Sitting next to a rusted out lat pulldown machine, it is immediately clear that the back row seats are the best in the house. Sitting anywhere else sight lines of the ring are almost as sketchy as the concrete staircase that leads to the venue. As the competitors in the ring demonstrate their ability to use their athleticism to put on a show for the audience of mostly friends and family, the energy feels like a blend of the first fight scene of Rocky and a high school football game.
This is how I spent last Saturday night…in a place where dreams are nurtured and legends like Taz, Tommy Dreamer, and Devon Dudley were born…in the World of Unpredictable Wrestling.
Located in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, WUW showcases the students of WWE Hall of Famer Johnny Rodriguez, known to most as “Johnny Rodz.” Shows take place monthly at Gleason’s Gym in the same ring where Rodz trains eager men and women with a passion for professional wrestling. Although the gym is primarily for boxing, WUW transforms the space into the kind of ‘arena’ that you might see in a school gymnasium for an independent show. Folding chairs surround the ring on 2 sides, and only stanchions separate the fans from the action. Some of the audience members eagerly await the chance to unroll the signs they made to support their favorites. And luckily for WUW, the 50-minute delay to the start of the show does not assuage the fans from cheering once the action commences.
Despite being a spectacle driven by brute strength and athleticism, professional wrestling’s success often hinges upon the power of its voices. What performers say on the microphone can change the tone of the entire experience. In this sense, the most important barometer of how the WUW experience should be is announcer James Alexander.
With the role of warm-up/hype man for the product, Alexander stands in the ring with an air that suggests that his aloof yet mildly authoritative might be intentional, as opposed to a flaw in how he presents himself. His manner with the 50 (or so) fans in the audience makes onlookers feel awkward about the intimate setting instead of excited about the show they are savvy enough to attend. Alexander’s expectation of applause when he enters the ring does nothing to endear himself to the audience, so whenever he returns throughout the night, all people want to know from him is who’s fighting next.
For a fully entertaining experience, in-ring announcers at small shows should work a lot harder than that to keep the crowd energy up at every opportunity. Whether Alexander’s failure to do so was intentional remains to be determined, but he can take partial responsibility for the old woman in the audience shouting “WHAT’S GOING ON? WHERE’S THE WRESTLING?” whenever the action stops. A true master of ceremonies does not have to field such questions.
But on to the action…
The in-ring talent runs the spectrum of ability, from the not so experienced to the guys who appear one step away from a development deal with WWE. All of the performers honored the ‘safety first’ mantra when pretending to beat the mess out of each other, and some even stretched the limits of the space in innovative ways. For example, the ceiling clearance in the room is not conducive to jumping off of the top rope. However, Chris Verrazano and Prince Atiba figured out how to do just that, using their agility and imagination. From their examples, as well as those of others, WUW clearly gives its students the opportunity to showcase their strengths despite their limitations.
Throughout the night, the standard face-heel dynamic usually needed no explanation in WUW. The performers know enough to have their appearance and behavior tell the audience who they are in the narrative of a wrestling match. But one man stands out as the best heel in WUW: “In Person” Steve Person. Far from physically imposing, Steve Person is still the kind of performer that one would say “gets it.”
A true ring general, Person takes his in-ring experience and ability to interact with the crowd to provide an experience that evokes thoughts of a top-tier live event. He probably will never be on WWE Raw as a wrestler, but when a guy knows that the best way to get a crowd riled up is to verbally abuse an old woman (same old woman as before), you have a guy who can teach up and comers a lot. In Person’s case, he can also probably teach how to operate a video camera, which he did during the show when he was not in the ring.
Person is not the only wrestler to be part of the WUW production crew. The music throughout the night came courtesy of one half of the tag team Electric Mayhem (the WUW website does not have their individual names, so I cannot be more specific). Several wrestlers, including Raja Singh and Israel Joffey (sp?), donned referee stripes to guest officiate matches. The all-hands-on-deck approach to WUW shows certainly demonstrates how passionate these guys are about the craft of spectacle, even if their passion doesn’t always translate to a polished product.
But it seems that WUW has an upper tier where certain performers need not do grunt work. Towards the end of the card, a tag team made of “The Firebird” Jorge Santi and Ultimate Security showed everyone why they are not an opening act. With the physiques and ability with ‘next level’ written all over them, these men’s performances screamed, “THIS is why you came here tonight.” By comparison, the main event between El Conquistador and Medic-X did not live up to its billing (even without that weird Four Corners Match gimmick).
With WUW, you get a show that offers dedicated performers an opportunity to live out a dream. However, the paying audience has to endure the show’s struggles to be an entertaining experience from start to finish. If not for the audience knowing the performers personally, it is unlikely that WUW would thrive on ticket sales and student fees from month to month.
It is unfortunate that shabby production values will make it unlikely that a larger viewing public will ever see colorful personalities like Cyrus and Simon (The Amish Boys) and “The Boy Diva” Rick Cataldo. Maybe someday the show will be whipped into good enough shape to be a prime ticket instead of the equivalent of a stand-up comedy ‘bringer’ show that it is now. As of now, WUW flirts with the trappings of a legitimate wrestling show, but has yet to decide whether it wants do what’s necessary to be a great one.