Heat. A short word. A simple word. Just four little letters.
But, in the topsy-turvy, comic-book-come-to-life world of professional wrestling, that one word — heat — is what drives everyone, from upstart young wrestlers trying to get a foothold in the business to superstars who have worked in the WWE, TNA and beyond.
In pro wrestling parlance, “heat” often refers to a reaction from the crowd. Whether it be the thunderous cheers received by the “babyface” (a good guy) or the venomous, withering boos received by a “heel” (the bad guy), wrestlers want and need heat.
They work for it. They spend their lives chasing it. They dedicate countless hours to training and perfecting maneuvers. They endlessly hone their abilities to interact with the crowd, enticing the spectators to become emotionally invested in the various storylines and rivalries that are a hallmark of the sport.
And, make no mistake, professional wrestling is a sport. For the last month, Index-Journal photographer Matt Walsh and I have crisscrossed the state, exploring the world of independent — or “indy,” as the performers call it — professional wrestling.
When watching the WWE on TV on Monday night, or even attending such an event at a large coliseum, such as the Bi-Lo Center or Colonial Life Arena, it’s easy to see wrestling as a stylized Hollywood production. For generations now, people — cynics for sure, but also some fans — have flippantly referred to pro wrestling as being “fake.”
However, when you have the opportunity to follow the independent promotions for a little while — to get right up on the ring apron to take a photo or hang around in the locker room after a show and see the physical toll of these matches on wrestlers — you will soon surmise “fake” is not the right word for it.
Sure, the results of the matches are often pre-determined. In the locker room before a show, it is quite common for two “rivals” to sit down together and cordially and loosely coordinate the direction an impending match will take.
But, the bodily harm incurred by wrestlers during the course of time is anything but fake. Even in the ranks of small independent promotions, the amount of abuse these men (and more than a few women) put their bodies through is, quite frankly, startling.
When a grown man climbs to the top turnbuckle, leaps out of the ring and goes crashing through a table, there’s nothing fake about it. That’s actually a grown man climbing to the top turnbuckle, leaping out of the ring and crashing through a table.
In the WWE or TNA, such an aerial act could potentially come in front of thousands of fans in the stands and millions watching at home on TV. At an independent show? The same highwire maneuver is often performed by men earning little money, in hopes of getting some heat from small — sometimes impossibly small — crowds.
It’s all about that heat. The crowd’s reaction is what fuels dreams. The dreams of wrestlers on the indy circuit hoping to ascend from shows at county fairs to the dreams of grapplers who have climbed to the top of the mountain and have no desire to leave that perch.
As Walsh and I explored the world of wrestling this summer, we encountered a host of colorful characters, from young wrestlers like Greenwood’s Dean Richards, who has been on the independent circuit for about a year, to Matt Hardy, an internationally known superstar and wrestling veteran who has been a WWE tag team champion and an ECW champion and has recently been wrestling for Ring of Honor.
While many wrestlers have their own goals, agendas and dreams, the unique nature of their subculture binds them, in a sense. Professional wrestling is its own world, one of bumps and angles, works and marks.
All wrestlers — to a man, in one way or another — are forever in the pursuit of heat.
Erik “Mr. Sleaze” Thompson, left, and Dean “The Lone Wolf” Richards are wrestlers from Greenwood who are often opponents in the ring. Thompson is the classic sordid heel, while Richards is the babyface hero.
It’s a sweltering July night and just more than 100 people are perched in chairs surrounding a wrestling ring set up at the Coronaca Volunteer Fire Department. The crowd has gathered for a South Carolina Wrestling show called “Still Standing.”
South Carolina Wrestling (SCW) is owned by Greenwood’s Damarus Moton. The promotion has put on shows across the Lakelands for the last four years. The fans gathered at the July event in Coronaca have not paid an admission fee. On this night, the fire department sells concessions — hot dogs, peanuts and the like — and keeps the proceeds. This particular event essentially serves as a fundraiser for the fire department.
The crowd at the July show in Coronaca is an old school wrestling crowd. There are kids sprinkled throughout the building, their eyes big as saucers as they watch the wrestlers make their entrances. You would think they were at WWE’s Wrestlemania, based on the awe and reverence they show the performers.
Those youngsters are flanked by grizzled old timers, rough hewn Southern men who remember when “rasslin’ was rasslin’” and can tell you about the time they saw Dusty Rhodes take on Tully Blanchard at an NWA match in Macon, Ga.
Among the first matches up on the humid summer night is a bout between two locals: The babyface Dean Richards — “The Lone Wolf” — and a heel known as “Mr. Sleaze” Erik Thompson.
Richards, who lives in Greenwood and went to Ninety Six High, is a textbook babyface. Clean cut, handsome and muscular, he carries the sincere, honest countenance of one who hasn’t been jaded by years on the grind — the physical and political grind — in the wrestling business.
Conversely, Thompson is a heel’s heel. Oh, is he a nasty, dastardly heel. The type of heel that gets under the fans’ skin and immediately draws their ire. He’s sneaky, dirty and isn’t above cheating.
He’s also, well, quite hairy. The long, stringy shock of hair on his head often droops in his eyes as he writhes on the mat after a particularly big bump. The rest of his body is also, um, “follically enhanced.” He looks like a walking Brillo pad in the ring.
Fans often — derisively — call him “Teen Wolf,” which led Thompson to get the message “Stop calling me Teen Wolf” stitched on the back of his tights. This, of course, incites the fans to call him Teen Wolf even more.
Following the match, Thompson sits on the back steps of the Coronaca Fire Department and discusses how he got the Teen Wolf moniker.
“It started actually on News Channel 7. I went on there (to do a promo for) a company, and I was (that company’s) heavyweight champion,” Thompson said. “When I was on there, Jack Roper said, ‘This guy looks like a mix between Elvis Presley and Teen Wolf.’ Ever since then, the fans started calling me Teen Wolf at shows.
“I decided I better buy some tights that play into it. The crowd can be so dead, but if you can give them something they want to chant, it gets them into it.”
Thompson has been in the wrestling business for about five years. An employee at Greenwood’s PetSmart store, he spends his weekends on the independent wrestling circuit, often wrestling on Fridays and Saturdays for various promotions.
He also is a father who tirelessly dotes on his young daughter, Zoey.
Thompson said he has been into wrestling since he was 5. When he was younger, he looked to wrestlers for motivation.
“My mom raised me,” Thompson said. “My dad left me when I was 3 weeks old. So, wrestling was basically my father figure, in a sense. It was my real-life comic book, my good versus evil. When I started (wrestling), my mom was really nervous about it. She still is. She tells me to not go out there and do anything crazy.”
As he watches Zoey dance and play in the brush behind the Coronaca Fire Department — the youngster is wearing her dad’s oversized #TEAMSLEAZE T-shirt — Thompson said he seems destined to play the role of the heel in the squared circle.
“I’m a bad guy everywhere I go,” he said with a devilish smile. “In my early career, I was a good guy, but I always liked being the bad person that everybody didn’t like. … I can be the nicest guy outside of this place, but as soon as I walk through the curtain, I’m the meanest person you’ll ever meet in your life.”
Meanwhile, Richards is quickly learning the ropes — no pun intended — of pro wrestling. It helps he trained in mixed martial arts (MMA) for several years, including training in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. That said, he noted he has been a pro wrestling fan since he was a toddler.
Richards has worked for a host of independent wrestling promotions in the last year, including South Carolina Wrestling, Trans-South Wrestling, 3CW, Chester APW and others. He was asked to respond to those who might refer to pro wrestling as “fake.”
“‘Fake’ is most definitely the wrong word for it,” Richards said. “Guys take hits, and it hurts. Especially in matches with me, because I’m relatively stiff. In a match, I’m going to hit you and you are going to feel it and you are not going to like it. Especially my kicks. My kicks are pretty stiff. So, if I kick you in the back, it is going to hurt.”
While Thompson and Richards are seeming opposites who have been rivals in the ring, they are actually good friends otherwise. In fact, they often travel to shows together, shows in which they are set to wrestle each other.
“That’s my road buddy,” Thompson said of Richards. “We travel all over together. I was the one who helped train him. I was really, honestly, the one who took him under my wing. He was like, ‘I want to go (wrestle in) other places.’ So, I’ve taken him to other places. He’s starting to get really big out on the road. I’m really proud to say a guy I helped is actually getting some exposure.
“When we go in that ring, we try to push it, push each other to our breaking point. That’s the only way to get better in this business, to push yourself to beyond and above where you are.”
Derik Vanderford is clearly having a good time.
It’s July 13, and Vanderford — newspaper reporter by day, owner of the Trans-South Wrestling by night — is pushing his way through a large, boisterous crowd surrounding the wrestling ring set up at the Gaffney Peach Festival.
Vanderford, 31, has a camera around his neck, snapping photos of various wrestlers and fans. This is a big show for Vanderford and Trans-South Wrestling, and not just because it features the likes of wrestling veteran “The Raging Bull” Manny Fernandez and Trans-South champion Deon Johnson.
What makes this show stand out — and the reason hundreds and hundreds of fans are braving brutal July temperatures for the outdoor show — is Matt Hardy, of WWE, ECW, OMEGA and Ring of Honor fame, is set to wrestle in the main event.
Vanderford, a Buffalo, S.C., native and a reporter at the Union Daily Times, can hardly keep the smile off his face as he watches the fans’ reactions to the various matches. He said hearing that pop from the fans is, in a sense, a validation he has put on a good show.
“It’s an awesome thing. It’s like rolling the dice, because you never know,” Vanderford said. “People have their own ideas about pro wrestling. But, it is a lot more unpredictable and unplanned than anybody realizes. It’s like cooking something in a crock pot, almost.
“You put all these ingredients in, then you let it cook overnight and wake up and see what you’ve got. … I will plan ‘this guy and this guy are going to be in a match.’ Or ‘this girl and this girl are going to be in a match.’ Then you roll the dice and see what’s going to happen. When you get a big reaction (from the fans), then that’s what we’re here for. Mission accomplished.”
Drawing — and subsequently thrilling — independent wrestling fans is a mission also embraced by Greenwood’s Damarus Moton, who runs South Carolina Wrestling.
It’s safe to say Moton is a busy man. He works a full-time job in valet services for Self Regional Healthcare and also is an assistant football coach at Greenwood High School. He has been taking classes and further pursuing teaching and coaching. On top of all of that, Moton and his wife, Jessica, have an infant daughter who was born earlier this summer.
And, of course, in his spare time — what little of it there is — Moton has South Carolina Wrestling. The promotion will put on another show at the Coronaca Fire Department — a “Saturday Night Brawl” — Aug. 10. Aside from running the promotion, Moton also wrestles, doing so under the stage name “James Hall.”
Moton said South Carolina Wrestling has put on shows for the last four years. He has a deep appreciation for the men who climb into the ring and put in work for his promotion, especially considering the physical nature of the sport.
“I appreciate every one of the wrestlers who come in and wrestle,” Moton said. “I appreciate them greatly. They put their bodies on the line to come out and entertain people. This can be very dangerous. You can really hurt yourself. You could paralyze yourself, if you don’t know how to do it correctly.”
During the recent event in Coronaca, Jessica Moton was seated at a table just beyond the audience, watching Damarus wrestle and taking in the show. She cradled their baby daughter in her arms.
Despite all of the noise of the show — fans screaming, wrestlers slamming into the mat, the ring announcer calling out introductions and winners — the baby slumbered peacefully.
During a break in the action, I asked Damarus Moton what his wife thinks of pro wrestling, particularly his in-ring participation.
“She loves it,” he said with a smile. “She gets worried sometimes. You can get hurt. I had a separated shoulder in January. It happened in a match when I (fell) on my shoulder wrong. I was out for two or three months. It was a pretty bad injury, so I had to be out for a while. That’s what she is more afraid of, the getting hurt part of it.
“She enjoys the entertainment; she enjoys the other stuff. But you can get hurt.”
Moton, a large, muscular man with an accessible personality and easy manner, has been a wrestling fan since he was a young child. He admits it is a thrill to be able to promote — and wrestle in — his own shows.
“It’s great,” he said. “I love wrestling. I enjoy getting in the ring and entertaining people.”
Thomas Simpson, left, prepares to poke wrestler Matt Hardy, right, with a kendo stick. While wrestling rivals at a recent show, Simpson and Hardy have actually been friends for nearly 20 years.
Matt Hardy and Thomas Simpson go way back. They’ve been friends for nearly 20 years.
However, the casual fan certainly wouldn’t have guessed the two were friends based on what happened in the ring during the Trans-South show at the Gaffney Peach Festival.
Basically, Simpson — an Abbeville product, mathematics professor and longtime wrestling promoter/performer/raconteur — caught a beatdown from Hardy and his real-life fiancé, Reby Sky (a model and wrestler in her own right).
Simpson accompanied Hardy’s opponent — a talented young grappler named Cedric Alexander — to the ring at the Gaffney show. After tossing several insults Simpson’s way, Hardy and Sky eventually took turns pummeling Simpson with a kendo stick, which is a Japanese bamboo practice sword. At the end of the match, Sky took Simpson down with a textbook Twist of Fate, which is Hardy’s finishing maneuver.
In the locker room after the match, Simpson let forth a loud, cackling laugh as he stripped off his shirt and showed how his back had been marked red by the kendo stick lashings he received from Sky and Hardy. He would later say one of the blows delivered by Hardy actually broke the kendo stick.
While the action in the ring in Gaffney was intense, the mood was considerably lighter a couple of hours after the show, as Simpson and Hardy cordially reminisced about old times during dinner at Fatz Cafe in nearby Boiling Springs.
While Matt Hardy and his brother, Jeff Hardy, have enjoyed fame and acclaim through the years working with the WWE and other top organizations, many wrestling fans still talk about OMEGA (Organization of Modern Extreme Grappling Arts), the promotion run by the Hardy brothers, with help and backing from Simpson, in the late 1990s.
OMEGA was known for its high-flying, acrobatic matches, often referred to as “highspot” style. DVD videos of OMEGA matches are still a valuable currency among fans of independent pro wrestling.
Matt Hardy said he reflects fondly upon the OMEGA years.
“It was a very formative time of our career, for sure,” Hardy said. “We introduced a style into America that was a little bit ahead of its time. Almost like what Ring of Honor started doing when they started. An extremely athletic, almost highspot and — more than anything else — athletic-based type of wrestling style. I also thought (with OMEGA) we were very consistent with our angles, going from show to show and town to town, too.”
Hardy said Simpson’s support of OMEGA in the 1990s was key in putting that promotion on the map and helping the Hardy brothers ascend the pro wrestling hierarchy.
“He really helped us out at that time by investing and giving us money,” Hardy said. “We were all young kids just trying to make it. We didn’t have a lot of extra money, especially extra money to invest in the promotion. Thomas really helped us out, especially from that aspect.”
During a recent interview, Simpson’s face broke into a wide smile when the subject of Matt and Jeff Hardy came up. He said he remains friends with the brothers, especially Matt.
“Those really ended up being some of my most enduring friendships,” Simpson said. “With Jeff, he doesn’t like to text and stuff like that, but, through his wife, I keep up with them at least every week or two. With Matt, it’s every couple of days. I’m closer to Matt. But, of course, then again, we were business partners. And we’ve been business partners for, oh, 16 years or so.”
Simpson said he remembers well when OMEGA came about. At the time, Simpson had been a part-owner of ACW (American Championship Wrestling) and said the Hardy brothers had done some work for that organization, as well.
“It was 1997,” Simpson said. “That’s when I got tired of ACW and Matt and them were tired of ACW. That’s when Matt said, ‘I’ve got this idea for a wrestling promotion.’ He called it OMEGA. I said, ‘It sounds great to me, man.’ Matt and I owned it together, 50/50.”
Hardy has wrestled in arenas big and small, across the country, and in front of millions at home watching on TV. Still, he said there is nothing quite like wrestling in front of a Southern audience, such as the one at July’s Peach Festival.
“I’ve wrestled everywhere,” Hardy said. “I love nothing more than wrestling in front of just a very traditional Southern wrestling audience. Because they want to cheer the babyface and they want to boo the bad guys.
“That’s totally what this business is all about, no ifs, ands or buts. Sometimes when you go north of the Mason-Dixon, (fans at matches) are more like, ‘Cut his arm off,’ or ‘Go crazy,’ or ‘highspot, highspot, highspot.’ But, when you are here in the South and it’s a traditional wrestling crowd, they really want to cheer their good guy and they want to boo their bad guy.”
And that is what it all boils down to in the world of professional wrestling, from the bottom to the very top: The fans cheering wildly for the good guy and booing lustily at the bad guy.
It’s a reaction from the crowd. It’s the one word everyone’s chasing.