Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What (Little) Rock Is Cooking!

Matt Boyce and Jonathan Holt are wrestlers with the All-Star Wrestling Federation. The group's matches are now broadcast Saturday mornings on Channel 42.

Can you smell what The (Little) Rock is cooking? Hint: it’s wrestling. Or wrasslin’ if you prefer.

And while some might call it amateur, truth is there’s not much that separates it from the professionals you see on TV. Heck, it’s even on TV. Yeah, the wrestling shows, which kicked off two weeks ago and happen every Thursday night at 8 p.m. at the venue known as Sky Studios, formerly The Village (and before that the Cinema 150), are broadcast on Saturday mornings on KARZ Channel 42.

So, maybe you can’t smell it, but you can certainly see it.

That’s exactly what David Walls is hoping for. A Little Rock guy for 17 years who has made his home up in the northeastern part of the state, he’s the owner of the All-Star Wrestling Federation, or ASWF, which has called 800-seat Valiant Arena in Tuckerman, home for the past four years, but has been organized since 1999. Begun as a backyard, mostly family affair, it’s grown to be a reliable stop on the regional wrestling circuit of those trying to make a name for themselves in more recognizable operations like World Wrestling Entertainment, whose shows like Raw and SmackDown reach about 13 million people in the U.S.

“I’d been looking for a place down here for about four years,” said Walls of how his ASWF came to Little Rock. “Then I got a call from Jimmy Hart.”

That would be the professional manager Jimmy “The Mouth of the South” Hart, who connected Walls with a potential partner just as he was on the verge of contracting for a venue. Instead, they found The Village together, where they fit in some 980 seats for live wrestling. The venue, known for hosting a number of notable shows in recent years, won’t cease to be a multipurpose entertainment spot, Walls said. While it hosts the ASWF on Thursday nights, it will also be home to concerts and other events on Fridays and Saturdays, he explained. That means building up and taking down the ring each and every week, but Walls shrugged off the extra labor.

He did not, however, shrug off the effort of putting on the event.

“It’s a major job, and it really takes a lot of people.”

Front and center among those are the wrestlers, who hail from all over the South: Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri and of course throughout Arkansas. Hart, himself, flew in from Tampa for an early show.

Maybe you know them, maybe you don’t, but James Wood, who wrestles as Chris Stryker, said it’s not hard to become a fan.

“You get here, you pick a favorite, and you’ll like them,” he said. “We’re not ... superficial; you get a chance to meet the wrestlers, take pictures or get an autograph at the show.”

To a man, Wood and fellow wrestlers Jonathan “Action Jon Alan” Holt and Matt Boyce, as well as Brandon Barber, in training as “Sancho Libre,” all told the same tale of being fascinated with wrestling as a kid, which led them to do what they do. Barber, who grew up in Memphis, recalls trips to the Mid-South Coliseum as an 8-year-old, where he watched his idol, the Junkyard Dog. Some of the fans-turned-wrestlers, like Boyce, make their living from it, but at the cost of driving upwards of 2,500 miles week to get from show to show. Others, like Holt, hold other jobs — in his case managing a theater as well as substitute teaching.

Yet all of them own proper gear and have been trained, and that’s what makes the show professional, said Wood. That, and strict orders to keep things family-friendly, said Walls, who won’t allow profanity from his wrestlers.

“We have church groups that come out to the show [in Tuckerman] every Saturday night,” said Walls. “Three groups every weekend.”

“It’s a family-oriented show,” added Wood. “And I wouldn’t want my kids being around f-bombs or G.D.”

As for that other four-letter f-bomb, that word “fake,” which can be kind of ticklish in this industry, Walls points to an early training routine he was told to try before he started wrestling. Go out to the driveway or some other flat surface and lie down on your back. Now get up and stand straight up. Now repeat the process 200 times. And do it in under an hour. You’ll be surprised what kind of effort it takes, and there’s no faking the energy required to pull it off.

“When people say it’s fake, I would challenge them just to try what we do,” Wood said.

Even those that know the ropes don’t always go away unscathed. You go to body slam someone and fail to catch yourself properly, you throw both shoulders out. It’s not a fun injury to recover from. Just ask Walls, he’s had to do it.

But the folks who put on the show — and make no mistake, they know showmanship is a big part of what they do — wouldn’t have it any other way. They all talk about the pre-ring jitters. While waiting to be announced, even a just emptied bladder feels full, they say. But then the march to the ring starts, and Boyce compares it to a well-known scene from director Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

“It’s like a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart,” he said.

Credit Spencer Watson Sync

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