Chikara Has a Woman As Champion — What’s Next?

The innovative, silly Philadelphia wrestling promotion has a new wrinkle: A woman is its champion. It begins its 16th season on Saturday in the Northeast.

Princess KimberLee - Chikara Special - Hallowicked - Bryce Remsberg

Princess KimberLee locks Hallowicked in the Chikara Special submission maneuver to win the Chikara Grand Championship. (Photo by Zia Hiltey, Courtesy of Chikara)

Last December Hallowicked had just defeated Eddie Kingston and Icarus to retain his Chikara Grand Championship. He was spent in the ring. The ref checked him out for injuries. But this being professional wrestling, the show wasn’t over.

Princess KimberLee’s music hit. The crowd went wild. Earlier in the night, she had won the opportunity to challenge for the title when her tag team won the finals of a year-long tournament. Unexpectedly, she was cashing in her title shot now.

At the end of a five-minute match, Princess KimberLee locked Hallowicked in a submission maneuver. He gave up. The ref rang for the bell and handed KimberLee the championship. This is absolutely true: People in the crowd were crying tears of joy.

Chikara — a promotion that’s as much about performance art as it is wrestling — has seasons, long story arcs (it once shut down for about a year as part of a storyline) and is now based in Northeast Philadelphia. KimberLee’s title victory was yet another innovation.

The stunt at the end of Season 15 at the 2300 Arena at Swanson and Ritner in South Philadelphia was not new. Hulk Hogan emerged as a surprise champion at the end of WrestleMania 9 in 1993 after an impromptu challenge from new champ Yokozuna, while the WWE had pulled a similar stunt at the end of WrestleMania last year that left Seth Rollins the champ. At the same building in 1997, Terry Funk won the ECW Championship in a similar manner.

But Chikara’s was different. In Chikara, women and men aren’t separated into divisions. And women are actually its top singles titleholders: Princess KimberLee is the Grand Champion, while Heidi Lovelace won the last Young Lions Cup. What made both of their title wins so thrilling is that they weren’t flukes — KimberLee’s win last year was a yearlong drama worthy of any art form. According to Chikara, KimberLee is the first woman to hold a primary singles championship generally competed for by men.

“Chikara goes out of its way to present Kimber Lee, Heidi and any other female that comes through the company as just wrestlers,” Michael Langan wrote at the Wrestling Observer last month. “In the year plus that Kimber Lee has been on shows, my wife and I have personally seen a huge increase in young little girls coming to the shows.”

Bryce Remsberg agrees. “Kids, especially little girls, are an untouched demographic in pro wrestling,” says Remsberg, who does promotion work for Chikara and is also the head referee who handed KimberLee the title. “When Princess KimberLee goes into the ring, she takes her tiara off and puts it on a little girl, and she asks her to watch it. At the end of the match, she brings the little girl in the ring and hugs her. It’s amazing just to see the look on the little girl’s faces — and the reactions of her parents.” The women’s champion of WWE developmental territory NXT, Bayley, has a similar following among young girls.

A fake sport where people pretend to fight will never be hip — even in its 1990s boom period, it was treated as low-class entertainment for teenagers — but it is experiencing somewhat of a creative resurgence. The Internet has made it easy to follow shows from around the world; the Lucha Underground, which broadcasts in English and Spanish and which also has seasons like Chikara, was one of the most interesting TV shows of 2015. Even WWE pay-per-views, once $50 or $60, are now just $10 a month online.

Places like The AV Club, Rolling Stone, Deadspin and ESPN’s now-defunct Grantland write (or wrote) about wrestling as if it were any other art form. And the live show is thriving in the area: Last year in the Philly area, I attended eight (!) live wrestling shows with six different promotions represented. (Philly has always been a hot wrestling town; last year in Philadelphia magazine Remsburg said it was “probably the most moved-to city for wrestlers” as far as indie wrestling goes.)

Last year saw a number of big shows in Philadelphia, from January’s WWE Royal Rumble to the cross-promoted New Japan Pro Wrestling/Ring of Honor show in South Philly (my favorite of the year) to a show for WWE’s developmental division, NXT, at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby. CZW — a violence-tinged promotion that is reminiscent of 1990s ECW — continues to hold shows at the Flyers Skate Zone in New Jersey. The Monster Factory, a wrestling school in Paulsboro, New Jersey, holds shows with established and developmental wrestlers. Women Superstars Uncensored also holds shows in the area. There is a lot of wrestling to watch around here.

Chikara holds two events tomorrow at their school, the Wrestle Factory, in the city’s Holmesburg section. The 2 p.m. event is aimed more at kids, while Princess KimberLee will defend her title against Oleg the Usurper — yes, a nomadic Viking warrior-turned-professional wrestler — in the main event of the 7 p.m. show. (I played mini-golf with Oleg last month, so I may have to root for Oleg in the main event.)

“She beats almost all of our most popular characters in season 15 and becomes the champion,” Remsburg says. “It’s a fun headline. But now she’s the champion — now she’s going to defend the title. Currently as the grand champion she’s the best wrestler in Chikara. This year she has to prove it.”

Chikara runs two shows at the Chikara Wrestle Factory (4711 Wingate Street, near Asburner and Torresdale) at 2 and 7 p.m. on Saturday.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.