WrestleMania weekend, in its current form, only dates back to 2014. That was when, after having tried to work together the prior year, the Wrestlecon autograph show and the WWN family of independent promotions began running competing sets of shows in WrestleMania’s host city. One building would host the all-star WrestleCon Supershow and events from promotions like CZW that were friendly with Highspots, the merchandise vendor and video producer that ran the convention. Another building would host a WWN Supershow and shows from WWN-owned promotions (like Evolve) and assorted friendlies. The “supershows,” with their loaded lineups, were naturally the biggest draws, and that’s still true for WrestleCon. But that started to change last year on the WWN side. The U.K.-based independent promotion PROGRESS has become a reliable attraction, but that’s easy enough to explain—they have a ton of buzz and don’t do many shows in America. But wrestling’s other new indie hit requires a bit more of an explanation.
Game Changer Wrestling stood out in the highly competitive New Jersey/Philadelphia scene thanks in large part to its brand of ultraviolent “death match” wrestling. That wasn’t all they did, but it was certainly their calling card, and a video of John Zandig and Joey Janela flying off of the roof of GCW’s home building during a death match tournament went viral in June of 2016. In an attempt at riding that wave, and on relatively short notice, GCW owners Brett Lauderdale and Danny Demanto decided to get in on the WWN half of the Mania weekend equation last year. They left themselves just a couple of months during which to get a show together.
“I was noticing that there were some spots still theoretically open, and I was thinking ‘If we had a good hook, and we budgeted this right, we could probably run a show there and do alright,’” Lauderdale told Deadspin. “With Janela being a GCW guy, he became part of he hook.” Demanto and Janela were skeptical at first, especially out of concern for what might happen if it didn’t draw, but Lauderdale eventually won them over and reached out to the WWN side. “Within a matter of maybe a week, we agreed on a time slot—which ended up being Thursday night at midnight—and a financial arrangement,” he told me. “The rest is history.” Not only did GCW get a boost, but Janela himself, with his name out in front, has completely blown up as an indie name in the year since, flying everywhere people care about wrestling and barely seeing his own bed.
While Janela’s charisma and the appealing weirdness of the top matches—Janela vs. Marty Jannetty and Matt Riddle vs. Dan Severn—certainly helped, arguably nothing has done more to boost the Spring Break concept than the videos produced by Giancarlo Dittamo. A sometimes ring announcer who’s easily recognizable at independent shows—he’s the impossibly tall guy in the leather jacket, you can’t miss him—Dittamo is effectively Janela’s creative partner and has mastered the strange art of crafting wrestling vignettes for Twitter and, to a lesser extent, YouTube. For the first Spring Break, this meant Janela becoming obsessed with wrestling Marty Jannetty and finding a magic lamp that contained Scott Hall as the genie who granted his wish. That sort of thing.
Later in 2017, Dittamo launched WrestleScope TV, a Twitter account for a nonexistent TMZ-style wrestling news website, which seemingly existed only to cover the movements of Maxwell Jacob Friedman, an in-ring rival of Janela’s. As good as his other work has been, though, Dittamo especially shone on the way to Spring Break 2. Everything, from the dialogue-free video announcing the Janela-Great Sasuke main event to the comedic pitch for Matt Riddle vs. James Ellsworth to David Starr’s heartfelt plea to wrestle Mike Quackenbush in his dream match, stood out as utterly unique.
“He’s incredible,” Starr said of Dittamo, whom he affectionately referred to as half of “a little two-headed monster” with Janela, when we spoke a few hours before Spring Break 2. “When the Quack video came out, the funny thing is he texted me. He says ‘It’s not my best video, but it’ll do.’ Then everybody, [including] wrestlers came up to me like ‘Yo, that gave me goosebumps!’ or ‘That was great, I was so invested in that!’ He just knows exactly what to do. He’s great.”
“That’s why Spring Break works,” Starr added. “They announce matches differently.”
The first Spring Break was hyped with a mix of the viral videos, comedy, and raw absurdity, and easily generated the most buzz of any indie show that weekend. Janela got an entertaining match out of Jannetty, whose ankles are literally bent in the wrong direction after years of in-ring abuse, but the main event slot ended up going to Severn and Riddle in a grappling-heavy battle of former UFC fighters. The Invisible Man—it’s what it sounds like—stole the show in The Clusterfuck, the promotion’s Royal Rumble-style battle royal, and Keith Lee vs. Lio Rush satisfied the modern indie-style dream match quotient.
This year’s show, by contrast, was less about comedy in the build and, with the exception of The Clusterfuck, in the show itself. That wasn’t by design, Lauderdale said, so much as it was just the way things happened. “What’s gonna make us stand out,” Lauderdale said in explaining the process of gaming out the show, “and what’s gonna make us stand out so that people come at midnight?” The midnight slot had not exactly been a showcase before, but if you can do something that “breaks the mold,” as Lauderdale put it, fans will show up. The lineup cost significantly more to put together than the inaugural Spring Break; just bringing in Sasuke, who was the perfect legend to counterbalance Janela as a fellow in-ring daredevil, cost more than the entirety of the 2017 budget.
“I always wanted to wrestle Sasuke since I was a kid,” Janela told Deadspin. “Ever since I started buying VHS tapes at indie shows when I was nine years old, Sasuke was one of the first guys I saw, him and [Atsushi] Onita doing a no-rope, barbed wire explosion match. And I didn’t know who Sasuke was at the time, so after the match, when the explosion happened, I thought Sasuke was actually dead. I was telling all my friends in the neighborhood: ‘You have to see this match! This guy actually dies in an explosion!’ Just the way him and Onita both sold it, Onita’s crying and pouring water on him, pulling up the limp bodies and whatnot. And when I found out more about them, it kind of changed my perception of professional wrestling.”
The connection between wrestling fans and the broader Spring Break brand is hard to describe. Every single fan I asked about the show while in New Orleans said that they were going, and the atmosphere inside the Pontchartrain Civic Center was electric to a degree I’ve never seen in indie wrestling before, and that was before the show even started. When the in-house DJ started playing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” for instance, the whole crowd started singing along until the music got cut off in the middle so the show could finally begin. There were about 2,000 people there, which was the biggest indie crowd of the weekend; the Civic Center was packed to the point that an upper deck was opened specifically for this show. To say that the room was buzzing is not inaccurate, but it does undersell how loud it was.
“They do something different,” Starr noted. “Every other show you see [during WrestleMania weekend] is like cool indie guy vs. cool indie guy or cool indie guy vs. cool Japanese dude. At the end of the day it becomes like the same show everywhere. I don’t know many tickets Spring Break has sold, but it’s a midnight show in New Orleans where everyone is partying every night, and I guarantee it’s going to have the most tickets sold. Last year, Janela’s show had the most buzz going into it and there were a ton of contracted WWE guys there just to watch it. They had [WWE fan convention] Axxess in the morning and they stayed up to watch that.”
From the opening match, it was clear that everyone in the civic center was going to have an interesting night. As had been detailed previously in this space, the Louisiana Boxing and Wrestling Commission banned the piledriver in matches they sanction thanks to a past lawsuit; the only promotions guaranteed to get the exemptions that would allow it to be performed were the national ones running New Orleans’ major arenas, WWE and ROH. All of which made it a pretty big surprise when Eli Everfly won the opener with a somersault double underhook piledriver from the top rope. According to Lauderdale, about 34 hours earlier, Elmo Boudreaux, the commissioner on site, had initially refused to allow New Japan Pro Wrestling superstar Minoru Suzuki, a veteran of more than three decades in the ring, to do his trademark cradle piledriver. But once Boudreaux saw that everyone involved was a legitimate professional and got to know the talent—Lauderdale estimates that he took about 30 cigarette breaks with the commissioner over the weekend—Boudreaux was “down for whatever.” That included piledrivers and weapon shots, and so Spring Break 2 included a lot of those, too. This all climaxed with Boudreaux himself appearing in front of the crowd in his role as a “commission representative” to eject Jimmy Lloyd from the “Clusterfuck” battle royal for hitting The Invisible Man with a traditional piledriver.
As highly anticipated as Janela-Sasuke was, the most intriguing match on the show saw WALTER, an Austrian veteran whose popularity has exploded in the past year, against Pierre Carl Ouellet, a 50-year-old best known as one half of The Quebecers in WWE. Janela had met Ouellet, who returned to the sport last year from a bit of a hiatus, at a Black Label Pro show in Indiana. Janela was wowed by Ouellet’s work and immediately proposed he face WALTER in Spring Break’s “hoss fight” of two giant men. “I couldn’t be happier to give someone the limelight again,” Janela said, citing his own fandom of Ouellet’s feud with Bret Hart. “To give them that little chance to relive their glory days is pretty fucking cool, because I respect the business so much and I respect those guys so much. That’s my thanks to them.”
During his heyday, Ouellet was best known for being one of the most agile and athletic big men in the business, but fans seemed startled by the fact that he can somehow still do everything with the same level of execution. Given that Ouellet was hyping the match with Twitter videos of him doing odd feats of strength like tearing a deck of cards in half (hashtag “#CutTheDeck”), fans probably expected a novelty like Janela-Jannetty. Instead, they got what was arguably the best match of the weekend, full stop. The surprise of it all only served to amplify 20 minutes of great storytelling during which Ouellet seemed to find strength in taking WALTER’s brutal chops before finally taking over and hitting his Cannonball somersault splash for an upset win. On a weekend during which the best young wrestling talent in the world, both contracted and unsigned, did their thing, a 50-year-old man who most fans probably thought was retired had the breakout performance. He more than earned himself a slate of new bookings.
Speaking to Deadspin in the aftermath of the show, Ouellet explained that he had used much of his time off training in karate, Brazilian jiu jitsu, and gymnastics in an attempt to reshape his style for into something more suited for modern indie wrestling. His Spring Break match was a culmination of not just that work, he said, but his entire career. “It was, for me, a belief in myself and I was willing to risk it, at all cost,” Ouellet said. “No family, girlfriend, wife, or children. No cars, no house, no money. Making my name on the road trips all over the world, for that one dream, and it wasn’t happening! I kept believing in it and still do today. This is what we called passion, and I was able to pass that passion on to the public like I never could have done it before.” A lot of aging wrestlers talk about going on one last run, but Pierre Carl Ouellet is one of a rare breed who has what it takes to do it.
“All those emotions are now going through me, and the public is feeling it,” he added. “That’s what it’s all about! Extreme passion to finish what I started when I was 14 years old, and having the crowd feeling it.”
Janela isn’t sure what’s in store for Spring Break 3 yet. He doesn’t even know the location, as WWN has not announced the home for its 2019 “More Than Mania” shows during WrestleMania’s return to the New York market. But there’s one place where Janela would love to hold such a show: The Asbury Park Convention Hall, his hometown venue and a regular stop in the late 1990s for defunct cult favorite Extreme Championship Wrestling.
The venue is an hour away from MetLife Stadium, which makes it a bit of a trip, but the big WrestleMania weekend events are showing more and more that fans will follow the show wherever it’s held. With 3,600 seats, give or take what gets added on the floor, an Asbury Park show could at least double Spring Break 2’s attendance of 1,800 to 2,000 fans, which in turn doubled the 2017 show’s count. Wherever it happens, and whichever wrestlers join the GCW crew in making it whatever it will be, we can be pretty sure that Spring Break 3 will once again be a career-making, career-reviving blast and that fans will go as far as it takes to watch it happen.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com and everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix