself watching obscure wackiness like Russian warehouse wrestling. At the time of our interview, he was very excited about being booked on the upcoming New Japan/NWA joint shows in Texas. And at those shows, recognizing the rare live opportunity, during each match involving the New Japan talent an incognito Starks could be seen sneaking out into the crowd hidden under a hoodie so he could study the bouts.
But don’t let that fool you into thinking he’s one of these spot monkey types who simply copies what he sees on Japanese tapes by spamming head drops & 2.9 kick outs. Not even close. Starks works a technically proficient style, methodical even, and his greatest bell-to-bell strength is his high level selling. Starks has an advanced grasp on ring psychology, and sells better than much of the talent you see on national television. I can not stress enough how strong he is in this area, which is usually the very last thing a young wrestler gets a handle of. It’s very clear when watching a Ricky Starks match that this is a man who is student of the game, and takes the details of his craft very seriously.
Outside the ring, Starks is a natural heel with plenty of asshole charisma. He was “blessed” with what I like to call a highly smackable face, and when you watch his cocky strut down the aisle to Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky”, if you didn’t know any better you’d think the song was written specifically for him. When he gets on a roll with the mic, he’s as good as anybody on the indie scene today, his promos being a hybrid of The Rock’s swagger & his own flamboyant Louisiana sass. On an Inspire Pro Wrestling show in September, he cut a promo on a heckler that was so good, that it was too good, completely turning the crowd and leading to what may have been an impromptu face turn. Due to some no shows and a reshuffling of the card, he ended up working two matches, tore the house down in both, and in the span of two hours went from being the top heel in promotion to what looks like will be a slow burn top babyface run. On the most recent show on 1/5, Starks received the biggest pop of the night – no small feat when Chris Hero was making his first visit to Austin in over two years.
Starks is very good, but he’s also very driven. I caught up with him after a show a few months ago, and he was in a foul mood because he had just found out he was booked in a throwaway scramble match the next night. He’s not a guy who’s just happy to be booked. He wants to work and get better. He recently relocated to the Midwest, a move designed to attract more eyeballs and hopefully gain some bookings in some of the bigger Midwest area indies. Once the right people are exposed to him, i’m sure we’ll be seeing him in the east coast stepping stone promotions as well.
If you’re looking for a deep sleeper indie name to hitch your wagon to and get in on the ground floor with, Starks is your guy. The upside is obvious. The next time he faces Ryback, it may not be as a “local competitor”.
Recommended Matches: vs. ACH, ACW “An Absence of Law” 2/24/13; vs. Shawn Vexx, Inspire Pro Wrestling “Wired For War” 9/1/2013; vs. Barrett Brown, Inspire Pro Wrestling “Wired For War” 9/1/2013
Tomoaki Honma - When you think of New Japan’s roster and the hot two year run they’ve been on, you’d probably burn through two dozen names before you got to Tomoaki Honma. Which is a shame, because Honma is not a good pro wrestler, he’s a great pro wrestler. I’d be comfortable saying that if I were to rank the top wrestlers in the world for 2013, Honma would easily land in my top 25, with a decent chance he’d end up higher.
Honma was always known as a good hand, and on December 23, 2011, on the traditional end of year Korakuen Hall show, he had the best match of his career, an instant classic against IWGP Intercontinental champion Masato Tanaka. With nearly the entire roster watching from ringside, and the fans firmly behind the challenger, the bout had red hot heat and probably would have been a stronger match of the year contender had it not happened so late in the traditional calendar, and so early in the Observer calendar.
With tons of momentum coming off that great performance, Honma mysteriously disappeared. Rumors of some sort of Yakuza connection surfaced, causing New Japan to cut ties. He bounced around as a freelancer for a while, mostly working for All Japan, before resurfacing in New Japan around May of 2013 after the smoke cleared.
His role in 2013 for New Japan was to put people over. He’s essentially a jobber. He was the designated “take the pin guy” for partner Togi Makabe in the World Tag League. But there isn’t a wrestler on earth right now (with apologies to Heath Slater, who is also awesome in this role) who makes people look better than Honma. And that’s why he’s the go to guy when New Japan needs someone to make a star or a monster look good.
What sets him apart is his ability to connect with the crowd. Go ahead and watch that Tanaka match I linked. Honma has that unteachable quality that makes people want to get behind him. He’s the ultimate hard working “you need to fucking kill me to beat me” underdog. And it’s that quality that helped Bad Luck Fale have the best singles match of his career against Honma in November. And three days later, Honma’s never say die style led to perhaps the best job match i’ve seen in my life, against Katsuyori Shibata. Shibata was so aggravated with how much it took to finally put Honma away, that he immediately stormed out of the ring in disgust after the bell rang.
In what was dejavu of his Tanaka match two years earlier, Honma was at it again at the 12/21 Korakuen show, with another spirited year end effort, this time against IWGP champ Kazuchika Okada. And during that match, this happened:
What made that spot so memorable, was not that HE DROPPED A HEADBUTT FROM THE TOP ROPE TO THE OUTSIDE OF THE FUCKING RING, but that he probably hadn’t hit that move in months (if not all year). That’s his trademark spot (usually performed inside the ring), and the poor guy missed it all year long, usually leading directly to defeat. It was as if an entire year of failure led up to that moment. And the Korakuen crowd lost their shit.
In the end, Honma got hit with the Rainmaker, and he lost. He came up short again. But that’s ok. He’s the guy who, better than anyone, makes you think this time he’s gonna really do it, I can feel it.
And one of these times, he’s gonna pull that upset.
Recommended Matches: vs. Bad Luck Fale, New Japan “Road To Power Struggle” 11/6/2013; vs. Katsuyori Shibata, New Japan “Power Struggle” 11/9/2013; vs. Kazuchika Okada, New Japan “Road to Wrestle Kingdom” 12/21/2013
Othello - In wrestling, many men are billed as seven feet tall, but very few really are. Seven feet is really tall. Lance Hoyt was once billed as “the seven foot tall ticked off Texan” by TNA, when in reality he’s about 6’6″, even in his boots. Even the legendary Andre the Giant, billed at 7’4″, was in actuality closer to 6’9″, shorter than the legit over seven foot tall Wilt Chamberlain, and about the same height as Ernie Ladd.
I have no idea how tall Othello is. But in wrestling vernacular, he is billed as a seven footer, and whether he really is or not he’s still one of the most enormous human beings i’ve ever seen.
Othello probably looks taller than he really is thanks to his abnormally long legs (sort of like Hoyt). But unlike some previous giants before him like El Gigante, Kurrgan, Giant Silva, etc, he’s also very well defined in his upper body and does not possess a freakshow look. He just looks like…well, an enormous (and dangerous) human being.
He’s also fairly athletic. I’ve only seen him wrestle a handful of times, and he’s still clearly green, but his matches a typically short, snug, and violent. Matt Striker, who does commentary for Championship Wrestling from Hollywood, gushes like a school girl whenever this monster is on the screen. And you can bet that he’ll be in Florida roughly 18 seconds after Vince McMahon lays eyes on him.
Flamita - DTU is my new guilty pleasure.
I discovered DTU when they rolled out their YouTube page earlier this year, which is where you can find their weekly television show. If you’re looking for great wrestling, move a long. I like to describe DTU as ECW meets Dragon Gate. The matches are held in small buildings (one of which looks like a warehouse that is strikingly familiar to the ECW Arena), and features a roster full of young daredevil flyers, indieriffic garbage wrestlers, lucha veterans like Joe Lider & Crazy Boy, Dragon Gate young boys on excursion, and breakthrough stars like Rocky Lobo & the focus of this profile, Flamita.
I didn’t know Flamita (or DTU) existed six months ago. I have never professed to be any sort of lucha expert, as my lucha viewing basically consists of TripleMania, CMLL’s Anniversary show, random strongly pimped matches, and whatever my DVR picks up when I run a search for ‘lucha’ (which lately consists of a CMLL B-show on Time Warner Deportes). DTU changed that. I was watching it weekly at 0ne point, but the style tends to numb you pretty quickly, so i’ve scaled back to catching it whenever I remember I haven’t watched in a while, or cherry picking the matches of the guys I like.
And one of those guys I really, really like is Flamita.
Flamita burst on the mainstream scene with good singles matches against the likes of AR Fox & Rich Swann, both of which aired on the DTU television show and quickly made the rounds on YouTube. On the strength of those matches and his recent Dragon Gate run, he’s considered a front runner for the Wrestling Observer Newsletter “Rookie of the Year” award. But he’s actually been active since 2005, when he was 13 years old.
His Dragon Gate run was the result of CIMA being very impressed with him (and Rocky Lobo) while Eita, T-Hawk, & U-T were on excursion with DTU. According to various lucha experts, CIMA promised Flamita & Lobo that he would bring them to Dragon Gate some day, but most didn’t take that seriously, especially when there was no movement on that for over a year. However, not long after the three Dragon Gate wrestlers ended their excursion and returned to Japan, CIMA kept his promise and brought Flamita & Lobo to Japan as well, along with the three natives, as part of the new Millenials unit. It didn’t take long for Flamita to make a big impact, as he won the Open the Triangle Gate titles with Eita & T-Hawk within weeks of his debut. He’s essentially been a regular ever since. In fact, he’s done so well in Dragon Gate, that i’m not even sure it’s even fair to include him in an article like this.
Flamita is listed at 4’11″, and held some minis titles early on in his career, but his height is no issue in Dragon Gate or DTU, where he blends in just fine in promotions that aren’t exactly the land of monsters. Being aligned with The Millenials is great for his career, as that unit is receiving a monster push in the newly youth focused Dragon Gate. With Ricochet on the outs lately with the office and possibly moving on to WWE soon, and Rich Swann not being booked on the last few tours, it appears that Flamita & Lobo are the top foreigners in the company, along with Uhaa Nation. And a run with DGUSA is certainly a possibility in 2014.
Gedo - Yes, the same Gedo who was flying around the ring with Jado back in the 90′s for WAR.
These days, New Japan’s Gedo is most visible as the mouthpiece for IWGP champion Kazuchika Okada. Behind the scenes, along with Jado, he’s the booker of the hottest promotion in the world. Sometimes, you’ll catch him working throw away multi-man undercard matches. But when given the rare chance to work a high profile match, the crafty veteran delivered big time all year long.
I saw Gedo perform twice in person this year, on the NWA/New Japan joint shows in October. In Houston, he teamed with young lion Takaaki Watanabe, and they had a fantastic match against the Kingz of the Underground, Scot Summers & Ryan Genesis.
But it was the next night in San Antonio where Gedo really shined, and showcased his strengths. He came to the ring to polite “we know you came all the way from Japan and are a special guest” applause, but it was obvious most of the crowd had no clue who he was. He was facing Scot Summers, a good hand but a guy who is more popular in other parts of Texas (namely, Austin).
Utilizing his sleazy veteran charisma, Gedo had the crowd in the palm of his hands within minutes. This dude pulled out every chickenshit heel stall tactic in the book, and San Antonio wanted him DEAD. This was Pro Wrestling 101 on how to get over as a heel to people have have no idea who you are. No cheap heat promo, no insulting the city, all veteran savvy. It ended up being one hell of a match, with Gedo using a low blow leading to the finish (of course), and leaving to a chorus of boo’s. But the most impressive part? He took one bump the entire match. A flat face bump at that. He didn’t take a single flat back bump the entire match, and still tore the house down. No flashy spots, no crazy bumps. No bumps at all. And he got over like crazy. That, is a pro.
His best performance of the year was easily his lone New Japan main event, on the 6/6 “Kizuna Road” show at Korakuen Hall. With Devitt looking for a IWGP Heavyweight Title shot against Gedo’s charge, Okada, Okada told Devitt that if he could go through Gedo, he’d grant him the match. Gedo almost never does singles matches, and in fact you have to go all theway back to October 2012 to find his last singles win in Japan (and that wasn’t even for New Japan, as it was on a K-Dojo show). He played his part to perfection, waving off the idea as if it were preposterous, as the crowd slowly got behind the idea.
So the stage was set, with the reluctant Gedo acting as the gatekeeper for Okada. Even as a babyface, he managed to work in his sleazy veteran spots. He taunted Devitt’s Bullet Club on the outside of the ring, begging them to punch him in view of the ref, which would have drawn a cheap DQ win. He used low blows. He clipped Devitt’s knee early and worked the leg the rest of the match. The Korakuen crowd was red hot, maybe the hottest they were all year. Here is what I wrote about the match in my original review:
“At one point, Devitt flipped Gedo out of the ring, but he landed on top of Anderson. Anderson was going nuts, as Gedo was taunting him and egging him on, begging him to punch him out in front of the ref, to get the cheap DQ. Fans ate that up. The match broke down, and Bullet Club tried to do the usual interference, but were cut off by Jado & Okada. At this point the crowd was on fucking fire, popping through the roof for Okada dropkicking Anderson out of the ring. Gedo got a 2.9 count that had me off my couch. Gedo kicked out of the Bloody Sunday, which blew the roof off Korakuen. They traded roll ups for close two counts, and by now the place was going bonkers. People believed Gedo could win, and wanted it badly. Devitt hit a second Bloody Sunday, and this time there was no kick out. Great, great match. A notch below Match of the Year level, but maybe the most fun you’ll have all year watching a wrestling match.”
The last sentence sums Gedo up nicely. He’s never going to push himself, so his days as a headliner are long over. But on those rare occasions that he does work a high profile match, it’s some of the most fun you’ll ever have watching a wrestling match.
Recommended Matches: vs. Prince Devitt, New Japan “Kizuna Road” 6/6/13; vs. Scot Summers, NWA BOW “Alamo City Invasion”, 10/19/13
Ray “Death” Rowe - I had never heard of Ray Rowe before 2012. I guarantee everybody reading this will be very familiar with Rowe by the end of 2014.
Trained by veteran Lou Marconi, Rowe got his start in the Ohio area in 2003. Around 2012, he started popping up in Texas, most notably for various NWA affiliates including NWA Houston. By 2013, he had not only become a Texas area regular for NWA Houston, NWA BOW, and Austin’s Inspire Pro Wrestling, but he also debuted in ROH and made enough of an impression that he was invited to participate in their 2014 “Top Prospect” tournament.
What impresses me about Rowe, aside from his no nonsense ass kicker style, is despite never headlining, every time I see him on a show he’s in the best or second best match on the card. Whether it’s against John McChesney or Mike Dell in NWA Houston, Scot Summers in Inspire Pro, or Bobby Fish in ROH, Rowe always delivers against a variety of opponents. The McChesney match may have been the best indie match I saw all year. It was definitely the best indie match I saw live.
Rowe is off to a great start in 2014, winning two matches on 1/4 in Nashville for ROH to advance to the Top Prospect finals (including a a win over Kongo in a match that has garnered a ton of buzz for Rowe’s aggressiveness and power display in tossing around the monster), and a legit ****+ match against Chris Hero the next day for Inspire Pro, where he picked up another win and looks to be getting a significant push moving forward. The Hero match is probably the best match in the short history of Inspire, and it’s hype will only be stifled by the lack of exposure it gets. Seek it out. I promise it will match the hype.
I’ve seen Rowe about a half dozen times now, and no matter his opponent or place on the card, he never has an average match. My prediction is by the end of 2014, he’ll be viewed as a break through workhorse of the national indie scene.
Recommended Matches: vs. John McChesney, NWA Houston “Shut Up and Wrestle” 5/17/13; vs. Bobby Fish, ROH “Honor in the Heart of Texas” 6/1/13; vs. Chris Hero, Inspire Pro Wrestling “Ecstasy of Gold” 1/5/2014
The Great Depression - Coming to the ring to Henry Hall’s “Here Comes the Boogeyman”, hailing from “The Dustbowl”, and accompanied to the ring by his handler, the French speaking valet Penny Arcade, The Great Depression is my runaway pick for best new gimmick of 2013.
I’ve talked a lot about Austin’s Inspire Pro Wrestling in this article, and for good reason. Aside from great wrestling, the new promotion has not been afraid to try new ideas, thanks to fresh minds from outside of the wrestling business pulling key strings on the creative end. And the results of that outside the box thinking are creations like The Great Depression.
His head is covered with a
mask burlap sack, he wears a dress shirt that doesn’t fit, and rocks a sloppily adjusted tie. He doesn’t speak, he just grunts & screams. Penny Arcade (another wrestling outsider, portrayed by a professionally trained actress) leads him to the ring, and communicates to him in the only language he seems to understand, French. She yells and stomps around the ring (did I mention this is all in FRENCH?), and Depression will not finish off his opponent until she commands him to.
Lately, Penny Arcade hasn’t been around (in storyline, she stormed off after match a few months ago, in reality she’s currently on a touring gig), so the childlike Depression wanders aimlessly around the arena while the show is going on, sitting in the crowd, meandering through the concession tables, and scaring the shit out of small children (and large adults). This gives the character depth. He’s literally lost without his handler. When it’s time for his match, Inspire officials cautiously point him in the direction of the ring. Sometimes he complies, other times he doesn’t. With his childlike qualities, he’s impossible not to like, while Penny Arcade is positioned as a raving lunatic who is taking advantage of the monster.
He doesn’t wrestle as much as he just mauls people. He finishes men off with with an iron claw, and often gouges into the eyes of his opponents and then refuses to let go, resulting in disqualifications, because he clearly doesn’t understand anything but “kill”.
It’s all completely bizarre yet incredibly fascinating.
Recommended Matches: None. Look, it’s not about the matches with The Great Depression, it’s about the spectacle. It’s a gimmick you can not take your eyes off of.