At the risk of committing blasphemy, Wrestlemania has been a lot like Carnival. Friends are in town, there's too much going on, you can't do it all, getting stressed is a waste of time, having fun is what's most important, and it's possible to simultaneously love it and look forward to it being over. As WrestleMania week unfolded, many of my friends scrambled to get to the different independent matches held all over the metro area. I only caught a couple, both at the McAlister Auditorium at Tulane.
The first was Kaiju Big Battel, deliberately silly spectacle wrestling where the participants wear outlandish, GWAR-like costumes and crush a miniaturized cityscape inside the ring; it was scheduled for Friday at midnight.
Often when groups from elsewhere put on events in New Orleans they start disorientingly on-time, meaning I miss the first forty or so minutes. Though a Boston-based organization, Kaiju Big Battel was innocent of any such Yankee gaucherie, getting underway just over a half-hour late. This commendable gesture of respect for local mores meant I only missed the very opening. Picking people up for the drive Uptown was complicated; some had been drinking while hunting WWE stars on Bourbon Street.
There was a vague plot to Kaiju's show- a giant, gambling-addicted space insect kidnapped Paco, one of a pair of cheerful dancing plantains. Then a lot of monsters and mutants battled. It wasn't a big crowd, but everyone present was enjoying themselves. Many of the monsters' wrestling maneuvers were callbacks to classic moves performed by pro wrestling's legends. Seeing the Flair Flop performed by a man whose entire top half is inside a gigantic Chicken Noodle Soup can is, to me, the essence of entertainment.
I appreciated that Kaiju was late-night without being scummy or nasty. Especially in the milieu of pro wrestling, edginess often functions as a euphemism for misogyny and other ugliness, but there was none of that Friday night. Kaiju had a sweetness to it, a light and friendly tone that made its elements of adult humor funnier. One villainous mutant snorted a fat line of "Mardi Gras party powder" off a fallen opponent's back and then went apeshit, flailing his six-or-so arms and running manic circles around the ring. If that doesn't sound funny, you'll have to take my word for it.
In this writer’s opinion, a six-foot-diameter waffle with a curling moustache drop-kicking a hamster/toucan hybrid into a set of miniature skyscrapers is as good as a Friday night on Tulane's campus gets. The event's enthusiastic announcer and hypeman, Louden Noxious, deserves special commendation- not only was he charming and funny, but his ability to yell unflaggingly for hours made me suspect he might be a mutant himself.
On Saturday, I was back at McAlister for an daytime card of SHIMMER, a Chicago-based indy promotion that features the world's best women wrestlers. Trying to park a gigantic car near McAlister Auditorium is a challenge at any time. Trying to park while both Tulane Crawfest and Freret Fest are underway, as I did Saturday, is just stupid.
SHIMMER was tremendous. It was great on its own terms, as an afternoon of top-notch pro wrestling by women, but SHIMMER doesn't exist in a vacuum. Despite having a rich history as part of pro wrestling, women's wrestling these days mostly gets treated as a sexy sideshow. This is in large part because the decision-makers at WWE haven't given a shit about their female athletes for a long time, and for better or worse, WWE defines for the whole world what pro wrestling is. Though there are standouts- notably the current champ, AJ Lee- WWE's female roster is crowded with swimsuit models instead of wrestlers.
This is not to say the women of SHIMMER aren't attractive, just that the point of SHIMMER is kick-ass wrestling, and the wrestlers on its roster are unsurpassed. They're dynamite in the ring and their baddies in particular talk smack to the crowd with an apparent naturalness that's all too rare in independent wrestling, which tends to privilege technical ability over charisma and mic skills.
As the six-foot Vanessa Kraven threw around her spirited but diminutive opponent, Kay Lee Ray, a Ray fan in the audience shouted, "You're a bully!" Kraven, who had just hoisted Ray's limp body up to shoulder height, smiled. "Damn straight," she said, and dropped Ray spine-first across an upraised knee.
The SHIMMER matches late on the card were as good as any pro wrestling I've ever seen live, and I've seen a lot of live pro wrestling. Though the in-ring action was five-star, the presentation was no-frills; a little more pageantry wouldn't have hurt. Athena, one of the night's biggest attractions, is not only a luminously talented athlete but took pains to make her entrance seem like a big deal- her giant vertical war-banner, carried slowly to the ring by a hooded monk, helped set the stage for a wrestler who's clearly something special. Another wrestler, Leva Bates, dressed up for this New Orleans show as the Louisiana-based X-Men superhero and weekly-paper SEO archrival Gambit.
I know a bunch of women who like pro wrestling. At Jim Ross' one-man show Thursday night, among the things that rubbed me the wrong way was Ross joking to a female audience member that her boyfriend had dragged her there. SHIMMER was a pro wrestling show where nobody assumed the women present had been dragged there by their boyfriends. SHIMMER was also the loudest I've heard female audience members get at an indy show. "Punch her in the cooter!" the woman in front of me yelled.
One friend who hadn't previously attended pro wrestling began the show slumped back in her chair, making dry observations, visibly skeptical. By the fifth match, she was literally on the edge of her seat, her eyes fixed on the ring, flinching at the hits and shouting in amazement as Hikaru Shida superplexed Evie off the second rope.
There are a lot of things WWE does better than anyone else could ever hope to, and there are things WWE does terribly. By taking female pro wrestlers seriously, promoting them as stars and worthy pro-wrestling attractions rather than decorative cheesecake, SHIMMER gives audiences something different from what they’re used to, and it’s refreshing.