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On Feb. 21, a crowd of people poured into Hamilton’s Knights of Columbus hall to witness two and a half hours of choke slams, drop kicks and body slams. For what the event held by the Christian fraternity lacked in spirituality, it compensated for in reverence to the legends of wrestling that have come and gone: the larger-than-life television characters that brought together a passionate audience, and the performers that chose to follow in their footsteps. As the sound of bells reverberated through the small but packed venue, Hamilton’s Alpha-1 wrestling kicked off its seventh year of professional wrestling.

I knew that when I was signing up to cover Hamilton’s Alpha-1 Wrestling’s Big Year 7 event, I wasn’t walking into some kind of underground blood sport, but I got enough worried requests to “be careful” to understand that many people hold misconceptions about independent professional wrestling. Even at its most amateur level, professional wrestling is a carefully choreographed performance act. Training and schools are prerequisite to perform, and the organization itself has an impressive roster of long-time amateur wrestlers, and even featured names from major televised corporations like ECW and WWE.

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Alpha-1 Wrestling is owned by Ethan “All Ego” Page, a full-time professional wrestler himself, who spoke to me backstage about what it takes to throw together an independent wrestling company. “I go from country to country, state to state, I’m meeting different people in different cities and finding who the best wrestlers are and I’ll bring them all down to Hamilton because I trust them and know what they’re capable of and then we’ll produce the best wrestling show.”

Page shoots promotional videos and scripts the storylines that will play out in the ring. Just two hours before the event, wrestlers will meet, sometimes for the first time, and plan the choreography of their matches.

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Fake stories, real athleticism

Professional wrestling has had a long history of straddling the line between athleticism and entertainment, but you’d be hard pressed to find many forms of live performance art that is as visceral and raw as live wrestling. You can hear and feel every thud and slam of the ring. Every impact on the canvas mat violently shakes the ropes. Athletes are tossed both in and outside the ring, occasionally right into the feet of front row audience members.

You feel the impact of every DDT, pile driver, power bomb and frankensteiner. Every single slap and chop to the chest is punctuated by a Ric Flair “Woo” from the crowd.  As the audience taunted some of the in-ring villains (or any wrestler from Toronto), the performers replied with their own fair share of insults.

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Witnessing these performers execute increasingly complex and dangerous maneuvers is not for the faint of heart. That should be obvious, but the choreographed nature of professional wrestling still does not make the impacts any less real and the wrestlers shared stories of broken bones and bruises when we talked backstage.

“For people watching, some people kind of think, ‘eh, it’s not that physical, it’s not real so to speak.’ It’s very physical match, its very taxing on the body and depending on how long you wrestle in the ring it can be very exhausting, you can feel very beat up and sore,” explained Brent Banks. Banks has been wrestling in the independent circuit for eight years, and his experience was evident during his main fight. “The worst part is the next day after the adrenaline goes down after your match. You really feel all the bumps and bruises afterwards.”

“I’m meeting different people in different cities and finding who the best wrestlers are and I’ll bring them all down to Hamilton because I trust them and know what they’re capable of and then we’ll produce the best wrestling show.”

Despite a particularly brutal bout with the featured Nanzio of WWE and ECW fame, Page described another long list of his own current injuries and the constant risks involved, “Right now I have a torn shoulder; some guys that I’ve personally worked with have broken their necks and had to retire. Broken legs, broken arms, my wrist is broken right now, I’ve broken both my heels, my nose … It hurts to be a fake fighter.”

The four-walled drama

Despite athleticism playing a central role in “sports entertainment,” Page finds professional wrestling’s entertainment aspect most appealing. “It’s like a movie that has four different walls. So, you can sit at any point of the ring and it’ll be a different show every single time,” explained Page.

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Though certainly not high brow, professional wrestling is still best categorized as performance art, and like the devoted fan base of any artistic sub-culture, its supporters are as much in love with the spectacle as they are critical. An early mass of ticket holders outside the venue shared stories of meeting WWE and WWF superstars, but also avidly debated and complained about the current state of prime-time storylines, executive decisions and other behind-the scenes controversy. The attention to the show and all the decisions and work behind it is the same brand of fandom that we’ve come to expect from comic book geeks, cinephiles and gamers. The fights need to be executed as perfectly as possible, the characters need to entertain and the drama in and outside the ring need to give fans a competitor they can get behind.

The in-ring character is arguably just as important as the athletic prowess. Banks repeated a tried and true advice to creating an in-ring persona. “A lot of people will say that the best characters are just an extension of yourself, just turned up a little bit,” he said.

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Banks himself has transitioned from his previous iteration of the basketball inspired “Allstarter” to a less cartoonish persona that seemed to emphasize the technical prowess he’s built up in his eight year run. He went against Scotty “The Hacker” O’Shea for the Alpha Male Champion Belt, until an Anonymous “virus” donning the signature all black attire and Guy Fawkes mask jumped into the ring and busted a keyboard on both the wrestlers’ heads.

Earlier during the event, “Theory of Evolution” — a tag team composed of Jim Nye the Science Guy and Space Monkey (complete with monkey fur mask, tail and space suit) — brought some of the best moments during the event. Audience members threw bananas at them as they entered alongside the Beastie Boys “Intergalactic.” Nye tossed Space Monkey from the top rope to execute a crushing body slam, for science of course, and the two continued to win over the crowd spot after spot. The raw talent of the pair, and the absurdity of their personas made their loss of the tag-team title surprisingly painful.

“A lot of people will say that the best characters are just an extension of yourself, just turned up a little bit.”

In a similar vein, this audience witnessed the heartbreaking loss of Dick Justice, a freedom loving American police officer. Justice’s persona is a cross between Weird Al Yankovic and Paul Blart, with a heaping dose of tongue-in-cheek patriotism. Crowds egg him on with cries for freedom and ‘Merica, and his antics during the six-man free-for-all was a great comedic break from some of the intensity of the previous matches. Although the crowd chanted scores of asinine jokes based on Justice’s first name, the connection between the audience and the performers felt palatable after his loss when a young boy held up a hand drawn portrait to his favourite “Super Cop” as a sign of support. Justice lost his badge to the neon-pink 80s fitness junkie Danny Orlando, and triumphantly push-upped his way out of the ring.

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Why we fight

When I joined the performers backstage, I expected to receive elaborate stories of how they fell into the professional wrestling scene. Perhaps what I should have anticipated was the matter-of-fact attitude each of the wrestlers shared. If you loved wrestling as a kid, you started practicing some moves in your backyard and you carried that passion into adulthood, you are going to try and become a wrestler.

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Another wrestler, who requested to keep his name and persona a secret, expanded a bit more, “I’ve been a fan since I was a kid. I was always really small so I liked watching the smaller guys, and because of that I taught myself to flip off diving boards and high stuff in the snow just to emulate them … When I discovered indie wrestling I was like, this is an amazing, intimate, smaller setting, I think I want to do this.” He had a long history in martial arts, but dropped it in favour of his wrestling training, which he practiced every single day after work.

“I’ve done a lot of things in my life, like I grew up playing soccer, skateboarding, BMX, doing dumb things, jumping off high things and fighting, competitive martial arts and after all that, of all the things I’ve done, this is the most fun I’ve ever had. When I’m in the ring and leaving the ring, it’s just the greatest feeling. The adrenaline rush is like no other.”

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Page is fully aware of the niche nature of his trade, and recognizes the “trailer trash, male soap opera” stigma surrounding the culture, but despite this, still fully believes in the art of professional wrestling.

“Someone could land in your lap. Someone could get their tooth knocked out and you can catch it. It’s unlike any other form of entertainment. You won’t see that at a play; it’s all fake. Professional wrestling is something you can touch and it can touch you too.”

Photo Credit: Daniel Arauz

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