It’s Friday night in the brightly lit gymnasium of a middle school in McKee, Kentucky (population: 800), and fans are restlessly awaiting a night of piledrivers, dropkicks, and spandex — so much spandex.
As the announcer’s tinny voice echoes through the gym, a flock of third-grade boys with matching buzz cuts flail their spaghetti arms wildly. A high schooler with a greasy pageboy haircut rips open his button-down shirt and pounds on his chest, King Kong–style, as his date blushes, burying her face in her hands. Middle-aged men — seasoned vets of this scene — post up in the cheap seats (read: the bleachers), scooping nachos from a cafeteria concession stand into their mouths and spitting tobacco into dip bottles.
Welcome to Appalachian Mountain Wrestling.
Growing up in Eastern Kentucky, what first fascinated me about the art of wrestling weren’t the outlandish costumes or the larger-than-life personas — though I firmly believe watching the commercial where Macho Man Randy Savage bursts into a high school production of Romeo and Juliet and yells, “Art thou bored?” is what piqued my curiosity about Shakespeare. No, it was the language of wrestling — specifically, of wrestling moves — that drew me in.
Not quite onomatopoetic but still carrying the sheer electricity of something that feels like action, wrestling terminology is a linguistic universe unto itself. And one worth hollering about if you’re an eight-year-old kid. My pint-sized gang of neighborhood comrades and I would spend freewheeling weekend afternoons finding new and creative ways to maul the hell out of one another, attempting all the moves we’d only seen on television and VHS tapes — Triple jump moonsaults! Crossface chicken wing armlocks! Boston crab holds! Powerbombs! — often with the much-appreciated assistance of a trampoline.
Even our youngest member (a towheaded, fib-prone boy named Zac who lived with his great-grandparents) felt brave enough to take on the brawniest among us inside our makeshift ring, unconcerned if a (baby) tooth was knocked loose or a couple bruises swelled up like goose eggs on his knees. His enthusiasm soon began to spill over into wardrobe choices, and when Zac showed up one day wearing a four-sizes-too-big shirt that read “Suck It!” (the infamous catchphrase of wrestler Triple H) and bagged to his pale knees, no one laughed and no one was surprised.
We’d all grown up with everyone around us wrestling: wrestling with their grocery bills or to save their houses from foreclosure; wrestling to find steady work as both crops and coal seemed to leach out of the region a little more each year. In Zac’s case, his real-life wrestling days were just beginning, and behind a fragile-goofy smile, the panic that occasionally flickered in his eyes told us that perhaps he knew. With a mother who floated in and out of his life like an emotional smog cloud and one gruesome family tragedy after the next — an uncle who died in a Thunderbird crash, a favorite cousin who wore a glass eye after a dog attack — Zac couldn’t predict his future, but the worry that it might look a lot like his lineage clung to him like beads of sweat.
Local, independent wrestling circuits continue to thrive in pockets across rural America.
Inside the ring, though, even the meekest among us in day-to-day life could reveal themselves to be forces of nature — the Clark Kent-to-Superman effect — where the heroic, benevolent wrestler would almost always prevail over the villain. There’s a playground sense of justice in wrestling, particularly the amateur kind, which speaks to underdogs and the tenaciously hopeful everywhere: In the battle of good versus evil, it seems to say, good will surely win — eventually.
It comes as no surprise, then, that local, independent wrestling circuits continue to thrive in pockets across rural America—the kind of towns where pride of place runs deep, even in the face of shaky economies and dwindling populations.
Based out of Hazard, Kentucky, Appalachian Mountain Wrestling (AMW) was founded in 2016 as a means of reviving the longstanding wrestling heritage of the state’s mountain region.
“During the early 2000s, there wasn’t really anyone wrestling around here at all,” explains professional wrestler Kyle Maggard, an organizer for AMW who, curiously, wrestles under his real name. “But back in the day, this place was a hotbed of the sport, where folks like [Macho Man] Randy Savage and LeapingLanny [Poffo] would come and wrestle all the time. Everybody would turn out for those matches. When I thought about that, I said, ‘Well, heck! I’d like to wrestle a couple of times a month.’ Now, we’ve had events across close to 20 or 30 counties in eastern Kentucky.”
A Hazard native and veteran of the sport, Maggard was first introduced to wrestling through Hulk Hogan’s Rock ’n’ Wrestling Show, a Saturday morning cartoon that debuted in 1985 and featured, among other things, episodes in which Hogan rescues astronauts from space and fights off zombies. Maggard continued to soak in legends like Stone Cold Steve Austin throughout the ’90s, but he quickly realized the sort of wrestling practiced on television rarely pairs up to the reality of the independent, smaller-scale kind.
“When I was 15 years old, wrestling was the coolest thing, because people were going out there cussing and flipping their boss the middle finger — all kinds of stuff we couldn’t do in real life,” Maggard laughs. “But at that point, I had only seen wrestling on TV, because there were no matches around here. I thought all matches would be World Wrestling Federation style: big lights, lots of bells and whistles. When I first started really wrestling, it was nothing like that.”
Just like any cultural movement that needles its way into the fabric of society, professional wrestling has its own set of unofficial historians who have built robust glossaries, timelines, and wrestler family trees dating back to the early 20th century. These scholars — who, I’d like to imagine, must conduct all their meetings wearing business suits and luchador masks — have deemed the epoch best known to (older) millennials as the “attitude” era: a time of over-the-top theatrics perpetrated by shock-value antiheroes and authority-bucking bad boys (for example, the wrestler whose catchphrase was “Suck it!”).
The wrestlers are, above all else, live-action storytellers.
Rural independent wrestling, however, takes more of its cues from the “territory” era than anything that requires several smoke machines and a pay-per-view subscription. From the late 1950s through the early 1980s — when dramatic flair would begin to outpace actual in-ring moves — the United States was broken up into various territories, where wrestlers toured from town to town on a regional circuit. Today, Appalachia Mountain Wrestling follows a similar model: promoting and making the rounds to eight events each month; setting up in school gymnasiums, county fairs, or community centers; and then breaking it all down at the end of the night. On to the next one.
“The first time I wrestled in front of a crowd was in this huge metal barn in Big Clifty, Kentucky,” Maggard recalls. “It was in the middle of the afternoon on a Sunday, and we were wrestling for a church crowd. They had the ring in a mudhole in the middle of the barn, and we dressed out in the horse stables. They put plywood down for us to walk on, and the church people sat on lawn chairs.”
Wrestlers spending their weekends piledriving one another in small mountain towns most certainly aren’t doing it for any sort of cash payout or fantasies of ascending into prime time. Instead, it’s a deeply rooted passion for what wrestling can mean to the local community that keeps them going: a down-in-the-gut desire to create muscle-bulging performance art that’s homegrown specifically for Appalachia. It is an experience that’s made to be savored locally.
Like an art installation that incorporates the surrounding landscape or a collage that builds upon found objects, the personas behind each wrestler in the AMW stable pull from various components of mountain heritage, past and present.
There’s “Big Rig” Jake Brake and his frequent partner “Lemonjuice” McGee (as a tag team, “Big Rig and the Juice”) who have adopted truck-driving culture as their brand, touting a team logo that features a CB radio. “Country Strong” Misty James saunters into matches wearing cowboy boots that complement her ten-gallon hat and, during breaks, sells calendars featuring photos of her best takedowns. The last time I saw “Pretty Boy” Stan Lee wrestle, he was trying to win back a Dukes of Hazzard–style car from the “King of Kingsport” Beau James in a grudge match, sporting a pink feather boa all the while. At intermission, Pretty Boy Lee put on a knockoff Harley-Davidson shirt with his face on it and, inexplicably, a wrestling Speedo decorated with the cartoon character Plankton from SpongeBob SquarePants. The wrestlers are, above all else, live-action storytellers.
And then there’s the swag — a whole lot of it. Tables full of carnival-style trinkets — emoji-face hacky sacks, glow sticks, bouncy balls — keep kids ogling (and occupied) when the action stops during events. Beau James sells the numerous books he’s written on the history of wrestling in Appalachia and, most notably, his hometown in eastern Tennessee. Multicolored masks and wrestler-specific graphic tees ensure that other fans know exactly whose corner you’re in. (In fact, I’m wearing my Big Rig and the Juice T-shirt as I write this.)
Some plotlines catch on more than others, though. More than a decade after Kyle Maggard wrestled his first match, Appalachian Mountain Wrestling caught “lightning in a bottle” last year with the arrival of the “Progressive Liberal” character: A snobby, Hillary Clinton–loving villain who soon became a favorite “heel” (bad guy) for fans — and caught the attention of national media.
“There was a story for Vice News last year about me wrestling against the Progressive Liberal. They cut up my interview pretty badly and made me look like a jackass,” Maggard says. “These people spent all day with me, and the only line I said that they took is that ‘I wasn’t a big fan of coal.’ Of course, I’m not: The coal trucks are dirty coming on and off the mountains and make the roads nasty. But that’s what fuels the economy.”
Maggard — who wrestled the Progressive Liberal throughout 2017 in a Trump-style “Make Wrestling Great Again” shirt — says the much-booed character was primarily created to represent those who have a fixed, stereotypical feeling about Appalachia.
“People from outside the area don’t realize that a place like Hazard is three-to-one Democrat to Republican, and always has been. It’s just that a lot of people in eastern Kentucky feel like we’re treated as second-class citizens, that other people — even from central Kentucky — snub their noses,” Maggard says. “That’s the reaction from the fans about the Progressive Liberal: not that he’s liberal, but that people come out here and think they’re better than us.”
But no single wrestling plot line or pop of national media attention means too much to longtime AMW fans. The diehards know it’s about the blood-pumping thrill of being next to the ring while the headlocking, fist-pumping action is going down.
“World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) is a lot of smoke and mirrors — that’s why they call it ‘sports entertainment,’ with a heavy focus on the entertainment part,” Maggard explains. “Us? We don’t have all the ooh! and ahh! people, so what we actually do while we’re wrestling has to entertain the people enough so that they come back and watch the next week. For anyone who says it’s fake, I have scars that say it’s different from fake, plus two knees and a bad back.”
Back in McKee, Kyle Maggard is diving under the ropes to enter the ring as part of the night’s second match.
“That’s my man right there!” bellows Mackenzie Day, swinging her thick brown hair and wagging a sassy oh, no, she didn’t! index finger in the air. A sixth-grader at the middle school with a booming voice, Day is seeing Maggard wrestle for a third time with the AMW circuit. Not just a fan, she considers herself to be something of a talisman for her favorite wrestler.
“Every time I see him wrestle, he wins,” Day says, grinning from ear to ear. “I guess I’m like his good luck charm or something!” (Note: Maggard did not actually win the match in McKee — he lost on a technicality.)
Day and her gigglebox sidekick have positioned themselves at the very top of the school’s rickety wooden bleachers, and when they stampede down to the ring to show their support, each stomp is felt in seismic vibrations: Day because of sheer enthusiasm (plus her hollers of, “Get up, Kyle! Get up!”), and her friend for the bow-down-impressive stomp factor of the shit-kicking boots she’s wearing.
Local wrestling in mountains allows the community to rally together in a sea of whooping and booing against not only those who seem downright malevolent (say, a guy called “The Scorpion”), but also those who look down on Appalachia — a place that’s more than weary of the outdated stereotypes. And every piece of the cacophony only adds to the show: a spectacle that’s not simply about entertainment, but the feeling of having a say in what happens in the never-ending battle of good versus evil.