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Everything We Wrestled With in 2018

Some of the real issues we powerbombed through a table over the last 12 months

Why get metaphorical when we can get literal af? That is, while we don’t cover a ton of sports, we’ve always found that combat sports — wrestling, boxing and mixed martial arts in particular — provide a steady stream of characters and storylines that say as much about where we’re at with men (and gender and even geopolitics) as they do athletic prowess. So step into the ring with us, won’t you?

“If the Ability to Arm Wrestle Is the Ultimate Test of Toughness, Why Doesn’t Anyone Care About Pro Arm Wrestling?”

As recently as this summer MAGA thirst trap Kaitlin Bennett challenged Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student and gun-control activist David Hogg to an arm-wrestling bout. Such mano-a-mano combat has long been understood to be a great marker of toughness — maybe even the mark of toughness. And yet, no one gives a shit about those who arm wrestle professionally. Per contributing writer Oliver Lee Bateman and Gary “Big Daddy” Goodridge, the Babe Ruth of pro arm wrestling, it’s because the sport is much better suited for settling bar disputes than televised entertainment:

“‘You’ll never be able to sell arm wrestling on a global level,’ Goodridge tells me. ‘You cannot get the cameras up there the right way. You cannot create extreme drama for the people watching on a sustained basis. It’s a great sport, but even if it gets bigger, it’ll be a niche thing.’”

“The Only Escape for Chechen Men Is MMA Glory”

It is, in fact, maybe the only cultural currency in a nation shattered by perpetual warfare and run by a warlord thug — who just so happens to be a huge mixed martial arts fanatic and is also a jocksniffer. As contributing writer Hussein Kesvani explained in August:

“In Chechnya, mixed martial arts are like soccer in Europe, or football in Texas. Fighters are unconditionally respected and adored. Internationally ranked fighters can live like kings through both corporate sponsorship and their large government-funded salaries. The best of the best are even provided mansions and luxury apartments by the government and gifted expensive sports cars, photos of which they’re encouraged to post on social media, mainly Instagram and the Russian social media site VK. It’s an appealing life in a country still reeling from a continuous civil war between Chechen separatists, militant Islamist groups and the Russian Federation Army that’s destroyed any semblance of normalcy (and opportunity).”

“In the Virginia Street Beefs Fight Club, It’s ‘Fists Up, Guns Down’”

Chris Wilmore, on the other hand, fights for peace. In particular, he set up a backyard fight club — dubbed Street Beefs — in hopes that the men in his Virginia hometown of Harrisonburg would put down their guns and find less lethal ways with which to settle their differences. As Eddie Kim reported as part of our “Fight Week” package:

“The premise of Street Beefs was simple: In a working-class town where disputes could easily devolve into a stabbing or a shooting, sometimes in broad daylight, [Wilmore] sought to promote not just a private place to fight, but the belief that disputes could be concluded with punches and a handshake, not a dead body. ‘I saw it all growing up, man, and young people still don’t understand that while a beef can be temporary, a killing is forever. You can never go back,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to see it anymore.’”

“The Female Sumo Wrestlers Who Are Trying to Beat the Sport’s Sexist History”

They are small in number — especially here in the U.S. — but a number of determined women throughout the world (particularly in Eastern Europe and Mongolia) are attempting to turn sumo into a coed sport, which in Japan is legitimately sacriligious (sumo is steeped in the rituals and beliefs of the Shinto religion, and under the tenets of Shinto rituals, women aren’t allowed to stand inside, or even touch the sumo ring). But as with anything, change has to start somewhere:

“‘There was this amazing moment at sumo nationals last year, which was happening at the same time as nationals for junior wrestling,’ says Morgan Chateau, a 32-year-old lightweight who began practicing sumo after watching a match in L.A. for the first time two years ago. ‘A mother and her little girl came up to me in our break room, when I was wearing my mawashi [the loincloth-like sumo belt], and this girl asked me excitedly about how to sign up. A parent can’t really know what’s to come without seeing female competitors and coaches, so seeing a grown woman like me walk into a sumo ring is important. It makes the sport legitimate.’”

“Becky Lynch: The ‘Man’ of the WWE’s Women’s Revolution”

The WWE used to have similar problems to sumo — essentially sporting a piss-poor women’s division headed by the Fabulous Moolah and whomever she deemed worthy (usually via payoffs and sexual favors) for decades before spending another decade or so promoting bra-and-panties matches where the female talent was nothing more than eye candy. But these days, the McMahon family’s “Women’s Revolution” is the most exciting portion of the roster. That’s why it’s interesting that one of hottest female acts, Becky Lynch, bills herself as “The Man.” As our new sports columnist Dave Schilling writes:

“Lynch is that female badass, in the mold of Stone Cold Steve Austin, that the company has craved, but she’s seized her moment by emphasizing character traits that wrestling fans typically equate with male performers. She’s not a sex symbol. She doesn’t smile for the cameras. She doesn’t beg for your affection. Take it or leave it, she is who she is: The Man. As she told the U.K.’s Pink News last week, she is the ‘top dog, gender be damned. ‘The Man’ is not about gender.’

“And yet, it really is. Gender is an inescapable part of our lives, a thing that defines us at birth, but that we all struggle with through the rest of our time on this planet. It’s the reason why the WWE’s Women’s Revolution campaign exists — to right the wrongs of decades of sexist storylines and institutional inequality. There’s meaning to Lynch coming out each week on SmackDown to declare that she’s ‘The Man.’ In an industry defined by traditional ideas of masculinity, it should be no surprise that WWE’s fastest rising female star would embrace that moniker. The nickname symbolizes the freedom to exist outside of the norm, while also simultaneously acknowledging the inescapable fact that wrestling demands machismo. The cult of Becky Lynch is growing because she’s the first female performer in WWE to truly be allowed to be both, to exist in the gray area where gender is nothing but a label.”

“This L.A. Indie Promotion Is the True Home of Wrestling’s ‘Women’s Revolution’”

The headline, like the promotion itself — FLOW, or the Future Ladies of Wrestling, is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. That said, its mission isn’t dissimilar from Lynch’s: To rewrite the role of women in pro wrestling. And as contributing writer Tierney Finster found when the group performed at RuPaul’s DragCon, FLOW accomplishes a lot of this through role reversal:

“‘That’s one of the reasons we have a bikini boy who comes out between the rounds and hands the ladies props, towels and whatever else they want,’ explains JJ Stratford, FLOW’s self-described ‘head bitch in charge.’ ‘We exploit his handsome muscular physique and use him as an accessory to the wrestlers.’”

“Ultimate Surrender Is Where Porn and Professional Wrestling Meet”’s Ultimate Surrender offers a distinctly different kind of female combat — a mix of fighting and fucking, both of which its combatants swear are completely real. As contributing writer Lynsey G. explained:

“Sex or no sex, the combatants always take the wrestling seriously. ‘We’re still fully competitive,’ says Mistress Kara, a dominatrix and multiple-time Ultimate Surrender champion. ‘Even though sex is involved, it’s 100 percent balls to the wall, no faking. We’re doing everything in our power to win.”

“‘What made Ultimate Surrender different was that it not only added sex, but that when it added sex, it kept the integrity of the sport,’ explains spokesman Mike Stabile. ‘The point system isn’t something just thrown in —  it’s an actual, somewhat complicated, rule-based scoring system that the participants, ref and fans take seriously. This isn’t entertainment wrestling.’

“At Ultimate Surrender, the combatants are ‘mostly porn stars who train to wrestle, rather than the other way around,’ says Stabile. ‘Not every porn star is cut out to do wrestling, but many who have sports backgrounds can excel — for example, our most successful wrestlers often have some experience, like high school wrestling. Moving wrestlers to porn, however, is much rarer.’

“‘I’ve seen a lot of girls get on the mat for the first time and think, Oh, this is another shoot where it’s going to be easy!’ says Mistress Kara. ‘But no. It’s not. We’re fully competing.’”

“We’ve Entered the Era of Sexually Fluid Professional Wrestlers”

Kenny Omega is arguably the best wrestler in the world. But as a top draw who has no problem leaning into storylines that revolve around attraction to men and bisexuality, he’s also completely changing the sport’s entrenched homophobia, which rivals its sexism in terms of scope and ugliness. According to Schilling:

“Omega, however, is the poster child for a new template for the wrestling hero, one that’s becoming more and more prevalent: sexually fluid, emotional and fully modern. Wrestlers like WWE’s Finn Bálor, Ring of Honor’s Dalton Castle and others are representing LGBTQ culture in a variety of ways, but Omega is at the forefront of this movement. His post-match interviews revolve around his unparalleled in-ring skill, but also his hope to ‘change the world.’ What that means is rarely given much specificity, but the overall message is clear: Omega wants to change our attitudes about pro wrestling, to evolve the sport beyond simplistic storytelling and to redefine what it means to be a man in perhaps the most traditionally male form of entertainment left.”

“This Pro Wrestler’s Signature Move Is Being One of Your Girlfriend’s Favorite Bachelorette Contestants”

You know Kenny King from critic’s darling promotion Ring of Honor. Your girlfriend, however, knows him as that guy from The Bachelorette who chose his daughter over a chance at love and reality TV stardom. As such, he lives at the center of a very tiny, very rare Venn diagram, which Bateman detailed in his September profile of King:

“If it weren’t for King’s appearance on The Bachelorette, under his real name, Kenny Layne, my wife would know little about wrestling outside of Hulk Hogan and The Rock. But when King appeared on the reality dating series, she sprang into action. ‘Do you know this wrestler?’ she asked me.

“‘I get that a lot,’ King tells me. ‘Plenty of people tell me I’m the reason their Bachelorette-loving significant other agreed to go a wrestling show.’”

“An Oral History of ‘Real American’”

Forgive us for ending with a cheap pop, but we couldn’t help ourselves. We also look for any excuse to share the Kenny Powers version of the most famous entrance theme in wrestling history: