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Show ‘em the ROPES

Gainesville’s Fest Wrestling expands to St. Augustine and changes the paradigm on independent wrestling

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If you came of age in Florida the ’80s or early ’90s, professional wrestling probably changed your life. Hulk Hogan’s blonde moustache, “Macho Man” Randy Savage’s sunglasses and Andre the Giant’s imposing 550-pound girth transformed from sideshow spectacles into era-defining cultural signifiers, shaping performance art, reality television and guerrilla art for decades to come. But as Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling (WCW) organizations splintered and steroids, scripts and senseless injuries eroded faith in pro wrestling, the sport moved back to the regional, independent shadows from whence it came.

Which is exactly where Northeast Florida heavy Tony Weinbender likes it. The co-founder of No Idea Records and longtime curator of punk rock’s epic The Fest, held each November in Gainesville, began booking wrestlers in 2016; within a year, Fest Wrestling has become its own stand-alone draw. “We’re coming at it with a punk rock, DIY ethos,” Weinbender told Folio Weekly. “We all love throwing big parties, and our wrestling shows aren’t stuffy. Nobody is sitting in their chairs slamming Mountain Dews. Our shows are wild and fun–we threw all the traditional WWE-style rules out the window. In fact, since nobody showed us how to do a wrestling show, we don’t even know what rules we’re breaking. We just said, ‘Fuck it, let’s do this.’”

First introduced to wrestlers via a third-party promoter, Weinbender quickly put his booking skills to work networking with competitors from around the nation. Minneapolis’ Eric Cannon helped next, walking Weinbender and his team through what kinds of personalities would mesh best with the vision for Fest Wrestling. In much the same way that thousands of punk bands rave about Fest, the wrestlers quickly did the same. “A lot of them said, ‘You fed me and actually paid me, and you didn’t boss me around, and you wanted to creatively sit down and talk about my ideas?’” Weinbender recalled. “In only a year, we’ve really created an awesome family of wrestlers.”

And fans, too. Weinbender estimates that at least two-thirds of the audience at the past Fest Wrestling event in Gainesville weren’t wrestling fans. “Maybe they watched wrestling in middle school,” he laughed, “but now they’re freaking out, going ‘This is cool again!’” The other third of those fans consist of what Weinbender calls diehard independent wrestling fanatics, who regularly drive from Orlando, Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami to follow matches. “The feedback we’ve gotten from them is that what we’re doing is fun,” Weinbender said. “It’s innovative, fresh, not pretentious. We’re not afraid to make you laugh and at the same time say, ‘Holy shit!’ every five minutes.”

That’s because of Fest Wrestling’s unique setup: intergender matches, with every bout building up to a grand finale championship. No racism, sexism, nationalism or homophobia allowed (“You’re never gonna hear a ‘USA’ chant at Fest Wrestling,” Weinbender said. “Just because someone’s brown doesn’t mean they’re bad.”) Triple Threat matches with multiple competitors pounding it out at the same time. Popular characters like Su Young, the current reigning champ; Heidi Lovelace, who went on to become Ruby Riot in the WWE; EFFY, one of wrestling’s few openly gay characters; the Ugly Ducklings, a tag team duo of skinny kids from North Carolina notorious for starting dunk house brawls with rubber duckies; and Shane Strickland, a high-flying member of Lucha Underground. “You just can’t believe a human can be that acrobatic and athletic,” Weinbender marveled of the DEFY Wrestling champion. “If you don’t believe me, go watch any of the past Fest Wrestling matches for free on our YouTube.”

Even better, the winner of the Dec. 8 Brawl at the Beach match in St. Augustine will earn a place in the Pickle in the Tree final the following day in Gainesville. What the hell is a Pickle in the Tree, you ask? Good question: “Seven guys and girls compete to see who can climb to the top of a ladder to snatch a pickle off the top of a Christmas tree hanging upside down from the ceiling,” Weinbender laughed. “It’s a play on the old Money in the Bank Christmas tradition, but nobody’s ever done a match like this.”

Which, again, is precisely the point with Fest Wrestling. Don’t expect tired jock-jam soundtracks between fights; instead, Gainesville’s Los Mermers will be performing surf versions of punk classics while wearing lucha libre masks. Think everything’s scripted? Think again. “We set the match card and let the wrestlers do what they do,” Weinbender said. “The average wrestler is walking away from a Fest Wrestling match sore, beat up and broken, but they love it so much. The crowd goes nuts and the wrestlers feed off the crowd, going through tables and chairs. We’ve had dog-collar matches where two wrestlers are going at it while tied together by a 20-inch chain. We’ve had fans bring party weapons—Fest Wrestling is probably the first time there’s been a dildo fight.”

“Nobody ever leaves and says, ‘I’ve seen better,’” Weinbender finished. “Everyone who leaves a Fest Wrestling match says, ‘That was amazing—when’s the next show?’”

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