Wrestlepalooza at First Avenue, 1/12/13
Photo by Stacy Schwartz
Wrestlepalooza, with Masked Intruder
First Avenue, Minneapolis
Saturday, January 12, 2013
First, let's get this straight. Wrestling isn't fake; it's rigged. That's not hair-splitting, either. If you don't follow wrestling, you might mistakenly judge it as a sport. Think of it instead as a live soap opera performed in the round. Like in any soap opera, a fight breaks out every now and then, or, rather, a caricature of a fight. Like in any soap opera, there's not much moral ambiguity; the good guys are noble everymen, the bad guys are vain, unlikeable shitheads. Twists, turns. Oohs and ahs. Of course, Susan Lucce never jumped from a 20-foot ladder onto a menagerie of her co-stars. That's probably the only difference though; wrestling is theatre with actual danger.
So don't call it fake unless you're ready to throw out a lot of other worthwhile stuff on silly grounds. If you think wrestling is beneath you, if you're contemptuous of its conceits, if you think it's silly or absurd, go to the next wrestling night at First Avenue. It's not terribly cheap, and it doesn't come around often. But it's more gripping, earnest, good-natured, and entertaining than just about anything else you're liable to see in the Mainroom. It's just fucking awesome. And when was the last time you walked out of the Mainroom, turned to a stranger, and said "that was fucking AWESOME."
Here's how it works; the ring sits on the floor. You stand around the ring, or up on the mezzanine, or wherever you can get a view. The stage is set with gear for a band, who performs between fights. A runway connects the ring to the stage and the stage to the green room. That's where the wrestlers enter. The wrestlers come out, they wrestle, they mouth off, the match ends, the ring girl comes out and does a striptease, maybe a band plays a couple songs. Repeat until it's over.
Half an hour after doors opened, the line still went halfway down 7th Street. First Avenue security was frisking people more thoroughly than usual, but it wasn't really necessary; the crowd was good-natured, happy, chatty. They even seemed impervious to the cold and didn't mind the frisking (always a sort of an indignity). Lots of them were years-long devotees, and they gave stirring treatises on the wrestlers they liked, the intricacies of their plots, how they'd fared last time F1rst Wrestling came through more than a year ago. They clearly took it seriously, but not too seriously.
The first match was a tag-team. A wrestler named 6% Body Fat (seems a little generous; during the match, the crowd struck up an amusing chant of "12 PER-CENT! 12 PER-CENT!"), Mr. Kincaid, and Renny D. went against Wildcat and Zero Gravity. The former team were the heels (that's wrestling cant for "bad guys," the ones you boo), the latter were the faces (the ones you cheer). It set the night off wonderfully; 6% was the obvious captain, a vain, jiggly slob in Zubaz tighties who proclaimed his sexiness to the crowd and to his opponents, who met him with resounding boos and middle fingers. Zero Gravity and Wildcat were nimble, acrobatic luchadores, and though 6% dominated the first half of the match, Zero Grav and Wildcat prevailed, to the surprise of no one. It's the general rhythm of a match; the bad guys jump ahead early but get usurped in the end. It happens every time but it never fully fails.
Photo by Stacy Schwartz
Then came Queenie von Curves, a burlesque dancer. She strip-teased from a sequined cabaret gown to pasties and a g-string, all to the tune of "Pour Some Sugar on Me." And she did, in the end, pour sugar on herself. It was bawdy as hell and pretty bush league, rather like the wrestling, and it drew thunderous applause.
Colin Cambridge and Shawn Daivari fought the night's most impressive match, though it was an undercard and both combatants lacked the performative gimmicks of their colleagues. No masks, no fancy entrances, just very, very good wrestling. They hit a little harder, ran a little faster, flew a little higher.
Masked Intruder came from Madison for the show and played the interlude between the second and third matches. They're pop-punk on a sugar bender. ADHD, by-the-book pop-punk. That means clever, pun-centric, a little romantic, funny, predictable. But so was everything about the night, so it worked out.
Photo by Stacy Schwartz
They wore colored ski masks that evoked Peelander-Z, though perhaps unintentionally. A little crowd rushed to the front of the stage, pogoing and head-wagging. A fifth member of the band (something like the toaster from the Bosstones) patrolled the stage dressed as a mall cop before running amok through the crowd, evidently overcome by the sugar-high energy of the music. They played three sets through the night, none more than 15 minutes long, each one as good as the last, which is to say just good enough.
There were five bouts in all. Each wrestler had his theme; the North Star Express wore North Star jerseys and breezers, Sheik Ariya Daivari divebombed from the turnbuckles with a small prayer mat under his knees, Arik Cannon sported a mohawk and pounded the Pabsts that were thrown to him by the crowd. You didn't have to look too closely to see in these personae a curious commentary on us, on what we do and what we think when we're not watching wrestling.
Take Sheik Ariya Daivari in his keffiyeh. Or Queenie Von Curves and her pasties. Were the demeanor of the whole event a little more serious and a little less self-aware, these props might seem outmoded, incorrect, racist, sexist, appallingly white-male. But this is vaudeville, a travesty of our fears and desires. Sheik Ariya Daivari isn't a heel because he's an Arab; he's a heel because he's a shitty jerk who cracks Arik Cannon across the head with a garbage can WHEN HE ISN'T EVEN LOOKING. Queenie von Curves and her pastie-twirl? Its innocence makes it good.
Of everything that went down at First Avenue on Saturday night, the final match was the most brazen. Pete Huge, the heel to beat all heels, whose swagger was so obnoxious that I booed and meant it, fought El Chivas Blanco, a petit luchador in drag. He wore a pink micro miniskirt and bunny ears, and he traipsed around the stage in a mincing caricature of a femmy gay man.
Photo by Stacy Schwartz
For a moment, I feared that the whole night, which had won me over with its good nature, would collapse into a morass of all the cro-magnon bullshit that bothers other sports, pro wrestling included. My fears deepened as the fight progressed. Rather than fight Pete Huge, Chivas Blanco terrorized him with little sex assaults; miming sodomy, burying his head in Pete's crotch, scampering to the turnbuckle, pouting and presenting his ass to Huge in a display of homoerotic submission. Huge's response was predictable; he registered mortification, outrage, disgust. Then he started beating the shit out of Chivas Blanco. It wasn't even wrestling; it looked like a ground-and-pound. Punches, soccer kicks to the head, back stomps. It looked like an honest to God queer beating.
Then, something wonderful happened. Chivas Blanco began to fight back. The momentum began to swing, bit by bit. The crowd, who was behind Blanco the whole way, began to rise, chanting "WE VOTED NO! WE VOTED NO!" Blanco's faggy demeanor persisted. But now he had the whip in his hand. Huge wasn't too worried. But it wasn't a cakewalk anymore. Huge had been brawling; Blanco was now wrestling, and he was outclassing Huge in every respect.
Ring walk-ons are old hat in wrestling, but Saturday night's crescendo was a true mob. One by one, the night's combatants ran down the catwalk and began an ungainly Royal Rumble. Stage hands discreetly brought a 20-foot ladder to the catwalk. And then there was Blanco, climbing to that forbidden top rung. His sudden dominance of the match, and of the whole evening, was utter and total. He towered over his colleagues in his pink miniskirt; beneath him, they sparred and sweated and begged him for mercy. But Blanco was not to be pacified. His wrath could not be extinguished. He was terrifying and magnificent. When he made his dive on the maelstrom of greased, brawling men below, everyone, heel and face alike, collapsed beneath him.
A lot happened at First Avenue on Saturday night. Most of it was scripted. The rest was improvised by the combatants. All of it was a fix, a rig. But fake? No, not that. Fake is a pejorative. It suggests deceit, and there can be no deceit if the victim is in on the ruse. Saying I didn't get a lump in my throat when Chivas Blanco climbed that 20-foot ladder, pinned Pete Huge, and won his match? THAT'S deceit.
Critic's Bias: Impartial toward wrestling, susceptible to earnestness.
The Crowd: A little bit rollerderby, a little bit tattoo parlor. And...
Overheard in the Crowd: "They don't think it's real, Carolyn, they're just getting into it."
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