Monday, March 26, 2007

My mother is going to hate this post.

I think I’m beginning to love professional wrestling.

A month ago, on a Saturday night, my brother Daniel and I went to a Ring of Honor wrestling match. Other people went, too, like our friend JB (who calls me “daughter-of-Murphy-sister-of-dumb-boys”) and Daniel’s girlfriend, Meena.

It was held in a local gym. A section was cordoned off with those heavy floor-to-ceiling vinyl curtains with chains sewn into the hems and netting across the top so we wouldn’t suffocate. On the other side of the curtain, the usual league basketball games continued, complete with referees’ whistles and squeaky shoes. Cheers for a hockey game drifted over from the hockey game in another adjoining section. Daniel said that this caused the atmosphere to be a little less reverent in the opening bouts than it had been in previous events.

Where have I been for these previous events!?! I feel like someone who has just been fed chocolate for the first time in her late 20s. Imagine what I’ve missed!

So, the event started off with a stardard-looking wrestling guy (big muscles, smooth skin, largish spandex panties) and a taller guy with a Roman nose in a grey suit and greasy ponytail. This second wrestler worked the crowd on his way in, holding his hand up with the palm facing inward and the fingers pointing up, shouting "Hey!" in a New York Italian salute. Many in the crowd saluted him back, obviously enjoying the interplay.

Have I talked at all about the crowd yet? Many of my regular readers are aware of my affinity for nerds, geeks and dorks of all varieties. This is an unlooked-for consequence of my own nerdy tendencies that have caused me to seek out the chess club in junior high, Star Trek TNG online groups at the same age on the newly-minted Prodigy system, Thespians in high school, the Renaissance Faire in college and role-playing games in adulthood. How could one not learn to delight in the other participants of these activities that require imagination and intelligence, qualifications that seem to eliminate The Beautiful People from being interested, leaving the field wide open to misfits, loners and eccentrics galore? Who doesn't love an underdog?

Let me tell you, indie professional wrestling pulls them out of the woodworks.

Seated in front of my group were two 14 year old boys, one pudgy, the other skinny. At 14, they hadn't yet developed any personalized identity markers like black duster coats, distinctively bad hair styles, or sub-culture indentifying T-shirts. They were just boys, a little shy and a little funny-looking. Their moms were probably across the street at the Target waiting for them, nervously.

They were putty in my hands.

We needed them to throw caution to the wind, defy authority and fold up the empty folding chairs in front of them so that we could all have a little more room. They seemed hesitant, but since I'm not a teacher anymore AND I was the most attractive of the 8 women there, I gently laid a hand on one's arm and the back of the other's shoulder close to his neck and asked nicely. Done.

Also in front of us was a solidly built hispanic guy in his mid-twenties with a skater haircut from the mid-nineties. You know, sort of a bowl cut, a little longer than the ears, straight and parted in the center. He was pretty cool. He also had his 12-month-old baby with him. This little black-eyed munchkin was sitting on his dad's lap with a sippy cup of juice in his hands. His dad is in the front row, enjoying the match. He's got a baby carrier strapped to himself and he demonstrates later that he knows how to use it when he gets up to go change the kid's diaper. Before that, I watched one wrestler throw another wrestler head-first into the sheet metal barrier that creates the sacred space of the ring in the midst of the cheering crowds. The dent his head left was 5 feet from the baby and a good 5 inches in diameter because he hit so hard. At this point, the kid was actually asleep on his father's chest. He woke up later and was taken away to be changed and they both came back with a DVD of classic matches for him to chew on the case for the rest of the time. At another point, he was given a french fry that made him very content. He never cried and never needed anything except to be on his father's lap. It was fairly sweet in juxtaposition to all of the fantastic violence surrounding them. At the intermission around 9:30, I asked what his father what his name was. Joshua was holding himself up on the temporarily vacated chairs in front of me and charming the hell out of me. His father smiled widely as he answered and then went on to explain in halting English that the child's mother got home from work at 10:00 and so he had to go. The implication was definitely that she did not know he was a)at a wrestling match and b)had Joshua with him. He let me take Joshua's picture before they left.

That is a true fan, folks.

Other true fans included the guy on the far side of my brother, who had a white bandana tied on his forehead over his ponytail and a full beard. He was a tubby guy with some hipster identity tags that indicated he had chosen geek for a lifestyle rather than being stuck in it. He spoke with a lisp and made several jokes that honestly made Daniel laugh. He and Daniel shared this hispter excessive knowledge of pop culture history and so Daniel made him laugh when he identified one move as "the deadly double chest push," which is simply one guy putting both hands on the other guy's chest and . . . well . . . pushing. Not very tough. The serious word choice was funny because it reflected the history of wrestling when the announcers had to play up the danger of the holds for the home audience and because these giant men did not used to be all that athletic. Daniel's neighbor also called out for a "pile driver!" repeatedly over the evening, like a fan calling for "Freebird!" at a Lynard Skynard show. The pile driver is a move from the golden age of wrestling in the mid-80s that involves holding your opponent upside down while standing and then dropping one or both knees to a kneeling position, which brings his head down into the mat, giving the appearance that his neck has been snapped. This is a good finisher because it takes a long time to act out recovering from a pile-driver and the opponent can easily be pinned at this time. It takes a ton of strength to do it in a way that looks good but doesn't actually hurt the guy. I'm not sure why it has gone out of style, but it has. However, towards the end of the evening, Daniel's neighbor got his hipster wish for 80s nostalgia and was ecstatic.

Another move that I saw fairly frequently throughout the evening was a big open-handed slap to the opponent's chest. I don't see this move as much on TV wrestling but saw it again and again up close and live. My theory is that because the venue is so small, the sound of that slap can actually be heard and is therefore more impressive. I learned that every time someone is slapped back this, the proper response from the crowd is to shout, "Wooo!" in a pitch tossed high out of the throat. Daniel tells me this is an homage to Ric Flair. He told me this when we were watching Wrestling Society X on MTV and mocking the production values, especially the studio audience that they had created full of buxom women and stylish guys: The Beautiful People. We were surprised to hear some of them actually "Woo!" indicating a knowledge of what they were watching, which had previously seemed unlikely, given how demographically different they were to the usual crowds at wrestling matches. Yes, Mom, I watch it on TV in addition to going to see it live. Sorry.

However, seeing it live is muchmuch better. We got to watch the Briscoes become the new tag team champions. However, this was not before one of the brothers was mocked by Matt Sydal (who looks like every trouble-making Irish suburban kid I ever hated/had a crush on in childhood), who said, "Hey! This guy's got no teeth!" like he had just realized it and was a little puzzled, right before he punched him into the turnbuckle. Another benefit of the small venue is that jokes like that can be heard and appreciated by everyone in the room, a dynamic that is missing in arenas. Being up close also allowed me to see one of the Brisco brothers lose his gum upon hitting the mat with his chest. I saw him catch it mid-air and stick it back into his mouth, faster than a TV camera would have caught it.

Other higlights of the evening include Samoa Joe's penultimate match before having to go exclusive to the TNA league, which was technically the main event.

However, the real main event for me happened sooner. The match between Colt Cabana, a hometown Chicago boy and Jimmy Jacobs, a Byronic heel who wrote his theme song for his girlfriend and entered the ring by first indicating his status as a tortured artist by hanging from the ropes like Christ on the cross. This event converted me from an amused by-stander who observed detachedly the humor of the obviously stoned suburban-looking guy in a Ring of Honor sweatshirt AND hat. Daniel and I agreed that more than one piece of merchandising makes one a dork. Then I saw the wedding ring and it completed the picture of a guy having his night away from the old ball and chain, so toked out that he continued standing in a daze well after everyone else had sat down and were waiting for the next exciting move. So, the Windy City Death Match took me from journalist mode into true fan status. Colt Cabana came in carrying a Chicago flag to the cheers of the crowd. He was also carrying a pair of scissors in his elbow pad, which, when revealed, also provoked the cheers of the crowd. They don't call it a death match for nothing. I love that heroes in wrestling don't have to be Disney princes to be the good guys. A certain amount of deviousness on the part of the face, especially when we dislike the villain, is cause for celebration. The characterizations reflect real life a little better with its complexity. So, while normally using scissors on your opponent might be considered cheating, in the Windy City Death Match, scissors hidden in the elbow pad are considered virtuous.

Head wounds bleed a lot.

This is a time-honored fact in the wrestling world. In the old days, men would hide a razor blade and nick their forehead to make taking a hit look more dramatic. Blondes like Classy Freddie Blassie were particularly good "bleeders." The technique has changed a little. I noticed that both Colt Cabana and Jimmy Jacobs were careful to cut their partners above the hair line, where the accumulation of scars won't be as noticable, at least until they start losing their hair. Of course, there wasn't just scissors involved; a gutter nail and hammer were also produced over the course of the match. However, these cuts did not simply create small rivulets of blood, like movie action stars get to accent the soot marks on their chiseled cheek bones. No, these men had masks of blood on their faces. When they were held horizontally, rivers of blood poured off their faces and onto the mat and the floor surrounding it. The key moment came when Jimmy Jacobs took the Chicago flag and used its blue stripes and red stars to wipe the blood out of his eyes before landing another move on the prone Colt Cabana. What symbolism to get a crowd going. And I went with them.

On TV, the crowd always goes wild whenever folding tables are used in a move. I've never understood it. It seems like such a contrived move. Since he is too stunned from a previous move to get up and defend himself, you have the time to pull a table out from under the ring, set up the legs (which can be a tricky task when covered in sweat and blood) and place it exactly right next to the ring. You then lay your opponent out on a folding table. Still, he cannot even make the effort to roll himself off the table during all that time that it takes you to get back up into the ring and up standing on one of the turnbuckles. Still, with the crowd cheering, he waits for the inevitable and you can jump off of the turnbuckle (or maybe perform an athletic flip from the mat over the ropes) and land with bodies perpendicular, your opponent breaking your fall but the table breaking underneath both of you. It takes so much time!

But to be 10 feet away from it while it happened was another issue altogether. Because Jimmy Jacobs didn't just get up on the turnbuckle; he used a ladder that Colt Cabana had earlier pulled out from under the ring. (As an aside, when the dust-ruffle was flipped up so that the ladder could be removed, Daniel leaned into me as he peered in and said in wonder, "What magical things are under there? What is a ring made of?") So, towering 30-40 feet above me, Jimmy Jacobs stood on top of a ladder with his arms flung out, the dream of every little kid who's ever been told not go higher than the step below the this-is-not-a-step.

And he launched himself toward me! He fell just short of me and landed on Colt Cabana with a terribly satisfying crunch and I was on my feet without thinking about it, screaming my head off in excitement. I had become a fan. When Colt later set up a second table in the ring, leaning it against the turnbuckle because one set of legs had collapsed, I wanted him to pay Jimmy Jacobs back for that insult to my home town and cheered again on my feet when Jimmy was laid out into that second table.

We're going back on April 28th. Please feel free to join us. We might have a couple extra tickets or you can get your own and join us there. However, we'll be in the third row again and, at this point, you'll probably be back in rows 7 or 8. Still, you'll be among true fans, that applaud wrestlers politely to acknowledge their athleticism, whether they like them or not. You'll also be among true fans like me, who love wincing at how hard they hit each other. It'll blow your mind.

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