TPFKATL Jumping To Conclusions: Then the top rope broke
Jun 15, 2004 - 5:29:00 PM
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By Eric Nelson, Lounge Rookie Scrub
First the colleges and universities across America let thousands of new adults loose to attempt to find jobs in this pitiful economy (trust me, I know). Then, the high schools released the beasts, and the roads are once again full of 20-inch rims on bumpin' 1989 Cavaliers. Now that the littlest kids are also out of school, this can only mean two things: I will be recreating scenes from "Death Race 2000," and it's summertime! I think it would be appropriate for this time of year to make these jukebox selections: "School's Out" by Alice Cooper, "The Wall" by Pink Floyd, and of course "Summertime" by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince.
On March 26 of this year, I booked and promoted an independent wrestling show in my hometown of Fort Dodge, IA, and wrote an essay on my trials and tribulations. No, the essay wasn't written for school, and yes, I'm sick for writing 3,000 words just for the fun of it. This show was the culmination of six years of effort and 23 years of desire, and this column is my attempt to summarize it all. I hope I'm not "jumping to conclusions" (get it?) by thinking you'll enjoy the following column...
About six years ago, I saw a poster at my place of work (Sam Goody, if you insist) for an independent wrestling show 45 miles north of my hometown in Algona, Iowa. When it came to viewing wrestling on television, I was raised on the WWF and their larger-than-life personas and production. But when it came to learning about and researching wrestling, Pro Wrestling Illustrated was my first textbook.
It was in Pro Wrestling Illustrated that I discovered a World outside that other Wrestling Federation. Cable hadn't reached my neighborhood yet, but thanks to the Apter magazines, I knew who Sting and Ric Flair were long before TBS was being pumped into my house. My knowledge of the Von Erich family (tragedies and all) was extensive, even before the Texas Tornado beat Buddy Rose in his WWF debut.
And thanks to the rankings and results sections of the publication, I could name the top ten contenders to George South's PWF championship any month of the year, or tell you which Northeast feds Joe Savoldi was working for. Even though I was only reading about it and never got much of a chance to see it, I was enthralled by the idea of independent wrestling; something other than my beloved WWF.
When the opportunity came up to see an independent show - which to me embodied the spirit of everything wrestling could be without the constraints of advertisers and big networks - all those Apter mag emotions came pouring back out. I'd been to WWF Raws and WCW Nitros, with their slick production and polished action. I was about to travel north and see what a show would look like with a shoddy ring, a rabid small-town crowd, a cramped high school gym, and the potential for total unpredictability.
With a convoy of my closest wrestling-watching friends along for the ride, we got the chance to experience the hometown-hero T.S. Aggressor, the old-timey trainer/referee Eddie Sharkey (who reeked of alcohol, but that was to be expected), and the out-of-shape friend-of-a-friend who played manager, to name a few. We booed the cheap heel tactics such as running down the town and state (most of these men were billed from out east, when we all knew they lived right up the road) and CONSTANT choking of the faces (this tactic seems to get immediate heat and thus is used ad nauseum by the heels). We cheered every hot tag, hope spot and three-elbows-out-of-a-chinlock the faces could muster.
And, as we tend to do, we made complete fools out of ourselves. At indy shows where the talent is largely unknown, the crowd tends to be quiet at first, leaving the door open for smart marks like us to yell and scream. See, we know the wrestlers are audible in buildings like these, so it's "our job" to shout and cover up every called clothesline and shoulder tackle-drop down-leapfrog-hiptoss spot. So we whooped, hollered, chanted and WHOOO'd our way through two hours of the best and worst independent wrestling has to offer. I was hooked.
So hooked, in fact, that I was inspired to bring this act to my hometown. Five years earlier, in 1993, Fort Dodge hosted an independent show featuring Gas-N-Sippers Jim Neidhart, the Berzerker, Nailz, and Road Warrior Hawk. They brought out the typical of the farcical: the heel manager who berated our hometown, the ladies' match, the indy singles match, the mixed tag featuring the aforementioned indy guys teaming with the aforementioned ladies... make the most out of the least, I suppose. Then it was time for our main event, Hawk versus Nailz. Then the top rope broke. The match with the "60-minute time limit" was over in 300 seconds. But it was wrestling, dammit, the sport I loved, and it was in my hometown. The spirit of indy wrestling was inside me.
Fast-forward five years, and here I am in my high school library during free period, trying to crunch numbers and figure out how on earth to bring wrestling back to Dodge. I had contacted T.S. Aggressor, because he was the man with the ring (and the man who promoted the Algona shows). He and I would spend a good amount of time talking over the phone, and I think he could sense my legitimate interest in bringing a wrestling show to Fort Dodge. However, even at a levelheaded 17 years old, I should have but didn't realize I was going to have a difficult time generating the money, the interest, and the acceptance of the wrestlers, in order to promote a wrestling show.
The words of Axl Rose come to mind: "All we need is just a little patience."
I followed the Iowa independent wrestling scene like a lost puppy dog. If I had to guess, I'd estimate my friends and I attended about a dozen shows over the next six years. It might not sound like many, as Iowa is a minor hot bed for wrestling; unfortunately for the tethered (my university was in the northwest corner of Iowa), some of these shows happened to be in the farthest reaches of the state. Well, a dozen wasn't good enough for me, and the farthest reaches were getting to be just too far. In 2004, things were going to change. I was finally going to promote my first wrestling show.
In all these years, I had witnessed a number of wrestlers come and go, and amassed a great deal of contacts within in the scene. The veteran T.S. had the ring, Gage Octane was a huge up-and-coming talent, the Hruska boys were finally training after wrestling in John Cochrane's basement for a year, and Chance Cordova was, ummm, dressing up as Gigglez Da Clown.
T.S. would occasionally call me up to do commentary for his shows, which allowed me to introduce myself to the wrestlers. This led to other promoters asking me to do the same, which then led to road trips with the guys, where I would play sponge 95 percent of the time, and when I saw my opening, I'd interject with an idea or two. The ideas were well received, and I became "somebody" in the scene. These people got to know who I was over time, and trusted me when I finally made the call asking them for one Friday out of their lives. I had a legal pad full of great ideas and wanted these men to carry them out, because I knew they were capable.
Through them, I was able to contact more wrestlers. Thanks to my dad I was able to talk my way into renting the perfect building - balcony and all. Thanks to my friends, I had all the free help I could ask for - ticket takers, security, announcing, and even concessions. To offset the majority of my upfront costs (not all, which will be important near the end of this story) I sold advertising space in my program, a trick T.S. taught me. Everything was falling into place oh-so-smoothly.
About those ads... pro wrestling is an odd beast, but for that matter, so is Fort Dodge. Wrestling is portrayed by mass media as a laughable "sport," one that is not meant to be taken seriously since it is pre-determined and plays to the lowest common denominator via its hokey storylines. Yet everyone - black, white, old, young, rich and poor - seems to know who Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka is and recalls him fondly.
At the same time, Fort Dodge is, for the most part, a working class town, bubbling over with social cliques and weighed down by a huge chip on its shoulder. At first glance it might be easy to see how Fort Dodge would respond to pro wrestling coming town. Upon a second look, the response is completely unpredictable.
If the media is right and pro wrestling is meant to be shown to hillbillies on big screen TVs while they bowl, then why did I have no luck selling advertising to the two bowling alleys in town? If wrestling is meant to be consumed by the poorer types, why was a nice restaurant located in a high-rent district in town so willing to jump on board as a promoter? I can sum up my ad-selling venture like this: I had a 75 percent success rate, with the other 25 percent reacting to the pitch either with an emphatic "no" or looking as though I just farted in their store. Confusing, yes, but after some footwork the show was able to go on.
No matter how many times you run things over in your mind, you can never be absolutely sure they will work out to the letter like they do in your head. However, the day of the show, at 9 a.m. sharp, I was met by the venue's management and immediately got to work setting up chairs. The stage also had to be built and arranged, as this was a point of the wrestlers' entrances. Curtains had to be hung to create a backstage area for the boys. The ring showed up at 2 p.m. and a half-dozen workers swooped on it and had it erect in an hour's time.
Over the next three or so hours, wrestlers were filing in the door, where they were met by my handshake. I became more grateful with every talent I saw because my dream was, bump by bump, road trip by road trip, shitty payoff by shitty payoff, coming true. I went over finishes with everybody, sometimes twice since I was sure it would be my convoluted-ass ideas that would snag the show's progression. I gave points to the guys who had promos, I assigned referees and filled them in on any special rules for their matches, and I generally ran around like a promoter with his head cut off. I was becoming a ball of nerves, and everyone could tell.
I was tipped off to the obviousness of my nervousness by Mr. Destiny, a well-respected veteran of the Midwest scene, who has held more titles than, as Gage Octane would say, "you people have teeth." Destiny is usually a stone-faced bully, working you into thinking he's a sarcastic prick 24 hours a day. He must have seen me and completely dropped his guard, as he, with genuine concern, asked me, "Are you OK?" Well, it was either genuine concern, or he's a sarcastic prick 24 hours a day. I know it's the former. But he'd think it was funny if I thought it was the latter.
Seven o'clock rolled around - I might add that time flies unbelievably fast the day of a show - and everyone was there and ready. The crowd was slowly seeping through the door, one dad-and-son at a time. I wanted to make my way from the front door, across the building, to the stage where I'd take my post for the rest of the night, and was stopped along the way no less than six times, by people in need of advice, another go-round with finishes, or other last-minute questions. I ran into a few people I knew and/or hadn't seen in months, but only had enough time for a half-hearted "hi". It was almost showtime, and I really needed to be in my seat... partially to be near the wrestlers' area, partially to run sound, but mostly to get off my feet and friggin' relax.
Just as the radio commercial promised, the first bell rang at 7:30 p.m. Having been to so many indy shows, and having read about so many more, there was no way I could allow my show to start even five minutes late. If I promised 7:30, it was gonna be 7:30. The first half of the show included two singles matches that seamlessly melded into a tag team match. The idea was to have a non-finish in the first match, followed by the babyface riling up the crowd into chanting for "five more minutes." The heel of the next match would come out, cut a promo on Face A, and tell him to "sit down at ringside and learn something from me." The second match would end in a double DQ, when Heel B got in Face A's, um, face, causing a four-man brawl, which would then lead into a tag team match. It was an old ECW trick, but I made it make sense. And the crowd ate it right up; they booed the non-finish, and loved when the face got his retribution.
Cartoonish character Thrillcat was up next, against the human cartoon Havyk. Thrillcat was a T.S. Aggressor original, wearing a costume consisting of overalls, a hockey mask and a wig closely resembling Sammy Hagar's coif. Havyk had developed into quite a character; he played the screaming maniac to a T, and to show how much devotion he had to his heel character, he refused to shave his back in order to elicit chants from the crowd. It works. In fact, I originally had him booked as a face based on our phone conversations, but after seeing him work as a heel one night, I was completely sold. This was a great match, and with four contests down, I was feeling a lot better about my show and myself.
The semi-main event was fought under Texas Death Match rules... by two guys who had never heard of that kind of match... and reffed by an official who hadn't either. I'm pretty sure that I, along with Cactus Jack and Vader, are the only ones who have. But it ended up being a cool match, until the aftermath, or in this case the lack thereof. Mike Hruska, formerly the Bobtown Brawler, was sitting in the crowd, supporting his brother Matt, a.k.a. Rampage Ruska, who was "wrestling for his first title" in his hometown that night. The plan was for a couple heels to accost Mike after the semi, luring Matt to the ring, where the babyfaces would clean house. The heels never came, and the faces stood around with their thumbs up their asses while our announcer screamed Armageddon about the upcoming intermission. Anti-climactic? Yes. Did it scare the shit out of me that the rest of my show would go wrong? You bet.
The rest of the show couldn't have gone more right. I had booked the first half of the show basically to set up the second half of the show. I should have seen the glitches coming a mile away. Everything after intermission, though, was as straightforward as could be, and the three matches went off without a hitch. A new heel was born in Johny Fitness (yeah, one "n"... I think that's what makes him such a good heel), a fine seven-minute match was wrestled by respected veterans T.S. and Destiny, and the main event was next.
Rampage Ruska entered the ring first, as a challenger tends to do (because he's a face, though, he'd tell me later he thought he'd come out second). Gage Octane, the heel champion (who earlier in the night told Ruska's wife that she looked like she'd "chased a fart through a keg of nails") came out second to a chorus of boos (yes, my earlier promos worked!). The two, who I'd seen have a couple good singles matches against each other, and numerous good matches against others, had the best 17-minute singles indy match outside Ring Of Honor I have ever seen. They took some of my ideas and tweaked them, even suggesting a locker room-clearing brawl and interference by the Bobtown Brawler himself. The crowd ate it up, and gave a standing ovation to the new champion of Friday Night Wrestling (thankfully, the show was held on a Friday night).
I've called the show an artistic success, but a financial failure. I lost $187 that night, mostly because, rather than recouping the rent money, I chose to pay the wrestlers. Had I not cracked open the rent money, 12 angry wrestlers would have squealed out of the parking lot five whole dollars richer. As it stood, I was able to pay them somewhat respectably. If I could have paid them one hundred dollars each and still taken my 187-dollar loss, I would have. They deserved it.
Twenty-some years ago, I formed my first memory of professional wrestling, seeing the Junkyard Dog on my grandma's television set. In 2004, my mom wheeled my grandma over from the neighboring retirement home to see a wrestling ring half-set up in a building I'd rented, for a show I'd booked and promoted, and one that 110 people from Fort Dodge won't soon forget. I'd like to think the whole thing has come full circle. At the same time, I'd like to think the circle is not yet complete.
Eric Nelson has been a Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter subscriber for over eight years, and has the full two-tiered file cabinet to prove it. He apologizes profusely to Ric Flair for using so many insider terms in this column, and wishes to let Mr. Flair know he does not feel he's "in the business" by any means. A public knife-edge chopping will be held in the Town Square at noon Sunday. Nelson happily accepts feedback via email (email@example.com) or at the VIP Message Board under the name Eric Nelson.
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