Sports | Montreal screwjobs

Inside the Montreal indie wrestling circuit, and its unpaid wrestlers

 

I’d just finished talking with his girlfriend in rudimentary English when Dirty Buxx Belmar jumped up in front of me, straddling the iron guard railing separating spectators from the ring with practiced ease. He wore tattered denim jean shorts, black face paint, no shirt, and gazed vacantly around the packed Jean-Talon community center gym like an office worker watching the clock tick closer and closer to 5 p.m.

“Am I bothering you?” he asked. He was still sweating from his appearance earlier in the show, his face paint smeared across his cheeks.

“No. Am I bothering you?” I answered.

“No.”

I deliberated with myself for a moment. “You know, I was talking to your girlfriend a minute ago.”

I wasn’t sure if Belmar was listening to me. He was scanning the gym, as if looking for a way out of the conversation he himself had started.

“Yeah, she told me,” he said.

I don’t remember him making eye contact with me once throughout our conversation, before he hopped off the guard railing and jogged back behind stage. We were at the half-time intermission of Northern Championship Wrestling’s (NCW) Season Premiere 2, and I had spent most of the break watching two fans receive “birthday slaps” across the chest from NCW star Alextreme.

“It’s cool if you know them,” Belmar’s girlfriend told me, referring to the wrestlers. “They do it for free,” she added.

Northern Championship Wrestling

NCW publicist André Therrien repeatedly called the promotion “a family.” Wrestlers are not paid; they do it in exchange for the international exposure NCW’s taped shows might be able to provide them.

The roster is diverse. Some, like 19 year-old Leandre Sauve, are hoping to break into the WWE. Sauve began young. He used to follow his neighbour – also a wrestler – until he let him train with him. Sauve did his first show at 15 and was wrestling weekly at 16.

“I don’t even have a girlfriend for now, it’s wrestling all the way,” he said.

With his grades getting worse, Sauve took the last term off from CEGEP, although he plans on returning.

“If I decide to slow down, I’m just afraid that everything’s going to just crash and my dreams are over, so that’s why I always want to keep on going,” he added.

Most do it as a hobby. Day jobs for NCW wrestlers range from graphic design to working in a car garage. Stan Zimler, head of security for NCW shows, is also an unpaid volunteer. He described the job as his “alter ego.” His nine to five is as a professional accountant.

I asked Zimler the craziest thing he’d seen at an NCW show. He told me one fan ten years ago had once tried to stab one of the heels with a knife.

Bumps, Bruises, and Chronically Dislocated Shoulders

The Season Premiere 2 began with Dirty Buxx racing to help NCW Inter-City champion Mobster 357, in a match against tag team Size Matters, then sealing a formal alliance with Mobster in a spit-shake after the match.

The plot development proved immensely popular with the audience of over 200 at the show. The next weekend, Mobster 357 would sweep through the NCW end-of-year awards, taking the Most Popular Wrestler, Best Match, and Best Feud awards.

Frank Credali, an NCW wrestler under the ring-name Apocalypse, said of Mobster, “He just puts his body on the line. He does crazy stuff.” Mobster spent much of 2011, for example, falling through tables, getting hit with chairs, and experiencing all the other wrestling pratfalls many of the kids in my generation grew to know and love.

Credali, who is also a 35 year-old construction worker, father of two, and NCW’s technical director, wrestled the third match of the show—a three-on-two tag team match. Credali came down the ramp he had helped construct the day before, wearing a black leather mask and costume he paid for out of his own pocket, while an entrance video he had compiled himself using snippets from YouTube videos and the Discovery Channel played behind him.

Before wrestling, Credali played hockey for two decades, a career in which he separated his ankle and tore his meniscus three times. He said that he now takes the “safer route” with wrestling.

“I love wrestling, but there’s a certain limit that I will reach because I gotta think about my family. I’ve got to make sure that I can go to work Monday morning and pay for the food on their table, the clothes on their backs,” he said.

Other wrestlers are not so lucky. Credali’s old partner has been out for over a year with various knee injuries. He also knows a wrestler who re-dislocates his shoulders whenever he lifts them to tag someone.

Jesse Champagne – a.k.a. Pit Bull Brando – had a more dramatic example.

“Some guy this summer, he had a hardcore match and he went through a flaming table, but he’s kind of a dumbass because he had his t-shirt on – and when you’re a wrestler you don’t wrestle with a t-shirt, especially in a hardcore match,” he said.

“His t-shirt caught fire. He was burnt to a second and third degree on I think 40 per cent of his torso.”

During the week, Champagne is a fitness instructor in schools, but he reserves his weekends for wrestling. In his six years of wrestling, he has taken injured ribs, three concussions, and broken fingers back to work with him on Mondays. I wondered what the kids he teaches thought of this, and his tattoos, piercings, and spasmodic facial twitches.

“I punched a wrestler once in the backstage. It was his fault, he blew my spot,” he told me. “I don’t trust everyone in the wrestling business.”

The night before Season Premiere 2, Champagne had been wrestling at another promotion. Going over the top rope on his way out of the ring, he landed on a steel chair his opponent had left there by accident.

“Maybe it’s broken. I don’t know,” he said, referring to his foot.

He wrestled that next night anyway, in a tag match (“So I don’t have to do much”). After the show, I saw him limp across the empty gym and collapse in a steel chair. The facial twitches make him look almost constantly nervous, but he was calm, almost exhausted, telling me he would get the foot x-rayed in the next few days, expecting to be out for two to three weeks.

There probably won’t be blood

Champagne’s tip for preparing for a blade job is to take two aspirin every four hours and chug a beer right before your match. The aspirin is supposed to thin your blood, which allows it to look like you are bleeding more than you actually are. The beer gives the ability to slice your forehead open with a razor blade.

Champagne said wrestlers often blade needlessly. “You have to have the whole story behind a blade-job,” he said. “If you just blade for nothing, then what’s the point of bleeding?”

Nevertheless, he pointed out several benefits to blading. He described one instance where a friend spontaneously decided to blade near the end of an exciting match.

“It added emotion, and people believed it. The fans were crying, literally, and that set things up for another match,” he said. “There’s going to be a rematch, and it’s going to sell more tickets.”

Champagne also knew another wrestler – Sexy Eddy – who got a career boost from getting smashed in the arm with a neon light tube. After the match, bleeding profusely from the arm, Eddy clenched his fist, squirting his own blood into his mouth like a water fountain.

“Some guy in Japan saw that and he sent that tape to a booker – so he got booked in Japan, just for that,” he said. “They just wanted him because that was the craziest shit ever.”

How it became fixed

According to Patric Laprade, co-author of a book on the history of Quebec wrestling coming out this fall, the hardcore era peaked in North America in the mid-1990s.

Laprade has been active in Quebec wrestling for decades, working for almost every promotion in Montreal in every possible way, including announcing, promoting, managing, and wrestling.

Like almost everyone else in the Quebec indie wrestling scene, Laprade has a day job. So we met on a Saturday morning in a coffee shop on St. Laurent, where he flaunted his encyclopedic knowledge of Quebec wrestling for over two hours.

Laprade dates wrestling in the province back to the 1850s, when crowds would gather to watch “catch-as-catch-can” wrestling matches, which were essentially unscripted brawls that could last as long as two hours.

Gambling was rampant at the time, and it was in this culture that catch-as-catch-can evolved into today’s professional wrestling.

“The promoters and the wrestlers realized that, depending on what the odds were for the matches, that if they could predetermine who would win, they could direct the betting into getting more money out of it,” said Laprade.

In the beginning, they only planned the end of the match. Later, wrestlers would plan high spots – for entertainment value – and today, Champagne noted, some wrestlers like to plan entire matches.

With the 1940s, and the arrival of television, came the dawn of the first golden era of wrestling in Montreal. Promoters were hosting sold-out shows monthly in the Montreal Forum. Behind hockey, it was the most popular sport in the province, and, behind Maurice Richard, headliner and close personal friend Yvon Robert was the most popular athlete.

Fellow Québécois headliners like Johnny Rougeau, Maurice “Mad Dog” Vachon, and Frenchman Éduoard Carpentier would succeed Robert.

“Before the Quiet Revolution [in the 1960s], it was even more important for the French people here in Montreal, in Quebec, to get to have a French local hero, because at the time…they felt like they were like second-grade citizens,” explained Laprade.

How WWE changed everything

By the 1980s, said Laprade, Montreal was one of the five biggest wrestling cities in the world.

The market remained tough for Anglophone wrestlers, however.  Len Shelley, a wrestler from the 1960s, told Laprade he thought he had been held back his entire career because he didn’t have a French name.

Perhaps the most popular non-francophone wrestler in Quebec history – Wladek Kowalski – garnered fame for accidentally stomping off an opponent’s cauliflowered ear during a 1954 match at the Montreal Forum. The incident led to the immortal nickname “Killer” Kowalski.

One Montrealer, Pierre Clermont, wrestled under the name Pat Patterson – Laprade didn’t know why – and left for America before his career had really started, because he knew he would never become a star.

In 1985, Patterson returned to Montreal as the right-hand man to Vince McMahon, chairman and CEO of WWE, and within two years, the WWE had run all rival promotions out of the city.

While promotions would normally charge TV stations for broadcasting their shows, WWE’s formula involved paying television stations to broadcast shows.

“One week you were watching [the Montreal promotion] on TV, and the next week – without any notice, same time, same station – it was WWE,” Laprade said.

In 1986, WWE signed Raymond and Jacque Rougeau, Johnny Rougeau’s nephews. As a consequence, all the big Montreal promotions splintered into smaller indie outfits – the NCW being one of these – and Montreal went into decline as a wrestling centre. 2011 was the first year since 1984 that the WWE did not host a show here.

 

Back to the indies

Frank Credali grew up a fan of the wrestling world that WWE forged in Montreal. I spent a Sunday with him hoping to discern how prominent wrestling was in his life.

The day did not start well. Crisis hit on the way to the arena where his son’s hockey practice was being held: Credali would have to drive to Laval that afternoon to help a family friend move a fridge. I didn’t touch upon wrestling until we were driving from his parent’s home in Montreal Nord to LaSalle to pick up a bigger truck.

In the car, I tried to bring the conversation back to wrestling. “So you’re friends with Pat Patterson?” I asked. Credali’s father had mentioned this during a long conversation about World War II when we stopped by his house.

“Oh, shit. Thanks for reminding me. It’s his birthday today,” said Credali, fumbling for his cell phone. After a few rings, he had Patterson on the phone.

“You on a fucking cruise ship again?” asked Credali.

The conversation meandered for several traffic lights. Patterson was in Tampa, Florida. He told Credali about a reality show about old wrestlers he was about to start filming.

“You never retire from wrestling,” Credali explained to me after hanging up on Patterson.

Credali’s father had a different take in my conversation with him.

“My mother was in the hospital with Éduoard Carpentier,” he said. “I didn’t want to bother him – him being famous and all – but we ended up talking a bit.”

“They never took a day off,” Credali Sr. said of Carpentier’s generation. “If they got hurt, they wouldn’t tell nobody.”

The tradition rings true in today’s indie promotions. Wrestlers donate their bodies on a bi-weekly basis. TV money has abandoned wrestling in the province, leaving the wrestlers themselves to follow childhood heroes in their labours of love.

“It’s a hobby, it’s a passion for a sport that’s kind of supposed to die,” said Therrien.

Photos by Victor Tangermann


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