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Pro Wrestling

Let Wrestlers Freelance

Photo: Dan McQuade

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — I was warned about the light tube dust. The guy who told me this once adopted King Kong Bundy’s cat, so I figured it was good advice. It was. Lots of hardcore wrestling matches use fluorescent light tubes; when broken, they create a massive plume of glass and dust and, apparently, mercury vapor. I knew this—even the part about the mercury vapor—but I was warned the hotel ballroom had terrible ventilation. It does. The advice was solid. In fact: From now on, whenever I watch one man smash a fluorescent tube over another man’s head, I will wear a mask.

I needed that advice because last night, I attended a wrestling show at the Showboat Hotel in Atlantic City, N.J. In its later years Showboat was actually the boardwalk’s most fun casino, but it closed as part of Apollo Global Management’s driving of Caesars Entertainment into bankruptcy. It’s now owned by a Philadelphia developer, Bart Blatstein. There’s an arcade and a bar. And there’s a ballroom, which in the last few months has become the East Coast mecca for “hardcore” wrestling—matches featuring weapons like light tubes, barbed wire, panes of glass, etc.

The company that’s led this charge is called Game Changer Wrestling. You can tell it’s a hardcore wrestling company because it has a stupid name. No matter. It has been putting on shows since 2015, when indie wrestler Danny Demanto and former Combat Zone Wrestling referee Bret Lauderdale bought Jersey Pro Wrestling and renamed it GCW. It has expanded a bit since then, but its “home” seems to be the stupid ballroom at the stupid former casino that’s now just a hotel and arcade.

It’s great. Last night was packed. The crowd was hot for much of the night. One of the reasons was GCW’s top star, Nick Gage, a hardcore wrestler who robbed a bank on a whim in 2010 and became a much bigger star after getting out of prison. But, yeah. There was another, actual reason this was the hottest indie show I’d been to in some time: Jon Moxley was wrestling Gage.

Moxley, before he became a star as Dean Ambrose in WWE, was a wrestler in smaller, more violent outfits like CZW. I have seen him wrestle in arenas, in dingy halls, in a ring in the middle of a field I think, and now at a closed casino in A.C. Since leaving WWE he’s done a bunch of hardcore matches—his wife understands, though she tweeted “I absolutely hate this” yesterday—and last night was his second appearance in GCW. Last month Moxley actually won the GCW world title from Matt Cardona, who wrestled for 15 years in WWE as Zack Ryder.

Moxley is no longer in WWE. But he is still a big star! He was AEW’s champ for most of 2020, had some great feuds, and his loss to current champ Kenny Omega really helped kick off AEW’s hot run in the last year. His “death match” in AEW was a bust; last night Gage ripped his forehead open with light tubes, sent him into barbed wire and used a pizza cutter on his forehead. It’s harder to screw that up than an elaborate pyrotechnic display. This stuff can be pretty gross, made even grosser by seeing dozens of fans in front of you recording it on all on their phones so they can go back and watch the blood later. Of course, I was doing that as well. I am gross, too.

A woman with a crown of barbed wire over a ring that’s gross and covered in glass and bloodCredit: Dan McQuade

Isn’t this just wild? Moxley, a star on a weekly national TV show who was the focal point of it for nearly all of 2020, wrestling in a former casino, getting bloodied up, maybe getting mercury poisoning, fighting this dude who robbed a bank a decade ago. Moxley’s AEW contract allows him to freelance, basically, and so he’s wrestled in several independent shows since leaving WWE in 2019.

He wasn’t the only AEW wrestler on last night’s show. Recent AEW signee Lio Rush, a GCW regular, was on the opening match. Joey Janela and Marko Stunt, who are regularly on AEW, wrestled as a tag team. (Stunt appeared to injure himself midway through the match and at one point mouthed something like, “What am I supposed to do?”; Sean Ross Sapp of Fightful later reported “he’s OK.” I later walked into Stunt while looking at my phone, like an idiot, and he seemed fine when we both said, “Excuse me.”) Thunder Rosa, also an AEW regular, was a surprise entrant into one match. And it wasn’t just AEW wrestlers. Chris Dickinson and Alex Zayne wrestled on both Ring of Honor TV and at last night’s GCW show. The Briscoes, a longtime ROH tag team, came out as a surprise at one point to challenge GCW wrestlers

A match where Thunder Rosa locks up with a wrestler named Gringo Loco would not really be all that exciting to me normally. (Your mileage may vary.) But a match in an indie fed, at a weird venue, with Rosa as a surprise entrant somehow becomes fascinating. You’re getting to see a wrestler you normally see on TV, and in the wrong place! There’s something special about that.

In the summer of 2019, I went to a match run by the EVOLVE promotion at the 2300 Arena in South Philly, the old ECW Arena. As part of a working agreement, it was broadcast live on the WWE Network and a few WWE wrestlers were on the show. Matt Riddle faced Drew Gulak, and Adam Cole defended the NXT title against Akira Tozawa. Great. At the end of the show, NXT’s Johnny Gargano came out to talk about all the different wrestlers on the show. “Professional wrestling in two thousand nineteen is pretty freakin’ cool,” he said.

If you watch this clip on Peacock, you can see me in the center of the crowd in a bright blue cat shirt scoffing at the speech, giving my friend a look and covering my face with my hands. Gargano may have been corny. But he was right! This can help the big promotions, too. One of the reasons AEW has been so hot recently is Kenny Omega showing up in Impact with the AEW title (and winning Impact’s belt as well, before losing it to Christian Cage, another AEW guy). Thunder Rosa was more over last night than I’d ever seen her. Ring of Honor is probably going to get a boost by letting the Briscoes appear in GCW.

Wrestling promoters are justifiably scared of letting their talent work other promotions—after all, a big star might be booked to lose, making the promotion look weak. But, come on. Everyone watching wrestling knows it’s scripted. It will be fine when Jon Moxley eventually loses back the GCW title to Nick Gage. It won’t hurt him in AEW. When wrestlers get to do a little freelancing—wrestling in Japan, wrestling in American indies, whatever—everybody wins.