Drama, Mayhem and Trust: Indie Pro-Wrestling in Appalachia
This week on Inside Appalachia, we explore the world of independent pro-wrestling.
While pro-wrestling is popular across the country and all around the world, the sport has a rich and storied history here in Appalachia. In this episode we’ll take a glimpse at the action, intensity, and drama (real-life and otherwise) that happens between the ropes.
We’ll visit Madison, West Virginia, where All Star Wrestling (ASW) draws hundreds of people to most matches.
Shows at the Madison Civic Center are smaller and more intimate than the Charleston Civic Center, where the WWE holds live events a couple times a year. And that intimacy is what some fans love the most.
“It’s not expensive. I mean we could pay a lot more money to go see other wrestling but we don’t, we come here,” said Travis Craddock, a father who brought his family to the ASW Ten Year Anniversary show May 2016.
He said he's been attending since All Star Wrestling started there over ten years ago, and they hardly miss a show.
“It brings families together. It gives us something to do. There’s not much to do, and Gary has provided a lot of entertainment over the years.”
He’s talking about Gary Damron, who organizes all of the shows. “This area has been hit so hard financially. A lot of jobs have been lost here and a lot of people are out of work. It kinda gives them something to look forward to and forget their problems for a little bit and just come out and enjoy a night of wrestling.”
Like a lot of forms of entertainment, wrestling provides a form of escape, it’s a safe place we can go to forget our problems and be in our own universe.
That’s especially true for one of the wrestlers in Madison, s a man who goes by the name of Rocky Rage. He said wrestling has helped him get away from violence and drug activity that many of his other friends were getting into.
“I don’t think I would have went down a different path, but I think it helped keep me away from certain settings. I think it was something that made me stay away from some other friends that were getting involved in gangs and this and that. And I’m like no, I can go wrestle and learn how to body slam somebody. I think I’ll do that instead.”
In the All Star Wrestling ring Rocky Rage used to be one of the most beloved characters local in indie pro-wrestling. But then he made the switch from local hero to bad guy.
We’ll hear why Rocky Rage made the switch, and how it’s changed the people who come out to watch wrestling in Madison.
“I love seeing the kids. That cracks me up,” said Rocky. “Whether they’re booing me, cussing me, flipping me off. That’s funny. I had an 8-year-old use words that I was just blown away that he knew. But that’s what it’s all about. It’s awesome. It’s a rush.”
But wrestling takes its toll on the performers -- and their families. Rocky’s wife, Jamie Hardin, said she’s terrified that Rocky could be severely injured during a match. He’s already had a number of neck injuries while in the ring.
“Every single match I worry. And I see it with other wrestlers too. A lot of the wrestlers are married, they have kids. They’re getting older. You don’t want to see somebody, in five years, be in so much pain they can’t do anything because of wrestling,”she said.
Despite these injuries, making the decision to step away can be challenging. Some wrestlers talk about the rush of adrenaline they get from the crowds’ reactions, and they say it can feel addictive. We’ll talk to one former pro-wrestler who made the decision to leave the sport because of how taxing it was on his body.
Tim Hagen used to wrestle under the name of Vance Desmond, or Violent Vance Desmond, depending on whether he was the villain or the good guy. He once held the champion title at ASW wrestling back in the day.
Then, he said, “I tore my quad. I tore my meniscus, I tore my MCL, I broke two ribs, I broke my nose twice, I had 8 staples in my head. I had my heart stop and had to have CPR which cracked my sternum.”
And the cost of these injuries really adds up. One of his hospital bills, which included an ambulance ride, was about $80,000. He had insurance from his job at Dupont Chemicals, but wrestling organizations from the local level to the national level don’t provide health coverage.
Mostly due to these injuries, Hagen decided to turn his passion for wrestling into teaching. He’s the owner of Bent Barbell Gym in Parkersburg, where he is training young wrestlers.
He charges $120 dollars a month, which includes six hours of training a week. A course runs for 10 months, so students pay about $1,200 hundred dollars to go through the entire program.
We’ll also visit Oak Hill, a town in Fayette County, West Virginia, and home to the ABC TV broadcast affiliate, WOAY. The station aired a weekly show called “Saturday Night Wrestling” from 1954 to 1977.
In the late 60s, southern West Virginia wrestling fans took these competitions seriously. Some viewers got so enraged at one wrestle known as “The Cuban Assassin” that they actually shottheir television, according to a 2017 article by Zack Harold in WV Living Magazine called “Live from Oak Hill”. But in 1969, the state’s athletic commission fined the wrestlers from WOAY’s show and accused them of participating in athletics without paying dues. This forced the promoters to address the question, “Is pro-wrestling really a sport?”
Zack Harold is the managing editor at WV Living. Listen to the episode to hear his episode about WOAY wrestling.
Roxy Todd is our producer. Our executive producer is Jesse Wright. He and Ibby Caputo edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Molly Born is our web editor. Chuck Roberts, Emily Hilliard and Zander Aloi also contributed to this episode. And a special thanks to Adam Harris, who took time out of his busy Mountain Stage schedule to work on this episode.