Pretty soon after I started writing about pro wrestling for the Classical, one of my colleagues discovered an ancient cache of Memphis wrestling 8 x 10 photos at a garage sale or something. One of them depicted a masked 1970s grappler with the name "Mr. Wrestling," who looked fucking awesome. A suggestion was floated that maybe I should use Mr. Wrestling as a column name. And it would've worked beautifully, except for one thing: There's another Mr. Wrestling around these days, and I do not want to piss him off.
Kevin Steen—nicknamed Mr. Wrestling or, more recently, Wrestling's Worst Nightmare—is a pudgy Québécois dude with a patchy beard and the sort of spiky hair that only spikes because it doesn't know what else to do. He wrestles in basketball shorts and a ratty T-shirt with the sleeves torn off. He has a couple of prominent tattoos, and they are not great. He is nothing like the mulleted flex-monsters that have come to define professional wrestling. But he can call himself Mr. Wrestling anyway, because he's arguably better at pretending to hurt people than any other human being on the planet today. At this precise moment, in the chaotic and hardscrabble world of American indie wrestling, he is the motherfucking man in a way that nobody has been the motherfucking man in a long time—which makes Mr. Wrestling more than an ironically generic handle—it’s actually right on.
There are so many indie wrestling promotions across this country, but four of them matter more than any others. There's Ring of Honor, the biggest one and the only one with any substantive TV deal. It's been around 10 years, and many of its stars have gone onto become powerful forces in the two major companies, but lately ROH has been stuck on the idea that pro wrestlers should act as much like MMA fighters as possible. There's Pro Wrestling Guerilla, an L.A.-based company that only runs shows once a month, usually out of the same American Legion Hall in Reseda. It doesn't mess around with internet pay-per-views the way other companies do, and it doesn't tour, but it matters anyway because its cards are almost always stacked completely with giddily brutal wars; no other company puts on shows as consistently fun. There's Chikara, a Philly company that's built its own pocket universe around a colorful assortment of absurd characters, most of them masked, all of them acting like they've stepped directly from some slightly fried alternate universe of Saturday-morning TV. Its shows switch abruptly between hard-hitting wrestling and knowing absurdist comedy, and it makes a big point of being family-friendly. And then there's Dragon Gate USA, an American offshoot of a Japanese company and one that specializes in grueling athletic-marathon matches. Those are the four points of the indie scene, as it exists today. In the past month, Kevin Steen has come to dominate the entire constellation.
Steen doesn't wrestle in Dragon Gate, and that's fine, since the almost-as-awesome Troll-haired caveman bruiser Sami Callihan has been doing just fine playing a distinctly Steen-esque character. In March, Steen won the PWG Championship for the third time, and it wasn't exactly a surprise; he's been practically synonymous with the company for at least a year. At the end of last month, Steen fought the Yonkers bruiser Eddie Kingston, a wrestler whose style matches up nicely with his own, for the Chikara Grand Championship, losing the match only because he blatantly low-blowed Kingston right in front of the ref's face. When it was over, he acted like he was about to pull his dick out and piss on the Chikara belt before a beaten-to-shit Kingston summoned enough willpower to dropkick him out of the ring. On Saturday night in Toronto, Steen beat Ring of Honor's MMA-style standard bearer Davey Richards, winning that company's championship. In the process, he ended a title reign that had lasted nearly a year, and he utterly changed the identity of ROH. Immediately after the match, while stuffing his face with a cake that a fan had baked him, Steen promised he would tear the company apart and remake it in his image. I believe him.
That last win is the one that matters most. A few months ago, I wrote that Ring of Honor was losing its way by putting all its faith in fake-real MMA-style submission-fests, veering too far from the gaudy, goofy spectacle that wrestling needs. In the time since, the company made a bunch of steps in the right direction. Steen's match against Kingston was part of a co-promoted double-header with Chikara, and that's exactly the sort of thing that ROH needs to do; Chikara knows gaudy, goofy spectacle better than anyone. ROH has also brought in big-league veterans like Fit Finlay and Rhino and Lance Storm for its big shows, and these guys know how to tell stories just as well as they know how to trade armbars. And they've put more muscle behind characters like deranged shitkicker corndogs the Briscoe Brothers. But with Steen's championship, they've made their biggest leap toward awesomeness in years.
Steen's character is an absolute lunatic. He bites, literally. When opponents threateningly point fingers at him, or flip him off, Steen attempts to bite their fingers. He uses weapons whenever possible. He bleeds buckets. He loudly cusses out fans in the front row, displaying a quick wit that seems miraculous once you find out that he learned English, at least in part, by listening to Jim Ross calling matches on Monday Night Raw. I've seen a video of him grabbing a heckler's hot dog and throwing it across the room. I've seen another of him grabbing the outstretched middle finger of a front-row fan and licking it. You can't possibly play a character this unstable without actually being at least a little unstable, and Steen does unstable like an absolute master.
And that's not even getting into the shit he does during matches. His signature move, the package piledriver, involves basically folding up an opponent and dropping him on his head. I mentioned the move to Steen's colleague Colt Cabana when I interviewed him last year, and Cabana's reaction was an immediate full-body wince. (ROH has made the entirely sane decision to ban the move.) He also has a crazy array of high-flying moves for a guy of his size; his 450 cannonball splash looks like it should cave in ribs. Whenever possible, he stabs people's foreheads with broken-table shards or anything else available. Most of what he does in the ring looks like it should straight-up body somebody. What he gets away with is breathtaking.
His ROH title win is the culmination of a storyline that's lasted for literally years. He spent almost all of 2011 banned from the company, interrupting other people's matches to wreak havoc until security dragged him out. The storyline was that ROH's top brass didn't want Steen in the company because he's out of his mind, and this was the rare case where the villainous authority figures had a bit of a point. Now that Mr. Wrestling has finally reached the mountaintop, I have absolutely no idea where he, or the company, is going. For both him and the company, that's a great thing.