DISCLAIMER: This story contains images and references to the VICE Canada documentary Bloodlust, which features graphic violence and copious amounts of blood.
Last week, VICE released Bloodlust, a documentary about what happened when we went down to experience Combat Zone Wrestling's Tournament Of Death (TOD). Going on for the last 15 years, TOD has become an institution to a certain segment of the wrestling fanbase. As a wrestling fan, I had watched a few of them over the years and had my fair share of preconceptions about what it, and the people involved in and out of the ring, would be like.
Once I finally witnessed it in person, it was far different in than I could have imagined! Here are the ten things that surprised me the most about TOD:
10. BLOOD IS EVERYWHERE: The State of Delaware requires that all participants in the TOD have had blood tests to make sure they are free of communicable blood-borne infections. This is probably because blood is everywhere! From the wrestlers in the ring to our cameras and clothes, nothing that came within spitting distance to the action could escape without a little arterial spray.
When we went to return the rental van, the employee inspecting it for damages freaked when he looked on the vehicle's roof and saw it was caked with blood and scratched beyond belief. I wanted to tell him it was from that moment when Ricky Shane Page and Tim Donst fought on top of it, but instead I said I didn't know what had happened and it was OK because we paid for the insurance.
9. JEFF CANNONBALL IS NOT WHAT YOU'D EXPECT FROM A GUY WITH A KENZAN STUCK IN HIS HEAD: One of the most memorable scenes in Bloodlust is without a doubt the scene when Jeff gets the Kenzen removed from his head. The thing that for me made it all the more unnerving is the stoic toughness of Jeff Cannonball during the whole thing. Watching people with pliers yanking at the spiked metal disc stuck in his head as he sits calmly, one would assume that he must be a monster… or wasted.
The fact is that Jeff is a straight-edge vegan who has toured extensively in various punk bands and even lent his musical chops to the comedy institution Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster's The Best Show. And though he insists that he is not actually tough, I now count him as one of my toughest friends.
8. FANS ARE SOMETIMES THE SCARIEST PART OF A DEATHMATCH: CZW fans are some of the most loyal fans I have witnessed at any wrestling show I've ever been to. This passion is exemplified in the way they chant for former owner John Zandig anytime current owner DJ Hyde comes to the ring, or in the reverence they express when talking about favorite wrestlers on the roster.
For some fans, this passion manifests itself differently, like the offerings brought by the audience for a "fans bring the weapons" match. The wrestlers tell of fans in years past bringing everything razor-sharp homemade Rambo-style knives to actual guns in the hopes of seeing the implements used on an opposing wrestler. Thankfully this year it was limited to non-lethal weapons, the bulk of which are different variations and combinations of lightbulbs, tacks, and old sports equipment. But what does it say of the fan that spends the night before the tournament painstakingly gluing rattraps to a child's orange plastic bat with dreams of seeing it used to harm another human being?
7. MASADA IS KINDA CHILL: Having seen more than my fair share of Masada matches over the years, one thing is clear: he is a terrifying individual. From the fields of Delaware to the arenas of Japan, he has made his reputation as a vicious Deathmatch wrestler with a knack for jamming fistfuls of yakitori skewers into opponents' foreheads. Needless to say, I was curious about how meeting him would go. After he threatened to smash our camera operator's face the first time he saw us, I figured the more hesitant part of that curiosity may have been right.
Once we got to sit down and talk with him however, it was clear that he is a pretty cool guy who takes what he does very seriously. And not only did he not smash camera guy John in the face, but he gave us some of the most interesting insights as to what motivates a Deathmatch wrestler to continue with something so brutal. Also, he took this great photo with John and I…. OK, he is still fucking scary.
6. TIM DONST WILL INSPIRE THE SHIT OUT OF YOU: Every single person in the TOD could have a documentary made about them. All of the wrestlers had stories and motivations that were unique and are deserving of being told. None perhaps is more compelling though, than that of Tim Donst.
A beloved independent wrestler known for a more traditional style, Donst has made a reputation over the last ten years in companies all over for amazing technical matches. This was his first Tournament Of Death and almost served as a first anniversary of sorts for Donst's return to the ring after the discovery of a kidney tumor nearly ended his career. Why a person with an established wrestling career would compete in something like this, especially after such a harrowing health crisis, speaks to the importance this event holds to certain wrestlers and fans alike.
5. NO DRUGS: The stereotype many people have, myself included, is that wrestling has a strong drug culture. From wrestlers' own accounts to the semi-regular public announcements of WWE's Wellness Policy Violations, it would appear that there is some merit in that. Any rational person, who looks at something as intensely physical as pro wrestling is—combined with a the heavy and taxing travel—would have to wonder: how you could not be on something? So when I went to the ultra violent and thus ultra-painful TOD, my assumption was there would be locker room full of drugs.
To my surprise, I didn't see any, not even weed (and believe me I was REALLY hoping to see some weed!). In fact, half the locker room, like the previously mentioned Jeff Cannonball, identify as straight-edge. That is not to say that the other half of the locker room are teetotalers, but for someone raised on stories of wrestlers in the WCW locker room openly trading pills, to not see anything was a shock (like, c'mon, not even weed?!?!)
4. WATCHING TWO PEOPLE HAVE A LIGHTBULB DEATHMATCH CAN BE BEAUTIFUL: I knew I would see some exciting things at TOD but I don't know if I ever thought I would see something I would describe as beautiful. But towards the end of the first round as I watched Danny Havoc battle Alex Colon in a "Lightubes Bundles Match," I was struck by how beautiful it was.
Watching the two talented wrestlers with the glass in the sunlight glinting as it shattered in the air, it took on an almost performance art like feel. Bridging suplexes on top of bizarre sculptures of Fluorescent lightbulb tube and duct tape sculptures, made for something approaching cinema. Like a magic eye, you have to forget what you are looking at a little to see the hidden beauty with Deathmatch wrestling.
3. TO DO PRODUCTION FOR VICE YOU HAVE TO BE FEARLESS: I have done a few different things for VICE now, but most of them have been cannabis-related where really the biggest threat to a crew member is a contact high… or in one case, an accidental edible consumption.
With TOD, there were different challenges. From being threatened by Deathmatch legends, to setting up a tripod on top of barbed wire, to glass raining down on them, nothing would stop the crew from getting in there to get what we needed. I've worked places in the past where people would complain if there was a bit of a walk to get the shot, Even as the blood was literally sprayed on them, they never stopped rolling. Thank you Stevie Drabitsaris, Chris Wardle, John Tran, and Shawney Cohen… and the AMAZING drone crew!
2. DJ'S HYDE'S WIFE LAUREN MIGHT BE THE MOST UNDERSTANDING PERSON ON EARTH: DJ told us that he met his wife Lauren at a wrestling show where she had come to interview wrestler AJ Styles. Then a wrestling fan, Lauren would marry DJ and quickly lose the love for pro wrestling.
And while certainly not in love with his vocation, Lauren is undoubtedly in love with DJ enough to put up with the all consuming lifestyle that CZW requires. She is a massive fan of Disney who would no doubt prefer hanging at the Magic Kingdom with Mickey and Minnie than an UltraViolent Arena with Masada and Zandig (Routinely, Disney-related chants are used by the knowing CZW fanbase to mock the much despised DJ Hyde). She is the one that supports DJ as he continues to do whatever it takes for CZW to survive and she is the one who helps put him back together after a Deathmatch.
1. TOD RULES: I have watched them before on video and online but seeing a Tournament of Death live was something else. I didn't think it was something I would want to go back to before but now I can see why it holds the special place it does on the wrestling landscape.
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