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Andy Rathbun, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published December 01 2013

Crowds enjoy theatrical pro wrestling in St. Paul

ST. PAUL - Venom was met with boos as soon as he walked into the room. About a hundred spectators had packed into the St. Paul Eagles Club Aerie 33 on this Saturday night to watch him and a collection of other larger-than-life characters hit, slam and insult one another in a theatrical battle of good vs. evil. The monthly event has been drawing a crowd for years, with children, beer drinkers and all other manner of wrestling fans vocal participants.

They were against Venom from the start of the match because he is a villain, predestined to be hostile toward the audience and a lightning rod for their own negativity.

“This place stinks,” he said while walking to the ring. “You people shut up. I don’t need your claps.”

Venom, also known as “King of Throwdown,” then turned his antagonism toward his opponent, “The Husky Heartthrob” Kody Rice, who was cheered and applauded as he entered the room in a red bowtie.

“I feel that I’m sexier than you,” Venom told him, setting off an argument about who was the sexier man before the two began to grapple in the ring.

Venom, played by Andy Wallisch, eventually got Kody’s back to the mat and proceeded to seemingly twist his nipples, which made Kody scream and kick his legs. Sympathizing, the audience began chanting “Kody.”

The tables soon turned.

Kody, played by Cody Reis, eventually pinned Venom for the necessary three-count, marked emphatically by “Jimmy the Ref,” and the audience erupted in cheers. Kody left the room victorious as Salt-N-Pepa’s mid-’90s hit “Whatta Man” played over the sound system.

Venom, wobbly and apparently dizzy from the crushing defeat, followed.

“I’m a champion,” he muttered unconvincingly before disappearing behind the curtain.

Bryan Dorn of Eden Prairie runs Independent Wrestling International, which puts on the wrestling shows at Eagles Club in St. Paul’s Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood.

It’s one of a number of local professional wrestling events found in the Twin Cities, and it draws wrestlers with names such as Da Minnesotan, Black Stallion and Udo Mangelsdorf.

Dorn wrestles under the moniker Ian “The X-Man” Xavier. Together with wrestler Terrance Griep, aka Tommy “The SpiderBaby” Saturday, they form the tag-team pair Glam Slam 2.0.

“We’re badasses who put a lot of comedy into our stuff,” Dorn said of their characters, who are villains – called “heels” in the wrestling world. “Whether you love us or hate us, we want to be the fight people remember when they leave.”

The tag team made an impression at the event when they used a fireball to defeat their opponents.

Griep’s character, commonly called just “SpiderBaby,” sneaked flash paper into the ring and ignited it, causing his opponent, “Hollywood” Brian Sager, a faux injury that allowed Glam Slam 2.0 to take home the tag-team championship belts.

Cheating is one way for a wrestler to spark a response from the audience, and because the matches are a kind of participatory theater, a response is essential.

“There’s nothing worse than coming out and having an audience that will not interact with you,” Griep said. “We’re always grateful when there’s someone giving hell.”

John Heppen is a familiar voice in the crowd taking jabs at SpiderBaby. The University of Wisconsin-River Falls geography professor has been attending local wrestling shows for several years and said matches are more enjoyable when there’s interaction across the ropes.

“If someone interacts with the wrestler and they get a reaction from it, a laugh or a boo or a cheer, it makes you feel like a part of the show,” said Heppen, co-author of an essay titled “The Dynamics of Identity in the Communities of Local Professional Wrestling.”

That relationship is also important because it helps contrast the two opponents in the ring. The heel often will insult the crowd or pick on one person. Sometimes that person is a youngster – effective in drawing a response from adults coming to the child’s defense, Dorn said. The crowd will then support the hero of the match – called the “babyface” or “face” – in hopes he will defeat the heel.

“If the wrestlers are doing a good job, you care about them as their characters – you either like them or hate them,” Heppen said. “It’s the guys people can get some connection to, good or bad, that are successful.”

Those successful wrestlers are good actors, but the fact that they are acting and the matches are staged does lead to criticism that wrestling is “fake.” It’s a criticism that doesn’t hold water for Heppen.

“You suspend your disbelief when you watch a movie or when you go to a play; to me, it’s no different,” he said. “No one would say, ‘Why are you watching ‘Hamlet’? It’s fake.’ ”

Professional wrestling combines theater, sports and entertainment and should be re-evaluated by those dismissive of it, Heppen said. He argues that wrestling fans themselves deserve more respect, as do the wrestlers.

“What they’re doing is legit,” he said of those in the ring. “They put a lot of time and effort into it, and they probably do deserve more appreciation for what they do – both the physical and the acting parts.”

It was a lack of respect that helped bring Dorn into the world of wrestling.

He was bullied as a kid for being overweight, and professional wrestling was his escape. He became almost obsessive, watching it on television for hours on end, he said.

“It drove my parents nuts,” said Dorn, who grew up outside New Prague. “They said, ‘Couldn’t you watch something else?’ “

He can remember being 8 and telling his brother that he was going to be a wrestler someday. He began studying the wrestlers’ moves as he got older, and just days after graduating from high school, he started training on a thin mat in a church basement.

Since then, he’s entered the ring as a number of characters – “gimmicks,” in wrestling lingo.

“I was a British lord for five years,” Dorn said. “The only reason I stopped doing it was I got tired of doing the British accent. Whenever my character got riled up, I would lose it.”

Most of his time as a wrestler has been spent as a heel, which is more fun and easier to play than a babyface, he said. His current character, Ian “The X-Man” Xavier, is a former hockey player who got kicked out of every league for fighting, and Dorn performs as him at shows around the Midwest.

Wrestling helps Dorn deal with some of the emotions that come with being bullied, and the matches he puts on in turn allow the audience to free their own aggression and anxiety, he said.

“I can release the stress and all that stuff through wrestling now,” Dorn said. “Believe it or not, wrestling can help people.”

As far as the money is concerned, there’s not a lot of it for wrestlers like Dorn. Wrestlers at his level all have regular jobs and side projects, he said.

For Dorn, that means working at night constructing water filters. He also spends time investigating the paranormal and has written a book on the subject.

“Everybody says that you need to be (financially) successful, but know what? I’m rich,” he said of wrestling. “The little fat kid is doing something good.”

As heels, he and his tag-team partner, Griep, are the recipients of a fair amount of vitriol. They say it doesn’t bother them. Griep, however, will take members of the crowd to task if the taunts approach one subject.

Griep, a Minneapolis writer who works on comic books, is gay. It’s clear he’s proud of who he is, and that hasn’t been a problem for most people, he said. Occasionally, though, he’ll hear a homophobic remark from an audience member, leading him to confront the person.

“I never let it go; I will always challenge them on that,” he said. “You can boo me for what I do, but not who I am.”

Griep added that by performing in the ring several times a month, he’s “reaching out to the 15-year-old version of myself who knew he was gay and did not want to be gay.”

Dorn, 38, said he and Griep are examples that you don’t have to accept being bullied.

“He stands up for the gay community; I stand up for the overweight community,” he said. “We’re proof that you don’t have to go hiding behind a rock.”

Dorn, however, said he has only a few more years as a wrestler. Professional wrestling is hard on the body; he has arthritis in one foot and his knees make creaking sounds, he said.

But until that last bell sounds, the fans and his love of wrestling will keep him going.

“When the match announcer says you got a packed house, all that pain goes away,” he said, “and you know it’s going to be a good night.”