Photos by James Cantu
We drive towards Green Acres at 8 p.m.; the giant flea market is dark. No cars are in the front parking lot. Perhaps we've come on the wrong night. "Maybe it's like Fight Club ," a friend says, still clinging to the hope that there will, in fact, be wrestling tonight. We drive through the outdoor kiosks where, during regular business hours, vendors sell all the best of Knoxville kitsch, from homemade incense to Buddhas to bumper stickers. There are outdoor cafes, too, all closed until the weekend. Then we see it, snaking through the shantytown; it's another car.
"Follow that car!"
The rear parking lot is packed. Stepping out of his coupe is a man who, if it weren't for his lucha libre mask, would appear completely normal, just another dude in street clothes. It's like something out of the past, maybe a scene from a dingy '70s movie. I expect to see drunken brawls in the crowd and barely orchestrated mayhem in the ring.
I want to see a grown man cry.
Inside, things are already in motion. Bodies lurch out of their chairs, voices chanting Hell yeah! In the middle of the first match, sporting what appears to be office attire, Robbie Race comes flying out of the locker room, just looking for a fight. He's mohawked, and on his cheek is a large bandage. See, last week, some punk by the name of Jeff Anderson threw a fireball at him. Now, it's time for retribution, and that includes Anderson's buddies.
Race blindsides living legend Dr. Tom Prichard during his match with yet another living legend, Gypsy Joe, the Puerto Rican powerhouse who has been busting heads in the ring for half a century. The referee, left with no other choice, decides to end the match prematurely. In the ring, payback is always a bitch.
The men who enter these battles are warriors of another breed. All will enter with pure hatred and only hell will unfold! --UWA credo
I'm doing color commentary for the United Wrestling Association. It's a Thursday night at the Green Acres Flea Market and, like every Thursday night, the most electrifying sports entertainment in East Tennessee is taking place in the ring. The fans are enraged, as Donovan Daniels, one of UWA's most notorious heels, shows that he has absolutely no class while he taunts his opponents, and the crowd.
-- We got Kevin here from the Metro Pulse. How are you today? -- Damn glad to be here. We at the Metro Pulse really believe that UWA is the future of Knoxville wrestling. -- Yes, sir! What do you think of this crowd? -- I tell ya, I haven't seen anything like this since Neyland Stadium during the Manning years.
Like many commentators before me, I can't believe what I'm seeing. And I can't believe that I'm here. What's more, I can't believe how much fun it is, sitting at the announcers' table, listening to the jeers from the fans, hamming it up for the camera. I'm probably nerdier than anyone the UWA superstars have had to deal with, but it doesn't matter.
I can't wiggle out of a figure-four leg lock. A chokeslam always leaves me unconscious. And, should I ever be confronted with one of Ron Fuller's legendary leg locks, I think I'd be too star-struck to complain. The testosterone is reaching dangerous levels. I want to taste blood in my mouth, to bellow Hell Yeah at each punch, sharpshooter, superkick, backbreaker and suplex.
I can't believe what I'm seeing. I can't help but feel lucky to be sitting here, allowed to be a part of the show----
"Isn't it great to be.... at the UWA on a Thursday night, or what, huh?" Tracy Smothers asks the crowd, stirring us into frenzy. "Last time I was here this guy was a girl!" Smothers points to Donovan Daniels. "Everybody here witnessed it. He was a girl, right?"
Mothers flip birds. Kids scream at the bad guys. It's all beautiful catharsis, the kind of emotional purge that would've been the envy of Greek playwrights. Here, Euripides has nothing on Smothers, as he waves his Rebel Flag kerchief triumphantly. All this before the bell dings.
In the locker room, the wrestlers who aren't onstage chum it up, either smoking or getting into character. "UWA is the oldest independent organization in East Tennessee," says Justin Dalton, one half of The Outlaws, who will be looking for tag-team gold in the upcoming months.
"It's good family fun. Goes a little overboard sometimes," adds Danny Ray Grubb, the league's owner and promoter. "I'm not out for money. I'm for the fans. We average about 150 a week. I'm happy.
"It's going on two years. When we first started out we had about 15 people in the crowd.... It grew. I think we're doing pretty good. My real dream was to wrestle, but by the time this came along I was just too far out of shape. I still get in the cage matches though--I love those, you don't have to know how to wrestle. You just have to know how to fight and bleed."
Sometimes it's the fighting and bleeding that keeps the league together, because it brings out an unexpected--and quite powerful--bond among the wrestlers. You can see it, if you ever get a chance to go behind the curtains, back in the locker room. The most nefarious heels are chumming it up with the good guys. The atmosphere is closer to that of a social club than a locker room.
"It's wild," Grubb goes on, remembering his last cage match. "You get hit in the head with chairs, ladders. It's like you're refreshed."
"I got a broken tailbone now," Dalton chimes in, reminding us that it's not always a blast to be a professional wrestler. What fans don't understand, he says, is that wrestling may be scripted, but it's never, ever fake.
"I lost two pints of blood once," says Eric Adamz, one of the league's rising stars. Earlier tonight, he pulled Robbie Race off of Tom Prichard, bringing some sense to the chaos in the ring. "From the age of 17 to 19, I was a Golden Gloves boxer in Brooklyn, New York.... I used to do blue collar fights and everything. And, yes, wrestling hurts, every time."
"You'd be surprised at the lack of respect that the guys get," Dalton says.
"You take a risk every time you go up there," Grubb goes on. "It's all for the fans.... Everybody here makes the show what it is."
Back in the ring, two masked men are squaring off. The Menace, the "Blackaneese Assassin," locks up with Bob Wyre. "Take the mask off," a fan screams after The Menace subdues Wyre. Before the unmasking, however, the announcer steps in to put a stop to it. "Not tonight," he says. "Next week we'll have a mask-for-mask bout." As expected, the crowd loves the idea. And the show goes on, always writing--and rewriting--itself one match at a time.
We can study the absurdities of Samuel Beckett or the comically tragic stylings of Mbongeni Ngema, but the theatrics of the ring are raw, real, ad lib insanity. Not the stuff of academic scrutiny, unfortunately. Yeah, there's a script, but it's just a rough guideline for the story to find itself, yarning its way into something that's usually more interesting than was originally planned. You can't readily anticipate audience participation; they're characters in the drama as much as the wrestlers.
"My goal within the next five years is to be in the Civic Coliseum," Grubb says. "But if I have to do it right here [at Green Acres] for the rest of my life, that's what I'll do."
"The wrestling here is unbelievable," says Bubba the Boulder, who may be UWA's most loyal fan. He's also become a favorite mark for the wrestlers to play off of when they're in the ring. "The fans trust that they're gonna put on a good match every week. Every week I pay seven dollars and feel that I get $20 worth," Bubba goes on. "It's real in so many different ways. If you go to a movie you just sit there. At a wrestling match, you just go with it. You're actually there. Go with it."
The final spectacle is never planned. When these guys are in the ring, there aren't the usual dramatic cues. You never know when these spandexed acrobats are forced to soldier through broken fingers and gimp joints. You never know when the unexpected happens. When things do get out of hand, it's just part of the show. People will always call it fake, and they'll never understand the mythos of professional wrestling. This show isn't for them.
For those who come out every Thursday night, it's a kind of improvisational madness, a shirtless reflection of all the anger, fear and desire that make us human. And no pencil-necked geek can tell them otherwise. No sir.
You don't head for the fire exits when a body slam goes wrong. This is the theater of the moment, and nothing can make these guys break character, not even a devastating fall onto the hard floor below the mat.
When they say break a leg , they probably mean it. But, behind the spectacle of the ring, there are no enemies. "This is the friendliest locker room you'll ever find," Adamz says. "Everyone's family."
What: United Wrestling Association When: Every Thursday, 8 p.m. Where: Green Acres Flea Market How Much: $7 Visit: www.officialuwawrestling.com