Wrestling Is Over

Our sports columnist breaks up with the sport he once loved


Time was, wrestling cards in Jacksonville would draw upwards of 5,000 people — sometimes more than once a week. Back in the glory days of "Championship Wrestling from Florida," the Briscos, the Funks, Harley Race, Ric Flair and a rotating cast of barroom brawlers built like brick shithouses brought out huge crowds.

Today a lot of those guys are dead or getting there. And those days have been gone for quite some time.

Like stagflation, the Jacksonville Journal and the paper mill smell that choked this city like an olfactory homunculus, the days of turnaway crowds at the rasslin' matches are as dead as kayfabe — the belief, promulgated by promoters until the World Wrestling Federation steroid trials of the early 1990s that wrestling is "real."

World Wrestling Entertainment gets here a few times a year, and does decent business, but the old days are long gone, despite the best efforts of John Cena and the gang.

Wrestling, of course, is still an active "thing" — as Shelton Hull's profile of indie wrestler Jon Davis [News, "Don't Try This at Home," Jan. 8] indicated. There are still touring troupes. One of the best-regarded — Evolve — came back to Jacksonville for a pay-per-view performance for the first time since last summer, when the company drew a few hundred bodies to the sweltering Potter's House gym on the ever-scenic Westside.

The company continued its tradition of holding wrestling events in economic blight zones on Jan. 12, when it held Evolve 27 at one of the most notorious nightclubs in the entire city, Plush, located in the heart of the Arlington Crime Blotter. The club, which has been in operation almost continuously under one name or another since at least the early '90s (now sort of officially called Brewster's Megaplex), has been a rite of passage for everyone from 
hip-hop heads and rave kids to punk rockers 
— old and new school.

Noise is often made about shutting the place down, but it has more staying power than Barry White on Viagra. The recessed floor of the building always made it seem an ideal venue for a wrestling show, and kudos to Evolve for figuring that out.

The turnout? More paper than a Ben Bernanke wet dream — which was fine, because the floor (which comprises much of the venue's capacity) was filled with a wrestling ring. The couches on the side of the building were full of people, more or less, as was the balcony. It seemed like a lot of the crowd could have been on someone's guest list, given how intimately they knew the workers.

There was a time when I knew a lot about wrestling, but not so much anymore. Many of those wrestlers I'd never seen. Many, most likely, I will never see again. That's not for lack of trying on their part.

Almost to a man, the wrestlers on the card took risks and pulled off moves like they were on the biggest stage of their entire lives, not working in front of maybe 100 people in a nightclub where the biggest "touch of class" was a Creole-speaking septuagenarian bathroom attendant (!) dressed like Bartles & James. He sat in the men's room, speaking Creole into a cell phone the whole time, and ensuring that nothing illicit went down in the stalls.

Wrestlers threw other wrestlers into metal walls and stage like kids play-fighting on mattresses and, consistent with the last two decades of wrestling (since the emergence of Extreme Championship Wrestling back in the day), no one really bothered to "sell" anything. The aesthetic impact was like a three-hour-long thrash show, in which the only injury sold was, in the words of an insider, "legit."

A wrestler by the name of Harlem Bravado took a pile-driver off the wall onto six chairs stacked on the concrete floor. He did not get up quickly, or under his own power. It took the crowd a few minutes to realize that what was happening was real. There was no EMT on the scene, and reports were that he had "lost feeling on his left side."

The old days and the old rasslin' are gone now, replaced by a high-impact style that cripples its craftsmen before they go gray. That can't be contested. But it's entertainment, and for the indie wrestling fans of the 21st century, that's enough.

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