Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer
They may stand just a shade over four feet tall, but the Micro Wrestlers who donned capes and angry faces Thursday night at Altered Frequencies brought high emotion to the largest crowd yet to assemble at JimBo Ledford´s outdoor stage.
“We’re a professional wrestling show with all little people,” said performer Flyin’ Ryan, 24, who joined the group straight out of high school and has been performing for six years. Part of his high energy comes from the two crushed cans of Red Bull at his feet. Another performer, Baby Jesus, 27, typically knocks off 4-5 cans before taking the stage.
“We drink a lot of Red Bull,” the bald-headed Baby Jesus said with a Mississippi twang as he sat with his legs dangling off a beige armchair in the backstage green room. The veteran who does backflips on stage wore a “I support micro violence” T-shirt and sported a chipped front tooth, earned three years prior when a trashcan lid smack to the face went awry.
Paddy McGregor, 26, of Alabama, boasts his Irish ancestry and dresses as a leprechaun when he takes the stage. Thursday night a front-row fan held up a cardboard sign painted with a green shamrock and the message “Let’s Go Paddy.”
“It’s hard on the body, but a lot of fun,” said McGregor, who was a cashier at a family-owned grocery store just three years ago when performer Little Poppa Pump walked in the store and recruited him over a series of meetings.
McGregor watched the WWE growing up, including The Rock and The Undertaker during Monday night wrestling’s hyper-competitive Attitude Era, but he had never wrestled himself. Before he could participate in upwards of 200 matches a year, he had to train.
First, he learned the basics including going backwards and taking back bumps. Then moves, like running the ropes, where a performer runs at a rope on one side, grabbing it and quickly pivoting around to use rope tension to bounce off and propel back into the ring. He then moved onto wrestling styles including highflyer, powerhouse and technical.
“I get to see the country and meet people from all over,” he said of the lifestyle of a performance artist playing at bars and concert venues for crowds from a few dozen to more than 10,000. As of June, the performers also take to Micro Wrestling Federation’s “Microtorium,” a new permanent stage in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. with performances four nights a week.
TEO, 38, whose stage name stands for “Total E Outstanding,” has been in the business for 19 years, seeing the sport spike in interest of late and recover some of the glory of its ‘70s and early ‘80s heyday.
“It’s physical theater,” he said. While athleticism is required for the performance, audience involvement and storytelling give it a theatrical element, he explained, that create rising excitement for crowds like the 300 or so in Franklin last Thursday to holler and laugh out loud.
“We’ll have a beginning, middle and an end,” he said, with a hero and a villain. “My matches have a story and we take them through the journey. You have a heel and a baby face – the heel is the bad guy who will take control of most of the match and then you have a shining spot where [the baby face] is almost getting it and then the bad guy takes him down. You try to control the audience throughout the show.”
The performers were in character even backstage. Bad guy Big Daddy Bruiser lounged on a couch singing rap lyrics and flipping through his cell phone but would occasionally hurl insults in the direction of this journalist and his interviewee.
Another villain, Flyin’ Ryan, would cut between the interviewer and interviewee repeatedly with a “Watch out!” and pump fake at the journalist, each time reveling at the startled response.
“We try to make them do what we want,” TEO continued about audience engagement. “We want them to cheer when we want them to cheer, and we want them to boo when we want them to boo. And we want them to get behind the good guy, whoever we’re trying to build up in that match, and depending on the angle that we want to take.”
Audience engagement is crucial to giving the performers the adrenaline they need for the show, he said.
Road manager Reggie Smith, 48, a muscular African-American man of average height whose prior entertainment experience includes male stripping, said some of his current performers earn in four days what they used to earn in a month at regular day jobs.
Exploited or wrestling by choice?
“It’s a choice of mine, nobody makes me do this. I take a lot of pride in going out there and putting on a good show,” said TEO when asked if he felt exploited. “We’re not kept in cages and then let loose, you know?”
Adorned with tattoos, a nose ring and gauge earrings, TEO said he loves the lifestyle, the performance and the money he earns doing it.
Asked if he felt he was exploiting the little people, Ledford said absolutely not. Nonetheless, he admits that inviting the micro wrestlers to play Franklin created moral conversations in town.
“I know that they’re athletes. They’re people like me in a lot of ways and they’re better than me in a lot of ways,” he said. “If anything, one can say they have a little bit of a blessing to do this. I mean, I don’t have that kind of crowd cheering me on every night just because I’m a little short.”
The highest paid MWF performer, El Torito, earns $500 a night, the performers interviewed estimated.
In the end, the cast knows that first-time attendees will come in with a certain set of expectations and leave with a different idea.
“Some people think it’s a joke, ‘I’m here for laughter,’” said TEO. “We do that, which is the comedy aspect, but we try to incorporate laughter, shock, excitement, all things that are in entertainment.”
Let’s get ready to rumble!
As the hour approached 9 o’clock, the DJ opted to cycle through the pre-show music, playing Mambo No. 5 for a second time as lines snaked out to Carolina Mountain Drive, resulting in $2,000 in gross proceeds for MWF. Ledford’s revenue after paying about 15 employees and covering overhead would be calculated based on drinks sales and hot dogs consumed, he said.
At about 9:30 p.m., after several $15 general admission attendees upgraded to $25 VIP stage-side seating, the DJ rolled a recording of “Let’s get ready to rumble!” and the performers were announced to whoops and cheers as they reached the stage and started shoving each other while the crowd egged them on.
“We couldn’t miss this!” said Zack Barbus, 30, of Franklin from a ringside seat beside two friends.
True to form, the Bruiser had Paddy McGregor against the ropes numerous times, with close lines and drop kicks to boot. They took the fight into the dirt below, where audience members who stood or sat in folding chairs heard “smack!” after “smack!” ring out as performers exchanged paint tin and clipboard wallops over bare heads. The Irishman was nearly out when a sudden turn of events – much to the rejoicing of the fans – led him to a three-count victory over the Bruiser.
The second match was true to form.
“Everything about North Carolina sucks!” said Flyin’ Ryan, adorned with a New England Patriots flag and smeared eye black. The crowd booed relentlessly.
“I feel like I’m in Robbinsville,” said Lauren Dalton, 30, with a smile, as she held a drink for her boyfriend. “He’s been looking forward to this for weeks.”
Dalton said she was enjoying the show, especially on a weeknight, but she admitted many townspeople probably would not agree.
“It’s better than the carnival. At least it’s entertaining,” she said. “You can choose to come or not.”
The third and final match was a royal rumble, with all performers fighting each other.
“I think it’s great. It’s a good show for sure,” said a barefoot and ebullient Ledford, who was playfully taunting and being taunted by the performers at ringside at one point. “I’m having fun, of course. Why not?”
Before the show started, when excited fans were still filing in, Smith, the road manager, was asked how he explains what it is he does. He paused for a moment before responding, “Honestly?”
“Most people travel the easy road – oh, you go to school, you get out of college, you get a job, but greatness comes from thinking outside the box,” he said. “I’d rather take the rough road. Because guess what? It might be a rough road, but there’s no car pile-up on that rough road. It’s smooth sailing.”