Two young women showed up to the Excalibur nightclub one Friday evening in January. Each paid a $20 admission to the “#1 Mega Club & Party Castle” in Chicago, but neither had come to dance.
“Do you see him? Is he here?” the blonde asked her friend as they looked over the crowd. The sleek clubgoers who typically populate this River North spot on weekends had been replaced by a motley collection of characters: huddles of portly men in black t-shirts swigging LandShark beer, men in ballcaps and blue jeans with distracted but dutiful women at their sides—and pockets of women dressed in bygone nineties dress: cream T-shirts and ankle-length dresses, bangles and small, cross-body faux-suede purses.
The crowd had turned out for Resistance Pro’s second event, Rise. The Chicago-based professional wrestling promotion company had generated significant buzz beyond the modest niche press devoted to indie wrestling. There were articles on Forbes.com, The Hollywood Reporter and Bloomberg Businessweek, and Chicago’s iconic rock ’n’ roll station WXRT was chatting about them. The reason for this mainstream media attention? For drawing young women who wouldn’t know a Russian Leg Sweep from a Mongolian chop?
Resistance Pro’s creative director is Billy Corgan, frontman for the alt-rock band The Smashing Pumpkins.
But attendees who showed up to see the rock star rather than the ring action scanned the crowd, looking for Corgan without success. He wasn’t at tonight’s event yet, and some were skeptical he’d show up at all. At Resistance Pro’s first event, Black Friday, he had been conspicuously absent, prompting speculation among fans and on message boards about the sincerity of his involvement. He was on tour overseas, tied up with his other commitment: “I am on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins in Europe but was able to watch the entire show via Skype in Prague,” Corgan said at the time.
William Patrick “Billy” Corgan is hardly the first public figure to be gripped by the lurid, provocative world of professional wrestling. You may or may not recall rock star Alice Cooper accompanying Jake “The Snake” Roberts to WrestleMania III in Detroit. Or former baseball player and manager Pete Rose turning up at Wrestlemania XV dressed as the San Diego Chicken, only to get pile-drived into the mat by a seven-foot, 300-plus-pound monster called Kane. Gennifer Flowers, John Bobbitt, Donald Trump, Florence Henderson, Mr. T, Pee Wee Herman, Bob Barker and the Muppets have all gotten into the wrestling scene. Recently actress and Extra correspondent Maria Menounos threw herself into the squared circle on set, getting ambushed by WWE divas Beth Phoenix and Eve Torres.
These are just a few of the hundreds of recognizable names, B-list and otherwise, that have been associated with wrestling over the years. Pro wrestling is, in its present incarnation, first and foremost a performance art: the choreography of the takedowns; the monologues, screams and grunts addressed toward the audience; the audience itself a participant. It is improvisational. Those two wrestlers locked into a hold are not, of course, grappling for leverage; they are “calling their spots,” which means they are plotting their next moves and sequences on the fly.
At times, being at a Resistance Pro event doesn’t feel all that different from being at an indie rock show at Metro or Double Door. For one, there isn’t much seating at Excalibur, apart from a few stools lining the balconies and a foldout table and steel chair beside the ring—the latter a seemingly innocuous detail but to the smart fan is the wrestling equivalent of Chekhov’s gun. A standing audience “adds to the energy,” women’s champion Melanie Cruise tells me. “Excalibur is the perfect venue for a different experience.”
Since the building that houses Excalibur went up in 1892, it has reinvented itself over and over again. According to its website, the site has housed the Chicago Historical Society, the Institute of Design, recording studios for blues and rock ‘n’ roll, a nightclub and now professional wrestling. One of Chicago’s few remaining examples of Romanesque Revival architecture, Excalibur is a hulking red granite castle, a stubborn relic amid the gaudy River North landscape of colossal neon signage. Inside, it’s a warren of rooms and stairwells, with the ring nestled into the center of an airy space in the back, with double decker balconies framing the ring overhead.
Resistance Pro promoter Gabe Baron, one of two brothers who has partnered with Corgan, told me Excalibur was chosen both for its location and for its “truly unique feel that captures the essence of R-Pro.” He describes it as having a “Fight Club” atmosphere, a reference to the Chuck Palahniuk novel and 1999 film about an underground, no-holds-barred fight club.
Seven o’clock. It comes and goes without a sounding of the bell. A machine overhead continues to exhale periodic, Brobdingnagian bursts of smoke into the ring. A crewperson tests the mic: “Ch-ch-check. One-two. One-two.” A referee, not quite out of view, stretches his quads in a back corner.
“That means he’s gonna get laid out tonight!” one of the men in black calls out.
Near the back bar a cluster of Smashing Pumpkins fans are vehemently argued with three older wrestling fans claiming to be ignorant of Billy Corgan and The Smashing Pumpkins.
“Never heard of ’em. Are they new? One of them boy bands?”
Just as the factions seemed as if they might turn on each other, a heavy industrial soundtrack cranks up. All of Resistance Pro’s music is created in-house, though not by Corgan. Their music director, Sheri Shaw, does the music with her band sstaria. “Everything I use for the show is original and made for Rpro. Billy had a vision of where he wanted things to go in the beginning, and let me run with it,” she tells me.
Out walks a woman in a string bikini who reminds me of John Basedow. She steps into the ring, but the audience’s gaze goes elsewhere as someone in the crowd shouts, “There he is! Look!” There, perched above the ring in the second floor balcony, with a shaved head and angular profile, is Corgan. He’s the puppet master, the deus ex machina of Resistance Pro.
He doesn’t acknowledge the crowd. He sits watching, expression rarely changing, as the first match soon gets underway. Serenity, the crowd favorite, is an idealized nymphet of the wrestling psyche—spunky, lithe, radiating hawkish sexuality. She battles the Women’s Champion, the brutish brawler Melanie Cruise. There’s choking and hair pulling, knees to the solar plexus. Cruise eventually squashes Serenity, firming up her reputation as Resistance Pro’s resident female thug. A few matches later, “Lonesome” Jay Bradley, a tattooed Goliath with a spray-on tan, makes easy work of Steven Walters.
For the benefit of the women in the crowd, Bradley explains his nickname. “I am called ‘lonesome’ like fat men are sometimes referred to as ‘tiny.’” The crowd seems unsure how to respond. Bradley exits the ring into the crowd, off in search of a drink and a female spectator to buy it for him.
Over the course of the evening, a basic vocabulary of wrestling holds are executed, or at least attempted: body slams, leapfrogs, suplexes, standing dropkicks, snapmares, arm bars, a test of strength. At times the ring action appears hampered by space constraints: the ring doesn’t seem all that big. The fast and furious stuntsmanship of cruiserweights like Mr. 450 and PAC don’t awe as much as they can on the right stage.
Resistance Pro has chosen at least a bit of safety over spectacle: It has partnered with the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI), a nonprofit whose mission is “to advance the study, treatment and prevention of the effects of brain trauma in athletes and other at-risk groups,” does concussion consulting and has a set of “Return to Play Guidelines.” In conjunction with SLI’s findings, Resistance Pro has banned such hazardous maneuvers as chair shots to the head (the back is fine) and requires its wrestlers to undergo regular concussion screenings. They are the first professional wrestling promotion to adhere to these guidelines. One of the co-founders of SLI, Chris Nowinski, a friend of Corgan’s and former professional wrestler, will be addressing the roster before Resistance’s May event.
Still, there’s plenty that’s allowed, and the biggest thrill of the night comes when Willie “Da Bomb” Richardson, mounds of flesh folding over the sides of his unitard, successfully scales the turnbuckles and delivers a flying leg drop onto a felled opponent that registered out in Deerfield.
The evening, to be sure, possesses the manic energy of an ambitious production staged with not a lot of resources. It has an indie feel, from the overworked smoke machine, to the fuzzy speaker system, to some botched lines and holds. “Talk into the mic!” one fan urged a barely audible wrestler. But for $20, you can’t do much better for a night of live entertainment.
“I’ll work a different way depending on a crowd, what they are reacting to,” Cruise tells me. Heat, in professional wrestling, is the response, positive or negative, a wrestler draws from the crowd. Heat is absolutely crucial to give meaning to the matches: It makes the villain’s comeuppance that much more satisfying or the hero’s fall that much more devastating.
Pro wrestling is spectacle. Roland Barthes, in his seminal 1957 essay on the topic, called wrestling a “spectacle of excess,” one that finds “[its] natural expression in a gesture.” In 1994, a few months after American teenager Michael Fay incurred Singapore’s corporal punishment for his role in vandalizing cars, Tommy Dreamer lost to the Sandman in Extreme Championship Wrestling’s (ECW) first Singapore Cane match. Having lost, Dreamer submitted to the caning. But after each successive lash knocked him to his knees, Dreamer stood up and at his aggressor screamed into the microphone, “Thank you, sir, may I have another!” The irrepressible American spirit.
Taken within these contexts of performance and spectacle, hubris and pageantry, perhaps it’s not surprising that so many actors, musicians and athletes find their way onto professional wrestling’s stage. And so Corgan—for the man of the signature shaved head, the black ZERO shirt, the public romance-gone-sour with the combustible Courtney Love, the fling with Tila Tequila—well, he seems a natural fit for the “spectacle of excess” that is professional wrestling.
Corgan met his future partners in Resistance Pro, the local promoters and brothers Gabe and Jacques Baron, when he replaced former Chicago Bulls Dennis Rodman on a local wrestling ticket. In the spring of 2011, Rodman was one of the headliners of an area event put on by the Baron brothers. But Rodman canceled last-minute, hanging the Barons out to dry. Jacques’ wife, a huge Smashing Pumpkins fan who had once briefly met Corgan at a charity event, sent him a Facebook message asking if he might be able to help.
This request wasn’t entirely out of left field. Corgan has been a wrestling fan most of his life. He closely followed the Southern territories in his youth, and he appeared in an ECW promotion in the early 2000s, smashing not a pumpkin but a guitar over another man’s head. Still, it was a stretch.
But Corgan came through, successfully filling the role of heel manager for the event. Afterward, he met with the two brothers, and in the summer of 2011, they decided to start their own promotion, Resistance Pro, which Gabe Baron describes as a hybrid of “old school” and “new school” wrestling. There is aerial and daredevil stuntsmanship between the ropes (new school), but also a focus on the characters and storylines (old school).
Gabe Sapolsky, vice president at the Dragon Gate USA and EVOLVE promotions, says “they have a very progressive attitude toward wrestling, while at the same time respecting its past. This is a great combination.”
The Barons are industry veterans, having cut their teeth on the local wrestling scene in the late nineties. They trained at the old Steel Domain school here in Chicago, under Ace Steel, where such national heavyweights as Colt Cabana and the megastar CM Punk once put in time. The Barons never made it big, however, and eventually drifted toward the business side, putting on shows around the region.
The Barons handle the operational side of Resistance Pro: the bookings, finances, marketing, merchandising and social networking. Corgan, the creative director, writes the angles, or storylines, that establish a promotion’s emotional connection with the fan. It’s not an entirely foreign job to Corgan—he’s the writer of more than a hundred songs—but this is an entirely new audience and format.
Wrestling angles typically involve archetypal characters (most often created by the wrestlers themselves)—faces (good guys), heels (bad guys), anti-heroes, sirens, Adonises, lunch-pail guys—pitted against each other in some sort of moral struggle that’s ultimately resolved in the ring. A relatively recent trend in professional wrestling has been to incorporate the wrestlers’ real-life situations, known already to most fans via the Internet—divorces, substance abuse, financial problems—for exploitation in an angle, to powerful, and often controversial, effect. A few years back the WWE wrestler Eddie Guerrero died at the age of thirty-eight due to heart failure. Soon afterward storylines emerged involving his friends in the industry and their varied allegiances and motives in the wake of his death. His wife Vickie, also a performer in the WWE, was portrayed as a grieving widow—but she too had her own agenda.
Angles are the hook, one of the critical elements in promotions aiming to reel in an audience bigger and broader than merely the hardcore wrestling fans. For Resistance Pro, a nascent enterprise, it is nearly impossible to generate interest in the angles immediately. Like with television, it takes a few episodes, or events, for a story arc to build. Corgan’s name recognition will help buy time, as will enlisting several established stars who carry their own known histories and heat with them. Harry Smith and Colt Cabana, both on the card for Rise, are among Resistance Pro’s biggest roster names, each having plied their trade in the WWE.
To that end, in a tactic meant to heighten the anticipation for Rise, Gabe Baron announced in an interview with Jessi Virtusio of The SouthtownStar that a mystery ticket buyer would be present at Rise; a figure so controversial, in fact, it would force Resistance Pro to have their legal team on hand. This amusing yet preposterous assertion most likely was the work of Corgan, who did not respond to requests to be interviewed. It certainly feeds off pro wrestling’s dogmatic insistence that there is no such thing as an oversell. But with that said, it is also imperative to deliver. Because as anyone in wrestling will tell you: the one, and only one, self-evident truth in the industry is that it doesn’t matter if the crowd loves it or hates it, just that they care about it.
There’s a strong showing of regional talent in Resistance Pro’s stable: Richardson, Melanie Cruise, Jay Bradley, Colt Cabana and Robert Anthony are all local grapplers. Anthony, whose gimmick is “The Ego,” draws some of the biggest heat (and laughs) at Rise, at times narrating his own heat.
Resistance Pro is still the minor leagues for these guys: The ultimate goal for most wrestlers is to be on television each week in front of a national audience. But Resistance Pro may get them there—they recently signed a television contract with WCIU for a weekly program. Gabe Baron describes Resistance Pro as a “finishing school.” It’s for wrestlers on the verge of rising to the next level.
In the last few minutes of Rise, Corgan finally descended the stairs from the balcony and faced the audience to award the strap to Harry Smith, a face and Resistance Pro’s first men’s champion. Corgan, in Nikes and a shrunken shirt, wrestling belt in hand instead of his Stratocaster, seemed unsure how to deliver the moment—this wasn’t a virtuoso guitar solo. The title ceremony was interrupted by the mystery ticket buyer, a wrestler familiar to all but the uninitiated: the wayworn former ECW champ Rhino. He had come that night to demand a title match of Smith. After some threats and macho posturing, it was agreed his demand would be met at the next event—a developing angle. At times Rhino appeared on the verge of violence, but nobody got knocked out, nobody got hurt. The Resistance Pro legal team breathed a sigh of relief.
Resistance Pro is not the only promotion vying for the attention of Chicago area wrestling fans. AAW, which holds regular events in the suburbs, and SHIMMER, a women’s organization, are both players on the local scene, and there are national touring companies, such as Ring of Honor and Dragon Gate, to compete with. Not to be forgotten and certainly not to be outdone is the WWE, which draws large crowds and commands large fees. They run their Raw and SmackDown Shows through town quite regularly. In late April they held a pay-per-view event, Extreme Rules, at Allstate Arena. Nosebleed tickets go for around $100.
Resistance Pro has stiff competition, and still is better known for its creative director than its talent. The challenge for Corgan and the Baron brothers will be to retain the fans they are drawing in; the cult of celebrity can only take them so far.
As Resistance Pro moves forward, it appears Corgan might be inserting himself more into the show. A few weeks ago, he became embroiled in a Twitter war with Lou D’Angeli. The director of marketing and PR at Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, D’Angeli is better known in professional wrestling circles as the man whose head Corgan once used as his own personal sound hole maker. D’Angeli has tweeted that Resistance Pro and Corgan are derivative, calling into question Corgan’s music success and wrestling acumen. It clearly appeared to be the overblown rhetoric of a work, or planned angle. Taking to social media to intensify feuds is happening more and more in professional wrestling.
But Resistance Pro has its actual critics, too. I asked one local promoter for his thoughts on Resistance Pro, and his reply was, “They’re still in business? Weird.”
They are, and near the end of March Resistance Pro held its fourth live event. Called Obsession, the audience looked even bigger than the one that turned out for Rise. Noticeably absent, however, was a certain segment of the earlier audiences: those nineties women in their long dresses and bangles—gone was that loyal coterie of Smashing Pumpkins fans. Apparently they’d learned: If you buy a ticket to a Resistance Pro wrestling event, expect to see nothing but a Resistance Pro wrestling event. Billy Corgan will not be taking requests tonight.
Resistance Pro’s next event “A Small Deadly Space,” will be held not at Excalibur but at the Teamsters City Auditorium at 328 South Marshfield, on May 11 with a bell time of 7:30pm. Tickets are available at resistancepro.com. $20-$30.