Incredibly Bad Film Show: Los Canallas

a.k.a. Ángeles Infernales
Dir:
Federico Curiel
Star: Mil Mascaras, Regina Torné, Fernando Osés, Claudia Martell

Mexican wrestling movies are a different breed entirely. Sure, WWE wrestlers make movies, and to a large extent, the characters they play are simply an extension of their in-ring personae. John ‘Hustle, Loyalty, Respect’ Cena? Get him to play an ex-marine in…er, The Marine. Demonic hell-spawn Kane? Psychotic serial killer: See No Evil [though Glenn Jacobs, the man responsible, has a degree in English literature, is a former third-grade teacher, and supports Ron Paul] But the key difference is that none of these movies include any actual professional wrestling.

Contrast the Mexican versions, where Mil Mascaras (or Santo, Blue Demon, etc.) is a crime-fighter – but one whose day-job is as a wrestler, and that comes first. Everyone is comfortably at ease with this, both good and bad. For instance, the villains break their leader out of jail on Friday night because “everyone will be at the match.” And when they do, said leader takes on Mascaras in not one, but two wrestling matches. It’s as if, at the end of The Marine, Robert Patrick challenged Cena to a Falls Count Anywhere bout. The forces of good are just as wrestling obsessed. When they realize one of their number has apparently been kidnapped by the Infernal Angels, they don’t exactly rush to her aid, saying “Let’s wait until the first fall is over.  Mil Mascaras will tell us what to do.” One fall later, he airily tells them, “I’ll be done soon, wait for me in the dressing room.” Like I said: wrestling first; rescuing your friend from torture and being slowly dipped into an acid-bath…later.

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Wrestlemania 26: An eye-witness review

wm2601If, as previously argued, wrestling has the potential to be art, then Wrestlemania is its Hermitage, Louvre and Guggenheim all rolled into one, except far more popular. The 26th incarnation of this wrestling extravaganza, with eleven matches in total, was held in Phoenix over the weekend. To give you some idea of the scale, it drew more people to the University of Phoenix stadium (confusingly, located in Glendale, not Phoenix), than when the Superbowl was held there in 2008, and setting a gate receipt record of $5.8m.

Along with 72,217 other people, Chris and I were in attendance, and after the jump, you’ll find our eye-witness review of the sports entertainment spectacle. But if you want to save time, we agreed that next year we’ll watch it on pay-per-view…

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Is pro wrestling art?

We went to WWE Smackdown here in Phoenix on Tuesday night, and had a thoroughly good time – over four hours of entertainment, accompanied by pyrotechnics so loud they had Chris covering her ears. The televised main event saw straightedge bad-guy champion CM Punk (left) beat fan favourite Matt Hardy, in a ‘loser leaves WWE’ steel-cage match. The result wasn’t a surprise to us – previous events had made it fairly clear Punk would be fighting the iconic Undertaker at the next pay-per-view, so it seemed very unlikely he’d lose. But when we watched the show on TV on Friday, we were surprised to see some fans in the audience crying after Hardy lost.

Now, it’d be easy to mock those fans, going the cheap route and rolling out the tired old cliches about them not believing that wrestling is staged [I use that word carefully, and would never call wrestling “fake” – especially not the same week a wrestler we know died, apparently the result of taking too much pain medication]. However, that would also mean those who cry at sad movies should be similarly criticized for failing to distinguish reality from entertainment: despite what Titanic might say, Leonardo DiCaprio is not really dead. A capacity to produce the emotional reaction desired by the creator is one of the key definitions of an art-form, even if that emotion perhaps comes from the lizard part of the brain, such as when you get 15,000 people to chant “You suck!” in unison.

It’s somewhat similar to the long ongoing debate about whether video games should considered as ‘art’ or not, which has been a topic for discussion since Jack Kroll wrote in a 2000 issue of Newsweek that “Games can be fun and rewarding in many ways, but they can’t transmit the emotional complexity that is the root of art.” That was almost a decade ago, and technology has certainly advanced massively since. However, many remain unconvinced: there’s an interesting debate between Roger Ebert and Clive Barker on this topic, and I do have to say, I have never had any significant reaction to a video-game. A certain poignancy in the middle of Final Fantasy VII; some slight dread while engrossed in Doom. Then again, I have never had any significant reaction to sculpture either.

Computer game designer Tim Schafer said, “Art is about creatively expressing thoughts or emotions that are hard or impossible to communicate through literal, verbal means,” and that’s a definition that could well be applied to the largely non-verbal world of professional wrestling. Sure, the cutting of a promo is part of the medium, but it’s what happens after the bell rings that really matters. Then, you’re watching a morality play unfold, a struggle between good and evil for supremacy – though evil may triumph over good, or ‘normal’ notions of what is “good” may be reversed. See Punk vs. Hardy for an example: Punk doesn’t smoke, drink or abuse medications, but by putting across a “better than you” in-ring persona, he has become the ‘heel’.

Like all media, it’s probably necessary to accept that there is a spectrum in effect. Not all films can be truly considered as art – or at least, successful art. Movies like Plan 9 From Outer Space certainly provoke emotions in the viewer, but you can’t really claim that Ed Wood was aiming for derisive laughter in his audience.  Similarly, you can’t lump together all pro wrestling as a whole, but need to accept that there is good and bad. You also need to realize that no match happens in isolation: they are pieces in a carefully-constructed storyline laid out episodically over the preceding weeks and months. Like any good soap opera, the more you watch, the more you get out of it. The casual viewer simply won’t be able to appreciate it anywhere as much.

An example of the best kind of wrestling would be the match at the last Wrestlemania, in Houston, between the Undertaker and Shawn Michaels (left and right respectively, above). A knowledge of the back-history involved was crucial. Undertaker had a remarkable record of 16-0 in previous Wrestlemanias [sure, we’re talking pre-determined results, but the mere fact that he has been deemed a credible winner every time since his debut in 1991, is still hugely impressive] On the other hand, he had never beaten Michaels, one-on-one. We’re also talking two of the most unquestionably charismatic performers in the field – I’m not sure why WWE have never tried to use Undertaker in a horror Western, as he’d be perfect.

Their struggle on this night was a marvelous example of story-telling through physical theatre, the pace of the encounter ebbing and flowing over forty minutes as well as any movie could hope to do, even though there were no titles at stake here.  It built to a crescendo where each man pulled out their signature moves, only to see the opponent refuse to succumb. Finally, the Undertaker delivered a second Tombstone Piledriver [a move you’d better hope is staged, because if you don’t do it right, you will break someone’s neck] and took the victory, running his Wrestlemania record to 17-0.

Britannica Online defines art as “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.” If not a classical art, there’s no doubt that, by this definition, professional wrestling  qualifies: the skill involved certainly cannot be questioned, and if the imagination shown in the storylines is occasionally…well, let’s just say ‘somewhat excessive’, it’s equally undeniable. If you want a shared experience, then a wrestling show is more interactive and less passive than almost any other. Indeed, without the fans there would be no show; the spectators become part of creating the art, their reactions becoming part of the collective artistic experience.

Wrestlemania 26 comes to Phoenix next March. I’m not expecting any art critics from the local papers to attend alongside us, but it’s going to be an experience which we certainly wouldn’t miss for anything.

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“It hurts – but only for a second” – High Impact Wrestling

Tucson, 24th July 2004. In the vacant lot behind a bar in downtown Tucson, a makeshift ring is set up. The heat lingers, even though the sun has gone down – illumination is supplied by three cars, parked with their headlights shining into the arena. Lightning crackles on the horizon. Chaos is fighting for the HIW World Heavyweight title, against reigning champion Ricky Flash. Both men are bleeding. Chaos has $50 on his forehead; it was staple-gunned there by Flash earlier in the bout. Chaos slams the title holder down outside the ring, on a board covered with barbed-wire. He picks up a bunch of fluorescent light tubes located conveniently nearby, and does a leg-drop on his opponent, simultaneously spearing him in the chest with the tubes.

They shatter into a thousand pieces; even though I’m standing 15-20 feet back, behind a barrier, a splinter of shrapnel pings off my forearm. Welcome to HIW.

High Impact Wrestling began over ten years ago, when teenage friends Ryan Van Horn and Jon Johnson started their own federation: they built a ring in Ryan’s yard, and performed for the benefit of their schoolmates. However, things took a decidedly hardcore turn when they saw a tape of the 1995 IWA King of the Deathmatch Japanese wrestling tournament, won by Mick Foley, who defeated Terry Funk in a “No-Rope Explosive Barbed Wire Board Timebomb Deathmatch”. Things, it’s safe to say, would never be the same again for the two schoolfriends. Ryan – or ‘Chaos’, as he’s called inside the ring – has survived the decade since relatively unscathed, even if about the only bout he ever refused was on the edge of a cliff. “I got injured worse playing baseball, than I ever have in the ring,” he says. And it’s true, that perhaps his most impressive scar comes from an operation to repair his shoulder, damaged diving back into base, that ended his chances of playing professionally.

Despite being perhaps the best known “backyard” federation, having been featured on the likes of 20/20, as well as Paul Hough’s documentary, The Backyard, HIW are cutting their ties to that scene. They’ve discarded the backyard label, now calling themselves “independent”, and the increased involvement of ‘Soju’ has helped move them in a different direction. He was originally their sound guy, but when cash input was required, he stepped up, and now keeps things running, leaving Ryan and the other wrestlers free to work on what happens inside the ring. Sessions have become more organised and focused; says HIW chairman, Adam Lujan, “The biggest myth is that we’re not trained, but all of us practice at least once a week.” Ryan spent six months learning under Ron ‘Section 8’ Sutherland, and now passes this on, though certain observers outside HIW question Sutherland’s qualifications for the job. However, neutral and casual observers would be hard-pushed to tell, and Ryan and Jon undeniably have more hours of in-ring experience than most.

In the end, HIW has a fundamental difference in approach and philosophy to other Arizona federations which seems almost irreconcilable. This is partly why some view it with a disdain that borders on loathing, even though it’s easily the longest-running organization in the state. The other active group is Impact Zone Wrestling, and the two groups have an intense distrust of each other. Said one HIW member of IZW, “Their shit is so boring, I can’t even watch it – they do the same moves over and over and over again.” Conversely, one IZW member yearned for the “good old days” when they would simply have driven down to Tucson and physically stopped HIW from putting on shows.

It’s enlightening, in that it shows that pro wrestling is not a single unified sport with a common code, but covers a range of styles and approaches. Rather than aspiring to the WWE, HIW have more in common with ECW, a federation run out of Philadelphia from 1992-2001, who are still fondly remembered for their anything-goes attitude. HIW also care less about the psychology of wrestling – yes, it has psychology. Former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura tells of a bout where he didn’t touch his opponent for the first ten minutes, but had the crowd out of their seats three times. In HIW, this is impossible to imagine, and would probably bore their crowd to tears: only “refined Southern gentleman” Doc Fairday seems capable of getting an audience reaction with mere words. Ryan disdains the more showy side of wrestling, and has no apparent interest in working for the WWE – rather than play to the crowd, he prefers to get in the ring and let his actions do the talking.

What is clear, is that those involved with HIW do know there’s more to pro wrestling than getting hit with barbed wire bats or tubes. Ask Ryan his advice for anyone interested in joining him, and his response is straightforward: “Get pro training or don’t wrestle at all. I made that mistake, and I still get shit for it.” Most other HIW members say something similar: “Go to a school and get professionally trained,” according to Louie DeFreitas. Injuries are an inevitable part of the hardcore action, but like Ryan, many say they’ve been hurt worse in organized sport: no matter how hardcore, there’s not the deliberate intent to injure often seen, for example, on the gridiron. And as in all wrestling, acts that often look almost-murderous, are designed for show, rather than to cause damage.

The best of friends…The worst of enemies…
Ricky Flash and Chaos

Still, it’s often highly-convincing, making it almost surreal to see one wrestler attack another with a weed-whacker, knowing that after the show, they’ll chill out and eat burgers together. It’s also fair to say that the media has blown the dangers out of proportion: I’ve been unable to find a single verified incident where any participant in a “backyard” federation has died – and that’s more than can be said for most sports. For example, around 75 people in North America die every year while scuba-diving, and calls for it to be ‘banned’ are uncommon. And while there are no available figures for wrestling, again, we need to note that each year, around 3.5 to 4 million Americans suffer sports injuries serious enough to get them an emergency room visit.

When it comes to those, few people are more experienced than Matt Haugen, a.k.a. Scar, HIW’s “King of Hurt”. Matt’s spent his first seven weeks in intensive care, and his early years were one long series of operations and recuperation. As a result, he has no spleen, leaving him with a limited immune system, is partially-deaf, and broke his back when a move went wrong during another (non-HIW) wrestling show. While he was recuperating, we got to know him, and his love for the sport remains undiminished by his injury. It was he who invited us down to Tucson for our first HIW event in July, headlined by the Ricky Flash/Chaos bout described above. “You gotta see it,” he insisted – and he was right. An HIW show is an intense spectacle unlike anything else we’ve experienced – if wrestling was staged in the third circle of hell, it’d probably look like this. It’s easy to see why HIW provokes such extreme reactions; those who dislike it, tend to loathe it, but its supporters love the federation with passion and intensity.

Take Scar. Even though his back injury kept him out of the ring, and despite having left hospital only a couple of days before – he was still wearing the wristband – he still let another HIW veteran, Puck, hit him across the face with a glass picture frame before the first bout. “Breakaway glass,” we thought. Nope, as with all the bouts, this was the 100% genuine article: Scar wore his BandAid the rest of the day like a badge of honour. Yet before the event, when we were asking Scar who we should talk to, Puck was one of the first names he mentioned. The same Puck who’d smash glass over Scar’s head, kick him to the ground and leave him bleeding. Like so much about HIW, it’s an oddly-appealing contradiction.

The big question is, of course, why? And everyone seems to have their own reason: “Self-esteem, self-discipline and a chance to be known for doing what I love,” says Corey Curran. “It’s the most physical sport you can play,” is the view of Keith Cosewehr, “No rules. No penalties.” There’s a similar range of opinions with regard to the future, and whether they aim to make wrestling a career. Ryan does – his eventual goal is to wrestle in Japan – but for others, it’s a hobby: Lujan intends to go to college and “maybe become a teacher or a writer”. Rory Adams is keeping his options open: “I’m going to college right now – hopefully I can keep wrestling, but I’d be okay with being a psychologist.”

If friendships are often forged, families and those outside of HIW can be rather less understanding – if they know about it, because some participants prefer to be discreet. Lujan used to try and hide his barb-wire slices: “Now that I’m 18, they can’t really ground me, but my parents still hate it.” “Oh, my God!” says Gil Gilbert, describing his family’s reaction, “but they could tell that I wanted to do this.” A certain pragmatism tends to set in eventually for most parents (and is probably wise; with two teenage kids, we’ve learned that freaking out is rarely productive).

HIW aims to move forward, says Soju; every show brings new lessons learned. The August event started later, avoiding the worst heat of the day, and this time, lighting was on hand once the sun went down. The first step is to get a new ring – a considerable expense, running into thousands of dollars. But it’s probably a wise move, given the current one is eight years old and showing its age, with the ropes loose and the footing uncertain. A building is another goal; eventually, HIW wants to put on shows in cities other than Tucson. Soju also struggles to keep Chaos in check – HIW’s deathmatch champion wants his next bout to be barefoot on broken glass, something Soju has qualms about. He’s probably wise, given the currently primitive nature of HIW’s first-aid kit – something better than paper towels should be high on the equipment list.


Tools of the trade:
Barb-wire, the thumbtack bat, a fluorescent tube

The road on for HIW promises to be interesting. Already, the numbers attending their monthly shows in Tucson are credible by Arizona standards, and for almost all those involved, the best is likely yet to come (Ryan, for example, is only 21). But it’s a struggle to find appropriate venues, and breaking out may be a challenge. The spectators at HIW respond almost solely to the bloodier elements, anything else tends to be met with an eerie silence. There is a limit to how far you can go in this direction; to achieve a broader success, HIW may need to attract a different crowd, or educate the existing one to enjoy and appreciate other aspects, beyond the hardcore approach at which they are undeniably skilled.

Cauliflower Alley Club Reunion, 2004

Plaza Hotel, Las Vegas,
April 15th-17th, 2004

Where do old wrestlers go? Not a question that’s exactly been on your lips, I imagine, and perhaps that’s no surprise. Whether you feel wrestling is sport or entertainment (my position would be that it is a sublime and unique mix of the two), it’s an industry that has never given its veterans the respect they deserve. The Cauliflower Alley Club, established in 1965, is trying to rectify that, as part of its mission to celebrate and recognise fellowship within the wrestling world.

When CC Starr, commissioner of the IZW federation here in Phoenix, told us they were having a reunion in Las Vegas, we were intrigued enough to sign up and make the six-hour drive from Arizona. [It’d have been less, but the construction work and security checks at the Hoover Dam made for much idling in traffic] Besides, it was a perfect excuse to hit Las Vegas for my thirty-fnghrrmmmth birthday. 🙂

Ann Casey (right) and Penny Baker,
two queens of the ring.

We were a little apprehensive; while both Chris and I are wrestling fans, we are some way short of being all-knowing on the topic. I grew up in Britain, and while familiar with names like Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks [pause for all UK readers of a certain age to sigh nostalgically!], the only American wrestling we got to see was occasional WWF bouts. Thus, beyond the household names like Andre the Giant, I’d be the first to admit my experience was limited, and we were thus concerned about looking like the total greenhorns we actually were.

We needn’t have worried, largely because a more friendly, warm-hearted bunch of people you couldn’t hope to find. Which is kinda ironic, given their “day jobs” in most cases involved beating the living daylights out of each other. But now, they seemed genuinely delighted by our interest, signing autographs, taking photos and talking to us in an incredibly gracious manner which soon put us at ease – and from which a lot of ‘famous’ people could learn.

A couple stood out in particular, both women wrestlers. Ida Mae Martinez, won the Mexican Women’s Championship in 1952, and is now a yodelling star(!), as well as featuring in an upcoming documentary with the intriguing title, Lipstick & Dynamite, Piss & Vinegar: The First Ladies of Wrestling. Equally as fascinating to talk to, was Ann Casey, who wrestled into her fifties, then became a truck driver. With a life that also includes meeting Elvis, a degree in criminal justice, bounty hunting, poetry and getting shot five times in 1972 while sitting in her car, Hollywood really should do a bio-pic of her – Madeleine Stowe would be Ann’s personal choice to play her role.

Ox Baker hugs a nervous-looking Chris!

Speaking of films, we actually recognised some attendees, less from the ring and more their work in movies. There was George ‘The Animal’ Steele, for example, who played Tor Johnson in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Ox Baker, who famously beat up on Kurt Russell during Escape From New York, whose extrovert personality was still capable of filling an entire room [and going by his loud rendition of Happy Birthday, shares mine!] And we’d only just missed Hard Boiled Haggerty, from Micki and Maude, a stalwart of the CAC, who’d died less than three months before.

This was, sadly, another feature of the event: at Saturday’s night banquet, they named the wrestlers who had died in the past year. It was a lengthy list, led by Stu Hart, patriarch of the Hart dynasty which included his sons Bret and Owen. Hard Boiled Haggerty’s daughter also sang God Bless America, her voice cracking with emotion, and even I – who doesn’t believe in God and isn’t American – had to admit it was a moving moment.

George ‘The Animal’ Steele

It wasn’t all doom and gloom at the banquet, with the guest of honor Japanese superstar Antonio Inoki, best known for his bout against Muhammad Ali in 1976. What stood out for us, however, was co-host Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan, one of the most famous managers in wrestling history. The Academy need to hire this guy for the Oscars, and forget Billy or Whoopi. He kept the event moving along with unfailing good humour, even when some of the recipients let their acceptance speeches get away from them. However, even he wasn’t fast enough to stop one recipient from referring to Vince McMahon Jr, the owner of WWE, as a “cunt”. Oops – next year’s ceremony will be on a 7-second delay.

Though it has to be said, crowd disapproval seemed limited to the inappropriate word, rather than any actual argument with the sentiment. The general feeling appeared to be that the antics of the WWE overshadowed the good work being done by independent promoters, that wrestling was going through one of its downturns, and that things were better in the good old days. However, I noticed a prominent phrase on one of the old promo cards which was part of the silent auction, and probably dated from the 50’s: “Huge reserved section for coloreds”. Not everything about the old days was good…

Another notable exhibit was a cast made of Andre the Giant’s arm and foot (right – the hand rattling around inside, feeling very lonely, is Chris’s for comparison). I’d seen footage of the 7’4″, 520 lb man in action, but apart from The Princess Bride, only with other wrestlers, and didn’t realise how big he truly was. Also ongoing was a Cribbage tournament, which may seem like an odd inclusion at the event, but CC told us that it was a favourite pastime of wrestlers backstage, while waiting to go on. Maurice ‘Mad Dog’ Vachon was defending his title – much like baseball players, it seems that wrestlers had much cooler nicknames in the golden days. Though, having said that, I guess there’s still the odd one around who’s old-school in this regard, such as Chris ‘The Rabid Wolverine’ Benoit!

All this, and I haven’t even mentioned the show on Saturday, where up-and-coming wrestlers got to do their thing for promoters, bookers and everyone else – difficult to think of a tougher crowd to perform in front of than this one! No folding chairs; no pyrotechnics; no lingerie matches; just traditional wrestling. One yearns for the days when this again becomes the normal perception of the sport, rather than a sputtering flame, barely kept alive by a bunch of die-hards.

We left on Sunday with a whole new appreciation for the wrestling industry, and those who are part of it, using their skill to put their health on the line for our entertainment, day-in and day-out for years on end. In most cases, they don’t do it for glory or riches, but because they love the sport, and a comment from one of the speeches on Saturday really brings this home. Someone once asked a wrestler what he’d do if he had a million dollars; he replied, “Put it in the bank, and wrestle until it’s all gone.” The knowing laughter which greeted this anecdote was proof of truth, and is why we’ll be back in Las Vegas for the 2005 reunion. We’re already brushing up on our cribbage skills.

[Visit the Cauliflower Alley Club website.]