War games in Edmonton
The lives lived on the independent wrestling circuit
are nasty, brutish … and exciting
By Leevi Gogerla
It’s suppertime, 6:45 on a Saturday night, and the Boyle Street Community centre is filling with bloodthirsty savages. Rise of Legends, an independent wrestling event from local wrestling promotion Real Canadian Wrestling have booked an evening of brawls in the heart of the city.
They have come downtown, from all over Edmonton. Replica leather and gold-plated championship belts hung on them like great heaps of metallic jewelry. They are almost all burly. Some wear “Bullet Club” and “Austin 3:16” shirts, branding themselves in the color of their kind.
A woman in a Chewbacca sweater is yelling for asses to be whipped. It’s long before the scheduled bouts, so no one seems to care.
There are fans in Lucha Libre masks and hockey jerseys. Like metal fans, 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 savage dogs for scraps of meat.
Like the howling and snarling patrons who flooded into the Roman Coliseum, the hard-core fans of this ritual bloodletting have a taste for violence.
They wear the colors of their warriors. 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.
Amid the chaos there are vicious whispered rumours that there is neither in-house beer-garden nor liquor license at the venue. As the rumour becomes truth, a sense of urgency spreads through the mob. Roars of anger erupt in small pockets across the crowd. 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 United States 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.
It isn’t about money on the indie circuit; there just isn’t much of it. This is done for love, out of an all-consuming passion. It’s done for the fans.
Wrestlers sew their own costumes, Entrance music is stolen from a favorite CD.
When the bleachers fill with a capacity crowd of a couple hundred, by indie standards, it is a good draw. Wrestlers make anywhere from $25 to $300 a fight – not the heavyweight prizefighters performing for millions of fans and dollars. But one thing remains the same: they are fighting to be remembered.
Steven Styles is the owner of Real Canadian Wrestling and for months his roster of assembled fighters have been harassed in the ring by a rival independent promotion: Top Talent Wrestling. He 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 to 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.
Tonight’s main event: A Seven Person Steel Cage Wargames match.
In traditional melodramatic wrestling fashion, the promotions ownership is on the line tonight. The Rival fighters from Top Talent Wrestling are 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 undergo a rebrand booking future events under Top Talent Wrestling.
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 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 great artist, wrestlers suffer for their craft.
Pro wrestling is a strange career choice. It can be lonely work. 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 it’s 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 schools is how to fall down, Mark Kinghorn says. Tonight he is wrestling under the stage name of Marky. “To be thrown to the ground, and know that it going to hurt.”
Not many professions teach you that on Day 1. Wrestlers are going to be slammed a lot. They’re going to be savagely 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 uproar and the athletic high. They are savage adrenaline junkies who tempt fate every night. It’s a dangerous calling for tough people who are brave enough and who can accept that 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.
Beside the raw physicality and talent, what sells is characters and personality. 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.
The characters are larger than life – bad men with bad intentions, and heroes out to take them out. Some are big b
rutes out 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. Anything goes: saint, to psychopath.
Backstage, though, things are always professional.
“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. 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 would break every bone in the average 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.
Kayfabe is important in pro-wrestling.
The refers to 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, 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 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.
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.
Star grinds Justice’s face against the exposed opening along the chain link Marky Leaps through the air and off the 12-foot 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 Star. The odds stacked in the good guys favour, the four RCW team fighters close in on their surviving two opponents.
Marky with a kick to the head of Big Jesse YoungbloodWith victory imminent for RCW, Styles squares off against his team-mates, 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 lie defeated in the ring, the ref hammers the final three count and the match is over. The Top Talent takes the win and the former Real Canadian Wrestling promotion is no more.
Steven Styles and Heavy Metal brood over the fallen RCW rosterAfter the match, Justin Sczembora (who wrestles under the name 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 beer garden for the thirsty fans that call indie wrestling their home.