The ring is well-lit, the crowd reeling to see its favorite high-flying missiles. And the ropes? The ropes are ready. It will be only minutes before the first 250 pounds of accelerating flesh is tossed effortlessly into them.
Lights! Pomp! Announcer circumstance! Fast-forward to the good stuff, 8 minutes in.
The wrestler who goes by the name Mark Sterling is down already, tangled in his own limbs and moaning, supine, at the center of the ring. Let him be. Let that man writhe. He deserves it. Heel.
His opponent, all-around good guy and babyface Zach Thompson, retreats confidently to the far corner (within clear view of the television cameras), slowly, deliberately, dramatically. He’s been here before.
Thompson climbs the ropes to the top level, 11 feet in the air, and turns to face the audience, triumphant.
The crowd responds.
Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. The cadence of their feet is sure and measured. The decibels increase. The fans want air.
They’re about to get what they paid for.
Thompson launches from the ropes, magnificently airborne like a flying squirrel — back arched and arms outstretched — aiming for a fallen Mark Sterling below.
Only it doesn’t go quite as expected.
It takes only a millisecond for Sterling, “The Fittest Wrestler in the World,” to spring from the mat and intercept Thompson’s trajectory.
Sterling catches him midflight and puts the backbreaker on him. Sterling then gets himself disqualified for his typical, rebel ways.
Ding, ding, ding. Winner: Zach Thompson!
After a nearly 25-year absence, professional wrestling is back in Kansas City, Kan., championed by a young promoter who learned the ropes at the national level as a storyline writer for Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation. He got the writing job at the right time for a hard-working Midwesterner to prove his entrepreneurial spirit, the late 1990s and early 2000s, the zenith of pro wrestling.
Now back home in Belton, Chris Gough pays homage to the heroes of his youth through a league of his own creation that includes national-caliber veterans, young up-and-comers and those just on the cusp of making it to the big leagues. Metro Pro Wrestling hosts monthly matches at the Turner Recreation Center.
“I started the league because there is so much good wrestling talent in this area that wasn’t being served,” Gough says. “We have performers looking to get more experience and attention, and we have some well-known veterans who fight mainly on the weekends.”
“And I thought it would make a good TV show,” says the producer and 10 p.m. anchor at Time Warner Cable’s Metro Sports channel.
A story, told
“Wrestling is basically Storytelling 101,” says Justin Appleberry, a longtime Midwest wrestler who lives in Lawrence and fights as Michael Strider. “There is a good guy. There is a bad guy. And the good guy should win in the end.”
Appleberry’s character in the ring, and they are all contrived characters, is the bad guy or “heel” whom the crowd loves to hate. A 6-foot-2-inch, 240-pound wall of muscle, Strider evokes the classic Venice Beach, Calif., muscle man of cartoons. Tanned skin and bleached-blond hair don’t hurt that persona, but Appleberry also routinely plays a pretty believable good guy.
Good guys in the ring are known as babyfaces, and all this drama is decided in advance by the matchmaker, usually Gough, in a pre-match storyline meeting.
“Michael Strider is basically me, with the volume turned up really, really high,” Appleberry says. “Getting your character down and learning to react to the crowd is the most important thing to being a successful wrestler. And you can only get it through on-the-job experience.”
The work is improvisational.
“You have to note the tone of the crowd, you have to be able to read them and decide to do comedy or drama from there,” he says.
In his nonwrestling life, Appleberry is a director of sales. The oldest of four boys, he grew up in Lebanon, Mo., dreaming of wrestling professionally.
“For me, it was like dreaming to be an astronaut. I didn’t think it would ever happen to me,” he says.
But it did, and after a lot of hard work and training, he finally got his break. He quickly learned one of the first challenges professional wrestlers face.
“The tights! The hardest thing was learning to wear the tights,” Appleberry says. “I had to scramble and piece together a costume online for my first match.”
The golden era
Kansas City fans remember well the heyday of professional wrestling here, generally regarded as the late 1960s through the early 1980s. Thursday nights were fight nights, with sellout crowds watching Harley Race, Rufus R. Jones and Bulldog Bob Brown at Memorial Hall in downtown Kansas City, Kan. And Sunday mornings were for “All Star Wrestling,” live on TV.
Wrestlers and their promoters worked in a tight-knit framework of independent leagues that had existed in the United States since the late 1800s. The different leagues were regional, and each doled out titles, belts and storylines as they saw fit.
It was a system that operated largely on the handshake of gentlemen and its talented, likeable showmen. Those famous wrestlers looked directly into the camera lens, challenging mortal enemies to a shot at the belt.
By the ’90s, though, Vince McMahon’s behemoth WWF (which later changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment) had gobbled up many of the independent leagues and their television audiences. Attendance in the indies declined, despite the attention a worldwide television audience brought them, however diluted it was.
“When you’re with WWE, you’re constantly on the go doing something for them,” says the wrestler known as Trevor Murdock, 32, of the television-based league most young grapplers aspire to. “There are so many interviews, workouts, events and spray tans.”
Spray tans? Murdock’s in-ring persona is that of a crude Texan, clad in a sleeveless plaid shirt, trucker hat and all.
“Yes,” he laughs. “With HDTV, everything is so much clearer now.”
Murdock would know. He’s a three-time WWE tag team world champion who’s comfortable on the national and international stage. He’s here this June night at Turner Rec to say goodbye to his Kansas City area fans in his last Metro Pro Wrestling appearance of the season.
“I will miss you, Kansas City,” he says to the crowd before his match, out of character and dressed in jeans and sneakers.
Wrestling skills aside, it’s easy to see why Murdock was able to graduate from the indie leagues to the national wrestling spotlight. He has that “it” factor, the kind of self-assured confidence people are drawn to. It is impossible to define, but it’s there, and it makes you want to watch and root for him.
At 6 foot 3 and 240 pounds, he has the physical stature to match his personal disposition. And he has the sort of farm-boy charm the crowd is comfortable with.
Murdock has been wrestling with Metro Pro for the last year, since the league’s inception, and this night is clearly for him.
“I’m sure that since this is my last night here, there will be some young guys wanting to take some shots at me, to make a name for themselves,” he says. “But I’ll have a good fight with anybody, new wrestler or veteran.”
Which brings up the issue of trust between fighters. The storylines are predetermined, as are the eventual outcomes, but the choreography of the actual, physical wrestling in the ring is improvised.
“There must be trust,” says Justin Appleberry. “You need to look at your opponent and say, ‘Your safety is in my hands and mine is in yours.’ ”
Murdock agrees. “It is automatically given. If you get hurt by somebody in the ring, it better be an accident.”
The crowd this warm June night is a virtual melting pot. Some in attendance are working men, some are professionals, many are families and yes, some are morons.
But mostly, these fans love wrestling, and many of them have loved wrestling in Kansas City for years.
“The fans here are incredible — blue collar, white collar, every ethnicity,” says Gough as he surveys the folks in the ringside seats. “They are freakin’ nuts!”
Yes, they are. Many come with signs and placards announcing an allegiance to their favorite fighter, and many bring props, hoping a wrestler will pluck theirs from the crowd and slam it mercilessly over some babyface’s head. And anything can be a prop: guitars, toilet plungers and even shopping carts.
The Rec Center has been an agreeable host. Gough presented the first fights last summer at Memorial Hall, but at several thousand dollars a pop tied up in facility rental, it didn’t make sense for the fledgling league’s budget.
Probably for the best. Turner Rec has that retro feel a sport like this requires, and it’s just quirky enough to make the event seem more personal. Folding chairs surround the ring up close, and there is room for hundreds more fans on the gym’s wooden bleachers — which the crowd has fun stomping on in unison.
The gym is so perfectly suited to Metro Pro Wrestling, it is practically a character in the narrative itself. Two hundred fans couldn’t agree more.
“This reminds me of the old days at Memorial Hall in KCK,” says Glen Enloe of Independence. “And Municipal Auditorium before that. I used to ride the bus into town with my mother to watch the events.”
His favorites back then were Yukon Eric, Dick the Bruiser, Bobo Brazil and, he adds, the original Sheik, “of course.”
Who are Enloe’s favorites at the match tonight? Who is he rooting for?
“I like Brett Young and Trevor Murdock. I really hate to see him go.”
There is a sort of participatory theater vibe to this event. Children will rush the ring and heckle the heels, and the heels will respond. Young girls will swoon over their favorites, usually Tyler Cook and Sir Bradley Charles, and everyone will join in the crowd chants that start from the bleachers: “One more fight! One more fight!” The fans are having a blast interacting with the performers and with one another.
And with the exception of some of the younger kids, they are all in on the game. It’s like watching the Harlem Globetrotters — you know the fix is in but it doesn’t matter. Knowing that the rabbit doesn’t really live in the hat doesn’t make it any less entertaining.
“Root for the good guy, boo the bad guy and just enjoy yourself,” Murdock says.
Oh, the blood
“I put a fork in his head,” madman wrestler and crowd favorite Derek Stone tells me when I ask about the rivalry with Michael Strider. “I taped it up, jammed it into Strider’s head and then he bled.”
This is how a “First Blood” match goes. The first man to draw blood from his opponent wins the match, and tonight, Stone and Michael Strider are headlining the card with a re-match that will have Strider seeking revenge for Stone’s previous fork-in-the-forehead ways.
Stone, at 6 feet 2 inches tall and 275 pounds with long, black curly hair that he hides behind a hoodie, barrels through space like a freight train. His posture has a forward pitch to it while he moves, and the mad look in his eyes tells you he’s coming for you.
And the blood? It is all real.
“You don’t want to do it excessively or for no reason,” says Stone, “but the storyline called for it.”
And tonight, presumably, revenge will be exacted on Stone. Strider (Appleberry) is in good hands, though. The two veterans are capable bloodletters and, beyond that, good friends.
Stone drives in from South Dakota each month for the Metro Pro Wrestling events. His in-ring, crazed-lunatic persona belies the professionalism required of a morning radio show host and program director at a popular adult contemporary radio station.
“My life is so much different now that I’m only wrestling part time,” he says. “And the drive isn’t so bad. I used to live in Lawrence and love coming back to Kansas City to reconnect with people.”
Stone, 39, wrestled in his 20s for the WWE and after that became the first instructor at the Harley Race Wrestling School in Eldon, Mo. One of his first students was Trevor Murdock.
There are professional wrestling schools all over the country, and this is where most wrestlers go to learn the athletic skills required. The outcome of each match may be predetermined, but the maneuvers are real and athletic. All can do forward and backward aerial flips and some, like Sir Bradley Charles, can jump clear over an opponent’s head, vertically.
“Do your homework and check out the different wrestling schools very well. You may have to move to another state to put yourself in a position to be successful as a wrestler,” Stone advises. “Wrestling hurts a lot. You have to be dedicated or you won’t do it for long.”
The main event
It’s about 9:30 p.m. and the match that event posters promised, “First Blood between Michael Strider and Derek Stone,” is about to commence.
The lights are low and the music loud. This First Blood stuff seems like fun already.
Michael Strider is announced first, and he emerges from the curtains with the sure look of a man who knows that the roll of barbed wire he carries can help him out of a jam.
Here comes Derek Stone. There is no way to describe his performance behavior other than completely, certifiably crazy. If you saw him on the street from the safety of your fourth-story office, I’d recommend you run. But keep an eye on him while you do so. He is crazy fun to watch.
This is easily the most entertaining match of the night. Strider and Stone can amp the crowd into a frenzy with just a sideways glance. And they glance a lot.
But they hardly make it into the ring. They are so good with the fans that they choose to spend the entire first half of the match racing around the ring, in and out of the crowd, crashing into things and tossing around whatever they find.
They throw trash cans.
They throw chairs.
They throw each other.
They throw each other into chairs.
And then they enter the ring.
“He looks really mad,” the young boy in front of me says to his dad as Strider slams Stone to the mat.
He is mad. He got a fork jammed into his head last month, and he is out for revenge. Inspiration strikes.
The iconic red bell and the referee who is responsible for it sit just within reach of the ring. Strider grabs the bell and jams Stone’s face into it, making eye-for-eye contact with the pointed part that protrudes from the middle. He believes he has drawn blood from Stone and has won the match, but the ref says no.
Distraction! Mark Sterling appears from backstage to help out fellow heel, Derek Stone. The crowd immediately begins to chant, “Cheater! Cheater!” and Sterling loves it.
But not for long. Our Texas hero, Trevor Murdock, appears just as quickly to put the smackdown on Sterling. There will be no cheating on Murdock’s watch.
Strider seizes the opportunity to grab his roll of barbed wire. He wrangles Stone into a headlock and proceeds to scrape the barbed wire back and forth across Stone’s forehead, successfully drawing the first blood of the night.
Cue the crowd. Or don’t. It’s not necessary; they are crazed already. We have a champion! The First Blood belt is presented to Strider, center ring, by Murdock.
Match, scene and curtain. Another night of Metro Pro Wrestling has yielded a few new titles (Metro Pro Television Champion! Central States Champion!) and more than a little blood, courtesy of Michael Strider.
Ding! Ding! Ding! Winner: Kansas City.
Angle: A wrestling plot that might involve only one match or may continue over several matches; the reason behind a feud or a turn.
Babyface/face: The good guy in the ring
Card: The series of matches in one location at one time.
Heat: Enthusiasm, a positive response from fans.
Heel: A bad guy, rule-breaker.
Job: A staged loss. A clean job is a staged loss by legal pinfall or submission without resort to illegalities.
Mark: A member of the audience, presumed gullible and moronic. Fans who do not know anything about wrestling.
Potato: To injure a wrestler by hitting him on the head or causing him to hit his head on something.
Squash: A totally passive job in which one wrestler completely dominates another.
Stable: A group of wrestlers united to watch each others’ backs.
Tap out: To give in to a submission maneuver.
Turn: Change in orientation from heel to face or vice-versa.
Tweener: A wrestler who is part heel and part babyface.