It’s always the quiet ones.
You would never guess that beneath Don Strong’s soft-spoken voice and mild-mannered appearance lies the heart of a heel. That is, until you get him on the subject of erotic underground wrestling.
“It’s about being in control and getting off on seeing the guy struggle, and not being able to do anything about it-being primal and physical…” he explains. “It’s me doing it. It’s not a toy or a prop or ropes or chains-it’s my arms and legs.”
Strong is one of a handful of gay men in Vancouver who participate in underground, or erotic, wrestling.
“For many men, both gay and straight identified, wrestling has always had a homoerotic aspect to it ever since they were little kids, even at the age of five,” says Victor Rook, who examines the wrestling scene in his book, Growing Up Wrestling, and the documentary, Stronghold: In the Grip of Wrestling.
“In my book, men are pretty candid about how watching wrestling on TV at 5-8 years old excited them, and they had no idea why. The reason for this is the combination of aggression, domination, and the physical contact-a primal, innate desire to be connected to other males. For many men, wrestling another guy or watching it on TV was the first time they had an orgasm.”
Modern underground wrestling had its roots in the early ’70s from classified ads placed in magazines like Blueboy, and In Touch. As personal computers became more common, so did direct dial-in bulletin board systems, allowing wrestlers to post profiles with their stats and the style of wrestling they preferred. These bulletin board systems became the basis for the many wrestling contact websites such as Globalfight, Takedown, and Wrestlemen.
Strong had his first match in Toronto in the early ’90s. “I was pretty nervous. The guy was bigger than me. I wasn’t sure if he was really out to beat me up.” Strong’s voice comes alive at the memory of it as if a burden had been lifted, like someone who has re-discovered his sexuality. “It was aggressive. The first match with another gay man… the body contact is such an erotic turn-on.” The match ended with Strong and his opponent jerking off.
The most common form of underground wrestling is submission. The objective is simple: make the other guy tap out and say, “I submit.” How a wrestler chooses to get that submission is what makes it erotic.
Opponents strip down to their Speedos and go at it on mattresses or mats. Depending on the rules established at the start of the match, wrestlers make each other submit using a combination of body and head scissors, Boston crabs, and face pins with the occasional ass slap and nipple twist thrown in for good measure. As the wrestlers work up a sweat, their Speedos melt to their asses and crotches, the way the Greeks meant wrestling to be.
“A lot of people think of it as a form of BDSM,” says Strong. “You find guys that really want to dominate-prefer to win-and you find guys that really want to be on the losing end-want to be dominated.” Strong likes to win.
Gay men are participating in less traditional forms of wrestling as well.
“It’s actually beyond sexual but more about ritual and obsession,” says Toronto artist and wrestler, Scott McEwan. “For me, I get into the body contact, the holds, the gear and the role-playing that is involved with pro wrestling. Sexuality is complex and is also about headspace and fantasy.”
McEwan has been trying to organize a gay pro wrestling federation with a promoter in Minnesota and runs Workedover.ca, a wrestling and queer culture website.
“While in university, I studied submission wrestling but moved on to pro wrestling because the holds are more interesting. There is cooperation between opponents and a culture of friendship. I was impressed by the physicality, the gear-the masculine drag of it-and the combative elements. The outcome for me is a profound sense of satisfaction that is a different type of climax, but a satisfying one.”
Gear, persona, and contact seem to be consistent themes amongst men who are turned on or participate in underground wrestling.
“The most common and overwhelming reason men say they like to wrestle is for the contact and male bonding,” says Rook. “They enjoy just that physical closeness and exertion of the sport more so than anything sexual. To them that is sex in a way, and most of the time much more gratifying. Married men, single men, straight identified, gay; it doesn’t matter.”
Added to that is a chance for gay men to revisit a part of adolescence they were afraid to experience. According to Rook, “So many men as kids did not participate in wrestling in school, if their school even had it in their curriculum. The thought of being aroused in front of everyone was too much of a risk to take. A high school wrestling coach that I interviewed said that still, today, he has a hard time getting guys to be on the team. Their responses would be ‘Oh, that’s so gay. You have to wear that singlet?'”
Physical contact aside, gay men often wrestle for stakes. For some it is a pre-requisite.
Underground wrestling has also spawned its own cottage industry. Gay wrestling events are cropping-up in greater numbers across America, most notably, the Okie Rumble at the Havana Inn, in Oklahoma City. These events are the equivalent of circuit parties to match-starved gay wrestlers like Strong.
“Every year my boss wonders why I go to Oklahoma,” he says with a grin.
Though the wrestling population in Vancouver is miniscule compared to larger cities, it does remain a major hub for wrestling video production.
Ron Sexton started Can-Am Productions in 1991. “I’ve been a huge fan of wrestling since I was a child,” says Sexton. “In my late 20s, after working as an upper management executive for a chain of retail stores in Canada, I experienced one Christmas retail season too many and decided to follow my heart and start an entertainment business. It started as Can-Am Entertainment which was a male exotic dance business with 80 male dancers who worked in most of the male strip clubs in Canada. One day I decided to train some of the hot bodied male dancers to become wrestlers and film it.”
Four hundred videos later, Can-Am is the largest producer of wrestling videos on the web. “We were lucky to start in the early ’90s because our audience is huge now. I wouldn’t want to be trying to start this business today.” And he’s turning away more models than he films.
Sexton defines a Can-Am video as muscles in distress. With names like Canadian Muscle Hunks and Vancouver Beach Wrestling (1 and 2), it’s not hard to see why.
The videos themselves are a cross between physique magazines from the ’50s and soft-core porn from the ’80s. Most of the models wear clingy, posing briefs and wrestle in a ring, an oil pit, or on the beach. There is not an ounce of fat among the wrestlers. These guys have probably never consumed a carbohydrate in their lives.
Can-Am is WWE lite. There is no mistaking the action for being real, at least in the videos I watched. The holds are prolonged, meant to stretch and display the wrestler’s physique as he moans and twists his face in faux agony. It’s not nail-biting action, but unlike the WWE, it knows what it is.
Strong doesn’t let body types sway who he chooses to wrestle. “It certainly is nice to wrestle a nice buff body, but sometimes buff guys have no wrestling skill and I tend to be fairly competitive. Even though I like to be dominant, I do like the guy to fight back.”
McEwan explains the recent surge in underground wrestling this way: “I find the mainstream homo lifestyle materialistic, unchallenging, politically disengaged, and conservative to be quite honest. For me, wrestling is an exciting frontier because it proves that lifestyle is about possibility and individual tastes.”
Strong feels wrestling’s crossover into mainstream gay culture is just a matter of younger guys discovering it. “The internet has made the difference. Anyone looking for a board or website can find gay wrestling instantly.” He advises anyone getting involved with wrestling for the first time to talk to their opponent to make sure they agree on limits. He also recommends staying in your weight class.
Underground wrestling has come a long way from the back pages of Blueboy. Whether or not underground wrestling becomes as popular in Vancouver as in other cities is yet to be seen. In the meantime Strong’s boss will just have to keep wondering why he needs time off to go Oklahoma every year.