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How WWF-Style Pro Wrestling Looks In The Heart Of Europe

Rock music, tight spandex bodysuits and staged maneuvers aren't just for audiences in working-class America. Wrestling is thriving in Switzerland and elsewhere across Europe, where it's seen as a different kind of performance art that even

The British Stallion (up), a key figure of Swiss wrestling
The British Stallion (up), a key figure of Swiss wrestling
Julien Burri

LAUSANNE — On a war-like soundtrack, the kind you can hear in superhero movies, an imposing figure wearing a royal-blue cape walks towards the ring. The cape falls to the ground, uncovering the muscular British Stallion, 6-foot-one, 231 pounds, in a blue, black, zebra-striped bodysuit. The soundtrack changes to hard rock. Tonight, the champion will face Japanese opponent Yoshimiro Yamada, wearing white spandex trunks and comparatively diminutive at 5-foot-7 and 198 pounds.

It's not a fight like any other. To win, one of the wrestlers will have to lock his opponent in a coffin. All this before an astounded family audience in this Lausanne community center.

The warriors size each other up, and then the fight starts. The British Stallion taunts Yoshimiro Yamada, loudly thumping his chest, which soon turns bright red. In the audience, a spectator named Nathalie is filled with enthusiasm. "I love it," she says. With the first contact between the fighters, the Stallion sends his opponent to the ground. The bodies fall back heavily on the flooring.

Audience members grit their teeth, certain the fighters won't rise up from this, surely their spinal cords have just been smashed. But they do get back up — these spandex-wearing warriors are relentless. The two fight presenters comment on the feats of the "two new babies" and motivate the audience. The British Stallion now picks up his enemy as if he were a "wisp of straw" (according to the presenters) and throws him to the floor. He gets booed. The two men continue out of the ring, insulting each other in English. Everything is still left to play for.

The British Stallion climbs onto one of the ring's posts and launches himself to crush his smaller opponent poor with all his weight. This technique is called the "moonsault." But Yoshimiro Yamada, who everyone thought was finished, gets back up at the very last second, throwing his opponent over his shoulder and onto the ground. Then, with a dropkick, he quickly sends him into the coffin set up at the foot of the ring.

The audience members hold their breath. Yoshimiro Yamada has just won Switzerland's pro wrestling champion title.

Staged show

Of course, it was all staged in advance. The winner and the loser agreed what the outcome would be. Wrestling is a show that leaves little to chance. Yoshimiro Yamada, a supposedly Japanese wrestler, was in fact trained in the Swiss town of Fribourg.

Take Greco-Roman wrestling, blend it with boxing, a fairground spirit, martial arts, a few stunts, and you'll have an idea of what wrestling is. Two qualities are essential for aspiring wrestlers: being able to tell a story and knowing how to fall.

"For 10 years, I played good guys, but I prefer bad guys," says Adrian McLeod, aka Adrian Johnatans, or the British Stallion. In wrestling, goog guys are nicknamed "baby faces." The bad guys are the "hells." You can't have a good show without a proper bad guy.

McLeod was the one who orchestrated the show. The 27-year-old Briton, who has been living in Switzerland since 1994, regularly fights in Germany, France, Belgium, Sweden and Ireland. He dreams of the United States. In 2004, the young man launched Swiss Power Wrestling, an association of four Swiss schools. In Lausanne, there are about 15 active wrestlers. To make a living, McLeod is also a "fitness modeling" trainer. "The bulk of my customer base is women who want to lose weight," he says.

We met him at Taco's Bar in Lausanne's Flon district, where people come to play pool and watch men pretend to beat each other up on the last Wednesday of every month. Sometimes women compete — such as Chelsea L. Johnson or "Queen Maya" — but very few climb onto the ring.

Group therapy

McLeod sees in these staged confrontations "the continuity of ritual fights that have always existed." Group therapy, half-dance, half-fight. He'd like to end the clichés that exist around wrestling, and "show people it's not for morons." In fact, describing what a good match looks like, he makes a reference to ancient Greek drama. "We create a catharsis to evacuate the aggressiveness and the fears of the viewers," he says. "For one hour, we tell people stories to make them forget their everyday lives."

Nothing irritates him more than suspicious comments like, "The matches are staged, wrestling is nothing but bluff." He prefers to think of it as a performance sport that, above all, aims to entertain. But the physical prowess is real. He draws inspiration from the staged fights of American wrestling, but he uses techniques from Japanese wrestling: realism and abrupt blows.

Unlike the European school of thought, which is popular in the United Kingdom and in France, he prefers staging transgressions. In the ring, the British Stallion indulges in all kinds of low blows. But outside, he's very formal with journalists and can talk about Aristotle"s Poetics. He may be English, but he looks like the head of a Latino gang, with the bearing and the solemnity of a samurai.

A big brother

McLeod rehearses with his students on Sunday afternoon in a Lausanne fitness center. The day we visit, there are eight of them on the mat. The British Stallion is doing demonstrations. Each wrestling move — there are dozens — has a name. Etienne, aka Rob Iron, is a fortysomething caught in a submissive hold. He hits the ground and begs for mercy.

"Come on, son!" shouts 24-year-old Laurent, aka "Kurt Simmons," who sports a Viking look with long, blond hair. "We shave our body hair, wear skin-tight, fluorescent pants. You have to be comfortable with your manliness to dare to do it," McLeod says. Here comes the "battering ram," in which the attacker charges headfirst into his opponent's chest.

A 17-year-old is here to see the course with his older brother, mother and grandfather. He's shy and lets his mother speak for him. "When could he start?" she asks. The course is open to "anyone in good health and over 16" and costs 82 euros per month. A lighter course, from 12 years old, costs 45 euros per month. For the young fighters, McLeod is like a big brother. "There's a lack of paternal models," he says. "Mothers often call us to say, "Since he started training with you, my son behaves better.""

Performing in about 20 shows per year, Laurent considers himself as a "wrestler in the making." He became bored with his mechanic apprenticeship. With wrestling, he's happy. He jokes about the purplish-blue bruises on his back. But he'll probably never be able to make a living with what he earns from wrestling.

And some audiences are disappointed when they see Swiss wrestlers arrive because they're not as big as the American wrestlers they see on TV. "I tell them American TV only shows a certain version of wrestling," Laurent says. Beefy bodies don't necessarily make good wrestlers. In fact, it's quite the opposite. And what's important is believing in yourself. "When I step onto the ring, I'm no longer Laurent. I'm Kurt Simmons!"

Roland Barthes fascinated

We saw Kurt Simmons in action in Lausanne going against South African wrestler Jack Vice, a large, bearded brute, standing at 6-foot-four and 253 pounds, with the word "Vice" written across his shorts. He insulted and smacked the Swiss before locking him in more complicated holds. Kurt screamed out in pain. It's not always easy being the "babyface." Vice then pulled Kurt's hair, ripping some out, to which a viewer yelled "pig!" The African fighter lifted Kurt above his head and dropped him, mercilessly. Kurt crashed onto the floor of the ring, his body bouncing before lying still.

But Kurt got back on top and triumphed. There's justice in the world of wrestling.

That's why French philosopher Roland Barthes was so fascinated by this art. He dedicated an essay in his Mythologies collection, published in 1957, to an examination of professional wrestling, believing it to be the successor to antic theater. The indefinitely replayed spectacle of humiliation and revenge, the reassuring victory of good over evil. The expression of divine justice, no matter how waxed, oiled and dressed in fluorescent spandex.

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