It's update time! This article was originally published back in February of 2021, and since then we have had a new tournament! So the list has now been updated.
I love deathmatch. I don't get to talk about it often, but I really love good deathmatch wrestling. Right now I absolutely love what places like ICW No Holds Barred and No Peace Underground are doing, but more than anything I love a good deathmatch tournament. When I first started watching though, I noticed there weren't many suggestions. People would just say things like "pick a year and go" whereas traditional tournaments like King of the Ring it's easy to find rankings for. I wanted to change that and decided to start with IWA East Coast's Masters of Pain. I picked this series because it's a little less known than Tournament of Death or King of the Death Match, but every single entry is worth watching. The tournament ran every year from 2006-2009, and then returned in 2012, 2015, and 2021. Before we get into the ranking I want to give two disclaimers. First, this is deathmatch wrestling. I understand that isn't everyone's cup of tea, and if you've only seen WWE standards of hardcore matches, you might be pretty shocked. There is a LOT of blood in some of these matches, and they can get pretty shocking at times. Second, the commentary can be offensive at times. On some years it's maybe one homophobic joke, but some years(we'll get there) the whole show just seems mean spirited on commentary with pretty much every kind of tasteless you can think of. I geuinely wish they would go back and do new commentary, but thankfully only one show has it to a pervasive amount. I wanted to make it clear up front though that I do not think it's okay, but I think there is enough good wrestling on display I personally was able to continue watching. That being said, 2021 has none of that! IWA East Coast has clearly grown, and this most recent tournament doesn't have any of that hangup. It's a nice sign of things to come.
One last thing before diving in to the tournaments, I wanted to highlight Mad Man Pondo. He is a legend of deathmatch wrestling and owns IWA East Coast. He could have easily made this tournament all about him, but he never even made the finals. He used his recognition to put younger talent over, and I respect that. Seeing a booker using themselves to a reasonable degree makes me very happy. All that being said, onto the tournaments.
I can't believe I'm putting this at the bottom but here we are. This tournament isn't bad, but this is the one with the awful commentary. There's even "jokes" about the Dark Knight Rises theater shooting. I think they put more time into the commentary than the story of the tournament. Not every tournament needs strong story, and the final match is one of the best, but it didn't need to be in a tournament for it to have that weight. Matt Tremont and Masada could wrestle with nothing at stake and it still be amazing. It really does make this a one match show, but that match is amazing. Even without watching the tournament the match is great because it's two of the all time greats of deathmatch. On its own, it's a great intro to deathmatch wrestling, but this tournament honestly isn't. The other must see matchs are a young encounter between Matt Tremont and Danny Havoc, and the Blackhawk Down Deathmatch. The idea of lighttube propellers spun by a tiny fan was awesome, but Ron Mathis got hurt early and bad, making the whole match a matter of keeping his hand from bleeding too much. Like I said, it's not bad, I just think the other tournaments are better. Participants: Danny Havoc, Devon Moore, Mad Man Pondo, MASADA, Ron Mathis, Spidar Boodrow, Viper
All of the top six tournaments are worth watching in their entirety. This one is only at sixth because the tournament itself isn't as memorable. This does have my some of my favorite stipulations though, like the Davy Jones' Locker Room match, and the 200 carpet strip match. The Davy Jones' Locker Room match, while good, is something I understand why we haven't seen done a lot since. The ropes were replaced with fishing line with hooks strewn through it. There were other items like fishing rods around the ring, and man those fish hooks were used to brutal effect. The 200 carpet strip match was certainly less malicious than the 200 light tube match, and maybe we could try that again soon. Thumbtack Jack is a favorite of mine, and seeing him take down Pondo in the first round of all things was awesome. Following it up beating Necro Butcher and Ryuji Ito gave him a pretty great path to victory and all in all, it's a solid show. Danny Havoc puts up a great showing along with Drake Younger, and I always love an Electrified Light Tubes Match. You should definitely watch it, and I was happy to see Thumbtack Jack win, it just lacks a little something extra the top four have. Participants: Danny Havoc, Drake Younger, Mad Man Pondo, Necro Butcher, Ryuji Ito, The Juggulator, Toby Klein
I was really surprised I liked this one so much, as I had heard it was the worst. The lineup isn't quite as iconic, and they were definitely on a bit of a budget buying weapons, but this tournament has incredible story. The venue is also great as there is no barricade and the crowd really gets involved. The story though is what really makes this show not only shine but feel like a breath of fresh air. The opening match sees Ron Mathis redeem himself from his 2012 injury and loss by beating both Mad Man Pondo and Matt Tremont in a cage match. Later in the opening round, Nick Gage absolutely decimates Sid Fabulous, going far beyond what was needed to win. Gage could have won after about a minute but he insisted on laying in more brutality. Viper vs Smokey C is my favorite Fans Bring the Weapons match ever(see crucified blow up doll and light tubes supported by plastic forks) but unfortunately Viper had to be rushed to the hospital right after. This gave Nick Gage a bye to the finals. After beating Josh Crane in the semi final, Ron Mathis came face to face with Nick Gage. Mathis, having already faced two legends in a steel cage and another match, faced a very fresh Gage who had one short match. These two went to town absolutely tearing into each other. It was Gage's match to lose, and that's what he did. In one of the craziest spots i've seen, Gage leaps off the top rope, smashes his head into a pipe just below the ceiling, and plummets to the ground. Mathis scrambles to pick him up, hits a tombstone, and wins. It's such a great redemption arc from his first round loss, and it makes this tournament just so enjoyable. Participants: Viper, Smokey C, Sid Fabulous, Nick Gage, Matt Tremont, Ron Mathis, Mad Man Pondo, Josh Crane, and Elkview Adam
The very first Masters of Pain set the bar high, and if it weren't for two things it would probably be number one. First: the lobsters. Part of me is still dumbfounded about the lobster match and found it awesome in a juvenile way. A bigger part of me though has mixed feelings about using animals, especially live animals, in a match. Toby Klein performing CPR on a lobster is admittedly great dark humor, but I don't think that justifies it. The match also didn't really need the lobsters, but it did start the idea of Masters of Pain strong with a commitment to very unique deathmatch stipulations. The second thing I think they got wrong is the winner. When JC Bailey wins his first round match he mentions that Jun Kasai is the only person in the tournament he's never beaten one on one. That immediately set the course of the tournament from there. As you could guess, we got Jun Kasai versus JC Bailey in the finals, but Kasai won. I do believe that Bailey should have won, but it's freaking Jun Kasai. I will NEVER be mad at Jun Kasai winning because I love the Crazy Monkey as he's called. Mad Man Pondo versus Koke Hane in a Fantastic Four match(there's four fans, get it!) was absolutely insane and kept the pace going strong. I love a good Garden of Eden match as well because the idea of hitting someone with a cactus is amusing to me. Every match in this tournament felt unique including the first ever Electrified Light Tube match where Jun Kasai powerbombs Pondo through, well, electrified light tubes, and a small fire starts on Pondo's shirt. The finals take place in the Cage of Hell, a wooden frame strung with barbed wire, and wow it's good. I wish Bailey had won, but Kasai hitting a splash onto Bailey laying on a bed of nails held up by two chairs...ya, it's a good finish. You only get one first impression, and the Masters of Pain had a great one. Participants: 2 Tuff Tony, Corporal Robinson, JC Bailey, Drake Younger, Koke Hane, Mad Man Pondo, Jun Kasai, Toby Klein.
This is not only a great introduction to deathmatch, but a great introduction to Big Japan Wrestling, as its then Deathmatch Champion Yuko Miyamoto puts on a great show. The locker room emptied to watch his Scaffold match with Devon Monroe which was followed with a Death From Above match against Danny Havoc, two very well known deathmatch wrestlers. The final match where he completes his trilogy of facing D-named competitors ends with him beating Drake Younger. Miyamoto's absolute stomping of the roster is the main driving force of the show, but every match is tons of fun. Danny Havoc vs Sami Callihan was a joy to watch, and Mad Man Pondo vs Whacks got the whole show off to a bloody start. At some point in the tournament, ropes hanging from the ceiling with horizontal bars at the bottom are introduced. These are used throughout the back half of the tournament, especially by Yuko Miyamoto. He swings across the ring using them, including in the finals when he kicks Younger through some light tubes this way. The story in this tournament isn't complicated, just that foreign star shows up, kills everyone, and leaves, and that's okay. This is a delightfully fun show from top to bottom, and the ropes really help it stand out in my mind. You will never forget some of these matches, and isn't that all that matters? Participants: Yuko Miyamoto, Danny Havoc, Devon Moore, Drake Younger, Mad Man Pondo, Sami Callihan, Supreme, and WHACKS.
The first attempt at Masters of Pain was good, and every tournament after was good, but the second iteration of the tournament stood strong for a long time as the best.. Deranged, under his Koke Hane persona, becomes the weirdest hero ever, but man if you don't want him to win by the end. In the opening round, Koke Hane beats Ian Rotten who was about to retire(okay that retirement lasted all of one month but at the time and on the show we didn't know that), and was a legend of deathmatch. After the match Rotten gives an impassioned messaged to Hane that he had great potential, and that although the road is a hard one, if he wants to go down the deathmatch path he will succeed. It was a very human moment, and immediately the man named after a drug wearing a prison jumpsuit sympathetic. Before that match, however, was the best match from any Masters of Pain tournament, as Brain Damage beat Necro Butcher in a 23 minute Double Hell Knock Out Only match, and that was the bloody show opening! That match alone is worth watching, and if you still want more carnage you have an entire tournament ahead of you. Pondo and Havoc, as well as Jaki Numazawa versus Insane Lane round out a great first round leading to wonderful semi finals. Brain Damage beat Mad Man Pondo in a Four Corners of Pain match that was absolutely great. As I said, Pondo always does well at putting newer guys over, and he did the job wonderfully here. The Barbed Wire Bunkhouse Deathmatch between Numazawa and Koke Hane was very unique indeed. A key hangs on a pole in one corner, in the opposite is a locked cage strung with barbed wire, full of weapons. The opening minutes see both wrestlers struggling to gain access to the bunkhouse of weapons, before a very unexpected ending. The Light Tube Log Cabin Cage saw Koke Hane finally finish what Rotten said he could do by beating Brain Damage. I never thought I'd say it, but Koke Hane had a true Cinderella story in this tournament. It's a great show top to bottom, and in my opinion the perfect deathmatch tournament, or so I thought. Participants: Koke Hane, Brain Damage, Mad Man Pondo, Jaki Numazawa, Insane Lane, Ian Rotten, Danny Havoc, and Necro Butcher.
I was really hesitant to make this number one. I thought about it for hours. I thought I only wanted it so high because I just watched it, or because I was a fan of all eight wrestlers already, or because I knew the context more. Ultimately though, I truly think it's the best. There is not a single slow or boring match here, and I can't think of a better way to match up the opening round. Akira and John Wayne Murdoch are old friends and both part of the Rejects, but Akira had been distancing himself trying to prove he could thrive his own. Jimmy Lloyd and G-Raver have attempted to murder each other many times, and I'm shocked they haven't yet. Nolan Edwards had just lost to Alex Colon one week earlier at Tournament of Survival 666 and wanted to avenge that loss. And as for Shlak and Shane Mercer? I mean they ripped a car apart what more do you want? All the opening round matches were fun with clever stipulations I would expect from IWA East Coast. Special love though to the backyard match when Mercer and Shlak climb in the backseat and just start punching. After four good and long matches we're left with Shane Mercer, Jimmy Lloyd, Nolan Edward and Akira. It's weird to see Mercer as the vet, but this final four really symbolizes the next generation of deathmatch. The semifinals were also wonderful, but of the two I think Mercer vs Akira was just a little better. That main event though. Oh the main event. Akira vs Nolan Edward. Having seen Akira scratch and claw and finally get this big win, and over someone so close to him as Nolan: its perfect. For a man who has had an iconic year, this could be his best moment. They clashed in a Fans Bring the Weapons Dog Collar match, and its just as brutal as it sounds. This tournament is all about the new generation; they mention it on commentary a couple times even, and if you're going to prove the new generation has it, Nolan vs Akira is the way to go. You'll notice this is the only tournament to not see Pondo compete. Before an injury he was supposed to, and while his lack of inclusion is noticeable, he does come out and speak, and frankly it's poignant in showing that it truly is time for the new crop of talent to shine.
Participants: Shlak, G-Raver, Akira, Jimmy Lloyd, John Wayne Murdoch, Alex Colon, Nolan Edward, and Akira
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