Punk Pro Wrestling and Independent Women

I’ll admit it: it seems my recent blog entry about the All In independent professional wrestling show was inaccurate – I had claimed that the event drew 10,411 spectators to the Sears Center in Chicago, Illinois, which means it would have met its target. I was wrong. It actually attracted 11,263 fans. But I’m making this entry to my blog to follow up on the true legacy of that historic occasion.

It was an incredible landmark for the pro wrestling business. Sean Waltman, former WWE star, admitted, “It was (historic)…I’ve never seen happier customers for anything in years… not just a wrestling show but anything. I’ve never seen more satisfied customers, I’ve never seen a congregation of happier people, happy to be around other people that love what they love and they don’t have to feel foolish about it or whatever, everyone can be proud of being a wrestling fan.” He continued: “I am a huge wrestling fan still, from a wrestling person in the wrestling industry standpoint, it was huge. From a fan’s perspective, it was heaven.” Another former WWE star, “Diamond” Dallas Page, said: “To me, as great as ECW was, and as hot as they were, they weren’t any hotter than the All In crowd and it was was f***ing bigger. That crowd was the hottest crowd I’ve seen since 1997. And in 1997 they were ravenous. Every single person in the building. That’s what it was like at All In.”

Those are both remarkably credible claims when you consider the above are both ex-WWE stars, and both still on good terms with WWE and the people in power there. This means that some of WWE’s closest allies have acknowledged the landmark event that was All In.

Consider further the significance of the event: All In was presented as a direct alternative to WWE and took on a challenge to actually do what no one other than WWE has done in the United States for nearly twenty years: drawn a crowd of more than 10,000 people. But more than this, it was planned, promoted, and produced entirely by the key independent pro wrestlers who came up with the event: namely, Cody Rhodes and the Young Bucks. There are further ramifications of this when you take note of Cody’s narrative in the aftermath of the show:

This resonated with many people even more when WWE decided to go ahead with their scheduled Crown Jewel show in Saudi Arabia in the wake of that regime’s latest atrocity: the high-profile disappearance and apparent murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Of course, the whole point of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s deal with the WWE corporation is to exchange an incredible amount of money in return for, well, essentially propaganda – so, for example, Saudi Arabia, that great abuser of human rights, pay WWE what is conservatively estimated to be $450,000,000 to hold a show there (yes, the host venue is paying the promoter) and in return, WWE instruct their on-screen commentators to rave about what a wonderful country Saudi Arabia is. Usually this is part of the standard public relations approach for a WrestleMania show held in, say, Orlando, Florida, where WWE may receive tax incentives to promote there…but when a terrible regime as notorious as Saudi Arabia buys in WWE for the express purpose of that public relations whitewash, it’s nothing less than propaganda. It’s presenting a perspective of Saudi Arabia to a global audience that does not reflect its reality, but one which happens to have a lot of relationships with American and British business interests.

Sure, women were prohibited from performing in Saudi Arabia so couldn’t appear on the Crown Jewel show even if they’d wanted to, but WWE held its first-ever women’s wrestling Pay-Per-View show, Evolution, within days of Crown Jewel, which of course was purely because WWE are sweethearts who care about women, and nothing at all to do with additional public relations strategies to appease the audience with a token gesture.

Despite mass media attention and unprecedented criticism, even when it looked like WWE had a conscience and might cancel at the eleventh hour, they reminded us that they were solely driven by profits for shareholders, and, yes, went ahead with the show in Saudi Arabia. In an insult to injury, WWE utilised the site to finally re-introduce the racist Hulk Hogan to their storylines. What was this event – a celebration of all things evil? Geez.

Credit, then, to current WWE stars John Cena and Daniel Bryan (long known for his ethics) for refusing to appear on the show (and turning down a handsome cut of the money in the process).

But as I stated at the end of my blog entry about pro wrestling alternatives a few weeks ago, we all have to go further: we have to become part of the solution, not the problem. We have to support alternatives to WWE and it’s up to every one of us to make sure we put the money where our mouth is. In that blog post, I suggested the current independent pro wrestling circuit is like a modern-day National Wrestling Alliance that WWE’s Vince McMahon so hated.

All In represents that movement, as suggested by Cody’s tweet afterwards about performers banding together, another concept hated by the union-busting mentality of Vince McMahon. But Cody’s coming steps in the next few weeks and months will determine just how serious he is about that, and whether or not he can and will put his own money where his mouth is, alongside the Young Bucks (as with any typical capitalist, Vince McMahon wants to buy them, co-opt them, and then in turn attempt to kill any rising tide against his precious business interests, as unethical as they may be).

But as with many corporate mainstream products, there’s a cultural backlash, an alternative presented – and as I mentioned before, the more stale and soulless WWE becomes with its shallow, mass-produced ethically bankrupt brand, in an era where young people are perhaps more progressive and savvy than ever before, the more appealing, and hip, and cool, become the alternatives.

Independent pro wrestler Chuck Taylor summed it up beautifully: “I like punk rock music, and to me WWE is Nickelback. I know they’ve got loads of fans but that’s not cool to me. I want to go to a small venue in south Philadelphia and I want to watch a punk band play in front of 400 people that want to be there, that love it, that love every song. That’s cool to me. I don’t like mass-marketed stuff.” He went on to add: “I think it’s like anything else in wrestling: when it’s bad, it’s really bad. Some of their stuff is borderline unwatchable and that’s coming from a lifelong wrestling fan. But when they do something right with their production and everything else, it’s fantastic. That’s not me kissing their butts trying to get a job because they’d never sign me in a million years.”

I’m pleased to say that – having over the last three decades attended WWF/WWE shows in just three venues (in Newcastle, Manchester, and my own city of Sheffield) – just last night I too had chance to put my money where my mouth is and, here in Sheffield, attended only my second ever independent pro wrestling show, the Queen of the Ring event presented by Southside (the first being a PWA show in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada almost exactly ten years ago).

Queen of the Ring featured women who I’ve followed for so long on social media and constantly marvelled at their characters and moves and matches, kick-ass women like Glaswegian “hardcore daredevil” Kay Lee Ray (who brawled with Millie McKenzie in the crowd, right in our very row!), badass fighter Killer Kelly, tattooed reigning Queen of the Ring Kasey Owens, the hilarious howling Kris Wolf, and vegans Veda Scott and Kimber Lee, with the latter few at various times standing at their own merchandise tables meeting and greeting fans, posing for photos, and selling their very own cool and edgy t-shirts with superb artwork that made you feel like you were part of a punk movement (naturally, one of these merchandise tables would be used as a weapon in the main event, as eventual winner and new Queen of the Ring, Shanna, even with a bloodied nose, slammed the revelatory Millie McKenzie right into it). The fact the show was held in an area of The Corporation nightclub complete with bar and standing area with chanting punters with pints, piercings and hoodies, only added to this punk rock vibe.

A birthday present from my partner Jane Watkinson, seated beside me in the second row, I thoroughly enjoyed this event in a way not felt since I first discovered the unique entertainment presentation that is professional wrestling almost thirty years ago. I felt like a little kid again. You could feel the energy in the event fuelled by promoters who you felt had so much riding on an indie show like this; that energy translated into passion from an audience who wanted to help it succeed; and, of course, that energy was exhibited by these incredibly strong women getting by on their own merits (no men were on the show at all on this night), and the final match was enacted by the two performers as though their lives depended on it (and you could very well, in that moment, believe they were putting their lives on the line with the high-impact intensity of the moves they executed all over the place) – they performed as though they were in front of 10,000 fans or even 100,000 fans, on worldwide television…that’s the effort they put in and the belief that they performed with.

The performers had passion, yes, but, as mentioned, were still approachable; they talked to their fans, like my favourite rock bands did after gigs before they made it big and “sold out.” Yet at the same time, these independent women (pun intended) were in charge of their own lives: freelancers, they arrange their bookings, travel from city to city, and oversee and personally sell their own merchandise. That’s as punk as you can get.

This blend of independent promotion, punk ethic, and empowered women, made me want to catch a Pro Wrestling: EVE show even more when I can get down south to one of their shows. Southside’s Queen of the Ring event not only whetted my appetite for some feminist action, but also confirmed my suspicions: that this down-to-earth personalised pro wrestling offering I preached about in my blog entry on the subject is actually more enjoyable: you feel part of the show in addition to supporting the alternatives. What’s to lose?

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