Combat Zone Wrestling

Brett Whitehead
May 14, 2014

All innovative contributions to pop culture have posthumous derivatives, although the end product of those derivatives can take a few different forms. While some subsequent acts will be carbon copies, the best imitators amplify the best characteristics of the original to create their own unique style. It’s similar to the axiom that the best way to find your artistic voice is to first copy your heroes, and then eventually make it your own.

Extreme Championship Wrestling was a professional wrestling company in the mid-to late 90s that revolutionized professional wrestling by focusing on a gritty, real world presentation highlighted by constant and gratuitous violence. While ECW eventually went out of business in the early 2000s, the market for ECW’s signature style continued through the next fifteen years of independent wrestling. Most companies copied ECW’s reality-based storylines and longer “big fight” wrestling matches, but few accepted the gambit of amplifying the dangerous and violent style that made ECW famous. One reason is that things once considered violent and edgy are no longer violent and edgy fifteen years later. When you consider all the violence and sex on TV these days, the idea that popular culture can be shocking in the way ECW was shocking in the 90s seems ridiculous. Another reason is that violence in wrestling has become taboo because of (1) the research done over the last ten years on concussions and (2) the parade of dead wrestlers validating that research. Watching two guys smash chairs over each other’s heads and scar each other with barbed wire feels wrong today in a way that didn’t in the early 2000s. Think of how dumb that sentence is. It takes science and a morgue full of dead athletes to show how dangerous it is to smash someone in the face with a steel chair.

This last point in particular makes Combat Zone Wrestling so odd. In the wake of ECW, Combat Zone Wrestling committed strictly to the violent side of ECW, to a degree that ignored the signs of the times. Combat Zone Wrestling’s Wikipedia page likes to use the word “ultraviolence”, which is a term that is equivalent to seeking the exponential quality of infinity. Violence is violence. There is no such thing as mild violence, no more than there can be ultraviolence, even though CZW seems determined to prove that point wrong.

Intrigued by this description, Neal Gee agreed to go see CZW with me at their next live show. Neal and I had seen Ring of Honor wrestling in Philadelphia, which was a friendly night of competition where endurance and competition took precedence over blood and barbed wire. I did not know much about CZW going in, with the exception that the ratio stated previously would be reversed. Neal is also a good sport, because everyone else I asked to come with us declined, saying they’d let us “check it out first”. Ultraviolence does not play well with thirty-year-olds in the marketing department. Neal Gee and I have bonded over professional wrestling in the last few years, which culminated in watching old ECW matches and, specifically, the match between Sabu and Terry Funk where the ring ropes were exchanged with barbed wire. CZW was the just the next logical step.

CZW Proving Ground — May 10th

On May 10th, CZW put on a show called Proving Ground at the Flyer’s Skate Zone in Vorhees, NJ. As far as wrestling venues go, it was spacious, clean, and professional. The only downside was the B.O. smell, but that comes with territory. We bought second row seats for $25 and were surprised to find the following people in the crowd with us:

  1. Children under the age of 13
  2. An old-woman in her 70s, and
  3. Really any women whatsoever.

Two things of note before the show kicked off: First, the CZW crowd is a nice, close knit bunch. Everybody knows everybody (from fans, to security, to talent), and strangers are remarkably approachable. We struck up a conversation with a guy out front who was probably in his early twenties, and I’ll call him “Dan” for reference. Dan said there would be some violence, but that the show was mostly just a regular wrestling card. Dan told us that Tournament of Death, which is an outdoor CZW show being held on June 14th in Townsend, DE, was where CZW lived up to its ultra-violent reputation. In a neutral tone that masked his personal opinion on this statistic, Dan reported that out of ten Tournaments of Death, only two wrestlers ever had to get medevaced to the hospital for life-threatening injuries. Only two. In Dan’s opinion and by way of contrast, this show’s only glimpse into what Tournament of Death had to offer came in the form of one wrestler’s retirement from death matches in the main event.

The second thing of note was that we caught the end of a previous show for Women’s Superstar’s Uncensored, which was held in the same room and not pornographic despite what you are probably thinking. The match we saw was a mixed tag-team match, featuring men and women. Most mixed tag team matches require that the men fight the men and the women fight the women. But here, a 250-pound man powerbombed a woman half his weight to secure the pin. Now, this was not the first time a woman had taken a powerbomb before, so it’s not like I was shocked over a small bout of intra-gender professional wrestling violence. It was just that men fighting women was an antiquated scene that has been frowned upon and phased out of in modern wrestling for the last fifteen years. So watching it here was just odd. Not enough weirdness to want to leave, but at least enough to take note of what was yet to come.

No liability

Figure 1: We’re also not liable for upset stomach or diarrhea.



I’m lumping these two matches together because nothing significant happened, aside from a fan in the front row who drew attention to himself by wearing a rubber horse-mask. During Alexander Page’s introductory interview segment, the crowd chanted in unison “You fuck horses”, followed immediately after by “You fuck pigs”. No one was wearing a pig mask, but it felt like the natural progression from the first chant so we all just went with it.

Speaking of chanting, most independent wrestling matches are based on crowd interaction. Wrestling fans these days pride themselves on their own interaction with the product, so much so that WWE coined the term “WWE Universe” and reacts significantly to the crowd’s cheers and boos. The gentleman next to us, who was again very friendly throughout the show, began explaining how the cheers work at CZW, before interrupting his instructions to shout “fuck you” at literally everyone. Neal and I, again not trying to rock the boat, did the same because that’s what you do at CZW. Being in the second row, we were also visibly within most of the camera shots, so there’s probably a good chance that both of us are on the DVD for this event, repeatedly giving the finger and making blowjob pantomimes.

Top rope

Figure 2: Top rope!


This is where stuff got weird. By way of reference, comedy matches in wrestling are not uncommon. You send two goofballs out in the ring; let them show off some physical comedy, and the crowd gets warmed up for the main events. Joey Ryan, whose character is a pervert, fought Greg Excellent, whose character is a fatter pervert. The next paragraph is going to sound like I’m exaggerating, but I swear all of this stuff really happened.

Both guys came down to 80s songs, one of which was “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley. Ryan’s shtick is that he sucks on a lollipop on his way down to the right, and a key part of the match involved both guys hitting each other with lollipops. At one point, Ryan pulled a bag out from under the ring, which is usually filled with thumbtacks, but when Ryan poured it out, it was filled with marshmallows. Both men took turns slamming each other on the marshmallows and pretending they were thumbtacks. In the climax to this match, Ryan pulled a condom out of his trunks, put it on his hand and then shoved his hand in Excellent’s mouth as a submission move. There is some context to that last sentence, but do you even care what the context is? Like, would it change anything?

Bombshell Tag Team Match


In what would later become a trend at this show, a match originally scheduled between two female wrestlers and mystery partners of their choosing was changed at the last minute with no explanation. The story of this match was Neveah, the good guy (girl?) in the match, was forced to fight a larger woman with a crazy haircut who wouldn’t stop licking things during the match. Before locking hands for a test of strength, she licked her hand for 45 seconds. When Neveah had her in a submission move, she licked Neveah’s hands and head to escape the move. She licked the ref, she licked the ropes, and even licked a guy’s head in the front row. She ended up winning, and then licked three people on her way up the ramp. Just to make sure that none of this is being lost to imagination, when I say licked, I mean licked in the grossest way you’d imagine. For further context, it is only nine o’clock at this point and a pattern is starting to emerge.

CZW Wired TV Championship


This pattern came to its natural conclusion during the Wired TV title match. The Wired TV title is like the Intercontinental title, meaning that it is meant for younger and/or smaller wrestlers to fight over while they prove themselves to the crowd. Here’s a question for you: Take two seconds and read the names above and try to picture what Shane Strickland and Candice Lerae look like. It’s OK, I’ll wait.

. . .

. . .

. . .

First off, whatever you guessed, you are wrong. Candice Lerae is a 5’ 7” white woman who weighs about 120 pounds. Shane Strickland is a 6’ 3” African American male chiseled out of muscle. So imagine how this match went, with no context explaining why the TV champion is fighting a woman, or why we should stop making blowjob faces for the camera and cheer for a man kicking a woman in the face.

Which brings me to my point from the very beginning of this story. ECW was revolutionary because it pushed the boundaries of what was comfortable to watch in a professional wrestling show by focusing on violence and racy story lines, but the problem here is that there are no more boundaries in today’s culture. In my opinion, once movies like Hostel started marketing human torture, the bubble burst for violence. We reached the tipping point of what was too gruesome and anything generally watchable didn’t push the needle anymore. Where that tipping point is for racy subjects is unknown, but somewhere along the line, being racist, misogynistic, or just generally taboo became too transparent to be shocking. And to make sure I don’t just sound like rube who wasn’t in on the story, here’s my best analogy. In the 90s, talk shows like Jerry Springer used to have episodes where transsexual women would confess to their boyfriends that they used to be guys, and everyone would go crazy, from the boyfriend, to the host, the crowd. Now, imagine someone trying to pull that off now. Maybe at some point that was engaging, but now it would be so against current culture norms, that its mere existence would be off-putting, which brings me back to my point. It wasn’t the actions that were offensive, it was that the thought behind the actions that were offensive and the thought that watching Strickland finish the match by landing feet first off the top rope on Candice’s head would derive any positive feeling in the viewer whatsoever aside from wondering why this was happening.

I’m not trying to shit on everything, so here are two silver linings. One, Candice LeRae is a great wrestler, and the match, despite its misgivings, was the best of the night. Second, we ran into Dan during the following intermission and he had a different view of the match. To Dan, this match was pro-women because it showed that women don’t have to just fight each other, but that they can hang with dudes just the same. If anything, this match showed that women had the strength to challenge male wrestlers, all the while giving them German suplexes (a suplex where you ordinarily hold your opponent from behind by the waist and toss them over your head) by holding your opponent only by his penis, which happened more than once in this match. Can’t say I agree with that point, but I’m always happy to share contrary opinions.

DJ’S Revenge


The next match began new set of trends, which espoused the shock-jock humor of the first half of the show for some common wrestling clichés. This match started as a singles bout between two competitors, and soon became a mess of six to eight guys getting slammed in the heads with chairs without any recognition for rules or structure, which was again a staple of ECW. The highlight here was when one of the managers, who was dressed in suit, got up from getting pummeled and complained that the back of his suit was sticky. The crowd, which had grown rowdier over the break, made multiple semen jokes before all agreeing on the nickname “JIZZ-BACK” for the rest of the match. As contributors to this nickname, Neal and I began hitting our stride and we really gave JIZZ-BACK the business.

CZW Tag Team Championship


At this point, I thought we were going to go backwards into sophomoric pervy humor since both tag teams have what seemed like vagina-inspired nicknames, but this was a straight forward tag team match with four straight forward short dudes. Height requirements in the big leagues of professional wrestling have relaxed over the last few years, but these guys were about 5’ 10”. One guy in particular looked like Neal’s cousin if he drank the Captain America serum, but even that is more of an comment about Neal’s cousin than praise for 5’ 9” pro wrestler Adam Silver.

This match ended when the referee became distracted and missed the bad guys hitting the good guys in the head with a chair. Classic, yet rote, tag team wrestling. Later in the evening, the ref walked in front of our row to greet some fans and I chastised him for missing the call. I usually like telling referees to try “bending over and try calling the game with their good eye”, but this guy seemed unfazed by our criticism, as he blamed his discretion on the licking he took from earlier in the night.

CZW World Heavyweight Championship


This match is where the straight and narrow wrestling went off the rails for CZW. For some context, the storyline of a corrupt and hated owner in professional wrestling has been done to smithereens. Although Vince McMahon made this role famous, every promotion has an owner or some authority figure that holds down a good guy who is too cool to play within the rules. CZW has its own version of these characters, with Dickinson as the Stone Cold Character and DJ Hyde as the smug owner. Hyde arrived to an abnormal amount of “fuck yous” that only increased when he removed both Tanaka and Dickinson from the main event, leaving the match to two guys, Gulak and Busick, who the crowd did not care for.

Once again, this is where CZW’s adherence to nostalgia betrayed its product. It is one thing to antagonize the crowd in wrestling. I’ve been to more than my fair share of wrestling shows where people have criticized the sports teams, my muscle tone, and the women in Philadelphia. But when you are the owner of a company and your storyline is you are screwing the fans, you are still in actuality screwing the fans. While this may seem like a harsh opinion, it mostly comes from the negative crowd reaction which eventually over-shadowed the match. The chants started within the storyline (“fuck you, Hyde”, “you fuck horses”, etc.), but soon evolved to just criticizing the product and the wrestling (“this is bull-shit”, “we want refunds”, etc.). It was also at this point that Neal and I went back to our roots, which involved making inappropriate gestures whenever the camera showed us on screen. My personal highlight was when Drew Gulak approached our side of the ring to give us an intimidating stare, and I can audibly be seen and heard on camera saying “This match sucks!” while giving him the finger. And while I’m sure Drew Gulak is a swell guy, that match did suck so I weirdly don’t feel bad about cursing at a guy to his face at his job.

Final Chair Shot – DYS’ Last Death Match


After the last match, Neal and I were hoping that this would be the palate-cleanser to a strange night of entertainment. Weird storylines and faux shock aside, we came for a death match, and a death match we were about to receive.

It became very clear from the jump that this was not going to disappoint. Before the match started, the ring crew:

  1. Wrapped one side of the ring in barbed wire,
  2. Poured broken glass on the canvas,
  3. Brought out a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire,
  4. Constructed what seemed like a skateboard ramp out of ply-wood, barbed wire and more broken glass, and
  5. made sure the referee was wearing industrial sized work gloves for his own safety.

All of this stuff was like a less-subtle version of Chekov’s gun: You don’t bring a piece of plywood covered in glass and barbed wire in the first act if some dude isn’t going through it in the third act.

Barbed wire ropes

Figure 3: Barbed wire ropes.

Barbed wire bat

Figure 4: Barbed wire bat.

The introduction of both wrestlers also set a pretty clear stage of what was about to happen. While I am generally familiar with most wrestlers, I had not heard of either Dysfunction or Danny Havok before this match. The night before, I looked up some CZW merchandise and Danny Havok has a cool T-shirt for sale that just says “DEATH MATCH”. The caption for that shirt has the following quote from Danny, which discusses what Danny hopes will happen when you wear his shirt. “Cause a huge 10-to-20 car pileups! The more dead children, the better! Their screams will carry for miles in the stillness of the night air! No more birthdays for little Billy, EVER AGAIN!!” Like, whatever, right? Kinda dumb, but still strange and you think “how can this guy live up to this caption”? In a weird, subtle way, it all kind of made sense once they came out. The primary thing you notice is that both guys are covered in scars. Not like the scars are only noticeable if you look closely, but like if you saw these guys at the beach, you would advocate for them to go to the hospital immediately. Maybe they’re not hurt now, but it probably couldn’t hurt for them to get looked at by a doctor again. And once the bell rang, both guys played the role of gross maniacs trying to kill each other.
There was no narrative to the match, because it was basically one gnarly spot after another. Havok slammed Dysfunction into the barbed wire ramp, Dysfunction piledrove Havok onto glass. Havok grated Dysfunction’s head with the barbed wire bat, Dysfunction grinded broken glass into Havok’s face. The two truly noteworthy moments from this match was first when Dysfunction cut his arm so badly that the refs had to wrap his arm with a towel and then duct-tape the towel to stop the blood flow. I almost wrote “accidentally cut his arm”, but it’s hard to say that cutting your arm is an accident when you voluntarily let someone wrap your arm in barbed wire and then smack that arm with a chair wrapped in barbed wire.

The second moment of note was the coup de grace of the evening. As both men were covered in blood, Dysfunction signaled the match was about to come to a conclusion, and pulled out a contraption which could only be described as a wooden bed of nails that had a sheet of glass in the center of it. The bed was set up on four chairs, while Dysfunction prepared to powerbomb Havok off the top-rope onto the bed of nails with glass in the center. Once again for reference, a powerbomb off the top rope onto a bed of pillows would be generally too dangerous, but I digress. To Dysfunction’s dismay, his move was blocked, and he was then suplexed off the top rope on to the glass and nails. After the explosion of blood and glass, Dysfunction was pinned and the crowd looked on in shocked silence. The bad news is that my camera died before I got a chance to take any pictures or movies (and Neal owns a circa 1999 flip phone -ed.). The good news is I found this video of it on Instagram, which is genuinely only a quarter of as horrifying as it was in person.

So, where do we go from here? First off, the kids sitting in front of us left crying as the worst father in America ushered them out of the Flyer’s Skate Zone at midnight. As for Dysfunction, this ended what appeared to be a long death match career, which by all accounts seems like a good choice. I would envision that being a death match wrestler is a lot like being a chainsaw juggler, in that you’re either amazing at it or you find a new profession. Not trying to criticize Dysfunction, but he had to keep his arm elevated to avoid bleeding out from the cut on his arm. Those members of the crowd not in shocked silence clapped for Dysfunction’s retirement, although I was still standing with my hand over my mouth in shock. Where was Dysfunction going to go? Did he have a job lined up? Why did he retire? What his resume like? How would he explain all the scars to his new co-workers at the water cooler? What if his new job had a beach day? What skills does a death match professional wrestler take with him? None of these questions were answered, as a guy (again not joking) smoking an electronic cigarette asked us to once again cheer for Dysfunction before signing off and telling us he’d “SEE US IN DELAWAAAAAARRRREEE!!!”

So, more importantly, where do we go from here? I would best compare this experience to seeing Bon Jovi when I was 20 years old. We showed up late to the concert and waited through two hours of garbage songs before Bon Jovi finally played “Living on a Prayer.” At that moment, when we got what we came for, it made up for all the preceding nonsense because the show built to a worthwhile climax. If PROVING GROUND was that show, going to see TOURNAMENT OF DEATH, a backyard wrestling show in the middle of nowhere, where there is a 20% chance of seeing someone almost die, would be like seeing Bon Jovi play all four of his good songs over and over again for two hours. Is it better to see a show that builds to an awesome conclusion, or is it better to see hit after hit until you end up numb from experiencing the best part over and over again? And what if instead of hearing “You Give Love a Bad Name,” you’re instead watching one guy break light bulbs over another guy’s head? I have about a month to decide on whether to see TOURNAMENT OF DEATH, but I’m fairly certain that should I go, I will not have the same trouble with shock value, but probably the same trouble finding people to go with.
ink splash

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