By Kris Levin, Columnist
“The smell should have bothered them a bit, he thought; even cattle balked in a slaughterhouse… The faint reek was more evocative than any number of placards describing the horrors that had made this place their home…”
– Marc Laidlaw, The 37th Mandala
Of all the aromas that exist in this world, to date, the most revolting I have experienced is human blood. It is not the type of scent that you would notice from a paper cut or even a nosebleed. No, that cowardly fragrance only musters up the courage to announce its presence by crawling into your nostrils when bolstered by like consanguinities. Which is to say, there needs to be a lot of blood present in order to notice that nauseating smell. Typically, knowledge of that awful, unmistakable stench of sindicato de sangre is limited to those who work in the fields of butchery and in slaughterhouses, hospitals and related medical fields, or the combative arts. The latter is how I discovered it: from my time spent officiating deathmatch wrestling.
Despite this, I will always have a fond spot in my heart for deathmatch wrestling. As an official, it provides the thrilling challenge of maintaining the law in a lawless land. Between time spent in the past at Combat Zone Wrestling and my current tenure at the New Jersey-based Game Changer Wrestling (as well as tours of Mexico’s premiere deathmatch organization, Desastre Total Ultraviolento), it is how I initially made my bones on both a national and international stage. Deathmatch wrestling has been an indispensable component of my growth within this career and lifestyle. It is not something I would want to partake in every day, but I relish a monthly or bi-monthly visitation. This begs the question: what exactly is deathmatch wrestling? On the surface, deathmatches are like controlled car collisions, only the complacent, faceless stunt dummies have been replaced with actual, living people. Beyond this, the answer is deceptively complex – much more-so than its barbaric exterior initially divulges. Deathmatch wrestling is, without question, professional wrestling’s most violent genre. It features all of professional wrestling’s most basic structural components: an ensemble cast of trained professionals who double as both actors and stunt people, portraying varying degrees of choreographed and improvisational drama in a live, theatre-in-the-round setting. Take all of that and mix in a plethora of weapons – not only pro wrestling’s traditional hallmark of tables, ladders, and chairs (oh my!), but also everything from power tools and household appliances to barbed wire, glass, thumbtacks, cinder blocks, skewers, syringes, and even fire and pyrotechnics. If an object can conceivably be used as an implement of destruction, rest assured that it has or soon will be making its way to a deathmatch wrestling event near you.
I had my first personal experience with deathmatch wrestling in 2012, not long after I first started working with Combat Zone Wrestling. Early on, I was quickly overwhelmed by my close proximity with the sheer amount of brutality, not to mention the gratuitous bloodshed. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. An early contest I officiated in CZW was a two-out-of-three falls match on May 5th, 2012 in Bloomington, Indiana between Drake Younger and Sami Callihan. While it was not necessarily a deathmatch (instead, a marginally-less intense “hardcore”), it resulted in an all-out bloodbath. Shellshocked, I remember my friend Kyle Maverick accompanying me by hand afterwards to the locker room showers, both of us fully clothed, in order to help me wash the blood off my person. The following summer saw my first Tournament of Death appearance. At the time, TOD was the one of the country’s largest deathmatch tournaments, taking place in the middle of a field in the farmlands of Delaware in front of roughly one thousand rabid fans. I officiated a non-tournament deathmatch, Joe Gacy vs. Ryan Slater, which culminated in a horrific powerbomb through a coffee table covered with thumbtacks and light tubes. The entirety of Ryan’s back was shredded to a gory pulp and, while I have seen few others who were equally as bad off, never have I seen someone worse. Over time and through exposure, I grew accustomed to the normalization of unreserved bloodshed. Concern for the facilitation of communication and the safety of all involved now overrides any squeamishness on my end, which helps when I am tasked with plucking sharp objects embedded in my co-worker’s skin in the midst of an ongoing contest. Or last weekend in Chicago with GCW, when a gory piece of yellow fat was hanging off the back of Eric Ryan’s thigh from a misadventure involving a shopping cart. It required the assistance of his opponent that night, Shlak, who cut it off with a pair of scissors.
The following year, I officiated within the tournament itself, including an early match between Scotty Vortekz and Lucky tHURTeen, highflying veterans of the deathmatch world. Things were going business as usual, that is right until they weren’t. But hey, that’s deathmatch wrestling for you. As a rule, Murphy’s law applies to this realm more than any other activity in the world. Early in the match on this sweltering early summer day in the tall grass of Marklands Little Acres, Lucky was powerbombed onto a ladder strapped with light tubes. Now, before we go any further, I feel the need to express my outright disdain towards light tubes. Should you ever witness myself (or any competent official) officiating a deathmatch, you may notice that I walk around the ring tapping on and stamping out shards of glass. I do this in order to minimize the risk of deep, subcutaneous lacerations. Light tubes are regretfully unpredictable – they could just as easily leave a minor flesh wound as they can impale their target. There are proper ways to swing a light tube and safer places to land the blow, but practicing these standards is in no way a guarantee of safety. However, they make for a great visual and auditory aesthetic and it always guarantees a big crowd reaction, so it is a trade-off the majority of deathmatch performers are only too willing to make. However, I digress.
After Lucky reentered the ring following the light tube covered ladder bump, I saw a Wolverine-like series of claw marks on his shoulder. As I approached to investigate, I discovered a hole in Lucky’s lower back that could comfortably house a human thumb. The cavern resembled a new container of ice cream whose surface was displaced by a single neat scoop. I was put in what was, at the time, a very uncomfortable position for me to decide our next course of action. Speaking to Lucky, he was fine with continuing the match, but it was hard to gauge in regards to differentiating his usual mellow personality from the very real, alternate possibility that his calmness was solely a symptom of shock. Scotty, who sports a matching, equally laid back demeanor, was fine with stopping the match for the sake of his friend’s wellbeing, but ultimately felt the decision belonged to Lucky. The doctor was summoned and said the match should be stopped immediately for Lucky’s health. The fans and promoter alike, while they would be understanding, would also be disappointed if the match was unable to receive a satisfying conclusion. Being so young at the time and still somewhat green to both professional wrestling as a whole and the microcosm of the deathmatch wrestling community, the mix of pressure from competing interests was difficult to navigate. Ultimately, erring on the side of safety led to me deciding to call for a stop to the match. Immediately afterwards, still in the ring, a quick conference with the men involved, the doctor, and the promoter resulted in a multilateral agreement to allow the match to continue on the condition that we were to rapidly take it home. After the match, Lucky was asked if he was interested in capitalizing on the momentum by being added to the main event that afternoon, the tournament final. Being acutely aware that discretion is often the better part of valor, he wisely declined and ultimately made a full recovery, left only with a gnarly scar as a lasting memento.
Not all deathmatch performers who suffered bad run-ins with light tubes share Lucky’s relative luck. Prior to my employment with CZW, at Tournament of Death on June 6th, 2009, deathmatch legend Nick Gage was competing in a contest which featured two hundred light tubes attached to the ropes on all sides of the ring. During the bout, Gage was thrown into the light tube covered ropes, where the broken glass resulting from the collision severed an artery in his armpit. Gage was airlifted to a nearby hospital for emergency surgery. Gage was pronounced dead during the flight due to the massive amount of blood loss that occurred. Today, “The King,” as his fans have nicknamed him, is alive and well. He currently competes as champion of today’s top deathmatch promotion, Game Changer Wrestling. Working at GCW is where I first got the opportunity to work with Nick and receive a firsthand view of his rabid cult following. It is an intense atmosphere like no other as Gage enters the ring to Metallica’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, surrounded by hundreds of screaming maniacs who ball up their fist, pointing to him to the rhythm of the customary chant, Nick fuckin’ Gage! Nick fuckin’ Gage! Watching it makes one feel not so far removed from gladiatorial fights at the Roman Colosseum.
“The dude throws a chair at his fucking face and you hear his skull crush the chair. The chair wraps around his head, you know there was no gimmick to it. You know he really just took that chairshot because he took the chair from underneath your butt that you’ve been sitting in for the last two hours.”
-Jonathan Stauffer, deathmatch wrestling fanatic
Yet, despite it all, I have found that the most regularly recurring trait among deathmatch performers, aside from being gluttons for punishment, is that they are consistently the nicest, most laidback individuals you will ever hope to meet. An old adage in this industry refers to the performers as members of a fraternity, which we are, but even that is tentative to change in the face of real-life feuds and games of politics, no different than any other line of work. Nevertheless, I can say that, without question, the brotherhood shared in deathmatch locker rooms routinely holds the most sincerity I have ever encountered in my travels. Even the interactions between the performers and their fans, on average, surpass those that occur outside of this subculture. Coming from the days of “working marks at the carnies,” professional wrestling has an inherent “us versus them” mentality between the boys and the fans, which it has been in the process of gradually shedding over the last two decades. Per contra, deathmatch wrestling is more in the spirit of the inclusivity of punk rock events: members of a fringe movement of kindred spirits coming together in the one place they all unanimously can feel that they belong. Unlike most branches of entertainment, there is no hard divide between deathmatch workers and their fans; they all belong as members of the same underground community from the outskirts of life. Seeing pre-event cookouts and post-event after parties at a nearby dive bar are a common occurrence.
“You become closer to people because you truly, at many points on a given weekend, have someone’s life in your hands – literally. With deathmatches, it’s not whether or not you’re taking care of yourself. Are you taking care of your opponent? Are you taking care of the people you’re working with? It’s a ‘no man left behind’ type thing. It’s one team. One fight.”
-Reed Bentley, deathmatch wrestler
This underground community of individuals who do irreparable damage to their bodies in front of their undyingly loyal fanbase is shockingly vibrant. More than a genre of professional wrestling, deathmatches exist as their own unique subculture. In my time in and around deathmatch wrestling, I have found that the overwhelming majority of those involved exist at a cross-cultural intersection that typically includes fans of death metal and punk rock, horror films, and drug culture. More than anything, though, one name is independently mentioned by nearly all members of this cult: prominent transgressive artist GG Allin.
“Everybody’s an enemy. Fuck. I hate everybody. I’m not part of any scene. I do my own thing. My mind is a machine gun, my body is the bullets, the audience is the target.”
Understanding GG Allin’s cult of personality is key to understanding the world of deathmatch wrestling and the sway it holds among its devoted participants and followers. He is comparable to film directors John Waters, known for his infamous masterpiece of sleaze, Pink Flamingos, and low budget horror shlock guru, Troma Entertainment’s Lloyd Kaufman, both of whom revel in offensiveness and vulgarity for their own sakes; as well as The Catcher in the Rye protagonist, Holden Caulfield, who resented what he viewed as society’s inherent phoniness. At best, one might even consider him as a modern day Diogenes. Many view GG Allin as the patriarch of the underground punk rock and hardcore music scene; however, one could make the argument that his musical output, while skillful and significant, was the least essential element of his act. Far more crucial ingredients were his shock and awe tactics: in-your-face acts of antisocial disruption. In all forms of artistic expression and verbal rhetoric, Allin employed slurs offensive to virtually every class and community imaginable, advocating horrific acts of physical and sexual assault. His interviews often resembled that of a villainous wrestling character attempting to scare audiences with threats that his unique brand of social distortion held sway over children and that they now belonged to him. He existed as a chaotic hurricane who used his personal charisma and abrasive promise of freedom from the constraints of society to draw people into his cult of violent indifference. This was a far cry from the actions he took during live performances, which often included stripping down to the nude, illicit drug use, self-mutilation, physically assaulting audience members (indiscriminate of whether they were male or female), and his signature act, unsimulated on-stage defecation. His quest to achieve lawless martyrdom ran parallel to Hunter S. Thompson, which unsurprisingly led to an early, untimely demise that only added to Allin’s legendary mythos.
So, what has caused his apotheosis to the level of trashy rock ‘n’ roll deity? For deathmatch wrestling and GG Allin fanatic Jonathan Stauffer, he describes the appeal as “shock value. He is a fucking maniac. He’s GG Allin. Live fast. Die. He’s rock ‘n’ roll. There’s no law – rock ‘n’ roll is not supposed to be law abiding. Rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be violence. Rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be danger. Rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be shock. And that’s what GG Allin was. Alice Cooper was this guy who came out of nowhere. Parents said, ‘oh this guy is the devil. If you listen to him you’re going to commit suicide.’ But in reality, Dee Snider, Alice Cooper, all of these dudes are mentally stable. But I don’t know how mentally stable GG was. He’s what all the rock ‘n’ roll dudes said they were, but they weren’t as real as GG fuckin’ Allin.”
Fellow GG Allin fan and veteran professional wrestling videographer and producer, Mike Robles, concurs with Stauffer’s analysis, stating that when it comes to Allin’s repulsive endorsements, “it’s not necessarily the actual act, but more-so the ability to shock and go against the norm. There isn’t really any action behind it. It’s just for the shock value, just for the jarring reaction of the person that isn’t completely accustomed to that.” When asked if he would consider Allin’s rhetoric to be insincere or tongue-in-cheek, Robles responded, “I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s tongue in cheek, [his fans] kind of buy into it and the whole representation of what he is, but they’re not acting on his words.”
A real-life embodiment Marv from Sin City, Shlak looks like he was born fifteen hundred years too late. Toting a literal trash bag to house his travel itinerary and covered from head-to-toe in scars and tattoos, he would have been better off as a barbarian warlord than an inhabitant of modern-day society. On the subject of GG Allin, Shlak offered: “he can appeal to different people in different ways. I can see one person liking GG Allin for his music, obviously. Another person liking GG Allin because he’s a sick fuck. But me, personally? I like GG Allin because GG Allin is one of the last of the free people. He was free in the sense that the man didn’t have to depend on anything or anyone. The man lived out of a bag, woke up when and where he wanted to wake up. The man didn’t have to think about going to work and earning money to pay rent or to pay bills. None of that stuff. He had no obligations. He was ultimately free. He was as free as you could possibly get on this planet. That’s something that, I don’t know if you hold it in too high of regard or not, but it’s like – fuck authority. You know what I mean? Who’s to say that earth and reality is supposed to be ran the way they’re telling you it’s supposed to be ran? That guy didn’t think that way and I think more people need to explore that side of themselves.”
Under the condition of anonymity, I spoke to an artist who plies her craft in the fields of performance and fine art. She approaches deathmatch wrestling through the scope of performance art and had this to say on the appeal of GG Allin in relation to deathmatch wrestling: “I find other people’s fascination with him and his cult status a lot more interesting than the man, himself, or his work, itself. Realistically, what he did was not terribly new, nor was he saying anything too interesting with it. I think the reason people are drawn to him is that he is doing something relatively uncommon in pop culture, which is an artist taking an adversarial stance to his audience. Though, it’s worth note, this is not a rare thing in other worlds, like fine art. I think something that would draw deathmatch wrestlers to him, aside from the obvious aesthetic draws, like him being violent, extreme, hardcore, etc., is that they’re into the feeling of the adversarial audience relationship. Obviously, we have an expectation for wrestlers not to actually involve the audience in their act, but it makes complete sense that deathmatch wrestlers would want to simulate that feeling of danger and recklessness when they perform, or at least appeal to it on some level. That aesthetic of saying ‘fuck you’ to the audience and to your own personal safety (whether you’re actually doing that or not) is a big part of the deathmatch vibe. And, of course, he was violently rejecting expectations of ‘acceptable behavior’ in a way that has a slightly more extreme version of the appeal of deathmatch wrestling, so it’d make sense for him to be a hero or source of inspiration for wrestlers who want to do that.”
Speaking to the cerebral and, at times, soft-spoken deathmatch wrestling star, G-Raver, he considers the fandom as a united response against the pressures of civilization and its rules. He feels that it is “a huge connecting thing. We all gather. I’ve never been about how society has created one way of doing things. So anything that’s against that in any shape or form, I’m the number one supporter of it. People have been programmed to believe this is what you have to do: ‘you can’t say this, you can’t do this. This is the path you need to choose and you need to have a white picket fence. You need to get married, you need to have kids and a dog.’ And there’s people that are so set on it. If it makes them happy, by all means, I’m all for you. Go do it. It’s driven into your head from day one.”
“I wanted to search out deathmatch wrestling because it was against the norm. It stood out to me. It was like, fuck your thought of ‘this is how it’s supposed to be.’”
-G-Raver, deathmatch wrestler
Looking for authenticity in the fake world of professional wrestling, only to discover it in the all-too-real underground community of deathmatches. I compare it to the human equivalent to monkeys throwing feces at the zoo due to the stresses of captivity. Conversations with other self-professed members of Allin’s devoted fanbase leads me to summarize that, aside from the mischievous fun that accompanies shock value, his appeal was a potent, uncompromising mixture of anti-authoritarian sentiments alongside feelings of authenticity and inclusivity. More-so, it was a feeling of release: not having a care in the world, letting go of what would otherwise be important societal norms and rules, including such preeminent basics like common sense and self-preservation. In a way, freedom from these burdens of society can be equally as charging (or to outsiders, jolting) as it can be relaxing.
The concept of harboring anti-authority feelings and desire to live a non-structured life rang true for me and, I imagine, most others who make (or aspire to make) their living within the professional wrestling industry. Managing to live life outside of society’s prescribed system speaks to a certain spirit of outlawdom. I felt that a key to further understanding this would be to understand the mindset of those who go in mosh pits and risk violence to their person. To me, personally, the idea in itself is repugnant. To help me with this, Stauffer told me that when you’re in a mosh pit, “you try not to hit them in the face, but you know it could happen. You go in for release, here comes your favorite breakdown – and you’re like, oh my god, this is what I wanted to hear. I’ve been listening to this in my car for the past two years and finally I can see this band. My buddies are here and the energy and the crowd and… you just want to release it. If you get knocked down, there’s not even a second of time that goes by that you’re on the floor. Someone is on top of you picking you up and shaking you, saying, ‘you good bro? Are you alright?’ And you’re going to go, ‘fuck yeah!’ And he’s going to go, ‘I love you!’ And then you guys go right back to it again. It’s a brotherhood: I’ll take care of you, you take care of me. I don’t want to hit you, you don’t want to hit me. If it happens, it happens. We’re brothers.”
Shlak had a slightly different view on the matter, “it’s funny, I honestly don’t know if I like getting punched in the face more or punching someone else in the face more. It’s like you’re killing yourself to fucking feel like you’re alive. It’s a primal instinct. It’s fucking war. Deathmatch wrestling is the closest thing you can get to war without having to suffer the consequences of shooting someone in the fucking head in the middle of a field somewhere. I can wrap this up and go home and dust myself off and go back again to do it again. And I still get some sort of satisfaction on some sort of base level of getting to exercise my inner, primal violence.”
So how does all of this correlate to deathmatch wrestling? Robles feels that “a lot of it is just the fringe culture. A lot of people are just left on the outside. It’s kind of the same thing with pro wrestling. It wasn’t necessarily completely treated like a sport. People always had their nose turned up at for so often.” I see many things in common between the two artforms. The intimacy of the venues, the raw, rebellious feeling that what you are witnessing or partaking in should not be happening in modern society. The tenets of individualism and nonconformity connect all involved on a deeper, intrinsic level in a way that cannot be replicated by watching primetime television. Just as there is no such thing as a casual GG Allin fan, there is no such thing as a casual deathmatch wrestling fan.
“I guess it’s removing myself from reality. Removing myself from the structure that is being created by everyone else. I’m trying to forge my own path in reality, if that makes any fucking sense.”
-Shlak, deathmatch wrestler
Shlak sees the connection between the two as being based upon “the sheer shock fucking value of the thing. If you notice, deathmatches are getting crazier, crazier, and crazier because people are getting crazier, crazier, and crazier. They’ve seen everything. I think it’s just a natural human instinct to seek out odd things. Just like serial killers, the world has a weird fixation on mass murders and all that. Death metal is talking about disemboweling women and shitting in people’s mouths. It’s all hyper-extreme and it all falls in the same category. All that shit jerks each other off. It’s all punk rock shit, man. If you don’t like it, don’t fucking watch it.”
With a misanthropic idol who treated his fanbase so poorly, how does this reconcile with the aforementioned observation that deathmatch wrestlers are generally kinder souls who treat their fans exceedingly well? I liken it to fashion shows. When models saunter down the runway wearing objectively outrageous or ridiculous outfits, they aren’t doing so in the hope that people will wear them. These events act as artistic statements that capture the expressed inspiration behind commercially available clothing. Likewise, GG Allin’s lawless performances serve as an embodiment of the spirit that deathmatch performers aim to project, not an instructional manual for how to conduct themselves.
“The reason I like deathmatch wrestling is different from why I like regular wrestling,” Shlak explain to me. “I like wrestling, period, because it’s extremely dynamic. It’s like playing a guitar and creating a song. There’s a hundred different drum beats you can play, then you add the guitar on top of it and there’s thousands of different chords you can play with different notes, rather, at different tempos in different tunings. And it’s just like wrestling. It’s a very dynamic thing. It’s like playing guitar. That’s why I really appreciate wrestling.”
“And what about deathmatch wrestling,” I asked, “you said it’s for a different reason?”
“Well, I like that just for the fucking violence.”
Shlak agrees with my observation that the often-violent antics of his death metal band, Eat the Turnbuckle, are comparable to being deathmatch-lite: “well, yeah, it’s a little more in-depth doing a deathmatch. But it’s pretty friggin close.” When asking Shlak about what draws him to these underground communities, he laughs, “it’s the closest thing I can get to assault without being brought up on charges. I have a fixation with insanity and I like to roll the dice a lot in life. I’m an adrenaline junkie and I like to challenge God. I don’t know what that would sum up as. I like to challenge things: reality, myself, the government, other people. I don’t know what the driving force is. Just something in me to push limits. I really can’t explain it, man: my own personal limits, societal limits. That and I like violence a whole lot.”
There exists a wide-variety of reasons behind what motivates others to join the unconventional pantheon of deathmatch wrestlers. Some use it to garner a buzz or some notoriety, then move on from it. Others use it as a form of artistic expression, or as a method of castigation in order to take penitence, or as a distraction and release from their real-life problems. Though nobody has yet to admit it, I imagine the relishment of the shock caused by their acts of self-mutilation may incite feelings comparable to the sexual arousal experienced by a flasher. All of this will be covered, and more, next week on 5/24/18 in a special bonus edition of Tales from the Mat.
Until next time, I hope you enjoyed this tale from the mat.
Warmest regards, Kris Levin.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Kevin “Whack Packer” Hogan. May fond memories of his legacy continue to serve as an example for fun-seeking fans of all things appreciable, worldwide.
Kris Levin is a professional wrestling referee est. ’07 and everybody’s favorite nephew. He can be seen internationally on IMPACT Wrestling as their most junior official, #KidRef Riley. Impact Wrestling airs every Thursday at 8PM EST in the United States on Pop TV and in over 120 countries worldwide. You can find Kris on social media at @RefKrisLevin.
Cover Photo By: CHRIS GRASSO