Today’s installment of our look at Richmond’s only independent wrestling federation, we see just how much abuse the bodies of wrestlers take, as well as a look at what happens in the dressing room before a performance…it’s not what you think.
It sounds like a gunshot, which is immediately followed by a chorus of laughter and audible gasps. The noise that reverberates throughout the Aurora is not a firearm discharge, but the sound of flesh upon flesh.
Kyle has just hit another wrestler, Jonathan. This was not an assault of animus, but one that Jonathan, who’s about the same age as Kyle, asked for deliberately. It seems that Kyle had casually mentioned the improvements that he’s made with various moves under Cullen’s tutelage, namely the “chop.” Jonathan, both curious to see Kyle’s skill as well as to demonstrate his own ability to take the pain, asked Kyle to use Jonathan’s bare chest.
A chop involves a wrestler pulling back his or her arm, then violently thrusting it upon the chest of another like a horizontal karate chop. If placed correctly, the noise that of the forearm makes against the victim’s skin can make others cringe.
Jonathan continues to lift up the bottom of his t-shirt to his collarbone so to show off the ever-reddening hand print.
“Please tell me you have a camera,” says Jonathan to me when I approach to look for myself. I do, and snap a picture. “Title that ‘Wrestling is not fake,’’ he says.
Cullen looks on with a prideful grin at the demonstrable progress his pupil has made. “We do this all day at work,” he says, smiling. This is just a dollop of the amount of physical duress that these people endure “at work.” But, their bodies are not only hurt by other bodies–they are hurt by the very arena in which they grapple, tussle, and brawl: the wrestling ring.
Once the structural support of the ring has been put up, the men begin to solidify the floor. They first place long boards of wood across the ring floor. Not only do these wooden planks support the weight of the wrestlers, but they also create a very loud, very dramatic sound when one of them violently crashes to the floor. Placed on top of these wooden planks is a one-and-a-half inch piece of stiff foam that is so stiff I’m reluctant to call it foam at all. This “padding” is all that the wrestlers have when their spines and joints meet the ring floor at free-falling speed. Tightened across the stone-colored foam is a thin black tarp to hide the whole affair. Once the tarp is taught across the ring floor, next come the ropes.
“Ropes” may be a bit of a misnomer. Cullen tells me that they are made of 5/16 aircraft cable with industrial-strength hose wrapped in tape. I can’t help but think of the scene at the end of Die Hard with a Vengeance when a cable supporting Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson snaps and cuts a machine gun-carrying bad guy clean in half. Thankfully, on top of the metal cable is neon green padding, designed to prevent the wrestlers from severing a part of themselves.
Four people have to simultaneously tighten the ropes at each corner of the ring. Aaron’s in charge of the back right pole. A sixteen-year-old by the name of Tyler is in charge of the side closest to me.
Tyler began hanging out at the GXW facility and at events when he was fourteen. Until he can start training, he serves the role of roadie, learning the ins-and-outs of the wrestling profession, which includes how to tighten the ropes of the ring in which he hopes to work in one day work.
One of the wrestlers coordinates the other three tighteners by saying “turn,” at which point each of the men (and Tyler) use a wrench to tighten the rope. They repeat the process for each of the three ropes–neon green for the top and bottom, black for the middle–on the perimeter of the ring.
While tightening the last rope, Cullen’s ears perk. A smaller, supporting wire that keeps the larger rope fastened to one of the supporting poles has broken. This will require a trip to Lowe’s to replace a necessary part.
“Something always breaks,” says Cullen.
It’s 2pm and Cullen seems a big agitated; he’s hungry, and unashamedly lets everyone know so. The last remaining job is to affix the GXW banner to the side of the ring. Not only does this serve as advertising, but it also keeps audience members from seeing the various engineering components of the ring’s bowels. They attach the banner by wrapping a black bungee-like cord over-and-over-and-over again across the perimeter of the ring. As a few of the men see to the task, I see nothing irregular about how the banner is slowly taking shape around the ring. But I, however, am not Cullen.
“That’s not done right. Take it off,” he says. “It needs to be like a guitar string.” Fully famished, Cullen reassigns the banner’s installation to himself, making quick work of the process while others look on with their tails between their respective legs.
When Cullen finishes he says it’s now time to eat. In a few hours, the theater of wrestling will commence.
The ring has been set up, and more wrestlers and Aurora personnel are arriving by the minute. Many of the wrestlers are those that I saw about an hour ago before we broke for lunch. There are those coming in, however, who I am seeing (and shaking hands with) for the first time. It’s easy to distinguish wrestlers from Aurora staff or other GXW administrative persons, as the wrestlers shoulder duffel bags or pull a wheeled suitcase behind them, carrying the necessary outfits and paraphernalia that their performance requires. While walking by the ring ropes, I reach and out grab at the bottom, neon green rope and give it a playful jostle, imagining myself in the ring, flung against them by a 200-pound man. Several of the wrestlers, still in their casual weekend attire, congregate in the ring, practicing moves by themselves and with each other—running drills, taking falls, putting someone in a headlock. I glance up to the Aurora’s second floor and see Cullen talking with other people in a somewhat secretive manner.
Standing next to the Aurora’s large, flat mixing board—mission control for manipulating the club’s audio and visual components—are Cullen and Brandon (Abe Lincoln beard), now dressed in lime green pants, a white dress shirt, and suit vest. Hanging from his neck is a tie designed to look as though it’s made out of $100 bills.
“No clotheslines except for Shorty,” says Brandon, who simultaneously notes it on a sheet of paper. The reason that only Shorty, who I have not met yet, is allowed to perform clotheslines is that it will make Shorty’s use of the move that much more dramatic. It will also force the other wrestlers to think of different moves. I ask Brandon if Cullen or himself predetermine, not only the moves that each match will include, but sequentially dictate their order.
“It’s up to them [the wrestlers] to fill that time,” he says. “It’s up to them to create the best match.”
He tells me that The Wrestler gave away much of what takes place behind-the-scenes of a wrestling match. But Brandon acknowledges that professional wrestling has never been about completely tricking the audience to think what takes place before their eyes is nothing less than honest and genuine. Actors in a play are not flummoxed by their audience knowing that they are not really Romeo or really in love with a member of the Capulet family. “The idea,” says Brandon, “is to give the best suspension of belief.” This is the maxim by which both actor and wrestler abide. Cullen tells others around him that he wants to meet with everyone shortly, very much in line with the chain-of-command that a general yields.
Using the stairwell, I descend to the Aurora’s basement to the makeshift dressing room. About a dozen wrestlers are present, and it looks more like a gym looker room. It feels, however, like a family reunion. They talk about all that’s been going on in each other’s lives.
“What are you now?” asks one wrestler.
“How heavy were you six months ago?”
It’s less than an hour before the first match. Everyone—now about twenty or so people—is inside the single dressing room. I take a knee on the floor. Cullen comes up to me and says that he can’t allow me to be apart of the pre-match meeting. Not because they don’t trust me, he says, but because it’s the old-school way of doing things—no outsiders can be present. The meeting is their time, not the audiences. Certainly not mine.
I leave the room and the door closes behind me. For the next twenty minutes or so, I abide my time by first pacing in the Aurora’s kitchen. At one point I hear clapping coming from behind the closed door. Eventually, a few of the wrestlers walk into the second floor area from the stairwell. Meeting adjourned.
Time to Wrestle
I’m surrounded by a dozen young men, all in various states of dress (or undress). They’re talking with one another about things that I talk about with my friends: movies, girlfriends, _etc_. I overhear a conversation about graduating college with the rare benefit of earning a degree without the accumulation of any debt. Hardly the typification of testosterone-fueled banter some may expect in the minutes preceding a wrestling performance.
It is this point that amazed me earlier this morning at the GXW facility and continues to amaze me now: not one of these people are rude or arrogant or cold or are in any way unpleasant to be around. I talk with one wrestler as he changes from his suave, business-casual attire into Señor Sabado Noche (Mr. Saturday Night). As we chat, he slowly puts on an an outfit that looks much like a shirtless bee with a yellow mask covering his entire head and a black star stretching across his face. While listening to him, I overhear someone inform Cullen that someone forgot to bring the fog machine.
Before Senor Sabado Noche puts on his mask, and keeps it on until the conclusion of his match, I do get his name. It’s Jeff. He’s been wrestling since 2002. I ask him how he’s been doing lately, _i.e._, has he been winning his matches. His look is one of mild surprise at my question. “Right now I’m on a good streak,” he answers, but “wins and losses don’t matter” in wrestling. It’s not like asking a boxer his record, a golfer his handicap, or a baseball player his batting average. What matters in the ring is not whether the referee lifts your hand as the victor once the final bell chimes, but, as Jeff says, “It’s what you do with your time.” Wrestling, although just as every bit grueling and violent as, say, boxing, football, or rugby, operates within a different set of criteria than sports. It’s more like theater.
An actor playing Romeo Montague in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is not concerned, upon hearing that he has been awarded the famed role, whether his character will prove victorious and defy the century-long condemnation to death, but rather how convincing, how moving, how believable his version of Romeo is to his audience. The perceived fate of one’s character is rather inconsequential to the wrestler, just as it is for anyone who performs as Romeo. They are not concerned with earning, and ultimately winning, a “title match.” They want to, instead, dazzle their audience so that their audience forgets, momentarily, that what they are watching is a fictitious battle, rather literal life and death.
While talking with Jeff, I pick up another piece of wrestling parlance: a card. A card is, essentially, a match between two or more wrestlers. The “average card is five to seven minutes,” says Jeff.
After chatting with the young man who is now Señor Sabado Noche, I recline in one of the sofas in this rather small parlor-like room. People are still busying about and most wrestlers are either in, or nearly in, their costumes for the evening performance. One of the brawniest men that I have yet seen walks in; he looks to be in his thirties. He has blonde and dreaded hair and looks like a professional body builder. There’s something very intimidating about him, although he seems like a teddy bear. A very big Thor-like teddy bear that looks as though he could take my life in a mere second.
I can tell he’s a veteran by the amount of respect that others in the room giving him. There’s a sense I gather from him that is similar to the sense that I gather from Cullen—one of knowledge and experience and devotion. Perhaps it is his bulging and sculpted muscles that makes an object so relatively small and insignificant so very much the opposite of these things: a thin, gold wedding band on his ring finger. This symbol of love and devotion and loyalty that one pledges to a cause greater than that of themselves, and by which becomes a vessel of that cause, is indicative of what wrestling means to these men and women. Wrestling does not truly become someone’s wife or husband, as Cullen told me earlier. Cullen of all people knows this. But I am beginning to understand why he used the simile of marriage. Wrestling and marriage for these individuals who, in just a little bit of time, will enter the ring are synonymous words to describe what we experience in a lifelong matrimony: love and loyalty.
And the occasional laceration.
photo by Mel Kobran