To the general public, Vince McMahon’s WWE is professional wrestling, and professional wrestling is the demented love child of NASCAR and Days Of Our Lives. Both assumptions are wrong, though. There is something silly about would-be juggernauts wearing next to nothing and dishing out choreographed offense to each other, but couldn’t the same be said for so many other things?
Based out of Philadelphia, independent wrestling federation Chikara is the anti-WWE. Chikara doesn’t hide from the surface-level goofiness—rather, the federation embraces it while retaining a fast-paced artfulness that sweeps the floor with the competition. The A.V. Club asked founder and frequent grappler Mike Quackenbush why Chikara is wrestling for skeptics.
The A.V. Club: What was your inspiration in creating Chikara?
Mike Quackenbush: To irritate wrestling traditionalists that still think we’re still hustling marks for a buck at a carnival. To make pro wrestling more like the live-action comic book I always thought it was, and less like a commercial for GNC supplements. Also, to ensure I’d have the best stories at my high school reunion.
AVC: What drew you to wrestling in the first place?
MQ: I liked the acrobatic daredevils like Jushin Liger, the 1-2-3 Kid, and Tiger Mask. I liked that they brought something artful and elegant to a type of athletic pursuit that seemed overrun with oafs and muscle-bound clods. That was very attractive to me. Certainly, the fact that every authority figure I had in my formative years told me that there was simply no way someone like me could access or succeed in professional wrestling drove me to that inevitable, slightly tragic way of life. I’m one of those.
AVC: A lot of people associate professional wrestling with the WWE. With that company rebranding itself as an entertainment entity rather than wrestling, do you consider Chikara wrestling, entertainment, or is there no line between the two?
MQ: The WWE is, when you get right down to it, that self-loathing closeted homosexual friend we all have. Come out, already, will you? We all know. We’ve known for a long time. We all still like “Livin’ la Vida Loca.” The WWE can rebrand themselves over and over, pay marketing execs piles of filthy money to give them a facelift, and yet every person that has ever heard those three initials in that order knows it is professional wrestling. Paper-thin rhetoric is just that. If you asked Vince McMahon what KFC serves, I wonder what he would say?
AVC: What does Chikara do that might appeal to non-wrestling fans?
MQ: We are probably as far-removed from your expectations of pro wrestling as you can get without leaving the genre altogether. Our characters, our storytelling, right down to the physical style and mechanics you’ll see in the ring, are unlike anything you’ve seen in wrestling before. And we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Pro wrestling should be fun, first and foremost, and that’s what comes through when you see us in action.
AVC: What are some things that make Chikara different?
MQ: The arcs and characters based more in mythology, or science fiction, or fantasy, those stick out immediately. An artifact of paranormal properties, like the Eye Of Tyr, which has found its way in and out of our ongoing narrative, is a perfect example of that. How does that artifact connect to characters based in Greek or Norse mythology? Does its value to a Swiss aristocrat differ from the way a practitioner of black magic perceives it? Dabbling in these other genres is what sets us apart.
AVC: What’s so different about Chikara’s physical style?
MQ: The style itself is a hybrid of Mexican, British, Japanese, and American wrestling. It is a bit more acrobatic and a bit more elegant than what you might see on a cable show. It favors smaller, more agile athletes, of which there are quite a few on our roster.
AVC: A lot of your posters and bout titles come from comic books. Do you think there is a correlation between those fan bases?
MQ: There must be. I am evidence to that fact. I grew up on Marvel Team-Up and Justice League International more than on WWF Prime Time Wrestling. There is an obvious and natural crossover there: men and women in colorful costumes, clearly delineated between good and evil, performing superhuman feats of agility and strength. There are so many thematic similarities. Pro wrestling only became a real option when I found out that superheroics didn’t come with dental coverage.
AVC: For those who just see wrestling as half-naked men pretending to beat each other up, what aren’t they seeing? Why should wrestling be taken as seriously as other scripted types of art, like theater for example?
MQ: I’ve often said that wrestling is art; but for now, it seems consigned to remaining low art. It’s a male soap opera. We’ve got to earn our place at the grown-up table.
AVC: How will wrestling earn its way to the “grown-ups’ table”?
MQ: Groups that play on the international stage will have to do more than just appeal to the lowest common denominator. One of the things I relish about Chikara is the freedom to experiment with storytelling concepts and characters that are not the norm in the wrestling genre. But we’re like starving artists compared to the hulking titans of corporate sports-entertainment.
AVC: How important is Web 2.0 stuff, like YouTube, in keeping fans up to date with current storylines?
MQ: For Chikara, very important. There’s something new happening in our never-ending narrative basically every single day. Daily web content is the lifeblood of what we do. A company like ours could not have existed 20 years ago. Experimental, niche groups like ours only flourish because of the Internet.
AVC: How has the Internet helped Chikara?
MQ: A company like ours could never afford advertising campaigns, given the cost of promoting on radio, television, or in newspapers. No one would ever hear about us. We’d have folded within 90 days of launch. The Internet gives us a free forum to let people know about us, while cultivating a sense of community with our fans. Under an older model, we would have failed almost instantly.
AVC: Do you think you have to be knowledgeable about current storylines to enjoy the show? Will audiences still get it?
MQ: Sure they do. When you distill it to its core elements, it’s still good vs. evil. Anyone, anywhere on the planet, can easily relate to the basic overtures. The more attention you pay, the more rewarding it is for you as a viewer though. The continuity is really key for our longtime viewers. You can dig deep into those layers, or just take it at face value.
AVC: One of the most popular Internet shows for wrestling fans is Botchamania, which compiles various wrestling bloopers and blunders. Is the ability to post and have easy access to mistakes hurtful to the business? Or is it a motivator that will bring about better performances?
MQ: I think it’s important to learn to laugh at yourself in this line of work. It’s healthy, too. Mistakes are going to happen in live performance; that’s just the nature of the beast. Why not have a chuckle about it, instead of agonizing or self-criticizing over it? We don’t have the luxury of locking ourselves in a studio and masterminding every movement you see.
AVC: Will Chikara ever have a presence on television?
MQ: If only in cameos on Cops, yes. See that dude in a ratty T-shirt back there gawking? Yeah, that’s us.