Friday, December 01, 2006

Doing Stuff; Day 3, Women's Extreme Wrestling

"Kill that bitch! Yeah! Fuck that bitch up! Yeah!" -- some guy in a Terrell Owens jersey, tonight at the New Alhambra Area in South Philadelphia.

The pro wrestling capital of America is Philadelphia.

In the 1980's, Philadelphia was one of the only cities in the country that could draw huge shows for the two national rivals, the WWF and the NWA. In the early 90's, the Tri-State Wrestling Federation hosted shows for the nation's most hardcore wrestling fans. This audience soon became obsessed with Eastern Championship Wrestling, which becme Extreme Championship Wrestling, one of the most beloved and influential wrestling promotions of all time. And today, Philadelphia is home to both the Ring of Honor and Combat Zone Wrestling promotions, two of the most succesful independent wrestling companies in the nation.

Tonight, I attended the Woman's Extreme Wrestling card at the New Alhambra Arena (formerly a bingo hall which gained infamy as the ECW Arena) with my friends Steffan and Sean. Steffan is 28 and is a doctor who works at a large hospital in Center City. Sean has a Ph.D. in developmental psychology and is a professor at an area college. Neither had seen professional wrestling in person before. I, of course, have seen professional wrestling live and in person a few dozen times.

Pro wrestling was easily my favorite thing in the world from when I was a child until my mid-20's. (Not coincidentally, this is when I started to have sex regularly.) I'd be lying if the allure of going to see ECW live and in person didn't factor in my decision to go to La Salle University. I'd also be lying if I told you that, at the age of 17, I didn't harbor dreams of becoming the next Bobby "The Brain" Heenan or James E. Cornette, the two dominant bad guy wrestling managers of the era.

Steffan had at least watched wrestling in college during the industry's big boom period, mostly following the local (and truly insane) ECW. Sean had never watched wrestling and had no idea what to expect.

We arrived to the New Alhambra Arena (marvelously located underneath the I-95 trestle next to a discounted clothing store known as Forman Mills, the last store in the world where one can purchase off-the-rack Zubaz pants) a little after the show started. When we arrived, we were let right in. We didn't have to buy any tickets. A security guard just let us walk in without a second thought.

The atmosphere was magnificent. The ECW Arena, in the promotion's peak, was known for its rabid, rowdy and violent atmosphere. This crowd saw attendees largely talking amongst themselves, drinking beer, only to occasionally yell out a comment like "U-S-A! U-S-A! GO HOME YOU DUMB JAPANESE BITCH!" or "PUNCH HER TITS!"

Being a longtime wrestling fan, I can tell who is a good wrestler and who is a bad wrestler. Most of the women wrestling in this thing? They were obviously strippers, most likely from Cheerleaders located down the street. Pro wrestling is usually a combination of athleticism and really low-brow theater; this event was largely tanned girls with back tattoos rolling around on a mat, ripping at each other's clothes in front of a crowd of drunk men celebrating the violence.

This was a perfect opportunity for me to quote dialogue from the movie The Accused, an opportunity I did not let go to waste.

For one match, the WEW ring announcer told us that "Chief Jane Strong-ho" (a play off legendary Native American wrestler Cheif Jay Strongbow) would be coming to the ring to show her new rain dance. Some young looking girl then came running out in an Indian headdress obviously purchased on discount from the Halloween costume superstore up the street as the Florida State University/Atlanta Braves "Tomohawk Chop" song played. Then some big biker woman came out and beat the shit out of her. I believe this was an allegory for white Europeans stealing the land of the Native American. Only instead of using corrupt treaties or a smallpox blanket, the conquerer rubbed her vagina in her enemies face.

One match did have a very intriguing storyline. Before the match began, some woman came out flanked by two other women in matching "Sexy Cop" outfits, grinding their asses against the steel railing. The woman, wearing a homemade t-shirt which read "Bigger is Better", then told the crowd that she "changed a lot since the last time you saw me. I graduated college AND law school! And now I'm a judge!"

Right after that, some other woman clad in bondage leather came running into the ring (after possibly inhaling a Len Bias-sized amount of cocaine backstage) holding a microphone and a car air freshener.


Another match pitted some goth-ish type girl (and her manager) against a Christian rock chick. How was the audience informed of her religious belief? Simply because she had ROMANS 3:05 written in tasteful magic marker down the left pant leg of her stylishly ripped jeans. The goth girl's manager grabbed the Christian chick's Bible to distract her, but -- SHOCK! -- the referee got accidentally hit and someone beat the other person.

I got bored watching the wrestling and wandered off to talk to some folks. The first guy I met looked like an extra from an AC/DC video -- jeff cap and a sleeveless jean jacket. His name was Chris Sixx, a resident of Landsdowne, located right outside the city. And he, too, was a lifelong fan of pro wrestling who estimated he has attended over a hundred shows live.

Chris said he thought about being a wrestler at one point, but didn't because of how notoriously cut-throat the wrestling industry is.

"I used to live for this," Chris said.

(Many wrestling fans today are down on the industry. The WWE, a company publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, is the only bigtime promotion around, succesfully purchasing or destroying any legitimate competition. Two decades ago, there were many succesful wrestling promotions which were regional based. But with the advent of cable television and the like, there's only one game in town. I'm not one to really get up in arms about the corporatization of America ruining our culture but, fuck, it absolutely destroyed something I grew up obsessing over.)

I told him a little bit about my project -- events away from the mainstream that Philadelphians attend -- and asked him why he thought pro wrestling was so popular in our city.

"Because it's such a gritty city. It's so hardcore man. That's what we're about in Philly," he said. "Wrestlers will put their body on their lines to please the fans here. And we like that."

I then wandered to another part of the arena, where I came across a group of 20-ish guys who looked a lot like I did at that age: a bit nerdy and out-of-place amongst the more blue-collar (to be politically correct) crowd in attendance. I talked to them about my project and they told me about how they were training to become professional wrestlers themselves.

This dream of becoming a wrestler has been with Ian Clair, a 22-year-old resident of Maple Shade over the river in South Jersey, since he was a kid.

"We have a sick bloodlust here," he told me. "Even the Wings (Philadelphia's fairly popular indoor lacrosse team)... ECW. CZW. ROH. We like to see people beat the crap out of each other here."

Clair knows full-well that pro wrestling is "fake." But he still wants to do it.

"It's a big act. But I want to be the guy that gets cheered. Or I want to be the guy that gets booed. I like being the guy who comes off the stage and gets cheers. I want to hold the belt that says I am the best of the best," he said.

How many people in the arena did he think had the same dream he had to become a pro wrestler?

"About 99%."

Right then, I started to think about my project. The two events I've attended previously -- one where people try to live life in a previous, simpler time by dancing in the style of the colonial era, another where grown men take a kid's game seriously -- all saw people trying to escape the here and now to be someone else, even if just for a few minutes out of the week.

Why do Philadelphians want to be someone else? Why do Americans want to be someone else?

"Life in Philly is hard," Clair said. "Life in general is hard. We're all looking for an outlet. No one wants to get stuck in the same place. They want to find something hot and stay there. They don't want to be back like Joe Schmoe, selling lunch meat at the store in the corner. They want to say that they made it."

After the show ended, the ring announcer informed the crowd that the wrestlers of the night would be performing at a bar down the street. Naturally, Steffan, Sean and I went.

While there, I asked Sean what he thought of the night, being a pro wrestling neophyte.

"I don't know how to process this yet. Or when I'm going to start processing this," he said. "It was a theatrical performance but it was like an amateur night at a strip club or a comedy club. How does someone go from being born to performing at Women's Extreme Wrestling? It's kind of sad. There's something really degrading about seeing someone have yell 'Fuck you , you crackwhore' at them. In what world is this your world?"


Blogger Three Sheets to the Wind said...

Amazing. I need to go with you next time.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also need to remember the password of my new blog. -TR

11:42 AM  

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