Wrestling is art (and debauchery)

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      In the middle of a wrestling ring, located in an abandoned-looking building that’s entered through a creaky gate, not too far from Surrey’s Gateway Station, Stevan Cvjetkovich is teaching me how to run the ropes.

      Students from the Lions Gate Dojo wrestling club crowd around the ring, warming up for a showcase that’s happening in less than an hour.

      Oh good, I think. An audience.

      “Make sure your right elbow is over the top rope, and that your hand is gripping it,” Cvjetkovich says. “It’s important to hold onto it—because if the rope breaks, that’ll save your life.”

      Coolcoolcoolcoolcool.

      “Do they break often?” I squeak.

      “Oh yeah, all the time,” he says. “And always when you least expect it. Do you want to give it a try?”

      Um, fuck no.

      “Okay!” I hear myself say. I guess I didn’t come all the way to Surrey to not beat myself up a little.

      I start with my elbow bent over the edge and my hand in a death-grip position, bouncing myself off the ropes the way Cvjetkovich showed me. Take one, two, three steps across the ring, then pivot, elbow over, death-grip hand, bounce off. One, two, three, elbow, hand, bounce. One, two, three, elbow, hand, bounce. Slow at first, but then gaining speed. I feel a bit like my two-year-old nephew who loves to “body slam” into the couch: boing, boing, boing.

      One thing’s for sure, even in these early moments of my casual lesson: wrestling is athletic as all hell. The stunts are very real—and they require skill, strength, bravery, and a healthy dose of sheer audacity.

      *

      Vancouver’s indie wrestling scene has been steadily growing over the last number of years. While it may still be considered largely underground—I, admittedly, didn’t even know wrestling shows in this city existed until my partner took me to WrestleCore at the Rickshaw earlier this year—there are a number of organizers bringing high-quality, riotously fun productions to venues across the city.

      There’s BOOM! Pro Wrestling, which combines comedy and athleticism to form something wacky and unique; and All Star Wrestling, which takes a more traditional, historical approach. Then there’s the aforementioned WrestleCore, which was founded by Cvjetkovich. A former pro wrestler under the name Kobra Kai, Cvjetkovich trained in Mexico City in the traditional lucha libre style and travelled across North America performing at shows (“for six very painful years of my life”). When it came time to settle, he found himself in Vancouver, where he met his now-wife—a fellow pro wrestler named Calamity Kate—who convinced him to produce a one-off lucha libre show. Turns out it was pretty fun, and things grew naturally from there. WrestleCore is an outrageous, high-energy spectacle. Each show has a theme (Battle World is inspired by retro video games; Horror on Hastings has a decidedly spooky vibe), helping the brand attract a wide audience.

      “Our mission statement is about showcasing the local performers on a stage that they can be seen on worldwide,” Cvjetkovich says, noting a partnership that WrestleCore has with the streaming service Independent Wrestling TV. “Our focus has been to draw in as much audience as possible. We do that by having a heavy-metal-themed wrestling show where we draw in a heavy metal music fan base; or doing a rock concert to draw in that rock-and-roll audience. One of our big ones last year was on February 4: we performed in Rogers Arena for a Warriors game in front of 10,000 fans that didn’t know wrestling existed.”

      Photo by Kevin Free.

      WrestleCore’s latest event was the Lucha Libre Spectacular Diablo Cinquo, which took place at the Waldorf on August 5 and 6 and featured food trucks, live music, and pro wrestlers flying in from Mexico.

      Part art and part sport, wrestling is as head-scratching as it is entertaining.

      “I’d call it action improv with a splash of Cirque du Soleil in there,” says Tony Baroni, a pro wrestler and co-founder of Lions Gate Dojo. Sure, the outcome of a wrestling match is predetermined—but often the way in which the performers get there is largely improvised, with each person reading the other’s body cues to communicate upcoming moves and keep everyone safe. Regardless, watching a wrestling match requires a suspension of disbelief. Trust me: you’ll have a hell of a lot more fun if you let yourself go and scream alongside the rest of the crowd.

      There are, after all, few experiences we get as adults to fully immerse ourselves in something so outrageous. At a wrestling show, audience members aren’t mere observers—rather, they’re participants, actively egging on the performers and feeding energy into the room. It’s grown-up make-believe—an excuse to play pretend, to lose yourself in the d-r-a-m-a.

      “A wrestling show is incredibly cathartic; you get to cheer on your heroes and boo that bad guy. It’s an old-fashioned, comic-book-style good versus evil,” Cvjetkovich says. “It’s simplified in our overly complicated lives.”

      Max Mitchell, founder of BOOM! Pro Wrestling, echoes a similar sentiment. “The audience is as important of a player in the theatre; they are a character in the show,” he says via phone. “We trust them to go along with what we’re doing, and to cheer for the good guys and boo the bad guys. They don’t have to, but they do. There’s a mutual trust.”

      *

      Back in the ring, Cvjetkovich teaches me how to do a series of rolls and flippy things that leave me dizzy and sweating. Then it’s time to learn a back bump: a move that sees the wrestler fall backwards and slam their back against the mat, causing a loud slapping sound and, if done properly, involuntary winces from the crowd.

      He demonstrates first: start sitting on the mat, knees bent, arms crossed over each shoulder. Then slam backwards, arms slapping the mat, head tucked in.

      “It’s important to tuck your head,” Cvjetkovich says. “Otherwise you could get a concussion.”

      Oh. How chill.

      He had mentioned to me earlier that anyone who engages in professional wrestling likely has “a screw loose,” and I’m starting to understand why. Who signs up for a casual concussion? Still, down to the mat I go. Arms crossed, knees bent, head tucked. I slam backwards, arms out wide. Sounds more like a whisper than a bang.

      “Again,” Cvjetkovich says. Arms crossed, knees bent, head tucked. Slam! A little louder.

      “Again,” he says. Slam! A little louder still. I’m far from going pro, but I can feel the impact of my body against the mat—and there’s something deeply powerful in that.

      *

      This sport (or should I say this art? I’m still figuring that out) has historically been dominated by cis white men—and while that demographic still makes up the majority of the scene, Edmonton-based pro wrestler Taryn From Accounting says inclusion efforts are improving.

      “In Vancouver, I find, and then with some promotions here in Alberta, they really make a point to try to have diverse wrestlers,” Taryn says via phone (she frequently travels to Vancouver for shows, and happens to be the sister of Calamity Kate). “Lots of women, especially, are being showcased.”

      Wrestling is self-expression, dress-up, play, theatrics. In the ring, you can be whoever you want to be. Truly: a lot of pro wrestlers have day jobs doing completely different things.

      “I’m a very introverted person, so it’s nice to be able to put on this character and perform,” reflects Taryn, who works as a Grade 1 teacher during the day. “I’m still learning how to come out of my shell and interact with the crowd more, but it’s a really good place to challenge myself to do things that I thought I would never in a million years be able to do, and also just meet really cool people. It’s nice to be different than who I am in my everyday life.”

      *

      In Vancouver, wrestling is an escape. It’s good, clean (okay, a little dirty) fun. It’s a salve for our urban woes, if only for an hour or two.

      “We’re always trying to maintain wedding reception vibes,” affirms Mitchell of BOOM! Pro Wrestling. “And that means it’s a multigenerational party where if you look to your left, somebody’s brought like their kids, and if you look to your right, there’s a retired couple. And we’re all there in celebration of this thing which can be quite emotional at times. Wrestling isn’t just unadulterated violence; we tell sad stories and we tell funny stories.”

      The best thing you can do for yourself is cry and laugh along. Just don’t forget to hold onto the rope.

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