It’s Sunday, and I’m at a semi-dive bar in a strange city. Dylan, my friend of more than 15 years, is lying unconscious in the middle of the room, having just been stomped by a proud redneck who everyone else in the spot had been mocking for having a small penis. Two of our mutual friends jump in to help and are immediately worse off for it. The situation is growing more tense by the moment. Dylan’s dad is just about ready to start swinging. He watches as his son and their friends are then covered in the state flag, then eventually stagger away after the coast clears.
This is Tennessee independent wrestling.
The above carnage closed Sunday’s Southern Underground Pro show—everyone calls it “Sup”—at The Basement East in Nashville, which was the fourth and final big indie show in the Volunteer State in less than 48 hours. Most of the dozens of out-of-town wrestling tourists were in the state for The Scenic City Invitational, a different but related set of shows held two hours away, just outside of Chattanooga. Shows that command a similarly large percentage of traveling fans generally have much more national or international cache—think of WrestleMania weekend, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s American events, or Pro Wrestling Guerrilla’s loaded all-star independent shows. This was not that, but every year dozens of the internet’s most vocal wrestling fans descend upon Tennessee for a set of indie wrestling shows—ones heavy on obscure-ish regional talent, no less—that are designed to raise money for local high school athletic departments.
All of it is pretty weird, and none of it is quite like anything else going on in independent wrestling.
Dylan Hales, who is now one of the co-promoters of the Scenic City Invitational, is probably the single biggest reason why these benefits for high school athletic departments benefits somehow became a bona fide destination event. A longtime vocal message board poster turned equally vocal podcast personality and Twitter user, Hales finally parlayed being one of the smartest people around the independent wrestling scene into actually being in the wrestling business a few years ago. There’s just no way that SCI becomes what it is—both as a much-needed showcase for southern indie talent and a magnet for fans from more than 20 states and at least two other countries—without his leadership and knack for the business.
“It’s a decidedly different model than any other tournament,” Hales told Deadspin. “The tournaments this year are all quite different in terms of talent. There’s actually a shockingly small amount of overlap, so the talent itself is different, which I think is a good thing. What I think sets SCI apart in particular, relative to the other shows, though, is that the model is different. You’ve got the juxtaposition between the craziness at the hotel and the benefit show nature of what we do, and seeing how far we’re able to push things within the context of the benefit show. You know you’re going to get a serious pro wrestling show that’s different than the average benefit show. The stereotype is ‘kick, punch, hide the foreign object,’ especially in the South. And while I, personally, happen to like a lot of that style of wrestling, I’m not obtuse enough to think that style of wrestling is gonna appeal to people traveling from 25 different states.”
As appealing as it is for traveling fans to help their Chattanooga friends’ local community, there’s no sense in denying the real thrill of the weekend—getting wrestling that they would expect from a high-end indie show without paying anything like a high end price. SCI tickets top out at $15 per night for ringside seats, while larger market indie shows start at close to twice as much for a loaded lineup. Travel is on the inexpensive side, too; the SCI group rate for a double room at the Best Western is $70/night.
As it has gone from being an event to being an event, the SCI weekend has become about the fan experience as much as either the wrestling or the laudable charitable stuff. The fan scene is centered around the Best Western Heritage Inn, out by the Chattanooga airport. The diner attached to the hotel, known for its huge portions and ridiculous dessert menu, never closes; the hotel’s banquet rooms bustle with fan activities organized by Dylan’s father, Mike “Papa” Hales. The “official” festivities at the Best Western this year included a hot dog eating contest, a rotating wrestler Q&A, and a roast of retiring wrestler Kyle Matthews, among other events.
SCI producer and ACTION Wrestling promoter Matt Griffin notes that it was the second annual tournament, which was the first run as a benefit show, that really got the tradition going. “SCI year one was not a big deal at all,” he said of the 2015 tournament, which was promoted by Empire Wrestling Entertainment. “SCI year two just sort of happened organically. [Manager/announcer] Al Getz planned a live podcast taping, fans showed up and hung out.” It was after that weekend that everyone told me that I had to go the following year, and I did.
“We try to cover all the bases,” Hales explained. “Yes, it’s a benefit show. Yes, it’s designed to help the community. Yes, it’s explicitly family friendly. However, that doesn’t mean that you’re not gonna have a guy get back body dropped into the fourth row. It doesn’t mean that you’re not gonna have Nick Gage fight all the way into the upper part of the bleachers and use a fan’s cane to smash his opponent in the face. We’re able to play around: I feel that like strength of SCI is that it exists in several different worlds simultaneously.” Hales understands that the SCI’s ability to tick all those disparate boxes is a big part of its appeal, and leverages its contrasts—between the chaos in the ring and the community focus outside of it—to the event’s benefit.
“I’m of the opinion that the crazy stuff that we do do, even if it’s a little bit tamer than the stuff that you’ll see at other shows, it feels crazier a lot of times than the stuff on those shows because of the setting,” Hales said. “You’re sitting there, you’re in a high school gym, and you see [French-Canadian wrestler] PCO get superplexed off the top rope and onto the apron, then fall to the floor—you’re not expecting that on a benefit show. Your brain is different when you’re coming into that setting, and it enhances everything on the card.”
For example, one of the wrestlers booked both nights of the tournament was the aforementioned Nick Gage, a foul-mouthed brawler who is only just a few months off parole for a 2010 bank robbery. Gage is normally greeted with “NICK FUCKIN’ GAGE!” chants, and it’s enough of a tradition that SCI co-promoter/ring announcer Scott Hensley felt the need to remind the fans at Soddy Daisy High School that they were at a family-friendly show. Gage and Kerry Awful then proceeded to have a wild brawl around the gym, complete with a suplex into the bleachers and a mock “bar fight” that saw them sitting in chairs while trading punches. The next night, Gage faced off with Corey Hollis, the tournament’s resident cheating heel, and battered him all over the building, complete with tossing him down the bleachers. Only a low blow into a quick roll-up pin could topple Gage; the kids in attendance had fallen helplessly in love with him by that point.
Seeing the moppets chant “MDK”—it’s the name of the not at all real gang that Gage claims to belong to—before flocking to him for autographs and selfies was one of the more surreal things about the weekend. “Other than [hometown representative] Joey Lynch, I’m not sure anyone was more over with the kids than Gage,” Hales added.
And yet it wasn’t nearly the most surreal spectacle of the weekend. Back at the hotel—in the upstairs conference room, for the record—after night one of the tournament, there was the first annual SCI Prom. It was really just an afterparty with some fans wearing goofy outfits and dancing at times, although I was told that I apparently missed some of the weirder parts in the first 45 minutes. Gage, hovering near the door, repeatedly described it to a friend as “fuckin’ weird.” As the night wore on, wrestlers started chopping people on request and then that became a whole thing. If this sounds fuckin’ weird, it’s because it is. For wrestling geeks, though, it’s fun in a way that being surrounded by drunk dudes yelling WWE catchphrases throughout WrestleMania weekend isn’t. During WrestleMania weekend, the drunken revelry can feel assaultive and all-consuming. SCI just invites fans to join the party.
By every imaginable standard, the Southern Underground Pro on Sunday in Nashville was a long way from the rest of the weekend’s events. With a sizable number of SCI fans making the 150 mile drive, it was SUP’s most successful show to date. It was also basically the opposite of SCI’s events—a flagrantly family-unfriendly, booze-soaked 21-and-older show at the Basement East bar that departed from even the best of the usual southern independent fare. Those divergences included:
- A “LOVE IS LOVE!” chant for the queer wrestler Effy.
- Nick Iggy defeating Effy by rolling him up after an unprecedented distraction—Iggy stole Effy’s phone, took a dick pic under his tights, and tossed it back.
- Mance Warner pulling a knife on his opponents to try to run out the clock in their match.
- Main eventers Curt Stallion and A.J. Gray, in an “I Quit” match, literally waterboarding each other to try to get the submission victory.
- Chants of “TINY-ASS DICK!” at Stallion, a chant that stemmed from an incident a year earlier, when Joey Janela debuted a song about his then-rival’s...right.
It would have been a quality show on its own even if it hadn’t ended with Dylan prone in the ring and Papa Hales ready to join the fray. But of course it did—Gray refused to quit in the “I Quit” match, Dylan effectively threw in the towel as a member of management, and Stallion led the attack that led to the burial of Dylan, Iggy, and Awful under the Tennessee flag. It as the first vacation I’ve ever taken that left me lamenting that I won’t be in town for my friends getting their revenge in their new gang war. But make no mistake: I will absolutely be back.
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.