War games in Edmonton

The lives lived on the independent wrestling circuit
are nasty, brutish … and exciting
By Leevi Gogerla

When Wavell Starr comes into the arena for the cage fight, there is a chorus of boos. (Photo by Leevi Gogerla)

IT’S SUPPER TIME, 6:45 on a Saturday night, and the Boyle Street Community Centre, just off the downtown, is filling with bloodthirsty savages. Rise of Legends, an independent wrestling event from local wrestling promotion, Real Canadian Wrestling, is booked for an evening of brawls.

And they have come from all over Edmonton.The men are almost all burly. Replica leather and gold-plated championship belts hang on them like great heaps of metallic jewelry. Some wear “Bullet Club” and “Austin 3:16” shirts, branding themselves in the colour of their kind.

A woman in a Chewbacca sweater is yelling for asses to be whupped. It’s long before the scheduled bouts, and no one seems to care.

There are fans in Lucha Libre masks and hockey jerseys. Like metal-heads, they make devil horns with their hands, a gesture of communion with the violence to come. Something in the air makes them rabid. Madmen and crazy-women in the inner-city community gymnasium howling like dogs for scraps of meat.

Like the mobs that flooded into the Roman Coliseum, the hard-core fans of this ritual bloodletting have a taste for violence.

‘The first thing you learn at wrestling
school is how to fall down’

They settle into chairs and bleachers with bags of pop-corn – the “perfect snack for a fookin bludgeoning.”  A jolly, rotund man nods, smiles and slaps his beer gut.

There is madness about, unhinged in its many facets. Extreme sports fans, adrenaline junkies and murder enthusiasts in scattered seating arrangements shout for the theatre of blood to begin.

In the chaos there are vicious whispered rumours that there is neither in-house beer-garden nor liquor licence at the venue. As the rumour is verified, a sense of urgency spreads through the mob. Roars of anger erupt in small pockets. The wrestlers are yet to hit the ring and already there is violence – or at least the promise of it.

If you’re Ted DiBiase, Hollywood Hulk Hogan, or The U.S. president, you might make a cool million off a couple of in-ring slams. But most of the men and women who enter the squared circle aren’t million-dollar stars. This isn’t about money on the indie circuit; there just isn’t much of it. This is done for love, for passion. For the fans.

Wrestlers sew their own costumes, Entrance music is stolen from a favorite CD.

When the bleachers fill with a capacity crowd  – a few hundred – it is a good draw by indie standards. Wrestlers make anywhere from $25 to $300 a fight – not heavyweight purses. But they have one thing in common with the Big Time: everyone fights to be remembered.

Steven Styles is the owner of Real Canadian Wrestling and for months his fighters have been harassed in the ring by a rival independent promotion: Top Talent Wrestling.

Styles is a big man, 280 plus-pounds with a commanding presence. His head is shaven and he stands brooding in a sleeveless shirt that reads “DOGS OF WAR.” He is with the other trained wrestling talent and staff barking orders, he marches backstage before the first scheduled fight.  A man on Styles’s right wears a black suit. He will do double duty manning the lone concession booth at the far side of the auditorium between stints announcing the fights.

Violence and athleticism are at the centre of wrestling, but what sells the sport to fans is the personality of performers like Barricade. (Leevi Gogerla)

Tonight’s main event: a seven-man, steel-cage Wargames match.

In traditional melodramatic wrestling fashion, the promotions ownership is on the line tonight. Top Talent Wrestling is looking to take over company ownership, with a win in the night’s main event. If the Real Canadian Wrestling roster loses the Wargames cage match, the company will be rebranded, and future events will be held under the Top Talent Wrestling title.

The wrestlers on tonight’s roster have come from across Canada. Some are freelancers booked for the night; others work exclusively with this independent promoter. Many are industry veterans and have been doing this dance for years.

Red Thunder, an Alberta wrestling legend and trainer of many of the young talent, wraps his wrists in tape. It’s a week before his 49th birthday. In pro-wrestling, age is the ultimate enemy, but he looks ready to rumble.

Most of the athletes have a long history together.

Edmonton and Calgary are cities with much wrestling lore, and have produced some top talent. For generations, such legends as Stu Hart, Lance Storm and Hercules Ayala have mentored and helped define their craft in Calgary dungeons and St. Albert wrestling camps.

It takes persistence and dedication to work through the artistic bludgeoning and intense physical trauma, and stay competitive for more than dozen or so years. Like all artists, wrestlers suffer for their craft.

Pro wrestling is a strange career choice, and it can be a lonely one. Like touring musicians, wrestlers spend a lot of time on the road, but they usually pay their own expenses. Like figure skating, football, hockey or ballet, wrestling is hard on the mind and body. The difference is that those occupations don’t involve steel chairs driving into performer’s skulls.

Wrestlers’ Fight-or-flight reflexes have to be fine-tuned. The combatants put their lives on the line, and a slip-up in timing could be disastrous. They have to avoid injury and look good doing it. Much as in theatre, if the wrestlers aren’t selling the performance, they won’t sell the match.

For that reason, wrestling is co-operative to a fault, with the performers placing almost absolute trust in their opponents. The matches are choreographed, worked and constructed, so that every angle is explored. The outcomes may be fixed, but the performers have to think on their feet, often with split seconds to execute the attacks that captivate the crowd.

“The first thing you learn at wrestling school is how to fall down,” says Mark Kinghorn says, who is wrestling under the stage name Marky. “To be thrown to the ground, and know that it going to hurt.”

Wrestlers are going to be slammed a lot. They’re going to be beaten. They’re going to be fallen on. They’re going to be bent into uncomfortable positions. And they’re going to be hurt. The ring has some give, but the pain is real. They dive onto concrete floors, launch themselves off ladders and cages, they weaponize their bodies for the crowd’s entertainment.

They are savage adrenaline junkies, who tempt fate every night. It’s a dangerous calling, and only for tough people who are brave enough and can take the pain.

“You get to enjoy the small town shows,” Kinghorn says. “In the ring, nothing outside of it can hurt you, there are familiar faces in the crowd there to see you, night after night. The hard-core fans, the loyal ones come to them all.”

Along with the raw physicality and talent, characters and personality are what sell the sport. The people who like wrestling like it because they can lose themselves in the action. Like punk music and heavy metal, wrestling is both escapism and a lifestyle.

‘In the ring, nothing outside
of it can hurt you’

The characters are larger than life – bad men with bad intentions, and heroes out to take them out. Some are big brutes thirsty for blood. Others are unhinged lunatics, or ring-bound monstrosities.

They are cunning, and savage and utterly dedicated to their trade.

Unlike in traditional combat sports, there is emphasis on character development.

A boring character isn’t remembered; a mad-bastard bloodthirsty titan is. The characters represent the very best and worst of humanity: saints and psychopaths.

Backstage, though, things are always professional, even cordial.

“Some of the nastiest looking brutes are usually a dream to work with,” Kinghorn says. “Getting in the ring with them, you’re thinking, ‘I’m going to get murdered tonight.’

“But it’s never the case.”

At the Boyle Street Community Centre, the announcer rings the bell, and it’s finally time to rumble.

Two snarling behemoths square off. All 380 pounds of Andre Williams ricochet off the rope, and pancake The Universe Zack Mercury, who, moments before, was thrown viciously against the turnbuckle. The impact sounds as if it is breaking every bone in his body, and The Universe crumbles to the mat. He scrambles to his feet but, moments before he can make the safety of the ropes, Williams rumbles into him.

There is no joy on The Universe’s face as he goes down again, after another big smash into a turnbuckle. His enemy is the size of a truck, and as fast.

The wrestlers sell it well. The crazies who had been shot-gunning beer outside the venue throw their fists into the air, calling for the kill. It seems like time to call in the coroner.

The Universe is making a comeback, and the fans are living one second to the next, as he raises a thick arm in self-defence and hammers his enemy’s skull with a mighty forearm. A vicious barrage and a heavy slam puts the big man, Williams, out of commission for the three-count fall.

The crowd erupts in a blood frenzy. This is Kayfabe at its finest.

In-ring Manager Thaddeus Archer (left, with a fan) says it’s the pretence that the outcome is unpredictable that keeps the fans engaged. (Leevi Gogerla)

Kayfabe is important in pro-wrestling.

It means verisimilitude, the the portrayal of staged events as real or true specifically the portrayal of competition, rivalries and relationships.

In-ring Manager Thaddeus Archer explains: “Kayfabe, boiled down to a simple explanation, is protecting secrets, yes.

“But, mostly, it’s staying in character, understanding your role and respect to be earned in the industry. And keeping the details of the behind-the-scenes in the locker room.”

Part of the fun of wrestling comes from believing what you’re seeing. The suspension of disbelief sets the wrestling world apart from other combat sports, and gives it much in common with popular entertainment.

“While wrestling is predetermined or the outcome is decided,” Thaddeus says, “it’s the process of making the fight draw you in psychologically and believe it’s real that keeps you invested. Much akin to a movie or TV Show.”

The great heels in the wrestling world are notorious and sadistic. They’re wild bloodthirsty SOBs who disrupt matches, land nasty cheap shots and low blows, and will win by any means necessary. They thrive on the animosity of the audience. Their instincts are calculated and cold.

As an audience member, you wouldn’t dare get in their way. If you were, for some reason, in the ring with them, they’d torture you, gouge out your eyes, and beat you senseless. They’re cold-blooded, depraved monsters, who laugh and cackle at the misery they inflict.

There is a brief intermission before the final match, so technicians can erect a 12-foot steel cage around the ring.

There are nervous boos and cheers from the crowd as The Top Talent fighters – Heavy Metal, Big Jesse Youngblood and Wavell Starr – make their way to the 12-foot-tall steel prison.  They look like a gang of bikers, ready to ravage the Real Canadian Wrestling roster. They are sized up by their opponents – Marky, Strife, Scott Justice, and Steven Styles.  

Strife and Scott Justice have stood shoulder to shoulder before, standing against the Top Talent regime since the company takeover began almost a year ago. Marky an Edmonton favorite and 18-year veteran, surprised wrestling fans, and the members of Top Talent, when he was announced as an entrant in the War Games, fighting for team RCW.

‘If you are promised something,
we will deliver’

Bodies are tossed like 200-pound rag-dolls. The momentum of Youngblood’s colossal body colliding with the steel cage nearly tears it off its anchors.

Starr grinds Justice’s face against the exposed opening along the chain link. Marky Leaps through the air and off the four-metre structure, flying into the combatants below and changing the tides in his team’s favour, as he delivers the first elimination of the match by pinning the dazed Starr. The odds stacked in the good guys’ favour, the four RCW team fighters close in on their surviving two opponents.

Then, Marky delivers a kick to the head of Big Jesse Youngblood, and victory is imminent for RCW.

But Styles squares off against his teammates, burying Strife in a barrage of fists.

Marky falls first as the ambush overwhelms the bewildered teammates. He is followed by Strife and Justice. Broken bodies lay defeated in the ring, the ref hammers the final three count and the match is over.

Styles and Heavy Metal brood over the fallen RCW roster, as Top Talent takes the win and the former Real Canadian Wrestling promotion is no more.

After the match, Justin Sczembora (Heavy Metal) says: “Changes are coming. Better production quality and a more professional product as a whole. No kids running rampant. No dogs roaming around. Shows that start on time. Doors that open on time.

“If you are promised something, we will deliver. Be it proper meet and greets, proper seating, special guests.”

Maybe even a liquor licence, and a beer garden for the thirsty fans who call indie wrestling home.

Steven Styles and Heavy Metal brood over the fallen Scott Justice ushering the beginnings of Top Talent Wrestling. (Leevi Gogerla)

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