No Holds Barred
The Alibi steps into the ring with All Star Wrestling
As I watch J.C. Hendrix’ head get hurled into a chain link fence by his nemesis, Nick A. Demus, I have to turn away.
The DVD of the championship wrestling bout has been in my possession for nearly a month, and I’ve watched its contents before. This time is different. Over the last few days, I’ve spoken with several wrestlers who are part of All Star Wrestling, an Albuquerque-based wrestling organization, and each one of them has reiterated one point: It looks like it hurts because it does.
Hendrix’ face looks like it hurts. The All Star Wrestling Champion is grimacing and it’s not because of his ultra-tight Speedo. Despite the punishment, there’s no place Hendrix would rather be than here--a ring supported by a few two-by-fours of plywood with a half-inch of padding to cushion his falls. “The fans keep you going,” the Las Cruces native explains when asked how he endures the pain.
For 30 years, New Mexico fans haven’t been able to see pro wrestling-style matches on a regular basis. But All Star Wrestling founder Alex Walls is changing that.
Walls grew up in Fayetteville, N.C. He was a quiet super-jock in high school, participating in everything from tennis and football to track and field. A lifelong wrestling fan, Walls didn’t consider making the sport his career until he found a flyer for a wrestler training program on his car in 1999, when he was 19 years old. Walls chuckles as he recounts his parents’ reaction when he told them the news. “My dad told me I needed to bulk up, and my mom said I was going to break my neck.”
Walls studied under former Continental Wrestling Association Champion Timber and, after learning the ropes, went on to wrestle in venues all over the East Coast and Mid-Atlantic region.
Although he was a newcomer to the sport, Walls became interested in the promotion side of wrestling. He started to learn the ins and outs of scouting wrestlers, booking venues and promoting shows.
Walls knew he wanted to start his own wrestling organization, and Albuquerque, where he moved in 2000, was an especially attractive locale because of its rich wrestling history. "Back in the '70s, 10,000 people would come Downtown to see wrestling every weekend," Walls says. "Knowing that there was a heritage here made me want to be one of the people who helps bring that back."
Walls began the arduous process of convincing wrestlers from around the Southwest to come to New Mexico. Even though he was starting from square one, Walls was determined to be choosy about the wrestlers he brought to the Land of Enchantment.
Finding wrestlers was a painstaking process, says Walls, that required many hours on the road traveling to various venues throughout the Southwest to scout. Walls found plenty of interested candidates, but most didn't meet his stringent standards. He started with just three trusted competitors, but over time Walls built up a group of 15 hungry warriors who he believed were skilled enough to put All Star Wrestling on the map.
Whether they're fighting for millions or the chance to make a name for themselves, all wrestlers are faced with three constants: Playing characters who are either loved or loathed by the crowd; facing questions about their profession's authenticity; and being wary of making wrestling seem too violent for children.
The wrestling world is split into two clear-cut camps: Good guys (baby faces) and bad guys (heels). Some wrestlers play both types of characters, depending on how the fans react to the competitor’s individual style, explains wrestler Dillon Stone. “The crowd is usually what turns you,” he says. “If they aren’t feeling your moves, you turn your back on them.”
For Stone, either role has its advantages. “It’s cool to get along with kids and have them cheer you on,” Stone says. “But it’s also fun to be a total douche bag.”
While they admit the characters they portray in the ring don't necessarily match up with their real personalities, all of the All Star wrestlers make it clear that what happens between the ropes is genuine. “Wrestling’s real and we have the injuries to prove it,” Hendrix says. “When people tell us wrestling’s fake, I ask them to get in the ring with us, and they always say, No thanks.”
There’s no doubt wrestlers get hurt, but none seem willing to talk about whether match outcomes are ever predetermined. “Wrestling fans love it for what it is,” Hendrix offers when asked about bouts being fixed.
To build a base of fans in New Mexico, Walls wants to attract a broad demographic to his shows. That means making sure parents, grandparents and kids watch his wrestlers. Walls says he’s intent on making sure his shows are family-friendly. He tells his wrestlers not to curse, and he says he’s glad J.C. Hendrix (a baby face) is the All Star Wrestling Champion, because it’s a positive moral lesson for kids to see good triumph over evil.
But wrestling matches are driven by aggression--whether it’s in the form of a body slam or a chair to the face--which begs the question: Is wrestling too brutal for the little ones? “Nine times out of 10, we’re not going to have any props, unless it’s a high-stakes situation like a title shot,” Walls says. “It may, at times, seem like it’s not family-friendly, but in All Star Wrestling, we don’t overdo it.”
Walls and his wrestlers aren’t living like their counterparts in the big-time promotions--Total Nonstop Action or World Wrestling Entertainment are the largest. The 15 men on Wall’s roster have to travel hundreds of miles, three or four times a week, to West Texas, Arizona and Colorado. When they’re done wrestling, many have day jobs to get back to.
By night, Hendrix is an adored hero in the ring. By day, he works in retail. "It's tough because you've gotta hold down your 9 to 5 and live the wrestling life at the same time," he says. "It's like being a superhero. You lead your normal life and then you gotta put on your cape and roll."
When they arrive at venues, wrestlers may have just a few minutes to acquaint themselves with their opponents before they’re thrust into the ring together. Once the match starts, the only thing they can count on is pain. How each wrestler deals with the inevitable—bumps, bruises, concussions and occasional broken bones—depends on the competitor.
Exodus (aka Manuel Chavez, Jr.) welcomes the punishment. “I actually look forward to getting hurt,” Chavez Jr. says. “If that happens, then it means I was up in the air, high-flying and doing what I had to do.”
Others, like Hendrix and Awesome Andy (aka Andy Palafox), grit their teeth through injuries to satisfy the fans. “If you get hurt, you want to finish the match for the people who came to see you,” Palafox says. “You don’t want to let them down.”
So what makes a good wrestler? “He needs to look like a wrestler,” Walls says, referring to bulk. “You don’t want somebody two rows back to be bigger than the guy in the ring.” Other than that, making the All Star Wrestling cut comes down to training.
Who the wrestlers have been trained by is the best litmus test for legitimacy. “If someone tells me they were trained by Joe Smith and I’ve never heard of Joe Smith, I’m gonna ask around,” Walls explains. “If nobody I’ve talked to has heard of Joe Smith, I’m not going to bring that wrestler back to New Mexico.”
While he asserts that better-schooled wrestlers (with at least two years of experience) create a higher-quality production for the audience, Walls’ guidelines for selecting his crew are also designed with safety in mind. “If you put people out there who have had zero instruction on how to properly execute moves, it makes it incredibly dangerous,” Walls says. “In training, people learn things like how to counter moves and, most importantly, how to protect themselves.”
Since wrestling hasn't existed in New Mexico for three decades, building a following is no simple task. Walls says it isn’t made any easier by the New Mexico Athletic Commission, which regulates wrestling. “The commission is set up for companies that have millions to throw away on fees and licensing, and I don’t have that kind of money,” Walls says. “If you want to be a professional wrestling promoter, you have to pay a fee, and if you want to use a professional wrestler at an event, you have to pay a fee again.”
While he stresses that his team is made up of real wrestlers, they can’t be called “professional wrestlers” because they’re not licensed. Wrestlers are discouraged from getting licensed because promoters like Walls, who lack the funds to pay commission fees, can't afford to work with pros. Walls also can’t legally cut them a check because only licensed wrestlers can get paid to throwdown.
Besides passion for their work, the only thing that keeps the wrestlers coming back for more is the hope their talents will catch the eye of a pro wrestling scout from one of the major wrestling organizations—a chance at the big time.
Once he's got his talent lined up, Walls faces the challenge of finding venues that can accommodate a match. “The biggest problem is finding tall ceilings,” Walls says. “A 10-foot-high ceiling won’t work because the ring is three feet high, and if the wrestler is six feet tall, he can’t even bunny hop.”
Despite all the obstacles, All Star Wrestling’s popularity is growing. At its most recent event at Tingley Coliseum last December, 1,500 people watched Hendrix become the champion. “The wrestling fans in New Mexico deserve a more regular outlet for wrestling,” Walls says. “We want them to come away from the match feeling like they were a part of the action.”