G.O.U.G.E. puts on a show
by Billy Warden
photographs by Nick Pironio
Making people mad enough to scream at you – in person, not on social media – is hard work. But I was willing to give it a go. In the spirit of the kind of “participatory journalism” made famous by writer George Plimpton, who sparred with Sugar Ray Robinson, teed off in a PGA tournament, and practiced with the Detroit Lions, I leapt at the chance to throw a hammerlock on the world of professional wrestling.
And so one recent evening, I outfitted myself in a slick suit, gold-rimmed aviators, and a regal sneer to prowl the ring and incite the crowd during a G.O.U.G.E. wrestling card at Draft Line Brewing Co. in Fuquay-Varina. As two muscled behemoths awaited the opening match, I introduced myself to the rabble as “Ronald Rockefeller Trump” and demanded their admiration, applause, and obedience. The fact that the mob responded instead with insolence meant it was all going according to plan.
This kind of wrestling is a well-thought-out spectacle, mashing together the precision moves of an ornery ballet, the chest measurements of the Chicago Bears, and the mindset of Marvel Comics. The emphasis on fun rather than the blood and bad vibes of “extreme” wrestling promotions is built into the name: G.O.U.G.E. stands for Gimmicks Only Underground Grappling Entertainment. Presiding over the calculated pandemonium is a man draped in a Dracula-style cape who calls himself Count Grog. He is known to fans as the nefarious manager of G.O.U.G.E.’s most notorious rogues.
“Our shows are meant to be entertaining,” he says. “Kids love it; hipsters love it.”
Indeed, G.O.U.G.E. has put together bouts at rock clubs, Fourth of July celebrations, fire stations, even Raleigh’s
Contemporary Art Museum.
“Grog has a vision and it’s all about a fun environment,” says chiselled super-nerd Seymour Snott, aka “The Geek with the Physique,” aka Mike Phillips. “It sells itself to lots of different people – and lots of people are who you want to perform for.”
I knew that much already. In scouting out my opportunities for full wrestling immersion, I had quickly realized that the other men were somewhat larger than I – in the way an oil tanker, say, is larger than a lily pad. So in the interest of surviving the night, instead of actually grappling, I decided to play the venerable role of outside agitator. Instead of being on the wrong side of a chokeslam, I’d be on the right side of the rabble-rousing.
My storyline: As Ronald Rockefeller Trump (photo above), under the wise counsel of my “cousin” (a certain presidential candidate), I have just bought a controlling interest in the scrappy independent outfit running tonight’s show. And with imperious contempt for my surroundings, I am determined to make G.O.U.G.E. – and its audience – “great again.”
First, I take my mission to the children, 6-to-10-years old, sitting cross-legged, gape-mouthed in the front row.
“Do you know what ‘work’ is?,” I lean over the ring ropes to inquire. “Well, one day, you’re all going to work for me. And if I don’t see you clapping at the things I say tonight, when you grow up, I’m going to fire each and every one of you.”
A mother cranes forward in her seat, stabbing her finger into the charged air between us: “Are you talking to my kids? My kids?! You shut your mouth!” Fury is infectious. More of the other 300 or so grown-ups get into the act. I hone in on a man in a purple polo who’s booing loudly. Hopping off the ring and strutting his way, I vow to buy the man’s house before the end of the night and evict him.
Now the crowd is howling and growling and ready to rrrrr-UUU-mble. Everyone, including me, is reveling in the show, this cartoonish but compelling battle between good and evil. The stage is set.
Ultimately, the mounting tension will come to a head when Timmy Lou Retton takes his corner. He is the love child of Olympic champions Mary Lou Retton and Carl Lewis – or so he says. It’s undeniable that the 235-pound-er moves with astounding grace – flips, splits, and all. Timmy sees himself one day cracking skulls as part of World Wrestling Entertainment, home to contemporary clobberers Roman Reigns and Apollo Crews; the former stomping ground of legends Ric Flair and Hulk Hogan. To get there, Timmy plans to make a name as part of a high-profile wrestling circuit in Japan. Once he gets his passport, of course.
Tonight, he must successfully defend his G.O.U.G.E. championship belt.
I meet Timmy backstage, in a storage room behind a mountain of pony kegs. The champ’s foe for the evening, Jakob
Hammermeier, is here, too. In the ring, Jakob will preen and pout and cheat like the practiced “heel” he is. But in the dressing room, he’s friendly and professional. He and Timmy pantomime through key parts of tonight’s match.
Count Grog founded G.O.U.G.E. 10 years ago. For decades before that, he loved the sport and its soap operas. “I started watching at my step-granddad’s house. He would get all excited and start yelling at the TV. I was like 5, and knew this was something good.”
Now in his 50s, the Count clearly still loves this circus, exorcising his frustrations with the workaday world by sucker-punching a “baby face” (i.e. a “good guy”) or browbeating a boisterous fan.
But workaday worries do infringe on these weekend warriors. The Count’s real name is Greg Mosorjak, and when not decked out as the world’s preeminent dark prince, he is an education analyst. Timmy is a gymnastics instructor. Jakob works construction. Seymour is an insurance claims clerk. The other guys – hailing from Raleigh, Asheboro, and as far away as Richmond, Va. – are bartenders, teachers, handymen.
Tonight, though, they are so much more: heroes, villains, champions.
Back in the ring, two tag-teams sprawl onto the cement floor with convincing splats, apparently unconscious. The referee declares a double disqualification. And then it’s time for the evening’s final match. The audience seems primed. Management reports beer is selling well. A trio of thirtysomethings attending their first-ever wrestling card sets the tone: chanting, chortling, practically ready to leap into the ring themselves.
But before introducing the final contestants, a last insult from Ronald Rockefeller Trump is in order – something to push the mood over the top: “I’m thinking of buying the whole town, but we’ll have to change the name. It sounds like an illness. You know, ‘I didn’t catch Zika virus, but I did come down with Fuquay-Varina.’”
The crowd roils. Some boo. Some raise a toast. Taking their cues from the noisy grown-ups, the kids scream senselessly. It’s time for the main event. And neither Timmy the champ, nor Jacob the challenger, disappoints. In fact, they dazzle.
Timmy repeatedly flings himself off the top turnbuckle, flipping in mid-air and colliding with Jacob’s reddening chest. Jacob whines and wails in frustration, distracting the ref so that Count Grog can furtively clamp a chokehold on Timmy, very nearly costing the champ the match.
As the ring itself groans and trembles, Timmy launches a final aerial assault, pinning Jacob and earning the right to again hoist the championship belt high above his battered head. The fans at the small-town brewery rise to the occasion, roaring like a capacity crowd at Madison Square Garden. For a moment, this is the big time.
Then the cheers subside, and a handful of grown men in ridiculous outfits face their final job of the evening. With agility that rivals their ring moves, the gladiators set up merch tables, hawking T-shirts and posing for pictures.
“For some of these guys, this is living their dream, to be a wrestler,” says Count Grog. “For some this is as good as it will ever get, and that’s OK. Some will try until they’re old to make it to the WWE and never will. And for some, this really is a stepping-stone to the big stage. Those are few in number.”
At his merch table, Timmy shifts from boot to boot, seemingly in pain. “Oh, very much,” the champ affirms. “We were hittin’ hard in there.” When he’s done at the brewery, he’ll ease into a hot tub, then ice bruised body parts. Tomorrow, he’ll be back in the gym.
The wrestlers who aren’t selling mingle. The toilet in the dressing room is out of order, so some line up with fans at the public loo. And it’s in this surreal atmosphere that I come face-to-face with the angry mother who Ronald Rockefeller Trump offended early on.
Cautiously, I ask about her kids – the ones whose futures my character for the evening had threatened to destroy. What’s the lesson they’ll take away from G.O.U.G.E. wrestling?
Breaking into a smile, Emily doesn’t hesitate: “Dedication. These guys are dedicated. And you know what? I’m proud because the whole time, my kids were cheering for the underdogs.”
Boom: There it is. G.O.U.G.E. may delight in gimmicks, but there’s nothing fake about the spirit. The wrestlers who trade headlocks and the fans with whom they trade insults – we’re underdogs. And watching that happy mom round up her still wide-eyed kids, it’s clear that tonight we’re all winners.
Billy Warden, co-founder of the business consultancy GBW Strategies, is a writer from Raleigh.