“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.

Incredibly Bad Film Show: The Story of Ricky

The Story of Ricky (Nam Nai Choi) – Fan Siu Wong, Fan Mui Sang, Cheng Chuen Yam, Yukari Oshima

Got beer?“Ricky is sent to prison. In the jail, he sees the prisoners being exploited and tortured by chief warden Cobra. Ricky decides to stand up against them. After many setbacks, Ricky gets the support of the other prisoners…”
— DVD synopsis

It is perhaps fitting that a film such as this, should come with a synopsis which is wildly inaccurate in just about every way e.g. the chief warden doesn’t so much as appear until more than fifty minutes in. And it also curiously underplays things: as you’ll see, describing what happens to Ricky as “minor setbacks” is one of the greatest understatements of all time. The film is based on the 12-volume Riki-Oh manga by Tetsuya Saruwatari and Takajo Masuhiko, and also spawned two anime OAVs. But it is in this live-action incarnation that it has become most infamous, largely because it may well be the second-goriest movie ever, surpassed only by Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead. And, after a few beers, it could also be the finest film in cinema history.

Ricky Ho (Fan Siu Wong) is sent to prison – he should know he’s in trouble as soon as the transfer bus pulls in, for the courtyard is awash with what looks like tomato juice, but probably isn’t. Such are the choice of a free economy, for as a title-card informs us: “By 2001 AD, capitalistic countries have privatised all government organisations. Prisons, like car-parks, have become franchised business…”. This may explain the lack of guards, but those that are seem not be over-taxed – one guard’s duties solely seem to consist of yelling “Go over there!” at prisoners. Ricky Ho sets off the metal-detectors but an X-ray (carried out with an cheerfully complete lack of safety precautions) reveals he carries five bullets in his chest.

Elsewhere Samuel is bullying an elderly prisoner, Ma. Cue the first appearance of the Chorus – a group of inmates whose role is to forward the plot without getting in the way:

“Samuel is at it again.”
“He’s a gang leader, and the captain of his cell-block.”
“He’s friends with the guards.”
“Well, what can you do…”

before they, as one, turn to urinate. Such apathy extends to the staff too – “He fell and whined like a pig. What a nuisance!”, says a guard on seeing the results of Ma’s nose meeting DIY equipment. But Ricky won’t stand for this, and trips Samuel, who falls face-first onto spikes – it feels more like a public service announcement warning against the dangers of leaving large pieces of nailed wood carelessly around the bathroom.

Samuel hires the uber-fat Zorro to kill Ricky, for 30lbs of rice. He doesn’t, though the neat wound Ricky inflicts on him bears no resemblance to the torso-wide gash seen in the next shot. “Another move and I’ll…hit you!” says a guard, not exactly causing Ricky to quake in terror, as he encounters the head of the North Cell, Oscar. While locked in his cell, we get a flashback to Ricky’s training. This was from his uncle Shan Kuei, in a cemetery with the gravestones as fodder for smashing – the families of the buried must have been a bit miffed at this. Ricky makes for an entirely unconvincing student, in collar, tie and preppy look, even if the training causes his body to glow like a poster child for Chernobyl.

Ricky gets a garland of intestinesBack in jail, we meet the assistant warden. He keeps porno vids on the shelf in his office, and has a glass eye, which he keeps in a water glass. Oh, and he keeps mints inside the eye. While on the missing body-part front, he also has a hook for his hand, which acts both as a fork and a tool to drag dead prisoners away, so I hope he washes it between times. And it spikes Ricky when he won’t talk, but he won’t rise to the bait, so the assistant warden hands him to Oscar for a duel. Oscar blinds our hero with powdered glass and slices up his tendons but Ricky is so tough, he just ties them up himself, in a move not found in my First Aid manual. His opponent is no less tough: in a last-ditch move, he commits seppuku, and tries to use his own intestines to strangle Ricky; one bone-crunching punch (as seen in The Street Fighter) settles his hash for good. The other block heads turn up: West Cell’s Rogan (Oshima), East Cell’s Tarzan, and South Cell’s Brendan. Ricky discovers they’re growing poppies for opium in the jail, so sets fire to the crop, bringing down the wrath of Rogan. This time, he is caught by being buried in concrete – is that what they mean by a hardened criminal?

Yukari Oshima cross-dresses The real warden returns: he’s even tougher than his assistant, gouging out a prisoner’s eye for unrolling a red carpet badly, and is especially keen to see Ricky punished. Tarzan charges through the cell wall and goes to work on Ricky, but three punches make his elbow, jaw and hand explode, Fist of the North Star style. Time for Plan B: the roof starts to descend. Tarzan, abandoned by his mentors, assists Ricky to escape, at the cost of his own life – the lack of “squish” here is about the only moment of restraint in the entire film. Ricky falls through a trapdoor instead, and is buried alive for a week underground; it barely bothers him, even when Rogan uses some dismembered dog to block the breathing tube. There’s a flashback to why Ricky is in prison; it’s not important. Ricky’s next torture is having razor-blades crammed into his mouth, before Rogan beats him across the face, till the blades poke through his cheeks. His reaction? Spray a mouthful of blood and flesh into the warden’s face.

Ricky: minute-by-minute
Listing all the violence in the film would
take far too long, but here are the highlights…
7:40 Carpentry plane to the face
8:17 Spiked wood through hand, into face
15:03 Zorro opens up…
15:43 …and Samuel does the same
30:58 Really big bread-knife to head
34:21 “You’ve got a lot of guts, Oscar”
37:32 The exploding head scene
43:48 Alan loses face – and the rest of his skin
59:26 Tarzan goes to pieces
72:45 Ricky gets the point(s)
75:50 A stoolie loses his head
77:19 Ricky makes a hole-in-one
78:29 Don’t complain about the food
79:39 Just one, wafer-thin mint?
84:50 The warden goes for a spin.

You can only push a man so far, and when the guy who brings Ricky food is slaughtered, it’s time to break out, using the old “hanging from the ceiling” ploy. There’s an excellent one-punch skull liquidation, and the assistant warden continues to lose body parts carelessly – first an eye, with an arm following shortly thereafter. The warden is busy grinding up the arm of a prisoner who complained about the food, when Ricky bursts in. After disposing of Rogan (though he doesn’t actually kill her…er, him), he has to take on the big boss, for after all: “The warden of any prison has to be the very best in kung-fu.” It helps that he turns, for no readily-apparent reason, into the Incredible Hulk, with much shirt ripping and crap hair – just orange rather than green. Even Ricky driving an entire arm through his stomach doesn’t slow him down. It’s only when he gets an up-close-and-personal look at the meat grinder, that justice prevails. With one punch, Ricky takes down the prison wall. “You’re all free now!”, he says, begging the question – why the hell didn’t he do that the day he arrived?


The movie poster: popcorn, anyone? Footnotes:

 

  • Fan Siu Wong and Fan Mui Sang are a father-son combination – the former plays Ricky, while I think the latter is either the guy who trains him or the warden.
  • Yukari Oshima’s turn as Rogan is bizarre but effective. She’s probably the only name in the film familiar to most Western viewers, given her role in films like Angel and The Outlaw Brothers, so seeing her playing a man is something of a shock!
  • The DVD has both dub and subtitled versions; the above is based on the former, but the latter offers entirely new possibilities for amusement. All the characters have different names – “Zorro” is known as “Silly Lung”, which is hardly more appropriate – and there are any number of phrases to make you go, “Eh?”:
    • “Captain, we haven’t brushed our teeth yet.”
      “Use them as brushes.”
    • “You’ve even broken my sinus.”
    • “Ma’s hanging himself to death!”
    • “Your original name was Rick. But you were strong as a bull at 7 or 8 so I called you Ricky.”
    • “You’ll turn into a dried persimmon.”

See also…

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