With independent pro-wrestling promotions popping up across the country, the opportunity to experience chokeslams and suplexes up close is possible for Indigenous fans from coast to coast to coast.
That includes the Arctic.
“There’s nothing better to me than getting booed by a crowd,” said Dez Loreen, an Inuvialuk wrestler from Inuvik, N.W.T.
“Just feeling a connection to them and letting them know, ‘I don’t care what you think… I’m here and I’m going to win.’”
Loreen has travelled across Canada and the United States to see his favourite wrestlers live. Being at a live show evokes a feeling like no other, says Loreen, and he wanted to make it more accessible for a new generation in the North to experience.
It’s why he co-founded Totally Arctic Wrestling in 2019 with his longtime friend Wade Blu Gruben.
“A really big thing for us has been connecting with the kids, connecting with the families here in the region,” said Loreen.
“Nobody thought that we could ever have a pro-wrestling league in the Arctic that’s actually just dedicated to being in the North.”
The three-man league hosts a weekly wrestling show on YouTube, and has held a number of live shows, including two events scheduled for next month in Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk.
While Loreen plays a heel, or a bad guy, he said he believes wrestling can bring positivity to youth in the Arctic.
He said getting into wrestling has improved his own physical and mental health.
“If I can tell a story in the ring and if I can connect with an audience, it doesn’t matter if I have a six-pack,” he said.
“I want to show other Indigenous kids and people all around us here in the North that if you’ve got something that you want to pursue, then do it.”
Kyle Zachary and Shawn Rice share a similar outlook on the impact wrestling has on youth in their community.
The two are Kanien’kehá:ka from Kahnawake, south of Montreal, and are a wrestling tag team called the Dad Bod Squad.
They have one rule: work smarter, not harder.
“We’re both guys in our 40s and we have jobs, we have families. There’s not a lot of time to get to the gym,” said Zachary.
That means occasionally bending the rules when they’re facing off with younger or more limber wrestlers.
“They run back and forth like ping pong balls. Look at me, I can’t do that,” said Zachary.
“So sometimes, yeah, I’m going to have to poke that kid in his eyes just to take him down to my level.”
In April, Zachary wrestled in front of his home community. The crowd was filled with dozens of enthralled children.
“All the kids’ faces there were, like, all glowing because they’re all so into it and they think it’s the greatest thing in the world,” said Rice.
“If they don’t like you, they’ll get right in your face and actually try to fight…. It’s very passionate, but it’s a whole lot of fun.”
That’s what six-year-old Dayne Fleischer felt.
“I liked ... the show because I like wrestling,” he said.
“It’s exciting…. It feels like I’m at a WWE show.”
When a heel went into the crowd and stole a hat off his head, the boy was ready to jump in the ring.
“It [felt] like I was wrestling another person. The guy who stole my cowboy hat — the next time I see him, I’m going to fight him before he gets in the ring,” he warned.
Zachary showed up to Fleischer’s home to wish him a happy birthday. He’s one of the many local wrestling idols the boy looks up to.
“No crowd is like a wrestling crowd,” said Zachary.
“Nothing feels better than doing something stupid and having a whole room of people start chanting for you. You don’t get that anywhere else in the world.”
June is National Indigenous History Month. This story is a part of a three-part series celebrating Indigenous contributions to the world of atomic drops and full nelsons.