“Wrestling isn’t real."
“Wrestling is fake. Don’t you know that?”
These are a few of the dismissive phrases that are said when professional wrestling is mentioned in casual conversation. In all forms of entertainment, the audience has to provide some suspension of disbelief to be less cynical, and professional wrestling tends to bring out the cynicism in people.
The WWE has an estimated value of $1.5 billion, with the second quarter of 2017 bringing in $214.6 million. Live event television viewership has had a good hold on the Monday night block, earning a 1.0 Nielsen rating among adults ages 18 to 49 with an estimated viewership of almost 3 million people. This put "WWE Monday Night Raw" in the top five for original cable shows in May 2017, alongside three shows covering the NBA Playoffs.
The WWE has grown to gigantic proportions and casts a shadow over independent wrestling. It is the premiere stage for professional wrestlers during their careers. Much like Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League, there are various tiers in the ladder of professional wrestling.
All wrestlers have to begin somewhere, and many wrestlers get their start on the smallest of stages. It could be a ring shared with boxers in training, where the only title belts on display are for boxing and the facility itself is adjacent to an auto-body shop.
This is the Palmetto Championship Wrestling facility. In this gym off of Two Notch Road in Columbia, Dominque Thompson practices.
At 24 years old, Thompson is a fourth-year media arts student at USC. He works as a part-time chef at Whole Foods and goes by the name "Jett Black" in the ring.
Leading up to his important match on Oct. 15, Thompson practiced for a week. This match was important for Thompson, who was entering the ring for the first time after suffering an ACL tear in June 2016.
“I thought that I just dislocated it, so I tried to keep going and that made it much worse," Thompson said.
Thompson, who is no stranger to ring-related injuries, said he just wanted to get his injury taped up so he could get back in the ring for the remainder of the event. But to his dismay, his injury would need need more than athletic tape to heal.
He's just now getting back on his feet and into the ring, and his passion for wrestling made his time off even more difficult.
“I couldn’t even look at anything wrestling related ... it would kill me," he said.
At PCW, many other wrestlers are passionate about the sport and share similar stories to Thompson. These stories include a wrestler who wore a plush shark head for his costume, one whose character looked like he had just stepped out of Woodstock and one whose entire character was based on growing up with a gap between his front teeth.
They all wrestle for different reasons, whether it's a workout regimen or something they’ve always wanted to try.
“The people that you train with ... they have, in a lot of ways, your life in their hands," Thompson said. "And you kind of bond over that … it’s a big brotherhood honestly."
This connectedness is a common trait among wrestlers within the independent circuit, according to Thompson.
“When you look at the indies, you look at what’s the heart of wrestling, the soul of wrestling," Thompson said. "That’s really what I want to tap into, so that's what I watch."
Thomson said that the WWE is a route to "legitimacy in the eyes of the masses," but he prefers the values of the independent circuit.
"It’s one thing to have a machine behind you, producing you, but it’s another thing to build yourself from the ground up and become a commodity," Thompson said. "That’s what I want for myself.”
There is no machine supporting PCW. The only bright lights there shine on the gym and the audience is the tiniest of fractions compared to the WWE — both factors Shane Dorr, promoter and owner of PCW, is well aware of.
“We gotta deal with the state, gotta deal with the athletic commission, gotta deal with insurance, gotta deal booking talent individuality, paying guys, working out deals, sponsors," Dorr said of setting up events at PCW. "Countless hours, days, weeks goes into booking one show."
The match on Oct. 15 was at Spring Valley High School, with the ring at the center of the basketball court surrounded by floor seating. About 100 spectators were there, and each wrestler had a booth selling his own memorabilia. One of the big attractions for the event was WWE's Hall of Fame tag team "The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express."
The WWE table was as busy as all of the others. Some fans were wearing "Rock ‘n’ Roll Express" gear, but many more were representing the independent wrestlers who were there. Although most seats were empty, the local support there was fervent. In promoting the shows, Dorr has a certain philosophy for the brand: family friendly.
"I want the parents to know that they’re coming to a show where the whole family can enjoy it ... and it’s at a price you can’t beat," Dorr said. "I mean you can’t even go to a movie and not spend $50 for two people between tickets and food. Here you come in, 20 bucks gets you two people in, you’ll drop $10 on concessions and call it a day. And you’re supporting local business, you're supporting local talent, and you're supporting local schools.”
Dorr brought up an interesting point about affordable entertainment. The event was a family friendly experience, but would it appeal to all audiences? Maybe. Maybe not. But that brings the question, "Could an indie wrestling match appeal to all audiences?" Again, maybe not.
Independent wrestling is a subculture of American sport. Regardless of the experience, what is important are the people. From the dedicated fan attending a show in a high school gym to a wrestler like "Jett Black" getting back into the ring after an injury, there is something unique to appreciate in independent wrestling.
“It’s not a game. It’s not what you think and it’s not fiction,” Thompson said. "'To them I say, 'The ring’s right over there.'"