CAMPTON, Ky.—America’s biggest wrestling event took place in a high school gym. It was the main event, a “crybaby match” between Kyle Maggard and the “Progressive Liberal” Dan Richards, who has hit upon the perfect heel gimmick for this time and this country, and especially this county.
Wolfe County lies in the heart of Kentucky’s Eastern Coalfield and shares a border with Breathitt County, where Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance visited relatives in his youth. Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk famous for—among other things—running up significant legal bills, calls eastern Kentucky home. Wolfe County is, to put it plainly, the sticks.
Eastern Kentucky has long relied on the coal industry for gainful employment, but over the years, coal jobs have vanished, leaving behind persistent poverty, obesity, and illiteracy. According to the Q1 2017 Kentucky Quarterly Coal Report, zero mines are currently operating in Wolfe County, and “eastern Kentucky coal mines decreased total employment by 178 jobs, a 4.6 percent drop from the fourth quarter of 2016.” Wolfe County is not the poorest county in the state (that distinction belongs to Owsley County, two counties away) but possesses a per capita income of $13,901.
“Coal is the primary issue, not healthcare,” a wrestling fan in attendance named Shirley told me. “Because without the coal, people can’t support their families. Without the coal, they can’t pay their Medicaid bill. It’s hard times.”
“It’s what we live by, is coal,” said Raymond, another spectator taking in the night’s matches because he was “just looking for something to do.”
Ring announcer Nathan Lyttle said eastern Kentuckians have an inveterate optimism in two core facets of their lives. “Family and coal; that’s all it is,” he said.
Richards, who uses these issues as fodder to draw heat (a positive or negative reaction from the crowd, though just take a guess which he gets), and Appalachian Mountain Wrestling booker Beau James know exactly how important it is to just about everyone at AMW shows.
“Coal is not a job; it’s a way of life,” James said. “It’s a tradition. It’s a heritage. It’s an Appalachian institution. When Dan says something about coal, people take it as, ‘He’s talking about my grandad. He’s talking about my dad. He’s talking about me.’”
“I think [the issue of] healthcare is a little too specific for people in eastern Kentucky,” Richards added.
So when a Progressive Liberal chides the Appalachian crowds for “continually voting against your own interests” and stating matter-of-factly that “[politicians] aren’t going to bring your jobs back,” the people reflect for a moment about their unemployed spouse, their past-due medical bills, or whether there will be food on the table next week, and boo him. Loudly.
In the air-conditioned gym, the lights shone yellow upon the ring and the reporters and camerapeople from CNN, BBC, Vice, and local NBC affiliates. Lingering in the shadows were worn bleachers and a makeshift weight room; numerous banners signifying Wolfe County’s basketball prowess hung overhead. In the middle of it all, the reason many suddenly cared about the intricacies of Appalachian indie wrestling wore a blue Oxford shirt and khakis, and embraced his newfound fame by taking on a series of interviews before the show started.
“I think it’s going to lead to more opportunity,” Richards said of his swift rise to stardom. He was pragmatic about the possibilities, but hopeful too. “Of course I have aspirations to go to WWE. Would I love to be a big star for them? Of course. I also recognize I’m 37. [But I’m] sure my name has come across their desk or their ears.”
As the crowd of 125 filled the bleachers, Richards quietly retired to the solitude of his improvised dressing room—the gym’s equipment room, underneath the bleachers. It was clear that the hectic week, filled with camera crews and phone interviews, had taken a toll. Though the gate might not have fluctuated, Richards would now be performing for broadcasts that would be seen by people all over the world—and he’d be the star of the show. “Quite often, I’m not the main event,” Richards admitted.
Richards had become a star after media outlets—including this one—learned of his shtick, which is clever and particularly relevant, but not necessarily over the top. Instead of a conservative acting as a parody of what he believed liberals to be like, here is an actual self-proclaimed Democrat merely exaggerating his politics in an area of the country that isn’t particularly receptive. This microcosm is fascinating to people who otherwise wouldn’t care about the industry; Richards is a heel whose gimmick can survive as long as the material is fresh, and there’s no reason to think it’ll go stale any time soon.
The cozy spectacle of the night’s earlier matches was complemented by homemade cupcakes and Ale-8-Ones. Then, it was time for the main event: Richards vs. Maggard, in which the loser would have to wear a diaper and drink from a baby’s bottle. As Richards emerged wearing his signature T-shirt covered with prints of Hillary Clinton’s face, he was met with a chorus of boos, taunts, and jeers, mostly from children. “Killary! Killary!” they chanted in unison.
About a minute in, Richards began to bleed from his nose, and due to state regulations, the match had to be suspended until he could staunch the bleeding. According to Lyttle, one kid screamed, “Is that Hillary’s abortion blood?” Lyttle lambasted the children’s parents for the remark.
After Richards resumed the match, a wad of spit from the mouth of a ringside spectator sailed through the air in the direction of the Progressive Liberal. Richards, ever the heel, spit back. (Lyttle said he was appalled that anyone would spit in the first place.)
The match pushed the turnbuckles and ropes to their maximum capacity, or so it sounded. Richards seized control after another wrestler, Misty James, distracted the referee and interfered, and amidst the crescendo of boos, the Progressive Liberal unleashed his finisher, a cross-arm neckbreaker he calls the Liberal Agenda, and pinned Maggard. The match was over. A liberal had won in coal country, and the conservative had to suck on a bottle of room-temperature milk and put on a diaper.
In wrestling and in politics, there is no real high road; the lasting victories tend to belong to whoever can go lower. The crowd wanted to see the Progressive Liberal humiliated, and they got what they came for. As seen in the video above, Maggard called himself “a man of my word,” briefly griped to the official about his opponent’s dirty tactics (which was technically true), took a tiny sip of the bottle, and spit it out. As the oblivious Richards gloated and taunted the crowd, Maggard forced the bottle to his mouth and knocked him to the mat.
The wrestler Richards pejoratively called “Fox News Maggot” made his foe put on the diaper, even if it was just for a brief moment before Richards’s allies stormed in to beat the stuffing out of the defeated deplorable. After a brawl that resulted in the official getting knocked out, a bunch of sullen wrestlers uninvolved in the original contest stalking around, and a group of children chanting “Rematch!” mixed in with incomprehensible yelling and boos, Richards exited the ring as he tried to convince a hostile crowd that he was the real winner of the night. Read as deeply into that scene as you’d like.