This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
Filipinos congregate in shopping malls. Sometimes it’s for dinner with family and friends, other times it’s to accomplish errands with co-workers. For a growing subculture of local wrestling fans, however, these malls are their stadiums.
Every month, fans gather in a mall to watch grown men and women in colourful costumes fight each other. It gets pretty wild. Spectators sing out loud to wrestlers’ opening songs while wearing merchandise of their favourites.
“1! 2!” a group shouted in unison as they counted along the referee’s taps on the ring as “Mr. Philippine Wrestling” Jake De Leon (JDL) tried to pin down former WWE Superstar and now independent professional wrestler TJP one night in October.
“Not the face,” they said, when their idols punched crowd favorite Chris Panzer.
“Sulit bayad (worth my money),” they exclaimed whenever wrestlers did cool stunts.
TJP was in Manila for this particular event and graced the ring with his flexible stunts. The crowd ran towards the railing for photos and high fives as soon as he walked towards the ring. Local wrestlers Chris Panzer and Quatro got the crowd going too, when they attempted to suplex heavyweight Jeff Cobb from the top of the ropes.
The energy was infectious. It was as if they were watching World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) icons Stone Cold Steve Austin and Undertaker square off on TV, and not virtual unknowns going against each other in a tent.
The event was produced by the Philippine Wrestling Revolution (PWR), one of two up-and-coming wrestling federations in the Philippines. The other, the Manila Wrestling Federation (MWF), holds similar live wrestling events in the city.
WWE (previously known as the World Wrestling Federation or WWF) was huge in the Philippines in the 1990s and early 2000s. Millennials grew up watching Triple H and Randy Orton, and knew all the beats to Shawn Michael’s entrance song Sexy Boy. It was like a weekly soap opera people couldn’t wait to watch.
“It was the display of aggression on TV that made it cool because that’s the only show I could see it on,” Chito Villaluna, a long-time fan of the sport, told VICE.
Like any other trend, however, the wrestling hype eventually fizzled out.
“But then WWE had changed and became more family-friendly for networks, affecting storylines of characters I followed,” Villaluna said.
WWE eventually became less accessible on Philippine TV, and passionate fans were left hanging. But then came social media. Through YouTube, Facebook, and streaming by the WWE Network, they got their wrestling fix again.
From this renewed craze formed PWR and MWF, Facebook groups-turned-organisers that combine American-style wrestling entertainment with Filipino storylines. If WWE was a soap opera, these localised wrestling shows are telenovelas_._
Shows by both organisers are similar. Live wrestling events run for 4 to 5 hours, with up to 8 individual and tag team matches. The storylines are scripted but the audience is still invested in watching who will win the championship belt.
“Our shows are long but seeing the fans commit to this amount of time is great. They’re willing to spend their entire Sunday afternoons with us,” Rafael Camus, PWR Producer and Stage Manager told VICE.
“Having wrestlers in the local scene makes the sport feel more special because I actually meet them and see them every month,” Villaluna said.
In a country plagued by very real forms of violence everyday, these live wrestling shows act as an escape for fans. Here, they can freely express their frustrations. And, no matter how intense the storylines get, there are no real consequences.
“Because we’re such a conservative country, it’s nice to indulge in things we can’t outwardly do. I think it’s that release and that fantasy that draws people in. It’s a great distraction,” Jennifer Mizzi, a new PWR fan told VICE.
PWR is unapologetically dramatic and loud, with characters as campy as those in local telenovelas.
There’s the aforementioned De Leon, a former PWR champion who portrays a son of a rich farmer. He’s your typical Filipino from the province making a name for himself in Manila.
The YOLO twins are caricatures of suburban-raised Filipinos who talk like valley girls. They’re what wrestling enthusiasts call a “heel” or villain, and people love to hate their arrogance and entitlement.
MSG, on the other hand, are Chinese businessmen who take wrestlers under their wing. Their leader wears a suit and holds red envelopes filled with money.
Then there’s Martivo, an LGBTQ icon and crowd favourite who carries a Pride flag in the ring.
“It’s like WWE but more relatable because the jokes are more local. These are tropes that exist in our country,” Mizzi said.
MWF, on the other hand, is more politically-charged. This is seen in their wrestlers like Bahay ng Liwanag (House of Light), which portrays a religious cult in a devoutly Catholic country. There’s also HSSL, a group of backstreet bullies who are loud about their political ideologies.
After this year’s midterm elections, the MWF even held an election-themed show where ballots were placed outside the gates, allowing the audience to vote who would win or lose.
Unlike PWR, which charges for tickets, MWF shows are free for the public and more democratised. This draws in random people who just happen to be walking around the mall.
“They do pick up even if the audience is mixed. They’re receptive and incredibly passionate. It’s amazing seeing the raw emotions of people confronted with live wrestling for the first time,” MWF Head of Creatives Veronica Litton told VICE.
More than just the body slamming and dramatic acts, it’s these social commentaries and localised storylines that fans come for.
“Before, you used to watch it on a screen and now you get to see it in the flesh,” Mizzi said. “The experience is incomparable and you have to really see it firsthand to know the rush.”