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.
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:
But then YouTube was invented, I looked up “wrestling” and came upon clips of this woman:
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 SHIMMER) 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.
I don’t mean to trash 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. But when 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. My friend 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 also 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 (even 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:
“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 Rickey Shane Page’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 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.