Published on Wednesday, 19 September 2018 12:00
Written by Harry Hodge. Photos by Kevin Lee.
Damien Wolfe rained down blow after blow on spindly Phong Tran, with onlookers jeering and questioning his humanity. Then, out of the blue, Phong sprang to life and leapt into the air, bouncing off the referee and collaring the shocked Wolfe with a swinging neckbreaker.
Where was I? Wrestlemania at Madison Square Garden? No, it was the debut of the Saigon Pro-Wrestling Club’s “Saturday Showdown” in a cramped dance studio in Binh Thanh District.
Earlier, wrestling fans entered the studio and were greeted with the curious site of gym mats covered by a tarp reading SGPW (Sai Gon Pro Wrestling), removing the “squared circle” element of the matches. Clearly, there would be no high-flying splashes off the top rope, since there were no ropes. Organizer Huynh “Rocky Taurus” Hung, who also appeared in the third match, admits to Saigoneer that the pro wrestling spectacle couldn’t be packaged as a sporting event since the relevant officials “don’t understand what it is.”
“Basically, this wasn’t a wrestling event, [more] like an offline meeting,” Huynh said.
While other Asian countries boast very sophisticated, lucrative promotions, notably New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), Vietnam is left to enjoy this type of entertainment by watching World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) on TV or clips of other competitors online. But fans like Welshman Ian House didn’t seem to mind the unusual surroundings.
“This is a lot of fun,” said House, whose love of wrestling brought him to this year’s Wrestle Kingdom event at the Tokyo Dome, which garnered worldwide attention for a number of high-profile matches. “I’d love to see [wrestling in Vietnam] get bigger.”
Clearly, there is an appetite for it here. The crowd in Binh Thanh was vocal and spirited. Chants of “This is awesome!” along with other wrestling show staples were punctuated by the odd head-scratcher like “Mama Mia!” But the mock surprise at a slow two-count (out of three) or an obvious dirty ploy, like a low blow between the legs or distraction of the referee during the tag team match, brought the inevitable chorus of boos and cat-calls.
In the opening tag team match, Rykioh The Vinh and Xiumin Long took on Kira and Dominic. There was a Mexican-Luchadore-meets-Jeff-Hardy-facepaint, with a splash of emo My Chemical Romance music video, element to the match, presumably to add a little color to open the event. This being a tag team match, trickery and underhanded tactics were expected, and this got the referee’s attention in the wrong way, despite the shrieks of the crowd in Vietnamese and English.
“I don’t really understand what’s going on,” said Anh Thu, a native of Binh Dinh Province who attended the matches while visiting a friend in Saigon. Despite this, she was enjoying the theatrics of both the crowd and the performers. “I can feel the heat!” she shouted.
The second match featured Trung An against EK Thien Khoi, and revealed how new the promotion is, with issues involving some fight “timing” in spots. Also, those looking for tanning-bed-bronzed torsos and chiseled abs were unlikely to find either at this event. Ditto for the pyrotechnics and hiding weaponry under the ring, this being a mat in a dance studio with plastic stools for the crowd.
All that said, there were some stiff slaps and chops, punctuated with a crotch shot that removed any doubt as to the lengths these competitors would go to for victory. Using the energy and applause of the crowd when the action dragged showed that certain staples are observed worldwide, whether you’re Hulk Hogan or Trung An.
Promoter Huynh worked the crowd during the third match, as he is the most seasoned of the competitors. His match with Sid Nguyen was a back-and-forth affair with numerous near-pins, a shower of streamers from the crowd and a bevy of drama, with Rocky emerging on top.
The highlight of the evening was the slender Phong, the obvious hero, or “babyface,” of the match, taking on the villainous Wolfe, who looked to be at least double Phong’s weight. Taunting throughout the match in Vietnamese and English, with lines like “Come on you little rat,” didn’t deter Phong, who inexplicably kicked out at each turn. Reveling in his role, Wolfe gave obscene gestures both to his opponent and the audience, which as we all know will come back to haunt you later.
“I got interested in wrestling in 2002, my cousin rented a DVD of a WWE Pay-Per-View (event),” Wolfe said after the match. “I watched it and I loved it.”
Wrestling is comprised of in-ring skills as well as talent on the microphone. With the limited facilities available for the event, notably a lack of a proper ring and turnbuckles, creativity was required.
“Pro wrestling in Vietnam has grown recently,” Huynh said of the popularity of sports entertainment. “They’ve got many Facebook pages about wrestling in Vietnam. They know what it is. So we have to give ’em the best of us.”
Huynh has performed in Da Nang, Bangkok and Singapore during his short career, and said that Thai and Singaporean fans are very knowledgeable.
“They give performers unlimited energy by chanting and screaming the whole show,” he said. Some of the fans here, meanwhile, were new.
“I really enjoyed it, my first [pro wrestling] experience,” said Ho-in Kwoak, an elementary school teacher from Seoul living in Saigon.
At the end of the card, the wrestlers all gathered and Huynh gave a speech thanking the crowd for supporting the cause. He was visibly emotional while summarizing what he said in English afterward.
“This is the result of three years of work,” he said. “We all have the same feeling about wrestling. We want to make a community.”
As far as actual wrestling goes, fans walked out with smiles on their faces. The spirit of people in Saigon is never more evident than when the money gets tight and folks need to get creative. Here’s hoping the lads at SGPW won’t need another three years before they put on their next event.