Game of Groans
Broken Bones, Dislocated joints and countless hours of fitness training outside of their day jobs. So what keeps drawing Central PA's professional independent wrestlers back into the ring?
Published: December 2013
By Melanie Erwin
Photo by Angela Davis
The hall is live, like a splintered wire. Nearly everyone in the audience is screaming at the ring. A woman, who looks to be in her 60s, jumps from her seat to chase a "bad guy" leaning on a crutch. He hobbles away from her and escapes behind a curtain.
Inside the ring, two grown men slap at each other, like the Three Stooges. Then they get serious, hurling each other against the ropes, bending each other's limbs, climbing the corners of the ring and diving from the turnbuckles.
Everybody gets a little punchy on a Saturday night at The Lancaster Host Resort when Lancaster Championship Wrestling (LCW) rolls out its cast of characters. Guys with names like "The Red Scorpion," "Boyboy" and "Shatter" ring a bell with the regulars.
Before and after matches, wrestlers face the audience, drawing cheers or boos, depending on whether they're the heel (i.e. "the bad guy") or a crowd favorite. Some reach out for high-fives and hand slaps from the audience.
These days there are plenty of heels and heroes throughout Central PA. Nine separate independent wrestling organizations currently operate in the midstate. And the top tier local groups are gaining momentum. LCW, for example, averages audiences of roughly 350 people for its monthly bouts. Other promoters claim to fill 500 to 1,000 seats.
The ridiculousness of grown men in tights beating each other up may make sense to a crazy, been-a-fan-forever fanatic. But sitting in a hard-fought-for front-row seat at a September LCW match, there is a dubious fan. Me. And yet, I find myself - a true girly girl who collects Barbie dolls, paints her nails, watches Disney Channel and likes Justin Bieber - joining in the fray and falling prey to the allure of professional independent wrestling. It's just that fun.
"Where else can you escape reality for three hours with so much entertainment for just 10 bucks?" asks "Sexy Syco" AdrianBliss of Red Lion. Bliss - the aforementioned guy with the crutch being chased by the woman in the stands - plays the same enigmatic character for two promotions: Lancaster Championship Wrestling, where he's a heel, and Valour Pro Wrestling, a independent wrestling organization based in Red Lion.
"People get so worked up," says Bliss. And that escape from reality, in a nutshell, is the allure of indie wrestling.
"You get lost in the moment," agrees Darren Wise, a.k.a. "Dirty Deeds" Darren Wyse, who competed in Northeastern independent wrestling promotions, but returned to his hometown in 1991 to create National Championship Wrestling (NCW) in York. "You get tied up in the fantasy."
Despite storylines and practiced moves, there is something raw and real to the sport.
"People have a misconception that wrestling is fake," says "Twisted Tate" Hammer, wrestler and owner of AtomicChampionship Wrestling (ACW) in Stevens, a small town in northern Lancaster County. "People don't realize how hard we hit each other."
Hammer agrees there is entertainment value in the storylines. But he's also quick to point out the hard realities of the sport. "Are the scars in my shoulder real?" he asks. "Are the 18 teeth knocked out of my mouth real? Are the over $2,000 in medical bills real?"
Travis Shirk, a.k.a. "The Thrill Seeker" Sage Strong - who started The Ultimate Wrestling Experience (UWE) in Harrisburg in 2000 and works as a trainer - says you never know what to expect in the ring. You have to be prepared.
"It's live-action entertainment that takes a great deal of athleticism, which you can't fake," Shirk explains. "I personally have dislocated my shoulder twice, partially tore my rotator cuff and broke my nose." Wrestling also left him with constant bursitis, a painful inflammation of the bursa sacks surrounding joints, in his elbows.
Although not personally a wrestler, Jason Witmer (a.k.a. Jason "The Perfect Owner" Smith) does feel their pain. He owns Lancaster Championship Wrestling in partnership with two wrestlers, Mike Roman ("Boyboy") and Shawn Simmers ("Shatter").
"I play the part of the jerk owner of the company," Witmer says. "People love to hate the owner. People love to see the owner get beat up a little bit when he tries to cheat the fan favorite out of a win. If I get beat up by one of the wrestlers on a show, I am usually very sore."
Witmer was also once hit with a chair in the back and head at an LCW event. "That gave me a pretty big laceration," he says, adding that his wife wasn't very happy, either.
Not Down for the Count
Independent wrestling has been around for years, and local promoters and wrestlers are at odds when it comes to defining the indie scene.
"I broke into the business in 1987," says Wise, who still owns NCW. He is in the camp of those who say the business has changed since then, with fewer shows drawing big attendance. In the past, the average promoter who did a solid job selling a show could expect to bring in about 500 people, Wise explains. But now he estimates that average has dwindled to 100 to 150 fans.
Wise says there are more organizations cropping up, which is great for fans, but those organizations are taking a pounding financially. "It's harder and harder to be profitable," he says.
Other promoters see things from a different perspective. "I can't speak for all independent wrestling, but I certainly feel like we have made an impact in our area," says Witmer of LCW. He explains that when LCW began in 2012, doors opened to 115 fans. A recent show drew 667 people.
Shirk agrees. He says UWE had the usual growing pains and financialbleeding that many wrestling promotions experience when first starting out. But average attendance is now 600 to 700 fans a show.
Still, there's no denying that some shows bring in far smaller crowds. Wise admits he's wrestled in front of 15 people. But he doesn't mind, he says. "If a promoter calls and he answers my salary demands, I'm there."
Don't Quit Your Day Job
The fans are in it for the show, but what keeps the wrestlers coming back to entertain them? Many wrestlers say it's a symbiotic relationship; the audience - specifically the kids - is the draw. Because it usually isn't for the bling. Many wrestlers take a beating in the ring and the wallet.
"At the beginning, a lot of these guys are working for nothing," says Wise. Local wrestlers and promoters aren't specific about financial figures, but usually pay is commensurate with a wrestler's ability to draw a crowd.
"I wouldn't say it's a great living, but you can get by," says Hammer.
Bill Price (a.k.a. James Dempsey), of Lancaster, wrestles exclusively for LCW and Valour and says he does it for the excitement and fun.
"It's not about the money for me," says Price. "Wrestling is about doing something I truly enjoy, and entertaining the fans."
Like many other indie wrestlers, Price has a "real job" working as a full-time registered nurse. But that's not to say indie wrestlers don't aspire to greater heights, like televised professional gigs on World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) or Total Nonstop Action (TNA).
"The majority want to make a career out of it and become as big a star as they can," says Wise.
Witmer agrees. "I certainly believe that the goal of all wrestlers is to make it to the big time," he says. "However, the odds of becoming a WWE Superstar are stacked against most guys."
Still, some do make it to the big time. LCW wrestlers Ed House and Bill Bain, for example, work for the WWE and TNA in some situations when the organization travels through the region.
Whether they do it for love or money, most indie wrestlers trace the spark that ignited their dream to their childhood memories of watching televised wrestling.
"It's been my dream since I was 3 years old to be a professional wrestler," says Shirk, who recalls getting a Hulkamania Workout Kit as a Christmas gift. It came with small dumbbells and instructions by Hulk Hogan on how to work out. "It's never changed. For me, it's never been anything else."
Nine independent pro wrestling organizations operate throughout the Central PA region. A word of caution to those who have never been to an indie show but want to give it a shot: not all shows are created equally, especially if you're bringing small children. Some promotions like LCW and UWE keep the language clean and the story lines free from sexual or over-the-top violent content. Others, like NCW or ACW, keep the action as real and in-your-face as possible, which may be a little too rough and tumble for the tikes. Here's a rundown from the ringside.
Ring-o Lingo: ACW is on fire. Parental Discretion Advised.
Current champ: Jon Dahmer
Central PA Wresting (CPW)
Ring-o Lingo: Where dreams become reality and entertainment gets real.
Current champ: The Cremator
Ring-o Lingo: Bringing old school back, CCW caters to all fans, from hardcore wrestling to technical wrestling to family friendly action.
Current champ: Lobo Loco
Ring-o Lingo: Bringing big-time feel and professional presentation to independent professional wrestling.
Current champ: Mark "The Red Scorpion" Hazel
Ring-o Lingo: Brutality is our business.
Current champ: King Kahluha
Ring-o Lingo: Bringing fans a premium product at a modest price and leaving them hungry for more great action.
Current champ: Jethro Hixx
The Ultimate Wrestling
Ring-o Lingo: The only company to put family first.
Current champ: "Hollywood" Richie Nightmare
Home: Red Lion
Ring-o Lingo: We're a family show. We like to entertain people.
Current champ: The Rockin' Rebel
Ring-o Lingo: Exciting action, huge matches and insanely loyal fans
Current champ: Eric Corvis