Out in the hallway of the convention center section of the Durham Marriott City Center hotel in the early evening of October 15, a line of fans formed in anticipation of being admitted past the single table that served as the largely symbolic partition between the bulk of the hotel and the area that had been allocated for use by DEADLOCK Pro Wrestling—the hottest new independent wrestling company in the Carolinas.
Waiting patiently in the line of attendees is Brad Bailey of Winston-Salem, a superfan of independent wrestling who was among those who paid an additional $35 on top of the $40 general admission fee to secure pre-event access ahead of the DPW Carolina Classic to some of his favorite wrestlers, whose presence in this part of the country is exceedingly rare, if not unprecedented.
“My biggest draw in wanting to come today is that I’m a fan of this Joshi Puroresu page on Facebook, and they mentioned Jungle Kyona coming in. I wanted to come check her out,” explained Bailey. “We’ve also got Emi Sakura from AEW, and Mei Suruga. I saw that they would be on the show, and I wanted to see them live. If you exclude the shows that WrestleCade weekend would bring in, this is the most star-packed indie show I’ve ever been to.”
When the doors finally opened and the venue’s 13 rows of 13 seats quickly filled with spectators, one of the 52 front-row seats was filled by Oceania Del West, a Durham-area resident who was making her first visit to a live wrestling event of any kind. She said she enjoys watching professional wrestling on TV, but that she didn’t have the abiding familiarity with wrestling carried to the City Center by most of the spectators that evening.
“It doesn’t really matter to me who’s up there as long as it’s fun to watch and I end up having a good time,” stated Del West. “Wrestling has this aspect to it where it’s intriguing to watch. I like the toughness.”
Upon being asked whether she was sufficiently enamored of the pre-show atmosphere to make the trip again, Del West simply shrugged and added, “We’ll see how tonight goes. Find me later on and I’ll give you an answer.”
As Del West and Bailey each prepared to enjoy a night of wrestling action, a different Bailey was preparing for his scheduled singles match. “Speedball” Mike Bailey, who enjoyed a multi-month reign as Impact Wrestling’s X-Division champion this summer, was preparing for his first-round match of the Carolina Classic Tournament against Colby Corino—a wrestler signed to the current iteration of the National Wrestling Alliance, and who makes frequent appearances for other top indie wrestling companies, including Game Changer Wrestling.
Also roaming the dressing room away from the eyes of the crowd was Andrew Everett, another alumnus of Impact Wrestling. He was slated to vie for the triple-tiered Carolina Classic trophy, along with a trio of wrestlers from Japan: SB Kento of Dragon Gate, Yuya Uemura of New Japan Pro-Wrestling—who has also had dalliances with Impact Wrestling and AEW—and Dragon Gate superstar Shun Skywalker, who currently holds the MLW World Middleweight champion.
For Mike Bailey, this assemblage of wrestling talent is atypical of an independent wrestling show in the present era, but is becoming a far more regular occurrence.
“This is definitely way above the norm in terms of star power,” said Bailey. “Yes there are a lot of high-level wrestlers on the show, and yes the show is going to be great. I think that pro wrestling in 2022 is by far the best it has ever been, mostly due to the access to information. There’s a lot of very high-level independent shows, and due to the market and the way the contract situations are amongst the big promotions, it’s possible to put on events like this in a way that you have never seen before.”
The capability to contact, attract, assemble, and unveil such an anomalous cast of wrestlers is precisely what the founders and owners of DEADLOCK Pro Wrestling envisioned when they first decided to transition from their successful podcasting pastime of reviewing and commenting on professional wrestling events to crafting and presenting shows themselves.
“When we started DEADLOCK as a brand about three years ago, it was something completely different than it is right now,” explained James Darnell, one of the company’s three co-owners, who is more widely known by his podcasting name CM Pulse. “The weekly DEADLOCK podcast is what got us very popular. Because of the success with our Patreon, we had the money and the fan base, so in December 2021, we ended up running our first show as a wrestling promotion.”
Thanks to the DEADLOCK podcast and other immersive experiences with professional wrestling, the members of the DPW ownership team were able to establish relationships with wrestlers all over the world. However, the team first ingratiated themselves with some of the most stable independent wrestlers in the Carolinas.
“A couple years ago, a kid named James walked into our wrestling school at the Carolina Wrestling Academy who I’d never seen before,” explained Colby Corino. “All of the students at the school said, ‘Oh my god! Look who’s here!’ This ended up being CM Pulse from YouTube. He wanted to start training to be a wrestler at our school. I taught him to wrestle a little bit and then when James, Johnny, and Tony started their promotion, they used a lot of the guys that James met from the school, like myself, Bojack, and a bunch of other people. They used everyone that was there, saw who was sticking and doing well with the crowd, and that ended up becoming the core roster of DEADLOCK.”
Not content to showcase only the local talent circulating through the indie scene of the Carolinas, the DPW leadership team also capitalized on whatever opportunities they could find to establish connections with wrestlers around the world who make frequent appearances on TV.
”One of the first guys we brought in from outside of DPW was Luther from AEW,” said Darnell. “We started DMing each other before we even started the promotion, so it was natural for us to want to bring him out here. That was a foot in the door with the AEW guys.”
From there, Darnell and his team also established relationships with organizations in Japan that were willing to send their wrestlers overseas.
“I went on a Japanese trip for over a month right before COVID hit and made a ton of connections,” said Darnell. “I talked to a lot of people from Gatoh Move. The very first pay-per-view we ever ran, which was in January, we had Ho Ho Lun from Dragon Gate. Funny enough, we were able to book him; he was randomly in America around the time we started DPW. He got us connections to Dragon Gate, and now we know all these guys. The talent in Dragon Gate is just unbelievable. In Japan they’re huge, but in America, the first time getting to see these guys has people saying, ‘Wow … there’s wrestling like this?’”
The result is a surprisingly seamless integration of a hodgepodge of skilled wrestling talent from recognizable organizations all over the world.
“It’s strange and curious that it has come back to this,” said Mike Bailey. “The closest you’d get to a show like this was PWG in 2016, before everyone got signed, and before contracts to major companies were given out as frequently as they are now. Now given that the contracts are different, you have a lot of people that are signed with Impact and AEW that take independent bookings. That makes the U.S. independent scene an even more attractive market to promotions like Dragon Gate and Gatoh Move, and all the other promotions around the world that you’ve seen come to America recently.”
One of the most intriguing aspects of DPW is how the commingling of wrestling talent is occurring in a rather improbable location.
“There was nothing in the area we live in,” said Darnell. “For some reason, in the area of Raleigh, Durham, and Cary, there’s nothing, and when there has been, it’s been smaller-scale stuff. And we love wrestling in this area.”
As access by independent promoters to talent from around the world has steadily increased, questions have bubbled to the surface within this evolving ecosystem of indie wrestling. With unprecedented engagement between independent wrestling companies and the talent from organizations that are more recognizable, established, and ordinarily more stable, how much of a benefit or a disservice are organizations like All Elite Wrestling and Impact—not to mention Dragon Gate, New Japan, Dramatic Dream Team, and other foreign wrestling companies—administering upon the independent pro wrestling scene?
Lucky Ali, a top wrestler in the Carolinas indie scene who has also wrestled in three matches on AEW Dark to date, focused on how beneficial the two-way exchanges between the indies and the more reputable promotions have been to his career and its progression.
“Today, we have people here from Dragon Gate, and the guy I’m wrestling first today [Yuya Uemura] is a New Japan–trained guy,” said Ali. “It’s beneficial for me to see the differences in their styles because they’re from the same country, but they wrestle for very different promotions. So I get to wrestle Dragon Gate’s style and then New Japan’s style, and also see how they would apply those styles in America.”
Ali’s words would prove to be prophetic, as his opening-round match with Uemura was marked by several grappling exchanges that were reminiscent of the classic mat scrambles of New Japan. Then, in the match’s climactic moment, Ali finished off the former New Japan Young Lion with a running enzu lariat that would certainly have made the fiery New Japan legend Riki Choshu crack an approving smile.
Just as Ali underscored how the presence of wrestling’s notables on the independent scene provides him with an opportunity to acquire new knowledge and experiences, Mike Bailey elaborated about how the indie wrestling environment is a vital training ground for young wrestlers in search of seasoning.
“Any wrestler that has necessary information should pass it on,” continued Bailey. “It’s not a benevolent act; it’s a purely selfish thing. I want to work with a better pool of talent. I benefit very directly from trying to make everyone better. It took a long time for me to be able to leave the bubble of Quebec, Canada, work with higher level talent, grow, and become the wrestler I am today. I feel like a lot of people that try to help out young wrestlers come from backgrounds where they looked great from the beginning, went to a great school, then got picked up and went to television. They’re missing the understanding of the fact that every pro wrestler has a different path, and it’s often not directly from wrestling school to television. In fact, that is an overwhelming minority of the cases where something like that happens.”
Immediately following his first-round tournament loss to Bailey by way of a shooting-star kneedrop, Corino echoed his opponent’s sentiments, and added that the knowledge he picks up during these interactions also empowers him to be a more efficient trainer at his wrestling school.
“I’m under contract with NWA, so I’m kind of in that middling ground where I’m that local guy with a little deal,” said Corino. “I’d probably learn so much at Impact or MLW with all of the talent that they have there. I don’t think I’m the best wrestler in the world, but I listen to what the really good people say, and I bring it to the people who aren’t at that level yet. I wrestled Mike Bailey tonight, and he’s one of the best wrestlers I’ve ever wrestled. I feel like he elevated me and made me a little better with that match.
“As a trainer, the best way it helps is that I know what the bigger companies are looking for,” Corino continued. “I see who they’re bringing in, using, and pushing, and I listen to what the office tells me about what is valued in the bigger companies. I can bring that back to the students and tell them the super important things they need to be working on. Maybe don’t worry about doing the Canadian Destroyer or reverse rana right this second, because the big companies don’t really care about that. Maybe you should work on your selling a little bit more. Most new wrestling students these days are coming in and the first thing they’re saying is, ‘I already know what my finisher is, I already have my character down, and here’s all the stuff I want to do during my matches.’ They still need to be able to roll properly, lock up properly, and get the fundamentals down first.”
Obviously, there are tradeoffs that are both presumed and proved when wrestlers from the big leagues are granted so much freedom to essentially self-relegate themselves to what is generally regarded as the minor leagues of professional wrestling. One of those compromises has to do with the constraints that their presence on the show can place on some of the booking decisions.
“Not only are they a little more inflated on price to bring them out to shows, but some of the guys do have stipulations where they can’t lose or they can’t do a certain thing during their matches, which can be difficult to negotiate around,” explained Darnell, after stating that negotiations to acquire the one-night services of a wrestler with name recognition usually begin around $750. “When you ask the wrestlers, you never really get the same answer of whether that’s a personal thing, or whether it’s imposed by the company. Either way, it’s totally understandable. If you’re on a run on TV, why would you come to an indie and lose? I do know that about half of the AEW talent have had I-can’t-do-this-or-that conditions for us.”
In addition, the perception also exists that a wrestler moving down to the indies from a major company is stripping a local indie wrestler of a valuable opportunity to gain essential in-ring experience in front of a live audience.
“Sometimes you see it happen in certain regions of the country where there’s a carousel of guys that get booked on the same indie shows,” said North Carolina indie wrestler BK Westbrook. “You can really see this during WrestleMania weekends or AEW’s All Out weekends where they also have these big indie mega-wrestling shows going on. The promoters just stack everybody, and a lot of the talent gets used over and over again. They would rather use the more known talent to draw those fans at the independent level, especially if you’re from AEW, or MLW, or whatever. That’s the major challenge: Trying to get a big opportunity when it’s out-of-state is difficult for somebody who hasn’t been able to fully branch out.
“There are drawbacks to it, but I think overall it’s good because you know you have to step your game up,” continued Westbrook. “You know you have to bring it. Everybody here knows they have to bring it. That’s the spirit of independent wrestling; just going out there and wrestling. AEW guys or not, I think it makes you step your game up. They’re going to be there. That’s the reality of it. People get fired and hired all the time, but wrestling is unstoppable. You just have to find where you can fit in it.”
Former Impact wrestler Andrew Everett said he could also see the complications involved with booking established mainstream wrestlers on the indies.
“The way I look at it is that nothing in life is ever black and white. It’s all a gray area, and wrestling is not the exception to that,” added Everett. “I think there are definitely times when you look at someone being on a show and say, ‘Man, that could have been my spot,’ but I don’t subscribe to that. I think being able to use talent that are established in the big companies, and that are allowing AEW guys to come in and do a little bit of independent work, I think that’s a benefit to all wrestling in my personal opinion. I could see how that could get misconstrued, but I’m not one of those people. You only get better by wrestling people better than you. If guys that are wrestling on the highest level and coming down to share their knowledge and are willing to come in and give you a damn match, I look at it as all upside, but I could see someone potentially being turned off by it.”
Another challenge faced by the promoters is the logistical hassle of booking shows where the top-tier talents are descending upon the Carolinas from such a broad range of locations. DPW co-owner Anthony Douglas described how he had to make the six-hour drive from Raleigh to Charlotte and back to rescue a wrestler from Japan who was stranded at the Charlotte airport and make it back for the show.
“That’s my hardest thing is finding hotels for these wrestlers to stay in, or booking airlines and the other stupid things that don’t even matter,” laughed Douglas. “What’s crazy about it is that the show itself isn’t hard at all because the wrestlers are so talented. I’m not even worried about the in-ring action; that’s the least of my worries. Our philosophy is to just let them shine and let me do the best that they can do. We just give them the time, and then they come up to us and thank us for giving them the opportunity to show what they can do, and that’s all we want to do for them.
“The local guys especially deserve it,” Douglas went on. “They’re stars in their own right. They just needed a platform to showcase themselves. Putting them up against guys that have been all over and are well-traveled just shows that they can hang. We’ve all watched wrestling long enough to know when a guy can’t hang with another guy, but you can clearly see that they’re on the same level. You saw it tonight with Lucky Ali hanging right in there with Mike Bailey and even getting the victory at the end.”
At the conclusion of the nine-match event, during which each match lasted at least 10 minutes, Lucky Ali successfully defeated Mike Bailey, casually discarded the Carolina Classic trophy, and unmistakably gestured that he wanted an opportunity to win the DPW World Heavyweight Championship currently held by the 350-pound Bojack, another product of the Carolina Wrestling Academy.
Ali was very direct about the blessing that the creation of DPW and the influx of top-tier talent in the indies has been to his career thus far.
“Everyone who’s here in DPW is here based on their skill, but this could have happened up north, or this could have happened on the West Coast. I’m glad it happened here,” said Ali. “The owners of DPW have got this huge following, and they could have taken this anywhere. I’m happy it’s here. The environment is something you can’t really talk about.”
The quality of the show’s environment certainly wasn’t lost on the fans, who remained vocal throughout the show, and who responded audibly to every punch, kick, armdrag, and gesture displayed by the performing wrestlers. The responses elicited from the fans were favorable whether the wrestlers had wet their feet in AEW, Impact, MLW, Dragon Gate, or a local wrestling hotbed that was safely reachable on a single tank of gas.
Regardless of the actual outcome of the tournament—or the many dream matches that didn’t come to fruition—the wrestling fans in attendance and those paying $14.99 to view the show online through DPW’s on-demand service would undoubtedly count themselves amongst the winners.
By the conclusion of the evening, Oceania Del West was firmly rooted amongst the upstanding fans present in the City Center Hotel crowd, now having been well and truly baptized into the fraternity of live pro wrestling attendees. What was her opinion of the show at its conclusion, after she’d been so reluctant to proffer an one earlier in the evening?
“This is the best night of my whole goddamn life!” she remarked.
To borrow a phrase from the late Scott Hall, the addition of one more satisfied fan to pro wrestling, especially at the grassroots level, certainly counts as “... one more for the good guys.”
Ian Douglass is a journalist and historian who is originally from Southfield, Michigan. He is the coauthor of several pro wrestling autobiographies, and is the author of Bahamian Rhapsody, a book about the history of professional wrestling in the Bahamas, which is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter (@Streamglass) and read more of his work at iandouglass.net.