The High-Grade Absurdity of the LA Lady Arm Wrestlers

That it's a lady arm wrestling league would be enough, but the LA Lady Arm Wrestlers are so much more than enough.
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Salvation and Cocktails. These are the last two words you see at Bootleg Hifi as you leave the bar and approach the madness of the theater. “Salvation” is splayed across a red marquee above the small stage, a plea begging for any willing performer to get on stage. The “Cocktails” sign is where you would expect it to be—at the bar—only it’s upside-down. Together, the two signs are the perfect preview for the absurdity you’re about to see behind the theater’s heavy front door.

Behind the heavy front door: a dark theater and the outline of a 5-foot-6 woman. The lull of the audience is overwhelmed by the blaring tune of what appears to be WWE-brand entrance music. Her name is Maria Juana. Accompanied by an entourage of malcontent friends wearing baggy shorts, bandanas, and knee-high socks, Maria Juana marches down the hall. She isn’t dressed like her posse. Instead, Juana is covered in a white blanket, which, when unwrapped, reveals her all-green attire. Smoke billows out of her green “Sideshow Bob” wig.

Her entrance music fades and Ms. Juana stands attentively, waiting for her opponent to respond with her own over-the-top entrance. When her opponent enters, Juana places her elbow on the custom-made arm-wrestling table.

This arm wrestling match is part of a larger all-women organization called Los Angeles Lady Arm Wrestlers, or LA LAW. LA LAW is one part theater, one part pro wrestling, and one part burlesque--a peerless event that’s held three times a year. The league is part of a larger national organization called the Collective Lady Arm Wrestlers. Across the country, there are 25 different derivative branches of the non-profit alliance, but the Los Angeles strand has some of the deepest roots in CLAW’s beginnings.

LA LAW founder and producer Amanda McRaven brought the eccentric mix of theatrics and sports when she moved from Charlottesville, Virginia to California. CLAW was founded in Charlottesville by McRaven’s friend, Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell, but it was McRaven who’s responsible for LA’s denomination of CLAW.

McRaven, who teaches performance studies at California State University-Northridge, applies the same methodology to the wrestling matches as she does in her classroom. “I teach social justice performance. That’s what LA LAW really is. It’s raising awareness about beauty and body image. It’s about how strength is beautiful and how any woman can do this. It doesn’t matter which size or shape they are.”

The LA LAW events are a reflection of her mantra. The arm wrestling gauntlet is free for everyone to participate, though only women are allowed to wrestle. Everyone is encouraged to be a judge, an emcee, or part of the audience. Members from the improv world will frequently volunteer their services for the sake of entertainment. The matches themselves are relatively short, with each match lasting no more than a few minutes. A retired championship-winning professional arm wrestler oversees the bouts, especially when the LA LAW Championship is up for grabs.

Most of the wrestlers choose to roll up their sleeves and let their flexing do their theatrical work for them. But others will opt for the pro-wrestling kayfabe approach. Pro wrestling gimmicks—like those of cheesy 80’s characters like Sergeant Slaughter, The Million Dollar Man, and Hulk Hogan—are heavily encouraged.

No one captures this approach better than Sister Patricia Pistolwhip, who plays a take-no-prisoners nun with blood usually dripping from her mouth onto her body. She wears a traditional black veil, at this point stained from the fake blood, while her entourage wears red veils. They pump their fists for her as she flexes her muscles at her opponent. There is also Your Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a character who is probably exactly what you think she is. She frequently jumps on the judges’ table and screams to the judges, hoping to get a second chance in the match. Often, she attempts to bribe them with money, with food, and with kisses.

Over the years, McRaven has found that fan interaction is crucial to the carnivalesque milieu of LA LAW. The audience of 200 is given play money as they enter the Bootleg Theater and are encouraged to bet on the participants. At that point, it’s up to the wrestlers to persuade the audience–either through their over the top theatrics or their large muscles.

“We can be a little bit raunchy. It’s a bit of drag. It’s a bit of burlesque,” says McRaven. “It’s all in the spirit of raising money for great causes.” LA LAW needs the spectacle of the theater as much as it needs the strength of the wrestlers. One won't work without the other. The combination of both worlds is special enough to garner attention and raise money. For every event they hold, LA LAW seeks local nonprofits to partner with. All their proceeds from that particular event will go to the organization they are currently partnering with. In February, LA LAW will be partnering with Chicas Rockeras, a rock-n-roll camp for girls based in Southeast Los Angeles.

In exchange for holding the event in to raise money for the organization, Chicas Rockeras must select a member to compete against an LA LAW veteran, which means they must find a gimmick of their own and put on a show for the audience. In the spirit of their southeast Los Angeles roots, the group will be will be donning a traditional mariachi attire, represented by their wrestler La Reina de la SELA (“The Queen of Southeast Los Angeles”), to raise awareness and money for their upcoming summer camp.

This is the practical benefit of LA LAW--helping a non-profit organization achieve its aims--but there is also the less tangible benefit of it. Regardless of the outcome, the winners of their respective fights will go home with a custom trophy, but the real trophy of LA LAW is the singular insanity of the experience. It’s what’s behind that heavy, ten-foot door.

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