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Toronto’s indie circuit lets wrestlers become larger-than-life characters like their childhood heroes – on weekends, at least

'The Playboy' John Atlas performs a flying attack on Evil Uno at Greektown Wrestling in Toronto on March 18, 2018.ben marans photography/The Globe and Mail

In a darkened church basement on the Danforth, just hours after congregants typically exchange their farewell good tidings, a different kind of Sunday ceremony begins.

The assembled devotees – several hundred of them, seated in rows of plastic folding chairs – chant in unison: “Space Mon-key! Space Mon-key!”

A black curtain in a corner of the room ripples and, heeding the call, Space Monkey bursts through.

In the niche universe of professional wrestling, Space Monkey is a cosmonaut in a fur-trimmed mask and a white jumpsuit with a plush brown tail. He scampers into the ring, tossing a bunch of bananas into the corner for later.

Across from him, the tattooed and muscled Walking Weapon Josh Alexander glares in disgust. But the scowl is a façade; the Walking Weapon knows that, in roughly seven minutes, he’ll slip on a banana peel and the audience will howl. He can’t wait.

The fans, a raucous assembly of mostly bearded twentysomethings who paid $25 each to see Greektown Wrestling’s ninth show since 2015, know their role in the drama.

“Come on, man, he’s just a monkey!” hollers one fan as Alexander stomps his foe’s faux tail. Other fans applaud his taunt. The fan has fans. Alexander, cartoonishly furious, stomps again.

Such is the improvisational art of pro wrestling, particularly on the small-time independent (or “indie”) circuit.

Practically every city has at least one indie promotion – Toronto is home to roughly a half-dozen, including Greektown, Smash Wrestling, Destiny World Wrestling and Lucha Toronto – and wrestlers regularly drive hundreds of kilometres, bouncing between shows, each weekend.

Ticketholders line up outside of the Eastminster United Church in Toronto for a Greektown Wrestling event.ben marans photography/The Globe and Mail

Like backlot hoopsters with NBA dreams, a tiny fraction of these weekend warriors will make it to the big money and global fame of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Most do it because it lets them become larger-than-life characters like their childhood wrestling heroes – on weekends, at least.

On weekdays, the Walking Weapon is Joshua Lemay, a 30-year-old production manager at a Guelph electrical manufacturing firm. Like nearly all wrestlers on the indie wrestling circuit, Mr. Lemay lives what he calls a “Clark Kent lifestyle” – normal job on weekdays, costumed superheroism (or supervillainy) on weekends. At a relatively well-attended indie show like this one, he might earn $300. Rookie indie wrestlers are often happy to earn some exposure and a slice of locker-room pizza.

The enduring myth about wrestling is that it’s completely scripted. While the outcomes are indeed predetermined – no one even tries to maintain that worst-kept secret anymore – what unfolds in the ring shares more in common with improv comedy than an intricately choreographed kung fu flick.

Earlier, in a featureless beige room elsewhere in Eastminster United Church, Mr. Lemay and Space Monkey plotted key “spots” of their match: some slams and suplexes, an apropos “monkey flip,” and the banana peel gag to seal victory for Space Monkey.

The raucous fans know their role in the Greektown Wrestling drama.ben marans photography/The Globe and Mail

Everything else they’d make up on the fly, taking cues from the ebb and flow of audience reactions. “I like not knowing where the match is going to go,” Mr. Lemay said in an interview before his match. “The audience lets us know where to go.”

Mr. Lemay was an overweight “drama nerd” before realizing pro wrestling could unleash his inner athlete and thespian. Twelve years, nearly 1,000 matches and two surgically fused vertebrae later (wrestling is theatrical, yes, but the injuries are real), Mr. Lemay is a respected veteran of the circuit.

“If I don’t wrestle on weekends, I feel like something important is missing from my life,” he says. “I’m feeding my inner child.”

That’s a recurring theme among the Greektown Wrestling roster, and among thousands of other athletes who perform this spandex ballet in legions and church basements everywhere. The leitmotif is combat, but these guys aren’t violent brutes. They’re mostly hams.

Magnum CK likes to spew Trumpian vitriol during his matches.ben marans photography/The Globe and Mail

On the Greektown card, there’s the flamboyant Freddie Mercurio battling nefarious Indian grappler Gursinder Singh. There’s potbellied redneck Magnum CK spewing Trumpian vitriol at the Quebecois lumberjacks.

And then there’s RJ City, grinning and loquacious – “a singer, an actor, a comedian, a bon vivant,” as he boasts to the crowd. They hate him.

That’s his job – to be the most hated heel on this show. His modus operandi: smug self-righteousness. He’s too clever and handsome to wrestle, he tells the booing crowd, so he’ll sing showtunes instead.

He too was a drama kid – he played the title role in Unionville High School’s production of Hamlet – who wrestles because “wrestling is theatre, and the audience is part of the play.”

In wrestling, as in theatre, every villain requires a heroic foil. Tonight, that role is played by Mick Foley, who achieved fame as one of WWE’s most bizarre characters, Mankind, a disheveled, shrieking masochist in a Hannibal Lecter-esque mask who earned a reputation worldwide as a “hardcore legend” by enduring cringe-inducingly dangerous bumps and falls.

Mick Foley speaks to the Greektown Wrestling crowd on March 18, 2018.ben marans photography/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Foley is the biggest name ever recruited for a Greektown Wrestling show. His image on Greektown’s Facebook ads – complemented by Foley’s own tweets to his 1.8 million Twitter followers – helped draw many of the 400 fans packed into the church basement. In Greektown Wrestling’s early days, at shows in cultural centres and other affordable rental halls along the Danforth, crowds of 150 were a decent draw, typical for the indie scene.

At 52, Mr. Foley’s actual wrestling days are behind him – his toothless grin, missing right ear and surgically repaired everything remain souvenirs of his “hardcore” heyday – so tonight he is portraying Greektown Wrestling’s general manager.

Mr. Foley trundles through the curtain as RJ City finishes singing the chorus of Anything Goes and is threatening to serenade the crowd with another Broadway classic.

What follows between Mr. Foley and RJ City is largely improvised, entirely stupid, and undeniably entertaining verbal sparring that ends in an off-key duet of There’s No Business Like Show Business.

Greektown Cup champion Channing Decker sits backstage with his idol Mick Foley.ben marans photography/The Globe and Mail

Eventually, of course, a tussle erupts when Trent Gibson – a fratboy-themed wrestler whose tag team partner, Channing Decker, is the proprietor of Greektown Wrestling – bursts in to take down RJ City.

Backstage, in the featureless beige room, Mr. Foley says he’s happy to provide the star power on these small-time shows, partly because he can do so without sustaining even a bruise.

“If you’re performing at a little rec centre – or I suppose a church basement – it’s still about telling a story, about connecting with people,” he says between bites of takeout souvlaki. “In this circus, I’ve gone from being the man on the flying trapeze to one of 13 clowns piling out of the back of a Pinto.”

On the other side of the makeshift locker room, Space Monkey ties his tail safely around his waist until he is needed again.

The next Greektown Wrestling event is June 16 at Eastminster United Church, 310 Danforth Ave. Tickets and info: www.facebook.com/greektownwrestling