Words & Photos By Michael A. Wiseman
Fewer things mean more to the South than sweet tea, Jesus, stock car races, and barbecue. Historically, that list included professional wrestling. And while the attraction of spandex-clad titans battling over pride, women, and golden title belts has fallen out of mainstream popularity in recent years, it remains more relevant than ever to fans who grew up with those traditions. They remember watching Dusty Rhodes’ “Workin’ Man” promo as it happened, or attending Jim Crockett NWA shows back in the day. They’re still fans of North Carolina original Ric Flair, whose stylin’ and profilin’, limousine-riding, baby kissing ways made his “Woooo!” chant bigger than the sport itself.
But perhaps more importantly is what the South, and it’s tradition-laden history, still means to professional wrestling.
“Some of the greatest wrestling moments were born in this soil.” That’s according to Matt Striker, a teacher turned-grappler turned-commentator, who earned his chops on WWE broadcasts as a true wrestling historian. Don’t know the difference in an armbar and a hammer lock? Striker does. And he describes being back in North Carolina for WrestleCade as “so humbling.”
WrestleCade is the brainchild of local entrepreneur/businessman/best-selling author/Emmy award winner/car dealer Tracy Myers. It was created as an homage to the annual Starrcade event – an event born just down the road in historic Greensboro Coliseum. The idea was that WrestleCade could bring back a Thanksgiving weekend tradition by offering up family-friendly wrestling for a great cause. The promoters go all-in, recruiting big names from today and yesterday, along with some independent talent to fill out the card. Proceeds from the event benefit Toys for Tots.
The full-day WrestleCade event includes two main attractions: the first, a FanFest where people can meet their favorite stars, get signed memorabilia, and take pictures, is the type of experience wrestling fanatics dream about. Living legends like Larry Zbyszko and Jim Duggan sit only tables away from modern superstars Carlito, Drew Galloway, and Matt Hardy. There’s a line to meet Kevin Nash, Scott Hall, and Sean Waltman, who helped define professional wrestling’s “Attitude Era” (a time which saw wrestling become more profitable and mainstream than at any other point in history). A ring set-up in back showcases regional independent talent, to both cheers and jeers.
Wrestlecade attendees Jeffery and Rachel just think “it’s cool to see everybody… Matt Hardy, Freight Train, Colt Cabana.” Rocksborough residents Jason and Wendy echo that sentiment. This is their second year coming, and they’re here for “the ECW guys.” They plan to come back next year and bring their two kids.
Some wrestlers are strictly here for the business (a few legends declined comment when they discovered I wasn’t a paying customer). Others, though, appreciate the fan interaction, and camaraderie of being with various talent.
Former WWE-er and podcast superstar Colt Cabana enjoys it because he gets to “see the smile on all the fans’ faces.” For a performer like Cabana, who talks to wrestling biz insiders on a continual basis, it’s also an opportunity for him to see all those guys in the same room. The same holds true for independent talent John Skylar, who describes WrestleCade as a “reunion.” Again, he says the whole event is “a fan’s dream.”
Then there are the bigger names. Matt Hardy and Drew Galloway, two tremendous stars who have spent plenty of time headlining pay-per-views and defending historic titles, find themselves at WrestleCade as the main attraction. Their respective tables cause more bottlenecking than any other as fans ask for autographs, snap pictures with the stars, and try to strike up conversation with these larger-than-life personalities.
Hardy, the reigning, defending WrestleCade champion, is a North Carolina native who appreciates the proximity. Living only an hour away, he likes the fact that he can get to the show quickly, then get back afterwards and sleep in his own bed. Hardy describes the growth of WrestleCade as “amazing,” and says he takes a lot of pride in being here. In person he’s unexpectedly reserved, eerily calm to be the man who helped mainstream daredevil matches like TLC. Hardy has been involved with WrestleCade each of the last three years. As champion, he’s in the unenviable position of being the “face” of the company.
Galloway, the challenger, has a much different outlook. After recently parting ways with WWE, he’s been traveling overseas, winning both the Evolve and ICW championship, and coming back to American soil for various one-off matches. His spirit seems renewed. Galloway spent much of the last seven years touring with the world’s biggest wrestling company, and now that he’s on his own, seems to be enjoying his spot.
“They’ve trusted me to be myself in and out of the country.” It’s the kind of response you’d expect from a man who was once dubbed Vince McMahon’s “chosen one.” But Galloway finds his star burning brighter than ever, and his in-demand status a result of hard work both in the states and over the pond. When I asked him about traveling internationally with two championship belts (gold-clad and weighing approximately 13 pounds apiece), he says, “that’s why I only have the one with me today.”
Despite being on opposite sides of the squared-circle, both Matt Hardy and Drew Galloway use the same word to describe WrestleCade Fanfest: “Amazing.” They liken it to WrestleMania Axxess, the week-long sprawling fan event that takes place before wrestling’s biggest show of the year. That’s high praise, indeed.
The second part of WrestleCade, and arguably the most important, is the actual wrestling card that takes place a few hours after FanFest. Sports entertainment aficionados are packed into Benton Convention Center, a hot crowd ready to see their favorite stars settle whatever indignities they have against one another. Rows of folding chairs outline a makeshift entrance ramp. There are also round tables that each sit seven, reserved for the highest-paying WrestleCade ticketholders.
The crowd is an eclectic mix of kids and adults, with representation from every economic class. Some fans wear camouflage, or Nascar gear, while others sport their favorite superstar apparel from yesteryear. Many fans show their support for the recently-deceased Ultimate Warrior, despite Warrior having nothing to do with tonight’s show. But that’s their connection to the product – either Warrior made them a fan of wrestling, or he made them a bigger fan. He’s still “their” guy.
I make my way to the back where I catch wrestling manager Jim Cornette selling some merch. Cornette was hands-down the nicest guy at Saturday’s FanFest event, offering to talk my ear off about how “most indie wrestling events don’t draw a quarter of this crowd” and how much he loved seeing it again. Now, in full-show mode, Cornette has something different in mind.
“Let me give you some advice…”
He cuts one helluva of a promo about something wildly inappropriate and practically nonsensical, but damn entertaining. His dynamic voice and engaging speech patterns are what made him such a wrestling fixture for years in NWA, WWF, WCW, TNA, and Ring of Honor, and they’re as sharp as ever here. I discover he’s just using me as a tune-up – only minutes into the show, Cornette is announced as the “WrestleCade Special Guest Commissioner,” and he cuts a promo about how important North Carolina is to the rich history of professional wrestling. Again, nobody says it better than Jim Cornette.
The WrestleCade card has it all – independent talent, battle royals, triple-threat matches, and tag-team contests. It’s the kitchen sink of wrestling. At one point, legend Scott Steiner grabs the mic and, says, “cut my f**** music off,” in true heel-like fashion. Unfortunately, it’s a family-friendly show. Awkward.
There are actually two main events for the evening. The first, a divas battle, sees two giants Awesone Kong and Lei’D Tapas battle for women’s supremacy. The second one finds Matt Hardy and Drew Galloway finally tearing down the house in a ‘last man standing’ match for the WrestleCade championship.
The high-drama of a ‘last man standing’ stipulation is that one wrestler has to knock his opponent down for a referee ten count. It’s a no-disqualification, anything goes, brawl with whatever you can find, contest. Hardy and Galloway tear into the crowd, battle backstage, and smash each other with beer bottles before finding their way back to the ring.
The crowd seems hot for Hardy at first – after all, he’s the hometown hero. Then, about halfway through, the “Drew” chants take over. It’s a weird dynamic seeing the crowd switch so easily. Then again, wrestling fans love to go against the grain.
Once the house lights go up, the beat crowd quickly retires. Some leave, some check out downtown Winston, while a few hang out at the Marriott hotel bar – because it’s where the wrestlers are staying. Fans simply want once last chance to be with their heroes.
The scene evolves throughout the night as more wrestlers show up and the non-diehards leave. It’s everything you’d expect: a mix of ego, alcohol, fandom, and weirdly-casual encounters. In the span of 25 minutes I see an ex-WCWer do an Irish Car Bomb, a few people charge drinks to rooms that may or may not be theirs, a legend talk about his glory days with a fan, and groups of wrestlers chit-chatting about television shows.
It’s fairly obvious who the big names are… they have groupies. Some independent wrestlers flock to the guys they think will improve their street cred. Others, including TV stars, are super cool, nice enough to carry on conversations with fans and not worry what their locker-room buddies think. A few guys let their muscles go to their heads. I get mean-mugged by a former midcarder over a poorly-executed joke. I also quickly learn that when you introduce yourself to a performer, rarely do they reciprocate; they assume that, if you’re there, you must already know who they are.
Eventually, I’m sharing drinks with an independent tag-team known as the Young Lions. They’d driven all night to make it to the show, and had performed at WrestleCade FanFest earlier in the day. As we’re talking, they’re signing contracts, discussing how long they’ve been in the business (one of them two years, the other one five), and asking me about Winston-Salem. They’re both in their early twenties and seem to be loving the ride – no mention of big leagues or major deals, just them doing what they love, and trying to get better at it every week.
As a fan, it’s the highlight of my night.
While many might know Tracy for his loud Frank Myers Auto Maxx commercials (you know, the “We’re Dealin’!”/”Everybody Rides!” tagline and bombastic stars-and-stripes tophat), wrestling promoter is a role Myers dons just as easily. He’s top-notched dressed and always professional. When I ask him about WrestleCade’s impact, he tells me that people flew in from the Netherlands, discusses the economic impact, and concludes that it means “as much to the city of Winston-Salem” as himself personally.
It’s because Myers sees the greater good… not just in the six-thousand dollars WrestleCade gives Toys for Tots, or the spotlight it provides for wrestling talent, but for the heritage it brings back to our city. And with Winston-Salem finding itself in a cultural renaissance, it’s exciting wrestling can be a part of that scene again.
Or, to quote Colt Cabana, “I’ve done a lot of these that go terrible… Kudos to WrestleCade for doing it right.”
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