(This story originally appeared on VICE Sports in September 2014)
One night, in June of last year, the indie pro wrestling company Chikara blinked out of existence, and it did so in spectacular fashion. The main event of Aniversario: Never Compromise, an internet pay-per-view, was drawing to a close. Icarus, a smarmy, detestable heel who'd battled the odds and became a fan favorite, was facing Eddie Kingston, a hulking Yonkers-bred bruiser, for Chikara's Grand Championship, a title that Kingston had held since the company introduced it more than a year before.
Icarus had Kingston locked in the Chikara Special, a funky submission hold used only by Chikara wrestlers, and Kingston seemed ready to tap out. But before he could submit, Wink Vavasseur, the company's dastardly rich-kid authority figure, ordered security goons to rush the ring and shut the show down. They did, going so far as to kick out spectators and provoke what onlookers described as a near-riot. And for a long time, that was it for Chikara.
The end of Aniversario was, blatantly and obviously, pro wrestling storytelling. What followed wasn't, or at least it didn't appear to be. Chikara canceled all upcoming dates, and its website and Twitter went inactive. Within a day or two, the online commentariat figured that the company was really done, that it was never coming back. Rumors swirled that Mike Quackenbush, the company's founder and creative visionary, had given up because of dwindling profits, or that he'd lost control of the company because of some financial dispute with his wife— the latter a rumor that got wildly byzantine.
Meanwhile, Icarus, now with no place left to wrestle, spearheaded an online bring-back-Chikara campaign, gathering fans for rallies and handing out DVDs at comic book conventions. At one Pennsylvania event, he and some fellow wrestlers set up a ring outdoors, in the middle of a park, and staged a few impromptu matches. But the rest of the company moved on, with its wrestlers moving to other indies, including many that were in the loosely associated Wrestling Is network, a constellation of smaller promotions that use Chikara's goofily theatrical aesthetic and much of its talent. A few Chikara storylines even developed in these smaller, more far-flung arenas. However, the company itself remained silent.
Then came National Pro Wrestling Day, an annual January event in Philadelphia that aims to bring together the fractured and scattered indie wrestling world under one roof. Near the end of the show, a vast battalion of bad guys—some Chikara affiliated, some not—filled up the ring and threatened to shut the show down. That's when Icarus led a crew of good guys to fight them off and announce the return of Chikara. Some of the good guys were already in the arena, in disguise. A few others showed up in a DeLorean. It was a whole thing. And a few months later—in May, nearly a year after the company shut down in the first place—Chikara made its return. It had been a storyline the whole time—a vast, complicated one that was nearly impossible for a casual fan to follow, but a storyline nonetheless. Chikara willingly shut itself down for 11 months, and it had done so for the sake of narrative.
This doesn't happen. Wrestling is, by its very nature, a carny enterprise. It's designed to separate marks from their money. Wrestling shows are engineered to convince you to show up to the next wrestling show, or watch the next one on TV, or order the next pay-per-view. They tell stories, but those stories exist to keep you hooked. And if a company were to cancel even a single show for the sake of its story, the whole structure would cease to function. But that's what Quackenbush did. He had a story he wanted to tell, and if he had to push his whole company to near-extinction, he was going to do it.
Here's what you need to know about Chikara: it's a ridiculous institution, one that prizes the euphoric unreality of pro wrestling over the physical spectacle. In indies like Ring of Honor, wrestlers beat the everliving shit out of each other, with the understanding that this makes it look more real, and storylines are generally way less important. In Chikara, the wrestling can be great, but there's more effort put into plotting out character arcs than matches. Quackenbush has, in effect, taken the fantastical goofiness of the early-90s WWF and made it even more fantastical, and even goofier, and he's done it all on a shoestring budget.
Art by Maddison Bond
Many of the wrestlers on Chikara's roster wear masks, and all of them have theatrical, absurd characters. There's a crew of wrestling ants, a pumpkin demon, a couple of neon-green black metal guys, an old-timey baseball player whose face is a baseball with a mustache. For a few years, a mind control gem played an important storyline role. One character is, in storyline terms, the son of Walter Peck, the bad guy from Ghostbusters. If you've seen Chikara at work, it's probably in the wrestling-ring dance-off video that went viral a couple of years ago. That dance-off actually happened in another promotion, the ultraviolent CZW company out of Philly, but its breakdancing hypnotist mummies are Chikara wrestlers, and the entire aesthetic was pure Chikara.
Point: This is extreme dork out territory, and Chikara has cultivated exactly the sort of feverish, marginal fanbase that dork-out territory entails. Chikara uses these absurdist characters in the service of intricate, drawn-out stories that can last months or even years. And it tells those stories using what I'd call the Buffy model: years divided into "seasons," one main "big bad" villain per season, character arcs building slowly into satisfying payoffs. Sometimes, Quackenbush's stories hit unforeseeable by snafus: wrestlers getting injured, wrestlers signing with the WWE. (In the WWE right now, Cesaro and Luke Harper are both former Chikara standouts, and Sara Del Rey, once one of Chikara's most popular wrestlers, now trains the WWE's woman recruits.) But even when you can see last-minute changes of plan at work, there's a sure storytelling hand at work, and that hand belongs to Quackenbush. Since Chikara has no TV show, the only ways to follow the story are to attend every show (impossible, since it's a touring promotion), buy a stream or DVD of every show on, or read online recaps of every show. And since the stories continually refer back to the company's dense history, preserving continuity at all costs, they can be very tough to follow. And still, people follow them.
When Chikara shut down, though, they were mid-season, telling the story of an overprivileged snot who tried to micromanage every aspect of the company and who'd basically lost his mind when he realized that was impossible. Wink Vavasseur was introduced as the company's "Director of Fun," a vague authority figure, a few years previous, and he'd been benign for years. But as he grew in power, he made strange decisions. He broke up existing tag teams, pairing up old rivals or simply grouping wrestlers into crews that made no sense. (He did this based on "Chikarametrics," an ill-defined efficiency-rating system.) Like an 80s action figure manufacturer or a 90s comic book publisher, he attempted to spin the popular ant-based faction the Colony into a lame spin-off called the Colony Xtreme Force. And when Eddie Kingston, the champion he'd come to support, seemed about to lose, he couldn't handle it, and so he shut everything down.
Quackenbush doesn't much like to talk about his storytelling; he thinks it jerks back the curtain too far and destroys some of the magic of the story itself. But he did answer a few questions about his storytelling philosophy over email. "The job of a writer is to take a character the consumers of your media care about, and put them through a conflict such that the audience desires an outcome," he writes. "The character must face real peril. Otherwise, the story is impotent."
But with his company's fervid fanbase, Quackenbush came to realize that Chikara itself came to matter more to its audience than any of the company's wrestlers. "We came to realize that the character best suited to take the audience on the journey we wanted was not a single person at all, but the entire ensemble," he writes. "Well, how do you put an entire ensemble in real peril? You can see how, by following that thought process, you might end up at a place that requires a season like the one we just had."
Art by Maddison Bond
The trick worked. On the phone from Philadelphia, Icarus says that rumors were swirling, even among the wrestlers, that Chikara was about to shut down. Before the show, Quackenbush told nobody about his plan to shut down the company for an extended stretch. Icarus says he found out about the plan 15 minutes before his main-event match that night in June 2013. "Part of me was a little nervous," Icarus remembers. "I'll admit, part of me was a little angry and worried...but I had faith."
For the plan to work, it meant that Icarus and many of his peers wouldn't be wrestling for 11 months. (A few Chikara regulars, like Chuck Taylor, work all over the indie wrestling circuit, at home and abroad, but most of them tend to stay exclusively within the company.) Icarus says that the missing paydays weren't that much of a concern. Like most of the Chikara roster, he holds down a day job and, like a lot of wrestlers, Icarus works in construction. "I picked up some hours here or there at my regular daytime job and sold a lot of stuff through eBay," says Icarus. "The biggest risk I ever took financially was I went to college for a long time, and I owe them a lot of money. And my degrees are worthless. That was a far bigger risk than going to a wrestling school or having a company shut down for a year."
Icarus says that he didn't get into wrestling for the money or the attention, so when those things temporarily went away, he wasn't bothered. But Icarus did get into wrestling to perform, and when he couldn't do that, it sucked. "There were some dark days," he remembers. "Not being in the ring, not being in front of the fans, going completely dark, not doing interviews, the whole thing—it made me a little humble, and it was hard to get through. I had to realize that this is how normal people live. Normal people don't go out on the weekends and have crowds yelling at them. They can't make a crowd eat out of the palm of their hand. It was like, 'Wow, this life sucks.' It made me more grateful for what I have, even though it was not always the best of times."
And he was worried, too, because Chikara wasn't constantly out there, building its mythology from week to week the way it had done for so long, and there was always the possibility that the audience wouldn't return when the company did. "Every single day, I was waking up and going, 'Is this the day they stop caring? Is this the day they don't want to know?'" he says. "That terrified me for months, especially because we didn't give them anything. There was no footage, no videos, nothing for a few weeks."
Icarus was, in fact, the main point person in Chikara's efforts to keep its name alive during its dark period. He hosted the rallies, handed out the DVDs, posted the I am Chikara online videos. The whole time, he was nervous that the strategy wouldn't work. "The first rally in Easton was the scariest," he says. "That was probably more nerve-racking than most of the matches I've had. I've wrestled in front of 13 people, but doing something that involved and having 13 people show up would've been heartbreaking. But we had 50 or 60 people. That was gratifying and a little overwhelming."
The whole time it was dark, the company was filming a low-budget independent film called The Ashes of Chikara. The movie focuses on what happened to the various characters in its fictional universe during the shutdown, and Icarus is its hero, fighting against his peers' apathy and rallying the troops to bring the company back. It plays like a B-movie made by non-professionals, and Icarus confirms that it wasn't exactly the smoothest process; he had to reshoot one key scene when the producers realized they'd filmed it without sound. But there are touches of daffy brilliance. One character, the demonic Hallowicked, speaks in a made-up language of grunts and growls, but the humans all effortlessly understand him, as if he was Chewbacca chatting up a crowd of Han Solos. Chikara wrestlers gather at an all-wrestler tavern (the Fujiwara Arm Bar) where a retired wrestler tells old war stories while tending bar. And its story ends at the same place where Chikara began again: The National Pro Wrestling Day show where the company unveiled its return. "I had the honor of announcing that Chikara was back," says Icarus, and he sounds genuinely proud, even months later.
Back in May, Chikara held its first show in almost a year, and Icarus finally defeated Eddie Kingston for the Grand Championship, becoming only the second wrestler ever to hold the title. Quackenbush, meanwhile, claimed the new title of Director of Fun, forcing Wink Vavasseur to become a bad memory. The night also marked the revelation of the new season's big bad: a teeming faction of villains called the Flood, including a couple of brainwashed former heroes and a few central threats of seasons past. They're all in the thrall of Decaulion, a towering Bane-esque masked figure. The latest wrinkle: Decaulion actually kills characters, coming in at the end of shows and hitting supporting characters with a monstrous chokeslam/backbreaker thing. The wrestlers don't die, obviously, but the characters are never seen again. A couple of beloved grapplers have already fallen victim. Once again, the stakes have been raised.
With the company humming again, it's tough to say what Quackenbush accomplished, if anything, by shutting things down for so long. It wasn't like anyone put Wink Vavasseur through a table. There was no grand, satisfying blowoff end to that storyline, unless the mere continued existence of Chikara counts as a satisfying end. Which it might. For those of us who love Chikara, there's a sense of euphoric, cathartic relief in seeing the company back in business. If the shutdown really was part of a story that Quackenbush needed to tell, then he deserves enormous credit for doing whatever he had to do to tell it. And in the meantime, he's on to the next chapter.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum, and he's written for Pitchfork, Deadspin, GQ, Grantland, the Village Voice, the Classical, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and kids in Charlottesvile, VA. One time, he went to CM Punk's house. Follow him on Twitter.
Maddison Bond is an illustrator, print maker, and deviant in Portland, Oregon. In between eating pizza, watching basketball, and drawing, he lives alone. He holds two irrelevant degrees in art and science. Follow him on Twitter.