Chikara: The Sequential Art Experiment by Jerry Whitworth
When you talk about professional wrestling in the United States, the overwhelming majority of people think of the WWE, World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly WWF, the World Wrestling Federation). The undisputed king of wrestling entertainment, companies like World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) would compete against WWF only to thrive, die, and be consumed by the Federation. Others would emerge, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA) would take up remnants of WCW to become the WWE’s closest competition (of which it’s a distant competitor) and Ring of Honor (ROH) would largely be a beacon to independent promotions, in essence a showcase for various other companies under one roof, until it emerged as its own corporate-owned entity and became the third biggest pro wrestling organization in the US. ROH, to a degree, is one in a series of inheritors of the mantle of ECW. Philadelphia and its surrounding area was becoming a major hub for pro wrestling in the country, capitalized in this idea with the formation of the Tri-State Wrestling Alliance in 1989 which marked Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware as its territory (as part of the National Wrestling Alliance, NWA). Eventually, Tri-State’s territory grew to include New York and other Northeastern states, changing its name to Eastern Championship Wrestling in 1992. The NWA was largely the be-all, end-all of pro wrestling before Vincent Kennedy McMahon cherry picked its top talent to form his WWF and became independent of NWA. In wake of this, WCW grew to be its largest umbrella entity until it too broke away out on its own. Eastern Championship Wrestling would be the next hotspot to grow in the NWA until it became Extreme Championship Wrestling in 1994 and, as with WWF and WCW, broke away. Much like a king with several sons vying for the right to rule the kingdom, when ECW died a new inheritor to the realm was sought by many suitors.
In short order after ECW was bought by the WWF, Northeastern promotions (mostly hardcore) popped up everywhere largely around Philadelphia. John Zandig opened Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW) in 1999 while ECW was still in business and was largely seen as its replacement. Rob Feinstein and Gabe Sapolsky started ROH in Bristol, PA in 2002 (a year after ECW closed its doors). Founded in 1999 in Southern California by Rob Zicari and Tom Byron (two businessmen in the pornography industry), Xtreme Pro Wrestling (XPW) was moved to Philadelphia in 2002 under the direction of ECW alum Shane Douglas. Douglas would go on to found Hardcore Homecoming with Cody Michaels and Jeremy Borash as ECW alum Tommy Dreamer founded House of Hardcore (HOH). In 2009, Japanese promotion Dragon Gate would open Dragon Gate USA (DGUSA) in Philadelphia under Gabe Sapolsky. However, none of these companies captured the magic of ECW. While known for its violent, bloody matches, what made ECW special was that it was a melting pot of wrestling cultures. Wrestlers from Mexico and Japan would regularly come through the promotion’s doors (until WCW saw them and scooped them up for themselves) as ECW saw mat wrestlers combat high flyers combat brawlers which was revolutionary for its time. When you take away the blood and guts, likely the inheritor of the will of ECW is Philadelphia-based promotion Chikara.
Founded in 2002, Chikara (the Japanese symbol for strength) was originally a showcase promotion for the Wrestle Factory (named after Japan’s Wrestle Dream Factory), a training facility organized by wrestlers Reckless Youth and “Lightning” Mike Quackenbush in Allentown, PA. Reckless Youth earned the nickname “King of the Independents” who grew up as a fan of the indie wrestling scene in Mount Holly, NJ and who idolized the Lightning Kid (Sean Waltman, later known as the 1–2–3 Kid, Syxx, and X-Pac), a short and skinny wrestler that took on the big and beefy performers that dominated professional wrestling (something still very true today). After training at “Pretty Boy” Larry Sharpe’s Monster Factory and Al Snow’s Bodyslammers Gym, Youth began touring eventually becoming largely the most recognizable performer not working for WWF, WCW, or ECW (though, Youth had brushes with all three companies), featured in various wrestling magazines, newsletters, and publications (his picture among the likes of Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair, at one point ranked higher than Hogan in popularity in the wrestling community). As Youth began getting a hold of tapes of foreign wrestling, he started adopting styles from the likes of Mexico, Japan, and England creating a new unique style. In his travels, Youth became good friends with fellow wrestlers “Dirty” Don Montoya and “Lightning” Mike Quackenbush.
“Lightning” Mike Quackenbush grew up in West Lawn, PA who, after watching the Super Friends-inspired live action specials Legends of the Superheroes, became a huge comic book fan. Thanks to his grandparents, Quackenbush would buy DC comic books sent to be pulped at a paper processing plant by the pound as well as inherited Bronze Age Marvel Comics from a friend’s brother. As a short and skinny kid, Quackenbush had few heroes to idolize among the WWF roster save the 1–2–3 Kid though he would greatly admire Owen Hart (son of famous wrestler Stu Hart). However, his world changed when he happened to watch a match between Flyin’ Brian Pillman and Japanese wrestler Jushin Thunder Liger. Dressed in a costume which included a mask and cape, Liger was an anime character created by Go Nagai licensed to New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) who became a phenomenon in Japanese culture (something like an amalgamation of Superman and Hulk Hogan for comparison of both his impact and identification). Prior to Liger’s emergence, NJPW did something similar with the manga character Tiger Mask who Quackenbush would also cite as an inspiration (as well as Japanese wrestler Manami Toyota and English wrestler Johnny Saint). Without any training, Quackenbush became a professional wrestler taking the name “Lightning” Mike Quackenbush in honor of Jushin Thunder Liger (namely, thunder and lightning). After working some years in the business, Quackenbush would work with El Hijo del Santo (son of Mexican luchador and folk hero El Santo, the most legendary wrestler in Mexican history comparable to some bizarre mash-up of Superman, Hulk Hogan, and Ronald Reagan) whose craft drove Quackenbush to push his art as far as he could and more. Quackenbush would find a kindred spirit in Restless Youth and the duo became rivals in the ring and then tag team partners (joined by Don Montoya to become the Black T-Shirt Squad, or BTS).