Professional Wrestling Is Big In The Mountains
Legendary comedian Andy Kaufman once famously said “there’s no drama like wrestling”, and this is still true for millions of Americans today, especially in Western North Carolina. WCQS’s Davin Eldridge asks local fans and wrestlers ‘why’?
On any given night, in any given town throughout the Carolinas, droves of locals often gather for another night of professional wrestling.
There’s about a dozen major independent wrestling promotions in North Carolina, and at least a dozen or so smaller ones which operate throughout the state as well, including the North American Wrestling Alliance, or NAWA. Tonight, well over a hundred folks have gathered at the National Guard Armory in Lenoir, about an hour east of Asheville—for the North American Wrestling Alliance’s Monster’s Ball event.
The night is complete with character story lines dramatic entrances, championship bouts, matches in and out of the ring, and lots, and lots of body slams.
But, for the crowd, as much as the wrestlers themselves, it’s not just about the pageantry of cartoonish gladiators settling old scores in the ‘squared circle’.
For the fans, it’s a chance to blow off some steam, and escape the monotony of small-town everyday life. Just ask 41-year-old Deon Johnson.
“People work hard all week. A couple bucks; five bucks, ten bucks, take their family out for some good family entertainment and have themselves a good time.”
For the wrestlers, it’s a labor of love. For the younger up-and-comers, it’s another chance for them to hone their skills and—hopefully—get noticed by the big league wrestling promotions.
“It was just my thing. I want to be a star. I want to be in front of people. that’s twenty-one-year-old Benjamin Young. When Young isn’t wrestling, he works as a bank teller at a Wells Fargo in South Carolina. “When I started watching wrestling I realized I’m athletic. I can do this. Why not try? I turned it on TNA Impact Wrestling one night. I started realizing I can do this. This is what I want to do. I’ve been performing in front of people all my life. Even as a little child, I was… It looks like there’s a match…”
So, it was at this point during the interview that the match from inside the armory suddenly came crashing through the lobby and into the parking lot outside. Two very large, very sweaty men in leotards were body slamming each other into the pavement. We had to pause.
So you were saying?
“Of course I want to get picked up by WWE. I’m passionate about this business of wrestling.”
Back in Candler, twenty-four-year-old up-and-coming wrestler Trent Weatherman works two jobs. By day, he is a bag boy at the local grocery store. By night, Weatherman is “Tracer X”—a highflying middleweight wrestler who’s held several titles for various promotions throughout the south. He’s just finished up at the gym, and is filling up on protein at the local chicken shack, before clocking in at his day job.
“I could be a full-time manager position, but, I would have to pretty much give up wrestling on the weekends. And I’m like ‘nah, I’m good’.”
It’s a lot of work, he says. Weatherman graduated from Western Carolina University with a bachelor’s in Computer Science. But, working with computers is not what he wants to do.
“If I never make it, I’m okay with that. Because, if I don’t make it to the big stage, nobody can say that I didn’t try to dance.”
Instead, wrestling is his passion. It’s something that he constantly wants to improve in, and as a wrestler, he’s something for others to lose themselves in.
“Why else do people go the movies? People come because they can be free. They can yell at people they don’t like.”
For former pro wrestler Richard Hickman, of Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling in Charlotte, the love of a good match never goes away. Hickman wrestled from 1978 until 2006, when he received a severe neck injury during a match, which caused him to retire. Tonight, from the seat of a mobility scooter, Hickman counts himself as a member of the audience.
“Where else you gonna go that you’re gonna have someone sittin’ in the audience, getting’ up in a wrestler’s face at ring side? You don’t see that on WWF! I’m here tonight to show my support, because I know what it’s like to get out there and have the audience pick at you.”
Do you miss what they’re doing up there? Do you miss wrestling?
“Oh, I hate it. I love professional wrestling, and I try to get involved every chance I get.”
For other old-timers, like WWE Hall of Famer Jimmy “The Boogie Woogie Man” Valiant, the job is never over. Valiant came out of retirement to perform at tonight’s event, and before his match, I had a chance to ask him why he was still wrestling. He was a consummate showman.
“Woo! Mercy, my name is HANDSOME Jimmy Valiant, brotha’ man! The BOOGIE-WOOGIE MAN! I started wrestling in 1964. And this is what? 2017. That’s fifty years, captain? Fifty two years of the Boogie Woogie, man!”
Just like Valiant, for NAWA owner-operator Jason Freeman, professional wrestling is almost a way of life. Freeman started out in the business as a referee when he was 14 years old. Today, he’s puts on an average of one show per month throughout North Carolina’s foothills. He loves it, but the competition, he says, is fierce.
“The only bad thing about wrestling in this area, there’s a lot of smaller groups that run, and a lot of them like to take the other guy’s posters down. It’s silly competition, in a way.”
When asked why pro wrestling is so popular in the Tar Heel state, Freeman explained North Carolina’s had a deep and intimate history with it.
“In the seventies, I guess, it was the pro sport—professional wrestling. Pre-Panthers, pre-Bobcats or Hornets. There was one minor league baseball team, but I mean, that was the pro sport. Now, it’s died because of that. But there’s still a lot of these people that are along for this.”
The world of wrestling is a big one, especially in Western North Carolina. And regardless of one’s age, whether they’re a fan of wrestling or a wrestler themselves, the one thing the wrestling match offers everyone in that world is something to be passionate about.