The Battle of Los Angeles: Professional wrestling’s answer to Sundance

Yahoo Sports
Pro Wrestling Guerrilla’s annual Battle of Los Angeles tournament takes place this weekend. (Dave Doyle)
Pro Wrestling Guerrilla’s annual Battle of Los Angeles tournament takes place this weekend. (Dave Doyle)

LOS ANGELES — Perhaps you consider professional wrestling to be a form of sport. If that’s the case, then consider Pro Wrestling Guerrilla’s annual Battle of Los Angeles tournament to be the equivalent of March Madness, where the stars of tomorrow have a chance to compete under an intense spotlight.

Or maybe you believe in the showbiz side of the spectacle, which is frequently called “sports entertainment.” In that case, consider the three-night tournament to be pro wrestling’s answer to the Sundance Film Festival: The place where the very best independent talent from around the world put their best foot forward in front of the watchful eyes of both industry movers and shakers and the most in-the-know hardcore fans.

“When you survive day three, you feel like you’ve gone through a religious experience,” said Matt Jackson, who along with brother Nick forms the game-changing tag team, The Young Bucks. “You feel like you’ve gained knowledge and are a better person than you were before. It’s a true test of will for everyone involved, including the fans. It’s wrestling and sensory overload, and you feel burnt out in the best way possible at the end of it. BOLA is its own wrestling culture at this point, and creates tomorrows stars.”

The Battle of Los Angeles is where stars are made

The 14th edition of the biggest annual event run by the little wrestling promotion that could goes down on three straight nights starting Friday at the Globe Theatre in Los Angeles, with all tickets at the 1,000-seat venue selling out in minutes.

Those who scored tickets will get in on an indy wrestling event with a track record like no other: Previous winners of the tournament include World Wrestling Entertainment standouts Sami Zayn (2011) and Adam Cole (2012); current International Wrestling Grand Prix champion Kenny Omega (2009); current NXT tag team champion Kyle O’Reilly (2013), and New Japan stars Marty Scurll (2016) and Zack Sabre Jr. (2015).

Expanding the list to competitors who didn’t take home the trophy turns it into a who’s who in pro wrestling: Current WWE champion A.J. Styles; former WWE champ Daniel Bryan; former WWE Universal champion Kevin Owens; the Bucks; current NWA champion Cody Runnels; and Japanese legend Jushin “Thunder” Liger have all plied their trade in the fabled tournament.

And if it wasn’t already obvious that the Battle of Los Angeles is the place where stars are made, consider last year’s version: Three of the four 2017 BOLA semifinalists — champion Ricochet, Keith Lee, and Matt Riddle — have since been signed by the WWE (the fourth, Jeff Cobb, has begun wrestling in the world’s second-largest wrestling company, New Japan Pro-Wrestling).

So how did an event put on by a promotion which has no television show, no streaming deal, still sells old-school DVDs, and only recently moved its home base from a 400-seat American Legion hall in the San Fernando Valley to a new-but-still-small home in downtown LA, become the event wrestlers from all over the world come to be seen?

“This is one of the most organic things I’ve seen in my 40 years covering wrestling,” said former Yahoo Sports MMA columnist Dave Meltzer, the world’s preeminent wrestling journalist. “They didn’t set out to create this big important thing, but like anything else underground that gets popular, word of mouth spreads about the quality and next thing you know it’s the things everyone wants to see.”

Long before Ronda Rousey was a WWE superstar, she was a regular at Pro Wrestling Guerrilla shows in Reseda, California. (Marcus Vanderberg)
Long before Ronda Rousey was a WWE superstar, she was a regular at Pro Wrestling Guerrilla shows in Reseda, California. (Marcus Vanderberg)

How Pro Wrestling Guerrilla paved the path for All In

PWG was founded in 2003 by a consortium of Southern California-based wrestlers who had been plugging away on the independent scene and wanted to take control of their own careers.

“We just wanted something that was by the wrestlers and for the wrestlers,” said Excalibur, the company’s masked public spokesman. “We got tired of shady promoters and bad conditions and all the usual B.S. and we wanted to take things into our own hands.”

The first Battle of Los Angeles came about in 2005, with Chris Bosh defeating Styles in the finals. The single-elimination tournament was modeled after the Super J Cup, a memorable 1990s Japanese tournament that spotlighted lighter-weight wrestlers such as Liger, The Great Sasuke, and Chris Jericho.

While the caliber of talent in the early tournaments stands the test of time, the shows themselves didn’t garner attention outside the most hardcore of wrestling circles. But somewhere along the way, things started to change. After jumping from venue to venue, PWG settled into its home at American Legion Post 308 in Reseda, a sweltering bandbox of a room. This created an environment longtime observers compared to the ECW Arena in Philadelphia in the 1990s, where a loyal core audience came to believe their favorite promotion was the best thing going in wrestling, and backed up their passion by purchasing the wrestlers’ merchandise in droves.

Matt Jackson, for his part, was a part of the promotional team for the recent All In pay-per-view in suburban Chicago, which sold out the 11,000-seat Sears Center in half an hour and featured a weekend-long fan convention. Jackson readily admits PWG helped pave the path for All In’s success.

“We learned that a wrestling show doesn’t always have to necessarily have that big fight feel, Jackson said. “Wrestling shows can also feel like a party. People like to have fun. PWG taught me that you don’t have to take wrestling so seriously all of the time. People want to laugh, jump up and down, clap and most important be involved. We knew that style worked by doing it for so long at PWG, so we knew our show would be fun and interactive.”

Wrestling fans would line up hours before the doors would open for Pro Wrestling Guerrilla shows. (Marcus Vanderberg)
Wrestling fans would line up hours before the doors would open for Pro Wrestling Guerrilla shows. (Marcus Vanderberg)

Not your average independent wrestling promotion

As word of mouth spread, PWG cards became events which transformed from ones in which fans could walk up and buy tickets the night of the show, to fans beginning to travel from out of town to attend, to near-instantaneous sellouts when tickets are put on sale online, followed by an hours-long lineup in the parking lot on fight night in order to get the best general admission seats when doors open.

“That first show where we sold out in advance, some dude walked up to me and wanted to take a picture with me and told me he traveled all the way from Alabama just to be there,” Excalibur said. “That just blew my mind.”

Meltzer, for his part, had heard enough about the quality of the shows that he started traveling from his San Jose home to investigate.

“There was a ladder match that just incredible (Super Smash Bros vs. Adam Cole & Kyle O’Reilly vs. The Young Bucks in 2012) and I thought, okay, I have to check this out and see that it’s about,” Meltzer said. “And I got there, and the opening match blew everyone away, and I thought ‘they just burnt the crowd out for the night,’ but then the next match was great and the next one after that and the crowd was with them all night long. Seeing it live, I realized they had something really special here.”

As PWG’s reputation spread, up-and-coming wrestlers from around the world angled to be a part of the festivities, and BOLA grew into the company’s Super Bowl. The 2016 tournament won by England’s Scurll is generally agreed to be the event which took things to another level.

The social media revolution which has propelled the independent wrestling boom was starting to be felt. Runnels, the son of the wrestling legend Dusty Rhodes, walked away from the WWE to forge his own path, and when doing so, sent out a tweet which included BOLA on his list of goals.

“When Cody sent out that tweet, it was like ‘whoa, this is a different level now,’” Excalibur said. “Then Liger comes over, and I mean, the Super J Cup was the inspiration for all this, and here’s the guy who has won the Super J Cup standing in the locker room, being super cool about wrestling whatever opponent we wanted him to wrestle. It was something else.”

In addition to Cody and Liger, Japanese star Hiromu Takahashi and British stars Scurll, Will Ospreay, and Sabre Jr. complemented the cast of regulars over three unforgettable nights.

“You had guys from all over, different companies, all weights and sizes,” Scurll said. “With so many top names like Liger, Chris Hero, Cody, Ricochet, Zack Sabre, it was a real honor to come out on top, an overwhelming experience which really put the spotlight on me.”

On the tourney’s final day, Scurll defeated Cody, Mark Haskins, and Ospreay and Trevor Lee in a three-way finals match to take the crown.

“Day three itself may have been one of the toughest days of my life,” Scurll said. “Three 20-minute plus matches in the Reseda heat, I was beyond shattered but proud I could show the world my passion for this business and my desire to be the very best.”

The unlikely Battle of Los Angeles competitor

By this time, BOLA had become so ingrained that people who had grown up with the show wanted to be a part of it. In the audience for Scurll’s victory was Brody King, the frontman for area hardcore band God’s Hate, who had just broken into pro wrestling.

The San Fernando Valley native is a can’t-miss star in the making. He looks the part at 6-foot-5, 285 pounds, with long hair, an unruly beard, and a tattooed body. In the ring, he delivers the goods, mixing a hard-hitting brawling style with acrobatic moves that seem to defy the laws of physics.

King will compete in BOLA for the first time this weekend, and sitting ringside for the 2016 tourney was the moment he decided he needed to be a part of it.

“I own a house in Los Angeles and have a wife and kid, so of course it would be nice to make big money,” King said. “But I was into straight-edge music before I was super into wrestling, and PWG just has that punk rock vibe to it, that authenticity that you can’t bottle, that you can’t manufacture. The idea that I’m going to have my chance to put my name up there with all the guys who helped make BOLA what it is, that’s a little scary but it’s just a huge honor just to be a part of this.”

And if you make your name in BOLA, the money will come. Scurll saw his wrestling stock rise as soon as he left Reseda with the trophy. He soon thereafter hooked on with the Ring of Honor promotion and from there made the connection which led him to New Japan, where he won the prestigious IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, from Ospreay in Nov. 2017.

Marty Scurll won the 2016 Battle of Los Angeles tournament. (George Napolitano/MediaPunch)
Marty Scurll won the 2016 Battle of Los Angeles tournament. (George Napolitano/MediaPunch)

“I think working for PWG helped me get signed to Ring of Honor, which for sure helped me get signed to NJPW,” Scurll said. “PWG opened the doors for all other American promoters to start booking Europeans, they saw these awesome guys working in PWG and wanted to bring them to their own promotion. PWG really started that trend. They’re trailblazers.”

That might explain why Scurll, a mere eight days after wrestling at the Tokyo Dome in front of 40,000 spectators, found himself back in Reseda on Jan. 12, where he lost an excellent match to Trent? after 20 hard-fought minutes.

“It’s the passion from the people in that building,” Scurll said. “There’s no glitz and glamour. No crazy storylines. Nothing fancy. It’s just the guys between those ropes telling a story with their bodies and I love it. To create such an atmosphere with just what they have is magical. It’s our fight club.”
That a wrestler who has gone on to bigger things would return to a spot halfway around the world and wrestle just as hard in front of 400 people as he had in front of 40,000, to Excalibur, is the best testament one can pay to what PWG and the Battle of Los Angeles represents.

“Marty’s gone on to become a big star, and we might be able to get a date with him once next year,” Excalibur said. “But when he does, I know he’ll give it and give our fans everything he’s got, and if you’re trying to find some secret on how this has been turned into what it is, that’s it. That’s the best compliment you can pay the company and the fans.”

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