Professional wrestling has been called a soap opera for men, and described as a synthesis of morality plays and burlesque.
The French cultural theorist Roland Barthes, in his famous 1957 essay “The World of Wrestling,” expressed an even deeper meaning for the pseudo-sport. Wrestling, he contended, was a spectacle of excess; a mode of theatric performance, a physical allegory for modern life.
Nearly 60 years later, that description rings truer than ever — right down to the small gyms across the South.
For one night every couple of months, the Hanahan Recreation Center becomes the home of Old School Championship Wrestling, an independent pro wrestling organization that for the past 10 years has been providing area fans with thrills, chills and bone-crunching spills.
While not on the level of Vince McMahon’s WWE juggernaut, OSCW promoter Joe Blumenfeld is proud of the family-oriented product the outfit provides. To the Goose Creek resident, it captures the soul of pro wrestling and reflects the heart and passion of the sport.
“It was my goal, in starting OSCW, to bring quality pro wrestling to my community,” said the 48-year-old Blumenfeld, a former wrestler himself. “Over the years we’ve built a great roster. I’m very proud of our product and even more proud of my roster and staff for their determination and hard work.”
Unlike WWE, where access to the stars is limited, indy promotions like OSCW offer a more intimate setting where performers are exceedingly fan-friendly and mingle with their audience. From children to seniors, families and couples, local residents of all ages come to get in on the excitement.
Life’s not easy for the wrestlers who often receive paltry payoffs or the promoters who struggle to make a profit through meager ticket sales. The performers who throw their bodies around with reckless abandon sometimes make barely enough for gas. There are no sold-out arenas or big paydays or television cameras on the independent circuit. But the adulation of the fans and their love for this brand of absurdist theater drives them. For them it’s a labor of love, an unwavering passion to practice their craft.
Old School’s colorful troupe is mostly weekend warriors who work a day job during the week and then hit the road for shows on weekends.
Some of them, like former WWE star Gangrel, are mat veterans who worked in front of thousands of fans during the peak of their careers. Others, like 28-year-old John Skyler, are on a trajectory that will hopefully lead to fame and fortune in the big leagues of pro wrestling.
David Heath, 47, who portrays the vampire-like character Gangrel, is a 29-year veteran who still works a full-time wrestling schedule. Being an in-demand performer, he can be selective.
“Old School’s more like an extended family to me,” Heath said. “I’m on the road a lot, and when I go to Old School, I don’t stay at a hotel. I stay at (promoters) Joe and Mary Sue’s house. It’s such a peaceful environment. For that day or two that I’m there, they are my family.”
The Florida resident, who trained WWE star Rusev, stays busy working with younger wrestlers and showing them the ropes. “My life revolves 24/7 around wrestling. I’m very, very blessed to have as much work as I have. I’m only wrestling now for the love of it and because I couldn’t figure out to how to stay married,” he said with a laugh. “Wrestling’s my mistress.”
Skyler, whose real name is John Brumbaugh, is a University of South Carolina graduate who teaches part time at a private school in Columbia. One of the top talents on the crowded independent circuit, he’s on the cusp of making it to the big show after toiling eight years in the indies. Wrestling is an art form to Brumbaugh.
“My favorite thing about being in the ring is it almost acts as my canvas, where I can create my art,” he said. “It starts off blank, and by the end of one of my matches, I’d like to think I can take the fans on a wild ride and paint a beautiful picture for them. I feed off the electricity of the crowd. That’s my favorite thing ... that indescribable feeling you get.”
Most of the Old School troupe, however, enjoy the natural high they get performing in front of receptive audiences. It’s the roar of the crowd that keeps them coming back.
Jason Willis, 43, of Goose Creek owns a karaoke DJ business and promotes small comic book conventions when he’s not moonlighting as bad-guy wrestling manager Reginald Vanderhoff. He’s been doing the wrestling gig for 16 years.
“It’s an ego boost and adrenaline rush,” Willis said. “Sometimes I stay on that rush a day or so afterward, and then wish I was going right back to another town.”
Kevin Hawkins, who wrestles as Kevin Phoenix, is a Summerville High graduate who has been working weekend shows for the past five years. The 28-year-old “full-time father” is a Chinese food delivery driver during the week. His dream is to make wrestling a full-time job that pays the bills.
Hawkins said he loves OSCW because it’s like family. “You’re not just a wrestler who’s working on the card. They’re my brothers and sisters. They feed you afterwards and really care about you.”
While OSCW won’t ever be mistaken for WWE, Blumenfeld promises a fun, entertaining product.
“No elaborate setups here — no fog or big screens. But you can expect to see great matches, experience a couple hours of action-packed, good old school wrestling, and have lots of fun with the whole family ... I dream that one day people in the Lowcountry will speak of great times attending OSCW events with a similar fondness that we all speak of the ‘County Hall’ days.”
For performers like Heath, wrestling is an addiction, a love affair that will never end.
“I love how it abuses me, I love how it treats me, I love everything about it. The high, the lows, the roller coasters and the loopty loops. I love it all.”
Reach Mike Mooneyham at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham.