This Will BLOWW You Away: Women Wrestling in Boston

The most terrifying sound in athletics is that of a bone breaking. The joy of playing is gone, replaced by immediate and all-consuming pain. Then the fear creeps in, the awareness that you might never do something you love ever again. Lastly, the reality of the danger of what you do is driven home, the risk of both short-term injury and long-term disability (like a concussion in football keeping you out of a game, but multiple concussions throughout a career leading to everything from addiction to Alzheimer’s Disease).

All these thoughts and more flashed through the mind of Sophia “Naughtia Nutcracker” Wasserman, age 22, at the time the newest member of the Boston League of Women Wrestlers (aka BLOWW). It was just over a year ago (July 26, 2009), at Great Scott in Allston, MA, and she was fighting in her first match ever as a BLOWW girl. That night, in a tag-team championship featuring four wrestlers all at once, her comrade-in-arms Green Line Greta broke both of her wrists. The wrestlers got through the fight, improvising to account for their suddenly disabled teammate, and Greta was promptly taken to the hospital.

One could understand the urge to run after witnessing such a horribly devastating injury, but for the fearless female fighters of BLOWW, it brought them closer together. They all admit that the incident was scary, but it made them feel hardcore as well: if the injuries were real, then what they were doing was real as well. They were the same as more traditional athletes, injuries and all. Injuries have become like fuel for the BLOWW girls, pushing them to channel pain into energy, to recommit even harder to their fights. They are also badges of honor, as BLOWW wrestlers will frequently compare bruises in an effort to one-up each other. But the women wrestlers’ reveling in their own pain is just the tip of the iceberg that is this strange and wonderful group of women.

The History of BLOWW

It was 2003 when Christina “Muffy Winters” Sartori came across a Craigslist ad calling for women wrestlers. It had been posted by Kayt Hansen, who had moved to Boston from Michigan and was  looking to rebuild her old group, KPOWW (Kalamazoo Precinct of Women’s Wreslters). Sartori joined up and took part in BLOWW’s first wrestling match, which took place on April 24, 2003, at TT the Bear’s in Cambridge. Since that time, numerous women have come and gone through BLOWW’s roster, usually finding the group through a combination of Craiglist ads, the team website, and friend referrals. To this day, Sartori, now 29, remains the only wrestler currently on the roster who was there at the group’s inception.

The only other mainstay of the group is Nash Deville, described by Sartori as both “the ringleader” and “the mouth.” Sporting a cowboy hat, dark sunglasses and a-shirt (commonly known as a wife beater), his job is to get the crowd going early and often. His strategy is simple: anger, insult, and outrage. At the Great Scott show mentioned above, he told the crowd “you’re from Allston: you’re already depressed!” The reaction is almost universally positive despite his negativity. During matches he acts as play-by-play and color commentator all in one. He will frequently redirect his attacks to the wrestlers themselves, making fun of them as they perform stunts that he could not dream of performing himself. The end of each match sees him receiving a merciless beating at the hands of the BLOWW girls, allowing the crowd a cathartic release as the man who has offended them all night is summarily destroyed. The BLOWW girls compare him to George Costanza, the “Seinfeld” character you love to hate, as well as G. Gordon Liddy, the man who organized the burglaries of the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel during the Nixon administration.

Background music is provided by the BLOWW Twins, Ethan M. (bass guitar) and James W. (drums) (last names withheld for privacy). This “swinging little duo out of art school,” as Ethan describes them, is characterized by a relatively austere and withdrawn stage persona, acting in contrast to the flashiness of the BLOWW wrestlers. Ethan, for example, plays every show sitting cross-legged on the ground, almost hidden behind the BLOWW girls. They begin each show with Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” (made famous in “Rocky III”), and continue with driving instrumentals that amplify the intensity of each fight, building to a powerful crescendo in the end as the wrestlers gang up en-masse against the referee and Nash Deville.

Creating a Character

When Sartori joined BLOWW, she was told to base her character off of typical female stereotypes. A fan of Buffy Summers, the titular character of the 1992 movie and 1997-2003 television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” she chose a cheerleader as hers. Thus was born “Muffy Winters,” whose signature move, the “muff dive,” involves her diving face-first into the abdominal area of her opponent.

The character-creation process is somewhat paradoxical. Characters are simultaneously “something close to your heart” and “our own antithesis,” according to Jaime “The Pennsylvania Dutchess” Knudsen, age 25. Her character, for instance, stems from her Pennsylvania origins and her desire to play an Amish wrestler. However, the character is simultaneously her opposite. On stage her character is quiet and subdued (as much as a wrestler can be, that is), sporting drab and formless brown and turquoise clothing. In real life, Knudsen claims she loves technology and will frequently don flashier garb.

For Ivonne “Ninja Ho” B., originally from Miami, FL, her character was taken from a 1999 film entitled “Shaolin Dolemite.” The character is described as a “hoochie from Miami,” but one who boasts multiple Ph.D’s from Harvard University. Once again there is this theme of simultaneous similarity and contrast. Ivonne later came up with a second character. Not wanting to offend her mother (interestingly, it is her father who gave Ivonne her Ninjitsu uniform), who sees BLOWW as “gymnastics with hitting,” Ivonne came up with “Mami Salami,” a warmer, more family-friendly character. She also takes a fair amount of her style from Hayabusa, a Japanese/lucha libre wrestler from the mid-90s. Both his style and hers tend towards the more extreme, heavily reliant on props and a sense of the bizarre (when Ivonne dons her “Ninja Ho” garb she also dons a set of fake teeth that are warped and monstrous).

Many of the BLOWW girls describe professional wrestling as being a formative part of their childhood. In particular they cite the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW), a syndicated all-female wrestling show that aired in the latter half of the 80s. For Lauren “Suzie Screw” T., age 30, Hollywood Hulk Hogan was also a major influence. She describes him as bad, glamorous, and over-the-top. Her character, a 1980s heavy metal groupie (Lauren loves 80s hair metal, especially Poison), tries to match Hollywood Hulk’s style: aggressive and fast. She states emphatically: “I always play to win.”

The BLOWW wrestlers’ interest in professional wrestling is on full display as I interviewed them. Passing around a book of finishing moves in the WWE, they come across a move called the “Camel Clutch.” Within moments they start gleefully reminiscing about their own version of the move, “the Camel Toe Clutch,” a BLOWW staple move.

Why Wrestle?

When I ask this question, Sartori responds “why not?” instantaneously. All of the other girls echo the same sentiment. Everyone of them cites a different reason for doing it. On its most basic level, BLOWW is a means to relieve stress and get exercise that is far more fun than just going to the gym. All of them also thrive on the performance element of it. They love the stage and the lights and the crowds chanting their names. For some, this is their only means to perform, citing a lack of musical talent. For all of them, however, the camaraderie is what truly keeps them coming back. They describe it as a sisterhood in the truest sense of the word: they love each other, but they fight all of the time. However, the friendship between them is evident. Jenna “Skank Williams Jr.” Henson (a Texas native who wanted to create a “poor white trash” character), 36, describes them all as having the same “demented sense of humor.” This is made clear when all at once they turn to watch the Red Sox game playing on a screen behind me. The game, all but ignored up until this point in the interview, has turned ugly, with both benches clearing and a brawl seeming imminent. NOW the BLOWW women are interested!

The Value of BLOWW

As I explained in my analysis of roller derby, any time women’s athletics meets violence there will be an issue of “validity.” There will always be those who come to BLOWW matches with nothing more than a desire to see women beat each other up. For them, it is the 21st Century’s answer to mud wrestling, a fact which BLOWW is all too happy to exploit to drive ticket sales (their referee will frequently begin matches by shouting “are you ready to see some violence!?”). They more than recognize that female stereotypes exist, however in turning those stereotypes into wrestlers, a sport typically seen as belonging exclusively to men (as proof, see how many male professional wrestlers you can name, then see if you can name even one female wrestler), they flip them on their head. In this way, it is an act of empowerment. For those who can recognize this, they will see just how much good organizations such as BLOWW can do. BLOWW has carved out a specialized niche in Boston, a city whose high proportion of college kids and young professionals gives rise to numerous subcultures. There is something inherently “punk” about watching BLOWW perform, in part aided by the BLOWW Twins, and this in part explains why their Allston shows are always packed. But there is also something artistic in the choreography (Wasserman, who has studied dance for many years, incorporates ballet components into her moves) of the BLOWW fights, something beautiful in the holds, slams, and dives. It is sport and art (what dance isn’t?), music and spectacle, all rolled into one. Boston is made all the richer by having a group such as BLOWW, one that not only puts on a great show but also provides a circle of great friendship for those who seek it out.

The Future of BLOWW

Every BLOWW member has a slightly different image of what BLOWW’s future could be. For Wasserman, she would love to see BLOWW become “a Boston staple, like going to a (expletive deleted) Red Sox game.” She would also love to see BLOWW go on tour, to which Sartori comments “getting PAID to go on tour.” Knudsen, meanwhile, envisions BLOWW as a franchise, sporting video games and comics and everything. To this end, BLOWW is working on a calendar that should be available soon. However, stabilizing their roster may be the first step in achieving any of these goals. As of now, BLOWW is actively seeking new recruits, which Sartori describes as “tough girls who like to drink and get punched in the face.” Those interested can contact bloww@blowwboston.com.

BLOWW’s next shows will take place August 20 at Ralph’s Diner in Worcester, August 21 at the Road Devil’s Car Show in East Bridgewater, and then September 9 at the Middle East Upstairs in Cambridge.

The Mental State of the MLB

Most people know that Sports Illustrated makes great bathroom reading. The photos are bright and clear, the articles short and succinct, the information easily accessible and digestible. So imagine my surprise when, while passing the time answering nature’s call, I came across an article from the June 21, 2010, issue entitled “A Light in the Darkness,” by Pablo S. Torre. It was about the history of mental illness in the MLB and the steps the league has taken in recent years to make things easier for baseball players to admit their conditions and seek appropriate help. Without getting into it, let me just say that the topic resonated with me. The article was well-written, blending the statistics that make the problem seem real with individual stories (Ian Snell and Steve Blass, for instance) that drive the point home. A number of factors contribute to the stress baseball puts on its players, including societal (the feeling that every time you go out there you carry a city on your back), physical (Ted Williams once said that “baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer”), and mental (baseball players spend nearly as many games away from their families and friends- 81- as basketball players play in an entire season- 82). And definitive steps ARE being taken by the MLB to assure that players are at least educated as to their options regarding mental health treatment, even though some choose not to pursue it (the main character of the article, Mariner’s pitcher Ian Snell, despite being open about his mental illness, has so far refused more conventional treatments such as antidepressants or psychotherapy, preferring religious study). Lastly, players from previous generations are coming to grips with the idea that admitting emotional and mental issues is not something that makes you less of a man. Many feel that if the cultural outlook on mental illness during their era was as it is now (not that mental illness isn’t still stigmatized, we’re just not whipping people anymore), they might have felt more comfortable in dealing with issues that ultimately cut short their career.

As good as this article was, when I read it I had trouble determining its “point.” I realize that not all features have to make a larger argument. Some are just introductions, teaching you something you didn’t know before. But to bring up an issue like mental issue, one that naturally polarizes (the previous generation’s notions of “toughness” vs. new-age notions about the value of mental stability; the mental health industry’s conviction that mental illness is essentially the same as physical illness vs. the larger world’s at times religious belief that as adults we should be able to control ourselves and power through tough times) without making a larger point seems short-sided. One point that was never made was that the mental health industry on the whole still needs to improve dramatically, which will then result in major improvements in the world of sports psychology. As of now, all diagnoses are based off of external observation and patient description of symptoms, neither of which reveal much about the emotions and cognitions that cause mental illness. The article rightly points out that right now there is no definitive test that will show what a patient suffering from mental anguish actually has. Perhaps more importantly, no test exists that will show the best manner of treatment (how much medication is required vs. treatment, and which medication and treatment type would be most effective). Within this article there should have been an outcry for that, as such testing (and I firmly believe this should be the next evolution in the mental health industry) would show a dramatic increase in treatment effectiveness and a dramatic decrease in treatment time (it can take years to settle on the right combination of meds and therapy needed to make a patient well again).

Additionally, I finished the article unsure on whether or not Torre liked what the MLB is doing. Certainly something is better than nothing, but does the author believe the MLB is doing enough? Should sports psychology sessions be mandatory (or at least highly recommended) for all players? Would such an act help spot depressive trends before they became career-threatening? Would the knowledge that everyone on your team was talking to a sports psychologist about SOMETHING (even if they were just shooting the sh-t) encourage players who are truly suffering to reveal it to others? On the other hand, could forcing a player who is doing all right at the time to reveal something upsetting to them (this is quite common in therapy) actually be detrimental to his career, at least in the short term? How much should the individual’s need for long-term mental stability be weighed against the team’s need for short-term success (the team, after all, is paying the player, usually a lot of money)? I don’t claim to have answers to any of these questions, although my opinion is that encouraging an entire team to talk to a sports psychologist on a regular basis (at least once, preferably twice a week, for the entire season and playoffs) would benefit both management (who could be warned, given the player’s consent, if a player was beginning to show signs of severe depression) and individual player. My point to these questions was more that this it seemed to ignore them in favor of just presenting the state of things. I understand that not every question needs to be answered in a feature. You certainly want to write something provocative enough to get people to think about it, to ask questions like this, and beating a topic to death will make it preachy or even boring (length comes into play here). But as much as I like Pablo Torre’s article, I can’t help but feel that more needs to be argued here. If Torre sees a problem in the MLB, he should lead the charge against it. If he believes the MLB is doing enough, he should make it clearer what evidence of effectiveness he sees (a sentence at the end about Ian Snell feeling better is not enough). Sports Illustrated is a highly circulated and respected magazine, so its writers have the great opportunity of promoting change as they see fit. I don’t believe Torre seized such an opportunity.

Errors Prove Costly as Indians Clobber Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox continued their four-game series against the Cleveland Indians Wednesday night at Fenway Park. Making his long-awaited return from the disabled list was Jacoby Ellsbury, playing in just his tenth game of the season. On the hill for the Red Sox was Jon Lester, who had lost all three of his starts since the All-Star Break. The Indians countered with former Red Sox member Justin Masterson, whose most recent start had been his worst of the season, giving up eight earned runs while just pitching into the sixth inning. However, the Red Sox were not thinking about his most recent loss. They were more concerned with his June 9 complete game shutout against Boston, a game in which the Red Sox were in it until the 8th inning, when the Indians scored 8 runs against the weaker elements of Boston’s bullpen. The Indians won that game 11-0. Wednesday’s game did not go much better.

Lester started out strongly, retiring the first six batters he faced. However, in the third inning he found himself with runners on first and second with nobody out. Lou Marson dropped down a sacrifice bunt, but Lester fielded it quickly and saw that he had time to go to third and nail the lead runner. Unfortunately, his throw went over Adrian Beltre’s head, and Andy Marte came around to score. Lester settled down and finished the inning without giving up another run, but he found himself in a similar situation in the fifth inning. With men on first and third with nobody out, Lester first gave up a sacrifice fly to Asdrubal Cabrera, then watched as catcher Kevin Cash missed a pitch outside that rolled to the backstop. It was ruled a passed ball, but it allowed Jason Donald (2-5, two runs scored) to go to second. He would later advance to third on a ground out and then score on an RBI double by Shelley Duncan. At this point Lester appeared to cramp up in his left leg, however he was able to stretch it out and stay in the game.

Lester pitched in the sixth inning, failing to record an out while giving up a solo home run to Jayson Nix and a subsequent single. He was then pulled for Scott Atchison, who got out of the inning via a fly out and a nifty double-play that he started. Unfortunately, Atchison’s second inning of work didn’t go nearly as well. With one man on, Victor Martinez let a ball go under his glove and roll into right field. It was a two base error that put men on second and third with none out. After an intentional walk that loaded the bases, Marco Scutaro made the second error of the inning and the third of the game, throwing inaccurately home on a grounder hit to him with the infield pulled in. The throw pulled Cash off the bag, and the run scored. After a fielder’s choice play, with Scutaro SUCCESSFULLY throwing out a runner at home, and a Nix sacrifice fly (his second RBI of the night), Andy Marte hit a three-run home run into the Green Monster seats. By the time the inning was over, the Indians had scored five times and had a 9-1 lead (David Ortiz hit a solo home run in the bottom of the sixth, which helped chase Justin Masterson from the game after just five innings of work). This score would hold up, with neither team scoring in the eighth or ninth innings. The Indians beat the Red Sox 9-1. Masterson picked up the win, and Lester suffered the loss.

The Red Sox at the Plate

Adrian Beltre was responsible for two of Boston’s six hits for the night, including a double. David Ortiz had the most memorable Boston hit of the night- his solo homer- but otherwise only had an average night, going 1-3 with a walk, an RBI, and a run scored (both came via the solo shot). Victor Martinez also reached base three times: a double and two walks. Other than that, no one had a strong night at the plate. Jacoby Ellsbury’s return from the DL was utterly forgettable, as he went 0-5. Perhaps starting him in the leadoff spot was a mistake. While this is certainly the spot in the lineup he is most comfortable in, as well as the spot where he can do the most damage offensively, it might still have been better to bat him at the end of the batting order (some teams have had great success with a speedy player hitting out of the ninth spot) and ease him back into the lead-off spot. Unlike Boston’s last game against Masterson, this was not a case of the pitcher just completely dominating the hitters. The Red Sox picked up six hits and nearly as many walks (five) in this game. They just could not drive any runners in. The Red Sox left nine men on base and went 0-9 with runners in scoring position. If you can’t drive runs in, you can’t win games. The occasional solo shot on its own usually won’t get it done. The Red Sox batted themselves out of this game, although the bullpen certainly didn’t do them any favors.

The Red Sox on the Mound

Jon Lester had a poor game tonight. It’s as simple as that. He didn’t do what he normally does, which is pitch phenomenally for awhile, then completely implode for an inning and give up a bunch of runs, then shut batters down again and hope that his team can come back. This time he spaced his runs (only half of which- two out of four- were earned) out over several innings, which in some ways is more frustrating. His change-up was strong, but his fastball was often high in the zone, leading to trouble. When you consider that he’s now lost every start since the All-Star Break, you have to really wonder if he is starting to backslide in his development. Scott Atchison, meanwhile, despite not giving up any EARNED runs, let this game get out of hand. Before the seventh, the Red Sox were down three and maybe felt like they at least had a shot at getting back into the game. After the seventh, however, any such hopes were gone, crushed beneath Atchison’s sheer inability to pitch. Simply put, he is a bad relief pitcher. The Red Sox needed bullpen depth, and the trade deadline passed without them acquiring it, and now they are paying for it. Even if the Red Sox were going to make the playoffs, which few believe is likely, they could not possibly do so and hope to suvveed if their middle relief is as poor as Scott Atchison is. The other two Red Sox to pitch tonight, Manny Delcarmen and Dustin Richardson, did their job, allowing just one hit and no walks or runs between them. They have both shown flashes of competence, it is just a matter of consistency with them. Atchison seems to me to be a lost cause, however, and the only option for him is to be sent back to Pawtucket or designated for assignment.

The Game in Context

Reports have shown that ratings for Red Sox games have dropped substantially when compared with previous seasons, and any number of factors (including injuries, the lack of exciting personalities, and the afterglow of two championships in six years) have been reported. However, what has not been discussed is “the feeling” that can grip a fan-base. It is the subconscious belief that, no matter what they do, your team is just not going to reach the playoffs, not going to win it this year. You know “the feeling” has struck when people start muttering “it’s just not our year.” The last time this happened to Red Sox Nation was in 2006 (another year marred by injury), and “the feeling” came on about this time. Everyone just kinda knew the Red Sox weren’t going to the playoffs this year, so they stopped caring. In 2006, however, we had David Ortiz’s quest to break the single-season franchise home run record, a goal which he accomplished. We still had a reason to watch the games, even if we didn’t care about the outcome. Now we’re in the same situation: we all know the Red Sox aren’t going to the playoffs this year, so why bother watching (especially with games as long as they usually are)? This team is fun only when it wins. There’s no drama in its losses, no personality or fun, nothing to help assuage the negative emotions associated with loss. They just get beat. And if we don’t care (because if the team isn’t going to contend in October, any individual loss stops mattering), we’re not going to watch. Lester pitched poorly tonight, and the hitters followed suit. Hopefully tomorrow someone will step up and perform at a level commensurate with their potential and their salary. If not, who cares? This isn’t our year anyway.