The 2016 CHIKARA season finale saw a number of wrestlers bid farewell to the company. Following the loss of his mask to Frightmare comments on social media suggested that Amasis would be continuing his career under a new name/persona outside of the promotion, while Colony stalwart Soldier Ant retired after a decade of service with a respectful ceremony observed by the entire roster. However, the biggest departure of the weekend was confirmed at the very end of the weekend. CHIKARA often ends their shows with an encore match, which is exactly what it sounds like. Sometimes it’ll just be a bit of fun designed to send the fans home happy. This one? This was a little bit more than that. Drew Gulak came to the ring and gave a really nice farewell speech, noting that he’d been training at the Chikara Wrestle Factory with his brother, the ultraviolent icon Rory Mondo, since they were both teenagers. CHIKARA had allowed him to pick an opponent for his final appearance and he’d chosen Rory, but Rory wasn’t able to be there and would get his beatings at home (Christmas is coming, of course). Before he could even name his second choice Mike Quackenbush hit the ring to a huge pop and we had ourselves an encore. The crowd completely exploded for this, an absolutely incredible way to kickstart the final match of Drew Gulak’s career in his home promotion.

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It’s hard to explain how much I enjoyed this, although I’ll have a go. This is arguably the best CHIKARA singles match I’ve seen, a match between the founder of company and perhaps his very best student, wrestling a style that has been at the core of the promotion since day one, and certainly since Jorge “Skayde” Rivera’s influence became apparent around 2004. Over the past few years Drew Gulak has shown himself to be one of the most versatile wrestlers on the independents today, fulfilling any of the roles asked of him in a variety of promotions. This seemed like Drew going back to day one, the style he learned from the very start, immediately fell in love with and eventually mastered, against the man who helped him to perfect it. Of all the trainees to emerge from the Wrestle Factory, Gulak is likely the closest parallel to Quackenbush himself in the ring, and as such this was a lovely way to close things out on his tenure in the company. This was completely unlike anything you might have seen from Gulak in EVOLVE, instead more closely resembling a traditional lucha libre maestros contest. It wasn’t about the two wrestlers necessarily attempting to win in a heated fight; it was two well-liked veterans going against each other one last time in an exhibition, testing their skills and ideally putting on a show for the fans along the way. You don’t see much of this in American wrestling, and while it’s kind of a shame I don’t know who on the scene would be able to fit those roles as well as Drew Gulak and Mike Quackenbush. Within the CHIKARA pocket universe, nobody is more appropriate for this dynamic than these two.

A lot of the technical wrestling on display was quite simple, wristlock reversals, each man trading sunset flips and so forth, but in execution it was on another level to so much of the stuff you see in American wrestling nowadays. A couple of counters from Gulak took a number of repeat viewings to fully comprehend, and even moreso to figure out why such seemingly straightforward things are so rarely done. These are a pair of wrestlers who waste no motion and use it to their advantage, taking their chain wrestling to the next level of complexity. The key reason why this entire match succeeded where so many matwork-heavy matches fall down is also quite simple: it was constantly entertaining. There’s a fine line between an interesting technical wrestling match and a laborious snoozefest, and fortunately this was the former. There was no resting in this one. Both men were constantly working, either to maintain control or escape the condundrum they’d found themselves fall into, and that made the 20 minutes they wrestled for fly by. When executed well the llave style and the traditional British styles are two of the most beautiful forms of pro wrestling when executed well, taking ordinary holds then chaining them together quickly and flawlessly, and the influences of both here were displayed unabashedly throughout. Also adding to the match was how vocal both wrestlers were, alongside the very active referee Bryce Remsburg. This often runs the risk of coming across as quite comedic but it worked here. Bryce played into the story too in a very small way; a CHIKARA original himself, nobody was better to referee this contest than him, and I don’t think he receives enough credit for the job he does. Just keeping up with some of the exchanges in this seemed tricky enough.

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Gulak occasionally veered away from the holds, breaking out his bodyslams into the ropes (an enjoyably awkward-looking move) and, in the big spot of the match, a backdrop that dropped Quack onto the ring apron, officially deemed by pollsters to be the hardest part of the wrestling ring. The move was doubly damaging considering Quack’s very real long-term back injuries. This all added an element of venom to the story they were trying to tell; while both men respected one another’s skills and ultimately intended to shake hands at the conclusion of the night, they weren’t going to take it easy between the bells. No rules were broken but no punches were pulled either. The finish came out of nowhere, with Quack attempting the original Quackendriver only for Drew to slide out of it and immediately clamp on the dragon sleeper for the submission. As a fan of flash submission finishes this was well up my street. There’s no drama to the submission; once the hold is in the match is over. This was a welcome reminder of why Mike Quackenbush was one of my favourite wrestlers in the world for a significant portion of the 2000s, and it was a perfect sendoff for Drew Gulak as he moves on to seek fame and fortune elsewhere. CHIKARA may receive a lot of attention, sometimes criticism or outright dismissal, for its wackier elements but they’ve always been capable of delivering incredible and genuine top quality matches like this, and long may this kind of variety continue. ****3/4

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