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Friday, July 01, 2022

FEST Wrestling continues to shatter gender barrier

Tag team Artsy Fartsy wrestles all competition thrown their way

<p>Edith Surreal and Erica Leigh embrace each other in the ring during “Love is a Battlefield II: Electric Boogaloo” Saturday at Knockin’ Boots Saloon. </p>

Edith Surreal and Erica Leigh embrace each other in the ring during “Love is a Battlefield II: Electric Boogaloo” Saturday at Knockin’ Boots Saloon.

Gainesville has welcomed copious amounts of changes throughout it’s 153-year span and new events let the city project a variety of differing cultures. The Downtown Festival and Art Show takes over the city streets while the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire has been held annually for 20 years.

Now, The FEST, a local Gainesville wrestling promotion, has evolved uniquely by breaking the gender barrier in professional wrestling. 

For six years, FEST has taken over local Gainesville saloon Knockin’ Boots, barring 2020 when the planet was on lockdown. The company sees everyone as equal and was one of the first Florida promotions to break the norm, said Tony Weinbender, company promoter. All the wrestlers have a chance at the world championship regardless of race, gender or creed.

“I think [wrestling] needs to be more diverse,” Weinbender said. “I mean, the world itself should be more diverse. We're opening up. I mean, it's 20-f**king-22, get with it.”

The gender-breaking tradition has continued through every FEST promotion from the holiday-themed “Pickle in the Tree” in December to its most recent addition, “Love is a Battlefield II: Electric Boogaloo” Saturday.

The Valentine’s Day-themed show centered around a tag team tournament for the Love Cup trophy and a chance to compete for the FEST tag team championships.

The tag team Artsy Fartsy exemplifies the means to shatter the gender wall and open new opportunities for the LGBTQ community. The tandem brings together industry best friends Erica Leigh and transgender performer Edith Surreal, who trained together in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Leigh and Surreal instantly clicked. The team remains in touch with one another through group chats.

“Chemistry is there, and the bond is there,” Leigh said. “When you're vulnerable with someone, it makes a lot easier to trust them in the ring.”

The stable has come to love and appreciate the FEST wrestling promotion and its welcoming community within Gainesville.

“I don't feel like I'm a token or anything,” Surreal said.” I don't feel like I'm just here for Pride Month or whatever. I'm here because of who I am and because of the performer I am. Everything else is just secondary, and I could just be myself. I love that.”

The promotion and performers haven’t received a lot of pushback to intergender wrestling, but acknowledge that bigotry and misogyny exist still within a few communities. Indifferent audiences sometimes deliver scrutiny, but the loyal FEST fanbase is there to defend its stars.

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“For the most part, I'd say wrestling fans are from so many different walks of life that we have this truly diverse fanbase,” Leigh said. “Everybody's here to have a good time. You might have one or two people that are negative or whatever, but you know, they get their ass kicked verbally on Twitter.”

Ring announcer “Sweet” Charles Volkert has been the voice of FEST Wrestling for five years and believes it's time for significant wrestling productions like World Wrestling Entertainment to adopt the intergender system.

“I think the wrestling world needs to just own up to it because these women kick ass,” Volkert said. “These men kick ass, and on any given day, all it takes is three seconds and the right momentum to win.” 

Artsy Fartsy hopes to return for the next FEST event, but Weinbender keeps his next plans under wraps. The overall goal is to return this summer.

Contact Jesse Richardson at jrichardson@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @JesseRich352.

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