Inside Indie Wrestling's Garden of Eden

A little slice of wrestling heaven
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Kevin Steen and El Generico at a PWG event

Photo courtesy of Tumblr.

2012's indie wrestling man of the year is, without any doubt, Kevin Steen, a demented Montreal brawler whose reign of terror in Ring of Honor peaked when he won that company's world championship a few months ago. Ring of Honor is the company's widest-reaching and most-storied indie federation, but its greatest competition might be Dragon Gate USA, a Japanese company's domestic offshoot, currently run by the former Ring of Honor head booker Gabe Sapolsky. And DGUSA has its own rough Steen analogue: Sami Callahan, a foul-mouthed, troll-haired psychopath from rural Ohio. Callahan, who leads a bad-guy stable called Dirty Ugly Fucks, isn't DGUSA's champion, but he might be the company's most popular wrestler. (A fellow commentator recently described him as a gutter-punk version of Stone Cold Steve Austin, which seems about right.) He and Steen apparently like each other about as much as you'd expect, and they spent the early part of the year talking Twitter shit about each other, the way all true warriors do. And in April, the two finally ended up face-to-face while working for the California company Pro Wrestling Guerrilla.

It was a predictably savage match, with both guys screaming at each other when they weren't delivering lariats and superkicks (Callahan: "You fat fuck!" Steen: "Flavor of the month!") At one point, Steen knocked the gum out of Callahan's mouth, then picked it up and popped it into his own mouth, one of the more disgusting displays I've ever seen in a pro wrestling match. It ended when Steen dropped Callahan on his face with his ridiculously vicious package piledriver finishing move. And then, after the match, Steen grabbed a microphone and addressed Callahan (I'm paraphrasing here): "After I beat the shit of you and you beat the shit out of me, I like you a little. But I hate you a little, too. So now I'm going back to the East Coast to dominate my company, and you can go back and dominate your company. And in a little while, we'll meet again, back here, in the best wrestling building in the world." The building he was talking about, it bears mentioning, is an American Legion Hall in Reseda, one that seats maybe 500 loud and drunk fans. It also bears mentioning that he might be right about it being the best.

Wrestling has its share of great buildings: Madison Square Garden, Chicago's Allstate Arena, Philadelphia's just-shuttered ECW Arena. And the American Legion Hall where Pro Wrestling Guerrilla holds almost all of its shows belongs on that list. I've never been inside the building, but I've seen enough PWG DVDs to get a decent idea what it's like inside: Wood paneling everywhere, a bar and a merch table tucked away in the corner, enough room on all sides of the ring for four or five rows of chairs, all jammed up against the ring.

If you're ever in the building for a PWG show, it's probably a good idea to stay alert. The entire crowd is in a Sea World-style splash-zone, except instead of getting wet, there's a decent chance that a 200-pound wrestler land in your lap. In PWG, wrestlers launch each other and themselves from the ring constantly, barely giving audience members enough time to scatter out of the way; I'm vaguely amazed that nobody's been decapitated yet. There's an industrial air-duct above the ring, and during a ladder match against Steen for the PWG title last year, the masked wrestler El Generico accidentally ripped a piece of it down when he grabbed the belt. (Steen, after the match: "I always knew we'd tear the fucking roof off this place.")

PWG is one of America's most important wrestling indies, and it might be the most consistently entertaining, but it doesn't act the way other big indies do. It doesn't tour. It doesn't broadcast its big shows on internet pay-per-view. It doesn't lock its stars into exclusive contracts. And it rarely runs more than one show a month. So there are only two ways to experience the insanity: You can buy tickets and show up in person, or you can wait a month for the DVD to come out, then drop $15 to get it directly from the company's website.

As the other big indies lurch awkwardly toward touring-institution status, there's something weirdly commendable about PWG's dedication to staying small.

American Legion Halls are, of course, the best place in the world for teenagers to book punk shows, a nice little symmetry that probably isn't lost on PWG management, which seems to be made up entirely of wrestlers and former wrestlers. The retired masked grappler Excalibur does commentary, unleashing a constant stream of snarked-out asides and pop-culture references. Earlier this year, after guest color commentator Colt Cabana mistakenly referred to the wrestler B-Boy as "Beach Boy," Excalibur kept the theme running: "Peter Avalon will not be attending the Smile Sessions after that dropkick! He probably wishes he was in his room right now!" He also hoots with glee at every big move, which is fun. And its figurehead is Super Dragon, a masked psychopath who recently returned from a career-ending injury only to injure himself again two shows later. These guys make running a wrestling company look like a small family affair, something I'm guessing they learned how to do from punk rock.

And because PWG isn't trying to compete with the big indies, there's nothing to stop it from booking talent from all the other big indies, leading to Marvel-vs.-DC confrontations like that Steen/Callahan match. And that's good for everyone involved. All-business Ring of Honor headliners like Davey Richards and Roderick Strong, relegated to the PWG midcard, appear to be having a lot more fun than they are in their main gig. And cartoonish brutes like Steen, Generico, and the videogame-themed Super Smash Brothers seem to do better in PWG than in bigger companies; Steen was a PWG main-eventer long before he finally managed to conquer ROH. These guys share space with homegrown talent like the Fightin' Taylor Boys, a tag-team of agile muscleheads, and the RockNess Monsters, who stick out their tongues and throw devil-horns a lot. The next PWG champion will likely be Willie Mack, a high-flying heavyweight who used to be in the crowd for every PWG show and who one of the bigger companies would do well to sign.

With its infrequent shows and island-of-misfit-toys roster, PWG isn't really in the business of telling long and intricate stories. Some of the feuds can be fun, like Steen's months-long vendetta against arrogant-shithead tag team the Young Bucks or the endlessly entertaining series of comedy matches between mustachioed dick Joey Ryan and gifted female wrestler Candice LaRae. Mostly, though, PWG matches consist of two or more crowd favorites (almost all the company's wrestlers are crowd favorites) doing huge, dangerous, absurd moves on each other, and seemingly enjoying it, until one of them finally pins the other one. Classic wrestling storylines, where one guy will keep smashing a specifics body party of the other guy's all to hell and use that advantage to win, are mostly absent. Instead, the matches play out like long highlight reels. And when PWG edits those matches down to make five-minute trailers for its DVDs, the results are just awesomely, compulsively rewatchable:

Online, PWG crowds get shit for being hipsters, and it's true that they're marginally less goateed and obese than most indie wrestling crowds. (Gillian Jacobs, who plays Britta on Community, is a regular at PWG shows, a factoid that led me to rethink my whole "Annie > Britta" stance.) But they respond to the company's theatrics with all the exuberant, good-natured bloodlust you'd want from an indie wrestling crowd, making them a nice contrast to the blase, indifferent crowds that the WWE usually draws in L.A. When Generico turns an opponent upside-down and smashes his face into the top of the turnbuckle, they know enough to go appropriately batshit.

It's a wrestling-fan ambition of mine to find my way to Reseda for one of these shows eventually. In the meantime, the relative infrequency and overwhelming awesomeness of the company's shows makes it easy and worthwhile to keep up with its DVD releases. If you've got any interest at all in indie wrestling, a random recent PWG show is a great place to start.

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