This article is written by by guest contributor Berto Ponce. If you would like to write for TFAL email story ideas to thisfilipinoamericanlife [at] gmail [dot] com.
On a summer afternoon when I was six, I turned the television dial and stumbled upon the first wrestling match I’d ever seen. I had no understanding that it wasn’t exactly a legitimate sporting contest, and that the wrestlers were presenting stories of good versus evil. It was a tag team match, and the bad guys won through nefarious means. I turned to my dad in exasperation and exclaimed, “They cheated! How are they getting away with this?” My dad smirked and simply stated, “It’s wrestling.” Instantly, I was hooked.
Soon I discovered that I had friends who were also fans of professional wrestling. We showed up at school on Mondays, excitedly discussing what we had seen on shows like Wrestling Superstars and Saturday Night’s Main Event. We shared a bond, booing the bad guys and cheering the good guys. As I grew older I started to realize that my friends, mostly people of color like me, and I looked more like the bad guys and nothing like the good guys. It was the Cold War Era, and wrestling presented its larger-than-life foreign characters as evildoers.
I was a Hulkamaniac. A Little Warrior. Consumed by Madness. I was, and still am, a wrestling fan. Around the time I started watching, Hulk Hogan, the Ultimate Warrior, and the “Macho Man” Randy Savage were the heroes and biggest names in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). But my favorite wrestler was Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. He was a good guy, and I was a Dragonian. Or did that make me a Steamboatite?
Ricky Steamboat had a Hall of Fame career. He was a WWF Intercontinental champion, a National Wrestling Alliance United States champion and World Heavyweight champion. His match against Randy Savage at WrestleMania III is regarded by many fans as the greatest in WrestleMania history. But I especially liked him because he kind of looked like me, a Filipino kid watching wrestling on Saturday mornings.
Steamboat was born in New York, but billed from Honolulu, Hawaii. He is Japanese-American, but I don’t recall his heritage being directly referenced. The Dragon nickname and the gi he wore to the ring may have been the closest allusions to it. While there were other wrestlers of Asian descent on the roster, they were presented as evil foreigners. There was Mr. Fuji and Pat Tanaka (both also from Hawaii), Akio Sato, and Yokozuna (who was actually Samoan). But Ricky Steamboat was a good guy. He was my guy.
Through the years, more Asian and Asian American wrestlers have made it to the WWE, and not always as villains. There are now more avenues to ply their craft. Ring of Honor, Impact Wrestling, Lucha Underground, and Pro Wrestling Guerrilla among others are some of the companies where aspiring wrestlers hope to make their mark. As a historic first, two wrestlers of Asian descent will square off for the WWE World Championship at this year’s WWE SummerSlam: champion, Jinder Mahal, versus challenger, Shinsuke Nakamura, who made a name for himself in New Japan Pro Wrestling. (Side note: The Great Khali defended against Batista at SummerSlam in 2007 for the World Heavyweight Championship, which was a separate championship.)
New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) is home to the Bullet Club, a faction of arrogant heels who make being bad look cool, much like nWo and D-Generation X in the 1990s. Watch a current wrestling show from any organization, and you’ll most likely spot at least one Bullet Club shirt in the crowd.
I was watching a Bullet Club segment a couple of years ago when my brain started playing with words and puns, as it often does. Balut Club. I chuckled to myself, thinking “I’d wear that shirt.” Which became, “I should make that shirt.” Which turned into, “I should make that shirt so I can wear it, and send it to Filipino wrestlers.” The idea sat in the back of my head until recently.
TFAL co-host Elaine Dolalas credits me with getting her back into wrestling over the last year – and in a big way. During a group chat, I brought up the idea I had about Balut Club shirts, thinking it was a throwaway comment. Elaine jumped right on it. Within a day, Vincent Collyer finalized the design. A few weeks later, we were wearing the shirts.
I sent a shirt to Kris Wolf, former Stardom High Speed champion, who I met at a Stardom show in Japan. TJ Perkins, the inaugural WWE Cruiserweight champion, ordered one. They both posted the shirts on social media and as a result, other wrestlers requested the shirt. Now, people from all over the world are ordering it. It’s surreal, but it’s an awesome feeling – sharing this parody about a wrestling thing that happens to pay tribute to our Filipino heritage.
Other people’s love for the shirt and witnessing some of our favorite wrestlers rocking it isn’t even the best part for me. We decided early on that we would donate a portion of the proceeds to charity, and the Calub Fund would be the best fit. Mark Calub is a friend of mine and Elaine. He was visiting Atlanta a few months ago when he and his friends were randomly and viciously attacked. He was taken to the hospital and was in critical condition. Mark is healing now, but the fund will help alleviate the costs of recovery to Mark and his family.
The experience has been nothing short of amazing. Indulging in something I’ve enjoyed since childhood. Sharing that geekdom with others. Having the athletes we watch become a part of something we started. Celebrating our Filipino heritage. Doing our smallest part to bring awareness to an important cause. It really has been too sweet.