"It hurts - but only for a second"
|The best of friends...The worst of enemies...
Ricky Flash and Chaos
Still, it's often highly-convincing, making it almost surreal to see one wrestler attack another with a weed-whacker, knowing that after the show, they'll chill out and eat burgers together. It's also fair to say that the media has blown the dangers out of proportion: I've been unable to find a single verified incident where any participant in a "backyard" federation has died - and that's more than can be said for most sports. For example, around 75 people in North America die every year while scuba-diving, and calls for it to be 'banned' are uncommon. And while there are no available figures for wrestling, again, we need to note that each year, around 3.5 to 4 million Americans suffer sports injuries serious enough to get them an emergency room visit.
When it comes to those, few people are more experienced than Matt Haugen, a.k.a. Scar, HIW's "King of Hurt". Matt's spent his first seven weeks in intensive care, and his early years were one long series of operations and recuperation. As a result, he has no spleen, leaving him with a limited immune system, is partially-deaf, and broke his back when a move went wrong during another (non-HIW) wrestling show. While he was recuperating, we got to know him, and his love for the sport remains undiminished by his injury. It was he who invited us down to Tucson for our first HIW event in July, headlined by the Ricky Flash/Chaos bout described above. "You gotta see it," he insisted - and he was right. An HIW show is an intense spectacle unlike anything else we've experienced - if wrestling was staged in the third circle of hell, it'd probably look like this. It's easy to see why HIW provokes such extreme reactions; those who dislike it, tend to loathe it, but its supporters love the federation with passion and intensity.
Take Scar. Even though his back injury kept him out of the ring, and despite having left hospital only a couple of days before - he was still wearing the wristband - he still let another HIW veteran, Puck, hit him across the face with a glass picture frame before the first bout. "Breakaway glass," we thought. Nope, as with all the bouts, this was the 100% genuine article: Scar wore his BandAid the rest of the day like a badge of honour. Yet before the event, when we were asking Scar who we should talk to, Puck was one of the first names he mentioned. The same Puck who'd smash glass over Scar's head, kick him to the ground and leave him bleeding. Like so much about HIW, it's an oddly-appealing contradiction.
The big question is, of course, why? And everyone seems to have their own reason: "Self-esteem, self-discipline and a chance to be known for doing what I love," says Corey Curran. "It's the most physical sport you can play," is the view of Keith Cosewehr, "No rules. No penalties." There's a similar range of opinions with regard to the future, and whether they aim to make wrestling a career. Ryan does - his eventual goal is to wrestle in Japan - but for others, it's a hobby: Lujan intends to go to college and "maybe become a teacher or a writer". Rory Adams is keeping his options open: "I'm going to college right now - hopefully I can keep wrestling, but I'd be okay with being a psychologist."
If friendships are often forged, families and those outside of HIW can be rather less understanding - if they know about it, because some participants prefer to be discreet. Lujan used to try and hide his barb-wire slices: "Now that I'm 18, they can't really ground me, but my parents still hate it." "Oh, my God!" says Gil Gilbert, describing his family's reaction, "but they could tell that I wanted to do this." A certain pragmatism tends to set in eventually for most parents (and is probably wise; with two teenage kids, we've learned that freaking out is rarely productive).
HIW aims to move forward, says Soju; every show brings new lessons learned. The August event started later, avoiding the worst heat of the day, and this time, lighting was on hand once the sun went down. The first step is to get a new ring - a considerable expense, running into thousands of dollars. But it's probably a wise move, given the current one is eight years old and showing its age, with the ropes loose and the footing uncertain. A building is another goal; eventually, HIW wants to put on shows in cities other than Tucson. Soju also struggles to keep Chaos in check - HIW's deathmatch champion wants his next bout to be barefoot on broken glass, something Soju has qualms about. He's probably wise, given the currently primitive nature of HIW's first-aid kit - something better than paper towels should be high on the equipment list.
Tools of the trade:
Barb-wire, the thumbtack bat, a fluorescent tube
The road on for HIW promises to be interesting. Already, the numbers attending their monthly shows in Tucson are credible by Arizona standards, and for almost all those involved, the best is likely yet to come (Ryan, for example, is only 21). But it's a struggle to find appropriate venues, and breaking out may be a challenge. The spectators at HIW respond almost solely to the bloodier elements, anything else tends to be met with an eerie silence. There is a limit to how far you can go in this direction; to achieve a broader success, HIW may need to attract a different crowd, or educate the existing one to enjoy and appreciate other aspects, beyond the hardcore approach at which they are undeniably skilled.
Visit the High Impact Wrestling website.