The 6 Most Countercultural Moments in Indie Wrestling
Rounding up the greatest and most influential events in the recent history of the underground
In the popular imaginary, pro wrestling is synonymous with WWE. Hardcore fans will go through painstaking lengths to explain to outsiders that WWE is to wrestling what American Idol is to music: The most mainstream, watered down and basic version of what the art form could be. Independent wrestling, meanwhile, is its own vibrant medium, filled with a colorful cast of characters demanding equality and artistic freedom.
While independent wrestling has largely been the subject of condescension and derision from the upper echelons of contemporary culture who often dismiss the genre as low-brow redneck entertainment, bursts of avant-gardism and social justice can easily be spotted by anyone willing to look.
We’ve collected some of the most important countercultural moments of indie wrestling from the past few years to show the vibrancy of a scene on the verge of a total revolution.
1. Effy: "The Line Has Been Drawn"
Indie darling Effy has stunned gay and straight audiences alike with his brand of devilishly tanalizing lasciviousness. We rarely see the fishnet-clad brawler get serious, but at RISE’s Pride and Joy show this year, Effy issued a warning: No longer would he tolerate brands booking only heterosexual talent—and that openly queer people need gigs not just only in June.
The moment represented a breaking point in the wrestling industry, in which entire groups of marginalized people are now voicing they will not accept being held down due to prejudice anymore. RISE has since responded to Effy’s call by changing from being a women’s only brand to including other gender and sexual groups. Whether other companies hear Effy’s call remains to be seen.
2. Invisible Man vs. Invisible Stan
Bryce Remsburg, a beloved referee on the indie scene recently signed to AEW, is known for his idiosyncratic, cartoony characterizations. Remsburg took this to the extreme with a match between two “invisible” participants. Amid debates as to whether wrestling qualifies as performance art, Remsburg orchestrated entire crowd responses with simple gestures and reactions, thus proving the efficacy of communication through body language alone. The match went viral for days after it occurred, proving that fans are hungry for more experimental takes on their favorite sport—I mean, artistic medium.
3. Princess Kimber Lee Wins The CHIKARA Grand Championship
Philadelphia-based Lucha libre league CHIKARA has used intergender wrestling since its inception more than a decade ago, long before a more inclusive movement in wrestling had fully gained steam (and an antecedent backlash) on the indies. CHIKARA established that female heavyweight champions could be enthusiastically appreciated by fans through their coronation of Princess Kimber Lee, a beloved feminist hero, in 2015. Despite the politicization of both women’s wrestling and intergender wrestling in the past few years, few critics at the time even questioned the gender politics of the title switch considering CHIKARA’s fantasy aesthetic.
4. David Starr Founds “We the Independent”
David Starr has made plenty of enemies in the indie scene for his outspoken, leftist viewpoints, but the as-yet unsigned talent has put his money where his mouth is with the founding of his “We the Independent” brand, a merch company that helps wrestlers collectively bargain for better working conditions. With the hideously poor health care of pro wrestlers finally achieving national attention thanks to John Oliver, the plight of both contracted and uncontracted talent is also receiving a new spotlight. Starr has helped to give voice to an issue that few fighters were willing to speak about, fearing retribution from companies that had previously cracked down on anything resembling unions.
5. Priscilla Kelly’s Tampon Spot
The decision to use a bloodied tampon in a spot during a match prompted some to question whether the young athlete had killed her career. But Priscilla Kelly, who had only a handful of months before appeared in WWE’s May Young Classic, has taken her shocking gesture and turned it into a full critique of gender in pro wrestling.
“A penis is funny and awesome. A vagina is disgusting and trashy. #Equality?” she tweeted as the controversy exploded at the beginning of the year.
Although she’ll probably forever be barred from the family-friendly WWE, she’s since proved doubters wrong by popping up in countless indie feds and even in AEW—showing that transgressive art and aesthetic integrity have a place in pro wrestling.
6. Joey Ryan Stays Indie
Speaking of pensises, the self-proclaimed “King of Dong Style,” Joey Ryan has made himself into one of the most desirable wrestlers on the indie circuit. Earlier this year, rumors had swirled that Ryan had been offered positions at both AEW and WWE. Debates ensued as to whether he would fit in at either company — but especially the latter, considering how Vince McMahon’s company would obviously no longer allow him to retain the essence of his uniquely raunchy character.
While we may never know the truth behind any of the rumors around Ryan’s potential hiring, what we do know is that he won’t be signing to any company at all. Ryan’s choice to remain unsigned proved that self-made stars don’t have to cow to major companies to be successful, and that staying true to yourself is an actual option if you work hard enough.
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