Armstrong’s Ban is Cycling’s Death Knell

With Armstrong abandoning his fight against USADA, all seven of his Tour de France wins might disappear. As will what’s left of cycling’s credibility and popularity. (www.dosomething.org)

Once upon a time, boxing ruled in America. The sport appealed to everyone from Las Vegas millionaires to working-class dockworkers. Its events packed the world’s biggest arenas and drew millions more either to their local bars or around their TVs and radios.

Now, boxing barely matters here. What happened? The public became convinced every fight was rigged (June’s highly publicized Pacquiao-Bradley farce did nothing to dissuade us from that notion), and it became disgusted after watching the fall of Muhammad Ali, the sport’s greatest, smartest, funniest, handsomest athlete.

Granted, cycling’s popularity in the U.S. has never been remotely close to boxing’s. But cycling definitely made inroads in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, and Lance Armstrong was the biggest reason why.

Armstrong’s story – a cancer-survivor refusing to give in, an American dominating a sport ruled by Europeans, a quietly hilarious cameo in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story — was one we could latch onto. And in a sport where drug use apparently rivals that of baseball, Armstrong proved that no matter how much an opponent might cheat, heart and determination and talent could still win out.

Nope. Turns out, Armstrong’s heart probably pumped red-cell enhanced blood, just like everyone else in an irredeemable sport.

Armstrong abandoned his fight against the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s decade-old allegations Friday, earning him an immediate lifetime-ban from competitive cycling. The International Cycling Union and Amaury Sport Organization – which organizes the Tour de France — have yet to clarify with USADA who decides Armstrong’s status as a seven-time Tour winner, but all of Armstrong’s yellow jerseys could easily go the way of boxing’s integrity.

Even if Armstrong ultimately retains his titles, it won’t matter: cycling as a general-interest spectator sport is effectively dead in this country. Armstrong was the last defense against the public assuming every great cyclist is just a great cheater breaking the rules better than his opponents.

Armstrong’s fall doesn’t exactly replicate Ali’s. Armstrong chose to break the rules, and even if everyone else also did it, that decision still deserves the full penalty of the law. Ali, meanwhile, fought his whole career ignorant of the damage all those blows to the head would have on his brain — in part because boxing’s organizers kept such information away from their moneymakers.

While the former athlete deserves the blame for his own downfall that the latter does not, Armstrong and Ali still parallel each other in that each was such a dominant athlete during his career that he came to embody his respective sport. Because of that, when those athletes withered, so did their respective sports’ popularity.

Continue reading Armstrong’s Ban is Cycling’s Death Knell

MassBytes: El Pelón Chili-Eating Finals

Those two look terrified because those jalapeño and cherry peppers are just the preliminary rounds. Find out how the actual habanero-eating rounds went at MassBytes.com. (Photo by Sarah Sparks/MassBytes.com)

I had an absolute blast covering El Pelón’s Fiery Fifteen habanero contest last month. Thanks in no small part to all of you, the story went on to become one of the most popular stories on MassBytes, Sarah Sparks’ fantastic food blog.

After such a successful first foray into competitive eating, how could I not return for the finals?

Check it out!

MassBytes: El Pelón Chilli-Eating Story Live

Eating half a habanero pepper nearly destroyed me. To see how some dudes fared trying to eat 15, head to MassBytes.com. (Photo by Sarah Sparks/MassBytes.com)

Sarah Sparks of MassBytes – a fantastic Boston-based food blog – asked me to write up a habanero-eating contest at El Pelón in Brighton Thursday night. I’d never covered competitive eating before, but hey, ESPN broadcasts the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest every year. That makes it at least as much of a sport as professional poker, right?

To help me understand the event, I voluntarily ate half a habanero after finishing my post-contest interviews. That probably wasn’t my smartest decision ever.

Anyway, the story’s now live on MassBytes.com.

Check it out!

The Ultimate “Worst Idea Since”

Ultimate Tazer Ball: Have professional athletics really come to THIS? (www.utblive.com)

Google “worst idea since” and some pretty funny clauses pop up:

• Worst idea since Greedo shooting first

• Worst idea since black highlighters

• Worst idea since the plug-in flashlight

One summer when I was 12 or 13, I approached a summer camp counselor about a bunch of us getting up at midnight to play Ultimate Frisbee on a nearby field. He asked his unit head, who said it was “the worst idea since invading ‘Nam.”

These were all terrible ideas worthy of being compared to other potentially terrible ideas. But I’ve just stumbled onto a true work of abject stupidity: Ultimate Tazer Ball.

The premise… is exactly what it sounds like. You run around with a giant ball, scoring by throwing it into a net (a la team handball) or running it in (a la rugby). But players defend by zapping you with freaking stun guns! Which aren’t actual Tasers, by the way: Tasers shoot from a distance.

This is a reason why all those anonymously evil foreign powers hate America.

Continue reading The Ultimate “Worst Idea Since”

Holding Their Manhoods Cheap

The Warrior Dash: All fun and games until someone dies. Then it becomes a pointless tragedy.

(Thanks Shakespeare)

A friend and I were chatting early Monday morning. She mentioned “zorbing,” so I looked it up. OK, people running in giant bubbles. Reminds me a bit of “The Avengers” (an utterly forgettable Uma Thurman flick from the late 90s), but seems harmless. So zorbing leads to the “Spartan Race,” which I’ve also never heard of. I looked it up, it’s an obstacle course like the Warrior Dash, just longer. As if running, climbing and crawling through three miles of mud, water and fire (not necessarily in that order) wasn’t enough, now people want to do this for as long as two straight days.

I have to ask: has this country gone crazy?

There was a time, maybe even as recently as 10 years ago, when running a marathon was considered the pinnacle of athletic achievement. It took years of commitment to both fitness and diet to train for one, and one was where it stopped and started. Now, marathon running has become a hobby (another friend even called it “nerdy”). I know at least two people who have run multiple marathons, and a third who will join that group by the end of 2011.

I think the Internet has a lot to do with this: new exercise and nutrition strategies can be shared so quickly that bona fide training revolutions can happen in a matter of days, with people easily finding scours of like-minded racers to train with and motivate each other. Ultra-marathons seem to have replaced marathons as the new challenge, adding upwards of 75 more miles to a race whose original claim to fame was that the first guy to run the distance died afterwards.

People have always sought physical activities as a means to prove their… something. “Manliness,” I guess, if you’re a man. “Strength,” maybe. Or perhaps just “worth.” But as time goes on, we seem to keep inventing more extreme measure by which to prove whatever it is these activities prove.

I wouldn’t have any problems with this except that it’s dangerous, even lethal. Two people died from heat stroke after a Warrior Dash in Kansas City in July. A third was paralyzed from the chest down the same day at another Warrior Dash in Michigan. Granted, two fatalities does not equal a trend, nor does it suggest anything other than that the race administrators probably should’ve considered the heat before running the race (there were 57 cases of heat stroke). But you have to ask: was there a purpose to these people’s deaths?

There are many professions in which people assume a degree of risk, even life-threatening risk. Firefighters take risks every day, but their actions save lives. Soldiers risk death as well, and whether or not their actions save lives, serving your country is an ideal lofty and honorable enough to justify dying for it. Even professional athletes take on a degree of risk (especially in football), but those giant paychecks glitter so brightly that many can’t help but be drawn to them like flies to the bug zapper.

This is something different, something incredibly unnecessary. There are some things whose proof might be worth dying for. But is saying you ran the Warrior Dash one of them? The two men who died had neither wives nor children. Thank God. How could a widow reflect on her husband’s death and not conclude he thought running through mud was more important than she was? How could a child maintain optimism in a world where deaths as pointless as this can happen? As the mother of one of the deceased said, “What a waste.”

It may challenge conventional notions of “manliness,” but true strength doesn’t come from being able to scale a wall or swim through frozen water. It comes from seeing that challenge, admitting one’s interest is inherently selfish, and then subsuming that urge in the need to provide for one’s loved ones. That’s being strong. If you can run 20 miles, great. Make your kid want to go to college or join Doctors Without Borders, then come talk to me.

This extreme obstacle trend continues to grow, not fade, which means I can’t help but think the next course will be even tougher. The risks will be even greater, which means the value we ascribe to life must inversely decline to justify participation. The Spartan Race already calls its two-day version the “Spartan Death Race,” advertising it as www.YouMayDie.com.

Perhaps we’ll ultimately reach this:

God help us all.

Yo… What’s her Face!

"Rocky," starring Sylvester Stallone, is a work of fiction, but a truer story of sport than most "true story" sports movies could ever hope to be.

My friend Kris Jenson reviews films and video games for the Weekly Dig, a Boston-based entertainment magazine and newspaper. He might very well know more about movies than I know about sports. His ongoing project is to tackle the American Film Institute’s “100 Years … 100 Movies” list. When he reviewed “Rocky” earlier this week, I thought it might make for excellent cross-bloggery if I did the same.

“Rocky” (1976) is the story of Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), a past-his-prime boxer almost arbitrarily given a title shot against reigning champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). The film wound up being the start of a six-film journey that would see Rocky become world champion, make Mr. T look so foolish he’d pity himself, single-handedly end communism, and take part in possibly the worst sequel ever made.

A Work of Fiction More Honest Than Most “True Story” Sports Films

As much as I love sports, I don’t care for most sports movies. For every “Miracle,” a true story well-made and faithful to the real event, there’s a “The Blindside,” a “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” or a “Remember the Titans.” The first film was so sappy it could cover pancakes. The second was plain-old stupid. The third was well-written and well-acted, it just has nothing to do with the actual 1971 T.C. Williams football team. The real Titans outscored their opponents 338-38 in their 13 games, shutting out their opponents nine times. Their state championship game was a blowout, and star linebacker Gerry Bertier was paralyzed two months after they had won the championship, not before. Lovely movie, but it has nothing to do with reality. I can’t stand cheese, stupidity or fabrication in sports films, leaving very few good ones.

“Rocky” is one such good one. The story may be fiction, but the portrayal of the life of a boxer rings true. There’s a moment of triumph over adversity, of course, but first comes a brutal portrayal of exactly how much adversity the professional athlete faces. Rocky’s life is crap. He lives in crappy apartment. He has a crappy job, and he’s not even good at it. He has one friend, a drunk (Burt Young). He’s attracted to a pet shop employee (Talia Shire, whose character is the sister of Young’s), but he at first he only likes her because she “fills gaps.” Rocky gave his youth to a sport and got nothing out of it. Only “The Wrestler” (another sports-movie favorite) presents a bleaker take on the life of a professional athlete, and that’s just because Mickey Rourke’s character actually achieved superstardom, then lost it.

Proving Oneself, but to Whom?

More than any other sport, boxing is littered with stories like Rocky’s. The massive profligation of amateur boxing clubs, coupled with the massive corruption of the professional world, created generations of small-time boxers with big-time dreams. And in pursuing but never achieving those dreams, hundreds of would-be professional athletes washed out into the world, disheveled and dejected. Their passion burns strong, but the realization that their passion brought them nothing leaves them broken and depressed.

Rocky is such an athlete. He doesn’t believe he can beat Creed (whose frontal shot in the dressing room before the fight is one of the more subtly unnerving moments in the film, since before then he’d only worn loose-fitting and fancy clothes). All he wants is validation that, given better breaks in his career, he could have had what Creed has. His goal is just to finish the fight, to not get embarrassed, to make a good accounting of himself.

Sports movies are almost always about someone proving something to someone else. “The Fighter” is about Mickey Ward proving his value to his own family. “Any Given Sunday” is about an old coach proving his coaching style can still work with modern media-savvy athlete. And countless sports films boil down to black people proving things to white people that white people probably should have already known. Rocky is about a boxer proving something to himself, and that difference is why it stands out from both the majority of sports films and the five other “Rocky” films.

What Happened to Boxing?

In his review, Kris mentions that all three sports films to make the AFI’s list are boxing films: “Rocky,” “On the Waterfront” and “Raging Bull.” Oddly enough, my professors at BU say that the best sports writing is always boxing writing. There’s something about boxing’s fusion of athleticism and strength – the dance and the war – that makes it appealing to Americans. Baseball may be the most nostalgic, and basketball the most glamorous, but boxing is the most romantic. Or at least it used to be. The one thing “Rocky Balboa” gets right (also the only thing “Rocky V” comes close to getting right) is the death of boxing in America. So what happened?

Three things killed boxing’s popularity: corruption, bad competition, and Muhammad Ali. A system as rife with mob influence, as clearly built to keep a few fighters at the top and prevent the majority from ever advancing, could’t hope to survive. Too much money changed hands under the table, and people lost faith in every athlete’s actual prowess. No one could win a match without people assuming, “well, boxing’s fixed, right?” The boxing commission became a snake eating its own tail, and eventually it devoured itself.

Adding to the problem was the lack of quality heavyweight competitors. Muhammad Ali had Joe Frazier, and the results were the “Fight of the Century,” the “Rumble in the Jungle,” and the “Thrilla in Manilla.” Three of the greatest boxing matches ever, only made possible because two transcendent boxers existed at the same time. There have never been two top fighters in the heavyweight division at the same time since then. Mike Tyson, George Foreman, Evander Holyfield – no heavyweight champion since Ali has had a true competitor to battle against. That might have meant easier fights, but it also meant less interesting viewing. And with the increasing costs of Pay-per-View boxing matches, no one wanted to shell out for a match that could not provide enough bang for the buck.

Ali’s boxing career marked its peak in popularity, but what happened to Ali after began its death spiral. You think concussions are affecting how fans view football? How do you think people felt watching the degeneration of the greatest boxer that ever lived? People realized that every blow to the head they cheered for caused a bit more brain damage, erased a few more memories and took a few more years from the recipient’s life. America realized it was watching people kill each other, not fight each other. And they weren’t going to die with honor. Boxing reduced its athletes to brain-damaged, amnesiac, emotionally depressed wrecks who were fated to suffer through decades of retirement, all in the name of entertainment. Very few people can stomach watching an execution, and many realized that boxing was just a very slow execution. America couldn’t watch anymore, so they simply turned it off.

Which Super Heroes Would Make Super Athletes?

In light of finally seeing “Green Lantern” (which did a competent job of meeting the exceedingly low expectations I set for it, so… yay?), I’ve decided to answer an all-important question: would having superpowers make you a better athlete? If so, which sport, and at what position?

Considering sports and comic books are easily my two greatest areas of knowledge, let’s set some ground rules (otherwise this blog post could easily top 2,000 words). For consideration, the hero:

  1. Must be a DC comics character (sorry, Marvel, but I prefer my heroes archetypal).
  2. Must have at one point been in the Justice League of America (otherwise we’re talking dozens of characters).

OK, rules are all set, let’s give a new meaning to the phrase “fantasy sports.”

Sure, the JLA are great superheroes. But would they be great professional athletes?

Superman: Hockey center

The problem with all-around heroes like Superman is that they really can play anywhere. I could think of 10 positions that Superman would excel at across all sports, but the NHL needs a high-profile player to help it steal some ratings from the other three major sports. Who would do that more effectively than the most iconic hero of all time? A center has to do a little of everything on the ice: lead the team, fight for faceoffs, pass and shoot. Clark Kent’s bulk would make him hard to push around on the ice, plus he could literally fly down the ice on break-aways. Perfect NHL center.

Wonder Woman: Rugby hooker

Rugby is unfortunately the only sport available to women (and I’m not yet counting women’s tackle football, though it exists) that utilizes force and physicality. Although the position has a crappy name, the hooker is ideal for Diana of Themyscira. Hookers have to block like forwards and run like backs. In the scrum, the hooker must support the entire weight of the scrum-half while still rolling the ball back to a teammate (called “hooking,” after the shape the leg makes). The position requires strength, speed and stamina. Look, it’s either this or rodeo-shows with that lasso, so what do you want?

Batman: Football coach

This one is the easiest. Batman is absolutely the Bill Belichick of the DC Universe: brilliant, cold, conniving, distanced. Batman knows how to use what he has to do the maximum good, be it his own abilities or JLA personnel. Bruce Wayne would make an excellent coach, and no sport requires the pre-planning like football.

The Flash: Running back

Yeah, yeah, track and field, blah blah blah. Look, people go into sports to make money. No one gets rich running track, even if you can run so fast you can beat people who travel instantaneously across time and space (this actually happened in 1998). Flash’s speed and reaction time would make him lethal in an NFL backfield, and he could vibrate through tackles. Barry Sanders, meet Wally West.

Martian Manhunter: Designated hitter

J’onn J’onzz’s telepathy would make him a fantastic hitter because he would know pitch selection and location ahead of time. He’s quick, but maybe not quick enough to make a good position player. And not that I would accuse of him of doing something dishonest, but telepathy would also let him steal signs when he gets to second and tell other hitters without anyone noticing.

Green Arrow: quarterback

Pinpoint accuracy, arm strength and trajectory perception would make Oliver Queen an ideal QB. Technically, his protege Red Arrow is more accurate with anything not a bow and arrow, but Roy Harper’s a heroin junkie, and the NFL doesn’t need another drug addict sullying its image. As a backup, go with Booster Gold: he used to actually be a quarterback!

Green Lantern: point guard

This is a bit of a stretch, but there aren’t any rules yet banning contact between players and green energy constructs in the NBA. Kyle Rayner (or Hal Jordan, or John Stewart if you want to be un-PC) could use his ring to push people off rebounds, elevate the ball over defenders on fade-aways, or create one-man double- or triple-teams on defense. No sport requires endurance like basketball, and endurance is all about willpower… I guess.

Plastic Man: shortstop

Eel O’Brian’s elasticity would make it very hard for grounders to get by him into the outfield. He would also be able to get his foot to second base quicker than an average SS to start a double play, or stretch his glove over the base for pick-off attempts.

Aquaman: water boy

Because Aquaman sucks at everything. Fine, how about competitive fishing? That way I never have to watch him.

As a bonus, I’ll give you two super-villains. Lex Luthor would be the perfect NFL owner: very rich, and completely unconcerned with the welfare of his employees. The Joker would make an excellent Cincinnati Bengal: you never know what he’s going to do, but somebody’s probably going to die.

It’s 30 Years Later and We’re Still Trying to “Be the Ball”

Picked up the latest Sports Illustrated today. Not bad, some interesting articles. One in particular caught my eye: an interview with the cast and crew of the cult classic “Caddyshack,” which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary (it debuted in theaters on July 25, 1980). For those who’ve never seen it, be warned: it’s about golf… sort of. It centers around Bushwood Country Club, where there has always been a clear definition of place in society. On the one hand you have the staff and caddies, comprised of working-class Italian, Irish, and African-Americans (mostly Catholic). And on the other hand you have the members, rich and Anglo-Saxon (namely Lutheran). The status quo is shaken up by two iconoclasts: Ty Webb (played by Chevy Chase), the reclusive wunderkind golfer whose father helped found the club, and Al Czervik (played by Rodney Dangerfield), the nouveau riche real estate man who throws money around like it’s growing on trees. Ty Webb does his best to aid caddy Danny Noonan (played by Michael O’Keefe) in Noonan’s dreams of escaping his place in society by going to college, although he cautions Noonan not to compromise himself in order to do so. In the background is a side-story involving greens-keeper Carl’s (played by Bill Murray) ongoing battle with an annoyingly cute gopher (played by a puppet) that’s damaging the course. All of the stories come together in the climactic golf battle between Webb, Czervik, and two longstanding club members (with Noonan caddying), with Carl simultaneously trying to blow up the gopher’s underground tunnels using plastic explosives. I won’t give away the ending, but it wraps the various stories up in bizarre but satisfying fashion.

“Caddyshack” grossed nearly $40 million in North America. It has been named as the 7th best sports movie of all time by the American Film Institute. Most importantly, it has become an inextricable part of Americana. Its quotes pervade not just the American populace but the sports world as well. Golfers will frequently tell each other to “be the ball.” And Carl’s usage of the term “Cinderella story” (the term may have existed before, but “Caddyshack” popularized it) is now the go-to expression for any team rising above and beyond expectation. This was a film whose production was characterized by rampant drug use (Dangerfield arrived for his first meeting with the movie executives and greeted them by doing lines of cocaine on their desk), off-screen feuds and mis-communications (Chase and Murray had never acted together before due to a feud that dates back to their “Saturday Night Live” days; the final scene’s use of explosives was never cleared by the country club’s owners, so the producers sent him to a meeting off-site and detonated them essentially “behind his back”), and little to no script or direction (most of the famous scenes are just improvisation). And yet, it has gone on to incredible critical and financial fame. After 30 years, we have to ask ourselves, “why?” What is it about this film that is so classic?

For me, what makes this movie so unforgettable is the acting of its three stars, Dangerfield, Chase, and Murray. Rodney Dangerfield is wonderfully over-the-top, turning every observation into a barb, every detail into a point of humor. This was his first film, and he was still trying to figure out how to turn his stand-up routine into a successful acting style. While he would go on to greater performances (my favorite is definitely “Back to School”), there is so much to love about his flamboyance, his lack of interest in any established norm or rule. Meanwhile, Chase brings an affable otherworldliness to the character of Ty Webb. His character is so out-there that you honestly have no idea what is going to come out of his mouth at any given moment. His quiet, calmly bizarre attitude stands in poignant contrast to Dangerfield’s and Murray’s more in-your-face characters. And speaking of Bill Murray, what else can be said? In the words of the GZA, he’s “Bill Groundhog-Day, Ghostbustin’-ass Murray!” His lines are ridiculous, his acting is insane, and his improvisation is without compare. It’s not just his voice, but his facial expressions (the slack-jawed, diagonally-positioned mouth, the mostly-stoned eyes), posture (constantly leaning, never upright, never RIGHT), his gravitas. While Czervik is kind of everywhere, and Webb is somewhere else, Carl is just not there. We barely know what to do with a character like his, as every time you think he’s just a goofball he starts muttering about cutting people’s hamstrings. Dangerfield would go on to greater things, and Chase was in mid-career stride, Ty Webb being a memorable but not mind-blowing performance. But Murray’s Carl, for the sheer mindless insanity, is perhaps Murray’s greatest comedic performance.

Since this is ostensibly a sports blog, I feel obliged to mention something about golf. So here we go: something about golf. Ha ha! “That was a doozy, judge!” (or something like that). Anyway, I don’t know very much about golf. The SI article interviews several golfers about the movie, and the consensus seems to be that the sentiment is right on, the atmosphere accurate, and the play-style very accurate to the 1970s (the mechanics of the golf swing have changed since then). I think golf as a sport, despite its “purity” (Will Smith in “The Legend of Bagger Vance” reminds us that it’s “just you and the ball, all by your lonesome”), brings out something negative in us. Golf’s history has been defined by separation and segregation. Blacks, Jews, Irish, Catholics, a cornucopia of minorities have been denied access to this game, and to this day it is played primarily on private golf clubs and expensive resorts. While race  and ethnicity have SOMEWHAT evaporated as means of exclusion (all the same, golf is perhaps the whitest professional sport there is, with the possible exception of hockey), class remains. Membership in country clubs across the country remain elusive, and resorts charge top-dollar to make use of their greens. For this reason, many sports fans avoid golf, where the typical garb resembles that of the rich, stuffy, and exclusive. Whether we feel it brings up something undesirable in ourselves or we honestly feel no connection with it remains to be seen, but golf is a marginalized sport, with only the greatest of its athletes achieving broad-spectrum appeal (think Tiger Woods, then think how quickly we tore him down). Your typical sports fan will usually eschew golf in favor of a sport where the athlete speaks to the more heroic notions of the human experience (the poor Hispanic immigrant who barely speaks English but whose pitching talent allows him to achieve super-stardom; the boy who grew up playing hockey on the local frozen lake and goes on to win a Stanley Cup; the African-American growing up in a troubled home in a troubled neighborhood transforming his talent into a college education he could never otherwise obtain) and the racial makeup more accurately reflects America as it is today.

“Caddyshack” has a universal message however: fight for what you believe in and you will be rewarded, regardless of your place in society. Czervik, Webb and Noonan are all out of place in their worlds. They see things as askew and want to change them. To that end, they do what is possible to either undermine (Webb and Czervik) the status quo or break away from it completely (Noonan). Their success (I won’t kill the ending, but I will say it’s a happy one) gives us hope. We can change what we see as wrong. We can be better than what society defines for us at birth. All it takes is hard work and talent. This is the purest notion of the “American Dream,” and anything that recalls it will do well in American society. Many have talked about the death of the “American Dream” in the last 30 years, citing an increasing feeling amongst the working and middle class that the upper class, despite everything, remains a constant in society, comprised of the children of those who occupied it 30 years ago, and that there is no room for newcomers. This may be true; if so, it’s a depressing truth. Anything that can let us feel for a moment that this is not the case, and especially that does so with style and flair and humor, becomes a part of Americana. This is why “Caddyshack” remains so beloved: it lets us dream, if only for a moment, that we can be more than what society tells us to be. Like the man says: “In the immortal words of Jean Paul Sartre, ‘Au revoir, gopher’.”

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.