Thoughts on Insane Fight Club

grado

All too often when professional wrestling and the mainstream media cross paths it’s more collision than harmonious union. We’re sometimes left feeling sheepish that the spotlight’s been shone on a salacious or maybe even lethal corner of the industry. Most regularly, we’re left peeking through our fingers and cringing at inept interviews or amateur reactions to professional situations.

Outside the cosy confines of the British wrestling community, there is an inherent misunderstanding and disinterest in the media in relation to wrestling’s place in the world. It seems bizarre that a form of theatre so ingrained in British popular culture just a few decades ago needs careful explaining all over again. Yet every magazine show that books a WWE Superstar or local nightly news bulletin filling its quota of ‘small town kids made good’ stories trot out the same tired questions on whether wrestling is real or not. There must be hours worth of Sunday Brunch footage where Tim Lovejoy and Simon Rimmer ask, “But does it actually hurt?” before handing over to a segment on making your own Easter eggs and the like, the second the reply ends.

WrestleTalk TV, at least in its current incarnation tucked away on late night Challenge, is the best case against ‘all publicity is good publicity’. ‘Something is better than nothing’ does not apply here. If its purpose is to make British wrestling sit comfortably among more popular forms of mainstream entertainment, it fails. Its low rent production, unbalanced views and as we’ve seen recently, unprofessional social media interaction outside the show, would do nothing to persuade casual fans that British wrestling has something special to offer that WWE can’t deliver. It’s everything I wish to distance myself from.

This lack of understanding, laziness and life-sucking self-sabotage is what made Insane Fight Club – the BBC1 documentary on Glasgow’s ICW – such a refreshing gulp of oxygen, if a little vodka scented. It dealt briefly with the question of what wrestling is, but didn’t dwell on it. It trusted the viewers’ intelligence enough not to spend an hour holding their hands through the ABCs of winning and losing when you know how your match is going to end. This programme showcased the people and not just the process.

Not only did Insane Fight Club avoid patronising its audience, it also sidestepped the trap of ridiculing its subjects. Television currently has a nasty habit of making documentaries where the tone is set a little too low and judgemental. We end up being encouraged to point and laugh at quirks of personality or practice. This show got it so right, it made the strength of community surrounding ICW and its fans alluring. It presented their lifestyle and sense of belonging without commentary.

What made Insane Fight Club great as a piece of television and quite different to most other wrestling TV was tapping into the human element of ICW’s story, therefore taking it from a show for wrestling fans to a documentary about the people, just with wrestling as its backdrop. Jack Jester’s pursuit to impress his father, who had been supportive of his son’s career but had never felt able to watch him wrestle, was endearing. You truly willed his dad to stay in situ as Jester became champion for the first time. Even when he was dangerously close to bleeding out too much.

Grado’s need to please and be adored is impossible not to indulge. How can you not be smitten with a man who wanders into Nicky Clark’s London salon in full ring attire and after getting his highlights tinted, has the man himself perform his catchphrase “It’s yersel!” into Grado’s phone camera. He humbled himself in front of dream opponent Colt Cabana who – maybe arguably given Mad Man Manson and Danny Hope’s recent genius – sets the standard internationally for comedy matches. But you get the feeling that for all his posturing and laughter chasing, Grado doesn’t yet realise his own star potential. Maybe watching back the penny might drop, but you also slightly feel that part of the attraction is that he doesn’t understand how bankable his silliness really is.

Most intriguing was promoter Mark Dallas, whose intense desire to elevate himself, his family, friends and staff to a better standard of living via ICW brought viewers to his side. The story of how he’s begun implementing his plan to monetise his passion and turn hobbies into careers played out throughout the documentary. It charted the journey from ICW’s regular venue to a much larger building for one epic show.

We tagged along on alcohol-fuelled brainstorming sessions where he and his team devised unorthodox ticket selling tactics. You have to question whether the long term goal of a profitable business marries up with Dallas’ spending. Particularly when he lavishes over £1000 on hotels to “make them feel like stars.”  He spoke most sense when he debunked the most worn out debate in British wrestling – that dotting imported, well known, international talent among your regular roster is absolutely essential if you want to run a growing, thriving business within the British wrestling industry.

Braver than letting the cameras into his finances, Mark Dallas let us peer in on his family and what ICW is doing for his relationship with his son, Danny, who lives with autism. While Dallas clearly struggles in accepting his son’s developmental disability, he just as obviously wants to do his best by his family. He tearfully relayed the day when Danny didn’t want to go to nursery school because he felt different, before explaining that he used a DVD of himself standing in the middle of the ICW ring to help his son understand that it’s okay to be different. Dad is different. It worked, and it clearly meant everything to him as a parent.

Insane Fight Club was not without its flaws. In displaying the bloody, hardcore nature of ICW it may have given unaccustomed viewers the impression that you can’t attend a British wrestling show without going home spattered in blood. This is obviously not true. The bleeding debate is fierce and divisive. Hardcore shows are in the minority on the British scene and many are far more family friendly. In the same vein, storyline meetings and marketing ventures in many promotions are not accompanied by such a flagrant drinking culture. At least, not until the aftershow parties.

Other promoters may worry that viewers might assume all independent wrestling businesses are run on the ICW model. The wisest promotions spend sparingly on accommodation, for example, and ensure profits plough forward into future shows, avoiding short term extravagance in the name of balancing the books. But not only did Dallas make clear that his shows are designed for a very specific adult audience and that he’s running the company in his own style, it’s also a little unfair to ask one promotion to represent the wide variety of choice offered by British wrestling. After all, ICW were chosen because their following has become something of a sub-culture in Glasgow. The programme was made to shed light on ICW, not make it the BritWres poster child. But overall, in presenting a sensitively made documentary on one sector of British wrestling, there is hope that the mainstream profile has been raised for everyone. And that can only be a good thing.

RaeSignature

Let’s Go Home

To steal, paraphrase and then alter the wisdom of Frank Skinner and David Baddiel like the Instagram inspirational quotes I both despise and covet, “It’s coming home. It’s coming home. Wrestling’s coming home.”

The announcement at this year’s National Pro Wrestling Day that CHIKARA would be back in action in just a few short months was a massive sigh of relief. In the butchered words of Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know how great the wrestling promotion you’ve got is until it’s gone and sliced up into so many pieces you can’t keep up.” And just like everything they do, the only predictable thing about the return was that the way it played out was entirely unpredictable.

The last time I wrote about CHIKARA, back in June of last year, I opted not to theorise on what might be happening next. I read and listened to others muse over possible next steps, each more complicated than the last. But I only knew two things for sure: that the dedication put into making the company’s apparent demise seem genuine was equally unnerving and beautiful, and that CHIKARA had never done me wrong, so I trusted that whatever they were trying to do was worth whatever came next.

Watching Archibald Peck – in his full marching band regalia – leading 3.0 out of a smoke covered DeLorean and into the arena to join newly-good Icarus and his army of CHIKARA natives, my faith that all would be right in the end was rewarded. That slightly juddery internet stream made me smile more than any form of wrestling has in months. It made me love it again. The whoosh of the pilot light it lit in my stomach was almost audible. It made my shoulders rise up to my ears, like only the very best things do.

When Andrew bought me the 2009 sampler DVD and introduced me to CHIKARA, I had no idea what I was getting into. Despite learning how to appreciate small-scale, non-McMahon brands of wrestling some years before, I didn’t have anything indie that regularly excited me. I’ve made no secret of my loathing of TNA and have explained my reasons clearly. Ring of Honor was something I dipped in and out of but couldn’t get a full grip on. The American indies seemed so sprawling I didn’t know where to start and, if I’m honest, I didn’t have much inclination to plunder their depths until I had a knowledgeable teacher.

Then there was CHIKARA. The first time I sat down and watched it, the pace was so fast I kept holding my breath waiting for the action to abate. It never seemed to. I often post the photo of me watching them for the first time with the reminder to breathe as a joke. But I genuinely needed that reminder. I fell in love. And when you’re first in love you just can’t breathe. Your heart races. I hadn’t really seen anything like it before and I was utterly mesmerised.

chikara_first_time

This was all before I got filled in on the story. Oh blimey. The story. Everyone comes to wrestling for different reasons. If you’re only there to fill your mental wank bank with oily silhouettes, fine. Knock yourself out. Knock one out. Knock several out. If you most appreciate a highly technical match, there’s plenty out there for you. If you’re not so concerned with a long and involved grapple but love the glossy pomp and pyro of a big production, Vince has got you covered. Personally, I like to take slices from all those pies. But most of all I want to care. I like things that make me tap into my emotions. I want there to be a story that makes me think. I want to have to work for the rewards. CHIKARA is the unequivocal king of “to be continued…” Nobody else cares enough to give the narrative such pride of place. Nobody else trusts their audience enough not to patronise them by dumbing down the cleverness.

It’s not just that CHIKARA tells a tale, it’s that the yarn it spins is so indubitably geeky along with it. I’m amazed no Pennsylvania college has taught CHIKARA Legend 101 yet. It reads like the backstory to a lengthy comic book series or a fantasy novel anthology. The history behind Ultramantis Black alone is enough to make your head spin, but that’s kind of why I love it.

This stuff isn’t just unbelievably nerdy within wrestling. It resides in the upper echelon of all nerd world. I like that not everyone gets it.  I love that being a CHIKARA fan is a little like when motorcyclists nod at each other when they ride past each other. Just by claiming it as your own you immediately say something about yourself to other CHIKARA fans. And it’s been by far the most warm and welcoming exclusive club I’ve found. How something so niche manages to be so friendly to all remains a mystery. Maybe that’s the point, though. We’re all a little weird in this troupe. I’m definitely weird. It’s just a lot of people being weird together. Where else could a few bars of a Dave Matthews song and some adults-sized ants instigate such glee? In a recent Nigel Slater documentary on the British love of biscuits, an expert in biscuits suggested that people who love the dark chocolate digestive over the sweeter, sicklier milk chocolate version think themselves a little more discerning than the masses. CHIKARA is my dark chocolate biscuit.

I’m aware that my experience of this odd corner of professional wrestling is a very British one. It’s one that’s lived from behind a screen, in a different timezone. It’s felt more inclusive since those painful weeks waiting for King of Trios DVDs to pop through my letterbox were replaced with iPPVs and a streaming service. But I know I’m experiencing something a little different to those sitting in the front row. The live show is a beautiful thing. It’s thrilling to know that the people you’re watching leap from the top rope could land in your lap at any moment. But it’s not the only thing.

There’s nothing like singing your favourite song when the person who wrote it stands on a stage right in front of you. But I’ll still get a rush from putting my headphones on and belting it out with the same vigour. A stand-up comedy show is made up of the same jokes whether you’re there in person or watching the DVD. Your laughter is just a little less cosseted.  I adore settling down in front of my TV or computer to watch CHIKARA. It makes me happy to put my pyjamas on, gather some drinks and snacks and watch something I undoubtedly know will send me to bed smiling. I’d love to be there in person, but I love my own experience because it’s mine. I’m excited to do it again.

CHIKARA was my gateway to indie wrestling. I hadn’t realised how little I understood before it came along. It was both an education and confirmation that wrestling really is what I think it’s supposed to be – fun. Wrestling has been a poorer place since the family fractured and the shards splintered out into alternate Quackenbush promotions. Ironically, even ‘Wrestling is Fun!’ felt like less fun than CHIKARA. That’s because CHIKARA boils up a special brew that doesn’t taste right when you mix it with other things. It gets diluted. You just can’t argue with chemistry.

CHIKARA makes me feel like a kid in the best possible way. It opens up my imagination in a way that few other things manage to. It’s proper escapism. The idea that anything could happen at any time should be the building blocks of every wrestling promotion. After all, it’s not any more the real world than any soap opera, pantomime or cartoon. But when you look closely, it isn’t the main focus in many places. So many just go through the motions and empty the cash tin at the end of the night. There’s something to be said for running your ship so tightly that the backstage politics and the finances aren’t your primary public topic of discussion. There’s something to be said for playing the game and for kayfabe.

Few things have felt more like going home than when Bryce Remsburg’s trademark, octave-jumping screech tried to make sense of the brawl that took place to make the CHIKARA return at NPWD a real thing. Who knew that a squeal could feel like a hug? I’m ready to add a brand new chapter to my favourite story. In the unadulterated words of those great 1970s philosophers Emerson, Lake & Palmer, “Show me! Show me! Show me the road that leads home.”

 

You can watch the announcement here from 1:57:00

You can catch up on the story here.

RaeSignature

That Was The Week That Was: 27th May – 2nd June 2013

TWTWTW_CHIKARA

Seven days is a long time in wrestling. Each week Rachel will cast her eye over the landscape and handpick the stuff that stands out. Sometimes they’ll be the most obvious events, but often more subtle shifts in the business. They’ll always be written from her own unique point of view. Unlike the original That Was The Week That Was, she won’t be singing the news. 

The Death of CHIKARA?

Last week I was playing the Related Artists Game on Spotify. You pick a song, then your next tune must be by one of the listed related artists. I found myself faced with Noah and the Whale. I’m not a particularly big fan of theirs, but there is one song that will forever justify their existence – Tonight’s the Kind of Night. I was rushed with a flood of heart thumping nostalgia.

This song happened to find my ears during the week leading up to CM Punk’s immortal will-he-won’t-he story at Money in the Bank 2011. Through sheer coincidence, the lyrics were so close to summarising Punk’s journey, it gave me shivers. It really was the kind of night where absolutely everything could change. To date, I have never been more invested in how a wrestling tale was going to work out. I have certainly never had such an explosively emotional reaction to a show.

The thing about those few months of change was that the events were rooted in reality. That’s what made the difference. How much of it was written and how much was Punk just not giving a damn will only ever be known by a handful of people. If you watch his DVD, it was all legit. He was off. In actuality, it doesn’t matter. The fact that we didn’t know where the boundary was made it all the more compelling. It made it categorically wrestling.

Last night the CHIKARA: Never Compromise iPPV reminded me of Money in the Bank. For all that the matches were brilliant, there was a strange, electrically charged cloud hanging over it; the cloud that had the potential to rain on CHIKARA’s parade and put it out of action for good. Rumour’s had it for some time that real life, highly personal matters threatened the company with extinction. At least, under the branding as it stands. It was an unsettling discussion. If there’s one thing CHIKARA fans love it’s that it’s a complete break from the everyday. Unlike with Punk, though, I wasn’t torn between someone doing what was right for them and doing the thing that made me most happy.

The show was running later than we expected and it was getting late in the UK. We debated whether to stay up for the main event or not, but decided that the big announcement promised for the end of the show had to be worth losing a little sleep over. The announcement never came. Icarus and Eddie Kingston’s main event match was interrupted by a team of men in dark suits. They trashed the stage. They shut the show down. They turned off the feed. They threw all the fans out of the building and locked the doors. It didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel very CHIKARA. It felt kind of real.

There were reports that someone had thrown something through a door in anger and smashed it, before being dragged back into the Trocadero. According to Twitter this was the start of a riot. Those at the scene quickly closed that idea down. Even the legitimacy of the furious protestor has been called into question today, because of the way he was swiftly pulled back into the building. A real fan? A plant? Who knows? One thing I do know is that I don’t want to hear about Bryce Remsburg – happiest man on the planet – leaving in tears. It messes with my head.

The manner in which the show was halted was, of course, staged. But the reality behind it is yet to come to light. CHIKARA may very well have huffed out its last breath, ready to morph into something new. But one thing I’ve always placed in CHIKARA is trust. There is no cleverer promotion in operation. I’ve lost count of how many AH-HA! moments there’ve been, where various easter eggs dotted around the internet suddenly make sense. Was this a story they took too far and made too dark? Possibly. But they haven’t steered me wrong yet and you don’t build the best pound-for-pound wrestling promotion in the world only to let it disperse for the sake of paperwork.

Just like when Punk  (temporarily) kissed his tenure goodbye, I have never been more eager to know what happens next, while at the same time never more unsure about which parts of wrestling are fooling me. But isn’t that the point?

RaeSignature

ICYMI: Number 1

When Andrew arrives at the pearly gates and they evaluate what he did with his life, watching wrestling matches will rack up more hours than any other single task. The guy’s done a lot of DVD miles. Every week he’ll pick one of his favourite matches to share with you. Here’s his first…

________

Before the yeses and the nos and the hugs… before the Sierras and the Hotels and the Indias, the Echoes and the Limas and the Deltas… there was, well, there was loads actually.

Between them Bryan Danielson and Tyler Black amassed 15 years worth of matches before signing with the WWE and becoming Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins respectively. Working for US indie promotions such as IWA: Mid South, PWG and Ring of Honor the two met on a number of occasions; both as opponents and, as is the case here, as team mates.

This week’s match is for the Ring of Honor World Tag Team Championship and features the team of Danielson and Black taking on The American Wolves (Davey Richards and Eddie “not the Olympic ski jumper” Edwards) with Wrestlegasm favourite (and now WWE trainer) Sara Del Rey at ringside.   If you’ve not seen much of Rollins/Black before his SHIELD tenure you should be in for a pleasant surprise, especially when he pulls out the Phoenix Splash and God’s Last Gift.

Hope you enjoy and I’ll be back next week with another match you might not have seen before.

andrew

What you see when you’re not looking – Part Two

The first ‘What you see when you’re not looking’ post was originally going to include this topic. Then the first turned out to be longer than I expected and I didn’t want to do this point a disservice by tagging it onto the end of something else. So, this is part two – on why wrestling has to stop clinging to the sex industry. 

When we took a step back from blogging and observed without commenting, it became clearer to me just how much the sex industry remains unnecessarily intertwined with the wrestling business. The truth is, we should have cut those apron strings years ago. It’s outdated. It’s harmful to the business as it moves forward and becomes more popular – especially with children – and it’s damaging to the position of women in the industry. WWE is probably cleaner than it’s ever been, but on the independent scene, wrestling’s fixation with the sleazier side is reigning in its potential to be a legitimate and credible form of entertainment. It’s not good enough to say that wrestling is sleazy and always will be. It can change, if promotions are inclined to put the wheels in motion.

For all the rose-tinted harping back to the late 1990s and the 2000s, it was murky. When the American government feel the need to intervene, you know you’re getting something wrong. It was time to start cleaning up wrestling. The government’s concerns largely surrounded health, but wrestling needed an overhaul in every way. The landscape has changed dramatically since I first became a wrestling fan in 1997. It’s changed since we started this blog in 2009. But it’s hit a stumbling block, particularly when it comes to women.

I’m confident we’ll never see a repeat of Trish Stratus barking like a dog on her hands and knees on worldwide television again. I sincerely hope that bra and panties matches have been left in the ‘what were we thinking?’ category of wrestling history. But the connection to the porn industry that hangs around wrestling like a stale smell the day after a party is just one of the reasons I sometimes find it embarrassing to plug it as entertainment to my friends and family and to the young children in my life.

I fully appreciate that not all promotions are looking to be family friendly, although I think they could do a better job at letting families know when a show won’t be for kids. I also acknowledge that being a woman in my early thirties, I’m looking for something very different to what I was searching for when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Your tastes change. You become more discerning. You have a clearer view of what you will and won’t let slide without comment. When I was much younger, when hormones were raging, I was terribly unsure of myself and every conversation felt like it had to be loaded with sniggering innuendo and sexuality. I wasn’t as concerned with women’s place in wrestling. I knew it wasn’t right, but I didn’t really know how to protest it. I have changed, the world has changed and wrestling has changed. It just needs one last, very easy push to make itself properly current.

Outside the CHIKARA and Shimmer bubble, wrestling still feels sexist. It makes me sad when fans at British wrestling shows are genuinely surprised when the couple of women on the card put on a great match. It’s especially disappointing when they feel the need to point out that they’re ‘Really good, and not just good for girls, either’. WWE has to take some of the responsibility here. For almost everyone it’s the first wrestling they’re exposed to. If their promotion of women involves nothing but one-minute matches and boyfriend or beauty stories, we’re not telling the young people and children watching that women have more to offer. It should be a given, but it isn’t. It just feeds the notion that the female purpose in wrestling is merely decorative. The rest of the responsibility lies with anyone who doesn’t make an effort correct these archaic views.

Women already struggle to get their names on the card in both mainstream and indie wrestling (British and overseas) simply because the impression is that crowds won’t get behind them. When, for example, porn stars or exotic dancers are hired to act as valets, interval entertainment or even makeshift wrestlers, the female wrestlers find themselves competing with both the male talent and the additional bookings. Very rarely are men hired in wrestling because they’ve had a career in the sex industry. You’ll never see a man on the roster overshadowed by someone who works in porn. It’s blatant pandering to dinosaurs of the game and hormone infested young men who have money to burn. Just because the lowest common denominator sells, it doesn’t mean you should sell it. If your wrestling and your stories are good you shouldn’t need porn, and a little social conscience goes an awful long way.

I’m not on a crusade against sex. We’re all grown-ups and we all enjoy our sex lives. I’m not even trying to banish pornography. It’s not my cup of tea, but as long as it isn’t hurting anyone, I don’t subscribe to the idea that it’s universally a terrible thing. Most crucially, I’m not suggesting we rid wrestling of ‘attraction’. It’s a highly visual medium and aesthetics are crucial. Wrestlers, particularly in the mainstream, are hired for their good (or less so) looks to fit who the company wants them to be; just like actors in a TV show. It’s obviously not the only reason talent are hired, but having ‘a look’ that you then shape the stories around – whether appealing to the eye or not – is a fundamental part of wrestling. The irony that I’m writing this post on a website called Wrestlegasm isn’t lost on me. And I’m definitely not ignoring that ultimately wrestling is a load of oiled, half-naked folk rolling around with each other with a story as its backdrop. But there is a stark difference between Dolph Ziggler and AJ Lee kissing on camera to sell their relationship, for example, and sex for the sake of selling sex. The latter is what we need to move away from.

Wrestling, and indie wrestling especially, needs to think carefully about the language it uses, too. You can only pull the Jack Swagger/Zeb Colter trick of being outlandishly politically incorrect if you’re making it absolutely clear that the views your ‘characters’ are peddling are completely unacceptable. Without the caveat of million-dollar TV contracts hanging over your head, there’s little incentive to get that balance right every single time.  It’s not enough just to book women on shows. How they’re treated is important too. On the unregulated and non-televised circuit, women are sometimes on the receiving end of unsavoury sexual banter. Eva Wiseman recently wrote an excellent column in the Observer on lad culture in universities. She talked about how you can find it difficult to remove yourself from derogatory behaviour and language because when you’re in a group where it’s expected, you play along to fit in. It’s the only option. There is an awful lot of that in wrestling. I believe it’s one of the reasons so many people leave wrestling as they grow older.

There’s a great deal of tolerating what was once acceptable and it’s very disappointing. I’d like to see braver booking, cleverer stories and less reliance on the sex industry to raise interest in wrestling products. The gap between the two needs to grow larger. Fans will follow where promoters lead. They just need to have the courage to move forward.

RaeSignature

 

What you see when you’re not looking

When you’re removed from a community you see it with different eyes. You spot the stuff you missed before because you were caught up in the same old arguments. Sometimes you observe heartwarming things that you’re proud to be associated with, and sometimes you spot themes that are far less endearing.  The least appealing traits I’ve been watching lately are bad spin and its closest bedfellow, promotion snobbery.

Dara O’Briain has a brilliant segment in one of his stand-up shows about how much he despises music snobs and so-called guilty pleasures. “Music snobbery is the worst kind of snobbery. Oh, you like those noises? Those sounds in your ear? Do you like them? They’re the wrong sounds! You should like these sounds in your ear!” Dara clearly never spent time with wrestling fans. We’re champions at snobbery. We are the worst.

Over the past six months or so I’ve sat back and watched fans make other fans feel bad about their wrestling viewing choices. The barbs seem even more spiteful when that choice is WWE.  During the interval at the WWE show we mentioned in our last post, I checked Twitter to find that people attending indie shows that night were trashing the very event we were watching. Who were they to tell me it was awful? They weren’t even there! We were having a ball.

Taking the most popular route is selling out, right? No. It’s just enjoying something that a lot of other people also happen to like. Equally, there are just as many mainstream fans who believe if it’s not on TV it can’t be good. I know, because before I experienced my first indie show almost 10 years ago I used to be one of them. I would encourage everyone to explore beyond their usual boundaries. Hopefully you’ll find something new. If nothing else it gives your favourite promotion some perspective. But if you decide that what you really love is the mainstream, that’s alright too.

In that same section of his show, Dara O’Briain goes on to talk about how infuriating it is that people who dip into the mainstream are forced to call it their guilty pleasure because it’s just not underground enough. The thing is, though, we’re wrestling fans. There is no cool.

A few weeks ago I found myself watching a documentary called Allotment Wars. Bear with me. I watched agog as gentle gardeners sabotaged others’ competition crops, raided plot holders’ sheds and called the police on a youngster who found himself a tenner in rent arrears. A couple of old friends fell out two years ago. You could feel from their interviews that the fight and their continuing rivalry had left them both burning with rage.

Out loud I shouted “What is wrong with these people? None of this actually matters in the grand scheme of life!” I scoffed at their silly bickering over carrot soil and congratulated myself on being too well-adjusted to be involved with a group that deals in such juvenile squabbling. Of course, until I remembered that if there’s one thing that can be desperately uncool, petty and all puffed up with misplaced importance, it’s being a wrestling fan.

The older you get the more people shoot you that ‘Wrestling? Really?’ look. The older you get the more awkward a positive response feels.  None of us got into this big ball of ridiculous to score cool points. I’m trying to avoid a High School Musical moment here, but if we’re all in this together why are we so intent on playing games of one-upmanship?  Who are we trying to impress? It’s weird. Your thing is not better, it’s just different.

The worst byproduct of this behaviour is bad spin.  Bad spin is what bad politicians do. They make themselves look the more progressive option by rubbishing the competition. Most of the time they’ll say nothing about what actually makes them so wonderful. As long as they’ve planted that ’them bad, me better’ message, the job’s done. It’s lazy and transparent.

I hate seeing this tactic in wrestling. Whether it’s tweets from well-meaning fans or promotions themselves, I want a wrestling company to do more to excite me than make hollow claims about being ‘better’ than WWE. I don’t want to hear that your show is superior to another popular thing if you can’t even tell me why. I want to know what sets it apart from the rest and makes it unique amidst a world full of weekend wrestling watching options. Otherwise, it just feels like you’re covering up your failings by clinging on to your opponents’ faults. It turns me off.

We all watch wrestling for different reasons and we switch promotions to alter our experiences. A tiny indie show will never deliver the reliable gloss of Monday Night Raw. Monday Night Raw will never achieve the unpredictable intimacy of a tiny indie show. I don’t want them to out-do each other. I want them to put every ounce of energy into being the best at the very specific brand of wrestling they deliver, whatever that happens to be.

It’s completely possible to love both equally, just like it’s fine to listen to Katy Perry one minute, then jump to that band you saw with 19 other people in an unlicenced indie club. It’s alright if you like the PG era. It’s fine if you also go elsewhere for something more grown up sometimes. If you thought WWE peaked when it was still called WWF, that’s fine. But it peaked in 2002 for you. The kids in the front row right now have no idea what you’re talking about. The Attitude Era is an overpriced vintage t-shirt for them and that’s okay too.

If you were stood at an ice cream stand with a friend and they chose a different flavour to you, you wouldn’t throw their cone in the bin and insist that only your flavour’s worth eating. What you’d probably do is encourage them to grab a spoon and have a taste of yours. Let’s do more of that. Let’s cut each other some slack, understand where opinions start and facts stop, and pass out more sample spoons. The flavour doesn’t matter as long as we’re all having fun. Unless, of course, you want to buy me a TNA sundae. ‘Cause that thing’s gonna need an awful lot of cherries on top!

RaeSignature

The Eve and John Conundrum

There came a point where I stopped bickering on a regular basis about how disheartened I was with the WWE Divas division. The wound on my forehead, acquired from banging it against a brick wall, would never heal unless I gave it time to scab. Reacting was always tempting. It stuck its middle finger up at me like smoking, sniggering, backpack-wearing teenagers on a school trip to London; beckoning one of the statuesque Queen’s Guards to buckle under the weight of their immature insult. This week, I snatched at that middle finger.

How did we get here? Why was it okay for the WWE’s top babyface to use derogatory language towards a woman, in front of children? We need to backtrack. The WWE is sitting on a goldmine in its Divas division. And yet, they refuse to plumb the depths of that mine to get to the good stuff. For a company so driven by profit, continually looking for the next big thing to keep fans interested, it’s just lazy economics. Why have a portion of your roster largely idle? The merchandising opportunities alone could be worth a fortune. I never understood why there were no LayCool t-shirts, for example.

There is a cycle of indifference at the heart of this problem. When it comes to long storytelling, indie wrestling matches can largely stand alone, and they’re no less enjoyable as a result. In the WWE, we need a sturdy narrative. We need verbal and physical dialogue that lead into the next week. We need peaks and troughs and, more than anything, we need to care about the characters. During the part of a show you care about least, you empty your bladder, or get something to eat, or chat to your mates. Enter the one-minute Divas match.

Give people a reason to care and they’ll stay in their seats. Come up with clever, forward thinking stories and the crowd will engage with the action. Trust that your female roster can perform as well as their male counterparts. Challenge them, and they’ll rise to it. If you work in a professional kitchen as a pot washer and stay a pot washer, you’ll never learn how to cook. But if the head chef gives you the opportunity to step up and be a part of service, you’ll acquire the skills you need to progress. It’s hardly rocket science.

Let the more experienced women bring the others up to their standard. Give them longer matches so they can learn from each other. The Divas aren’t all useless models, as so many like to suggest. The female roster is a mixture of indie graduates and athletes learning-on-the-job, just like the male roster. Beth Phoenix paid her dues in the indies, as did CM Punk. Eve Torres is a jiu jitsu expert learning the craft of pro wrestling as she goes. Dolph Ziggler was an amateur collegiate athlete who didn’t learn how to be a professional wrestler until he went to OVW. Nobody ever refers to Dolph as a model.

The WWE are like those people who buy expensive perfume and only use it on very special occasions. The rest of the time they just leave the bottle sat on their dressing table because it looks pretty. The Beth Phoenix vs Tamina Snuka match at the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view was like a gentle mist of CHANEL No. 5. Why not use it every week? Let’s have the best all the time. Nobody will ever  compliment you on the glass bottle you keep hidden away in your bedroom. Use it! Nobody ever compliments the Divas on staying out of sight. Use them!

At first glance, Eve Torres’s involvement with Zack Ryder and John Cena appears to be a small step forward. It’s a Diva taking centre stage in a big story. But the execution was less a dab of CHANEL parfum and more swamped in Britney Spears’ Midnight Fantasy eau de toilette. Its lack of class reeked to high heaven.

It is great that they wanted to give Eve a personality. It is great that they turned her heel. It’s great that she mixed with main eventers. It’s bad that they rushed the entire heel turn through in a matter of hours. It’s bad that, yet again, a woman is rarely made a villain in the WWE without her being linked to a man or without being involved in a superficial image issue. It’s so unbelievably boring, lazy and outdated. I wonder why Stephanie McMahon doesn’t make her team come up with something better. The answer I keep avoiding is that she may be her father’s daughter in the worst ways, as well as the best. It stings when your heroine doesn’t seem to represent the things you want her to.

Comparisons have been made between Edge and Eve. Edge did indeed use Vickie Guerrero’s position of power to serve himself. But the big difference there was that they were both the villains. The dramatic entertainment came in them slowly destroying each other. They deserved each other. Which leads us uncomfortably to John Cena.

Super Cena! Our hero. Children’s charity worker. Fighting the good fight, day and night. The role model. Setting the moral compass for kids everywhere. All this is what makes Monday night so upsetting. They made John Cena ‘that guy’. A lad. The most insufferable kind of man. Baseball cap on backwards, swigging cheap beer from a plastic cup, double-fist-bumping their buddies, bromancing about town and engaging in ‘the banter’. The kind of nauseating, testosterone charged chatter that some men partake in when they’re in the company of other men. The kind of banter where rape jokes are hilarious. The banter that allowed the offensive and now defunct UniLad website to operate. The lad culture that makes young rugby teams write lists of tour rules that allow cheating on girlfriends to go unreported.

With the language John Cena used towards Eve on Monday night, with his ‘skank juice’ and disease slurs, he aligned himself with ‘those guys’. The vocabulary made him sound about as eloquent as a Jersey Shore cast member. Yes, Eve was the villain, and yes, she revealed herself to be self-serving. But Cena’s reaction, while grinning, popping his Rise Above Hate t-shirt at the camera, and encouraging ‘hoeski’ chants, was hypocritical and confusingly out of character.

Much has been made this week of John Cena’s association with the Be a Star anti-bullying campaign. The initiative is a tricky concept to negotiate for a product based on people bullying each other. But it’s always seemed similar to the ‘don’t try this at home’ videos to me. They tell kids that any bullying they see on TV just isn’t cool in real life and explain that the bullies are mean characters.

The problem with John Cena is not only that he’s the number one good guy. There’s also such an extremely fine line between John Cena the character and John Cena the person, that any lapse of grace in either incarnation damages him somewhere. It’s not an easy place to be, but it’s the price paid for never being the bad guy, on-screen and in life. His choice of insults can’t just be put down to the script. WWE and its performers have to start accepting that they offer a unique, hybrid form of entertainment. It’s neither fiction nor reality and if John Cena is to set the example, he has to do it all the time.  They can’t ignore the impact his words might have on one sector of the audience to briefly win favour with ‘the lads’. Usually he thrives on not being over with that crowd.

In 15 minutes of television, all this succeeded in doing was making me wonder if by simply watching WWE programming, I’m trying to push a square peg through a round hole. Maybe this stuff just isn’t made for me. But I don’t want to give up on it. It’s easy to say ‘just leave it behind and concentrate on the indies.’ And I do watch and love a lot of indie wrestling. But they’re two very different entities. Both WWE and the indies offer things the other can’t, and when it comes down to it, I want to be around when the WWE’s penny finally drops.

Report From The Fort: Best Match (Andrew’s picks)

We were struggling to narrow down our award to just one match. One of the many things we enjoy about wrestling is that it’s so varied, and there are many contenders for best match, all for different reasons. As such we have picked two matches each, both of which meant a lot to us for different reasons. Rae will be posting hers shortly, but in the meantime…

Winner: Sara Del Rey vs KANA (CHIKARA’s Klunk In Love: Oct 8, 2011)

We’ve declared our undying affection for Sara Del Rey on the blog before, and those affections are indeed unwaning. Not only one of the best female wrestlers in the world, she is arguably one of the best wrestlers in the world full stop. Other than the all female promotion SHIMMER, possibly no company has done more to reward Del Rey’s skill than CHIKARA. In a company featuring wrestling ice creams, temporally displaced Egyptian snake gods and evil (yet devilishly attractive) insect overlords, something as petty as human gender is unlikely to be an issue to success.

When I first took it upon myself to introduce Rae to CHIKARA, one of the matches I showed her was a 2007 bout between Icarus, Gran Akuma & Brodie Lee and Cheech, Cloudy & Sara Del Rey. I don’t think it would be an overestimation to say that Del Rey played a pivotal role in her indoctrination, inspiring not only a love for indie wrestling, but also a typically insightful post on intergender wrestling

KANA on the otherhand, is maybe less known to a wider audience, although 2011 was undoubtedly her “breakthrough” year in the west, with a successful tour of the US taking in CHIKARA and SHIMMER. Having trained and shared a room together early on on their careers, the idea of the two wrestling each other was thought of by many as a dream match.

Then...

...and now

That they were having a match at all was great news. That CHIKARA had the courage and the belief (not only in the wrestlers but also the fans) to make this match the main event of one of their shows gives an indication of just how highly they are thought of. And that faith was more than rewarded with what was easily my match of the year. Not just for the quality of the match (which was amazing) but also in what it stands for. In a year in which the female division in the WWE has often dropped down to levels that can only be described as “risible,” it’s important to remember that there is excellent female wrestling out there.

From SHIMMER’s continued successes to CHIKARA’s Joshimania weekend, from Anarchy Championship Wrestling’s gender-neutral shows to the growing popularity of Quebec’s NCW Femme Fatales, from the UK’s Pro Wrestling EVE to their Japanese partners in Ice Ribbon, there is more female wrestling of a quality that puts many male wrestlers to shame than ever before. Yes this stuff is harder to access than WWE or TNA, and yes you might have to brace yourself for accusations of slightly ulterior motives (believe me, I know) but you will be rewarded with some of the best wrestling that’s out there at the moment… from wrestlers who are possessed of dedication, talent, determination and, coincidentally, ovaries.

Skip to about 4 minutes in the following video for a clip from the match

Winner: Mike Quackenbush vs Eddie Kingston (CHIKARA’s High Noon: Nov 13, 2011)

I’ll be writing more about how much I enjoyed CHIKARA’s first ever iPPV later, but this match is one of the reason’s why the show worked so well. I know I’m coming across as an unabashed fanboy, but one of the thing’s CHIKARA do so well is create emotion through stories and this match, the culmination of their 12 Large Summit tournament, was no excecption.

The tournament was held throughout the 2011 season to finally crown the inaugural CHIKARA Grand Champion, and was dedicated to the memory of CHIKARA alumni Larry Sweeney who took his own life early in the year after a long history of mental illness. In one corner was Mike Quackenbush: founder and head trainer at CHIKARA, and one of the most talented technical wrestlers currently in the US. In the opposite corner was Eddie Kingston: one of my favourite wrestlers and a close personal friend of Larry Sweeney. Kingston is by no means a technical wizard, but he is an amazing brawler, and his promos are second to none – including this gem he released in the run up to the show…

That promo would probably be enough to earn this award by itself to be honest, but the match more than lived up to it. With nearfall after nearfall, a teased Quackenbush heel turn, and the entire roster surrounding the ring by the time the final bell was rung, it was an amazing match, and an honour to get to watch live. I realise this might sound like hyperbole, but it’s true – I genuinely felt like part of something special watching live from my bedroom over in the UK that night, and it’s thanks to moments like this that I love wrestling. Thank you CHIKARA