Henry Gass is freelance reporter and photographer, formerly of Montreal but doing the J-school thing in New York. His writing has appeared in the McGill Daily, the Montreal Mirror (RIP), Rabble, The Ecologist, Forget The Box, and OpenFile Montreal. His photos have appeared in some of the above, but also his Flickr. Follow him on Twitter: @henrygass, as he hates on all the New York teams.
Original photography courtesy of Nicolas Quiazua, the editor-in-chief of McGill’s French university newspaper, Le Délit. Freelance photo and video-journalist, his body is more of an extension to his camera; the shutter release. He resides in Montreal and his visual work can be found on his Flickr and YouTube accounts.
LuFisto (real name Jenn Goulet, but real names don’t really belong in a story like this) is perched on the top rope a few feet from me, her back to empty folding chairs soon to be packed with the aforementioned purists and assholes. I’m distracted by a wrestler standing off to my right, playing with a live snake.
“If you don’t want to do it, it’s fine,” says her opponent for the night, Mercedes Martinez, standing by the metal guard railing outside the ring.
I never see what move she’s planning, because after a few exploratory hops up to the top rope – and furtive glances over her shoulder at Martinez – she hops back down and moves on to planning other spots in the match.
LuFisto – sporting spiky red hair, sleek black and red wrestling gear, and various arm tattoos – is the veteran of a sport too young to have them, the suitably Québécoise, de facto matriarch of the NCW Femmes Fatales promotion.
At the pre-event meeting, she stands next to Femmes Fatales promoter Stéphane Bruyère as they go over the big spots for the show. A wrestler cancelled the night before, the kind of curveball that can completely derail a small promotion like Femmes Fatales – run essentially by Bruyère, LuFisto, and a few others.
“If you’re going to cancel – and please don’t cancel – please don’t do it at 10:30 the night before,” she tells the thirty wrestlers in the ring.
“And if you are going to cancel, please tell whoever’s picking you up. This morning the driver was waiting for an hour.”
An hour lost can be costly for Femmes Fatales. There are three Femmes Fatales shows every year – Femmes Fatales IX is the second – and months of planning go into each one. When I met LuFisto for an interview the day of the show, she could spare me 20 minutes.
JENN GOULET STARTED wrestling when she was 17 years-old, joining a new wrestling club that had opened in her home town of Sorel, Quebec. All of her friends were joining, and as a lifelong wrestling fan, she naturally followed.
I ask if the friends were girls or guys. She answers guys. It would be another decade before Goulet would be able to wrestle girls regularly in Quebec, when she helped start Femmes Fatales in June 2009.[i]
Later on I pressed for more specifics on her early years. Goulet has been wrestling for 15 years, averaging one broken nose every three years.
“Many times I did get punched right in the face,” she said.
“I would punch harder,” she added. “It’s how I gained the respect of my peers.”
She continues to list her past injuries: torn ACL, torn meniscuses (yes, both), three herniated discs in her lower back, two concussions, broken wrists, broken ribs, broken ankle, torn ligaments in her shoulder, countless cuts and bruises.
“Are you hurt right now?” I ask.
“I’m in a little bit of pain because of my back, but it’s something that I can manage now.”
Like so many Quebec wrestlers, Goulet was baptised into the industry by the Rougeau family. Jacques Rougeau, nephew of the legendary Johnny Rougeau, but perhaps better known as “The Mountie” in the WWF[ii], dubbed her “Precious Lucy” when she worked for him in the late ‘90s.
The rite of passage lasted a year. Goulet quit in 2000, and the LuFisto creation myth entered its second act.
“I wasn’t learning anything, didn’t believe in his vision of what wrestling should be,” she said.
“He wasn’t allowing us to wrestle elsewhere. I believe you need different opponents and experiences to become a better wrestler.”
LuFisto Super Anime
Professional wrestlers – particularly on the indie circuit – are a unique blend of athlete and nerd. After all, is it that surprising that the people who enjoy spending their non-working hours dressing up in spandex suits and diving off tall objects also like comic books? No, which is why it’s not surprising the name LuFisto came from the conjunction of “Lucy” and an obscure Jedi from the recent Star Wars films.
“‘Fisto’ comes from Jedi Fisto from Star Wars,” she explains.
Later, I do a Google Image search for Jedi Fisto. Kit Fisto, I learn after some more digging, is a green alien with big black eyes and tentacle dreads.[iii] I find a YouTube video compiling all his appearances in the Star Wars franchise: It’s one minute long, and features him force pushing C-3PO, standing in the background of some Samuel L. Jackson scenes, and getting killed by Emperor Palpatine.[iv]
Following through on her desire to wrestle elsewhere, Goulet had to adopt the name upon her first show in Japan, where the promotion already had a Lucy.
“It could be pronounced in any language. Whether I go to Japan or Mexico, French or English, it always sounds good.”
BRUYERE HAD A FEW MINUTES to spare for an interview during the 30 minute meet-and-greet between the wrestlers and fans before the show. He has been the promoter for Femmes Fatales since its formation, and has managed to put together (read: afford) nine shows. In Japan, he said, there are all-women shows almost every day.
“In Montreal, Canada, and the US there’s maybe 200 [female wrestlers] for both countries,” he said. “Just in the single city of Tokyo there’s 100, plus there’s people everywhere [else]. So that’s why they can do shows every day.”
As for Mexico, while there are no all-women promotions, “It’s in their blood,” he says. “Wrestling is part of how the country was built.”
When LuFisto first arrived in Mexico, a group of fans greeted her on the tarmac. The next day, there was a two-page spread about her in the local newspaper and she was on the cover of a wrestling magazine. Within days they had painted a mural of her face on a local boardwalk.
“You go to Mexico, wrestling’s everywhere. It’s in the newspaper, it’s on TV, it’s exactly like the Montreal Canadiens here,” she said. “You go to Japan, there’s a camera right there as soon as you get out of the plane.”
“Here a lot of people think it’s a joke, they think it’s fake, they don’t take it seriously, they don’t see beyond what it is exactly, the fact that we do get hurt, the training that’s behind it, and all the hours we spend either in the gym, dieting, training ourselves, working on our character,” she continued.
“In Mexico and Japan, they appreciate the work and the effort and the sacrifices behind everything.”
Wrestling as art
MONTREAL WRESTLING HISTORY pivots in the 1980s. For the better part of the twentieth century, the Montreal Forum was routinely packed, crowds coming to witness some of the greatest moments in the sports history.
In the 40s, Yvon Robert – the founding father of Montreal wrestling, who also started as a 17 year-old[v], was earning more nightly than Maurice Richard. The Forum became the home field for legends like the Rougeau’s and Éduoard Carpentier – the first man to go off the top rope, the venue for myths like Killer Kowalski stomping off Yukon Eric’s ear.[vi]
With the 80s came the WWF, its attendance-crushing TV monopoly, and the Montreal Screwjob. By the time McMahon took a flaming steel chair to the fourth wall and robbed Canadian Brett Hart of his WWF Championship in front of the entire Molson Centre in 1997[vii] – the year LuFisto first walked into the gym in Sorel – what had been Montreal wrestling was gone. Carpentier was hospitalized, Robert had passed away, and Johnny Rougeau had moved to the WWF.
“Since they are more mainstream they have their own mentality. They have their own idea of how women’s wrestling should be done, which we don’t always agree with,” he said.
The principle complaint is short matches, high on sex-appeal but low on technique and high-risk moves.
“I’ve seen matches of two, three minutes. It’s a shame,” said Bruyère.
The WWE mentality is not only damaging the reputation of women’s wrestling, but business as well, he said. Promotions like Femmes Fatales started in the late 2000s when the WWE featured more talented female wrestlers, but a decline in talent showcased in mainstream promotions like WWE and TNA has resulted in a decline in ticket revenue for promotions like Femme Fatales, whose three shows a year is the most for any all-women’s promotion in North America.
“If the women’s wrestling upstairs is not good people will think that the women’s wrestling downstairs is not good either,” he said.
“Hopefully they can prove me wrong and bring [more] talent upstairs and do good wrestling matches, because it will only be helpful for all the all-women’s” promotions, said Bruyère.
Unfortunately, the WWE business model does not make this likely, something LuFisto was quick to admit.
“[The WWE] is really more about a storyline that will make you watch and the next week tune in, because it’s TV they want people to watch it, they want to give them reasons to watch every single week,” she said.
In the indies, with promotions trying to generate as much revenue as possible from a handful of live shows, they emphasize “dream” matches to help sell both tickets and DVDs of the event, a system that places a higher value on technical wrestling skill and engaging characters.
Femmes Fatales IX was no exception. Before LuFisto had even taken the bubblegum pink mat the crowd had been treated to a slew of moonsaults, arm drags, suplexes, and the live snake – all amidst the perfumed confines of the Centre Sportif St-Barthélemy.
The crowd was routinely brought to its feet – the show had begun with a lengthy “Femmes-Fa-tales!” chant – and the best was still yet to come.
“The fans that we have are really loyal to what we do,” said LuFisto. “They really watch it as art.”
LuFisto vs. Mercedes Martinez
LUFISTO ADHERES to the “hardcore” wrestling style, a style popularized by WWE legend (and New York Times bestselling author) Mick Foley after his own, slightly more violent, sojourn in Japan.
While Foley’s hardcore career left him at times “ravaged by [barbed] wire, and burned by the C4 explosions” (according to his Wikipedia page), LuFisto didn’t pull any punches at Femmes Fatales either.
Tackled by Martinez on the entrance ramp before she could get to the ring, LuFisto spent the match pinballing around the outside of the ring, throwing and getting thrown against the metal guard railing to the “oohs” and “aahs” of the crowd.
“It’s tougher. A lot of people think that women can’t wrestle because what we see on TV usually is beautiful girls who just do a few moves but can’t really work,” she told me before the show.
“So it’s like proving people wrong over and over, every time you go in the ring you want to prove to them that you can actually work, that you’re good at your craft, that you treat wrestling as an art.”
A few days after Femmes Fatales IX, I talked to Patric Laprade – a lifelong wrestling fan and Quebec wrestling historian – to get most of the historical facts you’ve read so far in this article. We also discussed sexism.
“Yeah, there is a lot,” he said. But it’s limited mostly to WWE and TNA, he added.
“I’ve known female wrestlers that have been pro,” he said. “It’s never like, ‘You’re not good-looking enough’ – they will never say that to a female wrestler – but if you read between the lines, it’s the same thing.”
We reached the point in the match: Martinez is doubled over outside the ring, leaning against the guard rail and clutching her ribs. LuFisto has hopped up to the top rope, steadying herself. I spot Japanese characters down the side of her pants. She tells me later that they spell “LuFisto.” The crowd rises to its feet, as if watching a deep fly ball head towards the outfield fence.
Near the end of our interview, I asked her if she thought the War on Women existed in wrestling.
“For sure it’s a war in a way that we always try to prove that we could be as good as the guys,” she answered.
“Within the women’s industry, all the promotions are trying to help each other. There’s a big camaraderie in the women’s wrestling business.”
Despite the sincere condemnation I have heard of the objectification and potentially sexist hiring practices, much of the camaraderie extends to their aspirations to one day wrestle in WWE and TNA.
LuFisto grew up a wrestling fan, raised on WWF legends like The Mountie, Luna Vachon and Mick Foley. The current generation of indie pro wrestlers – male and female – were the restless fanboys of the Monday Night Wars between WWF and WCW, the target demographic for the WWF Attitude era.
Not to mention that, while Bruyère said every Femmes Fatales wrestler gets paid, for some it’s only travel expenses, and almost everyone has a second, often full-time job.
A 15-year veteran of the indie circuit and a star on three continents, LuFisto – an administrative assistant by day – also still has hopes for the big promotions. She said she recently had a TNA try-out. (“I don’t know where that’s at…”).
“You just try,” she said. “You need to be exactly what they need at the time they need it… So I’m crossing my fingers for every girl. You never know.”
LuFisto launches herself off the top rope towards Martinez outside the ring. The crowd gasps. I think about her herniated discs. It’s an almost perfect moonsault.
She disappears behind the crowd, which is on its feet, mid-gasp. I don’t see where she lands; I just hear the hybrid “ooh”-groan of the crowd. The wrestlers are slow to pick themselves up, something I’m certain was only part kayfabe, the wrestling term for selling an injury.
They’re not done. After a few more minutes of brawling, they spill over the guard rail and into the crowd. The backstage empties in a choreographed brawl Bruyère had gone over in the pre-show meeting. Bruyère himself take a forearm to the chin in the scuffle. Everyone chips in to the spectacle.
Martinez and LuFisto get dragged backstage by their fellow wrestlers, spitting, shouting and screaming at each other. The crowd chants “Fight of the night!” They’re right. The match concluded the first half of the card, and nothing in the second half even came close to it.
I’m still thinking about LuFisto’s herniated discs.
“With the years you learn,” she told me. “Tomorrow I already have an appointment at the massage therapist because I know I’m going to be hurt. So at least I know, and I’m prepared now.”
Laprade ranks LuFisto as the third greatest female wrestler in Quebec history, barely behind Vivian Vachon – sister of “Mad Dog,” who wrestled in the 60s[viii] – and Luna Vachon, Vivian’s niece who wrestled for WWF in the 90s.[ix]
I ask him who he thinks had it toughest. He responds with his own question. Had LuFisto told me about what happened to her in Ontario?
She hadn’t, and Laprade explained. In 2002, LuFisto had been booked to wrestle a hardcore match against a man in Ontario. A rival promotion alerted the Ontario Athletics Commission, who at the time had regulatory oversight over professional wrestling in the province, and they cancelled the match, citing a regulation that prevented men and women from wrestling each other.
LuFisto lodged a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and in 2006 the Commission persuaded the OAC to overturn its decision. The OAC then went a step further, removing many of its regulations over professional wrestling in Ontario.
“So that kind of battle, that’s what LuFisto had to do,” said Laprade.
“Now if there is a woman wrestling a man in Ontario, they will never have any problems, and that’s because of LuFisto. If men are wrestling women in Montreal, it’s something that we’re kind of are used to. That’s because of LuFisto.”
“So she did a lot,” he concluded.