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Grapples and Oranges

Is AEW star Orange Cassidy too funny to be world champion? We’ll find out next Sunday.

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As the Pixies track “Where Is My Mind?” rang out around Daily’s Place in Jacksonville, Florida, on April 28, the fans in attendance went wild. Lying flat on the mat was the renowned luchador Penta El Zero Miedo, while the man who had just bested him—with the help of a microphone to the face—was a scruffy-looking slacker wearing jeans named Orange Cassidy. He had spent a sizable portion of the match with his hands in his pockets. This is a crucial part of his shtick. He also wears sunglasses in the ring and his offense is that of someone play-fighting as a wrestler. He’s too cool for wrestling. Throughout the 17 years of his career, he has been loudly dismissed (even by his fans) as a comedy sideshow unfit for the upper echelons of professional wrestling. And now, against all odds, he had secured one of the biggest victories of his career, putting him in pole position to challenge for the most prestigious championship in his organization. At the Double or Nothing event on May 30, Cassidy will get in the ring with two of the world’s greatest wrestlers—the vicious PAC and multi-company champion Kenny Omega—with a glittering title belt just one pinfall away.

It’s clear that All Elite Wrestling (AEW), the upstart pro wrestling league founded by wrestlers including Omega and Cody Rhodes and Jaguars co-owner Tony Khan, has big plans for Orange Cassidy. At a time when wrestling’s peculiar entertainment qualities have made it more of a punch line than a beloved mainstream art form, many are turning to the serious side of the game, emphasizing otherworldly athleticism (or physical pain and suffering) over trumped up (fake) story lines. But Cassidy zagged, turning “funny” into a niche. The lackadaisical offense that has handed him the moniker “The King of Sloth Style” is both delightfully postmodern and a throwback to the crowd-pleasing clowns of the earliest days of televised wrestling. But in a time when fans are smart to the inner workings of the wrestling world, is throwback comedy still a sure path to fan adoration and financial success? Is this a bubble on the verge of bursting into a sticky mess of rotting citrus? After all, this is the first time Cassidy’s cult popularity has been placed in front of an international TV audience.

Cassidy’s style is effectively a melding of classic pro wrestling clown work—which dates back as far as wrestling itself—with the more self-aware winks and nods that have become the hallmark of AEW’s top stars. The character is a jaded millennial caricature, billed from “wherever” at a weight of “whatever.” He has no respect for the pageantry and the sporting spectacle of traditional “wrasslin” and, instead, beguiles his opponents by just how little he appears to care. Cassidy described the character to ESPN in 2020 as “a giant middle finger to professional wrestling” and said in a YouTube documentary by Kenny Johnson that the character’s motivation is that he’s “a wrestler who doesn’t wanna wrestle; whatever he can do just to get by is what he’s gonna do.” His hands in his pockets, he is just as likely to deliver a comically weak array of kicks as he is to unleash a sudden, explosive burst of speed. Yet even though he doesn’t always try very hard, when he does, he’s a legitimate savant.

Cassidy’s AEW coworker Colt Cabana has been injecting comedy into the wrestling world throughout his decade-plus career on the independent circuit and has crossed paths with Cassidy several times. “I’ve been in there with many comedy wrestlers,” he says. “But when I was in there with Orange Cassidy—especially our first match, which was at this weird flea market mall—it was really something else. As we were talking about the match, I found myself just laughing out loud and then, during the match, I found myself laughing out loud. If that can happen to me—someone who’s jaded and has been around—then I know it’s a real thing and I know he’s good at what he does.”

Laughter is one thing, but big-time success for comedy acts is a rarity. Though he’s been massively popular since joining his new company, the first real glimmers of Cassidy as a potential main-eventer came in February 2020 at the Revolution pay-per-view, nine months after his AEW debut. His loose style found its perfect foil in the hyperaggressive seriousness of the aforementioned PAC—a vicious man with no time for shenanigans. The match was a master class, as Cassidy sought to confuse and irritate PAC with his comic timing and speed, before fighting back with a surprising surge of babyface fire. He ended up losing, although any skeptics in the audience will have left with little doubt as to why Cassidy is so beloved and why AEW seems to value him so greatly. Cassidy and PAC clashed once again on the May 12 episode of AEW Dynamite, with honors shared on this occasion as both men were counted out, earning them a triple-threat title match.

Since that match, Cassidy has continued to climb the card. He’s wildly popular with the AEW fan base and frequently ranks among the company’s top merchandise earners. Cassidy spent most of last summer embroiled in a rivalry with former champion Chris Jericho, which delicately walked the line between sublime and ridiculous. Yes, it culminated in a slapstick spectacle based on enormous quantities of mimosa, but it was a fiery feud driven by personal issues that burned hotter than the tangerine hue of Jericho’s juice-stained suit jacket. There was room for Cassidy the clown, along with the opportunity to expand his repertoire beyond a handful of repeated comedy skits. Those routines worked on the indie circuit, where he played to different audiences every weekend, but it’s difficult to maintain that level of success when just shy of a million viewers are watching him week in and week out.

“Wrestling acts are a lot like stand-up comedy,” grappling historian Bradley Craig says. “If you only have one joke to tell, your act gets pretty stale.”

Cassidy is part of a long tradition of comedy wrestlers—performers who understand that evoking laughter is an important tool in the utility belt to get an audience on their side.

Of course, there are many parallels between professional wrestling and the world of traditional clowning. WWE megastar Becky Lynch actually trained as a clown and attributes her in-ring charisma to time spent learning how to carry out violent slapstick while wearing a red nose and oversized shoes. Vivian Gladwell, founder of clown training company Nose to Nose, says the deep connection between a clown and the audience also applies to comedic wrestlers. “It’s a dialogue between the performer and the audience, whereas you expect less of that when you go to a theater. The more you go toward this dialogue, the more improvised it becomes and the more playful and funny it can become. The first thing about comedy is that you have this deep connection and conversation with the audience.”

Much of that connection, Gladwell suggests, comes from the clown’s willingness to take a beating in order to ultimately emerge victorious. He says: “In wrestling, the hero has to go through a pretty terrible beat-up. The audience has to feel they are going to lose before they can win. If you learn about clowning, you know that. In order to make a good story, you have to become the victim before you can be the hero. The underdog. It’s big stuff. It’s not subtle. It’s big emotions and it can be very dark and very cruel.”

Pro wrestling is an athletic endeavor, of course, but it’s also about personality. Crowds will overlook someone being second best physically if they genuinely want that person to emerge victorious. Nowhere is this more evident than in the success of Scottish wrestler Grado—a man whose gimmick is essentially that of an enthusiastic fan. He’s an everyman who has somehow earned his spot in the ring and has a chance to live his dream as a result.

Unlike many performers who focus on comedy, Grado has consistently appeared in main events and won world championships. He is a former heavyweight champion in the Scottish company Insane Championship Wrestling and also emerged from the 2016 reboot special for U.K. grappling showcase World of Sport as that brand’s champion, holding the title until he was dethroned in the opening episode of the short-lived series, which aired in 2018. He has also appeared in the States, both for Impact Wrestling and in smaller independents.

Grado is the latest example of comedy wrestling in Britain, which, as with so much of wrestling’s best elements, dates back to the dominance of joint promotions and the original incarnation of World of Sport in U.K. culture during the 1960s and 1970s. At that time, some of the most memorable comic performers in wrestling history made their name, including Jackie “Mr TV” Pallo, the athletic Vic Faulkner, fighting ballet dancer Ricki Starr, and the bruising but hilarious Les Kellett. Even more technically minded performers like Johnny Saint and Steve Grey often deployed moments of levity in the ring, with Saint frequently rolling himself into a ball and offering a hand to his unsuspecting foe, who would inevitably take it and find themselves immediately ensnared within a serious predicament. Delighted crowds lapped it up.

Colt Cabana says: “Vic Faulkner would wrestle like it was a fun, friendly competition. It always seemed like he wanted to win, but he was having fun and enjoying himself. A Michael Jordan or a LeBron are the best, but they’re enjoying themselves. We see these pictures of Michael Jordan with his tongue out or shrugging. We know this is the ultimate competition, but you see this competitor also having fun. That’s where I take a lot of my influence from and the justification for what I do. We’re having fun while doing what we’re great at and also we’re so good at what we’re doing that we’re able to have fun while we’re doing it. That was really hammered home for me by watching World of Sport.”

It’s Kellett, though, who perhaps exerts the greatest influence on the in-ring comedians of today, with the likes of Cabana citing the Brit as a major inspiration. Born in the predominantly working class Yorkshire city of Bradford, Kellett worked as an engineer in the merchant navy before making the jump to professional wrestling. He was a bona fide fighter, notoriously feared by those backstage as one of the toughest competitors in any given locker room. In the ring, though, he was a smiling babyface who took great pleasure in frustrating heels with his immense gift for comic timing. Craig says: “His gimmick was a blue-collar tough guy, and the comedy that he would employ would be to do with the use of his force. He would, for example, engage in a knuckle lock and then put them in some sort of compromising position where they were forced to simulate the tango.” Much as Orange Cassidy is capable of side-stepping or ducking at just the right moment, trying to get hold of Kellett was like attempting to catch smoke. He would feign a punch-drunk stupor, only to move at just the right time and ensnare his irate opponent in a technically proficient pinning predicament. In his recent clash with PAC, Cassidy’s decision to slowly roll the full length of the ring to avoid an aerial attack was straight from the Kellett playbook.

“Les Kellett is obviously my favorite because he understands comedy and comedic timing so well,” says Cabana. “He was brilliant for what he was trying to do. Do I think he was the best wrestler ever technically? No. Did he make me laugh the most? Probably, yes.”

One of Kellett’s most memorable performances was in a contest with Leon Arras, filmed in Gravesend, England, in 1974. The match is renowned to this day as one of the funniest wrestling bouts ever fought, with Arras’s arrogance constantly met with a smile and a show of strength by the mischievous Kellett. Notably, Arras was no comedic slouch himself and, after carving out a career in the ring, he made the move to television and cinema using his real name: Brian Glover. In Britain, he’s more well known for his comic standout role as the sports teacher in the Ken Loach drama Kes than he is for his antics in the squared circle.

For Cabana, Les Kellett’s selective approach to who he would battle was as much a part of securing his legacy as were his own comedic antics. “It takes two. Leon Arras is just as brilliant as Les Kellett. Kellett knew that. He knew the opponents to pick. And I know that, too, as a wrestler. There’s a lot of times where promoters think, ‘Oh, these two guys are funny, let’s put them together and it’ll be funny.’ I’ll do it, but in the back of my head I’m like, ‘This is the wrong person to put me with because there’s no straight man.’ A lot of the time, when I get put with another funny person, I become the straight man because I’m the only one who realizes they need a straight man. It can’t be two goofs going against each other because it cancels itself out.”

Gladwell adds that this is another principle that wrestling borrows from clowning, referring to the notion of “polarity” between clowns and the authority figures they ridicule. “In clowning, your power doesn’t necessarily come from you. It comes from the way your partners play with you. In other words, the performance is basically a collaboration rather than ‘I am the biggest and the strongest.’ It’s a collaborative art and you agree to play those roles. We call it the principle of polarity. You have to go either very strong or very weak. A lot of comedy is based on pushing extreme polarities like that.”

This has certainly proved true for Cassidy, whose best moments come against opponents who are at least partially linked to the bread-and-butter toughness of more straight-faced wrestling. PAC’s arrogance against a clownish competitor is straight from the Arras school, while Cody Rhodes was effectively fighting for the purity of grappling in his contests with the slovenly Cassidy over the TNT Championship. It’s no coincidence that one of their bouts was sold on the basis of Rhdoes forcing Cassidy to actually lock up with his opponent for once. Even Jericho—a man known for embracing comedy at times—amped up the more serious side of his heel persona to serve as a foil for Cassidy’s more ridiculous antics.

There’s certainly an art to being funny in a wrestling ring. This difficulty is perhaps not grasped by those who decry comedy as something likely to “expose the business” or as somehow lesser than high-end grappling or the pure brutality of something like the exploding barbed wire death match that AEW recently put on between Jon Moxley and Kenny Omega. There’s a fine balance to be struck between moments of humor and the necessary suspension of disbelief that makes wrestling work. Even a comedy performer has to look like they’re trying to win the match. Cabana describes his own style, to that point, as “justified comedy.”

“You have to be good at the wrestling, so that the comedy on top of the wrestling is good,” says Cabana. “Comedy isn’t taught in wrestling school, so you either have a natural gift of comedic timing or you have gone and studied comedy and have brought it to wrestling. … You have to be able to walk before you can run and put the bricks before you can build the mansion. … Orange has a wonderful base of wrestling. He has been trained so great and has been wrestling as a wrestlers’ wrestler for so long.”

Often, comedic wrestlers deploy their gags and slapstick pratfalls in an attempt to befuddle their opponents, creating openings for them to pursue offense or secure a swift victory. The pirouettes and fleet-footed dance steps of Ricki Starr were never going to directly beat his opponents, but they did ensure that he had his foes off-balance and unsure what to expect. “It was comedy, but it didn’t cross into farce too much,” says Craig. “The idea was that he was using some kind of subversive technique to beguile his opponent, then unleash his attack. It became not too incredible for the audience to believe in it.”

For some performers, though, the comedy is in the way they twist the wrestling arts to fit their own ends. New Japan Pro-Wrestling has more of a reputation for aping legitimate sport than the soap-opera-inspired world of WWE and the other big American promotions, but it’s also home to the dastardly antics of Toru Yano—perhaps the most successful comedic heel in modern professional wrestling. Yano has never quite ascended to the company’s main-event level—though he was crowned the inaugural King of Pro-Wrestling in the summer of 2020—but he’s a consistent cog in the NJPW machine, and one for whom fans have a great deal of affection, despite his status as a perennial villain. Yano’s matches are not the 45-minute classics put on by the likes of Tetsuya Naito or Kazuchika Okada, but they’re hugely entertaining as Yano finds every technique possible to hit a low blow or remove a turnbuckle pad in search of a grubby victory. In 2019, he dealt Jon Moxley his first defeat in NJPW when he taped the American brawler’s leg to young lion Shota Umino, resulting in a count-out.

Yano has traditionally been deployed as comic relief amid the packed, high-octane cards that have made New Japan’s name in recent years as the place to go for sports-focused wrestling. His character somewhat subverts the received wisdom that comedy gimmicks have to evolve and change to maintain staying power, which is a testament to his wide array of tricks and traps. While comedy babyfaces are almost always the purveyors of jokes, Yano’s heel alignment means he’s often the butt of them. His failures are as funny as his successes. His techniques are as old as the hills, but his presentation makes him one of the great comedians of a very modern era.

Comedy in wrestling has become even more prominent in recent years, reflecting an increasingly savvy audience with a desire to peek behind the curtain at the inner workings of the business. AEW’s stars have been at the vanguard of this movement, with the likes of Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks imbuing their characters with comedy both in the ring and online through their popular Being the Elite YouTube show. “AEW was born out of tongue-in-cheek and a nod to the clichés of wrestling,” says Cabana. “The Bucks are so good at that, making fun of the tropes. It’s something that really got me over at a time when no one was doing that. The company was born off of winking to the audience. It’s amazing that they’re staying true to that, which I love.”

AEW is in an interesting position when it comes to comedy. One of the key selling points of the brand ahead of its debut on television was the idea of tossing “sports entertainment” aside in favor of a more legitimate presentation. Cody Rhodes said in May 2019 that he wanted the show to be “the sports-centric alternative in the pro wrestling world” while boss Tony Khan teased “a serious, sport-based product.” To some extent that has come to pass, with win-loss records displayed during wrestler entrances and the system of competitor rankings occasionally, but certainly not always, feeding into who receives a title shot. Given the prominence of the sports-based approach in the prerelease spiel, AEW has received some justified criticism about its more outlandish segments, such as the return to TV of Matt Hardy’s “Broken” persona—complete with drones, dilapidated boats, and reincarnating lakes—and the musical interlude of the divisive Le Dinner Debonair.

It’s easy to see why fans tuning in to see something based on real sports might be turned off by gimmick matches and song-and-dance numbers, but it’s equally tempting to overstate these criticisms. Wrestling is, at its heart, a variety show, with room for everything. The best wrestling cards contain eye-catching athletic moves, technically proficient grappling, slapstick comedy, and out-there oddity. However, AEW has largely maintained a very legitimate feel in its main-event picture, regardless of the variety on display in the undercard. Chris Jericho, Jon Moxley, and Kenny Omega have kept things fairly serious during their reigns as AEW World Champion, fighting in feuds based on personal issues. Moxley’s intense rivalry with Eddie Kingston was driven by a palpable sense of hatred and culminated at the Full Gear pay-per-view in a bloody fight for physical dominance, while Moxley and Omega’s aforementioned death match was one of the most violent matches a mainstream promotion has aired in many years.

The eternal snarky comment of the non-wrestling fan is, “You know that stuff’s fake, don’t you?” On some level, it’s what all of modern pro wrestling struggles against. Often the means of answering that question has come from violence, from blood, as if to defiantly shout, “Oh yeah, you think THIS is fake?” through a dripping crimson mask. But Cassidy knowingly takes it as far in the other direction as he can shuffle. “If you think I don’t know this isn’t real,” he seems to be saying, “then what does that say about you?”

So where does Orange Cassidy go from here? He has climbed the mountain to a title match, but it’s difficult to imagine him, in his current form, managing to dethrone Kenny Omega and reach the pinnacle of the business. Cassidy is someone who’s clearly on the way up the card, but risks slamming into a glass ceiling—presumably with an over-the-top comedic sound effect as he does so—and subsequently tumbling back into undercard purgatory.

Craig says: “I think that Orange Cassidy absolutely needs to evolve, but he needs to stay true to the character. We’re in a completely new era for wrestlers. AEW is able to take in so many wrestlers without force-feeding the generic stereotype of what made a wrestler in terms of the mainstream. A person Orange Cassidy’s size would not have been a star in the WWF in 2001. He might have been a manager or in some sort of novelty match. For Orange Cassidy to make it as a sustainable main-eventer, he will have to add quite a significant amount of depth.”

The signs are there that Cassidy is doing exactly that. He showed serious babyface fire in the feud with Jericho, and his clashes with Rhodes last year were light on the sort of shtick that has been his bread and butter for years. Cabana points out that the basic dynamic of a fun-loving babyface attempting to overcome the fun-hating heel works in the undercard, but that wrestling comedians often naturally strip away aspects of the gimmick when they’re working on a bigger stage.

“That’s the weird thing about comedy wrestling. Comedy wrestlers can be main-eventers but, when that main event comes, it won’t really have any comedy in it,” he says. “Comedy is the device that the wrestler used to get over. You look at Jericho and Orange and, yeah, the aspects of the mimosa can give you a chuckle, but the broader aspect was a serious match of trying to win and not trying to lose. That comes down to knowing the basic formula of wrestling.”

Wherever Orange Cassidy goes next, his combination of the physical comedy of Les Kellett with the postmodern stylings of the Young Bucks has certainly left a mark on modern pro wrestling. As wrestling audiences become smarter and more knowledgeable as to the inner workings of the business, the notion of a performer willing to play with that knowledge and use it to create an entirely different art form is potentially compelling. Whether it will carry him to championship gold at Double or Nothing remains to be seen, but Cassidy’s rise has certainly been one of the most intriguing Cinderella stories in recent wrestling memory.

As far as Cabana’s concerned, the sky’s the limit for the King of Sloth Style. “There are only so many masters at [comedy wrestling], but there are a lot of imitators. And I do think Orange Cassidy is a master of it.”

Tom Beasley is a U.K.-based film and entertainment journalist. He’s a lover of horror, musicals, and wrestling—but not usually at the same time.

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