Please note some photos may contain graphic imagery.
Inside of the Bethany Community School multi-purpose room on a frigid January Saturday night, one of the biggest shows of the year for Northeast Wrestling, or NEW, was set to take place.
Hours before the hundreds of fans filled the “arena” to its absolute capacity, the wrestlers and other NEW employees were busy transforming the school from a place where kindergartners go for gym class or to act in the school play, into a setting that will hold a 30-man, over-the-top rope slugfest to determine the winner of the NEW Championship.
By the time the stage is set for the big show, the building looks as good as any to hold a wrestling event, but it’s far from the glitz and glamor of 100,000-seat stadiums that WWE can sell out.
For independent wrestlers like those of the NEW roster, though, it will more than do the trick.
Inside, the wrestlers and the rest of the crew have set up the ring in the center of the room with chairs packed in surrounding it, leaving only a few feet in between for fans to walk around.
There are a few tables selling the likes of baked goods and 50/50 tickets to help raise some additional cash, and — in the hallway leading into the gymnasium — the grapplers set up tables so that they have a place to sell their merchandise.
As fans begin to enter and wait in line to pick up tickets, the wrestlers are there to interact with them before the show.
Their hope is, of course, to sell a T-shirt or two to pocket a few extra bucks at the end of the night, but they are also more than willing to strike up a conversation, snap a photograph, or sign an autograph.
Among those lined up on the aisle include some relatively big names on the independent scene.
There is Dalton Castle, a rising star on the indies who switches back and forth between playing a peacock-themed flamboyant character to that of a “smooth sailing” wealthy yachtsmen.
Next to him stands Sami Callihan, a hardcore specialist who gained notoriety from his time working in WWE’s developmental weekly show and touring brand NXT.
Across the hall, there stands Cam Zagami, an up-and-coming wrestler who — at this point — is just months away from starring on American Grit, a FOX reality show hosted by WWE megastar John Cena.
To the average person, maybe none of these names generate much of a reaction, but to wrestling fans, they are — at least — pseudo-celebrities. For folks who come out to the show, the possibility to interact with them is not viewed as a special surprise, but more as an expected tradition. This is the typical scene at an independent wrestling show.
“If you get to actually see the wrestlers afterward and shake the hand of the people who are going to sell you their shirts, you form a bond with his person,” said a production assistant that works in the wrestling industry but wished to remain anonymous for this article. “You want to see them do well.”
While indie wrestling remains a niche form of entertainment tucked away from most of the world, those who don the spandex do so for more than just a hobby.
To them, this is a lifestyle.
WWE is a publicly-traded company on the New York Stock Exchange – a global spectacle of sports entertainment. Its chairman, Vince McMahon, is valued at over $1.12 billion, according to Forbes.
An average episode of Raw regularly draws in over 3 million unique viewers, and its top stars like John Cena, The Rock, and Brock Lesnar are signed to multi-million dollar deals.
WWE is more than just a blip in the world of entertainment; it is a massive enterprise that employs producers, stage managers, public relations gurus, marketing specialists and more.
“You’ve got to think of the hundreds of people that go to each show, whether it’s televised or not, putting up the ring, and making sure people have food, and making sure tickets are sold and making sure that everything is safe,” said the PA.
“Then you have the wrestlers, obviously, and the referees, and the hundreds of people that help them,” he said. “If you’re watching a TV show and you see somebody on the camera you see the wrestler and the interviewer, and you assume a camera person, but you also have to account for whoever else is involved in that segment.”
There are also directors, writers, editors and even runners.
“For every wrestler that you see,” he explained, “there’s 30 to 40 people behind the scenes that are making that part of the show go.”
At an independent show, this is… not quite the case.
WWE’s premiere event in 2016, WrestleMania 32 sold out AT&T Stadium in Dallas with 101,763 fans in attendance. In comparison, the Bethany Community School holds approximately 800 people.
While a WWE event has dozens of departments that put on a show, a local independent promoter is usually on his own in terms of booking the arena and inviting the talent. On the day of the event, the wrestlers, referees and volunteers set up the scene before the doors open.
Sure, a six-figure salary and the ability to be seen by millions on TV every week is the ultimate goal for most independent wrestlers, but there is something to be said about the intimacy of the indie scene that many performers actually prefer.
“I think the best analogy I could offer, and I have offered this analogy before to people, is music,” said indie referee Bryce Remsburg.
“Like, U2 is awesome. U2 is crazy popular… U2 is WrestleMania. U2 sells out stadiums. You go to the stadium you pay $20 for parking, you pay $10 for a beer, you pay $35 for a T-shirt,” he said.
“But that little cool band that you and your friends know, that band that’s on public radio instead of the rock channel. You go to a show, and maybe there’s only 200 or 300 people there, but no matter what you’re never that far from the stage, you’re never that far from the ring.”
Remsburg points out that at indie events, fans can interact with the wrestlers, shake their hands, and take pictures.
“Like, that’s amazing,” he said. “It’s customer service and interaction.”
Veteran independent wrestler Gran Akuma basks in this environment.
“I’m sure wrestling in front of tens of thousands of people is amazing, but there’s something special about being able to look out into the crowd and see every single person,” he said.
“Indie crowds are wild because they’re being engaged by the wrestlers in the ring the whole time. In the WWE, most of the people watching aren’t in the building, so the live crowd can fall by the wayside. Traditional, old school wrestling is a live show first and foremost. I’m very much a traditionalist.”
Independent wrestling also provides more opportunities on the scene for “normal” looking people who don’t resemble the stereotypical ex-football player or body builder types that one would associate with pro wrestling to succeed. However, only a select few are able to make it to the next level.
Drew Gulak is one of those select few.
Gulak came up through the ranks of Combat Zone Wrestling in his hometown of Philadelphia and has worked in several indie promotions such as CHIKARA, Pro Wrestling Guerilla, and Evolve.
Eleven years after his debut in 2005, Gulak’s hard-hitting style and ability to adapt to various types of wrestling — from hardcore, to technical, to lucha libre — has made him one of the most recognized talents on the scene.
Even for Gulak, though, getting on that top level was something that took him over a decade of dedication to accomplish.
“Seventy percent of what we think about on a daily basis is pro wrestling. Thirty percent is everything else,” Gulak said.
Early in his career, Gulak says he didn’t push as hard for connections as he should have, which ended up stalling his path forward in the business. However, while he was going to college and supplementing his income as a swim instructor, Gulak dedicated most of his time to becoming the best wrestler he could be.
“(We) will be having a conversation about the Phillies or something like that and part way through the conversation I’m starting to think about wrestling. It’s just how I am,” he said. “I’m passionate about it. It’s who I am. To hide from that would be foolish, it would be painful.”
It is that drive, the all-consuming attitude about wrestling that pushes Gulak and his ilk towards the top of the independent wrestling world. It may have taken him over a decade of defining his craft and traveling from city to city trying to building connections to get there, but now it is finally paying off.
“I have never had a moment where I second guessed what I was doing,” Gulak said.
“I was able to get into a wrestling school that I had access to, and I loved training. So it didn’t matter what else I was doing in my life because I loved it. And I still do. I can say I’ve never second-guessed it.”
To get to the point of having a match as an independent wrestler could take years.
It’s often a misnomer among non-wrestling fans that pro wrestlers “know how to fall” and that taking a bump is not painful. The fact is, the act of falling or being thrown onto a stiff mat on your back is not a natural one, and takes a significant amount of time to figure out how to do without hurting yourself.
Only when that is mastered can wrestlers begin to start learning what moves they are going to include in their arsenals. There’s also in-ring psychology, protecting your opponent, calling spots, working the crowd, learning different styles, and dozens of other aspects of putting on a professional wrestling match that may go unnoticed to the untrained eye.
Even the top wrestlers on the independent scene never stop training and implementing new aspects of their art.
“I still feel like I don’t have good matches,” said independent wrestler Rickey Shane Page, who has worked for dozens of promotions over the course of his 13-year career on the independent scene.
“I think that’s the mark of a good wrestler. If I ever think I’m perfect, it’s time for me to stop wrestling. I always want to get better,” he said.
“Wrestling training is tough and vigorous,” said Zagami. “You have to be able to fall down and keep getting up.”
“As far as having matches go, I still get nervous when I go out there, ” he said. “If I ever feel good or not anxious about a match, then I know I’m doing something wrong.”
“Training was what I expected. It was hard but fun,” said Gulak. “There was actually one point early in my training in high school, they would yell at us to ‘get up,’ during drills, and I was so tired I fell asleep in the lunch room at school. The people I was sitting with just happened to say ‘get up’ in their conversation and I started convulsing on the desk because it was drilled into my head so much.”
Gulak is receiving his first opportunity to wrestle for WWE this summer when he will compete in “The Cruiserweight Classic” tournament to air on the WWE Network.
WWE has expanded its reach in recent years, giving more exposure to independent wrestlers than ever before.
Independent legends like CM Punk and Daniel Bryan achieved the pinnacle of the sports entertainment world by becoming multiple-time WWE Champions, while talents such as Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn and AJ Styles have also achieved a great deal of success despite being overlooked for a considerable amount of time for one reason or the other.
But all of those talents had something that a performer who skips the independents and goes directly to WWE will never have: a built-in wrestling fan base.
Independent wrestling fans may only be a minuscule amount of the grand total of WWE fans, but their dedication may very well surpass them.
“When you go to a show that only runs weekends for a few hours in like an armory or something, you really get to see passionate people that are into wrestling,” said the production assistant.
“Very seldom are you going to get people who hate it who drove out to see an independent non-televised show. When you go to a small venue where people respect it, in some ways the crowd might be better than a WWE crowd.”
In the moments of interaction, such as talking to fans at merch tables after matches, independent wrestlers build connections with fans on a personal level.
“In the ‘big leagues’ they’re all so guarded. There’s security everywhere,” said the PA. “You can be a huge fan of John Cena, but you’re sitting all the way back in section 500 — the nosebleeds — and he’s all the way down there.”
Guys like Gulak show that there is a path to the top for indie wrestlers, but for those who may not ever reach that level of success, they must find a way to balance their passion for the sport of professional wrestling, with their real life responsibilities.
Remsburg has been a referee for CHIKARA Pro for over a decade, but during the week, he pays the bills by working at an ad agency in Philadelphia.
On the weekends, though, Remsburg gets to be a part of the shows, even if he isn’t mixing it up in the ring. He says that his commitment to working in wrestling led him to look for a job that would support his lifestyle.
“I couldn’t in clear conscience give anyone the advice, ‘make this your only job.’ I did that for like three months when I got out of college. It was terrifying and it didn’t last very long. But it’s all about getting a job that’s flexible,” he said.
Akuma said his daily Monday-to-Friday schedule includes a work shift, a quick nap, then weightlifting, tanning, and cardio before he eats dinner, showering, and a brief amount of time with his wife before bed.
“Working out at home and a very supportive wife are the only reasons I’m able to keep doing this,” he said.
“It’s not the easiest thing to jump into — financially,” said Gulak. “You don’t have that chance of making solid money right away, but if you put the effort into it you can make something out of it, and that’s true with anything. … It goes back to what you deem as successful.”
For a young wrestler like Zagami, it can mean trying to balance wrestling with being a student along with working and hitting the gym.
For others in the business, like Remsburg, who recently had his first child, it’s about balancing work, wrestling and having a family life.
“In my case, when I met my wife I had already been doing wrestling for six or seven years. So it was a part of my life, it was there before she was,” he said.
“Now that our son is born, that’s going to change again a little bit, cut back a little bit maybe, but it’s not that it’s not important to me, it’s not that I don’t still enjoy it and love it.”
Another under-the-radar aspect of the life of independent wrestling is the effect it can have on an athlete’s body.
Even if the majority of indie wrestlers don’t have the physiques that the likes of Hulk Hogan and The Ultimate Warrior portrayed during the ’80s and ’90s, being a pro wrestler still requires a tremendous amount of upkeep.
Staying in shape and staying in wrestling shape are different things, and training constantly (along with a vigorous workout routine) is the only real way to stay on top of that aspect.
“Wrestling can do a significant amount of damage to your body if you are not careful,” said Zagami, “Proper form in weight lifting, stretching, eating right, and making sure you are warmed up all contributes to how you feel before and after a match. I have been very lucky (knock on wood) to not have a significant injury, but I do know that injuries often happen when you least expect them.”
When injuries do occur, they can be significant setbacks.
“In 2010, I suffered a pretty bad neck injury on the second Dragon Gate USA show,” Akuma told me. “My left arm was paralyzed for a minute or two, which was easily the scariest thing that has happened to me in wrestling. Once again, I didn’t take the time off I should have, and it led to a bunch of nerve issues in my neck.”
“It takes a huge toll. It’s not ballet,” said Page, who tore knee ligaments and has spinal stenosis. “I was out of wrestling for 11 months and had to go to physical therapy twice a week for six months to get everything back to normal.”
“It was very hard for me to take that time off and I didn’t know if I would ever be able to wrestle again which was extremely scary for me because I don’t really have anything else in my life,” he said.
If a WWE wrestler gets injured, it will hurt their career, sure, but they will still get paid and have a slew of medical professionals at their disposal to treat the injury in the most efficient way possible. For independent wrestlers, though, an injury can have devastating consequences.
“For a guy that’s on the bubble of making a living in indie wrestling, like a Chris Hero or a Drew Gulak or Chuck Taylor someone on that level, if they get hurt, they’re screwed. Boom. They’re done,” said Remsburg.
“That’s a risk they’re willing to take. They’ve positioned their lives like that and they know it, and that’s a testament to their passion, I think.”
Why then, with the risks so great, do wrestlers continue to push forward?
It all goes back to the love of the art form that is professional wrestling.
“Indie wrestlers are some of the toughest people on the planet,” said Page. “I’ve had MMA fighters see me wrestle and say, ‘I don’t know how you do it.’”
While the risk of injury is great and the sacrifices that must be made in work and an individual’s personal life can be difficult, wrestling can also provide some opportunities that the everyday person could only dream of, such as traveling the world.
“I’ve been to many different countries,” said Gulak. “Canada, England a bunch of times, Scotland, Wales, Israel, Japan, Germany a bunch. It’s great, it’s really fun to be able to experience other cultures and it builds your world view.”
“I don’t know how it happened. I’ve refereed in 30 states. I’ve refereed in five countries,” noted Remsburg. “Maybe that’s the coolest thing of all.”
But that’s not to say the travel can’t also be a burden. It’s entirely possible for an independent wrestler to be booked in three or four different states over the course of a week.
“The travel is very hard, lots of sleepless nights,” said Page. “I’ve never had a nice car my whole life. Every indie wrestler’s car is usually barely holding on.”
Many independent wrestlers annually make the trip to whatever the WrestleMania site is that year, as independent promoters try to take advantage of the fact that there will be so many hardcore wrestling fans in one place at one time.
For someone at Gulak’s level, that can mean wrestling for several promotions over the course of the weekend with long travel included.
“I had a really rough weekend that Texas weekend with WrestleMania. I wrestled five or six times that weekend and on top of that I was on a plane before and a plane after,” Gulak said.
“When you’re going through all that physical trauma and stress, you can’t just stretch all the time. You’ve got to walk and sit on a plane for six hours or whatever, you know. Then you get up and do it all again the next day. It’s tough, man. It’s really tough.”
For wrestling fans, there’s just something about watching these performers put their bodies on the line for the sake of entertainment that can be hard to shake.
Whether it’s seeing the top performers in WWE jump off a 20-foot cage in front of 20,000 people, or an independent wrestler get hit with a barbed wire bat in front of 50 fans at a local rec hall, wrestlers take significant risks just to get a reaction from the crowd.
It is violent at times, sure, but it’s also undeniably exhilarating, and with the myriad of different styles of pro wrestling that are out there, both on TV and on the indie scene, there truly is something for everyone.
“What originally got me back into it was the nostalgia from when I was a kid, but the reason I stuck around is because I’m able to get invested in the story that they’re telling,” said the production assistant. “When you just let your mind go and not focus on the ‘fake’ aspect of it and focus on the actual product at hand, that’s how you get immersed in it.”
Page said he watched wrestling as a young child but eventually lost track of it. However, it all came back to him when he was 14 and a friend ordered the WWF pay-per-view King of the Ring ’98, which featured one of the most famous matches of all-time, Mick Foley vs. The Undertaker, Hell in a Cell.
“When Foley got thrown off the cell, when he was in mid-air, I thought, ‘I’m going to be a wrestler some day,’,” Page said. “Thinking back, it’s a messed up thought for a 14-year-old to have.”
“I was a wrestling fan of grand scale, like a WWF wrestling fan since I was eight in, like, 1991,” said Remsburg. “So, Ultimate Warrior, Macho Man, those were my dudes. These big colorful, ridiculous, over the top dudes. Like, these weren’t dudes you work with at the accounting firm.”
He became hooked, though, as a teen in Central Pennsylvania watching indie shows up close and personal.
“These guys do look like guys who work at an accounting firm…but they’re so cool and they’re doing all these cool things. This wrestling that I was seeing and I was paying 10 or 12 bucks to sit in the front row and there’s no guard rail? There’s no barrier? These dudes are right here doing all this crazy stuff, and I just became enamored with that.”
On that January night in Bethany, one of the scheduled segments of the show was not a match at all, but an appearance by the former NEW champion, Matt Taven, who was there to vacate the title after suffering an injury that would put him on the shelf for months.
Taven got his start wrestling in northeast promotions like NEW, and he continues to be active in those companies as he ascends the ranks of the independent scene. Taven also wrestles for Ring Of Honor, arguably the second most popular wrestling promotion in America that is shown weekly on national television through Sinclair Broadcasting.
Taven is well known for his cocky in-ring persona, but on this night, it was as much the man, Matthew Marinelli, speaking to the fans as it was his character.
After hobbling to the ring, the wrestler was moved to tears when he was forced to vacate the championship as every fan in the building chanted “Thank You Taven,” interrupting his speech. Even if you had never seen him in the ring before, you would have been compelled to chant along.
Taven’s passion for wrestling and his utter devastation that he wouldn’t be able to do the thing he loves for many months, more than came through on his face. In wrestling, sometimes, it can be hard to tell when you’re being “worked,” but this was no wrestling trick, at least, not at first.
By the time the main event of the show came around, the place was just as hot as it had been three hours earlier for the first match of the night.
Several fans were pulling for local favorite T.K. O’Ryan, and when he was eliminated late in the match, they became noticeably dejected.
However, when War King Hanson surprised the match winner Brian Anthony with an impromptu title challenge at the end of the show to become the new NEW Champion, the entire place was alive again.
For indie wrestlers, it’s that reaction that drives them. Unlike “real” sports, a wrestler lies awake at night thinking just as much about what the fans thought of their performance as what they themselves did.
It’s the connection to the audience that makes the long drives, the bumps and bruises, and the time away from loved ones all worth it.
“I love the crowd; I feed off of them,” said Page. “They are the reason I do it, and why I’ve got to do what I’ve done in my life. I will forever be in debt to them.”
“To be a fan of indie wrestling, you have to look and do a bit of research,” he added. “We’re not on national TV. So they care more and are very willing to support us. That’s why I love indie wrestling — it’s more personal.”
“When you break it down, that’s why we’re doing this,” said Remsburg. “Those little moments. It’s two people, the wrestler and the fan. If it’s a memorable thing, they’ll have that forever. They have that story forever. You can’t put a price on those experiences.”