The room smells like a pub inside a locker room, cheap beer and sweat and stinky socks. It sounds like a cross between a honky tonk and a particularly heated school board meeting. And it tastes like a hot steaming slice of American pie served with a can of ice cold whoop-ass. It's professional wrestling — the way it used to be before Jim McMahon turned it into a launching pad for actors and aspiring Playboy bunnies. And thanks to Joe "Solitude" Blumenfeld, it's happening nearly once a month in Goose Creek.
Blumenfeld is the founder of Old School Championship Wrestling. He has spent a decade wrestling on the independent circuit and has had countless matches in the ring. Blumenfeld was first inspired to form his own league one night when he and some of his fellow wrestlers were taking a long car ride home after a match where the show's promoter had treated them particularly poorly.
"We got to complaining about how the promoter had treated us and how we would do it differently," Blumenfeld says. "That's when one of my buddies in the back said, 'If you don't like it, do something or shut up.' That's when it hit me. I started Old School."
Before the shock-and-awe firework displays, the epileptic-fit-inducing light shows, and personalized theme songs for each and every wrestler, pro wrestling was simple — two men, one ring, and a crowd to cheer them on as they pretended to beat each other to a pulp. OCSW is a throwback to those simpler times. There are no fog machines or big screens, no lasers or fireballs.
"We really try and keep it simple," says Mary Sue O'Donnell, who helps her fiancé Blumenfeld with the day-to-day operations of OSCW. "We like to do things the way it used to be."
OSCW's rise was anything but meteoric. And it would have been easy for Blumenfeld to give up early on. A saner man may have packed up the ring, stuffed it in his garage, and allowed his dreams to collect dust. But Blumenfeld did what wrestling taught him to do. He picked himself up off the mat and keep fighting.
`"At our first show there were maybe 30 people," recalls O'Donnell. "Now we average about 300 a show. We've even seen numbers in the 500s at some shows."
Despite the growth, Blumenfeld has worked hard to stay true to the way professional wrestling was when he was introduced to the sport.
"I want to give kids a wrestling experience the way it used to be when the good guys and bad guys were cut and dry," says Blumenfeld. "I want to give kids their heroes back. I wouldn't want my kids watching half of the stuff out there today."
And Blumenfeld has found a core cadre of guys that have a similar vision. Over half of the wrestlers that helped start OSCW still work with the company today. There are over 30 members in the OSCW family, most of whom are working to perfect their craft in hopes of getting the call from the big show. Call it an investment. Call it sweat equity.
"I have to thank all of the promoters who treated me badly and showed me how it shouldn't be," says Blumenfeld. "OSCW is a big family. We all care about each other."
Like every major professional sport — and every form of entertainment for that matter — there are multiple tiers dividing the amateurs from the semi-pros and the professionals from the superstars. Before wrestlers ever get a chance to climb into a World Wrestling Entertainment or Total Nonstop Action wrestling ring, they must climb the ladder. To get to the sweet glow of the spotlight, athletes must pay their dues in smaller independent wrestling organizations like OSCW. The result is the opportunity for wrestling fans in the Lowcountry to see the wrestling stars of tomorrow today.
Micah "Malachi" Cox stands 5'8" and weighs 185 pounds soaking wet. The 26-year-old Hanahan resident is knocking on the door of the big time. Cox has already been marked by his peers as one to watch. He is currently in the process of compiling a press package to mail off to TNA and WWE. There is a hunger in his voice that can't be ignored as he speaks about his lofty aspirations.
"I want to make the big time. I want to be in the Hall of Fame," says Cox. "I want everyone everywhere to know who I am."
The ambitious Cox has been with OSCW since day one three years ago, but he's been wrestling for nine. His fascination with the sport started early when his father was channel surfing on a Saturday morning. As fate would have it, Cox's father flipped casually through the channels before stopping on professional wrestling.
"I can still tell you exactly where I was the first time I saw Jake 'The Snake' Roberts do a DDT," says Cox. "I was three or four years old sitting on a footstool in my grandparent's living room on a Saturday morning. I was hooked from that moment on."
Nearly every wrestler can trace their career back to one pivotal moment. For Adrian "Tank" Lewis of Charleston, it was a chance encounter with Ric "The Nature Boy" Flair at the North Charleston Coliseum that set him on a collision course with the ring.
"I met Ric Flair at the coliseum in Charleston in '94 or '95," recounts Lewis. "I started talking to Flair's manager about getting into the business. Here I am."
The 6'2", 255 pound Lewis has been wrestling for over 12 years and, like Cox, has been with OSCW since day one. Despite the toll over a decade of wrestling takes on the body, it is Lewis' love for his fans that keeps him peeling his beaten body off the mat.
"I love the look in the eyes of kids in the front row," says Tank. "It makes it all worth it."
Shane Conover of Mt. Pleasant echoes Lewis' sentiments. He remembers what it was like to watch wrestling as a child, and he reminds himself about that feeling every time he makes his way to the ring.
"It's truly my passion," says Conover. "I'm like a kid in the ring because I'm living out a childhood dream."
Conover, a lifelong pro wrestling fan, once lived his life vicariously through the spandexed giants on television. Now he spends his time returning the favor to the next generation of wrestling enthusiasts.
"It's all about the crowd. I love getting them pumped up," says Conover. "The worst thing in the world is silence."
The 6', 215 pound Conover spends his days as an active member of the Coast Guard. He trades his government-issued uniform for a green singlet when he assumes his ring-persona, Killian O'Con.
"Killian O'Con is just a fighting Irishman, which isn't really much of a stretch. I already have the red hair, blue eyes, and pale skin," laughs Conover. "Killian O'Con is much more flashy and cocky than I am though."
Conover adopted the Killian O'Con persona when he began wrestling professionally in 2001. Throughout his career, he has wrestled in Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, and of course the Carolinas. He has spent a lot of time on the road.
"The road trips are great. There's a lot of smack talking back and forth," says Conover. "We pass the time talking about what the business used to be and what it could be."
Robbie "Italian Ice" Blancione is a relative newcomer to pro wrestling. He's been at it for about three years. The 23-year-old fan favorite from Johns Island loves life on the road.
"Some of my greatest memories are of the road trips with the guys," says Blancione. "We're always playing pranks on each other."
Blancione splits time between wrestling and competitive power lifting. Unlike Cox, he has no aspirations of the big time. He is content to work the local wrestling circuit.
The 10 to 15 minutes the crowd sees in the ring is just a small glimpse of the life of a pro wrestler. When the bright lights go dim and the crowd files out the door, the wrestlers wipe off the blood and makeup and peel away the tape from their aching joints. The life of a wrestler is filled with countless hours sweating in the gym and even more watching exit signs approach and pass on the road. Professional wrestling is long-distance phone calls home and meals from a drive-thru window. In many ways, it's not that different from the early days, when wrestlers traveled from town to town with circus carnivals. Very rarely is it a way to earn a living.
Professional wrestling doesn't have a booth at high school career day. There are no college classes on suplexing. There are far easier and safer ways to earn a living than climbing in the ring. All OSCW wrestlers have day jobs.
"The money is nothing," says Conover. "If you're in it for the money, you're crazy."
Between travel costs and doctor bills, it's hard to see what makes wrestlers go out there night after night and lay their bodies on the line. It's a difficult question with a simple answer, one that any adrenaline junkie knows all too well.
"I still get butterflies when I get out there," says Conover. "There's nothing that gives me a bigger rush."
While the rush may satisfy many in the business, there is also another fringe benefit that comes along with climbing into the ring — fame, the kind that transforms local TV anchors into minor celebrities.
"It was weird the first time someone wanted my autograph," recalls Lewis. "I was like 'Are you serious?'"
Meeting wrestlers and then seeing them as their ring personas is odd. It's like watching Clark Kent walk into a phone booth and emerge as Superman. The mild-mannered, everyday guys that walk into the locker room are not the same men who walk out. But unlike Superman, the wrestlers of OSCW are not made of steel.
"The pain is real, but you get used to it," says Blancione. "Your adrenaline is going when you're in the ring but a couple hours later, you can't even move."
For years, wrestling has been written off by its critics. People in the wrestling business openly acknowledge that the results of matches are scripted, but that doesn't mean that wrestling is all fake. The athleticism required to step in the ring is very real.
Wrestlers put their bodies through hell. They literally tempt fate as they push it to the limit every time they step in the ring. Over the roar of the crowd, you can hear the crack of the ring as bodies collide with the canvas and spines smack against the turnbuckles. Wrestlers do things that make the audience bite their lips and insurance underwriters cringe. Scripted or not, all bets are off when you climb the turnbuckles. Moves must be executed to perfection to avoid injury.
"You try to go out there and give the crowd everything you got," says Blumenfeld. "One night I just collapsed after a match."
Somewhere in the haze of cigarette smoke and the buzz of loud speakers, you lose yourself. The real world shuffles along outside of the venue, but in that moment when the hero body slams the villain, it's as real as the cold beer gripped in your hand. What's more, you can't help but cheer as loud as the kid sitting next to you. You realize in that moment that it may be fake, but the thrill is genuine. The passion is for real.
"The crowd wants a break from reality," says Conover. "They know it's bullshit, but they want you to make them believe that it's real."
OSCW's next match is scheduled for April 26 at Weekends Pub in Goose Creek and will feature a special guest appearance by the one and only Sgt. Slaughter. For more information, go to www.oscwonline.com.