Absolute Intense Wrestling returns to Turners Hall on August 4, 2012, for Girls Night Out 7, the first show in company history featuring an all-woman card. I’ll be there in my official capacity as “women’s (wrestling) expert,” and as a mostly unbiased judge of wrestling cards, #GNO7 looks like the company’s strongest to date. As always, there is a strong mix of national, international, and local talent, along with the promise of two massive feature bouts.
In the main event of the evening, Allysin Kay defends her AIW Women’s Championship against “The Blasian Barbie” Mia Yim. The two have had a bloody, violent history in AIW, and at #GNO7 they look to settle the score in the promotion’s second-ever Steel Cage Match. Cage matches don’t happen often in indie wrestling (for two good reasons: they’re expensive, and they take an incredibly long time to set up), and are only booked when the situation calls for it. Yim and Kay have met twice in an AIW ring, and there was blood both times. In their first match, Yim broke Kay’s nose with a stiff kick, which resulted in a war of words across twitter and various podcasts leading to an anxiously awaited rematch. At Girls Night Out 6, they met in an unsanctioned Fans Bring the Weapons match for the vacant AIW Women’s Championship. The match saw the use of light tubes, machetes, and garden hoses, but came to an end under dubious circumstances when Kay’s estranged manager Chest Flexor interfered, costing Yim the match and the title. The new champion, none too happy with Flexor’s interference, took her frustration out on the leader of Flexor Industries, asking for the match to be restarted so she could finish Yim herself.
Instead of doing that, AIW’s acting president Matthew Wadsworth promised a third encounter, one in which nobody could interfere. Now one of the most intense rivalries in AIW’s history (and, indeed, in wrestling today) comes to a close in one of the sport’s most barbaric enclosures. Cage matches in independent wrestling aren’t for the faint of heart or the weak kneed. Given the heat between the two and the title that’s on the line, blood will likely be shed and reputations will be made or broken. Both women have done great things in the past year, and this match is the culmination of their hard work and sacrifice. Only one of them can leave the cage a champion. The woman who does will have staked a claim as being one of the best in the world. Read more
Of course I was there after having posted about it several times, and in official capacity no less, but AIW’s Girls Night Out 6 is the sort of pro-wrestling event worth writing about. On a night when TNA drew 2,000 (mostly disinterested) people (in a 9,000 seat venue) for their version of a wrestling revolution—an overblown, all-cage-match show—AIW put on an all-women show in a community athletic club, and, while I might be biased, I’d be willing to bet that AIW put out the better card. Small venues and tight-knit, passionate fans make for a sense of urgency, a need to perform (and perform well) that hasn’t been felt in any of the major promotions for quite some time. I’m very proud to have been a part of last night’s show, and can think of few better shows to have made a debut on. Unfortunately, the nature of being behind the commentary table prevents me from giving a straight recollection of the evening’s events, so you’ll have to bear with me while I ramble about myself and my feelings as the night went on. Read more
Way back in January, I got to call a match between Sara Del Rey and Mickie Knuckles—the main event of Absolute Intense Wrestling’s Girls Night Out 5 (which you can purchase here)—which was the fulfillment of an (admittedly odd) childhood fantasy that, were it not for a Kickstarter campaign, would have forever been unchecked on my bucket list. For those of you wondering how I did in a sense different than me critiquing myself months after the fact, here’s some news: In seven days, I will be behind the microphone at AIW’s Girls Night Out 6, the first all-woman card in the promotion’s history and, if you ask me, the best one they’ve put together yet.
I am entering uncharted territory here, the stuff of “What I’d Like to Be When I Grow Up” essays that, to me, were no less unrealistic than those old-hat ones about becoming an astronaut or a firefighter or Superman. To say that I’m excited about this opportunity is an understatement. To point out that I’m somewhat nervous going into next week’s show is probably unnecessary. AIW, since I started attending shows last summer, have seemingly grown by leaps and bounds. They’ve moved to a bigger venue, they’re attracting a diverse array of talent from across the country, their events are drawing attendees from across a freaking ocean … and they’ve hired me on as an announcer. Here’s an approximation of my reaction:
If you live anywhere near the Cleveland area—say, within a five hour drive—you should put together your shekels and see this show. Tickets are $15, and while gas and tolls and food and such cost money, there’s nothing quite like live wrestling in an intimate setting. If you can’t make it, I encourage you to purchase the eventual DVD or .mp4 release, which’ll be plugged in this space as soon as they’re available. Support independent professional wrestling! Support women’s wrestling! See the following:
Hailey Hatred has only recently made her return to the United States after a very successful tour of Japan, during which she held five championships simultaneously, becoming perhaps the most decorated wrestler since Ultimo Dragon. She also became an incredibly polished wrestler during her time in Japan, this despite an already impressive Stateside career that includes a reign as the AIW Women’s championship. She’s also capable of taking her game to the extreme, as evidenced by a brutal “Compton Rules” match against John Thorne a mere two days ago, at AIW’s Straight Outta Compton. Here, for your viewing pleasure, is Hatred’s final defense of the JWP Openweight Title, against Kaori Yoneyama, from December of last year:
Jenny Rose, for those unaware, was formerly masked SHIMMER-stalwart “Jumping” Jamilia Craft, who ditched her old look after a trip to Japan, where she wrestled for Kyoko Inoue’s outfit. As Jamilia Craft, she looked every bit a blue chip prospect, but I haven’t seen much of Jenny Rose and am looking forward to what is, I believe, a first time meeting of two women who have a lot to offer after their time in Japan. “Show stealer” is a phrase too-often applied in wrestling, but if any match on the card deserves the moniker, this’d be my choice.
The last I checked, Sara Del Rey was still my favorite wrestler. Rather than quantifying that for the 400th time, I’m just going to post a match Del Rey had against Hailey Hatred:
Whereas Del Rey is often called the best woman wrestler in the world, Veda Scott is still a relative newcomer in wrestling, entering her second year. There’s a lot of positive buzz surrounding her, however, and for good reason. I’ve seen Scott wrestle live at two previous Girls Night Out events, and she has made rapid strides as an in-ring competitor between her 2011 match with Cherry Bomb, and her encounter with Kimber Lee from Girls Night Out 5. I could be mistaken, but I think this, too, is a first time match, probably the biggest in Veda’s career. Get acclimated to Veda Scott with AIW’s Behind the Curtain interview, and a match she had against her trainer (and Del Rey’s former tag partner) Daizee Haze:
The main event of Girl’s Night Out 6 is an unsanctioned match for a sanctioned title belt. If that seems weird, Kay and Yim were originally scheduled to face each other in a grudge match stemming from the events of Girls Night Out 5, where Kay personally kicked Yim out of Flexor Industries and Yim retaliated by breaking Kay’s nose in gruesome fashion during their match to determine the #1 contender to Mickie Knuckles’ AIW Women’s championship. This, truthfully, would be enough to justify the price of admission.
If their match in January was surprisingly brutal, the beef between the two—insults and tirades and threats traded over Twitter and various podcasts—has transcended professional boundaries, promising a hate-filled, nasty encounter. The AIW Women’s Championship—vacated by Mickie Knuckles, who personally requested this match be for the title—only adds more fuel to the fire. A clip of their match from Girls Night Out 5 begins at 26:00.
All of this is in addition to Gabriella Vanderpool vs. Leva Bates, Miss Heidi vs. K.C., Crazy Mary Dobson vs. Venus, Kimber Lee vs. Jennifer Blake, Sassy Steph vs. Cherry Bomb, Melanie Cruise vs. Taylor Made, and Taeler Hendrix vs. Annie Social. This is just an insane mix of talent, from SHIMMER regulars to east coast regulars, with nary a bikini model in sight. For more information on the show or to buy tickets, visit Absolute Intense Wrestling’s website, check them out on Facebook, or follow their Twitter account, @aiwrestling. I will most likely talk about this event excitedly until the day I die, so be ready for that, friends.
I’ve been watching wrestling for a long time now, have been cognizant of it for at least 20 years, going back to the Christmas my sister and I received a pair of WWF Wrestling Buddies (Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior, for the intensely curious). Since then, and with few interruptions (Katie Vick), I have absolutely devoured wrestling any way I can: VHS recordings of Monday Night Raw and Monday Nitro, Coliseum Home Video releases of old WrestleManias and house shows, DVDs, live shows, autograph signings by the likes of “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan (2′x4′), Buff Bagwell (8″x10″), and Chyna (“autobiography”), the point being this: I’m a mark, man, a shameless mark.
But, for as long as I’ve been a mark, I’ve been looking for a way to elevate myself above that particular crowd. Not that I’m better than any other wrestling fan, but as I get older, wrestling’s become less and less about the unending battle between good and evil, and more about the effort and artistry behind a good match, all the elements that go into one. Mostly, I’ve looked for a way to get involved in the industry in some way. I was too cowardly (or too smart) to backyard wrestle as a kid and too uninterested in athletics as a teenager to consider wrestling school, so I looked up to and wished to emulate the great announcers and color commentators of the sport — Jim Ross and Bobby Heenan, Gordon Solie and Lance Russell, Jesse Ventura and Gorilla Monsoon, Paul Heyman and Jim Cornette — men capable of translating what is essentially a foreign language to an audience who really wouldn’t know a wristlock from a wristwatch, who need to be told why a hammerlock hurts and why one should fear the DDT.
I have always wanted to do this, wanted to call a wrestling match, and on January 29th this year, I got to do just that. This is one of the more unique privileges of indie wrestling fandom, that a promotion you enjoy and wish to see succeed will hold a fundraiser, with one of the rewards for donating being something you’ve always wanted to do, but never figured would happen. For $75, I was given a “try out” as an announcer behind a live microphone, talking about a wrestling match on a DVD that’d later be watched and picked apart by other fans who, like me, consider themselves aficionados. This, I admit, is a pretty weird dream, but it’s one I’ve had for awhile, and one I probably would have paid more money to accomplish, not knowing many other ways for a layman to get on the air.
The only thing left to do once the money left my wallet was to wait for a match I wanted to call. As soon as AIW announced the return of Sara Del Rey (a favorite wrestler of mine), I knew that was one. The one problem was that Del Rey was scheduled to face AIW Women’s Champion Mickie Knuckles on a card centered around women’s wrestling, making it the main event. AIW would have been within rights to say “no” and ask me to take on a match with less riding on it, say, The Duke vs. The Chad, which opened the show, or “Crazy” Mary Dobson vs. Miss Heidi, which had no bearing on the success or failure of the DVD. But instead, they said “yes,” and I made my debut as a professional wrestling announcer in the main event of a show that’s pretty important for AIW, among their top DVD sellers.
Most of Girls Night Out 5 was an absolute blur for me. My buddy Caleb and I arrived at the arena a little late, Caleb carrying a pie he’d baked for Del Rey (the third such baked good he’s made for a wrestler, wrestlers not being known for their affinity for cake and pie), and me half-expecting/half-hoping to be informed that it just wouldn’t be possible for me to claim my fundraiser prize that evening. But the owners of the promotion knew me on sight and said “Main event tonight? Good luck,” which made me both incredibly excited and incredibly nervous. It was on. There was no turning back. Match after match went by with me in a kind of stupor, drinking tons of water and trying to hang on to the research I’d done earlier (despite having seen her at most of the AIW shows I’ve been to since last June, I didn’t know much about Mickie Knuckles, an indie fixture) while populating a list of old cliches I could use in case I got stuck (“Tonight has been the greatest night in the history of our industry!”). The highlights of the DVD, having watched it a few times now, include Eric Ryan vs. Rickey Shane Page, Mia Yim vs. Marti Belle, Veda Scott vs. Kimber Lee, and Allysin Kay vs. Mia Yim, but they barely registered live, as the whole time I was worried about coming across like this:
Yes, I was feeling proverbial butterflies sitting ringside, hoping not to embarrass myself. Making matters worse, I didn’t know who I’d be announcing with, a problem exacerbated by the Yim vs. Kay contest, during which Yim broke Kay’s nose. The aftermath pulled away three of the guys who regularly do commentary on AIW’s DVDs, and the table was abdicated to myself and Rickey Shane Page (@RickeyShanePage), one of the company’s more underrated wrestlers and the co-host of AIW’s YouTube show, Intense TV.
Granted I’m not a completely unbiased judge, but if you ask me, I did a pretty good job. There are, of course, things I could stand to improve — being more excited for big moves — some things I need to avoid — over-relying on the use of full names (but they’re so rhythmic!) and the phrase “that’s a devastating submission maneuver!”(I used it twice, like Vince McMahon not knowing what a suplex is and instead shouting “what a maneuver!”) — and I made one flat-out error — claiming that Sara Del Rey had taken to the Fujiwara armbar when, in fact, she uses the cross armbreaker — but those are small, quibbling details, things anybody could have screwed up. Mostly, I’m happy to have not come across like this:
No, I did not pull an Adamle or an “Art O’Dono,” but if there’s anything my experience has shed some light on, it’s this: Announcing is hard work, and I imagine it only gets tougher after the first match, tougher still when it’s on TV, with the boss screaming in your ear. Calling the action for AIW was nothing like that; the guys in charge were at the door, and once I saw them, that was pretty much it. The bell rang, RSP introduced me to the home audience, and we proceeded to speak extemporaneously about wrestling for fifteen minutes. It wasn’t just fun — it’s the most fun I’ve ever had at a show. Ever. Period.
Being an announcer, as it turns out, isn’t a simple matter of knowing the names of the wrestlers involved and knowing the moves they’re performing, how they effect an opponent’s anatomy. To do it right, you need to be able to react quickly to everything that’s happening in front of you. If you’ve got a preference for one wrestler and aren’t supposed to, you need to mask it. If there’s a wrestler on the microphone, you’re not to talk over them. If your view of the match is blocked off by a standing crowd or the ring or the wrestlers disappearing outside or behind the curtain, you cannot allow silence. If there is dead air, it is your responsibility to pick the conversation up again. That’s what announcing is in wrestling, not a dry reporting of facts, but a conversation between two or more distinct individuals about a conflict taking place right before them. It is good to know and call upon history. It is good to know basic strategy. It is good to note when one wrestler is working over a specific body part, which part of the body a submission hold damages. It is especially good to have a partner who can also do these things, a partner with whom you can bounce things back and forth.
If I made a serious, grave error, it was ultimately that I was intensely focused on the match. That might not seem like a terrible thing, but, without my knowing it, I was playing a part in a long, ongoing battle behind the microphone that involved a swarthy, lascivious announcer named Aaron Bauer (@fairtoaar), who usually spends Girls Night Out events talking about which competitors he finds more attractive. For some reason, I didn’t bank on AIW having a back up plan in case I stuttered, stammered, and shamefully silenced myself into an early retirement, but Bauer was that back up, and I was so into Kuckles/Del Rey that I barely noticed him the first time he came to the table (and, later, I called him “bro”). He came around three times, at which point everybody (including me) figured that Rickey Shane Page didn’t need to be rescued from me. After the show, both Page and Bauer complimented me, which was flattering, but calling Knuckles/Del Rey had an unforeseen consequence, something that’ll take a little bit of backstory to fully explain.
Shortly before Girls Night Out 5, Caleb had signed up for a wrestling school run by Ring of Honor stalwart Truth Martini, who is one of the best managers in wrestling today. He was about a month out from starting his training, but you could tell, watching him, that there was something different in the way he was watching the show. On the first day of the course, Martini gathered his prospective wrestlers in the ring and said to them all “You’re not marks anymore.” That’s not to say that Martini was forbidding Caleb from being a fan (because, honestly, why voluntarily do something you hate?). He was saying that Caleb’s purpose in watching wrestling was changing from “man wishing to be entertained” to “student of the game.” You watch an episode of Raw, and it’s not to complain about John Cena and Zack Ryder, but to watch CM Punk, Chris Jericho, and Daniel Bryan wrestle. You go to an indie show, and it’s not to get caught up in fan chants or be awed by the things the athletes are capable of, but to ingratiate yourself to the promotion by setting up the ring or being security, picking the brains of the much more experienced competitors in the back. It’s still wrestling, but, as a student, wrestling has a higher purpose. You do these things because you want to learn.
But still, imagine Caleb, a big enough fan of wrestling that he carves Sara Del Rey’s logo into the latticework of his homemade apple pie, being told not to be that guy anymore. It’s a weird situation, but, sitting there during the show, both of us could feel our identities as fans changing. Caleb and I, usually two of the loudest people in the room, just sat back and watched the show unfold, studying everything that was happening in the ring as if we knew there was no going back, as if Caleb had already been told by Martini that it was no longer acceptable to chant “You’re gonna get your fucking head kicked in” with the rest of the crowd, that things were going to be different, even if we didn’t want them to be.
This is nothing new to me. I’ve been blogging about movies for four years now, and over that time have felt my appreciation for them change. Yes, I’ll still watch a movie like Underworld: Awakening or The Scorpion King 3, but I do so with a critical eye, presumably because I can pick up an element of craft from any movie, even if what I learn is simply how not to do something. My experience as an announcer was great, but it has fundamentally changed the way I take in and digest wrestling. While announcing, you must be aware both of yourself on the microphone and the match in the ring. You’re split, in a way observing yourself observe not only a work of art, but the way that work of art moves you. You find yourself enjoying wrestling, yes, but in the same way one enjoys a book that fundamentally changes ones perspective. While I will always have my one experience, while Caleb will always have his training, there will be no going back to the way things were, and that, honestly, is fine. The best way I can sum up the experience of announcing is this: I feel a little bit like David Bowman going through the light show at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s like I’ve grown younger and older, like I’m calm and nervous, naive but somehow enlightened. I left Cleveland that night knowing that I could no longer be a mark. I left Cleveland having never been a bigger fan.
If you like wrestling or like the sound of my voice, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Absolute Intense Wrestling’s Girls Night Out 5. You can purchase the event directly from AIW at shop.aiwrestling.com, or from the guys at Smart Mark Video, who are selling the DVD for $15, and an mp4 download of the show for $10. If you live in Cleveland or within reasonable driving distance, go to aiwrestling.com, check out AIW’s Facebook page, or follow them on Twitter (@aiwrestling) for more information on their upcoming shows: Straight Outta Compton, Girls Night Out 6, and the J.T. Lightning Invitational Tournament.
Any time I tell somebody or some other person tells somebody that I run (well, ran) a movie blog, inevitably the person gets around to asking a question that I assume everybody in my particular line of nerdery dreads. The same goes for small talk with new people in sports, literature, music…on and on and on, all anybody is interested in is knowing what constitutes my favorite thing. On the surface, these are easy enough questions and I can say “The Big Lebowski” or “The Detroit Lions” at the drop of a hat, but I hate being asked because not only do I feel my taste or merit as a critic being judged by the asker, but because I fear the hidden, unspoken question: Why?
“Why” is a much harder question to quantify than “What,” as I don’t always know the reasons why I like a particular thing. I can say that I fell in love with the Lions because they’re my hometown team and, as a child, I saw Barry Sanders run in ways few human beings can wrap their minds around, but I didn’t experience Barry Sanders when the Lions were perennial playoff hopefuls and, for the majority of my life, they’ve have been playing such awful football that any sane man would have given up the ship years ago. Why not follow another team? I don’t know.
I used to be happy on the rare occasions when somebody asked me who my favorite wrestler was, because that was an answer I could give freely, with full explanation. I was watching a very special episode of WCW Monday Nitro on January 4, 1999 when Tony Schiavone, the voice of WCW, told me not to change that dial to Raw (which I never did to begin with) because he had it on good authority that Mick Foley, formerly known as Cactus Jack, was going to win the WWF Title from the Rock.
Even though I once served detention for doing the Dgeneration-X crotch chop at recess and talked with my classmates about Steve Austin and the Undertaker and Kane and all that junk, I was a WCW man, right up until this point. See, I didn’t know anything about wrestling, even though I’d been watching since I was four, and the list of my favorite wrestlers remained unchanged from when I first saw an old Coliseum Video tape that I somehow got my hands on: Hulk Hogan, “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Bret Hart. So skilled was the WWF marketing machine that I followed these guys to WCW. My childhood love of Hulk Hogan had faded, but I still dug Macho Man and Bret Hart, who were having good feuds with the likes of Diamond Dallas Page, Chris Benoit, Raven and Goldberg, who I also grew to love. There was the ultra-cool combo of Kevin Nash and Scott Hall, the incredible acrobatics of Rey Mysterio Jr. and the humor of a young Chris Jericho to keep me interested between 20-minute long odes to the Hulkster. Though I had all WWF action figures (they were better) and knew nobody who liked WCW, these were my icons. But I knew about the WWF and had read about Mick Foley and his barbarous Hell in the Cell match against the Undertaker and had bought a VHS tape called “The Best of Cactus Jack in ECW,” which was not only my introduction to a third “kind” of wrestling, but a new kind of wrestler in general.
Foley wasn’t in the best shape, he didn’t have the best look or the best gear, but he did everything he could to entertain/enrage an audience, and he was extremely good at his job. As an out-of-shape 11-year-old who couldn’t do a ton of athletic things because I suffered from cluster headaches (which were incapacitating) and swollen adenoids (which made it hard to breathe), I appreciated Mick Foley as a kind of avatar. He, too, was an out-of-shape dude who couldn’t do a ton of athletic things, and he was going to win the WWF Title.
This is what I saw when I flipped the channel:
And this is what happened on WCW Monday Nitro:
I think, had I been watching the rest of Nitro, that I would have stopped watching wrestling forever. As it stood, however, I became a big time WWF fan and Mick Foley became my favorite wrestler, which was too bad because 1999 was his last year as an active, full time competitor. Foley’s books and DVDs kept me going, but I was pretty much done with wrestling in 2002, when I went to a Raw is War and saw Kane and Triple H in a casket match because Triple H insinuated that Kane had slept with a dead woman. It was a combination of boredom and stupidity that did me in, and I was pretty sure that I was over wrestling.
But then YouTube was invented, I looked up “wrestling” and came upon clips of this woman:
Not that Manami Toyota ever took over for Mick Foley, but the minute I became aware of women’s wrestling–real women’s wrestling, which goes beyond the scope of a WWE’s diva division that regularly featured matches where the two women fought in giant bowls of gravy or eggnog or what have you–the door flew open for somebody new.
I’ve written a little bit about how Daniel Bryan (formerly known as Bryan Danielson) got me into indie wrestling (here). While the wrestler above–Sara Del Rey–wasn’t at that show, I started watching more and more indie wrestling, a scene where she’s a fixture, and was immediately drawn to her. I think indie wrestling works a strange magic on serious wrestling fans, and that, to me, is no more apparent than how Sara Del Rey became my favorite wrestler.
This is how indie wrestling works: When a guy like CM Punk comes out on TV and declares himself the best wrestler in the world, people who watch a ton of wrestling wag their fingers (or blow their tops) and start naming a bunch of dudes who are supposedly way better. Today’s wrestler of choice is probably Davey Richards. In 2009, when Chris Jericho was claiming to be “the best in the world at what he does,” the wrestler of choice would have been Bryan Danielson. This goes back as long as there’ve been nerds debating the finer points of pro-wrestling, with many asserting Ricky Steamboat as the best wrestler in the world at a time when maybe Ric Flair or Randy Savage were on top of the world, and you don’t even want to open the door to Mexican or Japanese wrestlers. The more wrestling one watches, the more likely the viewer is to settle upon some mostly obscure guy as their pick for Best in the World, which may be one of the most annoying chants I’ve ever heard at a wrestling show.
As far as my tastes in independent pro-wrestling go, I tend to prefer the stuff being done by women’s promotions like SHIMMER Women Athletes. It’s got a lot to do with YouTube exposing me to Japanese women’s wrestling before anything else, and also because groups like SHIMMER (and other promotions who use women from that promotion) are doing something completely different than what I can see on WWE television: treating women like they’re on the same level as men. Though women’s wrestling on TV is much better now than it was when bra and panties matches were in style, most of the women being pushed by WWE aren’t really my cup of tea. No matter how hard she works, I don’t think I’ll ever completely buy a Kelly Kelly victory, even over a woman of similar size and skill. I don’t have that problem with Del Rey, who looks genetically developed to crush the WWE Divas division into a fine powder.
Del Rey won me over late this past July, when I saw her perform three nights in a row. The first night, in Cleveland, she wrestled Sassy Stephie for Absolute Intense Wrestling at a show called Girl’s Night Out 4 which, as you might guess, featured mostly women’s matches. The show itself was great (if you’re a wrestling fan, you can throw some shekels their way at aiwrestling.com), but there were people in the crowd who, to be honest, made me ashamed to not only be there, but to like wrestling/be a man at all. I don’t think you can talk about the moral degradation of society until you sit next to a nine-year-old boy screaming “Gimmie a blowjob!” at every woman who happened by him, and there were other mutants in the audience who, when not feeding that kid lines, shouted out their own doozies, “kick her in the clit!” and the decidedly un-rhythmic “we want a stripper pole!” being favorites.
To make it clear, I’m not trashing AIW–they’re an up-and-coming, well-respected promotion who bring some of independent wrestling’s best to Ohio on a regular basis, and I’ll probably go to more of their shows in the future. When the people standing outside waiting for the door are debating if one of the wrestlers at the last show should have broken more fluorescent light tubes over his opponent’s face, however, you realize that an evening full of women’s wrestling is kind of a tough sell. Del Rey, who was wrestling a last-minute replacement for a wrestler named Super Oprah, was able to get the crowd to watch her match with a minimum of stupid, snide comments, despite the fact that she was pretty much squashing Sassy Stephie, her opponent for the evening.
It was at Girl’s Night Out 4 that the privileges of indy wrestling became apparent, as Del Rey came out during the intermission to sell DVDs and 8x10s. Caleb and I introduced ourselves to her and talked about the crowd at AIW and our travel plans and how we were looking forward to seeing her match against Claudio Castagnoli at the old ECW Arena. I’m sure every schmuck who’s been to a live performance where audience/crowd interaction is key has felt like this, but when Del Rey wrestled Sassy Stephie, asked us to keep chanting her “Queen of Wrestling” moniker, called out for move requests and actually did the stuff we asked for, it felt less like she was playing to the crowd-at-large, and more like she was wrestling for us.
The match that Sunday, against Claudio Castagnoli (recently signed by the WWE), was the reason Caleb, his girlfriend and I packed up and hit the road. Friday in Cleveland and Saturday in Reading (a chaotic six-woman tag team match featuring a trio of wrestlers from Japan) were a great appetizer, and the whole weekend had been filled with a diverse array of spectacular wrestling. British legends Johnny Saint and Johnny Kidd, for example, wrestled two technical masterclasses that weekend–once against each other, once teaming with CHIKARA-founder Mike Quackenbush and Chicago’s own Colt Cabana, respectively–but Del Rey vs. Castagnoli was the featured attraction, one of the best men on the independent scene going against the best woman in a match that not only would determine both wrestler’s future chances at a title shot (this is always important), but was an issue of respect. The deeper intricacies of the Del Rey/Castagnoli feud are unnecessary, as are the details of the match, which was pretty much worth the road trip.
I don’t know how easy it is to tell from the above image, but the difference between Castagnoli and Del Rey is vast. Claudio’s a huge man–260 pounds of Swiss mountain muscle–and while Del Rey’s not exactly tiny, Claudio had at least 100 pounds on her. The Asylum Arena, long a cradle for American independent wrestling, was sweltering that afternoon, an easy 100 degrees, and the CHIKARA faithful, usually a loud, raucous bunch, were quieted by the conditions in the building. Not during this match, where nearly 500 people yelled themselves hoarse chanting “QUEEN OF WRESTLING” as Del Rey tried her best to overcome Claudio. When she did, surprising Claudio with a cradle pinfall, the place exploded; the reaction was not unlike the best WWE crowds going nuts at a WrestleMania where everything goes right and everybody is sent home happy.
This comparison, of course, is unfair. Indie fans, when backed into the corner, will inexorably talk about matches like CM Punk vs. Samoa Joe being better than, say, CM Punk vs. John Cena. Not to say that their opinion is wrong–it probably isn’t–but the demands of a match performed in front of 300 people are much different than those of a match performed in front of 17,000, plus an additional 200,000 domestic pay-per-view buyers (more if we’re talking a WrestleMania or Summerslam kinda night). But still, sending 500 sweat-soaked, tired, possibly jaded pro-wresting fans happy is an impressive feat, and Del Ray and Castagnoli really went all out for a great match, trading European-style uppercuts and kicks, lariats and somersault splashes, perspiration flying into the lights with each shot, Rocky-style, for 13 minutes.
Again, the privilege of being an indie fan: After the match and after the after-match shenanigans, Del Rey stood at a table with a few DVDs to sell. Nobody in line was buying them, instead choosing to ask questions like “Did you get that thing I bought for you off your Amazon wish list?” and giving her homemade wallets and other small tokens of affection, which, I suppose, is the privilege of being an indie wrestler. Caleb and I stood in that line, made our way to the front, and started blabbing about how great the match was, how great our trip was and, the weird thing was, she remembered us from Cleveland and stood around and talked to us for a bit, like this snippet:
“That was only thirteen minutes?” I asked. “It felt like half an hour!”
“I hope that’s not a bad thing,” Del Rey responded.
It wasn’t, but I don’t even think the match or her sticking around after the fact is what sealed the deal. There are plenty of wrestlers having plenty of good matches who are plenty nice to the fans. Mick Foley, for example, had a career’s worth of great matches and is almost legendarily nice to his fans. I think, rather, that I like Del Rey for the same reasons I like a guy like Foley or a team like the Detroit Lions–she’s a decided underdog, and it feels good to cheer for the underdog. But even here, there’s a difference.
Sara Del Rey isn’t an underdog in the same way the Lions are, as she’s not getting paid millions of dollars to do what she loves, and she’s not an underdog like Mick Foley, who could have never won a major world title but still would have had an excellent, globe-spanning career. She’s an underdog because, in terms of body type, she’s not the kind of woman the WWE usually hires. Yes, there are women working for the company right now who are larger than your average Hawaiian Tropics model, but that, too, may be working against Del Rey, as you’re either “the norm” or you’re too similar to someone else outside their definition.
That, again, is one of indie wrestling’s strange peccadilloes. I think most of the people who watch it aren’t just invested in the performance aspect of wrestling, or in the characters, which come and go. We’re invested in the people behind the fake names, the men and women wearing the spandex. I don’t know if it’s because we’re closer to the action or if it’s because indie wrestlers actually talk to fans or because there’s a strange sense of power in being a fan–my buying or not buying Colt Cabana’s $20 shirt is the difference between him eating at Subway or him eating Ramen–but I like sitting down front row at the TaylorTown Trade Center, looking into the ring and seeing a bunch of people who not only want to be in the WWE, but who actually deserve to be there.
Del Rey is one of those indie wrestlers. She not only looks ready, not only is ready, but she really wants to go. So she wrestles across the country and gains critical acclaim and builds her fan base hoping that somebody with the WWE will take notice and give her the shot that she deserves. She answers questions about “divas” and body type and her chances of getting in all the time, in a way is told that she’s not going to make it, but she keeps working and keeps getting better. Professional wrestling is how Sara Del Rey makes her living. There appears to be no back-up plan. She either wrestles and gets into the WWE or she wrestles and doesn’t, and it’s hard to be a wrestling fan and not respect this mindset.
It’s a huge part of the reason I like her, and it’s probably why I’ll miss seeing her in high school gymnasiums and half-empty flea markets when she does get signed. But this, ultimately, is why I buy a $10 ticket or a t-shirt or ask her to sign a poster. This is my reality television, and I want to see people who put a lifetime worth of work into something I also love get rewarded for doing so. I want Sara Del Rey to do like Mick Foley did in 1999 and silence the sort of people who look cynically upon hard work and dedication and say “You can’t do it” or “You don’t look right.” I’m a sucker for stories like this, stories which, oddly, professional wrestling seems to have the market cornered on.