By Kris Levin, Columnist
“When I’m onstage, it’s my therapy. It’s not a performance. It’s a ritual.”
I have long held the layman’s theory that, generally speaking, human beings have a series of primal needs that have been evolutionarily cultivated over millennia. For example, our ancestors developed a fear response as a survival mechanism in a “survival of the fittest” fashion due to it aiding them in avoiding predators and other dangerous situations. Today, with fewer day-to-day outlets for that fight-or-flight response, I suspect it is supplemented with horror movies, roller coasters, and daily doses of the evening news.
I asked the prototypical country boy and deathmatch star, John Wayne Murdoch, if he thought an outlet for blood lust and acts of physical aggression may be an ingrained societal need: “Definitely, I think that everybody’s got to let some aggression out. Say you’ve got a deathmatch tournament at the end of the month, and your month has been shit. You know that with that deathmatch tournament, you’re going to go out there and you’re going to feel the pain. You’re going to get cut up, and it’s a release if you’re depressed or if you just want to take it out on yourself. Deathmatch wrestling gives you that outlet and you’re pleasing fans on top of it. A lot of deathmatch guys are depressed and that is an issue with it, going out and having an outlet where you can just openly destroy your body. I tend to be happier about it, but definitely have sunken into that before with depression and have gone out there and taken stupid things. Because the end result is pain. It just makes you feel something.”
Shlak concurs: “It’s fun to act like a fucking lunatic. I’m going to be honest. Maybe my frontal lobe is larger than other peoples’ and I have this primal fucking instinct where I like caveman war and territorial dispute, and this is the closest level of that game I can get to without being thrown in jail. I guess it does make me a calmer person in everyday life. I’m definitely more passive. I’ve been doing things where I’ve been bleeding and fucking acting nuts for years. This is just another amalgamation of that. Whether it be smashing bottles on my fucking head, playing music, or attacking someone playing music, or wrestling. This is just further down the line, down the course of that path. Nowadays, ‘you must work in this fucking cubicle and you must adhere to these rules.’ It’s taking a primal chunk out of your fucking brain that’s been built in there for hundreds of thousands of years. And now, all of the sudden, society is telling you that you can’t act this way? So now we need to simulate this violence that has been ingrained in our DNA and psyche and this is how we release it – through simulated horror movies, simulated deathmatch wrestling, video games, death metal, all that shit. It’s just finding another path to seek out something that your brain requires. And as ugly as it is, it’s something that is required.”
“Working in a cubicle. I think that is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Your idea of insanity is different than mine.”
-Shlak, deathmatch wrestler
G-Raver, real name Brandon Graver, expressed to me his philosophy on and the complex emotions behind his involvement in deathmatch wrestling: “I firmly believe that wrestlers are cutters. It’s the truth. We’re just doing it on a public platform. It is a release, a way to get that out. Whether it be a frustration in life, work, home, relationship – whatever. Or even just to make the match that more memorable. It’s sacrificial like that in ways. And I have done it to have a little bit of relief. And that’s a positive and there’s nothing negative about that to me. ‘You know what, I need to get this the fuck out, so know what I’m going to do? I’m going to fuck myself up.’ That’s just the way it is. ‘I’m going to cut my leg today, it’s going to make me feel better about some shit that happened this week.’ There’s a positivity to that in the same sense, too, because we are looking at it like, ‘fuck, this is so much fun, it’s so cool.’ At the same time, if anybody can look at what it is, that’s a weird way of saying that. That’s how I viewed it: maybe not everything is necessarily a negative. We’re not all doing this because things are negative in our life or we’re just bummed out about something. ‘I was shitty this week, so today I’m going to jump head first into some fucking light tubes and see what happens.’ It’s not all like that.”
Sometimes, though, for G-Raver, it is: “let me just take it out on myself. Involve no other wrestler, just myself. Some disgusting bump or whatever. It’s more of a distraction as opposed to a punishment. I can’t say I haven’t had times where, ‘I’m an asshole, yeah, I’m going to take this bump.’ And I know it wouldn’t harm anyone other than me. I would never do it in a sense where it would harm anybody else. That’s one thing I want to constantly make clear: I’m going to involve just me and my body hitting whatever it is. Whether it is tubes or a board wrapped in barbed wire, just for myself.”
It is easy to see undercurrents of martyrdom, not unlike a Passion play, in deathmatch wrestling. When asking G-Raver if he would like to be a martyr, he enthusiastically responded, “why not!”
“To which cause,” I followed-up, “deathmatch wrestling?”
“Yeah man! Fuck, you see a guy doing it and you ask, ‘why’s he doing it? Does he love it that much or is he just doing it to try to get over?’ Let’s show them that this can be fucking completely different from what people are looking at it like.”
John Wayne Murdoch cautions fans who may misconstrue the atmosphere of deathmatch wrestling: “we touched on depression and stuff. Deathmatch wrestling does not promote suicide. ‘They have a death wish.’ No, if you ever get to that point, there’s always the option to reach out to someone. There’s numbers, there’s hotlines, there’s groups. Don’t ever think that killing yourself is the way out. There’s always an option. Just find what makes you happy. And deathmatch wrestling, we’ve found that.”
“That’s probably what drew me into deathmatch wrestling, the punk-type culture. ‘Run from what’s comfortable.’ It’s probably how I inevitably ended up here.”
– Reed Bentley, deathmatch wrestler
More than anything, deathmatch performers look for acceptance and understanding. Not from the world, but like-minded people. They crave a sense of belonging that seemingly only this masochistic microcosm can provide. For those within the general professional wrestling community who debase deathmatch wrestling, I sense a sizeable portion of hypocrisy. The accusations and criticisms hurled against this community are all ones that the professional wrestling industry at large has faced. Whether it be claims of it being the “lowest common denominator, dangerous barbarism” or the insinuation that it is “trashy and uncivilized,” they serve only to act as a reflection of both professional wrestling’s identity and its darkest criticisms. Like professional wrestling, at its most basic or inexpertise execution, deathmatches can simply be viewed through the scope of exploitative violence. Artistic expression and beauty is in the eye of the beholder: if someone decides that shlock is all pro wrestling or deathmatches ever will be, nothing will change that for them. Like all within the professional wrestling industry, deathmatch performers are very protective of their craft as both a brand and belief. Let’s stop the in-fighting and simply agree to disagree. Accept them. Or don’t. Either way, it’s fine. They’re used to it.
On that subject, Mike Robles had this to chime in: “People that aren’t really into the deathmatch scene or are curious or slightly afraid, or just haven’t touched upon it, I hope they come into it with an open mind. Just like everything else in professional wrestling – intergender wrestling, comedy wrestling – it’s all got its place. I hope that people see it and can actually respect it for what it is and know that it has its place in professional wrestling.”
“The content and tone of the [deathmatch] performance is immediate, and, I find, a celebration of aggression and violence as an aspect of humanity that is not necessary to saturate in shame. This is somewhat unique, as other works that address these issues typically cast our fascination with violence as an ugly vestige of our uncivilized past.”
For Reed Bentley who, on the surface is your typical southern everyman and comprises a tag team with John Wayne Murdoch appropriately named “The Rejects,” involvement in deathmatches is about acceptance more than anything else: “it would be hard to say specifically what causes it or what caused it. I don’t know if there was one defining event, per se, in life that pushed me there. But I’ve always felt a disconnect from people on the whole. It’s very odd that you have to go to the farthest extremes, the farthest away from people or what you know, to inevitably find other people. To find people who are of the same mindset as you are.” As a child, Bentley struggled with feelings of ostracization, asking himself, “is it really just me? Should I just accept the things going on around me? Should I fit into a certain mold? Should I do things because, moralistically, this is what people think is a regular, active path? It’s not just to be a rebel. That’s not just a gene in you. The rebel in people is a response to what they’re exposed to.”
G-Raver, too, feels it is about acceptance: “we hold back a lot of feelings and maybe it’s because of a worry of people not understanding or taking it the wrong way. I don’t want all of this shit to come out and sound fucking depressing, because it’s not. It’s all positive. I’ve never been happier with wrestling. In every aspect, I’ve never felt we’ve been a tighter group than now. I didn’t have that years ago. I didn’t have that when I started. I felt outcasted, just not relatable to whatever was going on. I got frustrated with that, moved to different areas. I connected with one or two guys. That’s it. I can count them on my hand. Coming here and doing this, and getting to know people, that’s what it’s about. I dig that.”
“It’s just fun. You get to act like a little kid. You get to play Superman.”
-Shlak, deathmatch wrestler
For John Wayne Murdoch, it is more about the thrill of evoking an emotional response from the crowd, which is a common motivating factor across the board for the entirety of the professional wrestling industry: “definitely using the fact that I have a high threshold of pain to please others. For so long I did this purely out of: if the fans got what they wanted, that was fine. Not saying I’d go out there and do it for free, but the fans come first. To see a grown man jump up and just come to tears or just act like a twelve-year-old girl off of something you did, that’s the payoff to me. Evoking that emotion out of somebody, that’s exactly why I do it.”
Mike Robles elaborated, “some people are into the shock and reaction of everything. This is just like a regular professional wrestling match: ‘is this how they get the crowd up? This is how they do it. This is the roar.’ To go to the cliche thing, it’s the gladiatorials. You hear the roar of the crowd, it’s fucking addictive. It’s the same fucking thing now. There’s always going to be the guys who are more-so of the professional wrestling mindset who are doing this more-so in moderation, doing this knowing it’s just like any other match – bump card, the whole work.”
“A wrestling match is a look. It’s a stare out into the crowd. It’s not even a fucking wrestling move. It’s just that stare out into the crowd and seeing their faces, thinking, ‘what the fuck is he going to do?’ And that’s wrestling. That’s what makes it. Those things matter the most to me.”
-G-Raver, deathmatch wrestler
Like all fields of the entertainment industry, deathmatch wrestling is built on aesthetics. The standard for general professional wrestling is based off of one’s physique and tan. For deathmatch performers, it is how battletorn their flesh is. Anytime I see the fun-loving Cíclope and Miedo Extremo, DTU luchadores from Pachuca, they show off their newly-earned keloid scars from battles in Japan and Mexico with enormous pride. Deathmatch wrestlers see their bodies as venues to entertain others and physical photo albums for their own benefit. On that topic, Murdoch says that we’re “just a bunch of misfits. Deathmatch wrestling gives everybody that chance. It’s not judgmental on your body. You have a roadmap all over your body of memories. And that’s the way I look at scars: the memories of what you did with somebody else, and they have their own scars that you’ve given to them. It’s a bond, man. One more scar is one more scar when you have a hundred of them at that point. People, when we go swimming, they look at us like, ‘what in the hell has this person been through?’ But we know what they’re about and to us, that’s all that matters. Outside, they look at us like we’re crazy, but when you get around the deathmatch fans, they look at that as a badge of honor. You’re sort of judged by your scars when you go to a deathmatch company. So when you take off your shirt you’re like, ‘I’ve earned all this.’”
On the subject of scars, Bentley says that “for me, the only scary part about getting old is not dying, but losing my memories. Cause all you have at the end of the day is yourself. We’re born alone, we die alone. The whole world, as we know it, exists inside of our own head. It’s the way we perceive it and what we’ve been through. No matter how much we let others affect us, you only have yourself and your memories. For me, on the day I start losing it, when my brain starts going, I can look down and at least something, somewhere, I can see one of these scars. One of these aches, one of these pains. And hopefully, if I don’t have anything else, I’ll have that. If I have no one else, if I don’t have a family, if I never made a ‘career’ or millions of dollars doing it, I have my memories and my experiences doing it.”
Following this, I asked Reed about his relationship to pain: “does it bother you? Is it a null factor? Does it sexually arouse you? How would you describe your relationship with it?”
Bentley candidly responded, “It’s a little of column A, B, and C. It’s a little of all of the above. But for me, really, at the end of the day, wrestling at the overall is doing insane, crazy, ridiculous things, but being able to get up and do them again the next day. If someone wants to base jump with no parachute, and they want to jump off a building and break their legs, you want to look at them like they’re crazy. But then you see someone like Joey Janela who came off of roof two years ago and was back at it again in two months. The choreography of it all, the method behind the madness of how we’re able to do these ridiculous things in a safe way, just like any kind of showman or sideshow. David Blaine, Penn & Teller, blockheads in the carnival, crazy stuff like that. It’s just, what can I do to my body that is to a degree hurting me – like it’s not just something I would walk around 24/7 doing to myself – but to know that I can do it or I’ve found a way to do it and shock people? But really, just like magic or anything else, the art of the work to it. The art of the carnie.”
“If my body is the tool to make somebody happy, then that’s the way with it. Of course, I want to walk away, I have a son that I want to go home to at the end of the day. But we all know what we signed up for.”
-John Wayne Murdoch, deathmatch wrestler
I posed the question that could violence, in moderation with consenting adults, be considered a form of healthy rebellion against societal norms? Mike Robles agrees but asks, “What’s the limit? Every year, [deathmatch wrestling] gets harder and stronger.”
I ask, “Do any of the fans hope for someone to die?”
Robles responded in the negative. “That’s definitely an extremist view.”
However, that extremist view is still a real-life possibility. What happens if and when deathmatch wrestling lives up to its namesake, someone dies and they don’t come back? Reed Bentley had this to say: “I can’t sit here and realistically say that it would shock me or say I don’t think it will happen, because I do believe it can. People have died in the ring wrestling before – not necessarily in a deathmatch or because of something they did in a death match, but in wrestling. Just regular basic wrestling moves have caused people to die, like Misawa. I mean, it really is something you sign up for. We’re pushing the limits, we’re rolling the dice, we’re living life to the fullest. It’s just like if you go out and commit a crime, and then you get caught. You do your time. You rolled the dice and it came up snake eyes. You’re playing roulette. It’s Russian roulette with a pretty big chamber. I truly don’t believe it would be good for the wrestling business or deathmatch wrestling if someone was to die. The thought of it is noble: martyring yourself for your craft, ‘I pushed it as far as I could go. I did something.’ And even though, yeah, you did take the risk, at the end of the day, there is a pretty heavy extent of brotherhood in deathmatch wrestling than there is in most indie wrestling these days. So we obviously would never want to see that happen. I think it would be a major step back for deathmatch wrestling, because no matter what anyone says, the envelope can be pushed too far. Once that happens, it’s going to make it a lot harder for the rest of us to do it ever again, even in the safest way possible. There’s going to be a black eye on it. Then again, if it does happen, then it’s not as if anyone should be surprised when you think of some of the things people have survived. Deathmatch wrestling for me is an escape and a release and I want to be able to continue doing it. I don’t want to kill myself. Wrestling keeps me from killing myself.”
His tag team partner, John Wayne Murdoch, feels that should someone ever die in the deathmatch, it would be as a result of professional misconduct on the part of a promoter: “if someone ever dies in a deathmatch, I think it’s going to come into a promoter trying to push the envelope. There’s so many people who run deathmatch shows or do things that they are not properly informed of the correct things. This is an artform. There is a right and wrong way. So I think it’s not going to be an issue of a wrestler going out and doing something crazy. I think it’s going to be an issue of a promoter getting somebody hurt. And that’s the sad part about it. There’s not many good deathmatch-heavy promoters left. Brett, guys like that.”
I posed these same questions to Game Changer Wrestling promoter and longtime member of the deathmatch community, Brett Lauderdale, through the scope of business ethics: “do you, as a promoter, bear any responsibility for the irreparable damage that the talent are doing to themselves on your events?”
“This is a good question. I don’t force anyone to do anything they don’t want to do. I believe that my responsibility as the promoter and in providing the platform for these performers is to provide as safe an environment as possible for them to ply their craft. What this means is that we use our experience in this field (which is vast) to prepare accordingly for any number of scenarios. We eliminate as many unknown variables or potential risks (outside of the norm) as possible. Everyone that we ‘employ’ in GCW is a highly trained professional, and if I didn’t trust them to protect themselves and their opponents, they would not be performing in our ring.”
Next, I moved on to a significantly more loaded question for Brett: “what happens if someone were to die in a GCW ring?”
“There is a distinct possibility that someone will die on the job, in a wrestling ring, at any time. Actually, it has happened on more than one occasion. There is also a chance that a construction worker will die falling off the 12th floor of a contracting job, or that my Uber driver will get in a fatal car accident. If something like this happened on an event I promoted, I would be devastated. However, this is the life we chose and is a potential side-effect of this art (professional wrestling) that we all risk as promoters and wrestlers.”
I can’t say I disagree with Brett. Afterall, more fatalities have occurred every year via high school football games than through deathmatch wrestling (which, to date, the number is zero). I posed the same question to Shlak: what happens if someone were to die while competing in a deathmatch? Shlak laughed, recognizing the possibility of someone dying as the highest evolution of the artform: “game over. Mission complete. Wasn’t that the point?”
Until next time, I hope you enjoyed this tale from the mat.
Warmest regards, Kris Levin.
Note from Game Changer Wrestling promoter Brett Lauderdale: “Deathmatch Wrestling” is a major part of GCW, but it is not all we do and I hate to see us stereotyped in any way when it comes to wrestling. I see GCW as unique to the industry in that we follow no rules, we follow no formulas, and we strive to think outside the box in providing a presentation and experience that is 2nd to none. Our fans are among the most loyal and dedicated fans in all of entertainment. I can’t tell you how many times people come up to me, or anyone else from our company and thank us for doing what we do. Whether it’s Tournament of Survival or Joey Janela’s Spring Break or Matt Riddle’s Bloodsport, we will always strive to think outside the box to provide unique products that separate us from the pack.
As a promoter, I take great pride in the fact that GCW operates professionally and with great attention to the needs and wants of our customers. I spend a lot of time making sure the fans at our shows are comfortable, happy, and having a good time. This is the root of our success, and the root of almost every successful business’ success. If you take care of your customers (fans), they will take care of you.