While major wrestling events draw millions of worldwide television viewers every week, independent regional wrestling promotions make up a large portion of the entertainment powerhouse. Just like the monster bad guys in wrestling, coronavirus has been a threatening opponent to independent wrestling companies struggling to keep standing. Now, like any good babyface, independent wrestling is fighting to kick out before the final three-count.
SOAR Championship Wrestling, an offshoot of the Organized International Wrestling Association (OIWA) has run monthly, sweaty wrestling shows at the Dallas Elks Lodge for the past several years, but in the pandemic they had to adjust quickly to new regulations.
“The biggest change is the number of people that are at the shows,” says Dontae Smiley, a music artist who's also a trainer and the current OIWA champion. “All venues like the Dallas Elks Lodge had restrictions on crowd size, so we had to navigate where we could run shows.”
Smiley got his start in professional wrestling nearly 10 years ago as a podcaster and journalist covering the sport he grew up watching. He was invited to train as an in-ring competitor; now, nearly seven years later, he sits atop the OIWA as the organization’s inaugural champion and also trains other wrestling hopefuls at the Bumps & Bruises Pro Wrestling Academy.
“The pandemic brought us a lot of focus," Smiley says. "How can we still put on a good show whether we are in front of a crowd of five people or 5,000 people?”
Not all of the wrestlers were comfortable rushing back to shows. When COVID-19 cases continued, many took a hiatus until vaccines rolled out.
Persia Koohi has only been wrestling for SOAR for a little over the year. She trained with Smiley at the Bumps & Bruises Academy and got her first match in 2020. When coronavirus landed locally, she decided to stay outside the ring.
“It was hard to accept at first; it was a slow understanding of having to take precautions and pause everything,” Koohi says. “You want to be ethical and protect the fans the best you can. But this is also a business. It’s people's jobs.”
Although Koohi is new to the business and eager to make a name for herself, she also realizes the risks associated with wrestling during a pandemic.
“This is not going to an office," she says of the sport. "It is the opposite of social distancing. We are putting people in headlocks and sweating all over them. Your body is your instrument. We try not to put ourselves at risk and in dangerous situations.”
Many independent wrestlers are considered weekend warriors. Like Superman, they will work a 9-to-5 day job only to switch into spandex and play a superhero (or villain) on the weekend in front of a crowd.
While wrestlers can make their money away from the squared circle of wrestling, independent promoters depend on shows to survive. It’s no different whether you are Vince McMahon booking WrestleMania or a local promoter running shows for crowds under 500.
Lou Gotti has been in the business for over 20 years and is the owner and president of Pro Wrestling Dallas, the parent company of VIP Wrestling and DFW All-Pro Wrestling Academy. He felt the squeeze of lockdowns early on in the pandemic when he had to cancel a few shows and find new venues over the summer.
“Most important is taking care of the fans,” Gotti says. “But while the crowd size may change, overhead costs don’t.”
Gotti says it took patience and perseverance for his wrestling companies to survive the pandemic. Like other promoters, they did not receive any money from the federal CARES Act, and Gotti isn’t even sure if wrestling companies would have qualified for that stimulus.
Wrestlers and promoters alike have learned many hard lessons during the past pandemic year.
“The precautions we have taken we’ll continue to use going forward," Gotti says. "We started cleaning the rings after every match, when before it was at the end of the show or training. Now we’ll just keep cleaning the ring after each match because it makes too much sense.”
Whatever fears there may have been in the wrestling community, they are slowly starting to ease. The most recent show Gotti promoted at the Haltom Theatre was at near capacity. As Texas fully opens up, wrestling promoters are starting to field calls from talent in other states with tighter COVID restrictions, looking to step inside the ropes.
“There’s been a lot of out-of-state people requesting to come in,” says James Beard, director of talent relations at local wrestling promotion SWE Fury. “Every day I am deluged with calls and texts from guys that want to come in and work for us.”
Beard has been in the wrestling industry for over three decades, first starting out as a referee in World Class Championship Wrestling and working all around the world. While he never made it to the "big time" of WWE, his heart is in working independently.
“Wrestling is about competition, and it’s not a sanitized entertainment form that you see on TV," he says. "The independents is where wrestlers learn the basics. The very best wrestlers in the world got their start in independents.”
Just like locals are rooting for Dallas’ independent music venues and restaurants to survive the pandemic, wrestling fans are rooting for the smaller wrestling promotions. Fans and wrestlers alike see the importance of these organizations to the community at large.
“Independent wrestling is a chance for young fans to have a close connection with wrestlers that they love,” Koohi says. “Independent wrestling brings it so much closer so that you can grow with the wrestlers and get to know them.”