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Corey Graves’ Prodigies Collide in Steel City Showdown

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It’s ironic how many things come full circle and seemingly causal events can have a profound impact later on. On November 1, 2003, Ryan O’Toole and I attended an International Wrestling Cartel event at CCAC South campus in West Mifflin, PA. At 14, I had been to a few indy shows before and a fan of the sport since I was three so when my slightly younger wrestling buddy had any questions at his first independent wrestling event, I told him the background of former ECW heavyweight champion, Shane Douglas, who appeared on the card that night. However, it was the main event that featured Pittsburgh legend, Dennis Gregory defending his title against an up and coming Sterling James Kennan, who is now prominently featured as Corey Graves of the NXT commentary team that had an effect on him

Ryan was impressed with Keenan and as we attended more shows at a variety of locations for a variety of different promotions over the next few years, his passion for this new hobby grew until he decided that he wanted to pursue a career inside the ring ropes. He began a disciplined exercise regiment to prepare himself for a possible pro career. Just over four years after he attended his first indy event in West Mifflin, Ryan O’Toole walked into a converted storage facility in Monroeville, PA at the age of just 16 to begin his pro training under the guidance of someone who gained international fame working extensively in England, Matt Polinsky, the same performer that inspired him a few years earlier as Sterling James Keenan. On that first day, as O’Toole began the tedious process of repeatedly landing on the stiff canvas and while trying to master how to do so in the safest way possible, he met one of Polinsky’s top students, who was nearing his pro debut, Ashton Amherst. As time went on, Amherst took Ryan until his wing and helped him polish his skills for his own eventual debut in the sport. The two became close friends and Amherst became a mentor.

Around the same time Ryan was embarking on his journey to pro wrestling glory, I took a slightly less physically punishing career path and started toward a Communications degree (I even made the Dean’s list a few times during it) that I earned a few years later. As part of building a portfolio, I started working with a few local promotions, including Pro Wrestling Express and Far North Wrestling in 2008. Ryan began attending Far North Wrestling shows, the Polinsky family’s promotion that was run in conjunction with local legend T. Rauntula, to help staff the events and since we attended shows together for years, the Polinsky family welcomed me at their shows. I want to take a second to thank the entire Polinsky family, including Sam Eilas, who is currently a champion in Britain, for always being polite and giving me the opportunity to broadcast events with sportscaster, Jon Burton. Attending those early shows in 2008, I had the opportunity to watch some of Ashton’s very first matches. A former baseball stand out at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Amherst was a natural athlete and showed much of the in ring poise as his trainer.

When asked about his time under the direction of Corey Graves, Ashton said, “Matt understood and taught psychology and promos in a way that many other guys don’t. It was unique with being a best friend and a trainer.” His skills were impressive and he developed a “Best in Pittsburgh persona over the next few years. As 2009 was underway, O’Toole made his in ring debut at the age of 18 as Ryan Reign for FNW and still focused on fine tuning his skills under Keenan while Ashton was quickly becoming one of the “must see” talents in the Pittsburgh area.

Keenan, who was not yet signed as Corey Graves, was wrestling in his hometown when not touring internationally and had very direct words about his two star students when I talked to him after events in 2010. When discussing Ashton’s in ring ability, Keenan said, “he’s really good and he basically was since day one” and had a similar evaluation of Ryan Reign saying, “he’s going to be really good and has a ton of potential.”

Very similar to Ashton, Reign’s early bouts received unanimous praise and he alerted some of the local groups to the young prospect’s talent, which resulted in the pair wrestling on many of the same cards. Aside from inside the squared circle, Reign followed his mentor’s footsteps outside of the ring as well when he took the advice of majoring in Economics at IUP as a “safety net” from the downside of the wrestling business. Ashton, a certified personal trainer stemming from his years in collegiate athletics, encouraged Ryan to pursue his own fitness certification, which he completed a few years ago.

As Matt Polinsky departed Pittsburgh as Sterling James Keenan and arrived in Orlando as Corey Graves, his star students were making their mark on the local scene, as Reign and Amherst won championships for every promotion they worked. In 2010, Ashton began wrestling for the Renegade Wrestling Alliance organization and he again ascended to the top of the card, but when he needed a stable member he could rely on in 2011, he called Reign, who joined the roster, and won gold there as well. A former PWX champion, Reign duplicated his mentor’s accomplishment and won the same title during a series of tremendous bouts with Lance Storm student, Jack Pollock, who is one of the most well rounded workers in the area. I’ve done commentary for nearly seven years and the Reign/Pollock series in 2014 was among the best matches I’ve had the chance to call so I recommend finding them online.

As both competitors entered the prime of their respective careers, Amherst and Reign dominated much of the local scene in a variety of companies for nearly three years and had the unique opportunity to work on the set of the “Pro Wrestlers vs. Zombies” film along with the late great “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. I had the chance to talk to the legendary Roddy Piper a few years ago and he praised the skills of Ryan Reign after watching some of his matches. Ashton and Reign continued to add to their resume until they decided to form a tag team in 2014. Known as “Exclusive,” the duo made waves among fans as two of the brightest steel city stars joined forces to tackle another aspect of the sport. However, after nearly six months as a team, Reign stabbed his best friend in the back and a bitter rivalry began, which led to several thrilling match ups. Eventually, RWA booked a career vs. career match in an attempt to settle the dispute and Reign was victories as he put his mentor out of the sport. However, Ashton cites a myriad of injuries from nearly six years of wrestling every weekend for the misstep. Amherst went home and healed. Reign gloated and called himself “the true best in Pittsburgh,” but again, things came full circle for him as the same burn out that led to the conclusion of Ashton’s career made Reign reevaluate his own pro status.

Ryan Reign took a hiatus from pro wrestling in October of 2014, unsure of if or when he would reemerge in front of an “Iron City” audience. Nearly a year after seemingly the last match of his career, a revitalized Ashton Amherst made a surprise returned to the RWA in 2015 and received a tremendous ovation from the West Newton crowd. Just a few weeks later, Reign took exception to Ashton’s comeback and blindsided him at an event. The intense feud flared again and the past few months have been anarchy.

However, the stage has been set, RWA has sanctioned Ashton Amherst vs. Ryan Reign on January 23rd in West Newton, PA to end one of the most bitter conflicts Pittsburgh has seen in quite some time. The Renegade Wrestling Alliance, a blue collar league that was created from the passion of promoter Derek Widziszewski, who wanted to build a promotion that let fans enjoy the sport as much as he had, provides the setting for the showdown of two former friends. I’ve seen both of these talented athletes start their careers and I announced the matches when they’ve won championships in both PWX and FNW so I can tell you that the dog collar match on January 23rd will be a classic independent bout that will be talked about as a shining example of the knowledge that Corey Graves taught them.

Both competitors are focused and had very direct comments for their dog collar match January 23rd. Amherst said, “I’ve been in one of these matches before and I know what it takes, not only to survive, but to win. I will prove I am the real best in Pittsburgh and put an end to his reign in RWA!” Ryan Reign responded saying, “There’s no running, there’s no rules, just Ryan Reign coming out on top, brother.”

From the time that the two introduced themselves to each other next to a ring in a storage locker in 2008 until this Saturday’s dog collar match, the respective careers of Ashton Amherst and Ryan Reign have continuously paralleled one another, both inside and outside of the squared circle. They’ve wrestled on the same cards, won the same championships, and traveled the same path. They’ve been mentor/pupil, best friends, competitive rivals, and bitter enemies. Perhaps what makes this contest that will link the competitors together with a 12 ft. steel chain so intriguing is the extensive eight year history between them because it’s very rare that an independent bout has such a long and real life storied history around it.

For more information on the RWA event on January 23rd, you can go to http://rwalive.com
For more information about digital downloads/DVDs of the event, you can go to http://sorgatronmedia.com

-Jim LaMotta

@jimlamotta

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