Rumble in the West

Alicia Elliott

Sarah Palmer

Kipling | Horner

from WEP's

Alicia Elliott joins the crowd at an all-women card in a community hall in deep Etobicoke to see how independent wrestling promoters are rewriting the story of the sport

A black-clad woman crouches in the corner of the squared circle and stares straight ahead, scowling, each hand reaching up to clutch one of the thick, black ropes on either side of her. Her lips are black, her hair is green, but the light makes everything look varying shades of red. This is no horror movie villain. This is Samantha Heights, a 28-year-old professional wrestler from Cincinnati, Ohio, waiting for her chance to prove herself in Smash Wrestling’s CANUSA Classic, the biggest women’s wrestling show in Canada. This year, the tournament is taking place at the Franklin Horner Community Centre in Etobicoke, the same place Smash got its start. 

The crowd around Heights bursts into applause – but not for her. They’re cheering for the woman who just emerged from behind the curtain: Jewells Malone. Wearing a Team Canada hockey sweater, red fishnets and a black mask shot through with metal spikes that covers almost her entire face, she resembles a Canadian punk rock ninja. In one hand she holds aloft a Canadian flag attached to a barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat.

Malone, a homegrown talent from Scarborough, soaks in the love – until she gets attacked from behind by Heights on her way to the ring. The crowd screams their outrage as the two slam one another into the mat, suplexing and chopping one another a few feet from the first row of fans. Malone jumps from the ring to the floor, catching Heights in a flying DDT that sends her crumpling to the ground as the audience leaps to their feet.

And the match hasn’t even officially started yet.

Professional wrestling has always been treated as a low-brow form of entertainment – a sort of tacky, campy mix of violence, bodybuilding, gymnastics and dance. What those who dismiss it often miss, though, is what its primary goal has always been: storytelling. Every match at its heart tells a story. There is a “baby face,” or good guy, and a “heel,” or bad guy, and what they choreograph and improvise in the ring is usually a variation on the oldest story ever told: the battle between good and evil. 

“Essentially, that first match is the first chapter,” explains Sebastian Dastranj. He knows professional wrestling from every angle. He’s been a fan, a wrestler (his in-ring name is “Sebastian Suave”), and he’s currently Smash Wrestling’s promoter and booker. His desire to tell the stories he wanted to tell is what led him to found Toronto’s Smash Wrestling in August 2012.  

Five years in, he knows the narrative rules well. “You can’t give it all away at the get-go. You have to create intrigue. I equate it to when you watch a TV show. At the end of that show there’s a sudden hook, and if a TV show has 12 episodes in a season, you’ll literally have 12 hooks… You’re giving away small reveals. It’s the same thing if you have a feud in wrestling.”

Of course, not every wrestling match unfurls a long-running story. In tournaments such as the CANUSA Classic, there are dream-match scenarios, where two talented wrestlers are meeting up for the first time.

“If you have those one-offs, neither opponent wants to lose that match,” says Dastranj. “You can tell a story within that. A story of different styles clashing. The high-flyer versus the strongman. The good guy versus the villain. The old-timer versus the rookie. The passing of the torch. Former friends…” The list goes on .

The story that Malone and Heights are telling might begin and end over the course of one match, but when Heights attacks Malone before she even gets in the ring, audiences immediately know who to root for and against. That one action tells you everything you need to know about Heights, the heel, and sets up hometown hero Malone as the perfect underdog baby face, who now needs to work twice as hard to overcome Heights’ unfair advantage. This is deft storytelling, not a moment – or submission hold – wasted. 

Toronto has had a long, tempestuous love affair with professional wrestling.

The town’s biggest promotion was originally known as the Queensbury Athletic Club, launched in 1930 by boxing promoter Jack Corcoran, who started out by booking smaller wrestling shows in Massey Hall. However, the promotion quickly grew in size and reputation when Corcoran struck a deal with the soon-to-be-built Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931. This meant that on nights when hockey or boxing wasn’t filling the arena, Corcoran would be able to fill it with wrestling. And sure enough, only seven days after the legendary arena’s opening night, Corcoran managed to draw nearly 16,000 to the venue. From that point on, live pro wrestling became one of the entertainment staples of the Gardens, and Toronto as a whole. 

When Corcoran fell ill in 1939, his assistants Frank and John Tunney bought him out and took over the promotion, which later became known as Maple Leaf Wrestling. Frank Tunney became one of the most influential and respected promoters in wrestling history, regularly drawing crowds of more than 10,000 to the Gardens across six decades. Over the years, he made wrestlers like Whipper Billy Watson, The Sheik, Tiger Jeet Singh and Dino Bravo into major Toronto heroes – or villains, as the case may be. He also brought in curiosities like Terrible Ted the Wrestling Bear, a black bear adopted and trained by Dave McKigney after the carnival he performed in went bankrupt.

Because the action mostly took place within the ring, wrestling was incredibly easy to light and film, making it an important part of early television. Matches filmed at the Gardens were usually aired the week after on CBC, giving the promotion and its stars even more exposure. And since Tunney partnered with the National Wrestling Association (NWA), he could bring huge international stars like Lou Thesz, André the Giant and Ric Flair in to wrestle his local attractions. Toronto became an important wrestling territory, hosting approximately 200 World title matches at a time when winning a wrestling championship was a newsworthy accomplishment. 

Interestingly, Boxing Day matches became something of a Toronto tradition. By 1970, after a Dec. 27 show featuring The Sheik brought in 16,000 fans, Toronto Star reporter Allen Ryan wrote, “Considering last night’s turnout, it would seem that a pair of wrestling tickets has replaced the traditional oranges and walnuts as stocking stuffers this Christmas.” Boxing Day shows or “Holiday Shows,” which were usually on Dec. 27 or 28, ran at the Gardens until 1983 – the year Frank Tunney died.

After that, Frank’s nephew Jack Tunney decided to partner with Vincent McMahon Jr. and his promotion, WWF. This union signalled the beginning of the end for many Canadian promotions, most notably the legendary Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling in Calgary, as Tunney used his knowledge of the Canadian market to help McMahon expand into the country and squash any competition. At first, Tunney and McMahon continued to use the “Maple Leaf Wrestling” name by creating a WWF program marketed specifically to Canadians, filming in Brantford and other Southern Ontario cities, but by 1986 they ceased all Canadian tapings and began airing episodes of the WWF’s normal American product, leaving most local stars and talent out of work. However, despite the collapse of the local wrestling scene, Toronto was  still a wrestling city, as 74,000 fans proved when they showed up to the WWF’s Big Event at the CNE in 1986 to watch Hulk Hogan wrestle Paul Orndorff, setting what was then an all-time attendance record for pro wrestling. Unfortunately, in 1995, the relationship between Tunney and McMahon fell apart. Tunney retained exclusive rights to promote wrestling at the Gardens, meaning WWF was left without use of their main venue in the city. Since Tunney himself stopped promoting, this move effectively killed wrestling in Toronto, leaving a sizeable hole in a city that was once considered the heart of Canadian wrestling.

Nowadays, local Canadian promotions like Smash, headquartered in Toronto, are starting to pick up where Maple Leaf Wrestling left off. This May, they partnered with Lucha Underground to hold a show at Lee’s Palace. They’ve also partnered with U.K. promotions, and branched out to hosting shows in Montreal. Most impressively, they’ve reached a deal with cable TV’s Fight Network to air their show on prime time, directly after Impact! As part of the deal, they’re allowed to bring in Impact stars to work their shows – a smart move that brings to mind the promotional savvy of Frank Tunney.

“We’re a Canadian company, and we’re an independent company,” says Dastranj. “So if there are perceived expectations of what a glass ceiling is for Canadian or independent [wrestling] companies, we’d like to break those barriers.” 

Yes, professional wrestling is predetermined or, as some prefer to more condescendingly describe it, “fake.” But I’ve personally never understood why this makes it any less valuable. We all watch plays, movies and TV shows that are “fake,” read books that are “fake,” listen to songs whose lyrics may be “fake.” But the fact that these art forms are carefully constructed and planned doesn’t change the fact that they move us. 

When the storytelling is good, and the wrestling seamless, you forget that anything is predetermined. You’re surprised, outraged, emotional. Every time I watch the Sasha Banks vs. Bayley match, which took place at NXT: Takeover Brooklyn in 2015, I’m red-faced and teary by the time Bayley, the ultimate underdog, has her hand raised in victory at the end. That is the power of storytelling.

In Canadian wrestler Bret Hart’s autobiography Hitman, he writes, “To me there is something beautiful about a brotherhood of big, tough men who only pretend to hurt one another for a living instead of actually doing it.” The fact that wrestlers are men and women whose ultimate goal is to protect one another during a match instead of merely protecting themselves makes pro wrestling a more selfless sport or art form than most other fight-based athletics – a fact that is rarely acknowledged by its critics. Hart wrote that one of his proudest accomplishments in his career was never seriously injuring any of his hundreds of opponents. 

When considering the power of pro wrestling, it’s impossible to ignore the way it reflects the social issues and tensions of the times. For example, Fritz Von Erich was billed as an evil German villain in the 1950s, a time when anti-Nazi sentiment was rampant. Meanwhile, during the Cold War tension of the late ’60s, The Russian Bear (Ivan Koloff) was one of the sport’s biggest heels.

Because wrestling reflects the world around it, racism, sexism and homophobia have all featured prominently in the ring at some point or another. If you’ve seen the new Netflix TV show GLOW, which is based on the real-life all-women wrestling promotion in the ’80s called “Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling,” you’ve seen this dramatized. In one episode, the promoter tells Tammé Dawson, played by Black actress Kia Stevens (also known as the legendary wrestler Awesome Kong), that her character is going to be a welfare queen who their racist white audience will instantly hate. This sort of typecasting was hardly an anomaly: Native American wrestlers were given huge headdresses to wear, regardless of whether their tribes actually traditionally wore headdresses; Latino men were riding lawn mowers or fighting over pinatas; Black men were cast as pimps, tribal headhunters, or just straight-up slaves, wearing burlap sacks and led to the ring in chains. Luckily, the talent and crossover appeal of Black wrestlers such as the members of the three-man group The New Day and Samoan wrestlers like The Usos have helped the WWE move away from that type of booking, but it’s far from a solved problem. 

As for wrestling’s treatment of women, there were few women wrestlers featured during Maple Leaf Wrestling’s 60-year reign. In the late ’90s, the WWF made their female wrestlers compete in bra-and-panties matches and featured storylines where male wrestlers kidnapped and raped women on their roster. The decision to push female wrestlers as “Divas” and hire female models instead of actual wrestlers crippled their division for years. It took independent, all-female promotions like the Chicago-based Shimmer to make wrestling fans sit up and take notice of the talent of female wrestlers. Only in the past two years has WWE caught up, finally giving women wrestlers more than the five-minute matches that fans had considered “piss breaks.” In 2016, WWE changed the name of their Divas title to back to the Women’s title, symbolically distancing itself from its misogynistic past.

That is, pro wrestling is keeping up with the times, becoming more progressive and inclusive.

“In wrestling today, you see a lot of promotions being very open, talking about how [wrestling is] for everybody,” says Dastranj. “Every fan is welcome. We always speak about how we don’t tolerate hatred. Come here, be yourself, be loud, be obnoxious to some extent if you want, but don’t ruin other people’s experiences. Don’t throw hate speech at other fans or at the wrestlers.”

This extends to the business of wrestling, too: “Nowadays wrestling companies are evolved… to project social issues in a more intelligent way.”

So what are the stories wrestling is telling now? With Heights and Malone at the CANUSA Classic, the story was America versus Canada. Was Heights, a dirty cheater who didn’t care about the rules as long as she won, representative of Trump’s America? What are we to make of the fact that baby faces can now use heel tricks, or heels can be perceived as faces, or that it’s increasingly common to see face-vs.-face or heel-vs.-heel matches? It’s an indication of the moral complexity of our times: in which an American President can be an accused rapist, failed businessman, reality TV star and racist. In which community leaders trying to make a difference, like Colin Kaepernick in the States, or Desmond Cole and members of Black Lives Matter and Idle No More here in Canada, can be forced out of their jobs and criminalized. Who wouldn’t be anxious to see how it all plays out?

Back in the ring, at the end of a hard-fought battle, Malone stands victorious, waving the Canadian flag on her barbed-wire bat to wild applause. It’s times like this that I prefer the seeming simplicity of wrestling to the harsh messiness of reality. If only people could be so easily divided into heels and faces. If only evil could be overcome in a matter of minutes. All it would take was to keep its shoulders down for a three-count. One. Two. Three.


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