F1rst Wrestling brings the sport to First Avenue, the Uptown VFW and a St. Paul synagogue – St. Paul Pioneer Press

Posted By on December 6, 2019

Its Saturday night at the Uptown VFW in Minneapolis and a sold-out crowd has gathered around a wrestling ring. And out struts Los Angeles wrestler Joey Ryan.

Clad in tight floral shorts, aviators and a white jacket open to his bare, hairy chest, Ryan takes the ring to Rupert Holmes 1979 hit Escape (The Pina Colada Song), an appropriate song as the lollipop-sucking wrestler looks like he stepped out of that decade.

After jumping on the ropes and posing centerfold-style for each corner of the room, Ryan meets his opponent, 20-year-old Devon Monroe, a relative newcomer from Minneapolis whos openly gay and promises his fans black sexcellence. The two grapple for a while, but everyone in the room knows how this match is going to end.

See, like most wrestlers, Ryan has a signature move. And in his case, well, it involves a certain body part, which leads to Monroe flipping and landing on the mat in defeat. The crowd some wearing Ryans Keep it Sleazy T-shirts goes wild. And this is just the first match of the evening.

Welcome to independent professional wrestling, circa 2019.

Were not trying to pull the wool over your eyes, says 37-year-old Arik Cannon, whose F1rst Wrestling staged Saturdays event. Its a show. We want you to come and have fun with us.

And when Cannon, who lives 30 miles north of St. Paul in Wyoming, says he wants you to have fun, he means everybody, regardless of color, religion, age, gender or sexual orientation. To drive home the point, F1rst Wrestling released a T-shirt with a rainbow-flag colored wrestling ring and the slogan F1rst Wrestling Is For Everyone. Cannon donated all proceeds to the LGBT nonprofit OutFront Minnesota.

Pro wrestling has so many negative connotations about it, Cannon says. I thought it was time to support a cause we genuinely believe in and want to be known for. Its not just for likes and clicks, its a real thing we believe and stand firm on. And not only do I want everyone to know its OK to come to our shows, I want people to know we have all kinds of people in our shows. We want everybody, whoever you are, to come and enjoy this crazy wrestling thing we do.

And crazy would be a great way to describe the rest of Saturdays event, which featured a steady stream of over-the-top characters both men and women, local and from out of town including Orange Cassidy (a disaffected hipster who insists on keeping his hands in the pockets of his shredded jeans), Priscilla Kelly (a sort of goth/gypsy hybrid) and Cannon himself. (His stage character is the Anarchist and he wears pieces inspired by the Misfits and the Ramones.)

Watching wrestling in person is a far cry from viewing million-dollar WWE productions on television. For starters, its really loud, as a wrestling ring is designed to amplify the sonic power of all those drops and body slams. Its also much easier to appreciate the skill and, yes, nuance it takes. Wrestling is choreographed like a big Broadway musical, but with much higher physical stakes.

Making sure the people in the ring are properly trained is everything. Trust is everything, Cannon says. What we do is a show. Were definitely not trying to hurt anybody. The things we do to each other are dangerous. If you land wrong on your head or neck, youre done.

Says Ryan: You cant fake gravity. I can tell you Im going to pick you up and throw you on the ground right now, but it doesnt mean its going to hurt any less when it happens. And sometimes in the heat of the moment you slip and take a bad bump. That just comes with the territory.

Cannon fell in love with wrestling as a kid and, after high school, trained at Midwest Pro Wrestling. After spending several years establishing himself on the national circuit, he landed a gig on Wrestling Society X, MTVs short-lived stab at the genre. But he used the money he earned from the show to start F1rst Wrestling in 2007.

I felt like the product available in Minnesota was stale and old hat, Cannon says. It was boring, a bunch of weird old guys wrestling in a high school gym. I wanted to try to inject some new life into it younger, faster, different types of wrestling. It was a slow, uphill battle.

In January 2013, Cannon founded what has become F1rst Wrestlings signature event, Wrestlepalooza. The first one drew about 350 to First Avenue. The crowd grew from there and two years later, the fifth Wrestlepalooza sold out the 1,550-capacity mainroom, a feat it has repeated each January and June ever since. (This January, Cannon added a second night and hes doing the same next month.)

Cannon can pull in such crowds because Wrestlepalooza is about more than just wrestling. It also features burlesque, live bands, drag performers and comics. We get a lot of people who arent necessarily wrestling fans, but theyve heard how much fun it is. Its a giant party. (Cannon has talked to local drag promoters Flip Phone Events about collaborating on a full-out drag/wrestling event. Weve been playing a bit of tag, trying to figure out how to put it together. We havent quite fine tuned it, but I think we will.)

F1rst Wrestling also stages three or four shows each year at the Uptown VFW, each drawing a sold-out crowd of 300. Saturdays event was the second F1rst Wrestling also offered as a pay-per-view, which brought in hundreds of additional viewers. Cannon has also done shows in Fargo and Des Moines as well as at various summer festivals big and small.

The VFW shows are strictly for those 21 and over, while Wrestlepalooza is 18+. But Cannon says they also do all-ages shows, in large part because kids are always the ones having the most fun.

Indeed, F1rst Wrestlings got an all-ages show booked Wednesday at St. Pauls Temple of Aaron synagogue. And it was Rabbi Jeremy Fine who reached out to Cannon.

The rabbi is a wrestling fan, Cannon says. We did the first one in June in this very beautiful room. We had just over 400 people there. It was very cool.

When hes not staging F1rst Wrestling events, Cannon spends nearly every weekend on the road, performing in shows across the country. He says wrestling is almost his full-time job, but he also does some bartending and security work for First Avenue on the side.

Ryan says he typically does 12 to 15 shows a month, both in the States and abroad. He was at a match in Japan when his signature move was born four years ago. A Japanese wrestler known for grabbing his opponents crotches pitched the idea to Ryan with the twist that Ryan would pull the same move and send him to the floor.

It was just supposed to be a one-time little gag, says Ryan, who outside of the ring is friendly, soft spoken and nothing like his character.

But then a 27-second clip of the move hit the internet, went viral and earned coverage from Rolling Stone, the New York Daily News, Vice, ESPN and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

I thought I could let this fizzle or I can really push it and ride it out as best I could, he says. I planned a whole character around it and its really caught on.

As for Cannon, he acknowledges Minnesotas rich history of wrestling. The late American Wrestling Association was based in Minneapolis and the state has produced a number of famed wrestlers, while also electing one of them Jesse Ventura governor.

To participate even in a small fashion is amazing, Cannon says. The thing I really want to do is leave wrestling better than it was when I got here. Ive been very fortunate to do so many amazing things, I want to do what I can to make it better.

Hanukkah Havok; 6 p.m. Dec. 11; Temple of Aaron, 616 Mississippi River Blvd. S., St. Paul; $30-$10 (all ages, kids 10 and under are free); eventbrite.com.

Wrestlepalooza XVI; 7 p.m. Jan. 3; First Avenue, 701 First Ave. N., Mpls.; $35-$27 (18+); etix.com.

Wrestlepalooza XVII; 7 p.m. Jan. 4; First Avenue, 701 First Ave. N., Mpls.; sold out (18+); etix.com.

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F1rst Wrestling brings the sport to First Avenue, the Uptown VFW and a St. Paul synagogue - St. Paul Pioneer Press

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