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It's Surreal to Me, or a Night of Indie Wrestling

The difference between the WWE wrestling shows held in big arenas and the indie ones held in the rock venues across the street is even more stark than you'd imagine.
January 30, 2015, 5:19pm
Photos by Brian Schroeder at Old Abbot

If I'm asked, I find it's easiest if I lay it out this way: I like pro wrestling because I am fascinated by the possibilities of what can happen when (at least) two people engage in a context with all the trappings of organized sports and all the beats of narrative storytelling. There is just so much more to work with than in sports that use various-shaped balls and, like, rules. Wrestling's main pillars—Conflict, Storytelling, and Athletic Performance—can be tweaked in innumerable ways, and made impossibly outlandish while still maintaining a semblance of internal logic. We know it's "not real," but that doesn't mean we don't think it should mean something.

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This is how I came to leave my house on a sub-freezing night to attend F1rst Wrestling's "Wrestlepalooza," the fifth edition of which recently took place in Minneapolis's Purple Rain-immortalized club First Avenue. I didn't know much about the specific talents and histories of many of the wrestlers involved, and the event's other aspects—burlesque performers, live music from metal-comedy Brundlefly concept tribute band Metallagher, and cheap PBR—tripped the finely-tuned Irony Alarm that's inside the brain of every enthusiast of "uncool" pop culture. But would a promotion banking on laugh-at dollars bring in outside performers who broke through via laugh-with (and marvel-at) super-indie miracle promotion Chikara?

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Would one of the selling points be a tag match between two teams known for being preposterously innovative in their high-flying spots? Would they feature a main event between "The Anarchist" Arik Cannon and "Sheik" Ariya Daivari, two talented lifers with local ties and hard-worker cred? I was betting that the answer would be no. Which is to say that I was betting on wrestling to win the day.

The opening four-way match helped lay out the parameters. This was a typical indie-guy brawl, and in many ways a familiar curtain-jerking warm up for the crowd. It was livened up considerably by the fact that two of the participants were "The Husky Heart Throb" Kody Rice—a super-doughy dude who dressed like a male stripper and got huge cheers for his "if Rick Rude was built like Mick Foley" hip-swivels—and Deputy Rob Justice, the rare but valuable "cop you're supposed to boo" character. (How does a cop get heel heat, aside from the obvious anti-authoritarian bent assumed of your typical wrestling fan? Simple: have him threaten his opponents with a baton and, when the ref's not looking, douse a fellow combatant in pepper spray.) Venom, a crowd favorite with a sleeveless-t tough guy Kevin Steen look, both entered the ring and celebrated his clobber-driven victory to the tune of Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone." Who was going to tell him not to?

This set a vibe that ran throughout the show: treading the fine line between slapstick and straight-up violence, taking the old "family friendly" side of wrestling and making it register for an 18-plus crowd without pushing too far in the direction of crassness. As storylines go, "two guys fight over a stripper" sounds like the worst kind of Attitude Era tackiness. Except that the fight was between "The Kentucky Gentleman" Chuck Taylor—who objected to the "obscenity" of Rubenesque performer Queenie von Curves' take on 50s-style burlesque—and masked, old-timey bowler-clad Jervis Cottonbelly, who alternated between standing up for the honor of Queenie's art and cartoon-fainting over how provocative it was. (The fight was interrupted partway through by an impromptu Dirty Dancing homage.)

The rest of the card incorporated similar offbeat comedy and self-aware geekiness into standard wrestling tropes—arrogant crybaby ladies' man versus weird but likable clown; kilt-wearing brawlers versus masked wrestlers with house-pet gimmicks; stuff like that. For a pretty serious fed that featured future WWE mainstay Seth Rollins, then billed as Tyler Black, in their first ever show in 2007, F1rst made a point of building this card in a way that promised to win over the skeptical or outright uninterested. Haven't followed wrestling since Andre the Giant strode the Earth? Come on in; if nothing else, you'll see a buff human smash produce to the strains of "Blackened." The show, it was announced proudly, was a sellout.

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Wrestlepalooza's ridiculous moments—and there were many—were all in celebration of pro wrestling's very structure, of all the ways old stories and formulas could be expanded upon, subverted, fused, or simply adhered to with entertaining efficiency. Even the pratfalls and comedy spots in the matches were borne of practice and skill and dedication, and the crowd knew it. For every tag-along who seemed largely interested in the goofiness of the spectacle, there was a carload of fans that simply wanted an irreverent but still credible take on what they'd already committed themselves to years ago when they bought their Wrestlemania V t-shirts.

So they got a match where a clown juggled balls and then hucked them at his opponent while standing on the top turnbuckle, and they also got a match almost singularly dedicated to elevating high-flying indie-wrestler spot-fests to a preposterous level. (Seriously, watch the previous Wrestlepalooza encounter between the North Star Express and Zero Gravity and then imagine it even more improbable and dizzying.) They got a match where a wrestler in a dog mask bailed out a wrestler in a cat mask, and they also got a championship Tables, Ladders, and Chairs match between Ariya Daivari and Arik Cannon that featured cringe-inducing chairshots, elbow-drops through tables, top-rope splashes off a 15-foot ladder, blood, garbage cans, and piles of thumbtacks. It was emotionally all over the place, but it was also very much a celebration of the different things independent pro wrestling could be, from the ridiculous and lighthearted to the bracingly visceral. It all fit, and it all mattered.

About that main event and what it means: Daivari is an excellent heel—like his light-rail vigilante brother Shawn, who had a run in the WWE antagonizing main-eventers, he has the arrogant high-flying brawler game on lock—so his eventual win was greeted with enthusiastically thrown debris. Arik Cannon is the promotion's top babyface (and promoter), and his audience-identification punk-and-beer aesthetic was one of the key things that made Wrestlepalooza V feel sincerely chaotic instead of overtly tongue-in-cheek.

In a by-the-books promotion, the top babyface overcomes a beating at the hands of a ruthless, America-hating foreigner to take home the top prize, look indestructible in the end, and wave the stars and stripes triumphantly. In F1rst, Daivari's Iranian heritage was downplayed as a reason to boo in favor of his general dickheadedness, and Cannon took the fall in the service of making himself look tough yet vulnerable—something easier to root for in this field than an unstoppable juggernaut, even (or especially) when he loses. Sometimes shit gets too complicated for a prayers-and-vitamins regimen to really address, and you have to trust your audience to find triumph in the margins.

This is a thing that WWE cannot be and which indie wrestling, at its best, cannot help but be—a refuge for hellraising misfits who like their violence cooperative and their rings as squared-circle moshpits. First Avenue's dancefloor offered no room, literal or figurative, for guardrails, which meant that wrestlers tossed out of the ring found themselves in impromptu crowd-surfing sessions; more than one saw their opponent's disappearance into the fray as a good excuse to turn a top-rope high spot into their own version of a stage-dive. Vince McMahon made bank three decades ago with his MTV-friendly fusion of Rock'n'Wrestling, but the DIY environment has a way of giving that idea a more immediate ring of truth.

F1rst Wrestling knows there's more to wrestling than the surface, that it can present something bigger, more communal, and more alive than the sad armories and gyms depicted in Darren Aronofsky's portrait of indie wrestling. In this context, putting on a business-as-usual production two weeks previous across the street at the 19,000-plus-capacity Target Center can't measure up to joining Atmosphere and Doomtree as local icons who sold out First Ave. And it feels like both the culmination of a certain indie counterculture and the promise of something more, for audiences and performers capable of finding joyful absurdity in their art, while still suspending disbelief like a championship belt hanging from the rafters.