Torrents of rain delay the arrival of Corporal Punishment, the current UCW champ, and Eli Black. Despite the setback, I watch the shooting of five matches today, two of them championship matches. Michael, aka BodySlam, asks me to conduct a series of on-camera interviews with the wrestlers as on-site promos, to be uploaded at intervals in the near future. I am a writer, not an on-camera interviewer, neither photogenic nor silver-tongued and quick of speech. I know I have the nerve to get through this task if not the charisma to excel at it, but the idea of watching and hearing myself on video is not a happy one for me. But UCW was the first wrestling site to agree to an interview for this blog, almost three years ago, so how can I refuse?
Joker rails at me over my use of big words like "persevere." I forget the question and its context, so I can't remember who or what was supposed to be persevering. In person Joker confirms a suspicion I had about him while watching him in matches. He's a lot smarter (and wilier and wiser) than he likes to let on. This is not to say that what you see in the matches is put on. The man is 100% Joker 100% of the time. He takes all kinds of crazy risks and freely submits himself to a variety of humiliations for the sake of wrestling or just a good laugh, but he is no dupe. He is sharp, quick-witted, and uncensored, which makes him a fascinating person to watch on screen and in person.
I ask Twisted Torment about his life story. Conceived at a wrestling show and very nearly born at another one, Twisted grew up with wrestling, then jumped on some freight trains to follow his dream. He speaks of UCW with respect, bordering on reverence. He says it's the sort of company (and "home") he's dreamt of since age six. His vast knowledge of wrestling holds amazes me. He not only rattles off the names of a variety of holds but then also cites three or four specific examples of wrestlers and matches that have employed each hold. The guy knows his wrestling. Most of the lingo flies right past me, but I am definitely impressed.
Angel Estrada, Joker's sidekick and nemesis, offers no explanation for his sporadic and infrequent appearances at UCW. Both he and Joker wrestle in shows in the Milwaukee area, and both are closely associated with the company from its early days. I ask him about the pro wrestlers he most admires (heels, predictably) and his own love for hurting guys. Like Joker, Angel is savvy and quick witted, endlessly inventive on the mat as both a tormentor and a funny man. His reputation as a "heartthrob" is well earned, apparently--a real ladies' man. He spreads the love around. He is very at ease with his sexuality. The homoerotic implications of his work at UCW or, for that matter, in all pro wrestling do not faze him. In fact, he takes the erotic aspects of wrestling over the top. Often way, way, way over the top.
I interview Axel and BodySlam individually and together. Having interviewed them both almost three years ago, when the company as we know it now was new, and staying in fairly close touch ever since, I'm on more familiar ground with these two guys. Axel has just assumed new responsibilities, taking on a bigger chunk of the company's day-to-day operations (as I witnessed firsthand over the previous twenty-four hours). Officially today he becomes co-owner of UCW-Wrestling, a big deal and a big step for the recent college graduate. But given his experience and temperament, he's a logical pick to take on some of the challenges of running the company. Both he and BodySlam resent many fans' assumptions that their relationship is something other than professional and genial. Despite the sexual banter and innuendo on near-constant supply at the company and everybody's willingness to play to the tastes of wrestling fetishists, BodySlam treats his wrestlers like family, warmly and protectively, but a lot of fans want to see their fantasies as reality, sometimes egged on by specious reports from disgruntled ex-wrestlers who want to lash out at the company. What are you going to do?
Of everyone I am interviewing, Corporal Punishment, UCW's current champion, is the least familiar to me. On camera, he is brusque and commanding, befitting his persona. Off camera, he confides that he needs to blog more and create more buzz for the title and belt he holds. The man behind the military gimmick is, in reality, a veteran of the US war in Iraq, trained in Marine combat. He joined the ranks of UCW while it was located briefly (for ten months) in Maryland. He says he was drawn to the company through a call for wrestling talent on craigslist. What he found out about the company was "scary," because it was willing to pay him for precisely the "kind of shit" he used to get in trouble for doing: playing rough and rowdy and loose with the rules. After he found out about UCW, nothing could keep him from becoming a part of it.
Eli Black has a more mesmerizing aura in person than he does on video, which is saying quite a lot. Even in repose, he radiates star appeal, even when he's doing nothing. When he isn't wrestling, he quietly texts on his cellphone. I tell him I'm a fan, and he asks me which match is my favorite. I go blank, but answer, truthfully, "Pretty much whichever one I have watched most recently." In the interview, he is a punk, arrogant and contemptuous of the competition at UCW, although he praises the company's rude, raw style and the creative liberties it allows its wrestlers. I'm pretty certain he is not at first aware that I am this blogger guy who dissed him once (or twice), but I sense a slight change in his demeanor as we talk on camera. Maybe that's when he puts two and two together. After the interview I overhear him asking BodySlam whether I can "take a bump." Clearly here's a guy who doesn't know thing one about respect. One day somebody is going to knock that ego down a notch or two.
A good three quarters of the matches I'm watching live this weekend are the best things out of UCW ever. Today's lineup features two championship bouts, a three-way elimination, and some of the most energetic and intense matches I have seen anywhere. Amazingly, Eli fights three long, grueling matches in a row, with hardly a pause for three hours, and barely breaks a sweat. His bout with Joker starts off as an on-camera verbal contest and escalates to a fast and violent altercation that brings new meaning to the word "gut-busting." I have a hard time keeping myself from laughing out loud as the zingers and fists fly.
After a full day of shooting, there's a cookout: burgers and brats on the grill. BodySlam imported the bratwurst from Wisconsin (UCW's birthplace), slowly boiling the sausages in water, beer, and garlic before grilling them over charcoal. The wrestlers give me an official UCW hat and T-shirt. They sign the front of the shirt for me, promising to get signatures from some of the other wrestlers who could not be there today and then mail it to me later.
As we eat, I get a few minutes alone with BodySlam off camera, and we talk about some of the unique challenges of being a gay (or bisexual) fan of wrestling. Wrestling is fringe in the straight and gay worlds alike. I used to be afraid that my love of watching men in tiny tight trunks, greasy with sweat, would give me away as gay. When I came out, after decades finally at ease in my gay skin, wrestling seemed "too straight," not gay enough. Only recently have I been able to merge my gay identity with my fanaticism for wrestling, transcending the categories without living in denial of one or the other. BodySlam and I agree, though, that it's difficult to find a boyfriend who's gay and into wrestling, or who will at least take our interest in wrestling seriously. And a large number of gay men cannot distinguish wrestling from sex at all, assuming that just because two guys enjoy wrestling each other, they must be into each other too.
Soon enough, we're joined by Angel, Joker, and Corporal Punishment, and the discussion broadens to include the challenges straight wrestlers face with their women. It's hard enough to find a woman who will give a guy space to pursue his wrestling interests, harder still to find one who loves wrestling too. More often than not, women feel jealous of wrestlers' devotion to wrestling and their fellow wrestlers. Some turn bizarrely, even insanely jealous. It's normal that women want devoted males whose whole being is fulfilled in a relationship with just one special woman. Angel blames the entertainment media for presenting a false notion of what a relationship ought to be. It's not all about The Notebook, after all. The hours of training, in addition to the shows themselves, steal quality "me-time" away from girlfriends, and it's easy for them to come to resent that fact. Sometimes a concern for the man's safety and well-being is, in reality, animosity towards a sport that pulls the man more into a male-centered zone, free of chick flicks, domesticity, and emotional exclusivity, a place where the woman has less influence and control.
Later in the evening, I talk with Joker about his wrestling image. I ask him whether he's a heel or a face. He calls himself a neutral because he likes both flying off the ring ropes and being mean. He explains that heels seldom are high flyers because impressive aerial spots usually make crowds cheer, and a heel doesn't want the crowd to like him. When you see a heel do something fancy off the top ropes, he tells me, he almost invariably follows it with a cowardly retreat or a cheap shot against the babyface, thus lessening the impressiveness of the maneuver.
Round midnight, despite plans for a game of Monopoly, the talk is still about wrestling. Joker, Axel, and Angel laugh about some of the more difficult custom matches they have done. These matches ordinarily involve wrestling combined with specific other fetishes, like choking or foot worship. The hardest requests to fill are the ones that are hyper-specific, involving scripted dialogue and, in some cases, precise timing ("at 01:12 you should armbar the guy, and then at 1:38 you need to ..."). The better matches, the ones that might have broader audience appeal, are available to the public for a reasonable charge, but you have to request a list of the matches currently on hand.
My one full day at the UCW homebase is over. I go back to North Carolina tomorrow. This has been so far the best day of the year for me, even better than my birthday, which usually is hard to compete with. I like to think that I'm inaugurating lifelong friendships here. These guys are terrific, both on the mat and off. I like the easy jibes and over-the-top boasting. Their affection for each other and for wrestling is infectious. Some of these guys come from hard times--horrific times, in fact--but they have big dreams and lots of talent. They remind me of the GIs I grew up around, as an only child in a military family. More often than not, we lived on base, where I constantly observed fit and playful men banter and tussle all around me. I wanted to be like them, and it's guys like them that I'm still drawn to, all these years later. (To be continued.)
|Punishment, Joe, and Eli|
|Angel shows off Punishment's handprint on his back|
|Eli and BodySlam before Eli's match with Joker|
|Joker wearing the vomit bucket before his match with Eli|