I have to confess something. I've been watching wrestling. Not recorded, but live, and not on a screen but in the back of a sandwich shop. And not in a huge megalopolis like Chicago or Rockford. But in Oregon. Not the state, the city. Oregon, Illinois. I've been watching live wrestling in the back of a sandwich shop in Oregon, Illinois, for months now. But even that's not the confession. The confession is: I think I really love it. Almost a lot. And yet, when I tell people -- my colleagues at NIU, my friends at trivia -- that I've been watching wrestling, they all say... you know. You're thinking it too. So say it with me:
Wrestling is fake!
I try to defend it. You know what's fake? Hamlet. Hamlet is totally fake! Same show every night: Hamlet gets into the ring with Laertes, sword fighting, killing, no improv, no audience participation unless you count Gertrude drinking poison, no one even gets body slammed. Hamlet is staged and scripted, but somehow that's legit and wrestling is fake.
So let's try to figure if it out. Is wrestling fake, real, or is something else entirely? And to do that, I'm going to start at that sandwich shop. It's Scoops in Oregon, owned and operated by Andrew Carlson.
In front, Scoops is all smiles, door chimes and delicious gourmet sandwiches.
But in back?
In back is where the ZOWA Live happens. ZOWA, or the Zen of Wrestling Academy, is the brain child of Ryan Zschiesche. How did Ryan get to be in charge?
"When you buy the ring you own the company."
Before a recent match, I asked Ryan what goes into setting up an event.
"Basically for a show like this, you have to contact the venue owner, you have to have insurance, obviously you have to own the ring. It takes about 20 wrestlers per show usually, you have eight matches per show, and you have to get them organized and have some sense of continuity and flow to it," he said.
So all that effort to set up a match isn't fake. What about the matches themselves? Heres wrestler Stephen Wolf, AKA, Leader of the Pack:
"When you first start out people think the ring is a trampoline, and that couldn't be farther from the truth. What's under there is metal beams that are crossed and then there's two-by-eights above those beams."
How does that not hurt?
"Oh, it hurts," Stephen said. "Like a football player getting tackled or like a hockey player getting hit, it's just one of those things you get used to after awhile. Like it sucks, but it definitely makes you realize if you really want it or you really don't."
So the pain isn’t fake. Must be the characters, the personas. Stephen Wolf is a hero, a baby face in the parlance of wrestling.
"Coming up with Leader of the Pack, for me its always been that I love superheroes," he said. "Having that persona and being able to help people, and have people cheer me on. That definitely gives me the extra strength to push the extra mile, to do all the things I do. Without the people I don't know what I would be able to do. I always want to lead my pack."
So the persona is real. Guess I just happened upon the one real wrestler. Then I met Laynie Luck and Savanna Stone, who took a moment to discuss their pre-match preparation.
Laynie starts early: "A couple hours. You go to the gym in the morning and get ready in the morning. Then you come here a couple hours before the show starts and you get everything figured out."
Savana Stone agrees: "You come in, you got to come up with your own individual strategy and see how the night plays out. If you come in with a plan, it doesn't always work but you just got to go for it anyway."
I asked them how closely a match ends up resembling the plan they put forth.
Savana said, "I always try to get a vibe of what the audience wants. We do that for them, so you try to vibe with them as much as I can to make them feel like they're part of the match."
"Try to give them what they want," Laynie added. "That’s what we're here for."
And what do they want?
"Every crowd is different, you have to figure it out," Laynie said. "The beauty in being able to work is figuring out what your crowd wants."
Crowd response shapes the stories, and the wrestlers react. They don't do that in Hamlet; Ophelia is going to drown every night even if the audience is screaming for her put on a life preserver. Must be the characters that are fake. Right Laynie Luck?
"Honestly it's just an extension of me. Laynie is who I am when I'm turnt up. Laynie is too turnt and that's who I am when I'm too turnt."
What about the Luck part?
"People love alliteration."
Savanna Stone also has alliteration but she was born with it:
"Yep, I agree [with Laynie] a hundred ten percent. I think if you go out there pretending to be someone you're not, you won't be able to connect with the fans. You got to come out be being yourself but turned up. If you're having a bad day maybe use that in the ring. That's just kind of what I do."
So Laynie Luck in the ring is just a more turnt Laynie Luck. Savanna Stone is Savanna Stone at 11. Wonder how many Hamlets have been played by actual turnt Princes of Denmark. Actually, it's probably happened once or twice, but still. And I hate to bring this up, but it's NPR so what the hell:
Laynie and Savanna perfectly encapsulate what sociologist Erving Goffman was talking about when he observed that people exaggerate certain parts of their personalities. He called it the "dramaturgical perspective" and said, "Self is made up of the various parts that people play." In other words, "All the world's a stage," as some phony baloney playwright put it, "and all the men and women merely wrestlers."
Wrestlers have a word for this: Kayfabe. Think of Kayfabe as reality but turnt. I'll tell you more about that later. So the fights are real, the pain is real, the performers are real. Maybe a better question than "Is it real?" would be "Why do it?"
ZOWA owner Ryan Zschiesche had some insight. "It's the crowd man. You get that crowd behind you. Same reason a rock band goes out and plays in front of five people for 50 bucks. The love of it," he said.
Finally I just came right out and asked the boss, the guy who owns the ring. Is wrestling fake?
"I hate the word because it discredits the training we put in, and if anyone saw the amount of training we actually do to do this. And I would challenge—not trying to be all 80's tough guy—but I challenge anyone who says it's fake to come and fall directly on their back on to wood. And metal. That's all we do."
And somehow, I ended up taking him up on that challenge. And not just fall backward but do it from at least six feet off the ground, getting flung to the wood and metal by another wrestler and guru, Lowlife Christian Rose -- Baby Face to my Heel -- in the ring for a battle to the finish, albeit a super brief one.
Don't you dare not listen -- or I'm comin' for yer tote bags.
On April 20th, 2019, Lowlife Christian Rose won the ZOWA Live Championship belt in a heart-stopping wrestling match against Bailey Bright. And yet, that might not have been the most anxious part of his evening. Because Lowlife Christian Rose met another foe in the ring that evening -- the bespectacled handsome WNIJ Librarian -- in a two minute thirty second, no doubter.
The Librarian's got a dirty face, I say we wash it off!
That's Lowlife Christian Rose who isn't just a force of nature in the ring.
"I am the head trainer at the ZOWA Zen of Wrestling Academy," he said. "I've been a wrestler for coming up on 13 years. Been a long road."
He and ZOWA head Ryan Zschiesche mentor young wrestlers at Z & She's, a dance studio in Rock Falls. And as a wannabe participatory journalist, I knew if I was really going to get to the heart of this whole Kayfabe idea, find out about the thing itself, I was going to have to step into the ring myself. I would need a character. I told Christian my idea:
"The Librarian. Big move: the book drop. Signature line: I'm gonna take you out of circulation. Obviously a villain, taunting the audience like this: Shhhhhh…."
Christian liked it. "That's great, that's good, it really is," he said. "There is actually a lot you could do with that. I love the idea of you coming to the ring with War and Peace or some absurdly large book and be like, 'I need you all to quiet down.' Maybe you're trying to help the illiterate masses. The power of reading. Somehow you're making literacy bad."
Christian and Ryan agreed to let me try my hand in the ring, to experience the thing itself, so I watched and tried to absorb Christian's almost rabbinical utterances:
It's never going to be safe but we try to make it as safe as possible. If you know what you're doing it's still dangerous. If you don't know, it's perilous.
Wrestling has a weird almost borderline physics, you have to learn. Kinetics, physics. When two things collide, the softest thing has to give. I'd rather the energy go into the ropes and the turnbuckle than a body.
On the day of our match, I asked Lowlife Christian Rose if I should be as nervous as I was.
"I would say it would bad if you weren't nervous," he said.
Then Christian went to work, setting up our match. Just minutes away from the starting, Christian doped out a kayfabe version of our kayfabe event.
You don't know what Kayfabe is?
Kayfabe, like the commonly used Danish word Hygge -- which has no exact translation but that doesn't seem to stop Americans from using the heck out of it when lighting candles -- is a wrestling term whose meaning can be somewhat ambiguous. You non-wrestling people who have never stepped foot on a mat, can just assume it means basically the presentation of something staged, as real or legitimate. In this case Lowlife Christian Rose and the WNIJ Librarian were out-kayfabing even the regular kayfabers with our wrestling match.
Here is how Christian saw it going: "I think it does work better if you're the Heel. Give the crowd the hush. They're booing you, and get in my face and start hot. And I would give you a big punch. Then you add a little character work, a little schtick. I hit you and you go, 'Ow!' And I'll be like, 'You said to be quiet!' You have to do something smart to start turning it around. He's not overpowering people. He's the master of the fine print type of wrestling. After that, a little of you beating me up. Keep it short, keep it simple. You go for a move and we're done. You get a little over zealous, a little cocky, you go, 'I got this.' You go to pick me up but you can't do it, that costs you, and the match is over."
I assumed we'd do it slowly, a lot of pausing, since WNIJ had sent a camera crew. But Lowlife Christian Rose thought that was pretty funny:
"I think we should run it through live, as if we're doing a match. I'll talk it out with you, it'll be super easy. I communicate in ring just fine. Imagine the Three Stooges. If I kick you in the stomach and you just bend down and go, 'uh,' well, that's kind of lame. But if I kick The Librarian in the stomach and he sells it like Moe or Shemp or Curly would, that's going to get a better reaction. That's where the entertainment is."
I was pretty confident, until the final thing Christian asked me before our match:
"Is there any part of your body that hurts, like do you have a bad back or bad knees or anything?"
Not that it would have mattered. My friends were already in the crowd. I was going in the ring.
Just climbing over the ropes is strange, in that way when you're called upon to do something you've seen people do on TV thousands of times, like nonchalantly zipping up a body bag or drinking coffee from an empty cup. One steps over the lowest rope while hunching to get under the next. I was wearing an NPR/WNIJ shirt, compression bike shorts, knee pads, and cheating reader glasses perched on my nose. He took off his shirt.
The crowd cheered, and I shhhh'd them, taunted them -- the most obnoxious librarian ever -- and then Lowlife Christian Rose hit me on the shoulder. The reading glasses went flying in one direction, my body went in another. I never thought about the crowd again.
I held my own for several minutes, although video footage reveals it was only a couple seconds, and also I was not holding my own. I was being knocked around and flailing my arms like Buster Keaton, only slightly exaggerating. Soon Christian had knocked me against the turnbuckle, and pulled my shirt over my head, and delivered the chop.
The word "chop" has a genteel sound to it, as in "pork chop" or "I might give you a chop on the chest," which is what Christian said to me just before we started the match. This open-palmed chop hurt my ears as much as it did my chest, as his hand smacked my sternum, stinging like a belly flop, and leaving me with a deep purple bruise across my neck which I was showing to horrified friends for days. It looked like I had been given a hickie by a Shop-Vac.
I forgot all my good lines: "I'm going to take you out of circulation" and "Here comes the book drop," all gone.
I remembered to drop on all fours so I could trip him. This was supposed to be my turnaround, when I get the momentary edge before the big climax. But when I planted myself I was too close to the edge of the ring, which didn't give Christian any room to fall before hitting the turnbuckle. Turns out, not only do you need to be in peak physical condition to wrestle, you also need a keen sense of physical and spatial relationships.
Christian set up again, whispering and reminding me to get more center before dropping on all fours. This may be a good time to note that wrestlers are constantly communicating in the ring -- whispering to each other, checking in on how each other is doing, sometimes calling for different moves or in my case, literally reminding me what I should be doing. This undercurrent conversation reminded me of the way you can hear Thelonious Monk muttering to himself on those old recordings.
The second time I did manage to trip him more convincingly, which is when the Librarian's turnaround happened. I began to pummel him with an all out, violent punching assault. Actually the truth is, even for a Librarian, this looked pretty weak. I had invited several real librarians to come observe me in the ring, and one of them, NIU's Wayne Finley said, "No one would ever believe you collect fines with those punches."
It was time for Lowlife Christian Rose to finish me. I took his other arm and gripped, he grabbed my waist, and lifted. Suddenly I was upside down, hoisted over his head, upright. This is called a suplex. I was upside down, vertical, and 51 years old. Christian whispered "Here we go," and then we were both in the air, spinning, dropping.
He had told me if I landed with my arms in the wrong position they could snap when we landed. But now that we were in freefall, both of us, I couldn't really tell which way was up or down. But I also sort of didn't care. It was exhilarating and it was fast. This moment of bizarre, glorious suspension lasted a second or two, and then that sound...
Our bodies, reclaimed by gravity, hit the wrestling mat. And it was over. I had gone in the ring the WNIJ Librarian, a clown, and two minutes and thirty seconds later, borne on the back of Lowlife Christian Rose, I had crash landed as a wrestler. Sort of. You know, Kayfabe. Three beats later, he was declared the winner.
The Librarian had been crushed. But somehow Dan Libman didn't feel like a loser.
With the Librarian's less than impressive 0-1 record intact, it was time to retire. I have hung up my WNIJ t-shirt and my fighting cheaters, and can be found most afternoons in my public library, looking at magazines, drinking free coffee, and asking for help with the computers. I rarely think back to that glorious night when Lowlife Christian Rose Dewey decimated me. But occasionally, as I'm rereading War and Peace, I'll catch someone out of the corner of my eye, usually children, staring, pretending to be too cool to notice me, working up their courage until finally, politely, they will approach. "Excuse me," they whisper, "Are you the Librarian?" I'll peer over my cheaters, give them a little wink. "I used to be," I'll say with a grin. "But I'm reading now, so SHHHHHHHHH!...."
Dan Libman is a Pushcart Prize-winning author of the story collection Married But Looking. He teaches English at Northern Illinois University.