An Artist Debuts

This past weekend was an absolute whirlwind of wrestling for me. It was my first time making the trip to see two separate promotions in two separate cities on back to back days. If you’re interested in checking out NOVA Pro’s NOVA Project 2 pre-show, that’s up here on the Facelock Feministas YouTube channel. If you caught Chikara’s The Black Goodbye either live or on Facebook, just know I’m going to do a blog post about that later on in the week.

My friend Kate (who most of you know as MakeItLoud on Twitter, and from her fabulous RAW Breakdown Project) and I have had plenty of time lately with all of the long car rides we’ve been taking to discuss wrestling at great lengths. We’ve talked about bookings, about promotions, about storytelling, about women as wrestlers, creatives, and fans. But the topic we seem to keep returning to is the unique relationship between the performers themselves and the fanbase. In wrestling, the way we as fans interact with promotions and wrestlers is unlike the way the fans of just about anything else interact with the things they are a fan of. Not only are these individuals and companies available to us through social media and video productions that are widely accessible, but also through live and in-person performances and interactions. Many fans feel a connection with specific promotions or performers, and while most often that manifests itself in terms of admiration, some cool fan art, and really wild cheers at live shows, it can also contort into a sense of entitlement and ownership.

Spoiler alert: I don’t know any wrestlers personally. You could argue my most direct connection to any wrestler is through attendance at the NOVA Pro shows and through doing the podcast. I don’t know anything about these people’s personal lives and we don’t socialize outside of that environment. I am just a fan. But I feel a deep sense of pride in them when they achieve something within this industry – even without titles or tournaments. When they have a particularly stupendous match and you can see it on their face afterwards how proud they are, it’s infectious.

I’m a lady with a blog and a podcast. I like to discuss the performance aspect of wrestling (see also: my Facelock Feministas review of the Weapons of Mass Destruction match on Lucha Underground.) I like to discuss the gender biases within the industry and within the fanbase (see also: the #PWGrrrlGang.) I also like to have fun, which is why – if you are a wrestler – there is a chance you’ve heard me talking about your butt on Twitter. Sorry. (#NotSorry) I am deeply appreciative of the fact that the first (and hopefully only) person who has called me out on this in person is Cedric Alexander.

I’ve seen Cedric Alexander perform live in three different promotions now: I saw him at AAW in Chicago back in June, I saw him wrestle at Chikara’s King of Trios earlier this month, and for the better part of this summer, Cedric was appearing at the monthly NOVA pro shows, wrestling our own fan favorites as well as outside talent, like Shane Strickland. Cedric never once had a bad match with anyone. Cedric’s style, his presence both in the ring and outside of it, and his willingness to interact with fans whether they are lining up for an autograph and photo or yelling Kota Ibushi’s name at him while he’s wrestling, paint a picture of someone who is truly dedicated to his art form. That’s the best way I can describe Cedric: he’s an artist.

When he was announced as being a part of the Cruiserweight Classic, it was natural for me to cheer for him. Before a single episode had aired, none of us were 100% sure what the outcome would be – not only who would win, but what the prize would be. I had hope that Cedric would do well, whatever the bigger picture might have in store for all of the participants. So to then discover that while he did not win the tournament outright, that he WOULD be debuting today, September 19th, on Monday Night RAW as part of the new Cruiserweight division made me incredibly proud. Not all wrestlers have the same goals or aspirations, but we as their fans and supporters hope that they make their craft sustainable; we want them to be able to do nothing but wrestle and feed their families through their art. We know that for many of them, working with WWE is not only a childhood dream, but the place where money and wrestling come together to create that sustainability.

From my tiny place within this giant industry, all I can hope is that hardworking individuals who genuinely love their fans and want to create a body of beautiful work with a variety of opponents are the people who reap the rewards. The current list of cruiserweights making up this new division is quite diverse – the styles and background of each competitor speak for themselves – but I feel strongly that Cedric will rise as a leader among them. I look forward to what their division will bring as a whole to RAW, and who they may inspire to pursue a career in wrestling. They have also left a sizable hole in the independent scene, and I eagerly anticipate who will fill the space they’ve left behind. (I’ll also be keeping an eye out for the new best booty of the indies, of course. Don’t think I’ve totally turned into a mush.)

It is hard to be a wrestling fan a lot of the time. It’s an expensive fandom to exist in where your heart will be broken, bad decisions will be made, other fans will make you crazy, and people you care deeply for will get injured. You can often feel like a tiny, unheard voice shouting amidst a sea of other opinionated characters, with just as much passion or fervor as the next person, but no one to listen. Sometimes the nonsense that goes on will make you want to walk away from the whole thing. Kate & I have joked we should make a shirt that says “Your fave is problematic and your fave is pro wrestling.”

I’m so very proud to say my favorite isn’t problematic.

Mine is Cedric Alexander.

– The Lady J Says

 

 

 

The Tale of Two Districts

The school district on Long Island that I attended from first grade through senior year of high school was huge. It’s one of New York State’s largest, not only in number of enrolled students, which currently exceeds 15,000, but it’s also sprawling in terms of square miles. When I was still very young, the district set about redrawing the borders of the areas that fed into our twelve elementary schools to accommodate what was considered an influx of school children in our area. To prevent one school, for example, from ending up with class sizes close to forty while another had classes with only 15 students, they shuffled everyone around. This meant that when I was 9, I lost half of my classmates to other schools, and started fourth grade with a classroom full of unfamiliar faces.

Then in sixth grade, the district voted to make even larger changes: they were going to build a second high school and a fourth middle school. This meant we ended up with double of everything: sports teams, music groups, extra curricular clubs, etc. Everyone in the district predicted we’d eventually fully split in half (as it is, half of the students never meet the other half.) At some point it would become clear that the newer houses with the wealthier families were feeding into one high school and wouldn’t want to pay taxes to the other school where the lower income families lived.

I couldn’t help but see the similarity of my old public school district with what is currently happening in WWE. It seemed entirely sensible that as the roster grew, not just the main roster but the NXT roster as well, it was necessary to accommodate that by creating more unique screen time opportunities to the performers. What better way to do that than to separate the two programs of Monday Night RAW and SmackDown Live into independent programs with entirely separate rosters. Now there were more chances for each wrestler to  actually perform for the WWE Universe, both live and at home.

What this split, at first, was lacking in was the ultimate goal any wrestling promotion needs to move the action along: something worth fighting for. Storylines regularly can create motivation for wrestlers, but in the end it is the promise of being a champion that drives everyone. Immediately after the draft occurred we were presented with the following issues: the tag teams and female wrestlers on the SmackDown Live roster did not have a title to compete for, and the men on Monday Night RAW did not have a major title to set their sights on.

The day after Battleground, Mick Foley and Stephanie McMahon announced Monday Night RAW would have it’s own major title, the Universal Championship, which was crowned at SummerSlam in August. This past Sunday at BackLash, the first SmackDown Live exclusive pay-per-view post-brand split, a new Women’s Champion and Tag Team Champions for the Tuesday night program were crowned. With the coming of the Cruiserweight Division to RAW in the next few weeks (and what is a new division without its own title?) it is likely that WWE will have two major brands, with a combined roster of 86 performers and nine titles. NINE TITLES.

A lot of arguments were made before the WWE draft happened about the benefits of dividing the roster up in a myriad of ways, not the least of which was having certain divisions, like the women or the tag teams, being exclusive to one program. It was clear, though, when the rules of the draft were released that the rosters would essentially be mirror images of one another. For the first few weeks this felt fine, but now that there are an equal number of titles on each program, it feels like an exact replica of my school district.

The rosters, at this moment, really are still carbon copies of one another: two serious, strong willed women divisions with ex-NXT stars as champs; two tag team divisions based in being the comedy act of the roster with violent heels challenging for the titles; mid-card men’s singles titles held by individuals with pretty blonde wives who’ve held other titles and are not in their first reign, turning previously silly storylines into vicious battles; and two ex-Shield babyface/tweeners who have been cheated out of their main titles by indie sweethearts and are now looking for redemption or revenge.

Of course, the stories aren’t EXACTLY the same, and there is something or someone worth watching on both programs. However, two problems immediately jump out. First of all, the limited rosters per division mean the potential for recycled storylines or never-ending feuds between performers. Second, what is the value of one championship when another just like it exists somewhere else? What do I mean by this? Well, let’s look at the tag divisions.

Currently, the RAW tag champions are The New Day, and the longest reigning tag champions for that particular belt (previously the WWE World Tag Team Championship which was, ironically, developed for the SmackDown roster in 2002.) Alongside Big E, Kofi Kingston, and Xavier Woods are only 4 other tag teams: Enzo Amore and Big Cass, Epico and Primo of the Shining Stars, Goldust and R-Truth of the Golden Truth, and Karl Anderson and Luke Gallows. Meanwhile, on SmackDown, the newly-crowned champions of Heath Slater and Rhyno have 6 potential opponents to face: Aiden English and Simon Gotch of the Vaudevillains, Chad Gable and Jason Jordan of American Alpha, Fandango and Tyler Breeze of Breezango, Jimmy and Jey Uso, Konnor and Viktor of the Ascension, and Zack Ryder and Mojo Rawley of the Hype Bros. Keeping this in mind, why wouldn’t it be in, say, The Hype Bros best interest to ask to be released from SmackDown in order to hedge their bets at RAW? Or if Anderson and Gallows find that being outnumbered by the New Day to be unfavorable, why not just roll into SmackDown and take the tag titles from Slater and Rhyno?

Also of note: the way the talent was distributed between the two promotions. Arguably all of the tag teams on the SmackDown roster have elevated their division and have found success in getting over with the crowd, with perhaps the Ascension being the only exception. On RAW, New Day, Anderson and Gallows, and Enzo and Cass leave Golden Truth and the Shining Stars in the dust in terms of being over. With such a small division, you’d expect them all to be over, or at least at the same level, instead of there being such inequality with the crowd. Considering all of this, it’s easy to see the brand new SmackDown titles as the more important ones, even though RAW‘s titles have more history, because there’s more talent, more general popularity, and more potential for diversity in booking.

Now, if WWE had decided to keep their WWE World Heavyweight championship on RAW, maybe alongside the tag titles and the incoming Cruiserweight division, while elevating the IC title on SmackDown with the US title and the entire women’s division, there would still be something for every viewer on both programs, but no need to create new titles (except, as previously stated, one for the cruiserweight.) Then, between 86 individuals there would only be 6 titles – a far better ratio, in my opinion. Also, having one title per division means there is a best – there is one goal. All of the women fight for one title. All of the tag teams fight for one title.

There’s some things I didn’t mention in my comparison between WWE and my school district. First of all, both high schools compete as if they are in their own district. Any time there is cause for competition – whether it be in sports, test scores, music competitions – the schools are going head-to-head. But to the outside world, they are still one district, and as such a win for one is a win for the whole district. The difference here is that WWE isn’t in competition with other companies, not really anyway. While many other wrestling promotions have found successes for themselves and wrestling as an industry becomes popular again with mass markets, no one is functioning at WWE’s level. That could be a good reason to pit two version of the main roster against one another, but not if they rarely face off, and have enough titles on each program to basically be self-sufficient.

I also didn’t mention that in the time leading up to my generation’s influx of children in that area, the district was working on paring down their expenses, because there was less of a need. Not too long ago, WWE was spending a lot of time unifying titles and cleaning up the remnants of a time when there were two rosters, or competing companies with rival titles. Also, some [redacted] years since my graduation, the tide has turned again. The district has closed down two elementary schools and that middle school they built during my time there. As much as WWE’s roster split is fitting for the massive roster they are currently sporting, it is only a matter of time before that changes, too. It will likely be years before we see the WWE roster shrink enough to warrant a move away from two unique programs, but that possibility still exists in the future, at some unpredictable time. Then what?

There’s one major issue with the two rosters that can’t be drawn in parallel to anything else, though, and that is the sheer volume of wrestling content that exists in the world right now. Most large promotions have some sort of online or DVD components now so you can check out what they’re doing, regardless of where in the world you are. Live in Texas but want to check out Chikara? No worries. Live in the UK but want to see BOLA? Not a problem. When we step back and look at how the industry is absolutely flooded with content, it becomes hard to motivate yourself to check out a second night of WWE doing the same basic thing. If the rosters had unique divisions, that would be a good incentive to tune in on Tuesday – to see the Women, or the Tag Teams, or the Cruiserweights. But to see a carbon copy of the way WWE books shows, just with different wrestlers…that’s not motivation to do anything except be anywhere but my couch on Tuesday nights.

I think it’s human nature to try to solve the problems that exist before us without worrying too much about what is coming down the pike or how our problem fits into a greater, global community. If we do, it’s easy to become totally overwhelmed by the prospect of every possible outcome. However, a lack of foresight cannot be considered a virtue when the realities of single-mindedness are standing right in front of you  – back to back on Mondays and Tuesdays.

– The Lady J Says

 

 

The Storyteller

 

The wrestling hangover I suffered from post-King of Trios was a doozy. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that burnt out after a show before. Granted, it as 3 days of incredible wrestling coupled with the discovery of a promotion fairly close to where I live that expertly utilizes all of the aspects of wrestling that I adore: theatrics, linear storytelling, complex characters, and a suspension of disbelief. Never having spent quite so much time immersed in the pro wrestling community, I think I left with more questions than I entered, so I tried to sum it all up and ask Twitter for some thoughts. One response in particular stuck out:

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The front row was still too far away.

That blew my mind. I know that feeling.

This is not to say I want to be a wrestler. I can’t possibly stress enough that I don’t want to be a wrestler. Besides my confidence that my body would never withstand the things a wrestler must do, I also suffer from enough anxiety that my own fears about injuring whoever I got in there with would almost certainly come true. If I got hurt, that would suck. If I hurt someone else, I would be inconsolable. This is not the job for me.

I’m a storyteller. I have an overactive imagination that can outrun my own speech. I dream up things faster than I can put words to breath or pen to paper. My brain never shuts off, not even when I’m sleeping (see above mention of anxiety). My computer is full of half-baked notes and voice memos about characters and backstories, about plot lines and connective tissue; more of it than I could ever use in a lifetime, and more of it is being born every minute. This can make me awkward to encounter in person; I’m either going a mile a minute, or I’m quiet because my mind’s gone into overdrive and I’m hopelessly trying to retain even an ounce of whatever’s being created.

Being a fan of Lucha Underground has been incredible for me because it gives me something to focus on. I enjoy doing the Facelock Feministas podcast because I can take notes on the show and refer back to previous episodes, and know that there’s a definite amount of time before my hypothesis and questions are answered. I appreciate the interaction with the people both behind the scenes and the wrestlers themselves. But I have never been to The Temple in California, and with my wretched fear of flying, I may never get there. Attending Chikara’s King of Trios event last weekend sent my mind into a tailspin of ideas. Then someone posted a link to the history of the promotion and all of its characters and storylines. Now I’m in it.

I love the word “Nazmaldun”. I love the Hexed Men’s entrance music. I love Ophidian’s mask and Thunder Frog’s hammer. I love The Colony and all of their individual stories. I love how Cedric Alexander, Johnny Gargano, and Drew Gulak played to the story of them being “Team CWC”. I know there are many, many people like me who have a lightbulb go on in their heads when they see something like Chikara or Lucha Underground, the same way some people are inspired by reading Tolkien or seeing the musical Hamilton. If you can take that inspiration and channel it into your own work, that’s incredible. I’m sure some people would say, “well, J, why don’t you write fan fiction, or just write short stories inspired by the stuff you see at wrestling shows?” I could do that. But then the only way for an audience to consume that art is to read it. When I watch wrestling programs with intricate, deep storylines and characters, they are performance based and they inspire me to create art in the same forum. When I watch wrestling, I don’t think “I want to write stories that feel like that.” I think, “I want to help other people tell stories like that.”

I don’t know how I’m perceived by others in this community. I’m not sure it would serve me at all to care. I don’t know if people think I’m some weird superfan (I am), or some aggressive, opinionated feminist sjw (I’m that, too.) I certainly hope people don’t think I’m trolling wrestling shows for a lover, or to get famous. I’m not at a wrestling show to blow someone’s cover or get behind the curtain. Even with kayfabe in this strange limbo stage now, I prefer not to know who is behind a lucha libra mask if I can help it. It doesn’t enhance the experience for me to be “in the know” – unless that knowledge is how the performer has created their character and chosen to tell that character’s story. A discussion on the artform of wrestling and the storytelling that drives it is my idea of a good time.

A few years ago, a friend of mine was doing a project on “creators” and what was at the heart of their art. For me, it was about being an arts facilitator – a storyteller. I like being a writer, and don’t plan on giving up the creative non-fiction I write. But the thing I miss about theater is the interaction with other creators. The minds behind LU and Chikara are just as much arts facilitators. They are less playwrights, as playwrights create a thing that simply is, and will be interpreted differently by every director, actor, lighting designer, and creative team that takes the work on. Those behind a wrestling promotions stories know the character, more often than not, is intrinsically connected to the performer. One character is usually not played by many people, therefore it is a collaboration. A story has to consider the strengths of a performer and what they can bring as that particular character. When a performer moves on, so must a character. There are obviously exceptions, but this is truly the heart of places like Lucha Underground and Chikara – the art of wrestling in these promotions is an immaculately choreographed dance in which we, the audience, never see all of the work that went in, but simply witness the beautiful gliding the performers across the smooth surface of a tight storyline.

Is there a place in the professional wrestling world for a writer, with no aspirations to actually wrestle, to be the storyteller? Can wrestlers trust the foresight of someone whose sole responsibility to the art form is making sure the magic that is laid over the athleticism remain cohesive and untangled? Can this storyteller be a woman? I don’t know what the answer to any of these questions are. I do know that if any of them is “yes”, that’s where you’ll find me. I’ll be banging on the door with a notebook in her hand shouting “let me in – I have a great idea.” Until then, I’ll be the one taking notes in the back of wrestling shows.

The front row is still too far away.

– The Lady J Says

 

For My Mother

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Today is my Mom’s 63rd birthday. Later on, some of my family will be headed over to my parents’ house for cake. But my Mom won’t know why they’re there, or even really who they are, and that’s because my Mom has Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

Many of you already know my story. You know I moved back in with my folks five years ago to become my Mom’s primary caregiver. You also know I made the hardest decision of my life last year when I chose to move on, and give up that duty to my father. I think about my parents every day and still actively support my father in every decision he makes as we navigate the later stages of this horrible disease.

Right now, Alzheimer’s Disease is the 6th leading cause of death in the US, and currently affects over 5 million Americans. Every 66 seconds, someone in the US develops Alzheimer’s disease. The estimate this year for the cost of care for Alzheimer’s and other dementia disease patients is $236 billion. In case you can’t fathom a number like that, it looks like this: $236,000,000,000. As time goes on and the Baby Boomer generation ages, that number, and all of the other statistics surrounding Alzheimer’s and other dementia diseases, will skyrocket.

So today, on my Mom’s birthday, I’m asking for help. Please help my mother and all of patients and families battling this cruel disease. Every year in the fall, the Alzheimer’s Association hosts walk-a-thons all over the country to raise money for Alzheimer’s research, patient and caregiver support, and lobbying right here in our nation’s capitol for federal funding to better treat and hopefully one day cure Alzheimer’s Disease. This year my friend Lauren in New Hampshire, my cousin Kathy in Texas, and my cousin Maria and Uncle Billy in NY are all walking in honor of my wonderful mother. My Dad & I are touched by the outpouring of love and support from our friends and family.

If you can and are inclined to donate, you can do so here. If not, please consider sharing this post. Maybe you will inspire someone you know to walk in their area, maybe on behalf of someone they know affected by this disease.

Thanks to all of the wonderful people I have met over the past two years since I started writing as The Lady J. You have seen me through some very hard times, and I am a very lucky woman to have this community in my life.

Happy birthday, Mom.

Love,

J.