In this, the final part of our exposé on Richmond’s independent wrestling organization, we see what happens both in the ring and behind-the-scenes during a performance. And at one point, something goes wrong…
All is fair in love and war
In love and war, there are bound to be spectators. At 6pm, there are about thirty people sitting in fold-out chairs arrayed on each side of the ring, barricaded by metal railings set out several feet from the ring’s perimeter. Little boys sit in the laps of their fathers, and mothers smile at the euphoric smiles of their children, all of whom are excited by the expectations of tonight’s performance. “Hair” metal from the 1980’s plays over the stereo. The lights dim and the announcer emerges.
His name is Brent Fleenor and he is GXW’s “voice.” A Hopewell native, he is a big man with a physique not unlike that of a retired wrestler himself: he shaves his head and keeps a close-cropped beard so that both his facial and head hair are nearly the same length. While I watch Fleenor energize the crowd, I see Kyle and Tyler walking slowly around the ring’s perimeter on the ground floor of the Aurora. They are each wearing black pants and a predominately black GXW wrestling t-shirt, indicating their roles tonight as security to keep any unruly audience member from circumventing the barriers that separate performer from watcher.
Fleenor turns his attention to inspiring a more passionate response from the audience, and lightly excoriates the crowd. An older man in a blue t-shirt and a matching blue and backwards-turned hat sitting in the front row of the north side of the ring playfully yells at Fleenor, exactly the response for which Fleenor hopes.
The next entrant into the ring is not a wrestler, but Brandon (Abe Lincoln beard)—rather, I should say, Money Green, an apt name considering that he continues to wear the $100 bills necktie. Money Green is nothing like Brandon. Mr. Green is pompous and arrogant, and someone that I (and virtually everyone else) wants to give a good smacking-to across the face. It is astounding how different the man that I see now in the ring is to the man I met earlier this afternoon. To think that the audience, ignorant of Branden’s true personality, might think that he is Money Green, pains me a bit. However, I remember that this is the mark of good acting and a good performance.
There are those who think that the stereotypical wrestling fan is so dull-witted and speaks with a similarly dull-witted Southern drawl. Not one person sitting in the Aurora, looking on as Money Green gradually builds to an introduction of his client, “Ace of Spades” Peter Spade, think that this is real. If I were to ask the blue-clothing clad older man, who is now playfully yelling at Money Green and his vocal exploits, as to whether this was all real–I mean really real–I have the utmost confidence that he would look at me as if I were an idiot. “Of course, it’s not real,” he would likely say. “But so what?”
Wrestling fans engage in a meta-enjoyment. Not only do they know what they are seeing is unreal, but they accept this reality and transcend it by pretending that this live theater is real. It is not unlike the sophisticated who attend a Broadway play. The play is neither real and nor are its characters. But these unreal characters and events and stories don’t try to shirk reality, but explain and talk about it in ways that only fiction can. So what if there’s a little excitement and violence? Shakespeare was ok with this, and so is Dave Cullen.
This point really hits me over the head during tonight’s second performance, a card that features the Syrian Sheik Shorty and Reverend J. Boogie. To my discomfort, these apparent religious lines are drawn with national boundaries. Reverend J. Boogies is all-American: strong, black, and Baptist. Sheik Shorty is all-villain: wears a Yasser Arafat-esque Keffiyeh headdress, waves a large Syrian flag as he enters the ring, and is Muslim—most certainly not American by any contemporary cultural standards.
At one point during the match, J. Boogie lifts the Sheik, all 200 lbs. of him, off the ground and performs a backflip against the gravitational inertia of his opponent’s weight. When the Sheik rebounds, and gets the good Reverend in a submissive position, the crowd rallies behind their man. “U-S-A!” they chant. “U-S-A!”
It seems as though, in this particular battle of these Abrahamic religions, God favors the Muslim-bent of Sheik Shorty, an ending that surprises me, being that wrestling and America often seem so inextricably linked to one another. I can’t help but chuckle at the defeated Reverend J. Boogie who makes a sign of the cross against his torso (a uniquely Catholic characteristic, and not one shared by Protestants, lest of all Baptists).
The next card is Jefferson Hurley and Señor Sabado Noche. Just like with the Brandon/Money Green persona schism, the laid-back, business casual Jeff has been replaced by a wiry and sprightly masked figure that becomes the protagonist of the match, not so much because of his altruistic demeanor, but because Hurley is a gaudy and cowardly twerp. Of all the matches tonight, this one loses the crowd’s interest. What’s missing is not so much action, but drama. With the first match there was an iconic and visceral representation of contemporary and historical war. This match, however, features two unlikeable characters, one of which refuses to get into the ring for fear that his opponent will use illegal means to win. When the two finally do tussle, there is an abundance of near counts, that is to say, when the referee bangs his open hand against the ring floor, counting to three. Many times, one or the other has their opponent pinned through a count to three, but narrowly breaks free from his opponent’s oppressive grip.
As the fracas in the ring continues, I decide to head backstage. In the stairwell I see the Drago Dynasty. The jet black and STOP sign red of their costumes take on an almost supernatural glow under the florescent lights. It’s a rather startling sight, seeing these wonderfully masked and rare figures mulling about. Despite how hard I try, I can’t tell which one of them is Aaron, which I suppose is better, because I’m not supposed to see Aaron, only the brothers Kyo and Drago.
In the stairwell with them are two tall men in matching black dress, white button-down dress shirts, and black ties. They each have shaved heads. They are Standards and Practices, “former” GXW security who decided to take matters into their “own hands.”
To maintain the highest level of “believability,” as Brandon put it to me earlier, wrestlers go to the great lengths to affirm that the rivalries seen in the ring extend beyond that unique performance. It would undercut the experience to see opponents wise-cracking with one another, going over moves and routines in the several minutes leading up to their match. The same goes for actors playing the various family members of the Montagues and the Capulets.
So, do I say that I saw the The Drago Dynasty and Standard and Practices joking around and rehearsing the moves that are supposed to look impromptu in the ring? Possibly. But, for those who feel a vindication of superiority that wrestling is indeed fake, let me say this about that point.
When I watch The Drago Dynasty fight the uniformed protagonists Standards and Practices in the ring, I forget that some of the moves and choreography was refined in the stairwell mere minutes before they are executed in the ring to a boisterous audience. The drama contained in the match was so engaging and enthralling and so very much real.
At one pivotal point in the match, both members of The Drago Dynasty attack just one member of the Standards and Practices, whose partner remains sidelined because he has yet to be properly tagged. The nearly breathless and injured member of Standards and Practices reaches slowly and dramatically for the hand of his partner who is behind the ropes. The crowd shouts both their wish and inspiration for him to do so, for the badly beaten member to get the help he most certainly needs against the empirical duo that so heinously inflicts pain upon the man.
Later, one member of The Drago Dynasty throws a member of Standards and Practices through the ropes and onto the Aurora floor. The action looks appropriate enough, but the wince and limp of the wrestler who lands on the floor seems off. Not only do I take notice, but the announcer, Brent Fleener, speaks into the ear of a floor security guard. That security guard dashes to the injured wrestler, who was sill outside of the ring, and asks him something. The wrestler shakes his head, and the security guard walks back to Fleener and, I presume, reassures the voice of GXW that the wrestler is OK.
When the match ends, I walk down the stairwell to meet both teams of wrestlers. With the gaze of the audience no longer on him, the injured wrestler stays very much in his injured character, because he is injured. During the match, he landed funny on his foot, and decided, as all great improvisational actors do, to use the injury and “milk it,” as he puts it.
While I’m down there, I see a mask-less Señor Sabado Noche. Scrawled across the bottom of his neck is a long welt that looks just as thick one of the ring ropes. Towards the end of the match, Señor Sabado Noche’s opponent lifted and threw him against the ropes. Ideally, the airborne wrestler’s chest should have slammed against them. But in this instance, the body sweat of Señor Sabado Noche caused the rope to instantaneously glide over his chest and upwards above his collar bone, causing the welt that wrestlers and myself come over and get a closer look at outside the dressing room.
If these injuries are not real, then one’s definition of reality is indeed greatly skewed to the fictitious.
You have to expect the best
The dreadlocked Thor stands before his opponent: Mitch-A-Palooza. The name doesn’t strike fear in the hearts of men, but Mitch-A-Palooza (an allusion to the moedern comedy classic Old School?) towers over the audience like Babel. I can clearly see why the last card features these two men, because they don’t look like men but extras that fought alongside Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Each one of their sinuous muscles protrudes under the gentle lights of the Aurora.
The man who looks like a dreadlocked Thor, I find out, is Christian York. Real name: Jason Spencer. He is a Virginia native, and has been professionally wrestling since 1996 when he was 19 years-old. He briefly had a three-year contract with the then called World Wrestling Federation before returning to the independent wrestling circuit. In 2006, York wrestled in the opening match for WWF (before the organization’s name change) at a Monday Night RAW performance in Washington, D.C. Since then, he’s been a sort-of wrestling freelancer for various independent wrestling outfits across the country.
His opponent, Mitch-A-Palooza, is one of the most popular wrestlers in GXW. Monikered the “24/7 Party Animal” his fans, known as Party Animals, faithfully await Mitch-A-Palooza’s signature finishing move: The Party Crasher.
When either man lifts their opponents and slams them on the ring floor it sounds like a shotgun blast going off in an empty Vatican. The sight of these two battling feels more like war than it does a wrestling match. The extravagance and drama of bodies flung so mercilessly is fascinating, and seeing it happen in front of you as opposed to on television or in a film is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s utterly, incredibly, unabashedly entertaining.
Although several moments transpired that would suggest York would usurp Mitch-A-Palooza’s title, the crowd favorite does not lose. The glazed sweat across the victor’s near naked body gleams. He raises his title belt above his head and displays it for the cheering crowd as his opponent writhes in both pain and defeat on the ring floor.
Brent Fleener thanks the crowd the for attending and tells them of the next GXW event that will take place in future weeks.
When the house lights brighten, and the crowd begins to file out of the Aurora, I see Dave Cullen sitting on the same couch that Tyler and Kyle sat on during the pre-match meeting. He seems very contemplative, very intense. It takes me a moment to muster the courage to ask him how he thought the performances went.
“Wasn’t as tense at the end,” he says. A collective performance that seems positively remarkable to me seems too uninspiring to him. I tell him that I enjoyed the performance. “My expectations are higher,” he says, smiling.
With people beginning to dismantle equipment and pack up for the return home, I ask Cullen what he would say to someone who maintains that wrestling is fake. “I’ll let him come up on stage,” he says before curling a devilish smile.
“I guarantee they won’t last one minute.”
photo by Mel Kobran