Inside a converted Central City warehouse, men are fighting. One runs at the other, is flipped high into the air and lands hard on his back. The ring shakes with the impact. The fallen combatant jumps to his feet, rolls his shoulders, and the fighters go at it again. The men are working out at Wildkat Sports' new pro wrestling training center, which opened in December 2013. This is the heart of the South's independent wrestling renaissance.
Pro wrestling, a physically intense sports entertainment with strong improv elements, is an art form with a rich local history. Before nationally televised syndicated wrestling supplanted regional wrestling promotions, New Orleans was a wrestling powerhouse. In the 1980s, Mid-South Wrestling — headlined most memorably by Junkyard Dog — regularly sold out the Morris F.X. Jeff Municipal Auditorium in Treme and, for big matches, the Superdome.
There will be wrestling in the Superdome again April 6, when WWE's Wrestlemania 30 arrives in town. Wrestlemania will bring with it not just multiple WWE-sanctioned events but a number of independent wrestling shows. Fans fly in for 'Mania from all over the world, and independent wrestling promoters book their biggest shows of the year in the host city during Wrestlemania week.
"Our guys are working with every company coming in, including WWE," says local wrestler and stuntman Luke Hawx, co-founder of Wildkat. "There'll be so much going on that week, so many people here from all over, and we're definitely looking forward to it. The only bad thing is that me and my guys are gonna have to miss being a fan on some of the things we'd want to see, because we'll be busy participating."
Wildkat Sports both trains aspiring pro wrestlers and puts on wrestling shows for audiences in the New Orleans area. Its next show, "Wildkat: Back in Action" is Feb. 23 at Grace King Auditorium in Metairie.
Local independent professional wrestling is to the corporate television productions of the WWE what DIY theater on St. Claude Avenue is to the million-dollar musicals of Broadway. Indie wrestling is warmer, grittier, funkier and more relevant to our here-and-now. Ticket prices are 10 times cheaper — and it's entertainment created by the community, for the community.
Wildkat graduate Bu Ku Dao, billed as being "from the Ninth Ward ... of Asia," often wrestles as an underdog against much larger opponents. His fans — mostly Vietnamese, ranging from grandparents to babies, all wearing matching Bu Ku Dao T-shirts — fill entire sections of the bleachers, illustrating the visceral way a wrestler can inspire his fans. Done right, wrestling draws in audiences emotionally, combining the most powerful aspects of theater and athletic competition.
Wildkat's shows primarily showcase homegrown talent, but wrestlers from as far away as Las Vegas, North and South Carolina and Mexico travel to New Orleans to wrestle for Wildkat.
Wildkat was founded in 2011 by Hawx and his friend Orlando Jordan, both of whom have wrestled all over the world. "The fact we're going strong into our third year is big for us," Hawx says. "Orlando and I had talked for years about opening a school, but we honestly didn't know how it would do, coming out of the blue with really no money, no backing." Jordan has since relocated to Australia, where he continues to wrestle and train.
Entering the gym on training night, I notice all the wrestlers wear Wildkat jackets, a sign that Wildkat isn't just a group of individual wrestlers, but a team, with a team's spirit of support and unity.
"We're a family," Hawx says. "We try not to be just another indie promotion; we try to be more of a coordinated unit. We move together. If one guy takes a step forward, we all take a step forward. If someone takes a step back, we take a step back with him."
Watching the Wildkat wrestlers train outside the narrative context of a match drives home the commitment and sacrifices required of pro wrestlers. On TV or live, it's easy to overlook how much work goes into professional wrestling and how dangerous it can be without proper training. Being a pro wrestler is as much about how not to get hurt as it is about executing a body slam.
"Look upward," Hawx tells a trainee who is taking repeated body drops on his back. "Keep looking at the ceiling. When your feet come over your head, tuck your chin."
Until recently, Wildkat worked from the suburbs; Hawx says the move to the new facility is an upgrade.
"We love being here," Hawx says. "We do a lot of benefit shows for kids around the area, and recently we did a benefit for Son of a Saint and the Grace King wrestling team. Son of a Saint has 30 kids that are fatherless, due to incarceration or death, and (founder) Sonny Lee does all kinds of phenomenal things for these kids, putting mentors in their life, helping them with school. A lot of the kids are wrestling fans, so they loved coming to Wildkat and training for the day and then seeing the show.
"Sonny's friends with the owner of Crescent City Boxing, and when he heard we were trying to move up into a better facility, he got us a meeting. It was an instant connection. We moved in the next week."
Hawx says he has been a wrestling fan since he was a young boy and credits his experiences at matches in New Orleans for his getting into wrestling. He wants to provide similar opportunities for other children.
"Wrestling's all I ever wanted to do," he says. "If I heard of wrestling anywhere around, I'd make my way to it. Even as a little kid I'd catch the bus by myself — whatever it took. Any time any show came to town I was hanging around the back door, trying to help put up the ring, carry people's bags ... That's how I got into the business.
"In this community, there's definitely not enough positive things for kids, so whether it's putting on shows for them, going to field days at schools or working with a Boys & Girls Club, that's a big part of what we do. For kids, even if they've got a terrible situation at home, if we can give them a good day, if they can have fun and they can say they were hanging out with wrestlers, they'll remember that for the rest of their lives."
Part of Wildkat's community-building has been establishing relationships with figures including New Orleans hip-hop impresario Kenneth "Big Ramp" Wade.
"I knew Big Ramp from his Phat Phat n' All That TV show and (WQUE-FM) Q93," Hawx says, "so when he came to me as a wrestling fan, I said, 'Man, this is perfect,' because I wanted Wildkat to broaden out more into the African-American community here — and pro wrestling needs more African-American wrestlers. I want Wildkat to reflect its community. For example, we want to reach out to the Spanish audiences, so we've started bringing guys like (Mexican pro wrestler) Bestia in, adding some more (Mexican-style) Lucha stuff."
Hawx is looking forward to a new round of beginner training classes in mid-February. "I'm not trying to be the next biggest thing or the next WWE," he says. "My goal is just to put on quality shows, for my guys to work and learn and get experience and move on to the next level. I'm not trying to take over anything, I'm just trying to build good wrestlers. Good shows, good steady training, and we'll continue being the main wrestling in the South."