Winona native Chris “The Deal Chris Steel” Jacobson (left) put the hurt on Kyle Roberts during last weekend’s LeveeMania event. “You need a story to tell in the ring,” Jacobson said.
by CHRIS ROGERS
The crowd simmered with resentment. Behind the curtain, Nathan Cooley had just donned a fringed unitard and an attitude and transformed into The Greatest Spectacle in Professional Wrestling, DDS. DDS grabbed the mic and let the Winona crowd know: “I hate everything about this place. I hate your football team. I hate your face. I hate this river. I even hate your beer.”
Spectators jeered, eager for someone to smack down this bald villain. Then their hero emerged in a bathrobe, sipping a beer: The Dad Bod God Nathan Sensation. “I was sitting here, relaxing in the back, when baldy comes running his trap,” Dad Bod told the crowd. He threw a barb at DDS, a callback to a past match: “You know, you sure talk a lot for someone who’s been beaten by a woman.” The crowd cheered Dad Bod’s taunts, the bell dinged, and it was on.
In an interview, Cooley explained this is what it is all about. “When you have [the crowd] hooked on everything you’re doing and reacting to everything you’re doing, it’s an addiction,” he said.
Dad Bod embarrassed DDS in the opening moments, dragging him through the crowd, smacking him around Levee Park’s grass amphitheater, and even smashing his head against a steel railing. But then DDS got the upper hand and pummeled a helpless Dad Bod in the corner of the ring. The crowd started chanting, “Dad Bod! Dad Bod!” Someone yelled, “The Bears still suck!” DDS is from Chicago. Finally, Dad Bod pinned his opponent in glorious victory.
Welcome to the world of local professional wrestling. It has a long history in Winona and steady following. Cooley competed as part of the La Crosse-based River City Championship Wrestling’s (RCCW) LeveeMania event in Winona last Saturday, which also featured former WWE Hall of Fame inductee The Honky Tonk Man. Part theater, part stunt work, part improv comedy, the wrestlers go to great lengths to put on a show.
“People just think about it as a wresting match, but it’ so much more than that,” LeveeMania organizer Paul Ebner said. “It’s a choreographed dance that these guys are doing.” He added, “The storytelling is amazing.” For each match, Ebner said, “There’s a reason why they’re fighting.” That story plays out, not just in pre-match taunts, but over the course of multiple matches and over social media. For fans who really follow the wrestlers, there are rivalries and plot lines that build up over months, Ebner explained.
At Saturday’s big show, Winona native Chris “The Deal Chris Steel” Jacobson battled with reigning champ Kyle Roberts for what RCCW dubbed “The City of La Crosse Championship.” The fight became a river city rivalry with Steel swearing to win the belt and rename the title “The City of Winona Championship.” Ebner and Winona Mayor Mark Peterson even got in on the action. “This one is for you, mayor,” Steel said as he stomped Roberts’ fingers. “My town, my title.”
While Steel choked Roberts against the rope — despite the referee’s best efforts to intervene — Ebner stepped out from the crowd to pile on Roberts. But then, when Roberts laid Steel out flat, Roberts grabbed Ebner by the hair and got ready to knock his lights out. Steel recovered at the last minute, saved Ebner from getting punched in the face, and pinned Roberts for the win. Ebner still got his comeuppance for badmouthing Winona earlier in the fight. “You’re not a bad guy, but you can’t be talking about Winona like that,” Mayor Peterson told Ebner before smashing a water bottle on Ebner’s head. The bottle did not quite explode like it was supposed to, but Ebner’s stunned facial expressions sold the bit.
“You need a story to tell in the ring,” Jacobson said. “If you just come out here and flop around, you won’t tell a story.” A story gets fans invested in a character, in a fight, he explained. Without that, even the most impressive moves won’t get the crowd going, he added. “What I found out is I like the acting part more than the wrestling because the bumps aren’t that fun. They hurt. But getting a rise out of the crowd, that’s exciting,” Jacobson said.
“The more you can get the crowd invested and involved in what’s going on, the easier it is to go out there,” wrestler Chad “Psycho Chase McCoy” Linde explained. “I can get certain reactions from a crowd by just snapping my head and looking at them rather than jumping off the top rope and flying off and possibly messing up and breaking my neck or back … It took me a long time to realize that.”
That is not to say Jacobson and Linde were not performing high-flying stunts. Linde’s opponent, Air Wolf, did multiple backflips during their fight, and both Linde and Jacobson absorbed flying kicks to the neck and body slams from the top rope.
“I don’t consider what we do as fake because you can’t fake falling down,” Linde said. The last time he wrestled in Winona, Linde said, he got a large cut to his face and kept on wrestling before he noticed all the blood.
Asked how wrestlers and organizers put on a convincing show while keeping wrestlers safe, wrestler and RCCW Media Relations Coordinator Alex “A.C.” Riley described the extensive training the athletes go through before performing. However, he added, “It’s just like any contact sport. There’s training involved to make sure people perform to the best of their abilities … but realistically, people are going to get hurt.”
The LeveeMania performers had different approaches to how to choreograph their fights. Sammy “The Blue Phoenix Vanessa Azure” Rupnick and Sarah “Sierra” Stelloh — who said of her character, “I do a millennial gimmick, selfies and stuff” — have wrestled together dozens of times. “I like talking it out. I like going over it and over it and over it so I don’t forget anything,” Rupnick said. “Maybe because we’ve wrestled each other so much, we play off each other really well,” she added.
Meanwhile, Linde said he had never wrestled with Air Wolf before and that most of their fight would be improvised. “Realistically, there’s just not enough time to rehearse,” Riley said. The wrestlers are coming from all over the Midwest and showing up shortly before the event. “Just go in there, use your training and your experience and put on the best show you can,” he said.
“About half of it we know,” Jacobson said of his match with Roberts. “Sometimes it’s not good to have a whole match planned out like a theater act. Leave a little room for improv,” he explained, adding that he tries to interact with the crowd and gauge what they want to see.
For many of the wrestlers at Saturday’s throw down, professional wrestling was a childhood dream. “Ever since [I was] four years old, this is pretty much all I wanted to do,” Linde said. “I saw Roddy Piper smash Superfly Jimmy Snuka in the face with a coconut and I was sold.”
At eight years of age, Riley said, “I remember watching [professional wrestling] and thinking, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
After wrestling for 12 years, Riley said, “I realized wrestling is a fraternity … Those people turn into family. It’s like a huge family reunion every time I get to wrestle.” After all, despite all the insults and bravado, wrestlers have to trust each other to perform dangerous stunts and work together to entertain the crowd.