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.

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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.

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A Song for Whoever: Sheamus & the dreaded “IWC” Edition

Boss Lady Rae: Do you know what a girl can never have enough of? Red lipstick, tea and crushes. I’m currently madly in love with a fictional character in a novel I’m reading. Yeah. Really. It’s becoming a problem. And I, my friends, am the queen of wrestling crushes. They come and go like the tide, but while they last they’re magnificent and delicious. Some, once fully bedded in, never really leave. This blog has been nothing if not an ode to my unflinching love for CM Punk and Matt Striker. Other crushes fluctuate depending on what their character’s doing. See the various posts in which I fall in and out of love with Mr. Cena..

This latest one is a biggie though. I’ve been rather fond of this person for some time, even when he was severely out of favour and his broken friendship with old-school crush HHH was on the rocks. The moment that took it from passing, inappropriate staring to “Oh my God, you’re making my heart ache” was at Night of Champions. There I was commenting to Andrew about how smart Christian always looks in ‘people clothes’ when the room started spinning and………….

To quote Andrew, “Sheamus is a man who suits wearing clothes,” which would sound ludicrous in every other form of entertainment. To wrestling fans, it makes perfect sense. It also helps than in real life he’s a thoroughly nice chap.  My heart is aflutter. This one’s for you, Sheamus. Let’s talk Celtic heritage some time.

Sidekick Andrew: One thing that we have noticed more and more here in the Wrestlegasm Bunker as we monitor internet communiques from throughout the world is that you lot don’t half like a moan. Seriously, after every episode of Smackdown, Raw (especially Raw!) or WWE PPV Twitter and Tumblr explode with impotent rage.

“Gah! I can’t BELIEVE Christian lost the title this soon! I’m never watching again!”

“FFS Why would you bring Punk back this early! Just so he can job to HHH no doubt! I hate this company!”

“2 Sin Caras! How stupid do they think we are? FIRE RUSSO LOL!”

Look, to paraphrase Bill Hicks: I’m not here to tell you how to live your lives. You’re grown men and women with a pretty solid grasp on logic (for the most part anyway). I would like to make a suggestion if possible. It’s a pretty radical solution that doesn’t seem to have occurred to a lot of people so I think it bears printing here. Ready?

IF YOU DON’T ENJOY THE WWE OUTPUT THEN DON’T WATCH IT

I know… I know. It sounds crazy but bear with me. The WWE isn’t going to change its product just because a bunch of people on the internet complain about it every week in tweets, blogs and podcasts. You know why? Because to complain about it you must have watched it already, and that’s all they want. I’m sure they’d prefer you enjoyed their shows but I can guarantee they’d be more devastated if you watched illegally and loved it than paid and hated it.

There are so many alternatives out there to the WWE if you still need a wrestling fix, although sometimes a clean break can be a good idea too. There’s a mass of Indie companies putting out great quality wrestling with storylines far less insulting than most the WWE trot out. Yes, there’s a bit more effort involved in seeking out these companies, but I personally think it’s worth it.

Now, I’m also aware we’re in a recession and that’s why Rae doesn’t pay (or feed) me anymore. Luckily I’m content to survive eating the lichen growing in my small, windowless cell in a far corner of the Bunker, nose in the air like a Bisto kid sighing everytime Rae orders a kebab from KoVan. However, the beauty of living in the digital age is the ready availability of free content we can all instantly access from our desks, laps and phones. Pop over to YouTube, search for CHIKARA, SHIMMER, PWG, ABSOLUTE INTENSE WRESTLING, ANARCHY CHAMPIONSHIP WRESTLING, NJPW, SMASH or any number of wrestling promotions and you find a plethora of free matches, highlight videos and promos to introduce you… for FREE!

Discover the thrill of watching matches with wrestlers before they reach FCW and the WWE! (Evan Bourne, CM Punk, Daniel Bryan and that new Swiss/Italian fella in FCW are all good examples of this) Marvel at women’s matches with women who can wrestle, and are given more than a perfunctory 5 minute time slot to do so! (Keep this to yourself, but some promotions don’t even segregate the male and female members of the roster, leaving the women to be treated as they should be: as just another wrestler)

For the record, I should point out that neither Rae or myself hate the WWE or it’s current programming, although we’ll happily admit there are some things we don’t like. I don’t get round to watching Raw as often as I could which might explain it, but Smackdown is still pretty consistent, and Superstars provides a fun hour of “wrestling” every week. I’ve no idea what TNA is like nowadays because I don’t like it and therefore don’t watch it (see? The system works!)

I don’t expect many to take me up on this, there’s a familiarity and comfort in watching the same shows each week. And as I said earlier, people do take a quite perverse enjoyment in watching something they will be able to complain about. But as long as you know there is an alternative, then at least you have a choice…

So this week’s Song For Whoever is dedicated to everyone who has flooded my timeline with the same complaints week after week after week while still tuning in and contributing to the viewing figures.

Only kidding, you knows I loves you really.

A Song for Whoever: Edge & Larry Sweeney Edition

BOSS LADY RAY: There isn’t much I can say about Edge and his shock retirement that hasn’t already been said this week. We can’t, however, let it pass without comment. The outpouring of love for Adam Copeland over the past seven days has been astonishing. I’m not for a second suggesting he doesn’t deserve it. Quite the opposite. I just mean it’s been a long time since I’ve seen such universal affection for a single wrestler.

At 3:00am on Tuesday morning, the wind blowing through a forgotten, open window woke me up. I was suddenly struck with insomnia. To entertain myself I opened Twitter to see if anything interesting was happening on Raw. Edge was retiring. I assumed it was a story. There have been so many false goodbyes in the WWE lately and there were no signs of injury at Wrestlemania. But the more my Twitter feed refreshed, the more it became apparent that it was a very real farewell. I resisted the urge to turn on the television. Feeling sleepy again I went back to bed. When my alarm woke me up I returned to Twitter to find it awash with mournful messages tagged with #ThankYouEdge. Clearly I hadn’t just dreamt it.  Before I’d even got up I navigated my way to YouTube on my phone and watched the speech North Americans had been reeling over four hours earlier. I had a little cry.

.....as did he.

One of the things I’ve really been taken aback by this week is just how well respected and very much needed Edge is backstage. Curt Hawkins’ video tribute was especially lovely.

It must be an incredible feeling to make the difficult decision to take your ship to shore for the final time, knowing that not only your audience are going to miss you, but that your peers will miss you even more. The extended send-off WWE sprung on Edge on this week’s Smackdown was even more touching than his big announcement on Raw. And yes, I definitely cried.

The thought that keeps coming back to me is that Edge can’t possibly retire because he’s one of the new guys. But he isn’t. He’s 38 this year. He was already established in The Brood when I started watching some thirteen years ago. He’s one of the most decorated Superstars in the WWE. So why do I keep thinking of him as one of the new guys? I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because Edge’s retirement feels untimely. We’re not used to wrestlers being given medical advice to quit and actually listening. We’re not accustomed to seeing wrestlers retiring without their bodies and faces looking twenty years older than they really are. Sad as I am to see Edge go, I’m thrilled I won’t be seeing him dragging a broken carcass around the ring ten years from now. I’m happy he gets to go hiking in the mountains with his good lady and a couple of dogs. Live the dream, make your money and get out while you can still enjoy it.

This is the first generation of wrestlers who have the sense and the future prospects to retire when their body tells them to. It’s a relief to me. This is why Hulk Hogan’s comments that there is somehow something weak about retiring before dropping dead in the ring are infuriating. Hogan’s generation haven’t retired because they don’t know what else to do but wrestle. They had no options of second careers so they just kept going. Is this ideal? No. It’s terrible for them and embarrassing to watch. So why on earth would Hogan feel the need to denigrate Edge’s very sensible decision? Maybe envy, but probably just irresponsible stupidity. I could not despise that man more.

This new generation of educated and media savvy performers have something to fall back on at the end of their careers; whether that’s at the end of an illustrious career or one cut short because of injury as Edge’s has been. Once he’s finished being off the radar, I have no doubt he’ll be back in some way, shape or form. I only realised this week that Edge had been part of the creative team during the time he was recovering from the spinal fusion surgery he underwent seven years ago. My guess is that the door is very much open to him whenever he decides to walk back through it again.

Regardless of the fact that professional wrestling results are predetermined, what they do in the ring requires real physical effort. Wrestlers are athletes in every way apart from the fact that they know when they’re winning and when they’re losing. How many professional athletes do you know who continue in their sport beyond maybe their late thirties? A lifetime of athletic exertion takes its toll. In the words of that esteemed philosopher Kenny Rogers “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” Edge is declaring himself out and walking away from the table with his body and his dignity fully intact. I couldn’t be prouder. Thank you, Edge. This one’s for you…….

SIDEKICK ANDREW: