You never forget your first time: a trip to the fun, fantastical world of Chikara.

Chikara has always been a promotion that’s interested, but eluded me. I’m not sure exactly why I held off getting into it for so long. Perhaps I was intimidated by its history, the longevity of it, and the incredible span of characters/performers to follow.  I honestly never knew where to start with Chikara, especially with it being so different from other promotions. Like anything else, so many people sung it’s praises to me that I started to feel guilty for not getting it. Thus, when I read that Chikara was returning to Chicago I immediately realized this was my chance to finally understand what so many of my friends have told me about, and see why it was so popular, yet in a way, still unknown to so many.

Had I heard of Chikara before buying my ticket to the show? Absolutely. Many of my favorite wrestlers had stints in Chikara years ago, so I had seen clips and matches here and there. A few others (Chuck Taylor, Drew Gulak, etc.) are currently on the roster, so when something involving them would pop up, I’d take a look. I think many of us have stumbled upon ‘funny Chikara moment’ videos in our related list on Youtube. For the most part however I knew of Chikara, not about Chikara.

Where do I begin? I received almost instantaneous answers. People who weren’t even following me were stepping forward with suggestions. Chikara fans were retweeting me, sending me matches to check out, specific people, and entire playlists of things on YouTube. It has to be said that the Chikara fanbase is one of the kindest I’ve come across, and also the one that wants so much to help new fans. I started watching what I could when I had the time, letting my friends fill in the blanks on the history as I go along. The internet is such a phenomenal resource in terms of wrestling history, and a quick poke around brought me to the backstories of those I was most interested in. It’s hard for me to sit and enjoy a show without knowing the basics first. Who’s the top guy around here? Why does this group hate that one? What do we cheer for certain people? What’s the payoff to this person winning? Having that small basis helps to understand the current situation, and really helps build the excitement for any event. After watched a few shows and things here and there, I finally felt that I was at least well versed enough to navigate myself through a live show.

Walking into the Logan Square Auditorium, I immediately realized that this was going to be a bit different than most other shows I’d attended. Firstly, the main show had sold out quickly; I assume absolutely earlier than anyone expected. I was at Freelance Wrestling the night before, a local Chicago promotion, and found that many people there wanted to attend the show but it had sold out before they’d gotten wind of it. There was an added bonus to our show in that there was an ‘expansion pack’ element to it. For ten dollars, one could purchase a ticket to come early to the show, see two pre-show matches and walk around meeting the stars of Chikara, even if you didn’t have a ticket for the main show. A genius idea for both the fans who might have missed out on tickets but were able to come see some of their favorite stars, and for the talent, who had a bit extra time to meet with fans and hopefully, sell a few shirts.

Right off the bat, I noticed Chikara has a great merch system. The talent stand behind a long row of tables with their available merchandise, and Chikara branded merch lies in the middle. There was a large variety of things to purchase, from the expected t-shirts, masks and 8×10 photos, all the way to adorable handcrafted pins Ophidian was selling. Creativity was on display here for sure, and as someone who owns more wrestling merch than anyone should be allowed, the range of color options was a real selling point to me. I know I’m not the only person tired of owning a million black wrestling shirts, so thankfully there was a wide variety of options depending on who you were looking to purchase from.

Possibly the most exciting moment for me happened nearly immediately after walking into the venue. We got in line to check out some merch and meet some people when I looked up and realized Drew Gulak was standing behind the table. Anyone who knows me knows that Drew Gulak is one of my favorite wrestlers in the world, and he wasn’t advertised as being at the event, so it pretty much already made the night worth it for me. I bought a shirt from him as well as took a photo, and he could not have been a nicer guy. That meeting set the tone for me for the rest of the night.

After meeting Gulak, I decided I had to go meet one of my other favorite Chikara stars, Ashley Remington. When I was first being introduced to Chikara and people were sending me clips and offering advice on who to look into, Ashley Remington was a name that continually popped up. It’s easy to see why. He’s incredibly charismatic, a great character and wrestler, as well as being so damn likeable. It’s hard for me, as a cynical wrestling fan, to find people that immediately latch onto my heart and provide joy, but he did that after watching about two matches. From his style, gentlemanly nature, and annoyingly catchy theme song all the way down to the fingerguns he throws around, this guy was meant to be a performer. He has the type of personality that draws you in and makes you want to say hello, and he goes out of his way to chat with everyone from what I saw. When my turn to meet Ashley came around, I said hello and he asked my name. I replied and he said “Hello Courtney, may I take a photo with you?” Smooth indeed, Mr. Remington. Before taking the photo he stopped and told me how lovely my dress was and I thanked him, which prompted him to ask if I had indeed worn it for him. I confirmed that yes, I had (it was nautical in theme), and he said, “Well, aren’t I the luckiest man alive!” Touche, Mr. Remington. remington pose His calm, breezy nature makes you feel for at least the span of your meeting that he genuinely is happy to make your acquaintance, and that’s something I really admire. It has to be difficult to spend so much time meeting fans and taking photos, but he never made it seem like it was a job- just a great perk. No one I knew who met him walked away feeling anything less than thrilled, and that’s a real testament to his commitment and charm that many other wrestlers lack.

After milling around the expansion pack part of the evening, taking photos of my friends with their favorites and buying far too much merchandise for me to comfortably afford, there were two pre-show matches that were very fun and high energy. Also included was a segment of “The Chikara Dating Game” in which a female member of the audience, one of the girls I came to the show with, was chosen to go in the ring and ask questions to three eligible bachelors without knowing who they were. The bachelors ended up being Oleg the Usurper, Orange Cassidy and The Proletariat Boar of Moldova, which provided the evening with even more silly charm that had already circulated. In the end, she chose Orange Cassidy, a wise choice if you ask me, and the crew actually set up a small dining area with fake flowers in a vase and some taquitos for the couple as they watched the next match. Little things like that are one of the reasons why I loved this show so much. Clever, fun ways of integrating the fans into the show without it being too overwhelming or forced.

Another big surprise for me at this stage was the hands-on nature of “Director of Fun” Mike Quackenbush. Everyone knows he runs Chikara, and seeing as our show was sold out I assumed I would see him at some point, but his involvement in the actual running of the show was more than I was expecting. He was walking up and down the line making sure people had the correct wristbands. Then throughout the show, aside from doing commentary for the show itself at points, he was walking around during intermission and talking to fans, taking photos and asking if they were enjoying themselves. As someone who goes to a lot of shows for a lot of different promotions, I was honestly amazed at how present he is during every aspect of the show, from pre-show matches and merchandise selling, to post show autographs.

The wrestling itself is something that I feel gets often overlooked with Chikara, especially with the phenomenal character work going on. There’s so much fun to be had, I think many people write it off as more fun that content. While I acknowledge that there is an argument to be had there, from the experience I had, the wrestling itself was not only fun to watch, but impressive generally. Silver Ant put on one hell of a match against Blaster McMassive, the kind that I was so impressed by I realized I had only taken a handful of photos during it. I’m a big fan of submission and technical wrestling and Silver Ant is phenomenal. The main event, Dasher Hatfield vs Tommaso Ciampa was another amazingly well done match, with Ciampa throwing everything he had at Dasher, but Dasher, as one of Chikara’s heroes, showing his resilient nature and never giving in. It was physical, it was hard hitting, and it was incredibly exciting.

Comedic bits are never in short supply in Chikara and our show was no different. There was a mini dance off, Jakob Hammermeier in general was hilarious, and at one point The Proletariat Boar of Moldova tried to steal my and my sister’s purses as he was crawling away. Later on, in the special extra match the crowd begged for, Los Ice Creams snuck a golf club and ball into the ring to knock off Juan Francisco de Coronado, and the resulting measures they went through in order to hide the club from the officials view was great.

Another great moment took place in a match which pitted Kevin Condron and “Juke Joint” Lucas Calhoun against Heidi Lovelace and the savior of Chikara, Icarus. This match was dubbed the “Magic Move” match, in which if the magic move was performed, the entire crowd wins something. In a nice tribute, Mike Quackenbush named the magic move to be the Bionic Elbow in honor of Dusty Rhodes. It was a sweet gesture that had the crowd cheering with joy when it finally happened, as well as helped develop the villainous nature of Kevin Condron every time he prevented it. The crowd bought into every aspect of the show, and it was the first show I’ve witnessed in a long, long time in which my suspension of disbelief didn’t feel forced. I was immediately pulled in, intrigued by what was going on around me. I never once thought to myself “Okay, Courtney, just go with this.” I was already far along on the ride with everyone else.

The comradery amongst Chikara fans is something I’ve never really experienced before in terms of wrestling shows. Perhaps the family friendly environment is conducive to that, but it expands past just a comfortable environment for children. That being said there were a good amount of kids in the audience, nearly all of them wearing masks representing their favorite masked superstar. It’s such a joy to see kids passionate about something like wrestling. It’s the closest they get to real life superheroes, and it becomes even more important when they get to see a show in which their hero of choice is performing.

To its credit, Chikara knows this and supports it 100%. There were two little girls a few seats down from me at the show, no more than 7 or 8, both wearing Silver Ant masks. He came over before and after his match and said hello and spoke to them for a second and I don’t think there were two happier kids in the entire world. Some would argue this is ‘catering to children’ or making the show ‘too childish’, but it’s acknowledging that wrestling spans generations, it spans understanding levels. Sure, we adults may understand that it’s all a show, that the person under the mask has a family and a life outside of the ring, but for these kids, it’s a moment in which their hero is connecting with them and god, wouldn’t we all have lived for that interaction when we were 10?!

los ice creamsPost show, there was an encore match demanded from the cheers of the crowd. The noise that emanated from the crowd the moment the lovely twinkle of Los Ice Creams theme music hit was unreal. For such a relatively small crowd, you’d think a couple of heroes had just walked into the room and honestly, to many people that’s exactly what happened. The absolute joy the crowd had seeing Jervis and Los Ice Creams was one of the happiest moments I’ve experienced. Los Ice Creams are one of the funniest tag teams in pro wrestling, and Jervis Cottonbelly one of the most loved, wonderful people.

After the show, several members of the roster stopped to say goodbye and asked if we liked the show. Drew Gulak asked us if sitting in the front made the show feel more fun, and Ophidian walked right up to thank us for coming and cheering along. It was oddly heartwarming to see how much pride they took in the show, and wanted to acknowledge thanks to members of the crowd.

Chikara as a whole was a very different experience than the ones I’ve had at other independent wrestling promotions. Is it as technical or serious as Ring of Honor? Absolutely not. Does it have the budget and bombastic nature of WWE? No way. The one thing Chikara has that I’ve yet to find in a lot of other promotions? Genuine fun. It’s hard for those of us who love wrestling so purely and deeply to distance ourselves from everything going on. We live in an age where we want to know everything, where backstage is sometimes as intriguing as onscreen. It’s human nature to be curious. There is a point, however, that all die hard wrestling fans come to when you spend ages thinking about when this person will be signed, or will they move up or down on the roster? When your love for a promotion or a certain performer is wrapped up in your enjoyment of an entire genre. Where backstage issues come to the forefront, and it can be hard as a person in general to hold yourself back from becoming cynical.

This is where I think Chikara really flourishes in comparison. antsOf course there are roster changes and popularity shifts, just like with any promotion. But the mystery of Chikara and who is under the masks, the characterization, the season long overarching tournaments and the like – they all contribute to an environment in which you don’t want to know everything. You give in to disbelief, you hand yourself over to the story (as ridiculous as it may be) You enjoy the ride. That’s the beauty of Chikara. When I first started watching, could I keep track of what seemed like 15 different ants? Absolutely not. But you let yourself go onto the journey and enjoy it.

Wrestling doesn’t have to be serious all the time. Life is hard enough for us all to deal with. Wrestling can be fun. It can inspire you, enlighten you, make you laugh, make you cry. It can do so many things. The one thing it shouldn’t do, is feel tedious. Tedium breeds cynicism, and that’s when things stop being fun. The great Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.” Wrestling is similar. Critique is great, but at some point you have to step back and ask yourself, ‘am I enjoying myself?” If the answer is no, that’s where the problem lies.

I’m not saying Chikara is the greatest wrestling promotion I’ve seen. I’m fully aware it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I’m also not saying wrestling is the ‘end all be all’ of life and you have to enjoy everything. On the contrary. Be intrigued, question things, commentate, critique! But don’t forget the reason why you fell in love with it in the first place. Don’t forget the wide-eyed joy you felt as a kid seeing a real life superhero bodyslam a bad guy. Don’t lose that feeling of joy when the theme of your favorite wrestler hit. Hold onto that. Hold onto what filled your heart with passion in the first place. Open yourself up and accept new things. Keep an open mind. For me, watching Chikara gave me that. It reminded me why I fell in love with this weird life in the first place. It brought me back to being 10 years old. Was I watching a man dressed as a praying mantis punching a yacht enthusiast? Yep. Did I watch three ants try and save their mind-controlled fellow ant? Absolutely. Did my heart leap out of my chest and my voice half disappear when two guys dressed as ice cream cones entered the ring as a surprise with their partner, the sweetest man alive? You bet it did. Suspend your disbelief. For a few hours, let joy consume you. Forget politics, forget signings. Sit back, smile and if you need help, look at the 10 year old kid with his parents across the aisle and remember that was you once. Give yourself over to fun.

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