By Dedra Cordle
It was minutes before the first, and possibly last, match of the Artists Wrestling League (AWL) when founder W. Ralph Walters took the stage for introductions.
As he began to explain to the decently sized crowd what they were about to witness, he noticed an uptick in furrowed brows, taut lips and raised eyebrows; he imagined thought bubbles wondering why they paid a cover charge.
To reel them back in, he started with the jokes. It did not go over so well.
“I bombed,” he said.
Though the majority of the crowd were family and friends, he pleaded with them to trust him, and just watch what was about to unfold.
As this self-proclaimed introductory mishap was occurring, a red tights-clad Randal Pearson stood nervously backstage with demon makeup on, wondering what he had signed up for.
“I looked at Brent Elam (his opponent for that night) and asked ‘Are we really doing this?’” he said with a laugh.
The answer was yes; absolutely.
It was shortly after Walters came up with the idea for the AWL when he told Pearson, a 2001 graduate of Groveport Madison High School, of his visionary concept.
He explained his interpretation thusly, “Basically, its two grown costumed adults creating timed pieces of art and smacking each other around in the ring if they want,” said Pearson.
Walters, however, sees it slightly different.
“It’s one of the largest open source art projects,” he said. “It’s live art with a nostalgic twist.”
Pearson said he knew immediately he had to be a part of it.
“I tend to gravitate toward things that sound weird.”
With the help of Walters, he crafted a backstory for his wrestling alter ego, El Diablo Blanco, a not-so-talented artist who sold his soul to the devil for a chance to make great art.
Pearson said it somewhat fits with how he sees himself as an artist.
“I’m not a great live painter though I try when I’m up there (in the ring),” said the noted sculptor.
For the past three-and-a-half years, Pearson and his alter ego have been stalking makeshift rings throughout the city and state, and much like his alter ego he has even recruited others into the dark side.
“Actually, my wife is mostly responsible for all of this but she might resent that statement,” said Rob Lamka, a 2004 graduate of Grove City High School.
Pearson, Lamka explained, was a member of their wedding party and was initially the one who told him about the AWL.
“I had to see for myself what on earth this was all about,” he said.
Upon viewing a match, he said he saw something that was new, exciting, chaotic and absolutely spectacular.
“It was nuts,” he said. “I loved it.”
Unlike Pearson, Lamka didn’t immediately sign up for some art and wrestling action but it was a prompt from his friend that pushed him into the ring.
“I saw on a Facebook post that Randy was looking for a manager or a mouthpiece to hype up his events.
“Randy’s a quiet guy so he wanted someone who could be this loud, obnoxious mouthpiece and I thought to myself, ‘I can be that loud, obnoxious mouthpiece.’”
Within weeks, Mr. Muerte was created from the depths of the underworld, though he is rather helpful in and out of the ring.
“They’ve been partners for many years but there has been some division lately,” Lamka said.
Though not a regular wrestler (yet), Lamka has been known to fill in from time-to-time.
“I’ve worn a chimp costume when Chimp Endale was needed and I’ve worn a suit made out of bubble wrap to prevent myself from being hurt,” he said. “That had the reverse effect as some of my opponents took that as an opportunity to hit a bit harder.”
Walters and partner Beth Yoder-Balla said injuries are not typically a part of the act though lately the wrestling artists have been pushing the limits.
“They’ve thrown each other into tables on occasion, but we absolutely draw the line at allowing them to set themselves on fire as some have requested,” said Yoder-Balla, the president and CEO of the Akron AWL. “We’re not looking to be sued.”
Admittedly, timed drawings, past grudges and rabid crowds can make for a tumultuous time in the ring, which would ideally be reined in by good officiating. The referees, however, are known for their lack of attention.
“They’re the worst in the league,” said Walters.
Currently, the head ref is Thomas Refferson, the self-proclaimed greatest referee in the world.
“I’m the greatest,” said Refferson, who is known outside of the ring as James Kindler.
Growing up on the Westside of Columbus, Kindler never considered himself much of an artist, though he was a fan of the iconic wrestlers. His love for the sport even brought him to the wrestling mat on occasion.
“I wrestled in middle school but by high school I had stopped,” said the 1991 graduate of Franklin Heights.
Like Pearson, he knew of the AWL though his friendship with Walters and liked the scene so much that he volunteered to assist with stage production.
“I was doing that for about a year when they needed someone to step in as a referee,” said Kindler. “I always considered myself a behind the scenes person but once I was put into the spotlight I kind of grew into the performance.”
That was three years ago, and Kindler/Refferson has been “terrorizing” the wrestling artists ever since.
“It’s been great fun portraying this clueless ref,” said Kindler. “He naps during the action, takes selfies with the crowd and does not pay one bit of attention.”
His time as head ref, however, may be cut short as a rival ref stole his whistle, stop watch and ripped his shirt at the latest event.
“We’ll have to see what happens,” he said. “I might just get into that ring.”
Walters said when he first thought of the idea years ago, he had no thought that it would last, let alone be so popular.
“We were sure it would just be one or two shows at the most, but here we are nearly four years later and we’re still going with no plans to stop.”
He said that fact was a true testament to the artist wrestlers who give their time and talent to this slapstick world, and to the recurring fans and new fans who believe in this occasionally physical live art show.
While there are no public upcoming AWL shows currently scheduled, the latest news can be found on their Facebook page or through their Instagram or website (www.artistswrestlingleague.com). Walters said they are always looking for talented artists who like to perform in front a crowd, so if you’re interested, contact him or Yoder-Balla through those platforms.