The Hold and the Beautiful

Arch Kincaid is center stage. On a warm night at the Knights of Columbus hall in Lawrence, he and his “sister,” the sexy April Kincaid, are standing in the ring, admiring their respective physiques. Hurricane John Walters, Kincaid's opponent for tonight's Chaotic Wrestling event, waits patiently while Kincaid requests the microphone from the public address announcer.

“Well if it isn't Mr. Personality,” he says to Walters. “If it isn't Mr. Stimulating-as-a-Kitchen-Countertop.”

Kincaid is a whiny, presumptuous intellectual, prone to lectures about existentialism and philosophical theory. He claims to hold a degree in rhetoric from Pelican Crossing University in Florida, an educational institution that does not exist. He has long red hair tied in a ponytail and a shaved, 1980s porn star kind of body — not quite flabby but not quite toned either.

“Well, bland wrestler man,” he continues, “since I'm a shifty melon, and April is feeling a little frisky this evening, we have something special in store.”

April, whose real-life alter ego is a tall and muscular occasional Playboy model, points her finger in Walters' face. “I'm in the mood for a full-body workout!” she declares. “If you think you're going to get a shot at this champion, you're going to have to go through me first.”

Walters rolls his eyes. “It comes as no surprise, Arch, that once again you have your big sister do your fighting for you,” he says, to the cheers of the crowd. “Well, I have absolutely no problem slapping her around. Because I'm the only person in that locker room who hasn't had a piece of her!”

Before Walters can get rid of the microphone, Kincaid attacks. While the two smack each other around in the corner, April — who is fiercely protective of her “brother” and has an uncanny knack for distracting referees — sneaks up from behind and hits Walters in the back. She slaps him several times in the face, and Walters retaliates by kicking her in the groin. “Ouch, no kids for her,” someone yells from the crowd. Another calls out, “April, I've seen you naked,” a reference to April's real-life Web site.

Backstage, the rest of Chaotic's wrestlers are watching the action on closed-circuit television. Ronnie D. Lishus and Edward G. Xtasy — the ambiguously gay tag team known as the One Night Stand — are joking around with the 4-foot-2 Short Sleeve Sampson, one of their scheduled opponents in a later match.

To the side, a pair of wrestlers rehearse their fight: “You're gonna power slam me,” one says, “then I'll get up and look all fucked up.”

In the ring, Walters is beating the tar out of Kincaid, who starts whining and saying things like “Oh, the pain,” and “My anterior cruciate ligament is in extreme distress!” Walters finally throws the shrieking Kincaid over the top rope, and a small pool of blood forms on the wooden floor near where Kincaid's head hits the ground. “That isn't fake,” says first-row fan Eric Arsenault, pointing to the blood.

It's all very dramatic, which helps explain why Arsenault and his friend Mike Jascowski are here. “Some of my non-wrestler friends look at me and say, 'Come on, how old are you?'” says Jascowski. “But this is a soap opera for men — and I love it.”

Chaotic Wrestling is one of several small professional wrestling leagues in New England. It puts on three or four of these events per month, for crowds of 125 to 300, in towns like Lawrence, Methuen, and Lynn. Devoted fans, mostly working-class men and teenage boys, drive upwards of 100 miles to attend. Wrestlers, many with day jobs and families, wrestle for about as much as they would earn working a half-day at the Gap.

This is a tight-knit community of wrestlers and fans, one Jascowski likens to the TV show Cheers. Everyone in it — including women, who insist that barbaric, juvenile wrestling appeals to them too — shares an obsession for watching grown men pretend to beat each other up.

To the outsider, these events can feel like a circus. Small-time professional wrestling is closer to interactive entertainment than it is to athletic competition. After all, it is fake. And while some fans insist it should be defined as a “sport,” most see it as entertainment, a kind of theater. Like daytime dramas, wrestling has conflict, violence, muscles, girls, revenge, deception, and a whole lot of sexual tension.

“These shows are all about spectacle and excess,” says Arch Kincaid, who is really 24-year-old Nick Dealy from Newport, Rhode Island. “When we get in that ring, we're playing a character. It's about being somebody else. When the fans come to our events, they get to be somebody else too. They get to be kids, or they get to be the big, bad, mean guy. They have their roles, and they play them every week. This is theater for people who don't like going to the theater.”

Undercover Wear is an international lingerie company of some repute tucked into a nondescript office park in Tewksbury. Its president and chief operating officer is a cheery 29-year-old from North Reading named Jamie Jamitkowski. To hear Jamitkowski tell it — and he tells it often — he has every man's dream jobs: During the day, he is surrounded by lingerie and the models who wear it; at night, he co-owns a professional wrestling league. According to his official bio, “He's always working with knockouts!”

Jamitkowski's partner in Chaotic Wrestling is 30-year-old Randy Miller, a funny, tell-it-like-it-is former Army paratrooper. Seated in the cramped conference room at Undercover Wear, where panties, bras, and garter belts adorn the walls, Jamitkowski recalls spending Saturday afternoons watching wrestling, Creature Double Feature, and Kung Fu Theater.

“I remember I was in grade school, and I would watch wrestling on TV and think, 'This is the coolest thing ever,'” says Jamitkowski. “I loved the drama of it all.”

“Yeah, the characters and the story lines are what keep the fans coming,” says Miller. “Each of our events is essentially the same thing: character introductions, a quick plot, and some sort of closure. Yet we leave a couple elements open so people will want to see what will happen next week. Everyone knows wrestling is fake, but the fans come because deep down, they all want to be fooled.”

The undisputed king of fooling fans is Vince McMahon, owner of the Stamford, Connecticut-based World Wrestling Federation. Through its stadium shows, pay-per-view events, and original TV programming, the WWF has cornered the national wrestling market. Miller and Jamitkowski say they aren't interested in competing with McMahon.

“Far richer men than us have tried that and failed miserably,” says Miller. “What we're offering is an alternative. What we offer is more affordable than the WWF, there isn't a huge drop-off in quality, and the fans feel like they're part of the show.”

Fifteen-year-old Anthony Balkus stopped going to WWF events after he discovered Chaotic. “Chaotic is more real,” he says. “Guys really get hurt here. In the WWF, they just fake it. [Chaotic] doesn't have mats outside the ring. In the WWF, they have mats.”

Killer Kowalski has seen enough. “Are you stupid?” he growls, lifting his massive, wrinkled 74-year-old body from his folding chair and walking in that I'm-gonna-kick-your-ass way of his toward the ring at Killer Kowalski's Professional Wrestling School in Malden. One of his pupils has failed, for the third time, to execute a fairly simple wraparound maneuver.

“Use your right arm!” says Kowalski, a WWF Hall-of-Famer. “Your right arm! Man, you're pretty stupid. You need to stop being stupid.”

The wannabe wrestler is apologetic, but Kowalski doesn't care. “Let's just do it right,” he says as instructor Mike Hollow goes over the mechanics of the move again. When the student finally gets it — right hand on opponent's shoulder, leap over opponent, hook opponent's left arm, pull opponent over — the 14 other students give a hearty ovation. Satisfied, Kowalski walks back to his folding chair.

Since 1977, Kowalski has been scaring students into doing things right, producing numerous WWF stars, including Triple H and Chyna. Many of Chaotic's wrestlers train at Kowalski's, and newcomers looking to break into the business show up at nearly every practice.

“So many people think they want to be a wrestling star until they actually come in and see what it takes,” says Hollow, a former professional wrestler himself. “Many people will pay their money, come to a few classes, and we'll never see them again.”

On this Thursday evening in August, a group of beginners as young as 14 — and several more experienced wrestlers, including Arch Kincaid — have come to work on their dreams of being stars. The odds aren't good. “The reality is, it's harder to make it as a professional wrestler than it is as a professional football player,” says 34-year-old Chaotic Wrestling champion Gino Martino, a.k.a. John Ferraro, director of sales and marketing at Patriot Plastics in Woburn. “In wrestling, it's the WWF and that's it. The WWF bought all the rival promotions. It used to be that you could be a traveling wrestler and make a decent living. Not anymore.”

Those who do make it understand that their job involves more than just wrestling fundamentals. Or, as Kincaid says, “You have to be an actor.”

To that end, Killer Kowalski's school focuses as much on theatrics as it does on technique. “You have to sell the move!” instructor Hollow often tells his students. “Selling is a beautiful thing!”

After the class, he explains why most dedicated wrestlers won't make it to the WWF: “A wrestler needs to be [technically sound], but a wrestler also needs to have charisma. Wrestlers need to remember that this is entertainment.”

Eric Arsenault and Todd Sinclair are driving home from the Chaotic event in Lawrence, speaking freely about their lack of love lives and their unwillingness to grow out of wrestling. They suspect a correlation between the two.

“Until I find a girl who loves wrestling, I'm guessing I'll be single,” says Arsenault, a 26-year-old bakery cook who works in Reading.

“Well, not only does she have to love wrestling,” says Sinclair, a 27-year-old Webmaster in Bedford, “she has to love big guys too.”

“Oh yeah, definitely. She has to love big guys.”

Arsenault and Sinclair rarely miss a chance to catch professional wrestling. Whether it's the WWF, Chaotic, or some other local wrestling event, like the hardcore Primal Conflict, they drive to wherever the action is. They talk about wrestling constantly and go to at least one show per weekend. For them, wrestling is more than entertainment: It's their primary source of social interaction.

“I'm well aware that being a 26-year-old who goes to professional wrestling events every weekend doesn't fit most people's definition of having a life,” Arsenault says. “I know that most people think wrestling is something you grow out of. But this is a way for me to hold onto a piece of my childhood, and I'm going to hold onto it as long as I possibly can.”

“The sad thing is, we don't even care if the wrestling is bad,” says Sinclair. “Bad wrestling is still entertaining to us. It's just a great escape from real life.”