Saturday nights are not supposed to be spent like this: I’m lying on a cold concrete floor, hands around my head, feigning pain from a forearm shot to the face.
Just seconds ago, a 6-foot-3-inch, 350-pound behemoth who answers to the name “Big Daddy Z” leveled me with a shot that sent me flying, the back of my head ramming into the hard plywood of the entrance ramp. I lie motionless for a second to hear the reaction from the onlookers, and this barbaric act results in cheers from the crowd. Moments later, I’m carried away.
On any normal night in any normal place, this scene would have resulted in threats of litigation and a visit to the hospital. But I voluntarily entered the ring to experience what a Saturday night at the House of Pain would be like. And, along with a bump on my head, what I found was professional wrestling—theater at its base level.
As it turns out, the forearm shots and the flying across the cold concrete floor are all part of what keeps a small but fast-growing legion of loyal fans returning week in and week out to the House of Pain, the home base of Hendersonville’s own High Velocity Wrestling. According to “Viper,” HVW’s resident badass and leader (known outside of the ring as Gary Benfield), it’s all part of a recipe to keep fans coming back.
“The basic formula for a wrestling match is broken down into four parts,” Viper explains. “The first part is called the ‘shine,’ and that’s where the good guy comes in and gets a couple of moves in and gets the crowd going. Then there’s the ‘heat,’ where the bad guy will start really beating up the good guy and working on him. After that, there’s the ‘comeback,’ which is where the good guy comes back and gets the crowd going. From there, you can go back into more heat or go to the ‘finish,’ which is the ending of the match … and whoever wins the match does it there.”
In the world of HVW, there are good guys (called “baby faces” or “faces,” in wrestling jargon) and bad guys (“heels”), and there are cheers and jeers (“pops”) from the crowd. There is drama and pain, and to most fans, “wrasslin’” is as Southern as sweet tea. And, despite all the theatrics, it’s as real to the performers as the forearm was to this writer’s head.
“It’s theater, it’s entertainment, it’s choreographed entertainment,” says Tim “Smit Dawg” Smith, a heel referee for HVW. “All ‘choreographed’ means is that we know what’s going to happen when we get out there. But we call a lot of [the moves] in the ring.”
The matches themselves are an extremely physical dance, of sorts: Wrestlers are thrown off the ropes and hit perfectly executed moves. Sure, they still loudly stomp the floor as their punches land on their opponents’ jaws, and they still contort their faces into masks of anguish to sell each chokehold as a thing of unimaginable pain. But it doesn’t diminish the morality tales being performed before nearly 100 people each week.
To some, the idea of theater might summon an image of audience members dressed to the nines, watching thought-provoking tales and having a cultural experience. At HVW, the crowd is more than likely to be wearing jeans, but the performance is every bit as theatrical.
“Honestly, I’d have to say at least 75 percent of it is theater,” says Viper. “That’s what we are there for … putting on a show. It’s a physical show, and it’s telling a story from start to finish, so at least that much of it is theater.”
But others have a different way of describing what goes on at an HVW event.
“Some people call [wrestling] a man’s soap opera,” says “Synn,” whose kind eyes and soft smile betray no hint of the demonic madman who stalks the ring.
“The worst addiction I’ve ever had”
For the past five years, this has been HVW’s existence. Every Saturday, audiences pile into the House of Pain, a former auto garage, to witness the action. For the most part, the shows go off as planned: There are live in-ring interviews with wrestlers, stories being told in and out of the ring, and a family-friendly atmosphere (as family-friendly as two grown men bashing each other’s heads in can be, at least).
At the center of it all is Viper, who not only is one of HVW’s biggest stars, but is also head booker for company, or “promotion” in wrestling slang. As booker, Viper (when not defeating his opponents with his trademark “Viper Bomb”) decides who wrestles when and where, and what kind of popcorn the concession stand stocks.
Viper says he started HVW to be a different kind of organization, one whose members are not only co-workers but form a fraternity of sorts. In a business traditionally backed by untrustworthy characters and filled with performers who regularly face serious injury for little or no money, Viper sees the HVW as less about ticket sales and more about having a tight-knit community.
“People said that HVW couldn’t make it, because we were all young guys that didn’t know what they were doing,” says Viper. “But I just worked hard and set out to prove everyone wrong.”
Even the heels agree with Viper’s sentiments.
“Wrestling is the worst addiction I’ve ever had,” says Devin “Ethan Case” Poole, who performs as the goose-stepping, trash-talking, Clockwork Orange-inspired heel who wrestles for HVW as part of a group called The Revolution. “There are people [in professional wrestling] who are going to help you, but there are a lot of corrupt, backstabbing people.”
And yet, HVW has a different feel. Even though there are significant differences in ages and backgrounds, these wrestlers seem to have found a kinship through their weekly ritual of pain, sweat and slams. After practice, many of them can be found sitting around a table at a nearby Mexican restaurant, watching the Latin American version of pro-wrestling, lucha libre, with wide-eyed excitement. They’re wrestlers, sure, but they’re also fans.
“Keep wrestling or keep bitching”
Watch any televised wrestling show, such as those presented by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), and you’ll see the kind of polished, refined product that only a multimillion-dollar company can provide: slick graphics, ESPN-style editing, custom-designed wardrobes and bodies by under personal trainers in the finest gyms money can buy.
In contrast, the wrestlers who work in HVW aren’t well-paid professional athletes. In fact, they do it for free. Much like the musicians in any number of local bands, these larger-than-life characters are real people with day jobs. Only instead of breaking a guitar string here and there, they break bones.
“I hate when people say that wrestling is fake,” complains Case, who, although he isn’t yet old enough to buy beer, is already a four-year veteran of the ring wars. “I’m 19 years old, and it takes me 45 minutes to get out of bed in the morning because of my back and my knees. You can keep wrestling or keep bitching. That’s how I was trained, so you just learn to deal with it.”
While the wrestlers do everything they can to prevent injury to themselves and their opponents, a broken bone or a concussion is not uncommon. In fact, the amount of sheer torture the performers put themselves through is mind-boggling.
“I’ve had two spurs and a tendon cut out of my left knee and two surgeries on my meniscus on my right knee,” says “Cyanyde,” a masked marauder known for doing anything to win a match—including harrowing moves that put his body in danger.
But Smith, the referee, says that worrying about injury will only hinder the performance. And most of these wrestlers would prefer injury to a lame match.
“People talk about taking precautions, but I could walk out the door and break my neck,” Smith reasons. “You can’t worry about that. I want to look good and be professional, and I want to do a good job.”
Mob rule at its finest
A few years ago, a video from a wrestling-fan convention swept the Internet by storm. Shot during a wrestling Q-and-A session, a fan named David Wills stood up to thank the old-timers for all of the punishment and abuse they put themselves through in an effort to entertain their fans. In the middle of his speech, Wills broke down in tears and sobbed, “It’s still real to me, damn it!”
This is what most people picture as a professional-wrestling fan.
But “doing a good job” for the fans is something that every wrestler worries about, because in the world of professional wrestling, the audience is everything. A good booker can plan the best match out there, good wrestlers can perform the most death-defying moves that exist, but ultimately it’s the crowd that decides what works and what doesn’t. The fans—almost all of whom are “in on” the choreographed nature of professional wrestling—have to be entertained.
“What you don’t want is people doing this,” says Smith, sitting on his hands in the manner of a person politely waiting. “You want people to come up there and get around that ring and hate your guts, and hate you.”
A normal Saturday-night crowd is proof of this idea. Smith’s entrance, complete with the requisite jawing at the crowd around ringside as befits a bad-guy referee, leaves even the most cynical fan out for blood. Meanwhile, Viper’s entrance causes even the most seemingly docile old man in a trucker hat to rise to his feet to cheer on his hero in combat.
These are the critics, the peanut gallery, HVW’s adoring public. This interactive quality is what makes wrestling so engaging. Sure, the story lines aren’t on par with, say, the rambling Dave Eggers tomes that hipsters have grown to love (and who hasn’t wanted to yell at Eggers to stop with the asides and get on with the story?), but they have a certain logic and craft—even art—of their own. Wrestling is mob rule at its finest, with the wishes of Joe Six Pack dictating how and why the narrative changes.
“It’s a rush when you get boos or pops from the crowd,” says Synn. “When you get something out of [the audience], you know you’re doing your job.”
According to the performers of HVW, the boundary between reality and theatrics goes out the window.
“All I have to do is to walk out of that curtain and they hate me,” boasts Smith. “They freakin’ hate me! It gives me the rush of a lifetime to walk out there and get in someone’s face. It gives me a headache I’m rushing so badly.”
Headaches aside, the wrestlers know that performing for the audience and making them feel like they’ve gotten the full price of admission is the most important part. And a major part of the magic of HVW is the connection between audience and performer.
“We’ve had people crying” at ringside, Smith says.
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world, to know that people pay money to come see you,” says Brett Michaels, a baby face who plays the role of an exotic dancer turned wrestler (and not to be confused with the front man for Poison). “People work all week—and not a lot of people make a lot of money around here—and they still come and spend their money to come see us.
From the sound of it, audiences are getting their fill of HVW. For three hours, fans are treated to the spectacle of modern-day superheroes and gladiators battling it out for the crowd’s amusement. Throw in a reporter getting nailed in the head, and it’s a fast-paced, high-energy show that leaves crowds breathless when finished. For the audience, it’s a release of the week’s worries and tensions, but for the wrestlers, it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.
“At least I got to live out my dream”
“I think that the biggest thing for me is that for a few minutes on Saturday night you can be a different person,” Viper says. “You can hear the kids screaming and the crowd going nuts and saying your name. That’s a pretty cool feeling.”
Often playing to crowds of around 100, HVW is anything but the over-the-top spectacle big-league of professional wrestling. But don’t tell that to their performers. Just to be in the ring, popping the crowd, is a dream come true.
“This is something I wanted to do when I was 18, and I finally got a chance at 33,” says Cyanyde. “I’ll be lucky to get another year out of doing it, but if I end up in a wheelchair in six months, at least I got to live out my dream. [At our last big event] there were 376 people there watching, and it was me living my dream in the ring. I’ll never go to the WWE, but that doesn’t stop me.”
Come Saturday night, Cyanyde will lace up his black boots, put on his Hannibal Lecter-inspired mask and enter the ring under a chorus of boos. Inside that dark room, Viper’s music will hit, and the crowd will roar. The two will face each other in the ring, with Cyanyde on the receiving end of the shine. Then comes the heat, and for a moment, it’ll look like the match is his. And then, just when all seems lost, Viper will rally. He’ll have a comeback, and then, a big finish.
As quickly as it began, it will end: Viper will pin his rival and the crowd will cheer. The recipe still works.
As the crowd cheers, the heel will lie on his back writhing in pain. But under the mask, Cyanyde will be smiling, confident that he’s done a good job.
All is well this Saturday night in Hendersonville. The heels have lost, and the baby faces have won. Sure, it isn’t Shakespeare. But after all, the Bard didn’t know a wristlock from a wristwatch.
[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville … and it’s still real to him, damn it.]
who: High Velocity Wrestling
what: Home-brewed professional wrestling
where: The House of Pain (820 Greenville Highway, Hendersonville)
when: Saturday, Feb. 2. 8 p.m. ($8. For a complete schedule of all HVW events, including the “Redemption” special event, visit www.hvwlive.com or call 674-1378)