Ottawa unmasked: indie wrestling's one-ring circus lets capital cut loose

CBC reporter Simon Gardner stumbles upon the world of indie outfits like C4, Big Time and Acclaim, and finds the crazed, uncaged, spirit of wrestling's roots thriving in the Ottawa Valley.

Small troupes bring sweaty brawls and bloody theatrics in one of Ottawa's best-kept secrets

Charles Bernard Scaggs, aka 2 Cold Scorpio, a veteran pro wrestler from the WCW and WWE, flips Brent Banks while the crowd at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Vanier cheers. (Simon Gardner/CBC)
Professional wrestling has been around for a long time, but I have to admit I was a bit surprised when one Saturday night in November I came across a sign at the corner of Bank and Waverley in downtown Ottawa announcing, "Wrestling Tonight."

A couple of hours later I joined the crowd outside the Polish Community Hall.

What other venue do you get where you can swear at the top of your lungs at the characters presented in front of you?- Wrestling fan Bobby Chon

Twenty bucks get you in, to be treated to a theatrical display of athletics, stunts, humour, cheering, booing and catcalls.

It was clear that most of the roughly 140 people in the audience had seen it all before, but that didn't make them any less enthusiastic.

An escape for office workers

Ottawa residents are usually pretty reserved, but at this event they let loose.

Bobby Chon, a human resources professional and long-time fan, describes it as live theatre with interaction.

"Wrestling is an escape for people who work five days in an office job," he says. "What other venue do you get where you can swear at the top of your lungs at the characters presented in front of you?"

The characters come in all shapes, sizes and sexes.

Myzery the Barbarian picks up fallen foe MVP as referee Serge St-Denis follows the action. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

Brutal physicality, up close

Take the Barbarians, Damien and Myzery, a couple of large bearded guys who do their best to live up to their name.

Another fellow came out wearing what looked like a diaper with the word, "shitty." written on it in black. Predictably, he was greeted with a lot of taunts.

To wrestling's  naysayers , 'scripted' or 'pre-determined' means fake, but to the audience, it's just good entertainment.

There were also young women, KC Spinelli and Courtney Rush. They engaged in a tag-team championship bout against two men — a rare event, according to fans.

The guys lost, although in the scripted and choreographed world of professional wrestling the outcome was almost certainly pre-determined.

To wrestling's naysayers, "scripted" or "pre-determined" means fake, but to the audience, it's just good entertainment.

And it's up close — in small venues like this — that you learn to appreciate both the brutal physicality of the sport and the showmanship of its performers.

KC Spinelli, a female wrestler on the local circuit, during Acclaim's event at the Polish Community Hall in November. Fights pitting women against men are relatively common — but not in championship bouts. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

A family business

And it's not as if anyone can climb into the ring and execute wrestling moves. There's no question the wrestlers have athletic ability, coordination and a talent for showmanship.

"You can't look like a slob out there," Chon says. "You have to have a certain level of fitness and endurance. You need to go through very physically demanding training."

You can't look like a slob out there... You have to have a certain level of fitness and endurance.- Wrestling fan Bobby Chon

The risk of injury is also very real.

"Concussion is something every wrestler needs to think about," Chon adds.

The company that put on the show I chanced upon is called Acclaim Pro Wrestling. Acclaim started out in Greely, Ont., about six years ago and is one of dozens of small companies across Canada that make up the so-called indie wrestling scene.

Acclaim owner Chris Doherty, a wrestler himself, describes it as a family business, with his dad working as the general manager and music director, his mom serving the hot dogs and his sister ring announcing.

"The wrestling industry is really just like a big family" Doherty says. In contrast to the battles in the ring, he says, "everyone mostly gets along with everyone."

A bloodied Stu Grayson poses for the crowd at the Knights of Columbus Hall. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

More than one local outfit

Acclaim puts on about half a dozen shows a year, but it's not the only game in town. There is an outfit called Big Time Pro Wrestling that has staged events at the Rideau Carleton Raceway. Then there is C4 Wrestling, a company that puts on 25 shows a year in Ottawa.

Each show lasts about three hours and can involve 14 to 28 wrestlers — or even more.

We sold out our last show. We had to turn people away.-Stephen Gibson, C4 Wrestling

Stephen Gibson, a 55-year-old retired Canadian forces medic, is one of the people behind C4 Wrestling. He's upbeat about the future.

"We sold out our last show. We had to turn people away," Gibson says.

I decided to catch a recent C4 show myself called "The Harder They Come," on a chilly Saturday evening in January at the Knights of Columbus Hall in the downtown Ottawa neighbourhood of Vanier. The place was jam-packed with equal numbers of men and women.

To say the audience got their money's worth for the $20 they paid is an understatement.

From left to right: Brent Banks stumbles, Stu Grayson roars and 2 Cold Scorpio put on a show for the audience. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

Fighting spills out into the parking lot

The cast of characters was amazing: A long-haired Adonis, a "space monkey" in a full-body costume and tail, a skinny messiah-like figure named Twiggy, a dude in a Satan mask, a burly French Canadian logger-lumberjack, a goth-type of street punk — all carried off with zeal, no matter how ridiculous the caricature. 

At one point the combatants crashed through the emergency exit doors into the freezing outdoors. One of the wrestlers got a huge red scrape after being flipped onto the cold pavement. Another guy was thrown onto the hood of a car.

The action got more and more intense as the show progressed.

At one point the combatants crashed through the emergency exit doors into the freezing outdoors. One of the wrestlers got a huge red scrape after being flipped onto the cold pavement. Another guy was thrown onto the hood of a car.

The crowd started chanting, "This is awe-some, this is awe-some."

A few minutes later the fighters ended up back in the ring, but not for long. Much of the action took place right in the midst of the audience. After some furious shoving and punching, a burly wrestler ended up on the lap of a woman who seconds earlier had been knitting. I kid you not.

One of the last fights literally became bloody. A muscular guy who battled a much older wrestler from the U.S. dripped blood all over the floor. I was told later his nose was almost broken.

The wrestling events pack the intimate community venues like the Knights of Columbus Hall in Vanier. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

Most have day jobs

I don't think I'll ever forget that night and I came away with a better appreciation of the dedication, guts and dangers involved in professional wrestling.

The other opportunity to see wrestling, of course, is at the Canadian Tire Centre when the U.S.-based World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) puts on a big-time, elaborate show with well-known stars.

Acclaim, C4 and the others are obviously not in the same league, but they don't try to be and that's part of the charm.

No one wanted to talk about how much indie wrestlers get paid, but compared to WWE stars it can't be much. Most have day jobs.

'No interaction' with big-budget wrestling

"If you compare it to Bluesfest, indie wrestling is like going to a smaller venue such as a home concert," Chon says.

Wrestling shows at the Canadian Tire Centre only happen once or twice a year, he says.

"There is no real interaction. It's like watching live TV, not to mention the cost — 50 or 60 bucks compared to 15 or 20 dollars. At Acclaim or C4 shows you have a lot more fun. There are close-knit friends, small groups," Chon says.

Gibson says he's amazed at the range of people who show up at these events.

Doherty has noticed that, as well. "Chefs, government workers, bankers, construction workers," he says.

Wrestlers Evil Uno and Stu Grayson sell their fierceness for the camera. Most wrestlers have day jobs on the side. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

Capturing Ottawa's 'untapped' fan base

Everyone agrees the Ottawa area has a strong base of dedicated fans. The challenge is how to grow the base.

Gibson concedes it's not an easy task. But the Ottawa organizers are not sitting still. C4 Wrestling has cut a deal with a former WCW Champion wrestler named 2 Cold Scorpio. 

"He's going to be at most of our shows. He's willing to work with us," Gibson says.

Chon believes the National Capital region could see a sort of wrestling renaissance.

"There is an untapped group of thousands of people who don't know this is going on," he says. 

I have a hunch that is probably true.