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To The Mat

Aspiring professional wrestlers, and their fans, live their dreams in Lawrenceville.

"Biker Al! Is a gal! Biker Al! Is a gal!

Biker Al isn't, strictly speaking, a gal. He's a burly tattooed guy. His jeans are ripped, his ball cap is on backward, and he looks like a guy who just might fight dirty. Like with brass knuckles, maybe.

Or perhaps with a trash can, a steel dustpan and a Howard Hanna real-estate sign. For that's exactly what Biker Al brings into the ring with him for a "biker chain match" at the Keystone State Wrestling Alliance's Autumn Annihilation show at the Lawrenceville Moose.

As he makes his way from the tent serving as a "back room" into the squared circle of the ring in the middle of the dance/bingo/party hall, the cadenced chant echoes from the back corner, bellowed by mostly twenty- and thirtysomething wits standing in a clot by the bar -- kids who, realistically, probably would not stand a chance in a fair fight against him.

They aren't worried, though. Because while Biker Al lunges at them menacingly from the ring, he's not after them. He's not chasing the guy with the slightly ironic handlebar mustache chain-smoking French cigarettes and swilling Iron City. He's not out to pound the guy with the muttonchops and ponytail.

The ass he's looking to kick belongs to "Mr. Puniverse" Bob Atlas -- who is, by the look of things, probably no relation to Charles. Mr. Puniverse makes his way to the ring on a kid's tricycle with two balloons tied to the handlebars. He's wearing a helmet, goggles and Zubaz-style pants with a hot pepper print on them. He's got a heavy chain draped around his neck and shoulders. He takes his T-shirt off with great fanfare, revealing a body that was wiry probably 30 pounds ago, but is now insulated by a layer of dough. He strikes a beefcake pose, flexing his wholly unimpressive arms and kissing his biceps.

Despite cutting such an unimposing figure, Mr. Puniverse dominates the beginning of the match, having nailed Al on the dome a few times with his own real-estate sign. Al's on his ass in a corner of the ring, leaning on a post with his legs splayed wide. Mr. Puniverse gleefully positions the dustpan over Biker Al's crotch and rides the tricycle at him, jumping off at the last minute and ramming the trike home. The crowd winces.

Mr. Puniverse is preparing another run with the tricycle, but Biker Al is, somehow, back to life. As Mr. Puniverse pedals toward him, Biker Al stands up and boots the front wheel of the trike. Mr. Puniverse is on his back, but his feet are still on the pedals and he's still gripping the handlebars. Biker Al stomps the tricycle. Mr. Puniverse is finished. A few formalities with the real-estate sign and trash can, a quick garroting with the chain, and Mr. Puniverse is pinned.

The federation has been running shows like this one for five years. For the past two, it has featured shows with half-a-dozen or so matches at the Moose just about every month. KSWA is one of three feds operating in the area, and countless local federations nationwide.

The Alliance's organizers are two friends from Pittsburgh, Lou Zygmuncik and Shawn Blanchard, who are living their childhood dream -- both to run their own wrestling federation and to wrestle themselves. (Zygmuncik is heavyweight title-holder Lou "Dr. Devastation" Martin; Blanchard wrestles as "The Enforcer.")

"Ric Flair got me hooked when I was 5 years old," Blanchard says. The flamboyant TV wrestler's arrogance caught the young Blanchard's eye. "I was like, 'That's what I want, right there.'"

The match is over, but Biker Al's not quite through with Mr. Puniverse. He's whaling on Mr. Puniverse with the sign and the trash can like it's personal.

Suddenly there's a flash of sombrero. It's La Lucha, a masked Mexican wrestler in green tights, red boots and a white shirt -- the colors of the Mexican flag. He darts into the ring and starts pounding on Biker Al. At the beginning of the match, Mr. Puniverse called out Biker Al for dissing La Lucha at a previous show, and La Lucha stands up for his friends.

La Lucha ("the wrestler" in Spanish) takes one end of the chain and hands the other to the somewhat-recovered Mr. Puniverse. They run at Biker Al, who's just gotten to his feet, clotheslining him. He won the match, but he's lost the crowd.

Mr. Puniverse's entrance theme, New Kids On The Block's "Hangin' Tough", blasts over the PA system. La Lucha and Mr. Puniverse dance around the ring, then head back to the bar.

Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh, hangin' tough.

La Lucha swills a beer proffered by one of the back-of-the-room fans. Then the two wrestlers hop up on the bar, dancing, glad-handing like politicians. Back in the ring, a referee with a big pushbroom is cleaning up after the now-nearly-forgotten match.

This is what the fans standing by the bar are here for. They stand out in the wholesome, family crowd. Some of them do appreciate the technical aspects of a match, but most come out for the scene, the absurdity of grownups in silly outfits beating on each other leading up to predetermined outcomes. And the beer.

"It's fuckin' hilarious!" says Kris Rockwell. Rockwell's at his first wrestling event, dragged here by friends who've been faithful to the scene for some time. "It's more about drinking beer. It's like being in a bar on the South Side, but it's legitimate fighting."

New fans such as Rockwell are key to the KWSA's success. From the outset, the wrestlers themselves helped fill the house, often selling tickets to family and friends. At the first Moose shows, an audience of 50 was respectable. Then, something happened.

Outsiders. Lots of them.

Chief among them are the group dubbed, by the ring announcer, "KSWA Krazies." After seeing a flier hanging up in Lawrenceville, they've been loyal attendees at Keystone State Wrestling Alliance shows here at the Moose for about a year.

The new crowd has "brought a whole other dimension," says Zygmunic. "They came once, they haven't missed [a match since]. Our fan base has, like, doubled."

Small venues and cheap tickets -- $5 to $10 for most indie shows, as opposed to the three-digit prices for marquee events at major feds like WrestleMania -- allow indie fans to be a consistent, if small, presence. They get to know wrestlers, and wrestlers get to know them.

"When the crowd's not into it, it's boring," says Chris Vallecorsa, who often helps sell tickets. On the night of the Autumn Annihilation, she's selling nachos and candy and watching the show. "They came one time on a lark and they just keep coming out. The difference is terrific."

"It just goes to show it doesn't have to be extravagant to be good," says the Moose's booking manager, Tom Simonic.

Simonic says that KWSA has been bringing new life to the Moose. "People will hear the word "Moose" and they think it's a bunch of 90-year-old guys drinking," he says. It's more than just that. Besides wrestling, there are occasional bingo games, dance parties and concerts at the Moose.

But wrestling has brought down the average age considerably.

"I don't know, it's weird," Simonic says. "I guess it's because it's interactive."

"I think they like to be involved," Zygmuncik agrees. "We talk to them, not at them."

Wrestling's emphasis on back-and-forth between fans and wrestlers sets it apart from most other sports. Tiger Woods, for example, probably isn't going to change his club selection based on a sign someone in the audience holds up. In wrestling, by contrast, the fans have a great deal of say.

That might seem ironic, since the outcome of just about every match is scripted. But in many ways, wrestling's willingness to 'fess up to its fakery has liberated the sport.

When the establishment acknowledged that, by inventing the phrase "sports entertainment" in the 1990s, everything changed, says James VanderLinden. Better known as Jimmy Van of Toronto-based, a widely respected wrestling site among fans of the WWE and other promotions, VanderLinden has just published a book, Wrestling's Underbelly: From Bingo Halls to Shopping Malls. He's worked variously as a promoter and wrestling journalist, reaching wide audiences with his Web site, which he launched in 1997.

"Back in the old days, wrestling didn't want to acknowledge itself as entertainment," VanderLinden says. The acknowledgment that it's not quite real, coupled with the information glut of the Internet, has changed the way fans react. "Now, it's just received that way. Fans are so smart that if a wrestler messes up a move, the fans totally call them on it."

The smart marks -- informed fans -- do, anyway. But the suspension of disbelief, he says, frees them and the casual fan to focus on the storylines and get passionately involved with the characters, holding up signs and using chants to approve or disapprove, at major-level promotions such as WWE and on down to something like KSWA.

"With Hulk Hogan, you saw the beginning of charisma," VanderLinden says. "Before, you'd see two guys in cotton trunks rolling around on a mat. The WWE changed it dramatically by having glitz and glamour, ring music." Small, local feds have jumped on the glamour bandwagon, too, with costumes, characters, grudges and storylines.

Most of the Keystone State Wrestling Alliance's fans are children of the '80s, kids who grew up on Hulkamania, Jake the Snake and Rowdy Roddy Piper, the sort of TV wrestlers marketed squarely to them -- kid-friendly, if not exactly mother-approved.

"I saw WrestleMania 2 or 3," says Ben Macensky, reverently, during a lull in the action at the Moose. "I had a VCR and we'd watch it over and over."

The same is true of the show's organizers -- two Pittsburghers living the dreams they forged as kids in the '80s, glued to the TV screen on Saturday mornings, enthralled by Hogan and Ric Flair.

Like the rest of the federation's wrestlers, Blanchard and Zygmuncik have day jobs. "I do accounting," Zygmuncik says. "How boring."

So the two trained, got family and friends together and in 2000 ran a benefit show at Peabody High School for Sidney Barlow's family. (Barlow had been killed trying to break up a fight at a football game in Garfield.) From there, the KWSA was born.

VanderLinden says wrestling fandom has always been about peaks and

valleys. A hardcore fan base will always be around, he says, but casual fans dip in and out of serious engagement with wrestling. The WWE has been in a valley since around 1998 or 2000, he says, following the era of the larger-than-life Stone Cold Steve Austin. Without a major force like Austin, a casual fan won't cough up the big bucks to see a WWE show -- so it's a great time to lure casual fans back to the indies.

"Get your boo voices on," Craig Bolton, 26, of Forest Hills is telling his friends at the Moose. "BOOO!!!! I ain't gonna be talking tomorrow too well."

It's moments before La Lucha is to wrestle the Great Toyota, and Bolton and friend Matty Mihalcin quickly conference on how they will react to the Great Toyota.

"We can't stand him," says Bolton. "We boo the hell out of him."

"Boo 'im?" asks Mihalcin.

"Boo 'im," says Bolton.

They boo 'im.

The point, obviously, is camaraderie and spectacle. As Matty's wife, Linzee, says, "It's just funny."

The only downside, perhaps, is that occasionally actual wrestling breaks out. The match between La Lucha and the Great Toyota, for example, is textbook grappling -- no gimmicks, no interruptions, no distractions. For a causal fan, it's almost boring.

Earlier that night, two very young wrestlers, billed as The Lost Boyz, from parts unknown, fight a tag-team match.

"YAAAAYYYY!!" bellows Bolton, powerfully, as the Boyz are announced.

"They any good?" he asks Matty Mihalcin, standing next to him.

"Dunno," Mihalcin says.

But there's no ambiguity about their opponents, both of whom are unquestionably bad guys -- "heels," in wrestling-industry parlance. It's the Drunken Luchador, a masked wrestler stumbling to the ring, sucking copious amounts of something from a tequila bottle, and Ali Kaida, a caricature of a "terrorist."

Ali Kaida wears a long black kaffiyeh held on by a white beaded circlet. Wraparound shades are menacing on him, as is his beard. He's said to be from Afghanistan, his weight is given in camels, and his entrance music features a Middle Eastern flute.

"I have something to say to each and every one of you worthless, NASCAR-watching cheap-beer-drinking worthless Americans," he growls into the mic. "You're all bums."

Wrestlers often trade in stereotypes: There's La Lucha's sombrero, and the Great Toyota bears both the familiar automobile name and a traditional Japanese facemask. But while other wrestlers actually belong to the ethnic groups they portray, Ali Kaida isn't legit. He's not from Afghanistan. He doesn't reveal his true ethnicity, but before suiting up as Ali Kaida he carefully removes a golden Italian horn necklace that lies against his olive skin.

"Nobody likes terrorists, so exploit it," he says after the show. "The name's Ali Kaida; it's a play on Al Qaeda. It's an easy way to get people to hate me. If I piss a few people off, so be it. If you're afraid, stay home and watch the Golden Girls."

The gimmick was the wrestler's idea, say Blanchard and Zygmuncik, but they approve.

"Most of the business is based on pushing buttons," says Zygmuncik. "When he's introduced from Afghanistan, the Arabian headgear and shades, that sets people off, especially with the climate of the world today and the patriotic nature of what's going on. Anything that's against the U.S.A."

"This business is based on being politically incorrect," says Blanchard.

"If someone takes offense, that's on them," says Ali Kaida.

There is no concern about offending anyone. Which may be the result, or the cause, of having a fan base that is overwhelmingly white. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, large federations such as WWE attempted to reach out to a more diverse fan base, dropping the segment "Raw is War!" from its Monday-night special, Monday Night Raw, in response to national tension over the terrorist attacks. The WWE does trade in patriotism, taping an episode of Thursday-night show Smackdown! in Iraq in 2004. But ethnicities are never as fake as the costumes -- generally, wrestlers who traded on not being Caucasian actually weren't, like the Iranian-born Iron Sheik.

As with bigger federations, the storylines and outcomes are predetermined, mostly by Blanchard and Zygmuncik. The plots aren't heavily scripted, though, and the writing's done on the fly.

"You just go by old stuff you see on TV; it's all recycled," Blanchard says. "You add your own little twists and turns."

"They just develop, show to show," says Zygmuncik.

Wrestlers have minimal input, and usually don't find out how the night is slated to go until they show up. And, like it or not, wrestlers follow the script.

"It's like any other job," says wrestler Justin Sane. "You might wish you could do it different, but you act professional."

Some, like fan-favorite Sane -- the furniture-humping indie wrestler, not the political punk-rock god from Pittsburgh -- wrestle in numerous federations in the area and travel to fight.

They certainly don't do it for the money: Wrestlers earn a portion of the door proceeds, a sum that can be as low as $10 for a night of fan-pleasing physical punishment.

"It's enough for gas money or whatever," says Blanchard. The organization basically breaks even.

"It is fun, but I wouldn't be doing it if it weren't for the fans," says Sane.

"If someone reacts, the wrestler is gonna react back," says Zygmuncik. "Like a heel picks out some heckler to mark. Everybody feeds on that, it's something else."

At every level of pro wrestling, "Wrestling fans want to get involved with the brand," says Gary Davis, vice president for corporate communications with WWE. "Fan reaction serves as an informal focus group for us. The fans know their feedback gets to senior management."

"The camera is on them, their posters," says Adam Hopkins, director of fan services for WWE. "We're zooming in on the fans."

As VanderLinden points out, those fans are precious, by advertising standards -- 18-35 year old males. And big federations deliver that demographic on a silver platter. In giant feds like WWE and the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling, ringside fans are whipped into a frenzy partly for the benefit of the larger, advertising-watching television audience. Thus the mighty pyrotechnics, the mega-stars and the chance for fans to get on TV -- even if only for a second, even for just a moment's glimpse of their clever signs.

And even if the pops -- the crowd reactions -- are fake. Pre-recorded cheering and other fan reactions are sometimes piped in over the PA system. "They call it canned heat," VanderLinden says. "It's sometimes like fans are Pavlov's dogs. On television, especially, you want that kind of audio effect.

At the Moose, there are no TV cameras and no ad dollars at stake, either. Lou Zygmuncik and Shawn Blanchard don't have time for canned heat or "the brand." So when they want to get the crowd involved, they use means that are less sophisticated.

During one bout, for example, Zygmuncik and Blanchard were grappling outside the ring when a fan's hand caught Zygmuncik's eye. Zygmuncik grabbed the fan by the wrist and slapped Blanchard with it. Afterwards, as they love to recount, the fan yelled, "I'm not washing my hand!"

Nobody gets that close in the WWE.

"People will boo at other events, but not so incisively as this," says Ben Macensky, a KSWA fan at Autumn Annihilation. He's a wrestling fan from way back, but says he prefers smaller feds for the personal interaction. After KSWA shows, fans can actually hang out with the wrestlers, getting to know them so well that the wrestlers look for them and their jibes at the next show. Sometimes fans pick new favorites after hoisting foamies with a wrestler after a show.

"I used to not like the Latin Assassin," says Matty Mihalcin. "But we hung out with him once. Now I think he's totally cool."

"They are the first fans that made me break up in the ring," Blanchard says of the close-to-the-bar fans. "I had to put my head down so they wouldn't see me laugh. They said, 'You're a pantywaist!' It just came outta nowhere. After I got my composure I was like, 'Well, your mother didn't think so!'"

"The indie world is a different animal in itself," says VanderLinden. "WWE is interactive up to a point, but the indie business is different -- they are doing it because they love it, they aren't making a million dollars. ... You can see these guys busting their asses to maybe make $50. They love the business, they love the fans. That's why people get into independent wrestling."

Plus, there's the simple holy-shit aspect of it all -- a KSWA show is a rowdy good time, something different with cheap beer.

"It's the closest you can get to Roman spectacle," says Macensky. On a Saturday night in Lawrenceville, for 10 bucks, anyway, it sure is.

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