IWS boosts queer & female talent while NHL lets LGBTQ community down

“Where hockey says, ‘You’re not welcome,’ wrestling says, ‘Yes, you are.”

Co-ed sports may not be a thing in traditional sports leagues, but the IWS is anything but traditional.

You may recognize the IWS (International Wrestling Syndicate) from when we profiled last year’s edition of Scarred 4 Life, previewing the syndicate’s final “Fans Bring the Weapons” event. But for the uninitiated, the IWS is a unique — and sometimes ultra-violent — twist on the sport, as well as an independent, self-funded, proudly Montreal-based wrestling institution since its inception in 1998. Wrestling fans may also know the company for being a launchpad for wrestling stars like Sami Zayn, Matt Menard, Mike Bailey, Jeff Parker and Kevin Owens.

With sporting culture sometimes feeling more regressive than ever, what does one do when they’re trying to make the most of their love for their chosen sport, but that sport doesn’t love them back? Enter this year’s Scarred 4 Life event by the IWS (International Wrestling Syndicate), going down this Saturday, July 15 at the Olympia.

Though it’ll showcase wrestlers from all genders and orientations, the wrestling syndicate’s big summer bash notably features wrestlers from diverse and marginalized populations — most notably women and the LGBTQ+ community — duking it out in the heart of the Village. Given how much of a relative “tough guy’s club” the IWS used to be once upon a time, an event like this is a significant (and welcome) sign of change, especially as wrestling as a sport is enjoying a renaissance of sorts.

The current Tag Team Championship title holders are an inter-gender team that includes Alex Maze (who identifies as a gay man) and Kristara (a Black woman), emphasizing the inclusive nature of the IWS and their Scarred 4 Life events. After all, sports matches involving all genders at once are extremely rare in traditional sporting culture.

“That alone is something I’ve never seen in my lifetime in wrestling, and that I never thought I would see,” says Erika Santori, event producer and coordinator at IWS. “And here it is, happening right before us.”

The event on Saturday also marks the first time an IWS event will be broadcast live on the FITE Network around the world (on FITE+, more specifically) — a big step toward showing wrestling fans the world over how we do things here in the 514. 

The opportunity came about after the IWS did a collaboration show with the New Jersey-based GCW (Game Changer Wrestling), during which Nick Gage fought one of the IWS’ wrestlers. The fight was shown live on pay-per-view on FITE+, leading to the network later agreeing to show this year’s IWS Scarred 4 Life.

Though independent wrestling is bigger south of the border than in Canada, the IWS prides itself on how supportive and diverse their crowds are. Santori even saw a transgender woman (and lifelong wrestling fan) approach her earlier this year following an IWS show, asking how to join the dojo and start training.

“She was a professional drag queen, and now she wants to train to do wrestling,” she adds. “That’s the power of coming and seeing yourself represented. This person felt safe enough that, ‘I can come join this gym. I can train, and I can be respected, and I can be a part of something.’ Even five years ago, that wasn’t a thing.”

If you ask Maze, who’ll be defending his tag team crown this year, watching IWS is “a great moment to just unwind, think about something else, and just watch the show that’s out there.” He later tells us that IWS events are full of raw emotions, and that he cried during the last Tag Team Championship he attended. If he watches hockey, basketball or MMA, he’ll see lots of people with the same height and/or shape, while wrestling is a lot more diverse in that sense.

“No matter who’s on there, they’re going to set up a show,” he says. “I know Dark Sheik, when she’s going to come and beat Ben Tull, it’s going to be one hell of a show… Ben Tull’s going to be short, he’s going to be hated and booed by everyone. Dark Sheik’s going to tear the show down.”

Since there are so few arenas in sports — and life in general — where cis and transgender men, women and non-binary folks get to be on a level playing field, Scarred 4 Life represents an opportunity to have a space that can openly be an exception to that rule. IWS plans to have more intergender matches in the future, though those are still yet to be announced.

“The beauty of wrestling is there’s that suspended disbelief where we get to have a place that allows men and women to kind of compete at the same level; where, for that moment, we’re equals,” says Santori. “I think that’s why I’ve become so attached to wrestling, because it is one of the only spaces where we get to have those moments.”

IWS boosts queer & female wrestling talent while NHL lets LGBTQ community down

Santori considers Scarred 4 Life to be an especially important event to have right now, given the maddening refusal by the NHL to fully embrace the LGBTQ+ community by cancelling theme nights. Most notably, the league cancelled players wearing Pride jerseys during warmups after multiple NHL players refused to wear them this season (citing religious reasons and/or fear of reprisals back home, if they’re Russian).

“That really, really breaks my heart,” she adds, pointing to the Carey Price poster in her blurred background during our Zoom call. “I love hockey, but it feels like hockey doesn’t love me. Why would I want to spend my money on supporting this thing that doesn’t seem to support me, that doesn’t want me and my friends to come to these games?”

With that in mind, this year’s IWS summer event is here to show people from those communities that there is a part of the sporting world that will welcome them with open arms. Santori “clung to wrestling” upon becoming part of the IWS community because of the sport itself, as well as the communal aspect of the organization.

“We say we need women in charge, or in managerial roles,” she continues. “It’s great that we let them do stuff, but who’s making decisions? One of the reasons I really respect IWS is that they came to me. They asked me to join them on their side. They’re like, ‘We need the perspective of a woman if we’re going to grow this company, if we’re going to reach more people. We need to keep up with the times.’ That’s exactly what the NHL is not doing.

“You are isolating a huge part of the community that is happy to be a paying customer. You’re telling people, ‘We don’t want your money.’ That’s just horrible business! That just doesn’t make any sense. So here’s this company that’s actively trying to make a change. Sure, we’re a small local company, but we’re going live on pay-per view. Starting July 15, you can watch us all around the world.” 

Santori felt like there was a burgeoning scene to become a part of, and one that excited her when the IWS asked her to get involved. She also considers the IWS “the best-kept secret in Montreal,” though they’re hoping to no longer be a secret at all.

As a child, Santori loved wrestling, but that the female wrestlers “looked like porn stars, and they weren’t in real, physical matches.” She wishes she had the women currently competing in IWS to look up to back then, despite that era being a very different time for wrestling. 

Similarly, she says, a gay kid watching wrestling growing up may have seen gay marriages be used as joke fodder during WWE, but can now see Anthony Bowens competing on AEW with crowds chanting lovingly whenever he talks about being gay during a match. For Santori, wrestling is the sport where the most change is happening.

“Where the NHL said, ‘You’re not welcome,’ wrestling said, ‘Yes, you are,’” she adds. “That’s why I’m fighting tooth and nail to push this narrative. I want people to know that there is a community for you somewhere. If you feel like you don’t belong somewhere, you belong with us. We’re the freaks, we’ll take you in. (People say) ‘Wrestling people are carnies, they’re part of the circus. They’re part of the carnival.’ You know what? Yes, we are and we’re happy to have you.”

When Maze steps into the ring to defend his tag team crown, he’ll do it while knowing he’s there to help get the crowd involved in the show. After all, it’s a form of entertainment.

“Yes, (wrestling is) scripted. Yes, it’s planned,” says Maze. “But you go see a movie, you go see Avengers, if you hear someone (say) ‘Give him a chop!’ during the movie, it won’t happen. On a wrestling show, it will. They’ll listen to you. They’ll interact with the crowd.”

Wrestlers like Dark Sheik (who is transgender) and Ben Tull are among the bigger names on the card Saturday, with Maze and Kristara participating in the six-man tag team match alongside IWS legend Green Phantom. But there’s also Effy and Allie Katch, who respectively identify as a gay man and a “proud, out and about” bisexual woman. “You can catch them kissing their opponents in the ring, really pushing the boundaries of what you can do as an athlete,” Santori says. 

“They’re not afraid to be sexual sometimes. Some people take offence to that. If you’re a good sport, you see the carny aspect of it, (and) the camp aspect of it. Wrestling is just drag and burlesque with a little bit more of a physical, masculine twist to it. I think they really are good at promoting that aspect of it.’”

For Alex Maze, attending Effy’s Big Gay Brunch in March gave him a chance to see Effy and Allie Katch in action. “Everything about (them) is really a big celebration of who they are,” he says.

“They don’t care who you are, what you’re going through. They’re there to have fun. That’s the main purpose of wrestling. No matter who you are, no matter what you’re going to do, you’re going to get into it. You’re going to have some fun.”

A wrestling organization like the IWS is one that bucks sporting trends both inside the ring and out. For example, whenever Santori goes on the rotten cesspool that is Elon Musk’s Twitter, she’ll see people arguing that there’s neither enough money nor interest in women’s sports, and that if there was, people would pay for it and/or it would be broadcast on television. She very much begs to differ.

“We’re proving that people are into it. People do want to see it,” she continues. “For the last three years after the pandemic (started), IWS has sold out every venue that we’ve run. We’ve done small venues, we’ve done big venues. We’ve done the Olympia two or three times — that’s 1,500 people each time, for an indie wrestling show in Canada. It’s so impressive.”

Clearly, people do want to see women battling it out in a wrestling match, and to see people of all genders and diverse identities on the same stage, too. Saturday’s event will show this diversity being represented at the highest level, and shown live on pay-per-view (the IWS has had matches shown on RDS in the past, but those were pre-recorded and edited). 

“It shows that people care and the more people see that there is a place for them, that there is an avenue they can go down where they can be a part of something, that’s the most important thing for me,” she says. “This is you. You are seeing yourself in wrestling.”

This year’s theme is especially pertinent, given the ongoing debate about whether or not transgender athletes should compete in organized sports — making the presence of a trans wrestler on the card even more profound. 

Though some folks who groan about there being “too many biological differences” for trans athletes to compete may be too far gone at this point, an event like this could be far more meaningful to younger audiences. It could make transgender youth in attendance think maybe they can step into the ring one day themselves.

“There’s everyone in our crowd,” says Santori. “It’s not the old stereotype of who watches wrestling anymore. You’re not getting the neckbeard Reddit guy who smells like Doritos. They’re there, but there’s other people, too. We’ve got everyone at these shows.”

This extends to the athletes competing, too — if you ask Maze, wrestling is entertainment more than a sport. Yes, transgender athletes will have the main stage during this event, but it’ll also show the world that “they don’t bite,” and that they’re just like any other athlete out there.

“No matter what’s in their pants, they are athletes,” he continues.  “They’re entertaining. They are who they are, and they can still deliver, no matter how they identify, who they are, what they want to do, who they sleep with — they’re there to entertain and kick some butts.” 

The IWS hopes to go on tour at some point, after having held some recent events in Toronto. Another goal is to continue getting more eyes on the organization, since their presence on FITE+ will mean being televised alongside AEW and GCW’s pay-per-view matches. 

On a different note, how will the IWS ensure they make good on their commitment to safety and inclusivity at Scarred 4 Life this year? Simple: they’ll kick out anyone doing anything unsavoury and/or making others uncomfortable. “You tell us, and a group of wrestlers are going to throw you out,” Santori says. “You’re messing around with the wrong people!” 

Maze expands on this, adding that there will be “no ‘isms’ with any AWS show. No racism, no sexism, no homophobia or anything like that. I remember at my first IWS show, I came with a shirt that says, ‘Gay is not okay, it’s fabulous.’ There were no (raised) eyebrows or anything. People were like, ‘Okay! Cool shirt.’”

So what should women and queer youth do if they’re looking to pursue a wrestling career, but for whom societal attitudes still make them feel unwelcome or discouraged? If you ask Santori, just come to an IWS show.

“Start by coming and seeing it. Become a part of the crowd,” she says. “Feel that energy. How does that make you feel? Do you want to continue to be a part of this? Do you want to be the person in the ring creating that energy for other people? I think, once you come to a show and see it and feel it, you’ll understand what that feeling is. I think it could be very encouraging. There is a place for you, and it’s here.”

Maze adds, “First, come see our show, then join us at dojo. We’re even more welcoming there! (laughs)” ■

SCARRED 4 LIFE 2023 is happening at the Olympia Theatre (1004 Ste-Catherine E.) on Saturday, July 15, 8 p.m., $54.50 all in

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