The titles write themselves, really. Stranglehold, here we come. Grappler in a coma. The Queen is down! Our participants, while welcoming coverage of what threatened to be face-shattering bloodsport, didn't quite understand why members of the press seemed more intrigued by prize (Morrissey ticket) than process (mortal combat), and, fair enough, there's story to be found in any no-holds-barred wrestling match held 'twixt pinball machine and pool table. It's just a little more weird when shruggingly-manful softball rivals risk life and limb for the living embodiment of Byronian remove/art school pout, and after the first challenger dropped robe to reveal fresh spray tan beneath "This Charming Man-emblazoned yellow spandex…we know, we know, it's serious.
First, I suppose, a tale of the tape? Joe Gardner, a Health and Human Services staffer from parts east, and homegrown bartender Scott Oulette—friendly sorts of unfussy hair, casual command, and that aggressively unaffected attentiveness best understood as hipsterdom's opposite—were both given the opportunity to purchase a ticket for Morrissey's re-scheduled 2013 concert that mutual friend Megan Hurley had made available for the original price to free up cash for the holidays. Despite initial misunderstandings on the part of the crowd, the forthcoming carnage wasn't for a free pass to Moz; rather, like Stub Hub meets Thunderdome, the winner would be bequeathed only an opportunity to pay a sizable chunk of change (by local terms, anyway) for a concert three months hence, though the relatively negligible gains hardly seemed the point as our opponents began circling one another warily.
The crowd slowly flooding Hannigan's Tavern certainly didn't know what to expect. To be honest, until the very moment impromptu ring announcer Tim Gallineau (owner of Belmont jazz club The Blue Monk and an old hand at overseeing unlicensed wrestling gigs during a star crossed Vegas youth) began introducing the bout's participants, we'll estimate a third of the Friday night regulars had no idea whatsoever that an athletic competition was planned nor why so many unfamiliar faces were queuing for clear sightlines to an unmarked stretch of carpet around the back room. Hannigan's—known since time immemorial as The Vern owing to the perma-broken neon sign; like a tavern without T&A, the old joke went—has undergone its share of tasteful renovations to keep pace with the ongoing neighborhood gentrification. It's still adjoining the methadone clinic, though, and maintains sufficient traces of a rough and ready past to blithely ignore issues of liability. Almost inevitably, the main source of damage would come from tables upended by late-arriving patrons jostling for a glimpse. The wrestlers, if not quite professional, knew their business well enough.
The masked Gardner, half a foot taller and some hundred pounds heavier, appeared at the outset to be an obvious favorite, though Oulette garnered a slim edge in vocal support. After Gardner drew first blood (an errant knee or elbow opening the smaller man's nose during an early takedown as "This Charming Man" rang from bar speakers), Oulette's pull on the popular vote surged upward with each passing minute. Time and again, Gardner would exploit the massive size advantage only to see a feverishly whirling Oulette somehow scramble to freedom before a full 10 count count be reached. "He's like a spider monkey," one punkish vixen trilled. Though Hurley remained the ultimate arbiter, it became increasingly clear that the roar of the crowd also played some role in the eventual decision, which led back to the unspoken question hovering over the match from the beginning: Is this real?
There were more than a few moments of hokum, to be sure, though such antics as swiping the mask off of Gardner and thrusting it upwards in triumphant taunt seemed almost a respectful nod to gladiatorial origins (and we were, yes, entertained). The torrents of blood now covering Oulette's spandex—and the resounding slap with which he visibly staggered Gardner toward the start of the second round—could not be so easily faked, and, while some murmurs of suspicion greeted the beer bottle that Oulette shattered over Gardner's head to open the third, my assistant's bemused gaze flashed with genuine fear as a circular glass shard spun past her shoulder to travel the length of the bar. Even among the clumsier bits of what appeared to be stagecraft, we wrestling neophytes may simply attribute anything resembling a WWE routine to the purely theatrical simply because that's what we've always been told. What does a legitimate flying dropkick look like? We could not truly even tell who was winning, especially by the end of the third and final round when both our weary warriors lay on their backs grasping for air and limply slapping one another's arms away. In the end, despite a notable outpouring of support for Oulette, Gardner was awarded victory and the rights to purchase the golden ticket, and, as the crowds dispersed to the strains of yet another Smiths tune spiraling from the jukebox, the putative cause of the evening's bloodshed felt more baffling than ever.
Steven Patrick Morrissey, his legacy somewhat tarnished by lackluster solo albums and vicious legal wrangling with former bandmates over royalties, has so completely reinvented himself as a contended Los Angeleno quite literally worlds away from the fey brooder of yesteryear that one has to wonder to what extent the bristling sensitivity was itself an ennobling pose. Famously, the 50-something's staunchest supporters have come from Southern California's Latino community, and, however bizarre the shift of core fanbase from goth to Latino may appear for those of us old enough to remember that initial wave of Moz worship spurred by the pale and preening, the Mancunian emigre evidently speaks to profound elements of Hispanic culture.
There is, after all, a rather proud tradition enshrining the delicate masculinity and self-romanticizing flamboyance of certain archetypes, and tonight's affair carried a distinct whiff of the bullring. The grapplers may not have been duelling for the affections of the ticketholder, as had been originally theorized. In point of fact, the tangible gains hardly seem fitting reward for the ordeal, but not all crusades are so easily explained to non-believers. On Facebook later that evening, a still-angered Oulette denounced the judges ruling, recounted his litany of injuries obtained, and, with his final post, uttered with damning solemnity the one thing that we do know to be absolutely real: "I love the Smiths more than you do."
Morrissey appears at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on March 8. Although the cheapest ($45) tickets are indeed sold out, a wide selection of upper balcony seating remains available for $54. Five days later, the Schnitz hosts Mike Tyson's one-man show Undisputed Truth. Reports that Tyson tickets will be awarded the winner of a cello competition at Aalto Lounge could not be confirmed at press time.
All photos by Scooter Curl.