|From left: JD Lee, Shiho, Ariel, Gustab and Duncan Solaire / Courtesy of Yoo Dong-woo @baragi71|
By Jon Dunbar
COVID-19 has affected everyone's lives, even pro wrestlers. In the U.S., World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) was declared an "essential service" and allowed to continue operating. Although the move was controversial, it goes to show we can't face the pandemic without mental ― and physical ― stimulation.
Here in Korea, Pro Wrestling Society (PWS) has been taking every precaution, but they're jumping to get back into the ring in front of an audience ― even if they're not all in the same room.
"Just like every entertainment TV show, I believe pro wrestling is one of the essential businesses in sports entertainment," Shiho the Red Fox, one of PWS' high-flying fighters, told The Korea Times. "It gives people hope and entertainment through showcasing action, storytelling and acting. Pro wrestling is human drama. As long as the proper procedures are followed, sports and sports entertainment can be essential for the sake of people's livelihood."
His gym in Pyeongtaek was shut down for two months when virus cases were at their peak in Korea, before reopening under guidance from government guidelines.
"We had to be very cautious and conservative about safety since we can't afford having any members getting it," he said. "Obviously having training following social distancing isn't so easy in wrestling but we are figuring out a way."
But just because they haven't been able to practice leaping from the turnbuckle onto their opponent doesn't mean they've been wasting their time. Shiho says they've been channeling their energy into media and promotions, collaborating with TV, streaming and YouTube entities including SBS, STN, AfreecaTV, JTBC and many popular YouTubers.
They're also working with the newly debuted singer Ariel, who composed a theme song for PWS to play at all their shows. She recorded the song, "Burn Away," with bassist Shin Joon-ki of the rock band Buzz, which is due for release July 10 on iTunes, Melon and Bucks.
"We have been fortunate getting lots of support from famous figures from each area," Shiho said. "It's such a pleasant feeling when your hard work and art are being recognized by those other artists."
This Sunday, they'll return to the ring for an "empty arena show" streaming on AfreecaTV and the PWS YouTube channel. Titled "Apex," it was originally booked for Feb. 23 but delayed to March 22 to prevent the spread of infection and then kicked back again, almost five months from the original date.
Shiho will face Jin Gae-sung, a young contender who challenges his experience with aggression, confidence and strong motivation. "When I started my wrestling career nine years ago, he was just a kid admiring wrestlers. He always asked us about being a trainee. He is like a little brother to me and we have grown together," Shiho said. "I've taught him many things about wrestling and the kid learned fast. I don't know when but at a certain point, he became a wrestler of great potential and I started considering him a rival. He has certain talents I don't have."
There's an even greater contrast in the match between teenage martial artist JD Lee and the baldheaded brute Bryan Leo. Shiho called Leo the best fighter in Korean pro wrestling, but also spoke highly of Lee's ground skill, cautioning "Never underestimate the kid."
"JD Lee isn't someone that Leo can easily take out," Shiho said. "He gets better day by day. And this time he's very eager to beat Bryan Leo to step up to the next level. Once Leo lets his guard down, JD Lee will never miss the chance."
Another highly anticipated match pits Beom Sol against Ray XI, two wrestlers with spinebuster moves in their movesets. "Beom Sol's power and Ray XI's smart tactics will make it hard to predict the winner," Shiho said.
Kim Mir will also take on Duncan Solaire. "Duncan Solaire's unique vibe and energy really brings a fresh impression to everybody," Shiho said. "Duncan's strong personality and Kim Mir's dark and hip persona will create such chemistry."
And PWS champion Jo Kyung-ho faces the unbreakable Gustab.
"Even though Jo managed to defeat Gustab last time, he had a hard time to dominate that Korean bulldozer," Shiho said. "And now that bulldozer has also analyzed Jo's tactics and skills so... it will be very hard for the champion."
|PWS wrestlers, from left: Duncan Solaire, Shiho, JD Lee and Gustab / Courtesy of Yoo Dong-woo @baragi71|
Shiho says the whole facility will be disinfected before the show and every non-combatant present ― such as the ring announcer, referees and camera crew ― will wear a mask.
"Having an empty arena match following every disinfection procedure is our number one priority," Shiho said. "We get energy from the crowd's lively reaction so it's a bit of a downside that we have to fight in an empty arena but I think this is the only way amid the current backdrop."
He's looking forward to a day when PWS can once again safely return to live shows.
"We are doing our best to be all out ready as soon as the pandemic era is over," he said. "In terms of business, wrestler skills and quality of production, we have improved ourselves significantly during this period. Even though we can't have a show in a big studio right now, we take this situation realistically and are doing our best to be productive ― I can say our morale is higher than ever."
He says once the danger is gone, PWS will have its biggest show yet in Seoul, and they've already secured several potential venues as well as sponsors.
"It is just a matter of time until we can bring the greatest show in South Korea," he said, "and until then, we will stay low and healthy perfecting our skills."
The broadcast starts this Sunday at 3 p.m. and is free to watch. Visit their Afreeca TV or YouTube channel for the livestream and older videos. Donations are welcomed; contact them on Facebook or Instagram for more details.