Source: The News and Tribune
They are still out there, those people who remember what professional wrestling used to be like.
They are people like Abby Board, who sat in her ringside seat at the Louisville Gardens for 25 years, watching the likes of Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee battle for the Unified Title every Tuesday night.
“I’ve been going to wrestling since the late 60’s,” Board said. “We used to run the whole circle — Louisville to Evansville to Bowling Green and back to Memphis for television tapings.”
But that was before Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment swallowed up an entire industry, beginning with buyouts of wrestling territories across the United States and Canada in the 1980’s. That was before the WWE absorbed Atlanta-based World Championship Wrestling — the only other major national promotion — in the early part of this decade and established a sleeperhold on the world of body slams and drop kicks.
Still, the idea of what wrestling used to be, away from the bright lights of television and licensing deals and movie roles for performers, is still out there. Still out there for an area that had regional wrestling cards in its backyard when McMahon was still a toddler.
Now, that idea has taken root once more, as Floyd-county native Mitch Ryder will bring his XCW Midwest show to the New Albany Armory on Tuesday, June 5 at 7 p.m.
With him will be an eclectic mix of young up-and-comers and the former stars of the now-darkened Gardens. Athletes like local legend Dundee and former WCW star Buff Bagwell. A rebirth of the old-school wrestling that people like Abby Board have been clamoring for.
She will be there, too. Count on it.
The fan and the superstar
Abby Board, now 53-years-old, is not the sort of person who would let a minor inconvenience stop her from seeing her ringside heroes.
“It’s kind of like alcohol,” Board said. “You have to acquire a taste for it. But once you do, it never lets go.”
It bit into her so hard that she took her five-day-old daughter to a Sunday card at the Gardens, laying the infant in the seat next to her.
“I’ve always joked around with my daughter about this,” Board said. “I had her on a Monday morning, but they didn’t have the regular show on Tuesday and they moved it to Sunday. I told her it was because I was in the hospital having her.
“By the time they had the show, I was out and OK, so I just got my normal ringside seat and we both went.”
Now, Board sees the opportunity that Ryder’s show can provide for an area that has been without a way to get its wrestling fix since the Memphis-based USWA stopped running shows in Louisville seven years ago.
“Good wrestling on Tuesday nights is what I’ve been missing,” she said. “I want the old school wrestling that I am confident that Mitch is going to give us. The whole area has been missing this.”
Dundee is another of those who have been missing regular pro wrestling cards in the area. Louisville and southern Indiana are the sites of some of the greatest triumphs for a man who has been involved in the industry for more than 30 years and remains one of its best-loved veterans.
“It’s very exciting to be coming back to New Albany,” said Dundee, who lives in semi-retirement in Tennessee, where he runs a nightclub and wrestles whenever he can. “This business helped feed my family and educate my children and the people in the area were always very supportive.”
Dundee and Lawler, who has become a worldwide icon since joining the WWE in the mid-1990’s, have been joined together since the beginning of their careers. Together, they captured tag team championships across the nation. Individually, they also feuded over singles belts in the USWA, the CWA and in other independent circuits throughout the Midwest.
“Every belt Jerry’s had, I’ve had,” Dundee said.
Now 64 years old, Dundee says he rarely follows wrestling on television anymore, instead taking bookings for independent shows like Ryder’s when he sees a good opportunity. He is also well-aware of how the business has changed since the McMahon’s monopoly became unstoppable.
“Back before the WWE was the only show in town, we worked seven days a week. All because we wanted to wrestle and we loved the business,” Dundee said. “We wanted to be wrestlers. Now you have young guys with good bodies and the WWE comes to them and gives them jobs as wrestlers. Everything has changed.”
The one thing that hasn’t changed is Dundee’s competitive spirit. The veteran will be meeting Larry Sweeney on the XCW card and he doesn’t plan to lose in his return to southern Indiana.
“If he beats me, he makes a name for himself,” Dundee said. “If I beat him, I’m not sure what I accomplish, but win, lose or draw, that kid’ll know he’s been in a fight.”
Born of frustration
Mitch Ryder is seeing resurgence in his career.
After 17 years in the difficult world of professional wrestling, the blonde ring veteran has found himself a hot name on the independent circuits, traveling from his home in New Albany to shows across the nation. He has also had the opportunity to get in the ring with competitors like former WWE champions Mick Foley and Kurt Angle.
Now, he says, he is going to give something back.
“After dedicating my whole life to this and seeing how bad it’s become, it feels like the time is right,” said Ryder. “It got to the point where I was associated with the wrestling on TV, and I am not proud of that.”
Wrestling in its current form has come under fire for containing excessive violence and sexual content, most notably when the Parents Television Council, a media watchdog group, persuaded several sponsors to drop advertisements on WWE programming in the early part of the decade. Since then, he says, it hasn’t gotten much cleaner.
“The old folks, the kids, they just aren’t at wrestling shows anymore,” Ryder said. “Our product is going to be family-oriented. We don’t want to be sex-driven.
“Those fans haven’t had a place to go for the wrestling they remember. We want to focus on getting them back.”
To that end, Ryder also plans on donating proceeds from each show to a charitable cause. First up will be the youth group of First Baptist Church of Elizabeth, IN. He is looking for other groups to support with the monthly shows, which will skip July before returning to the Armory in August.
“To be a success, we need to have community involvement,” he said. “I’m a business owner who wants to give back to the community. It’s a business like anything else. It just happens to be the wrestling business.”
He also knows that success can only come if he gives the people the wrestlers they want to see. That’s where Buff Bagwell comes in.
A fixture on WCW’s national programming from 1990 to 2001, Bagwell will headline June’s show, meeting Ryder in the main event. He was one of wrestling’s biggest stars during the sport’s late-90’s heyday, before becoming a casualty of the WWE’s takeover.
Bagwell was booked to appear on what turned out to be WCW’s last show in Panama City, FL., where the wrestling world was dropped on its head when McMahon announced he’d bought out the struggling company.
“When I got there, they said we had a meeting with Shane McMahon in five minutes,” Bagwell said. “He told all of us, the talent, the production guys, that some of us would be staying and that others would be leaving.”
Bagwell was one who got to stay, but it didn’t last long. His contract with the WWE was terminated that same year and now he continues his career far away from the limelight that comes with employment by the world’s most important wrestling group.
“I’m working all over the country,” Bagwell said. “I’ll be in 13 cities in June alone.”
One of those cities will be New Albany, which Bagwell became acquainted with during his WCW tenure. Louisville was a semi-frequent stop for the group and its popular Monday Nitro broadcasts, including an event at Freedom Hall in 1999 that sold out in minutes.
“I go to so many places, it’s hard to keep track,” Bagwell said. “But I remember the area from the circle we used to run. The people there were always enthusiastic. It was known as a wrestling hotbed.”
The start of something big
The show will be part of Denton, Tx.-based XCW, which is gaining exposure all over the country, most notably on the first Friday of each month when Comcast Cable broadcasts its pay-per-views. The group also has a television deal in place that puts its programming in 83 million homes.
Each week, XCW will devote an episode of its weekly program to XCW Midwest, giving a national impact to Ryder’s shows. The shows will also be recorded for DVD and Ryder says June’s show will be available for purchase over the Internet four weeks after the taping.
“I believe in (XCW’s) vision, which is bringing solid, old-school wrestling back to the people,” Ryder said. “I’m not knocking the WWE, but this is not the same product. This is the wrestling that I fell in love with when I was a kid.”
Wrestling is a cyclical business. The sport boomed in the 1980’s behind Hulk Hogan, while athletes like Steve Austin and the Rock propelled it to new heights a decade later. In between, people tend to forget, making it a harsh world for independent promotions without the big-money backing of McMahon, who became a billionaire when the WWE became a publicly-traded company, or Ted Turner, who owned WCW.
But Ryder says he won’t measure his success on how big the crowds are, or how big the company becomes.
“At the end of the day, I want people to say it was a great night out and a great return on the investment of their entertainment dollar,” Ryder said. “I want them to say we brought back the wrestling they remember.”
No matter what happens on June 5, Abby Board believes. And she won’t be alone.
“We’ll be there like we always have been,” said Board, whose daughter grew from an infant to a woman who loves the sport so much that she became a wrestler herself. “We’re just tickled to death about all this. We’ve waited for so long.”
Mitch Ryder vs. Buff Bagwell
Mike Quackenbush vs. Claudio Castagnoli
Sara Del Ray vs. Allison Danger
2 Tuff Tony/Lance Dorado vs. Shiima Xion/Ophidiana
Bill Dundee vs. Larry Sweeney
Jamie Dundee vs. Jigsaw
B.J. Whitmer vs. Chris Michaels
For more information on XCW: xcwonline.net
To order DVDs: www.myspace.com/xcwwrestlingmidwest
For more on Buff Bagwell: www.therealbuff.com