Though it has hardly been accepted as art for much of its existence, the artistry of pro wrestling is fairly evident even to the non-fan. Maybe you’ve only been exposed to glimpses of mainstream televised wrestling or seen GIFs of wild high-flying stunts on your Twitter timeline, but its existence as a unique kind of performance art is accepted maybe now more than ever before: the melodrama and pageantry, the spectacle and storytelling, not to mention the incredible physical skill involved. After all, this is a world in which business is sometimes described as “color,” literalizing the human body as a form of material medium akin to paint or oil.
Even if wrestling has often been perceived as art by the audience, that’s not how its history has been presented, and it’s often not how the wrestling industry itself has thought of its product. For Adam Abdalla, the creator of Orange Crush, a beautiful and detailed annual publication billed as “The Journal of Art and Wrestling,” pro wrestling has always offered a uniquely creative outlet, for performers and fans alike. Every issue of the magazine has featured intimate profiles and dramatic portraits of wrestlers, simultaneously captured at their most intimate and iconic: current AEW and former WWE superstar Jon Moxley, sucking from a cigarette and dripping with his own sweat and blood after a match; deathmatch wrestling maverick Joey Janela mean-mugging and flipping off the camera.
The newly-released third issue of Orange Crush features three alternate cover photos, each of hard-working indie wrestlers who have become television stars thanks to the emergent AEW, which has mounted the first major-cable challenge to WWE’s rigorous monopoly of mainstream pro wrestling in almost 20 years. The three variants are like the high-art equivalent of a set of wrestling cards or figures. You can collect Eddie Kingston, the gritty New York brawler with a heart of gold; Thunder Rosa, a tough-as-nails Mexico-born, Texas-based MMA-influenced fighter who is setting history with her hardcore women’s matches in AEW; or Orange Cassidy, the slyly comic slacker wrestler who fights with his hands in his pockets and comes out to The Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?”.
Orange Crush’s gorgeous printing and colorful spreads — which are all the product of creative director Susan Globus-Abdalla, who handles the visual side while her husband tackles editorial — offer a more serious and thoughtful presentation than wrestling often receives. It’s not just a gallery of wrestlers themselves, but a platform for the under-recognized workers and artists who have made essential contributions to wrestling culture but are not themselves wrestlers. Every issue is a vivid showcase of the photographers and illustrators whose images are so central to capturing wrestlers as iconic and larger-than-life, featuring work by current photographers like Ryan Loco and Brainbuster, as well as photographers of wrestling past like George Napolitano, legendary photography of American pro wrestling’s boom years, and Avery Danziger, who captured masked luchadores in black-and-white.
That wrestling — and indie wrestling in particular — inspires so many people who are not wrestlers to create their own art across a variety of mediums is, in Abdalla’s eyes, a testament to the inventiveness and imagination of wrestlers themselves. As he described in a conversation with Observer, “Artists are the world’s greatest problem solvers. Wrestlers are artists, but their creativity is stifled on corporate television, and they can’t really solve those creative problems. Indie wrestling is where they can truly work out their process and take risks, and seeing that inventiveness has an effect on the unique community of fans around it.” Compared to the big-budget productions of WWE and AEW, the intimacy and unpredictability of indie wrestling is like the pure energy of a rough sketch compared to an oil painting on a gallery wall, the stream-of-consciousness of a first draft against a final edit, the unrestrained improvisation and unpredictability of an open-mic versus to the perfect timing of a televised special
As much as it is a document of wrestling’s living history and its most creative rising stars, Orange Crush is an archive, preserving a record of a past that’s often been unwritten. “To me, Orange Crush is a journal, not journalistic. It’s more like a time capsule than a straightforward wrestling magazine.” Growing up in Sunset Park, Adam went to local indie wrestling shows in church basements and gymnasiums. Adam made his name by day — or what those in the wrestling business call a “shoot job,” “shoot” being the wrestling insider term for the real and unscripted — as one of the most accomplished arts publicists working today and the founder and president of Cultural Counsel PR. The gallery world might have taken up most of his time, but the squared circle was never far from his mind. “When I’ve traveled, I’ve tried to fit in wrestling where I can. When I’ve gone to Hong Kong for gallery openings, I try to stop over in Japan to go to NJPW (New Japan Pro Wrestling, one of the country’s most legendary wrestling promotions) shows or Korakuen Hall. When I’m in Mexico, I always have to go to local lucha libre promotions.” Along his journey through the art world, Adam’s also kept a personal running list of visual artists who have made work about wrestling or that intersects with it in some way, or who are low-key wrestling fans themselves.
That there’s so much unexplored intersection between the worlds of pro wrestling and visual art shouldn’t really be so unexpected, given that both forms are so often fascinated with motion and human form — Andy Warhol even showed up backstage alongside Hulk Hogan and Mr. T at the first WrestleMania. The latest issue of Orange Crush features an unexpected profile of Matthew Barney about his adolescent career as an amateur wrestler and his fascination with anatomy—though Barney may not be familiar with Eddie Kingston or Orange Cassidy and isn’t what you’d call a pro wrestling fan, his work is engaged with and informed by a culture of body sculpting and physical aesthetics that clearly interplays with wrestling. Also featured in Issue 3 are profiles of Mark Yang’s striking portraits of nude men’s wrestling, as well as painter Helen Hunter’s depictions of joshi, Japanese women’s wrestling.
While Adam Abdalla began Orange Crush more from the periphery of pro wrestling, the publication was originally going to be tied into live events before the pandemic scrapped initial plans. Now that wrestling in the flesh has returned, Abdalla’s work has expanded to actual wrestling promotion: Orange Crush is the official co-presenter of all New York shows put on by Game Changer Wrestling (GCW), the hottest up-and-coming indie wrestling company in the United States, and now also runs Jersey Championship Wrestling, something of a sibling promotion to the Jersey-born GCW. In January of this year, GCW and Orange Crush earned a slot in wrestling history with a massive show at Manhattan’s iconic Hammerstein Ballroom, the first wrestling show at the venue since 2019, which sold out before any matches were even announced. The night before, Orange Crush & GCW presented the first ever induction ceremony of the Indie Wrestling Hall of Fame, which paid tribute to the type of undersung but endlessly influential wrestlers who will never get glossy streaming documentaries made about their lives. This year’s inductees included the likes of Homicide, a Bed-Stuy native and hard-hitting fighter; women’s wrestling pioneer Lufisto, and wrestling promoter and commentator Dave Prazak. The Indie Wrestling Hall of Fame and the GCW shows are just another demonstration of Orange Crush’s dedication to writing new history while preserving what came before. Abdalla sees the two sides of his accidental wrestling career as intertwined: “Promoting shows is in some way an extension of my publishing work. With both projects I’m trying to give these artists a space to express their creativity and unique talents in a way you don’t see on TV.”