Amazon Prime using some of the top names in independent wrestling in its Dojo Pro series is just another prime example of why 2018 is a fantastic year for fans looking for more options other than just the big player(s).
New Japan Pro Wrestling has continued to grow into the U.S. fan base, and Ring of Honor just keeps on gaining more and more of a following as people like Cody, The Young Bucks and others keep finding way to shape the industry.
Drew McCarthy and myself (Benjamin Raven) each consumed the heck out of Dojo Pro once it hit Amazon Prime in early July. Also, if you're not a Prime member, don't worry, because each of the 12 episodes are available for purchase or rent.
Dojo Pro isn't just your typical professional wrestling tournament, but a 13-man ladder, single-elimination gauntlet match of sorts with its episodes consisting of just one match. Each episode is about 20 to 30 minutes long, and that makes Dojo Pro an insanely easy watch for those who have no idea who any of these guys are.
The names that caught my eyes heading into the series were "Bad Boy" Joey Janela, Jeff Cobb, Aaron Solow, James Storm and Shane Strickland. Afterwards, I understand the beauty of Dojo Pro as I am now aware of -- and a fan of -- guys like Ricky Starks, MJW and Gunner Miller.
The presentation is somehow a mix of 1980s Mid-Atlantic wrestling tapings and early TNA days with the dome entrance and hyped-up, controlled crowd. It's a display that I personally enjoyed a great deal with the super cool wrestler banners, absence of a ring apron covering the side and under the ring and the standing crowd like it's a fight on Def Jam Vendetta.
At the end, the last-man-standing will fight No. 1 seed Jeff Cobb for the Dojo Pro Black Belt and an automatic shot at the Ring of Honor TV Title.
That's right, in 2018, there is an Amazon Prime series consisting of an independent wrestling gauntlet, single-elimination tournament with the winner getting a Power Ranger belt with thigh blankets and a shot at the ROH TV Title.
I'm not making fun, well I guess I kind of am, but I love it. Dojo Pro is another representation of why I love where professional wrestling as an industry is at in 2018.
It's fun, inventive and has that cool old-school/new-school mix in the presentation, action and even the goofy TV studio setup with pre-match vignettes that reminded me of the 2004-2005 UFC era. I personally highly recommend checking out Dojo Pro on Amazon Prime as it's a fun, easy watch that's a crash course on some of the names to watch (and know) on the independent scene. Stuff like Dojo Pro is what helps indy shows sells tickets, and that's extremely valuable in and of itself.
This post will contain full spoilers, and will have commentary from Raven and Drew McCarthy. Drew's comments will be italicized to offer that different perspective. The following will run through each episode starting with the first for the right to be the No. 12 seed and face Gunner Miller in the opener:
Ep 1 -- The Battle for No. 12 -- Kevin Ku vs. Kerry Awful
My first entry in my notes for Dojo Pro are directed toward Kerry Awful and it goes as such, "why weird mask guy take it off immediately." When you build yourself as a mysterious, crazy, Mankind-lite character, don't take your mask off and show the world your normal, moderately handsome face.
I didn't get that.
Other than that, the match is solid, straightforward hungry guy vs. hungry guy match but I'm more paying attention to the setup, the crowd, what the stage and rings looks like admittedly through the majority of this one.
We get to see how things are going to go on the Dojo Pro Amazon Prime series, with each episode formulaically entering with TV studio intro, background stories on each guy and then bam right into the action with one post-match in-ring segment. That what to expect, every single time. Wrestling is repetition, and this formula works in the fact that it lets you meet these guys and see their work in a quick, yet complete format.
Ku beats 1995 Mankind errr I mean Awful via submission in a straightforward match to earn the right to face Gunner Miller in the No. 12 vs. No. 11 official opener. PWTorch reports Ku was trained by Brian Fury, and Awful by Hall of Famer Dutch Mantell.
Jeff Cobb comes out at the end, talks some crap and beats up a fan for a bit. He's a scary big man, and I love that Dojo Pro showed what waited at the end of the ladder in the first episode.
Winner: Kevin Ku
Ep 2 -- No. 12 Kevin Ku vs. No. 11 Gunner Miller
Gunner Miller was the first guy that I didn't know coming in, and I left as a fan and someone who I enjoyed watching. He was a former college football player, and got over quick with me with his high-impact moves and a mad decent spear-jackhammer combo.
It's off that the Ultimate Warrior of all people was one of the key driving forces to get into the industry, so that was a nice little fold to the character of athletic specimen/bully. The Warrior detail is such a nice touch to the classic football turned wrestler deal, and that makes you curious in this guy.
While the actual match lasted less than 10 minutes, the Dojo Pro team did a great job getting Gunner over in a short time with how it booked this one. After nailing a nasty spear and hitting a jackhammer, Gunner doesn't pin Ku but rather lays him out with a vicious forearm to win by referee stoppage. He's a big, strong and athletic powerful heel with an interesting backstory, that's gold for a professional wrestling tournament.
Ep 3 -- No. 11 Gunner Miller vs. No. 10 Wheeler Yuta
Wheeler Yuta comes to the ring with a strange comic book villain-esque light-up match, and I'm not sure what to think. His backstory was the most lacking, as it pretty much just talked about him touring in Japan. Didn't say for who or against what, so that was oddly vague.
Gunner's power is just impressive, and I know Wheeler Yuta isn't the biggest guy, but everything the big man does looks easy and believable. He's over in my mind, and I want to see me of this guy which is the beauty of Dojo Pro.
The match itself is solid with some basic back and forth action with the beginning portion sticking mostly to the big bully overpowering the younger, smaller opponent.
Yuta takes the action to the next level with a nice over the rope senton to the outside to Gunner, and then a beautiful crossbody nearfall before showing off his strength with a spinout powerbomb to Miller.
Gunner's catch spear, mean jackhammer and perfect spinebuster make me want more from him, but, he goes back to the same gimmick in not pinning his opponent and Yuta pins him after a flying elbow to move on. Didn't personally like this one, as Gunner had personality and was the big man this tournament needed so far out from Jeff Cobb.
Ep 4 -- No. 10 Wheeler Yuta vs. No. 9 Corey Hollis
Wheeler Yuta enters this one looking to be the first man to win twice in Dojo Pro, and this keeps it interesting through the early stages of the ladder. Dojo Pro hyping up the fact that Corey Hollis and AJ Styles trained and worked together is reminiscent of the WWE hyping up Jordan Devlin and Finn Balor's relationship in the WWE UK Tournament.
Ranked #9 - @CoreyHollis makes his way into the Dojo with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He's appeared on every major wrestling television show in America and was trained by @AJStylesOrg ! Watch Today on @PrimeVideo at https://t.co/Upb0vXKVnN / https://t.co/JT1R1mMfxp #dojopro pic.twitter.com/BBU6R6ReCR— Dojo Pro (@dojoprotv) July 15, 2018
Hollis runs out and rips his cartoon banner off the wall, and then proceeds to play chicken and run away from Yuta for what feels like 10 minutes. This doesn't make sense to me, Hollis is bigger and more experienced, why would he run away from a 21-year-old kid. Sometimes by the book heel stuff doesn't work, this is an example, in my opinion.
The match is whatever because it's a guy playing old-school heel with a guy that doesn't have much of a personality. I wrote in my notes that I expected Ep. No. 4 to be the weakest in the series, and in my opinion, I was right.
Things get a little fun in the end when Hollis works Yuta's arm by putting it in the turnbuckle and kicking the hell out of it. Hollis then gets rolled up and taps out to the STF out of nowhere. A rough watch, but "Bad Boy" Joey Janela is up next.
Ep 5 -- No. 10 Wheeler Yuta vs. No. 8 Joey Janela
I will admit, while Joey Janela was one of the guys I was aware of, it was nice to see him get to tell a story and show us his character in this type of setting and presentation. He enters Dojo Pro pissed off about his No. 8 ranking that the broadcast team justified by hammering home the fact he's a hardcore "daredevil" wrestler that falls off of buildings and hits people with lights.
Drew wants to know if you guys knew that Janela fell off the roof of a building or not? Because they probably didn't mention it enough. Also, he feels that Janela's in-ring facial expressions are better than 90 percent of the current WWE roster.
So far, Janela is far and away the strongest and most interesting personality. Yuta enters with the White Belt looking like a green version of Glacier. The very controlled crowd is pro-Yuta, but I like the vibe from it as it feels like a classic 1980s taping with a very face/heel-centric crowd.
The action itself starts off slow with these two showing off their grappling and catch skills for the first portion of the match. Janela's mind games and character are what makes this match, and the middle portion of this series succeed. Things take a turn to Janela's favor when he hits a brutal death valley driver on the ring apron.
There's something about the absence of an actual apron draping over the side that makes this move look even more brutal. Janela gets the win after nailing a low-blow and a circle kick for the pinfall. Solid enough match, and the longest episode so far coming in just a tick above 30 minutes.
Ep 6 -- No. 8 Joey Janela vs. No. 7 Brandon Cutler
Dojo Pro smartly sprinkles some Young Buck/PWG dust on Brandon Cutler to give him that ultra-indy feel that this show is all about. He's got a new look after his hiatus, but the story told is great considering the context. Janela comes in, still pissed off about his No. 8 ranking bragging about winning a "professional wrestling match," and not just a hardcore spotfest.
Drew coming in hard by saying that "Brandon Cutler looks like the first guy who dies on Dragon Ball Z because he underestimated the Saiyans." While Drew admittedly knew nothing about Brandon Cutler coming in, he is impressed that Dojo Pro is working hard to give everyone some shine.
It's an all right match, it's hard to believe Cutler is going to beat Janela just based on the fact by how the latter is shining in this format. Janela is the highlight, he hits an impressive sit-out powerbomb that halts Cutler's offense before a couple of superkicks and a footstomp for the pinfall win.
After the match, Janela gets on the mic and craps all over the Tennessee wrestling legends (filmed in Tennessee) and trash talks Jerry Lawler. He'd be over in any crowd, and not just this unique Dojo Pro one.
Ep 7 -- No. 8 Joey Janela vs. No. 6 James Storm
I was obviously excited for this one, as it's one of those matches that you never think about existing but once you do it's kind of like, "All right, I would definitely want to see what that looks like." James Storm is a known commodity from his lengthy run in TNA, and this is the first time in Dojo Pro we've had two known commodities match up.
Storm is playing up the "I'm not old" angle, and Janela is on the "is he relevant angle?" The Bad Boy takes it to the next level when he says he's too good to even acknowledge TNA's existence. It's good stuff.
For some reason, these two make you notice how small the ring is. It's a surprisingly quick match, but we get some solid moments with Storm using a fan's foot as a weapon and some believable nearfalls. The match only goes about 10-11 minutes before Janela grabs the win to keep his momentum going. James Storm does his job in getting the heel over more as he rolls through the ladder, which is great storytelling for a gauntlet/tournament format.
Dojo Pro even lets the Cowboy get his heat back with a superkick after the match and a catchphrase drop before we fade to black into Ep. No. 8.
Ep 8 -- No. 8 Joey Janela vs. No. 5 Ricky Starks
Dojo Pro has really hit its stride at this point thanks to Joey Janela and the continuation of known commodities on the indy circuit facing off. Ep. 8 has the added layer of Aaron Solow potentially facing his tag team partner in the next matchup if he can make it through Janela.
Drew: "Ricky Starks looks like the best wrestler in 2004 with that baseball jersey. What is that made out of, plastic? Also ... Stroke Daddy?" At this point, Janela has used every catchphrase on the planet, but he's still somehow not out of facial expressions.
Janela gives another great interview, and just has me hooked on his character. It's the peg of this series, so far, and he shines above the rest of the pack in these segments. "I am a bad boy, every night is a bad night when you're Joey Janela."
Starks is billed as the scrappy guy with a temper, who was picked on growing up. Pretty fodder indy wrestling storytelling, and unfortunately bland when put up next to Janela.
Janela takes the old-school attention to detail psychology as he hones in on a leg, and just focuses on it with nearly every offensive move. When Janela locks in the Figure-Four and rolls out of the ring and onto the floor while maintaining hold of the submission, I was so sold on this match and Janela himself.
Starks barely beats the 10-count and takes a superkick upon entering the ring, but shocks the crowd and most at home by kicking out. Janela then goes and grabs a pink folding chair, and gets himself rolled up to lose to Starks. It's an formulaic, by the book ending but it was a solid match that keeps the story going with Janela getting his heat back by beating the hell out of Starks after the match.
Dojo Pro ends the episode with Starks' status up in the air, as Janela basically murdered the knee and leg to set up what seems like an injury angle. Looks like we might not get that Extra Talented matchup after all.
Ep 9 -- No. 5 Ricky Starks vs. No. 4 Aaron Solow (The One Where Extra Talented Explodes)
I want to bring up something Drew asked me about after the Janela-Starks match before getting into this one. How long is there between each match? These are questions that wrestling fans ask when you throw an injury angle at us. Maybe that's something to storyline clarify if there is a Season 2 of Dojo Pro.
We are now Joey Janela-less, which means the promo segments have declined by default but we're here based on what is going to happen when an injured Starks gets in the ring with tag team partner and friend Aaron Solow.
Will Solow attack the leg? Will the match happen. Well, no and kind of. Starks comes out and limps through what feels like an eternity of selling an injury that he suffered on a previous episode. The ref calls it, Solow issues an open challenge for the White Belt and out comes ROH mainstay Cheeseburger to answer the call.
It might've taken a while to get here, but I'm not going to complain about getting a taste of Cheeseburger during Dojo Pro. It's a classic Burger match with some fun back and forth, crisp counters and crowd work with good clean, fun match. The tone change from the Janela episodes is striking at times, but Solow and Cheeseburger led us into the climax.
Drew: "If you were going to do this, though, why waste time on the other partial match? Would have loved more time with Burger and Solow. Felt like a waste. Could have just gone right to the open challenge and given us more of what was a FUN match."
Solow wins after hitting a nasty catch, stalling cradle DDT on burger to move on to face No. 3 MJF.
Ep 10 -- No. 4 Aaron Solow vs. No. 3 MJF
OH, OK, MJF. We've got ourselves one hell of a talker, and one hell of a natural heel. MJF is 22-years-old, booked for All In and reminds Cody Rhodes of a young Cody Rhodes. This is really cool to see him in this setting.
MJW is billed as a rich kid, a former D1 athlete at freaking Yale and he's immediately recognized as one hell of a talker. He grabs your attention, he makes you hate him and I love it.
Drew's favorite moment from MJF: 'What is your hate made out of? Grandmother? Shut up." This actually has me really excited to see MJF at All In Sept. 1 at the Sears Centre Arena in Chicago.
Solow and MJF put on the most athletic show of the series, so far, and I loved some of the innovative offense from this one. MJF is deceptively quick and athletic, and both men hit picture-perfect dives to the outside. MJF hits a piledriver from outside the ring to in, which makes me hit rewind about 10 times to check that replay out. Cool stuff.
Solow wins after making MJF tap out to the crossface, which I did not see coming, but I also don't hate the idea of Solow moving on. He's that undersized underdog that fits the format, and at this point, has been able to work with anyone thrown his way. I find myself becoming more of a fan of his as each episode passes.
Ep 11 -- No. 4 Aaron Solow vs. No. 2 Shane Strickland
This was admittedly my first time experiencing Shane Strickland, I've seen highlights, I've read up on him but that's just one of those guys that slipped through the cracks for me. Was super curious about him when seeing his No. 2 ranking, and his innovative (seriously) skillset is a perfect fit for Dojo Pro.
Strickland is pure fun, and I love when someone who is hyped as having an innovative offense actually turns out to be someone with a REALLY innovative offensive set. Both men look great, and I'm impressed with Solow making Strickland make look a million bucks.
Both sell the crap out of each's big kicks, and this was a great back and forth match between two very different guys. This will probably go down as the best match of the series as the nearfalls and false finishes are unmatched in Dojo Pro.
Strickland kicks out of the Cradle DDT and a superkick delivered on the apron, which makes you think he's going to go over until he taps out to the crossface. Dojo Pro is really hitting me in the sweet spot by showing that they understand have completely bought into their format and setup.
Having Solow beat multiple guys with a series of different finishers makes him such an intriguing in-ring performer. That type of guy in a gauntlet, tournament style show makes for beautiful storytelling as he can beat you a number of different ways.
Broadcaster Drew has some tips for Dojo Pro's post-match interviewer: "No sense of the room, he only has one volume for everything. Why are you shouting? You have a mic dude."
Ep 12 -- No. 4 Aaron Solow vs. No. 1 Jeff Cobb in the Dojo Pro finals for the black belt and ROH TV title show
I have an issue with Jeff Cobb not showing up outside of the first and last episodes. You've got this olympic monster waiting at the end of the ladder, and you're not going to build up the monster waiting at the end of the tunnel? You have to use what you're billing as your No. 1 threat. Whether that's pre-taping some segments or interviews or making the broadcast team reference him more, we needed more Cobb build. All of a sudden we're just here, and it doesn't feel like a true ending. The fan beatdown segment in the first episode was great and got him some heat and social media attention, but damn, that's basically the last we hear of him.
Drew: "These guys should have a gross mustache off. As in at the end of the match, they should both shave thier mustaches off.
Cobb is billed as what he is. A 2014 Olympic participant badass who is here to cash a check. At this point, I'm loving Solow's on-the-fly interviews which are basically his personal strategy development sitdowns. Also, that Extra Talented shirt he is wearing is sick. Check those guys out when you get the chance, more people should know about them for them and not other reasons.
Todd Sinclair is in the freaking house as the ref, which is a nice touch and reminder of ROH's presence.
This is a fun match, Solow matches up well with the big guy and makes him look like a million bucks. There are some fun counters, and I love that Solow's offence is basically just peppering in a high-risk spot as Cobb manhandles him.
Cobb nails a perfect dropkick somehow with all that meat, and I gotta say, his signature big moves are sick. Quick, violent, powerful, believable and impressive looking. That's such a large aspect of being an over big man in this industry.
While this was a show built for independent wrestlers, I still did not see Solow winning this one. I love it. He hits that Cradle DDT for the pinfall, and we go off the air with the "completely independent wrestler" holding the Dojo Pro Black Belt with a shot at the ROH TV title as streamers fall from the ceiling.