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Before WrestleMania, indie wrestlers bleed and sell in Ybor City

Game Changer Wrestling draws hardcore fans for its independent shows in Tampa.
Jon Moxley, on the ground outside the ring, during a professional wrestling match at "Bloodsport 6" at the Cuban Club in Tampa's Ybor City on April 8, 2021.
Jon Moxley, on the ground outside the ring, during a professional wrestling match at "Bloodsport 6" at the Cuban Club in Tampa's Ybor City on April 8, 2021. [ GCW | Earl Gardner ]
Published Apr. 10
Updated Apr. 20

A little after midnight in a parking lot in Ybor City, a 55-year-old man climbed approximately 8 feet high over the cracked asphalt, leaped and somersaulted onto another man’s prone torso.

He had good reason. The other guy had very recently “bat-kicked” him in the back of his glistening bald head.

It was also the main event at “For the Culture,” an independent pro wrestling show put on by Game Changer Wrestling featuring a nearly all-Black lineup.

It was not a spectacle on the scale of WrestleMania, across town at Raymond James Stadium, though there was mania in the air. People screamed, “Yeah, pull his leg off!” and “Hey, he’s cheeeaaating!” Others calmly analyzed, commenting, “Nice arm bar,” and “Oh wow, was that an electric-chair drop?”

To an outsider, the commentary seemed delivered with a laugh just under the surface. A tone at once reverent and sarcastic.

We take this seriously, but we enjoy it because we don’t have to take it seriously at all.

Professional wrestling, in that way, feels like nostalgia even as it’s happening.

When the WWE brings the biggest show in “sports entertainment” to a city like Tampa, smaller independent promotions (known as “indies”) tag along to capitalize.

Hundreds of people gathered under a moonless sky in Ybor. It would have been more, said Game Changer Wrestling owner Brett Lauderdale, but there was a lingering pandemic and less traveling.

The crowd appeared the way you probably picture a professional wrestling audience, though maybe it was more diverse, younger and funnier, less bloodthirsty and more joyous. Some wore giant gold belts, or captain’s hats with short jumpsuits printed with dozens of cartoon eggplants. Most wore T-shirts.

They lined up 30 deep at the food truck serving grilled cheese hot dogs, even though there was no line at the gourmet crepe cart.

At an earlier show called “Bloodsport 6,” a man shouted “Hey, don’t you know that’s Davey Boy Smith Jr.!” over and over, as Davey Boy Smith Jr. wrestled. When KTB, who’d been tossed out of the ropeless ring, decided to climb back in, a man shouted “You’re going to regret that!”

A fan spent $375 at the main merch table, where the top sellers were Game Changer Wrestling-branded gym shorts, and where a petite woman making change screamed to a jacked, 300-pound gentleman named Super Beast that “Super Beast is a p---y,” even though Super Beast had just left a mohawked bowling ball named Shlak a bloody mess.

The main event of Bloodsport 6 ended with Jon Moxley and Josh Barnett painted in blood from head to waist, as the crowd chanted “thank you, thank you.”

The wrestlers on that Thursday ranged in age from 18 to 55. Some of them were a couple of years in, working up to bigger things, heralded as the stars of tomorrow. “The best unsigned wrestler in North America,” a ringside announcer in a black tie and sleeveless white dress shirt said of one. Some had been to the big time and returned. Some had been doing it so long the audience couldn’t believe they were still doing it.

Lio Rush, a 5-foot-6, technical wrestling savant whose real name is Lionel Green, was not far removed from wrestling’s biggest spotlight. He had worked his way up through the indies to sign with the WWE in 2017 when he was only 22. It was the best money in the business, with a new level of corporate insulation and a carefully plotted travel itinerary. He’d appeared on pay-per-views that cost $59.99.

Getting there and staying there, you could say, nearly killed him. Physical fights with his father starting at 13, he has said, gave him a fearlessness in a big man’s game. Depressed in those young years, he’d thought of “disappearing,” and woke up in a hospital en route to a mental ward.

After he’d reached the WWE, he credited his work ethic to an obsessive belief that greater success might right every wrong within his estranged family. He played a “heel,” a bad-guy character made to be despised. It worked. Fans angry with what he said was a misunderstood tweet wrote him messages saying he should die. It took him back to a dark place.

He survived all that and became the WWE’s NXT cruiserweight champion.

Then the WWE released him in April 2020 due to pandemic-related budget cuts.

In Ybor City, he was back in the indies. In between a victory against Yoya in Bloodsport, and a loss to Lee Moriarty in For the Culture — two dazzling performances — he sold T-shirts at a folding table along the fence, asking “Cash or credit?”

His last match ended around 1 a.m. He had to be at a different venue at 8:30 the next morning for another match, the first of three that day. Moriarty, who had defeated him, was halfway through wrestling eight matches in less than 48 hours.

Yoya, left, wrestles Lio Rush during "Bloodsport 6" by Game Changer Wrestling in Ybor City on April 8.
Yoya, left, wrestles Lio Rush during "Bloodsport 6" by Game Changer Wrestling in Ybor City on April 8. [ GCW | Earl Gardner ]

Rush agreed to an interview, then politely, but firmly, brushed the reporter aside mid-question when a fan began sheepishly eyeing shirts.

WrestleMania week means taking the opportunities when you have them.

Michael Jones knew this. He worked the next table over, stacked with glossy, $20 photos of himself with 1990s WWE superstar “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase. Jones is a wrestler better known as Virgil (previous characters: Soul Train Jones and Lucius Brown), who for years played DiBiase’s “personal assistant.” He wore a glittering pink bow tie and wrapped DiBiase’s “million-dollar” belt around the boss’ waist.

Then he turned on DiBiase and smacked him in the head with that shiny belt in front of millions of TV viewers. “Thirty years ago I laid into the man and ended slavery” is how Jones, who is Black, recently described it.

That was Virgil’s only WWE “push,” as it’s known when the company finally gives a wrestler a story line that might bring stardom. The fans didn’t bite. He was released by the company in 1994.

On Thursday night, Jones, now 58, sat behind his table in a plain gray hoodie. No one was buying his Virgil photos, so he silently watched a wrestling show that would only happen on the independent scene.

Professional wrestling, an American invention, has long been criticized for reinforcing racial stereotypes and a historic lack of Black champions at the top level. The indies are far from controversy-free, but as in most facets of life, change sometimes comes from the bottom up.

The indies are home to intergender wrestling, where men, women and nonbinary wrestlers face off against each other. They’re home to openly gay wrestlers, who make that identity part of their persona.

That night it was a card featuring all wrestlers of color, billed as a showcase of Black excellence.

“It’s a beautiful night for wrestling, but it’s an even more beautiful night if you’ve got just a touch of melanin,” said ringside commentator Suge D. “I love to see us winning.”

“The Revolutionary” Darius Lockhart walked out to the ring in sunglasses and raised a Black power fist before flipping Bryan Keith backward over his shoulder and onto his face. The defeated Keith looked upset, then surprised the crowd by slowly raising a fist himself as a sign of solidarity.

But it was still professional wrestling.

After veteran AJ Gray defeated veteran JTG, “The Business” Billy Dixon, who was serving as ringside commentator, got up from the announcing table. He was apparently upset with how Gray, in his opinion, had failed to properly represent Black wrestlers, among other things.

His vindication in this grievance? Smacking Gray over the head with a folding chair.

The crowd went nuts. The men were scheduled to meet in a “dog collar match” the following morning at an event titled “Effy’s Big Gay Brunch.”