Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Fight like a girl
By Neil Janowitz Special to Page 2
On a weekend when millions of crazed fans crowded around TVs for the NFL conference championship games, a comparable number of curious spectators might've crowded around a padded blue mat in Brooklyn's Galapagos Arts Space if the fire code had permitted.
Instead, roughly 400 did.
The Pillow Fight League isn't for the meek. It's a combination of boxing moves and mixed martial arts.
What they witnessed was the Stateside debut of the PFL, a professional pillow-fighting league out of Toronto. It was, people should say, the sporting equivalent of The Beatles playing "The Ed Sullivan Show." The buzz surrounding the league's arrival attracted legions of media and fans, resulting in Galapagos selling out both a Friday show and an unplanned Saturday encore.
I had the good fortune and general worldly awareness to attend the second night's festivities, and what I saw on Saturday was arguably the biggest, rowdiest, most thrilling pillow-fighting league event to ever take place . It may have been a glimpse of the future of sports, as well.
To wit, what's genius about the PFL -- or rather, what's most genius -- is that the front-office execs have managed to integrate elements from other sports while building a competitive credibility of their own. Commissioner and head judge Stacey Case works with organizers Matt Harsant, whose alter ego is referee Matt Patterson, and Dan Lovranski, who emcees the evenings as "The Mouth." They go to great lengths to ensure that their concept is recognized for what it is: a legitimate pillow-fighting league.
"Shock jocks get on us, but we're not interested in parading around pillow-fighting girls who are topless or wearing lingerie," Case said. "Everything about our pillow fights is real."
The fighters are an attractive lot, culled predominantly from Canadian burlesque troupes and newspaper classified ads, and with tattoos and attitude to spare, they comprise an appropriately intimidating pillow-wielding army. Swiping a page from WWE and roller derby, the women have crafted unique identities for themselves -- from nautically attired Sailor Gerri to aproned homemaker-turned-face-wrecker Betty Clocker to bespectacled librarian Sarah Bellum. (Bellum also refereed matches when she wasn't fighting, a role reversal we're unlikely to ever see from Rasheed Wallace.)
But while the WWE's convention of making crap up was adopted for the characters, PFL fights are a genuine combination of boxing and mixed martial arts. The women have five minutes in the ring, during which they can attack each other in just about every conceivable way, providing that they lead with their pillow. However, unlike most recent heavyweight boxers, the pillow fighters attempt to make meaningful contact and seemingly want to win.
Champain's punches pack the pop of a down-feathered locomotive.
Skeptical about the offensive potential of a pillow, I had current PFL world champion and expert striker Champain blast me twice in the face, full force. The feeling is not unlike getting hit by an extremely soft, perhaps down-feathered locomotive.
As it turned out, those would prove to be the only swings Champain took that night. Having defeated No. 1 contender Betty Clocker in a title defense the night before, Champain lacked a worthy opponent. Subsequently, as Harsant explained moments before becoming referee Patterson, they were holding a tournament to determine the new top contender. The fighters had petitioned for the right to challenge for the position and were then paired up in two-way and three-way "damage à trois" battles. The three winners from those battles would then throw down in a main event damage à trois to become the top contender. It was a remarkably simple and efficient tournament system -- one that should send the BCS brain trust scrambling to figure out the logistics of a three-way football game.
Amateur bouts also were held, featuring female volunteers from the crowd -- a system partially modeled after the NBA, which holds 82 amateur events each season, calling them "Memphis Grizzlies games." But while the NBA's version is nigh unwatchable, PFL amateur bouts provided some of the best action of the evening.
The difference is in the training. Seasoned PFL fighters employ grapple techniques and hit the mat looking for submission holds. Amateurs, lacking formal instruction and generally too timid to tackle a stranger in front of 200 screaming fans, stay on their feet and exchange thunderous head shots.
This led to a sequence of pillow fights the likes of which I probably will never see again. The first featured a fighter named Anna Conda, who came bounding onto the mat hurling devil horns, tongue wags and emphatic bootie slaps at everyone who was looking, which was everyone. Conda's fighting style consisted of knocking her opponent around with an endless stream of giant haymakers, and when the decision was announced in her favor, she proclaimed, "I just like to hit."
In the second bout, a lithe young lady clad in black attempted to enter as "Slutty Sally" but was rebuffed by the commish. She returned as "Apillow Creed" and did her namesake proud by using a pillow punch -- (1) hold pillow in front of opponent, and (2) punch pillow -- to break the tooth of a combatant whose name I didn't catch because I was busy watching her tooth get broken.
I had the pleasure of taking in all the gritty Conda and Creed combat as the third mat-side judge, a position offered to me halfway through the evening. The new perch provided an entirely different perspective on the event; in part because I was seated between Champain and the commissioner, and in part because my original seat was across the room. The panel employs a system similar to boxing, with three judges scoring each fighter using a 10-point system. The only difference is that PFL judges are encouraged -- nay, expected -- to actually watch the entire match.
At one point, Champain and I were discussing advanced pillow-fighting theory (specifically, how Conda should not have been physically able to sustain her ceaseless flurry of blockbusters for three entire minutes) when Case nudged me and told me to keep my eyes on the mat. It was a gesture representative of dedication to accurate judging and fairness you wouldn't expect to see in an upstart pillow-fighting league, or the Olympics.
But that attention to detail and unwavering focus is what sets the PFL apart from the competition it doesn't have. Case wants to cultivate his fledgling league as prudently as possible, for he knows that he has created a sport with true crossover appeal.
"The guys think it's for them because we have girls fighting, and the girls think it's for them because they're the ones doing the fighting," Case said.
While the matches are, by my thinking, for guys, Case is otherwise right. No one left that arena unsatisfied. Both men and women had a good time. Ursula Anvil had $100 in her leotard from a victory in the $12.99 challenge. Sailor Gerri, bloody and bruised from the epic final damage à trois match with Boozy Suzy and Lynn Somnia, earned the mantle of top contender. Even the woman missing a tooth had a smile on her face, albeit a painful-looking one.
It was a degree of ubiquitous joy never before approached at a sporting event, and it should have put an end to any questions cynics may have had about the league's legitimacy. As Case said, "It's not pillow fighting. It's fighting with pillows."
That distinction makes all the difference in the world.
Neil Janowitz is an associate editor for ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at Neil.Janowitz@espn3.com.