This weekend at a small community center in Easton, PA, magnificent battles were waged between nefarious demons and patriotic policemen, luchador insects and Japanese rockers, anthropomorphic frogs and combat-ready princesses. Welcome to the surreal world of Chikara: an ultra-progressive underground wrestling league whose mega-skilled brawlers have become beloved indie stars around the world.
A handful of things are notable about Chikara: much more goofy and gimmicky than other leagues, the kid-friendly and hyper-positive spirit of this organization is immediately apparent. While some wrestling events work to replicate the experience of an MMA or UFC event, Chikara is perhaps closer to a mash-up of Adventure Time and Lucha Underground.
While the story told over the past few days has been about the King of Trios tournament, in which groups of three fantastical warriors battle for tag-team glory, a subtext of the event was surely the showcasing of girl power, with the female talent of the night winning the adoration of fans.
In the mainstream, women's wrestling is only just getting the reboot it has long deserved. The WWE has branded this newfound commitment to gender parity a kind of revolution. Fans have clamored for more attention to be paid to the ladies of the league, and the executives at the company seem to be listening — at least somewhat. Despite the reworking of the women's title and storylines, wrestling devotees still see plenty of room for improvement in the way women are treated.
But the story in the underground is rather different, with the girls often unabashedly stealing the spotlight from the guys. One huge thing that sets apart the indies that in the underground, women are allowed to fight alongside and against the men.
"What's happening right now is that you're noticing that very, very strong women are popular across the board," said Johnny Gargano, a beloved indie wrestler finally making it big in WWE's developmental division, NXT (seen below fighting his own fiance, Candice LaRae). "You look at media, you look at movies: strong women are allowed to be strong now. I think in wrestling they are realizing that girls don't have to go out there and rely on their looks. These women are just as good as men. Girls can hang with men, girls can wrestle men. They can show that they're strong and powerful."
Intergender matches remain controversial, however, with some claiming this specific form of simulated violence still too closely resembles domestic abuse. This is precisely why the WWE keeps the women's division almost entirely separate from the men's: if they want to remain a PG show, they can't have cross-gender combat. Leagues operating outside the parameters of TV parental guidelines are not subject to the same constraints.
"One of my favorite taglines that Chikara has is 'Equal rights and equal fights' – and I love that," said Princess Kimber Lee, a 26 year-old pro wrestler whose character is inspired by her love of Disney and her adoration of powerful women like the late, great Chyna. Just last year, Kimber Lee became the first female to ever win Chikara's biggest title. "There's no weight class [here], no gender class, no species class for that matter! Chikara is one of the places that really started with it. But now you have girls like myself, Candice LaRae, Heidi Lovelace — we've pushed so hard for intergender wrestling and we made some of the boys go 'Wow, you're better than some of the guys I've wrestled. What happened?' I think you couldn't ignore it any more. You couldn't treat it as a sideshow act. We couldn't let you."
Kimber Lee's act is almost designed as a tool for empowerment. Before her match on Friday, for example, she found a small girl in the audience and asked her to watch over her crown and protect it from bad guys while she battled in the ring.
"I love all of my little princesses — and my little princes, I don't forget them! — but I don't think some of the princes would appreciate wearing a tiara very much. It's a special moment because they get to be my crown-bearer. It's a very special job I give them. They have to guard my crown from all the rudos while I'm wrestling. I get to watch their eyes light up. That's why I do this," said Kimber Lee.
The character might fit within the silly fantastical universe of Chikara, but I wondered if there was some kind of cultural commentary going on given the recent feminist criticisms of princess culture: "I'm the princess that saves herself!" said Kimber Lee proudly. "The Princess just kind of evolved into this character. She was kind of a spoiled brat when she started but ... It's a really cool thing because I get to show young girls that they can still be a princess and be girly but they can also be a butt-kicker and be able to stand up to anybody."
Kimber Lee wasn't the only beautiful bruiser competing that night, either. In fact, the ratio of men to women fighting at the King of Trios tournament seemed to be far closer to equal than almost any other wrestling event (indie or otherwise) that I've ever attended. While Chikara only has two women on its official roster, the organization imported a handful of teams from outside of their own group, including two ferocious and adorable all-lady trios from Japan, both of whom emerged victorious in the first round of the tourney.
One of these guests was Solo Darling, a candy-coated raver girl who fought her entire match wearing a giant fur tail: "The character is an extension of myself," she said. "I like to believe in magic. I come from the enchanted forest and I run on sugar."
An eight year veteran of the business, Darling reflected on some of the recent changes for women in the industry: "Two years ago it was a completely different situation. Now's the time for the people that have put in that hard work. You can see women changing the whole game and how they're viewed. The athletic performances that are being put on, the characters people that are developing: it's a whole new ball game."
At the King of Trios, matches that featured women weren't received any differently by the fans, either. While women's matches used to pejoratively be referred to as "the bathroom break" event, Chikara fans didn't budge from their seats for fights that starred ladies. "Well, this could be the whole event and I'd be thrilled!" I overheard a fan in front of me say after Team Sendai Girls delivered a terrifyingly strong combination of kicks and punches to their opponents.
"Everything's an evolution, said Kimber Lee. "Things are evolving. The perception of women's wrestling is changing and it's looking really good for us right now. It's a really cool time to be a women's wrestler."
Given mainstream wrestling's slowness when it comes to adopting progressive storylines and causes, it doesn't seem like intergender wrestling will happen in the WWE any time soon. On this issue, Kimber Lee still remains hopeful: "Never say never ... How cool would it be to make it there and bring intergender wrestling back to the WWE?"
"For me that is absolutely a goal," she added. "All I want to be able to do is show the world who I am and inspire as many people as I can. That's the biggest stage to do it. This is my passion, this is what I love....I want to be able to dedicate everything to this. That's the place I want to be more than anything."
[Featured Image: Chikara]