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The Grit and the Glory

Photographer Michael Jarecki captures the wild energy and bizarre beauty of Chicago’s underground pro wrestling scene.

Other than the body slams and rowdy fans, Chicago’s fledgling Freelance Wrestling league has little in common with the pay-per-view glamour of its big-time counterpart, the WWE. The two-year-old outfit, which hosts raucous matches year-round at small venues like the Near West Side’s Bottom Lounge and Wicker Park’s Chop Shop, is DIY all the way: a shoestring budget, a built-from-scratch ring, cage matches featuring chain-link fencing, and creatively weaponized props—from guitars to folding tables—sometimes contributed by the audience, which runs the gamut from irony-trolling hipsters to aging wrestling fanatics. Founded by freelance videographer Jack Edinger and his friend Nick Almendarez, the league counts 25 or so regular competitors, mostly men, all with their own noms de guerre, manufactured story lines, and day jobs. 

From the start, photographer Michael Jarecki has documented the league as a personal project. What drew him to the subject? “It’s partly about childhood dreams and wish fulfillment,” he says. “I remember watching pro wrestling on TV as a kid, being fascinated by it.” But Jarecki says he was also impressed by the sheer athleticism of the participants. “It’s scripted, sure, but these guys are pulling these acrobatic moves that take incredible skill.”

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