Gideon Kennedy: Blast from the Past
By Gideon C. Kennedy
The Desire of Wrestling
A southern experience
“Weighing in at 250 pounds and hailing from Shermer, Illinois, The Nature Toy Devin Desire!” The goateed ring announcer directs the audience’s attention to one of the side doors. It’s Thursday night, June 29, in Atlanta’s Hyatt Regency and every part of the hotel swarms with klingons, storm troopers, and vampires as the 13th annual DragonCon sci-fi and comic convention begins its four-day invasion.
Over a thousand of the approximately 30,000 visitors to the convention fill the Main Regency Ballroom to capacity, leaving still others outside.
The crowd watches and awaits the beginning of the third match of seven for the evening, a bill including such known performers as The Jung Dragons, Glacier, Jerry Only and Abdullah the Butcher.
Everyone focuses on one of the main aisles leading to the wrestling ring in the center of the room. As the KISS song “I Was Made For Loving You” blares through the P.A., a 6 foot 1 inch purple haired man, bedecked in matching purple boa and wrestling one piece, floppily struts towards the ring, escorted by four tightly dressed women.
The tone of the audience’s reaction is quickly set as the lavender clad Devin Desire falls through the ropes into the ring and, taking the mic from the announcer, begins to demand silence from the uncooperative crowd. He invites their scorn and leaves himself open for attack.
“I think there was a typo on the billing. My name is Devin Desire. My name is not Barney.” One of the announcers begins singing, “I Love You.” The audience quickly picks up a chant of “Bar-ney! Bar-ney! Bar-n…”
In fact, he is neither. Outside of the ring and the purple attire, he is Chuck Porterfield, a 23-year-old Georgia State University graduate, independent filmmaker, former Salvation Army corps cadet, and, ultimately, performer. This is his first public match and the culmination of nearly a year of training.
With an audience over 10 million nationwide, professional wrestling has begun to see new heights in its popularity and exposure in recent years. Not including the slew of Pay Per View wrestling features on television, there are currently at least 12 hours of wrestling programming on each week. The industry as a whole takes in around $340 million in annual revenues. The largest pro wrestling organization, the World Wrestling Federation, or WWF, recorded $251 million in revenue last year, twice that of its previous year, and has recently begun offering public stock.
But with such increased exposure, professional wrestling has also received its share of bad publicity. After exposes on such news programs as ABC’s 20/20 and NBC’s Dateline, the growing phenomena known as backyard wrestling, in which children harmfully recreate and videotape wrestling maneuvers, brought to question wrestling’s impact on young viewers. Somewhere between these two, the multi-million dollar entertainment industry and the homegrown insurance hazards, lay Chuck Porterfield.
Nationwide, there are legions of independent pro wrestlers building records in local circuits, something like the minors of professional wrestling. They play in convention halls and hotel ballrooms instead of sold-out arenas. They pay for their training, anywhere from $2000 to $6000, and get paid relatively nothing, if anything, for the matches they perform. Chuck is one such performer, wrestling simply out of his desire to entertain.
In mid-sentence and to the cheers of the audience, Devin Desire gets slammed from behind by his challenger Homicide, a 6 foot 3 inch wrestler dressed in pseudo-SWAT attire who has just swooped into the ring. The microphone is knocked from Devin’s hand as Homicide takes him to the mat. Devin Desire struggles under the punishment.
To meet him, the title “professional wrestler” does not cross one’s mind. As affable as he is funny, Chuck is good company any time. Usually decked out in Hawaiian shirt, simple slacks and sneakers, he carries with him an easy-going demeanor. He wears glasses for his vision and has a slightly nasal touch in his voice. He has a knack for telling stories and a unique perspective on most topics of conversation, not least of which is his encyclopedic knowledge of film. The last thing one expects from meeting Chuck is picturing him slamming heads into turnbuckles.
A lifetime fan of professional wrestling, Chuck’s transition from spectator to participant was a relatively easy one. While working towards Bachelor’s degrees in both film and religious studies at Georgia State, Chuck found an opportunity co-hosting Nitrate 88, a movie and television themed radio show on Album 88. Having heard of local wrestling promoter Jon Waterhouse through friends, Chuck invited him and a wrestler of his choice to be guests on the show. Accompanying Jon on the show was Greg Herman, aka Demon Hellstorm, a former bodyguard and stuntman who, besides holding a degree in physics and running his own auto repair business, trains aspiring professional wrestlers. After the show, Greg suggested to Chuck that he should pursue professional wrestling. Although Chuck was hesitant at first, Greg seemed to allay some of his misgivings. “He told me he had no athletic ability and I told him I could make a wrestler out of him.” Pretty soon, Chuck was enrolled at Greg’s school.
Stunned but standing, Devin Desire turns just in time to get clotheslined off his feet by Homicide running off the ropes. The arm moves across the neck so fast that it’s hard to tell if it made contact. Devin Desire slams to the mat with a satisfying crash all the same.
Training sessions with Greg and his other students meant learning everything, including building and breaking down the mat. With significantly smaller budgets than their multi-million dollar counterparts, independent wrestlers and promoters have to know the ins and outs of production and be able to assist with putting on the show.
While Chuck was still training from September 1999 to July 2000, the mat, when not used for a show, was either in a warehouse or in one of the wrestler’s backyards. The latter location lead to jokes about their credibility.
“When we had our ring outside it was in a guy’s backyard, so we used to joke to each other, ‘Now all we are are backyard wrestlers.'”
When asked about it seriously, he does see a legitimate moral dilemma in the problem of kids getting injured and where the responsibility should rest. But he also states emphatically, “You’re not going to find a single wrestler who is going to support the idea of (backyard wrestling) because it’s like a kid with a fire extinguisher running after a burning blaze. They’re just not trained for it.”
Meeting two or three times a week, depending on the weather, training sessions lasted anywhere from an hour to two and a half hours long. After stretching out and learning to taking falls, the wrestlers “ran spots,” performing series of moves and doing scrimmages in order to put together a match. As Chuck puts it, “The difference between wrestling and the martial arts is that in wrestling your trying to put together a story, do something entertaining.”
For a beginner, this can take a while. “When I tell people I’ve been wrestling a year and I’ve only wrestled one match, to them that doesn’t make sense. But you’ve got to realize I’ve got nine months of matches under my belt prior to doing that.”
After being struck full on by Homicide, Devin Desire’s body pauses for a split second before crashing to the mat, like Wile E. Coyote suspended mid-air before plummeting to the desert floor. Desire’s timing could easily be that of an actor’s or a comedian’s. Like one of the Three Stooges, he gets the maximum laughs for his lumps.
“Stand up comedy and pro wrestling are closely related,” Chuck says. “It’s all about the rule of three. The third time is the funniest. Comedy and pro wrestling works in threes. Three’s a beautiful number. Most movies are in three acts.” Besides knowing the “rule of three,” Chuck gained even more experience as a ringside announcer. A natural pick due to his radio experience and his knowledge of wrestling, he learned what worked and what didn’t as he commentated several matches.
When asked how he was to train, his trainer Greg says Chuck was a fast study. “He picked up everything really really quick, even to his surprise. He was ready before the other guys, you know. He just picked it up. He’s in the entertainment business. The entertainment business is the entertainment business, you either got it or you don’t.”
Greg clarifies by saying, “Some of the other guys can wrestle better than him but they don’t know the psychology, how to interview and do the crowd like he does.”
Chuck is not a stranger to crowds. After attending services at the Salvation Army since the fourth grade, he began in 1997 to make the move from senior soldier, an adult member of the congregation, to corps cadet, one of the first stages of training for an officer, the Salvation Army’s version of a preacher. It was then that he began attending the Fulton Corp in Cabbagetown and got the chance to deliver sermons himself. At least once a month for close to a year, Chuck got the chance to address the congregation.
“I definitely made some people cry. Yeah, making the spirit overcome them or it was sometimes just somebody saying something that they wanted to hear. I was known to cry because it meant a lot to me what I was saying. I mean, I guess in a way I was trying to invoke emotion and passion in people’s hearts.”
Over time, however, Chuck’s sermons began to shift focus from the evangelical to the more secular as his ideas about religion began to change. “Salvation became unimportant. Which is kind of essential to the Salvation Army.”
Soon after the Fulton Corp was closed down in 1998, Chuck left the church and organized religion entirely. As he explains it, “I have a lot of respect for people in the Salvation Army who that’s their lives, to serve their god and to help out people. However, the way I was interpreting, the way I was internalizing my faith, all in all I don’t think was entirely positive. I think I just used it to fuel my negative self image that I had at the time.”
In a way, his relinquishment of faith has empowered him to do more. “I’m trying to see myself more as a valuable person as myself and not just, ‘Hey, God said I’m good…except God said I’m a sinner and I’m going to Hell so I need to trust God.'”
Ironically for Chuck, the Salvation Army International Millennial Congress is taking place just around the corner at the Georgia World Congress Center on the same weekend as DragonCon. The MARTA trains are packed with a strange mix of red uniforms and dark capes. Meanwhile, Homicide straddles Devin Desire’s back and chokes him with the ropes. Devin flails and twists and grimaces but can’t seem to find his way out of Homicide’s grip. Though much of it seems to be an act, genuine pain shows through as his face begins to match his suit in color.
So what would make someone endure actual pain just for the entertainment of others? To Chuck, the illusion is what is important. “They create an illusion of reality. Sometimes that is more impressive than the reality itself. Sometimes I would say that if I saw a sorcerer, a real person that had honest-to-god magical powers, do something and then you had an illusionist, a prestidigitator, a magician, make something appear to disappear using the physical means they have around them, to make it happen, not really happen but make it appear to happen, to me that’s even cooler than a sorcerer just saying, ‘Look, I’m a magician, POOF! It’s gone.'”
As a performance, Chuck makes another interesting analogy about professional wrestling. “I consider it sort of like the jazz of athleticism because you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to do when you go out there and you have a pretty good idea of what your audience wants but for the most part, it’s improvised. You have some maybe general structure about what you’re doing but you’re going out there and you’re improvising and for that aspect it’s a performance. And the art aspect is, I mean it’s similar to dancing and ballet. You have to figure out a way to use the physical limitations and tremendous abilities that the human body has and being able to figure a way to take those and create a show. I think that that is the art of it.”
A small faction in the audience cheers for Devin’s success in the ring. They scream insults at Homicide and cheer on their champion. Despite the fact that he is losing, there are still some rooting for Devin Desire.
As Chuck explains it, the character of Devin Desire makes him a gimmick wrestler. Pro wrestlers, like any other group of performers or athletes, are divided into many different categories according to their specialty. A high flyer uses more acrobatics; a hardcore wrestler takes extreme physical punishment (i.e. hit with various objects), etc. Probably more populous but less popular within the wrestling community is the gimmick wrestler. Unlike the other types whose classification depends heavily on their athletic style, the gimmick wrestler derives his or her act primarily from the character that is played and is not so dependent on variety of moves.
But for Chuck, this has not been a disadvantage. As he explains, “I was able to take the short-comings of my athleticism, the fact that I’m clumsy and I fall down and things like that, we were able to adapt that into a character that uses that to his advantage as far as entertaining. I can still take a bump and take punches as well as a lot of people, but I looked pretty goofy when I delivered a lot of them. Which actually had an effect as a bad guy that worked well because there were a lot of people out there who hated the idea that some nincompoop could go out there and beat the crap out of their hero.”
So how did he devise the character of Devin Desire? As Chuck describes it, the creation was a collaborative effort between himself and his trainer Greg. Imitating the rough voice of Greg Herman, Chuck plays out the exchange that happened early in his training and lead to his wrestling alter ego. “(Greg) just looked at me and he said, ‘You are going to be the Nature Toy Devin Desire,’ and I said, ‘Okay.’ ‘Will you bleach your hair?’ I said, ‘I won’t bleach it but I’ll die it.’ ‘What color?’ ‘Purple’s my favorite color. I’ll do it purple.’ ‘All right, yeah, you’ll wear purple and you’ll have purple hair and you’ll go out and act fruity and people will hate you.'”
Chuck’s character development of Devin Desire, however, didn’t stop there. “I saw my character as being a way of me expressing some emotions and ideas that I had held that I personally didn’t think that glamorous or that good.”
Devin Desire’s heredity also traces back to KISS, one of Chuck’s favorite bands. “I sort of tried to adapt the Devin Desire character to being an inept Paul Stanley (guitarist/singer). So I wanted Devin Desire to think of himself as a sexy rock star type and to think that he’s really as awesome as he claims to be. However, I wanted there to be some delusion to his character that he would say all this stuff and he would genuinely believe it but he couldn’t always back it up. So that would be the reason he would have to lead to cheating and it would also be his motivation for wanting to attack pretty boys because subconsciously he knows that’s really what the people want, but outwardly he thinks ‘I’m what they want.'”
Just as it seems Devin Desire has been beaten for good, Desire’s ladies distract Homicide. Entering the ring and fawning over the referee and the apparent victor, the four women who accompanied Devin to the ring now get Homicide to let his guard down. Before he knows it, Homicide is suffering a surprise attack by “The Big Baller” T.C. Carter. In typical fashion, the referee remains distracted. When he finally turns around, there is nothing left in the ring except Devin Desire’s body strewn over an unconscious Homicide. Much to the audience’s righteous rage, Devin Desire has won the match.
Will Homicide get the opportunity of a rematch with Devin Desire? No one knows, not even Chuck. For now, he has decided to set aside his spandex and leave Devin Desire’s record 1 win, 0 losses.
When asked what the impetus behind this decision is, Chuck responds, “Some people can write poetry for fun, some people can make a living at it, but unless somehow you pull the strings in just the right way to make a living at it, even if you’re doing it causally and are making some money at it, you got to have some kind of backup. You’re kind of a lucky individual who can make a career out of writing poetry, but if you can’t make a living writing poetry then really there’s nothing lost. You’re able to express your emotions on a piece of paper or your feelings of your situations of the world and there’s nothing lost and it’s all a game. But pro wrestling is a profession. It’s not just an art form, it’s not just a performance, it’s a profession. That’s why it’s ‘professional wrestling.’ The wrestler who goes out there puts their body on the line.”
And for the time being, Chuck would rather not take that risk for his hobby.