DENTON, Texas - The wrestling ring is stained from years of sweat and beer. And blood. So much blood.
The announcer, Chris “Mole” Moler, slides between the ropes and into the ring, a microphone in one hand, a beer in the other. As the crowd settles into folding chairs and tears into 12-packs, Mole announces the rules: No throwing anything or spitting at the wrestlers. No glass bottles. That’s it.
With the technicalities out of the way, it’s show time.
“It’s Friday night! It’s the greatest night of the week! It’s X-C-W!” Mole shouts. “Denton, Texas, are you ready to get Tex-treeeeme?”
XCW, which stands for X-treme Championship Wrestling, is low-budget professional wrestling. It has all the charms of men wearing tights, smashing into each other. It has none of the frills of mainstream corporate wrestling - no flashing lights, fireworks, or sexy models. The bouts are choreographed, and the characters and rivalries may be contrived, but the barbed wire, broken glass and blood are real. The fights are brutal, and the beer-toting crowds can’t get enough.
By day, one wrestler is a teacher, another works in tech support, and a third is employed at Target. In the ring, they morph into oversized characters ready to do battle. For all their blood and bruises, some make as little as $20 per show. Top performers make a few hundred dollars. New wrestlers don’t even get paid - they’re there for the experience.
But each wrestler dreams of making it to the big leagues: getting the call from World Wrestling Entertainment, the zenith of professional wrestling, the largest and wealthiest organization in the industry.
“That’s the top of the mountain,” said “Main Event” Mike Foxx, the XCW heavyweight champ. “It takes impeccable work, the right look, the right time. Basically, the stars need to align.”
“We all love the fans, but the dream of making it big is why we’re out here,” said Greg Symonds, 32, who’s wrestled at XCW for two years.
XCW was born in 2000, when Nite Davis and his father bought Texas Champion Wrestling. They figured it would be more successful with more extreme characters, more graphic brutality. Now the organization has almost 50 wrestlers coming in and out. Davis also runs training sessions and a wrestling school.
From the outside, the black, windowless building that houses XCW seems inconspicuous. It sits between a smoky pool hall and a rusted boat on Fort Worth Drive, just south of Interstate 35E.
Every Friday night, though, the XCW arena becomes a venue for violence that’s sometimes cartoonish, sometimes disturbing. It’s part carnival, part Roman Coliseum. The wrestlers smash chairs and gouge eyes. But XCW pushes the line, incorporating staple guns, broken florescent light bulbs and enough barbed wire to fence in any sane beast.
The most popular character at XCW is Drunk Adam, a pale, wiry man. His ability to endure the pains of rolling over broken glass and taking staples to the head both stuns and disgusts fans. Another is Sidd Murder, a wrench-carrying high-flyer whose entrance to rap music never fails to bring the crowd to its feet.
“We’re a high-impact alternative to mainstream wrestling,” said Davis, 29, now CEO of XCW. “We’re hard-hitting and in-your-face, and we wanna make sure if you come to a live show, you’re gonna have a good time.”
Parents might find the idea of a child watching carnage, even if it is staged, abhorrent. “When parents take their kids to events like this, they are teaching them that such behavior is OK and that’s how people treat each other,” said Dr. Laurel Bass Wagner, a clinical child psychologist in Dallas.
“It’s gratuitous violence, violence for violence’s sake. We want to raise our kids to be respectful of other human beings and not to be demeaning. I don’t think it’s going to scar kids. There are other things in life that can be more scarring than this. But I don’t think this is helping.”
Still, the parents who bring their kids to XCW fights say they can delineate between reality and a show. Kim Dickson, 27, doesn’t have a problem bringing her two children. “These guys are great with kids,” she said.
“Kids are kind of a sticky situation,” Davis said. “Wrestling’s always been something kids have been drawn to. And we do step up the violence more than most.”
Davis tells parents to come out to the show first, without their children, and determine whether it’s appropriate. Parents can weigh the violence, alcohol consumption and politically incorrect themes against the fact that the wrestlers don’t swear and there is nothing sexual in any show. Some wrestlers like Action Jackson spend time high-fiving kids, telling them not to wrestle because it’s dangerous.
The crowd loves to root for Greg Symonds (pronounced Sigh-monds). In wrestling, he’s a “face,” a good guy, as opposed to a “heel.” He’s polite to the fans, defending their honor in the ring when an over-the-top villain shouts insults at the audience. He thanks the crowd when he wins and apologizes when he loses.
He resembles a spiky-haired Ken doll, smiling brightly throughout the evening.
Other wrestlers joke that he has the nicest teeth at XCW. And he should. Though he is a school teacher now, Greg almost became a dentist. When he finished his master’s degree in biology at East Texas State University - now Texas A&M Commerce - he planned on going to dental school.
But he had a child on the way and too many responsibilities for more school, he said.
“I had interviews scheduled, but I ended up not going. Then it kept getting put off longer and longer until it just never happened.”
As a child of separated parents, he grew up moving all over Texas. He recalls watching wrestlers like Hulk Hogan on TV. He imagined himself in the wrestling ring, flexing for the fans. When dental school fell through, he went after a different dream.
He started training with Skandor Akbar, a legend in Texas wrestling who came up with wrestling legend Fritz Von Erich. Greg immediately enjoyed the showmanship, standing on the ropes, shooting a grin and a thumbs-up to shrieking girls, clenching his fists and showing off the guns.
“I know I have what it takes to make it as a wrestler,” he said. “I have the big three: the right look, good moves in the ring and crowd skills. That’s what scouts for WWE and Japan are looking for.”
He’s spent four years on the wrestling circuit now. He stopped for a year and a half after knee and shoulder injuries. But seeing the top pros on TV and thinking about the cheers from the crowd, he couldn’t stay away. Now he wrestles while wearing a knee brace.
Most of the wrestlers don’t have health insurance, Davis said. “Some guys are covered through a day job or a wife’s plan, but a lot of places won’t insure them because of their line of work. If they get an injury, they either have to treat it themselves or shell out a lot of cash.”
Davis said XCW is “lucky not to have had any serious injuries.” He said the worst they’ve had to deal with in the seven years he’s owned the company are concussions and a “surface burn” that came when Drunk Adam was set on fire.
On this Friday night, Greg squares off against a newer wrestler, Kevin Douglas, in an early bout. The fans have barely cracked their second or third beers.
Greg enters the ring in powder-blue bikini tights with his last name stitched across the back. The wrestlers trade shoulder throws and chest slaps. Greg gets his opponent to his knees and chokes him with his legs, knee brace and all. They trade two-count pins. Greg lifts Kevin into the air for a body slam, but Kevin wiggles free, bending Greg back for a three-count pin.
As the referee declares Kevin the winner, Greg stomps and pounds the stage. As he lumbers away, a woman calls out, “We still love you Symonds!”
“Thank you,” he said. “But I don’t deserve it.”
“Greg is a diamond in the rough as far as the independent level goes,” Davis said. “I haven’t seen a guy with that much motivation in this business in a while. I’d obviously like to keep him with us, but I can see him getting signed to a developmental deal with WWE.”
“The ultimate goal is to have a contract with WWE and to make a great living,” said Rory Fox, who made his wrestling debut on an MTV reality show. He came to Texas after wrestling in Iowa and Ohio. “You go around the world. You’re a worldwide superstar. There’s gonna be somebody watching you who knows the somebody you need to know.”
Davis said he’s had two wrestlers move on to bigger organizations. Hotstuff Hernandez has wrestled for Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA), a show that airs on Spike TV. Eddie Atlas left for a WWE development program aimed at grooming WWE stars of the future.
In the meantime, Davis pays his wrestlers “a few hundred dollars a night.” The money comes from a cable company that airs a few fights a week. Money also comes from the door - $10 for adults, $5 for students.
Darcy Littlefield, 28, a bartender, is a Friday night regular. “It’s five bucks. It’s hilarious,” she said. Her favorites are Greg and Drunk Adam. “I scream at all the wrestlers I don’t like and for all the ones I like. I go hoarse every week, but if I miss a week, I have XCW withdrawal.”
When the show is over, the fans file out to the parking lot. Wrestlers help the bouncers put away the chairs. The air smells of stale beer.
On Monday, most of the men will return to day jobs. They’ll don slacks instead of tights. For now, Greg looks over the empty arena. His shoulder is sore from where Kevin Douglas put his knee during their fight.
“The people here,” he said. “They want blood.”