It was a Saturday afternoon during Bike Week, so I decided that the natural thing to do was to go watch large women battle it out in a pit of chopped cabbage, cheap beer and bad decisions.
Why, on the last Saturday of last year’s spring break – college students’ annual southern-migratory sunfest – I found myself behind a colossal blow-up of a Southern Comfort bottle, trying to get a better view of coleslaw wrestling, deserves an explanation.
In my formative years in Daytona Beach, Fla. — a tacky but loveable coastal city known for the beach, Nascar and motorcycles — I heard about a time-honored tradition that happens every Bike Week, a seven-day, black-clad influx of northern bikers to Daytona and the surrounding area. The tradition is called coleslaw wrestling, and it happens every Bike Week at the Cabbage Patch, an ageless bar three miles down the road from my house that is somewhat legendary in my small rural town on the outside of Daytona.
The Cabbage Patch is located on a patch of land in Samsula, Fla., which, years ago, was settled by a population of Croatians who apparently loved cabbage. Their influence spread, a lot of cabbage was grown, and the Cabbage Patch bar was born. (I always used to confuse the immortal watering hole with the company that sells those chubby-cheeked, ever-smiling dolls that you can dress up in different costumes, which is one of the bigger misperceptions anyone could ever have.)
One of the biggest regrets of my life was not being present at the conversation that birthed coleslaw wrestling. I would have paid four years of my college tuition to be a fly on the wall in that room:
Well, we have all this extra cabbage. Why don’t we make a huge pit of coleslaw and watch heavy biker broads wrestle in it? The people would love it!
The spectacle, according to the Patch’s website, is “world famous,” and it’s been going on for as long as I can remember. It confused, depressed and intrigued me (sometimes at once), but I always wore it, strangely, as a badge of pride: Well in my hometown, people wrestle in coleslaw. What do they do in yours? I became a spokesman for the wrestling and vowed that one day I would go watch it. The only hiccup in my single-minded pursuit to one day see the oily glory was the time my mom convinced me that they sold the wrestled-in coleslaw for consumption after the matches. (They don’t.)
When I texted my dad that I would be attending this year’s coleslaw wrestling, he didn’t respond because he thought I was joking. I told my mom, too, and she asked whom I’d be going with. I told her that it would be a one-man journey, that I had to experience this by myself. It was like conquering something that didn’t need to be conquered.
But, alas, there I was on that March Saturday, parking my mom’s white Toyota Avalon at the horse stables next to the Patch, because: 1) I didn’t want to pay to park and 2) I can’t imagine the stares I would have received parking a suburban-mom car next to rows of Harleys.
As I approached the Patch, wearing a black (not on purpose but a wise call) T-shirt and khaki shorts and paying no mind to the quizzical looks I was receiving, I noticed all the things that make Bike Week great: blazing sun (it was in the 80s), fair-style cuisine (sirloin tips and turkey legs!), services only bikers would understand (“Mr. Bills Roadhouse tattoos”; motorcycle wreck attorneys), collectors’ items with bad puns (“The Garage Mahal: The Eighth Wonder of the World”; “It’s Beer:30”), 60-plus-year-old men posing for pictures with much younger girls as their wives looked on in disappointment, and lots of Budweiser.
Coleslaw wrestling was supposed to start at noon, and I arrived at about 12:15 p.m., so I followed the noise of a microphone emitting messages about the upcoming matches. It led me to the center of a large field of sand, its perimeter lined by a silver-wire fence upon which a good 200 to 300 people were leaning, many of them drunk, all of them ready to watch the wrestling. At the center of this field was a raised patch of grass with a blue tarp covering its center. Underneath the tarp was a pit, about a foot deep, where the coleslaw would be poured in when the wrestling began.
This must be what the Romans felt like watching gladiator fights, I thought to myself.
(That misguided notion was soon dismissed when I noticed that four enormous blow-up replicas of alcohol vessels— Budweiser, Jack Daniels, Southern Comfort and Red Hook — stood in as many corners.)
Manning the microphone was a stumpy man who worked at a local radio station. He was heavily tattooed and wore a black shirt and grey cargo shorts – both of them too long – a backward snapback and a pair of black Jordans. I never got his name, but he made so many questionable jokes that I dubbed him The King Of Off-Color Jokes after about 30 minutes of listening to him.
There was a delay, The King Of Off-Color Jokes announced, because not enough women had signed up to wrestle. He encouraged anyone who had ever considered wrestling to gather under the big white tent, talk to a woman named Shannon and get your name on the participant list.
“No one wants to see dudes wrestle in coleslaw!” he yelled in an attempt to encourage more women to participate. He stressed that those interested bring their IDs when they sign up, because, of course, underage coleslaw wrestling is illegal in Florida.
In the meantime, anticipation mounted, and the bikers passed the minutes by diverting their attention elsewhere.
One tattooed woman, in a bright green bikini top and jean shorts, was walking around with a clear tub filled with Jell-O shots of various colors. She put the money she received in the top, the bills flapping as she continued her pursuit of gelatinous-alcohol sales.
Another man brought a greasy chicken-on-a-stick back to his girlfriend.
“Good choice,” she said, biting into the poultry. “All protein, no carbs.”
A friend soon directed the couple’s eyes to four girls who were allowing men to rub sunscreen on their bodies. They were each wearing relatively little clothing, and they laughed as middle-aged men lathered the lotion onto their stomachs. A few yards away, a man in a Raiders shirt and hat was conspicuously filming the sunscreen proceedings on his iPhone.
Then there was a T-shirt toss. The 60-something man in front of me bobbled one to the ground, ran over to retrieve it, spilling his beer in the process, and picked it up seconds before a younger guy tried to nab it.
“Asshole,” the younger man said under his breath. (Lest you feel sorry for him, he would redeem himself later, in the Koozie toss: He caught two of them and promptly left.)
Suddenly, The King Of Off-Color Jokes announced that behind us there was a man in an electrical bucket raised very high into the hot air. He made some bad joke about how the man was trying to download illicit material on his phone and thus had to find better reception higher in the air. The King then told everyone to wave to the man.
“Actually,” The King abruptly changed his mind, “how about everyone just flip him off? It’ll be the biggest F.U. in the world.”
What happened next, of course, was that everyone in the crowd of bikers, about 400 strong, turned and raised his or her middle finger to this unsuspecting man in the electrical bucket. He smiled and waved back.
At 1:03 p.m., The King Of Off-Color Jokes announced that the first-place prize for coleslaw wrestling was raised from $500 to $700 in the hope of stimulating sign-ups. Then he offered some advice.
“Ladies,” he said into the microphone, “if you’re gonna wrestle, don’t get so shit-faced that you can’t get up off the picnic table. It happened. We’ve seen it. It’s not pretty.”
One man in front of me tried to talk his wife into wrestling.
“They say they get mean in there,” she replied. “I’m too old for that.”
Another woman agreed.
“I got a wedding. I can’t lose this shit,” she said, holding up her engagement ring.
Finally, around 1:45 p.m., The King announced that the roster was filled and wrestling would begin soon.
A red F-250, its bed filled with more than a hundred heads of cabbage, then drove up to the grassy hill with the coleslaw pit. Roger, a 40-something man in a red hat and jeans, took the heads out of the truck and violently threw them into a mechanical chopper on the end of a blue tractor that was situated on the hill. The chopper spat out the cabbage in small pieces, and a man with a rake dispersed it evenly into the pit. At one point, Roger chugged his Bud Light for about eight seconds and poured the rest into the chopper with the cabbage.
One of the men who was assisting Roger, The King Of Off-Color Jokes pointed out happily, had rolled up a piece of cabbage and was smoking it.
“Screw that medical marijuana,” The King said, laughing at his own joke, again.
Once the pit was filled with chopped cabbage, Roger opened about five bottles of oil and poured them into the pit, and everything was nearly ready. For good measure, Roger grabbed a handful of the slaw and ate it.
The King first introduced the refs — Two-dollar Jim, 50-cent Josh and some man from Canada — and then the field of wrestlers.
April, from Tennessee, sported pigtails, no top and body paint.
Heidi, from Florida, wore jeans, black socks and a black tank top.
Iris, from Tennessee, wore the same.
Miranda, from Florida, had a pink tank top.
Janette, from Florida, returning after a runner-up finish last year, donned a black shirt with a fiery skull on it.
Morgan, from Florida, drew the loudest cheers. Nicknamed “The Spider Monkey,” she was the smallest and a two-time defending champion.
As they were being announced, the wrestlers walked the perimeter of the field to wave and smile to the audience.
“She looks like one to be reckoned with,” a man in front of me said as one of the bigger wrestlers walked by.
“Looks like she’s from the North,” his friend said as one of the paler wrestlers walked by.
I had ventured over to the Southern Comfort corner. I didn’t have the best view, but the crowd had grown significantly now that the wrestling was about to start, and I wasn’t about to cause a scene fighting for a better spot. Plus, the company was enjoyable.
“You wasn’t sober, but you drove,” said a woman (who herself wasn’t sober at this moment), ending an argument with her friend as I approached the corner. They both laughed hysterically.
These are my people, I thought to myself.
Once Two-dollar Jim explained the rules — the most important: to win you must pin the opponent’s shoulders to the ground for three consecutive seconds — the double-elimination wrestling tournament began.
The first match pitted April against Heidi. At 2:17 p.m., nearly two hours after I arrived, I was finally going to find out what coleslaw wrestling was like.
What is coleslaw wrestling like? It’s what you think it’d be like, only worse.
The women grappled one another, threw opponents into the oily mess, hammed it up for the audience. A boy no older than 12 years old was pit-side, filming the wrestling with a large TMZ-like video camera.
The first match was particularly lewd.
“At coleslaw wrestling we encourage wardrobe malfunctions,” The King Of Off-Color Jokes said, and April must have listened, because her body paint soon rubbed off, which was unfortunate for pretty much everyone.
“She’s gonna bite her!” someone yelled.
“Mike Tyson!” her friend added.
“She’s a slippery sucker,” one of the men behind me said of Heidi.
It was one of the few times I felt physically uncomfortable watching a sporting event. I realized I needed to man up when a dad asked me and the men near me if it was OK for his 7-year-old son to sit on the fence corner in front of us. We said yes, because we wouldn’t want him to miss out on such an enriching childhood experience.
I stayed only for the first round of bouts — I could tell just from her first fight that The Spider Monkey was bound for a three-peat — and walked back to my mom’s car feeling some strange combination of sadness, confusion, pride and disbelief.
As I approached the car, I saw a few large brown horses serenely circling around a dirt track inside the stables, and I realized that these two scenes — coleslaw wrestling and majestic equestrian walking — might be the definition of my hometown.
I drove back home and plopped down on the couch next to my mom, who was watching a basketball game.
“Mom,” I said to her as Florida was icing away the last seconds of its SEC tournament semifinal win over Tennessee, “I feel dirty.”