On Thursday, September 19th, I set off for the home of independent wrestler Sassy Stephanie. I would join her for the next two days as she traveled to two different states to wrestle for two different companies. I would be lucky enough to peer through the looking glass, as it were, and get a taste of "the life". Granted, I had been on road trips with a few wrestlers prior to this, but that was to Dreamwave, a promotion that garners a sizable crowd in a rather populated city. This time, my travels with Sass would take me, first on Friday, to Farmville, Virginia (yes, there really is a town by that name) for Bruiser Wrestling Federation. Second, on Saturday, we would head to Oil City, Pennsylvania for Darkhorse Championship Wrestling. I had never heard of either promotion but it turns out, according to Adam Lash, BWF has been around for close to fifteen years; whereas DCW had only had two shows prior to the one we would be at. Needless to say, this would be a far cry from the previous promotions I had been to.
I arrived at Sassy's about 8:30 at night. Her car was already packed up. She would be heading to bed soon since she had to be up at 3 a.m. to be at her non-wrestling job at 4 a.m. She said she would be leaving work at 9 a.m. so I needed to be up and ready to go by fifteen after. Unfortunately it took an age for me to get to sleep, but I was up at 8:30 and ready to leave when she got home. We threw some energy drinks and water into a cooler, got some snacks, put my stuff into her car and off we went.
The GPS said it would take a little over seven hours. I started off driving and the weather was nice fortunately. We headed south through Ohio, into West Virginia then into Virginia. Unfortunately, due to lack of sleep (and being an amateur at long driving), I only drove for about an hour and a half before having to switch off. Since Steph had left off drinking Pepsi, she had little to no caffeine in her system anymore. So when she started drinking a Mountain Dew energy drink, she was able to drive the rest of the way. I took about a two hour nap but managed to stay awake the rest of the time. The drive itself was lovely - very little traffic and the sun was out. As she drove, we talked about lots of things: wrestling, mutual friends, her wedding, our mothers...but mostly wrestling. It was fascinating hearing her stories over those two days, what she had gone through and what she hoped to achieve.
We arrived on time at the fair, about two hours before the 8 o'clock show was set to begin. As she drove up, Steph halted the car near a parking attendant. She told him she was a wrestler on the show and needed to know where to park. His response (an older, African American man) was telling, "*You're* a wrestler??" Then he laughed. Not harshly or for long, but the fact that this was the reaction she received was galling to me. Stephanie took it in stride, saying that yes, she was and needed to get to where she needed to go. He directed her around to a gate where a second attendant stopped. This man's response was to ask, who she was going to "beat up" tonight. Once we had parked, I said, "I take it you get that reaction a lot." She nodded. "All the time. I'm used to it." I thought this a shame, but at the same time, this was the reality of people in independent wrestling. Stephanie had made a name for herself in "bigger" companies such as Women Superstars Uncensored and SHIMMER Women Athletes but in places such as here (despite having competed in BWF against Kacee Carlisle prior to this show), she was an unknown. At least, to those who were strictly working with the fair that BWF was having their show at.
When we got out of the car and went up to the building, a few men were there to greet and direct us where to go. As we walked out from behind the backstage, passing the ring, I realized...this was a barn. Granted, the weekend before this I had been to Wrestling is Heart, which was also in a barn but it was more like a showcase area, large and rather spacious. This was much smaller, dirtier and...an actual barn. Dirt and hay were under our feet, and I could hear the soft mooing of cows and clucking of chickens nearby. Past the barn was the actual fair itself. This was a far cry from the Eagles Club or the Knights of Columbus Hall. However, it was what it was, and I followed Stephanie and the man guiding us to outside, in front of the barn. There were tables set up already. The one on the left hand side had WWE merchandise such as figures and shirts. The tables to the right were clear, and we were told we could use the one right next to the entrance. Sass quickly got her merch out and set up with an efficiency that was impressive. One of her newest shirts; stickers; trading cards; a program with a small biography about her; photos from WWE, TNA and various independent shows she had taken; old 8x10s; a binder filled with her newer 8x10s; and three bags filled with misc gear. One was marked at $100 as it was a complete set; the others were lower since it was only one piece and not a full set. I wondered at setting these items out - what casual fan would purchase something like that? I said nothing though, and listened as she wrote down the prices for everything and gave me various instructions. I was to be her "merch bitch" for these two days. I had hopes of selling several things for her as, since admission to the wrestling show was free if you paid to get into the fair, I worried that her booking fare wouldn't be worth the drive.
Despite my worries, I never discussed pay with her. That's one subject I feel is off limits, no matter how close of a friend I might be with any wrestler. It's something I never need to know about. By this point, there was an hour left until the show started, and Sass, after making sure I was fine and understood about prices, left to go get ready. The table I was at was right in the path of the setting sun, so for awhile I was sweating it out until it went down. The flyer for the show was on the wall above me. Reading over it, I noted that their main attraction, their star for today's show, was "The Patriot."
Sass was challenging again for Kacee Carlisle's NWA Women's Championship, and their match was the semi-main. As such, we would be there for a few hours. As I sat there, listening to the Patriot call everyone "bruther", watching the people pass by, some of them headed straight for the WWF table or were attracted by the man in the brightly colored mask. Eventually, after getting her gear on and filming a promo for her upcoming SHINE tag team wrestling match, Steph came back out to stand behind the table with me. Her and the Patriot chatted about the show, the local area, and various wrestling promotions. Later, she said that they had been on shows before and knew each other from there. He also knew about Lexi, Brandi Wine and SHINE Wrestling which amazed me. As the people passed by, she would call out to them, ask them to come and watch her wrestle Kacee and see the rest of the free wrestling. Most of them stopped to talk to the Patriot, but she had no problems engaging kids, parents, older people, all kinds. Some ventured over and looked at her gimmicks, but no one bought anything. She stayed until there was only a few minutes left before bell time, then both of them went to the back. Someone with the show stayed to sell Patriot's merch.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was at the fact that not only did every seat and bleacher fill up inside the barn, but people stood outside, on the slight incline to watch the show. Other than Kacee, Sass and Patriot, I hadn't heard of any of the people on the show, so between that and not wanting to leave the table unattended, I didn't have much of a desire to watch it. One young man bought a program from me for a dollar. That was, unfortunately, the only thing I sold that night which was disheartening. Something I noticed over the few hours we were there stuck with me though.
I had quite a few people who eventually came out and mostly leafed through the binder of Sassy's 8x10s. Maybe it was the fact that, at SHIMMER, it wasn't unusual to see the women in various photoshoots in either their gear, bathing suits or other attire. It wasn't unusual, to me, to see them selling 8x10s of these shoots. However, I watched the people who flipped through the binders and looked at her various shots. The reactions made me angry inside - I saw barely concealed sneers, slight shakes of heads, and looks of disapproval and judgment. Most of these reactions came from middle aged or older women and a few older men. Younger women and men didn't react the same way. I chalked it up to a combination of conservative values (we were in Virginia, after all), jealousy, and maybe a backwards conception of female wrestlers overall. If these folks were expecting a woman in a one piece bathing suit from The Fabulous Moolah's era, or a cheesecake who was only good for photoshoots, they were going to be sadly mistaken on both accounts. If they stuck around to see her match, that was.
I swallowed my gut reaction and didn't say a word. Let them judge. If they didn't want to bother to look up who Steph was or what all she had accomplished in wrestling, that was their loss. I passed the time on my iPhone or reading a book I had remembered to bring along. Halfway through the show, the Patriot came back to man his table (he was in the main event), and it was then he asked me, "You're Stephanie's friend? I'm Tom." He extended a hand and I took it, introducing myself. He said that he had driven down from Philly (I believe) and had had to do the trip on his own since his friend couldn't come with him. It had been a long drive and his voice showed how tired he was. But he never hesitated to take a picture, sign an autograph or anything the fans asked.
When it came time for Sassy's match, I came out and stood at the entrance of the barn. The ring was slightly elevated, so I had no trouble watching it. It was strange seeing Steph come out as a babyface, playing to the crowd as "Awake and Alive" blared over the loudspeaker. Everywhere else, she plays a bitchy heel to perfection. But the crowd responded well and during the match, I didn't hear any disrespectful remarks from anyone nearby, nor was anything inappropriate shouted. This was probably due to the kids being in attendance, but not even SHIMMER is free of douchebags despite being a company that has a reputation for strong female wrestling. It was also a far cry from the judgmental looks earlier. As Kacee made her entrance, the music was almost drowned out by the boos. I had to shake my head though - in wrestling, your entrance music is a vital part of your persona. Some people become inseparable from theirs (it's why Shawn Michaels continued to use "Sexy Boy" even after entering middle age and starting to bald). Kacee had chosen Metallica's "Ride the Lightning", which, for me, was already solidly associated with a Midwestern wrestler. Plus, in my opinion, it didn't fit her persona at all - much like Steph, she's very old school in her wrestling, not the type to pull out flashy moves or create an intense persona. But it was what it was.
The match that followed saw a lot of ground based moves, head locks, arm bars and only once did Sass go up top for a flying crossbody that got a great reaction from the crowd. When she hit a Japanese arm bar on Kacee, an older man near me remarked to his friend, "I ain't never seen a move like that!" It was a very basic, but undeniably solid match that engaged fans. The two worked well together, and I learned later that this was only their second time wrestling each other. Kacee kept the belt after hitting a DDT (I think), but Steph got a round of applause as the referee helped her to the back. It was when the bell rang that I packed up all her merch and put it back into the backpack. Not long after that, her bright red hair shielded by a hoodie, she came and got me, and we went to the back to say goodbye. I believe it was around 10:30 p.m. We had a little under five hour drive ahead of us to get to the hotel, and since she was amped up from the show, Sass said she would take the wheel. The GPS naturally took us a different way since we were going north, into Pennsylvania, and we would cross through Maryland at one point.
By this time, it was pitch black and I was shivering. Shorts might have been wise when the sun was high in the sky but up in the mountains at night it most assuredly was not. With the heater on, we began our way through the mountains once more, twisting and turning as the wind blew, making the trees sway, casting shadows that we drove through. However, we sang *N Sync, Steph voxed her fiancee Chris, and I recorded videos of us singing in the dark. It was fun and at points I could look up into a cloudless sky and see the stars. It was like salt scattered onto a piece of black construction paper. Beautiful! At one point, Steph halted the car beside a small building. Out in front, highlighted by lights, was a statue of a gigantic rooster. Of course we had to take pictures. It was then I realized that this is one of the perks - when else but traveling the back roads between small towns would you stumble across something as silly as this? Moments like these are memories.
|Biggest cock I've ever come across.|
As we drove, Stephanie told me about something that had happened during the match that she had never experienced before. Normally, she said, once she's out there in the ring she doesn't register faces or people in the crowd. She's in that "zone" that all wrestlers enter. However, when Kacee had her in a submission, she looked out and saw a kid that probably wasn't over seven years old. Their eyes met and although she couldn't hear him, she read his lips. "You can do it." Even when she had been a babyface prior in her career, she had never had that kind of connection with anyone. "He believed in me," she said, "I wanted to justify his belief in me. He may forget this in a week, but that's something I will remember for the rest of my life." I could tell by the look on her face and the tone of her voice that she was serious. This child had connected with her. It was still real to him. To that kid, and indeed to the rest of them that were at the show, everyone in the ring was larger than life. Wins and losses still mattered. The age old struggle of good versus bad still held a magic, to kids and adults alike. Food for thought for me.
Our rooster stop and a stop at Sheetz for gas and food (Sass was good enough to stop at a next door McDonalds for me) delayed us getting to the hotel in Bedford until around 3 a.m. She had booked us in a comfortable hotel. We had to be up by 8 and gone for the three hour drive in order to make it to Oil City by noon, when the promoter had wanted everyone to be there. We were out by 3:30 but I woke up at 7:30 to get a quick shower. Four hours of sleep! Steph got four and a half since she woke up at 8, but we were out by 8:30 on the road again (after another stop at Sheetz - their coffee is AMAZING!). I dozed off for awhile but switched with her again to make the final trek to a high school gym where the show was to take place. By this time it was raining steadily, which wasn't pleasant but it wasn't bad enough to impair driving. We made our way into the main building to the gym where the previous show had been held. When we peeked in, however, there was a girls basketball practice being held. By this time it was almost noon, so Steph and I decided to huddle down in a nearby hallway, her to take a nap while waiting to hear from the promoter as to where everyone was. As we waited, she started laughing, "The glamorous life of a professional wrestler," she remarked wryly. I couldn't help but laugh too.
We didn't have to wait long - it turned out they were in a separate building nearby. We packed up our stuff again, drove the short distance and got into the school quickly. As before, we were led into the gym and Sass quickly got her gimmicks set up at a table near the entrance where fans would be coming in. It was a prime spot, although M-Dogg Matt Cross had gotten the table right next to the entryway. He was someone who knew the value of choosing your place as to maximize the prospect of fans buying merch, she said, something that came with developing good instincts. Every dollar counted. I took a seat behind the table as she went to get changed and discuss things with the people she would be working with. I watched the ring being set up, noting that both men and women were pitching in, despite some of it being heavy work. I noted that Blk Jeez and the Latin Dragon from CZW were on the card as well as Kimber Lee, Missy Sampson (the DCW Women's Champion), Marti Belle and one of the green students from the CZW school, Samantha St. Paul. I thought it was interesting and kinda cool to see some of the more well-known independent names at this show that was, apparently, broadcast on a local television station. This was going to be taped for a future airing. It amazed me that a small promotion that was still brand new was on tv, although I had no idea how that worked. As bell time grew closer, fans started to trickle in and to my surprise there were fewer people here than had been at BWF last night. I asked Sass, who had come out in her gear to stand at the table, if there had been so few at the previous first show that she had been at (having been unable to make it to the second show). She replied that there had been more at the first. I thought this was a shame as the show looked to be a solid one. But beggars couldn't be choosers, and although it began a little behind schedule, the promoter came out to thank everyone who was there.
This time, despite fewer people stopping to look at what Stephanie had for sale, an older man with his grown daughter wanted to buy a t-shirt. The girl protested, wondering what "mom" would think. He bought one nonetheless and I thanked him with a smile. That turned out to, again, be the only sale I made but she was grateful for it. Small victories are better than none. Steph again had her ring-worn gear out for sale, and I asked her while in the car if it wouldn't be better to hold onto those until she got to SHIMMER in a few weeks as they would be more likely to sell to the wider fan base. She replied that there was always the chance that one of the fans at these smaller shows would buy it. She had the same nonchalance when I told her about the women who had turned their noses up at her photoshoots. "Sex sells. I'm never fully naked despite how it looks in some of those shots, and they sell. I'm appealing to those fans." A sound business strategy, rooted in common sense. Part of the reality of being a female wrestler.
I read more of my book until it came time for Sassy's matches, which I told her I would record on my phone. The first was a tag match. I noted one older woman who was taking pictures giving all the heels grief. Yet, before the show, during intermission, and afterwards she asked several people to pose for a photo with, I assumed, was her grandson. It was fun to see not just the kids but the adults get into it, mostly for the chance to get on television. The kids still believed it was real, but these adults were clearly in the know. There was no chance of a riot here if a babyface lost, unlike last night. The contrast between the two groups of fans was fascinating.
I really enjoyed Sassy's match against Missy - being that Sampson had the size and height advantage, Steph went for different types of submissions, trying to keep her grounded. The end came when she pulled out a submission I had never seen before, from her or anyone else. I won't describe it here as I'm sure she'll use it again in the near future, but she performed it well. Missy passed out instead of submitting, making Sassy Stephanie the new DCW Women's Champion. Fans were pissed, especially the older woman who got up and yelled that Steph had cheated. Sass got right in her face, asking how she had cheated when she had had a clean submission on. The woman retorted that she went to the outside, but Steph countered by saying that Missy had knocked her to the outside to start with. The older woman had no retort to that except by repeating she had cheated. Sass laughed at her and went to the back, belt firmly around her waist.
Unlike last night, there was no rush to get things together after her match ended. Stephanie stayed until the show was over to help do local promos for television spots. She got everyone herded into the room where these were shot and made sure they were done before allowing the wrestlers to leave. In her own words, she was a bitch who made sure things got done. To me, this wasn't a bad thing - sometimes you have to be tough and firm to get a job accomplished, especially when some people are unwilling to do it without a push. It was a mark of how much the promoter relied on her to do behind the scenes work. After gathering up her gimmicks, I waited, watching some of the wrestlers interact with the fans that were slow to leave. I also watched both men and women take down the ring, admiring how there was little hesitation to do something that might not be the most glamorous thing but was essential to the process. I had no idea if these were wrestlers who were in training and paying their dues or if they had been hired from outside the promotion. Either way, they were efficient and uncomplaining.
By this time, Sass had joined me and it turned out that one of the fans who was in attendance was the host of a local radio station. He invited Steph to do some promos for his show as well as two advertisements for local area businesses. Since she had a track record of doing stuff on the radio and in front of a camera, she had developed a good, clear voice for these kinds of things so we followed the guy to the radio station after everything was done at the show. I have to admit, I was apprehensive about this. He was older and we were the only people in the small building. But nothing untoward happened, and I listened as Sass did the two ads and three promo spots, the latter three unscripted. She was a natural and the man thanked her profusely, giving her a few items for her willingness (a travel mug, knapsack, stickers with the radio station, and a stress hockey puck). After that we headed to a nearby bar and restaurant to eat with some of the folks from the show that were able to stick around.
Despite only knowing one or two people there, Steph was adept at making small talk while I ate and observed. A product of being in such a public business, you have to be outgoing to some degree, with fans and fellow workers alike. Perhaps she had always been this way. I wasn't sure how many of these guys and gals knew each other, or how well, but they all relaxed, talked and laughed in an easy way. At one point I was gently kidded by one of the guys sitting across from me about my lack of speaking. I blushed and attempted to make small talk but in large groups and especially around people in the business, I'm more likely to take a step back. I remained aware that I was a fan who was lucky enough to take a look behind the curtain.
It was nightfall and still raining when we left. Soaked again but that didn't matter much. We were both in good spirits - the fact that the drive from Oil City back to Stephanie's house was only two hours (the shortest distance we would drive over the two days) probably had something to do with this. Neither of us had difficulty staying awake, and as we drove back into Ohio she told me a few of the things that were in the area as well as some of the history, plus a few things about her mom and the high school she had attended. I offered a few stories of my mom and the high school I went to. It wasn't long before we were back at her house, I believe by 11:30 or somewhere around that time. We both crashed out, and the next day I drove back home...a five hour trip that took nine hours.
On the drive home, I found myself reflecting on what I had seen and experienced over the previous two days. I had never had any illusions about independent wrestling being some sort of glittering life. I knew it involved hard work and a dedication to wrestling that goes above and beyond what the average fan feels. You have to have a passion that motivates you to drive anywhere from 30 minutes to seven hours to perform in front of anywhere from 20 to 400 people for who knows what amount of money. You have to be willing to smile for fans, be accommodating when they ask for pictures or autographs, make small talk to try and sell an extra shirt for a few more dollars. You have to be ready to wrestle indoors or out, rain or shine, and make it through all types of weather to get to the show. You have to be able to show promoters you can do business in a professional manner, be at the venue on time, amendable to any sudden changes (while maintaining your own best interests), and work with people that you may or may not get on with. When the show is over, depending on your status in the promotion, you either tie up any loose ends, collect your pay and depart for the short or long drive home; or, you stay and help take down the ring, collect the chairs and clean up before leaving. Then you either set off for your next booking, which could take you on the road for another few hours or minutes, leaving you with the option to either sleep in your car somewhere or book a room in any kind of hotel to sleep for a precious few hours; or, you set off for your home, hoping to make it to your bed for any kind of sleep before getting up for your "real world" job.
Like I said, it's a hard life. But, it has it's rewards. Stephanie has no regrets. "I love what I do, and I have fun," she told me when I shared some of my observations after the trip was over. Indeed, she never complained about the driving, the people, the promotions, none of it. On the contrary, she was wide awake and ready for anything that could and did happen. The random things (such as running into the giant rooster and having the opportunity to record spots for a radio station) are part of what makes the independent wrestling life such a fascinating one. You never know what might happen on the next trip. The special things (such as connecting with one fan as they cheer for you during the match) are what make for lasting memories. The ability to touch a fan and bring them to their feet with cheers or boos isn't something that all wrestlers have. For those that do, that is part of why they choose to live this life. To create lasting memories, for themselves and for the fans, is something unique.
For my part, I loved it. I was captivated hearing the stories she had to share about her almost seven years in wrestling. I was fascinated by the places we went, the roads we drove, and the glimpses of small town life we caught. Especially up in the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia, the forests were beautiful. I found the people we came into contact with interesting, from the fans to the fellow wrestlers to the promoters. Sure, the drives were long, the weather was less than perfect on Saturday, and we got little sleep but I felt positively alive and thrilled to have been asked to come along. It's a life that, had I had a different body, I would have tried to live. As it is though, I was honored that Steph asked me to go with her. I have gained more of an insight into the life, and my respect for those who willingly go through the trials in order to live their passion has doubled. It only increases my determination to help support those that truly love what they do, and reward their dedication however I can, in small ways and large.
Fans may joke about the frequent user of "brother" between wrestlers, but it reminds me of the lines from Shakespeare's "King Henry V":
"From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother."
A huge thank you to Stephanie, I appreciated this so much! Get out there and support independent wrestling and independent wrestlers - they deserve it!
(Here is a link to her promo she shot in Farmville for the SHINE Wrestling iPPV. Order it on WWNLive.com, and catch it on September 27th!