Before WrestleMania starts in Philly this weekend, local wrestlers clown around

AWFUL wrestling performance art sets the stage for this weekend’s pro wrestling finale.

Jerry Kaba helps Jett Biggert choreograph their victory inside a practice ring before AWFUL Wrestling stages its MocaMania event. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Jerry Kaba helps Jett Biggert choreograph their victory inside a practice ring before AWFUL Wrestling stages its MocaMania event. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

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All eyes in the wrestling world turn to Lincoln Financial Field this weekend as WrestleMania body-slams into Philadelphia.

On the eve of the WWE’s climactic season event, local wrestling titans will clash in their own epic showdown at PhilaMOCA on Spring Garden Street, as MocaMania 4.

It promises to be downright AWFUL.

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Art Wrestling Federal Urban League (AWFUL) is an ongoing performance art piece staged two or three times a year, wherein performers assume caricatures, generate absurdist conflict between each other, then battle for supremacy in the ring.

It won’t be as athletic as WWE, but founder Jerry Kaba says AWFUL still delivers. Where WWE is an athletic event dressed up as performance art, AWFUL is performance art dressed up as a fight.

“We’re a hard turn away from beating each other up and getting CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy],” Kaba said. “We’re like a clown show.”

Casey Larkin prepares to body slam Jerry Kaba in AWFUL Wrestling’s Kensington practice space. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

A character named Middle Management, for example, tells a wrestling referee that he will be replaced by an artificial intelligence automaton. That leads to fisticuffs. Kaba’s character called Party Priest, dressed in a leather jock strap, has his Jell-O shots stolen by Porch Pirate. The socially conservative characters Sports Dad and Real American tag-team against Gay Agenda and They Frog, in part over the use of they/them pronouns.

“I am mostly inspired by 1980s wrestling. Really fun characters like the Ultimate Warrior, Jake the Snake, Tugboat,” Kaba said. “It was big characters, big story lines and physicality.”

In a practice ring inside a Kensington garage, AWFUL wrestlers Claire Sitarz and Richy Brown fight atop the shoulders of Jerry Kaba and Jett Biggert. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

Kaba said today’s WWE fighters perform more complex and intricate moves compared with past wrestlers (when WWE was still known as WWF), making the sport seem less approachable to amateurs.

Claire Sitarz, aka Sports Dad, did not grow up watching wrestling but now reviews old WWE videos. She gleans tips from hardcore fans in AWFUL.

“Dan [Ostrov, aka Real American] would be, like, ‘We’re gonna do a double bulldog. Here’s the way you do it,’” Sitarz said. “So many people grew up doing these moves in their living room.”

Brandon Gorin is an occasional stand-up comedian who wrestles under the name Right Angle Her And As. He says AWFUL is not making fun of WWE.

“This is Brecht’s ‘Threepenny Opera’ to regular opera,” he explains. “We’re not a parody of wrestling. We are wrestling for idiots. But it’s still wrestling.”

Gorin says the audience cannot be passive.

“When you come to any wrestling show, play along. Boo the bad guys. Cheer the good guys,” he said. “If you are too cool for wrestling you will always be too cool for wrestling. But you can learn for one night what it feels like to be alive in a room with art. That’s not just AWFUL wrestling. That’s all wrestling.”

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AWFUL started a decade ago as an improvised joke. Little Berlin, a former art collective in Kensington, had planned a First Friday event that fell through at the last minute. Needing something to fill the time, the collective reached out to Kaba to come up with something quickly. He and his roommate devised an impromptu wrestling match in a homemade plywood ring.

AWFUL has since taken on a life of its own. A cast of about a dozen performers has staged bouts at Space 1026, Icebox Project Space, PhilaMOCA, Fleischer Art Memorial, the Wierdo Fest in Kensington and the Knockdown Center in New York. In January the act was booked on a comedy Caribbean cruise, Get Ship Faced.

The joke escalated beyond Kaba’s already pretty wild imaginings: Two years ago he was threatened by police for running an illegal sports operation.

“We had gotten asked to show at the Fillmore and we had over 300 tickets sold. Two days before we got a call from the Pennsylvania sports commissioner that this was an illegal wrestling event and unsanctioned,” he recalled. “It would be shut down by the state police. I had to go through all the paperwork. I am now a licensed professional wrestling promoter with the state of Pennsylvania.”

AWFUL choreographs new routines for every performance. They reliably sell out their semi-regular home at PhilaMOCA. The Friday show is already out of tickets except for a few seats reserved for day-of sale.

They share a sensibility with the Philadelphia Mummers as non-professionals in handmade costumes acting out broadly comic routines based on current events. It makes them more accessible than the WrestleMania spectacle, which represents a narrative closure after a full season of drama.

AWFUL Wrestling founder Jerry Kaba watches Claire Pitts try out a new wrestling move on Richy Brown. (Peter Crimmins/WHYY)

As a diehard WWE fan, Gorin warns that people new to wrestling should not make WrestleMania LX their introduction.

“It’s the end of a whole bunch of stories,” he said. “I spent a year figuring out what these stories were, since last Mania all the way to this Mania. You’re seeing the finale.”

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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