Austin’s indie wrestling boom means big spectacles and big business

Sweat-soaked shirts cling to the backs of more than a dozen exhausted men and women. They are wrestlers in training who have spent their Wednesday night pinballing between the ropes of a square wrestling ring inside an industrial warehouse in Pflugerville.

Over and over, they rustle and tumble and throw each other down, their arms whacking the mat or an opponent’s back to emphasize the impact. Each bump rattles, but over the months, the students at America’s Academy of Professional Wrestling have learned to lessen the pain with the right technique and form. But it still hurts.

Just ask any of them: Wrestling is as real as it gets.

Academy owner George de la Isla, 68, is hitting his 50th year in the wrestling business, at a time when wrestling is undergoing a transformation in the public eye. ESPN covers wrestling alongside traditional sports, and the WWE has launched a network to produce dozens of spinoff shows, including cartoons and reality series, that reel in new viewers. Netflix has “Glow,” a new series from Jenji Kohan based on a real-life female wrestling show that aired in the late 1980s. And wrestling’s biggest personalities have gone on to get broader attention, including wrestlers-turned-actors John Cena and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s recent playful (or not-so-playful) toying with a presidential run.

But you don’t start at the top.

You start at a place like AAPW, where on this particular night in April, a young 20-something pro-wrestler-in-training named Cheyenne Barrera is pacing in the front of the ring.

She’s just spent more than an hour working on the physical training, but now de la Isla wants her to stand in front of the class as her wrestling character, Cheyenne Barr, and drop a promotion, a throwdown between wrestlers to hype up a match. She’s been in the school for six months and is the current champion of their monthly student show, but she’s terrified to open her mouth.

“We want Cheyenne!” her peers begin to shout. “We want Cheyenne!” They grow louder, even as she’s on the verge of tears.

Allison Woodard, 24, is among the wrestlers chanting for Barrera. “Come on baby, breathe. You’re my wolverine. You can do this,” she tells her.

Woodard, who goes by Allie Kat in the ring, is a recent graduate of the school and an up-and-comer on Texas’ booming indie wrestling scene, where shows take place every weekend in cities big and small. One day, Barrera might get to wrestle on that circuit, which is not unlike baseball’s minor leagues, with her mentor and friend. But first, she has to show the bravado it takes to get there.

“I’m Cheyenne Barr, and I am the current AAPW champion,” she says, finally and with force. “I don’t care who gets in the way. I plan to stay the champion whether it be Allie Kat, Barbie or Carmen. I’m the champ, and I’m here to stay!”

Woodard and the rest of the room burst into applause as Barrera hurriedly sits back down and places her nervous hands to rest on her kneepads. Even after all these months training with de la Isla, Barrera is still fighting her fears, week after week.

To train to be a wrestler, you have to learn to fall.

50 years in the ring

De la Isla is the kind of coach who teaches handshakes before body slams. He talks about integrity in the ring and responsibility outside the ring. He takes on students who have never lifted weights before. Some of them are teachers or businessmen. They all come for different reasons, but they get the same treatment.

He’s been teaching pro wrestling in Austin since 1990, but his career started in the ring. From 1968 to 1974, people cheered him on as Mr. Mexico, Prince Leilani and Oso de Bronze as he wrestled against recognizable figures such as the Iron Sheik, Fritz Von Erich and Dory Funk.

They would be on the road for weeks at a time, and the near-daily matches took a toll on his body. In the mid-1970s, the Houston native moved to Southern California, where he trained wrestlers for more than a decade before moving to Austin — then only known to him as the home of Dusty Rhodes, a legendary star whose career spanned three decades — to start his own training academy that is now called AAPW.

Wrestling draws all types of people, both in the crowd and in the ring, he says. “I have schoolteachers, stock brokers, prison guards, housewives,” he says. “You don’t know who is going to stick around and make it. They all have a need to be recognized for accomplishing something. They crave that camaraderie and support from their peers. They aren’t all athletes or even hardcore wrestling fans. They aren’t always flashy. Some people just want to be involved in the fantasy as referees, announcers, managers.”

De la Isla’s longtime friend Martin Green, who has 30 years of refereeing on his résumé and once ran his own promotion company in Corpus Christi, is his coaching partner, and together they help develop the wrestlers’ characters and storylines.

As much time as his students spend learning how to stay safe while performing dangerous moves, de la Isla is also teaching them how to sell those moves to the crowd according to the dynamics of the characters in the ring.

“We try to establish the good and evil. The evil gets on top, but then there’s that one time the good guy wins. There’s always something unresolved,” he says. “The cliffhangers bring the fans back.”

Even after 50 years in the business, de la Isla says he’s still learning as the sport evolves. “The old-schoolers in the 1940s and ’50s said that everything had been done.”

Faking it, for real

Pro wrestling has changed a lot since the heyday of Hulk Hogan in the 1980s and the Steve Austin era in the late 1990s.

Wrestling is more PG now than it was in the early 2000s, the so-called attitude era of wrestling, where matches got bloody and women were taken more seriously as valets than as wrestlers.

Nowadays, in both WWE and indie wrestling, the wrestlers keep the dialogue clean and the matches from turning ugly, and on every level, women have secured a more respected status in the ring. In the WWE, female wrestlers have superstar status for their athletics, not appearances, and on the indie level, you are increasingly likely to see a match with men and women wrestling against each other.

“If you can believe that a dude from the dead is a wrestler, you can believe that a woman can hold her own against a guy in the ring,” says Woodard, referring to the Undertaker, a character played for more than two decades by Mark Calaway, a recently retired wrestler who calls Central Texas home.

For decades, the wrestling industry didn’t acknowledge kayfabe, the term for the scripted side of wrestling, but in the past 20 years it has become common knowledge that the outcomes of the matches are predetermined.

“You suspend your disbelief and get wrapped up in the theater of it,” says Jeff Cerda, co-founder of Heel/Face Wrestling, a media company that focuses on wrestling culture in Texas and California. “People can now look at it like entertainment. It’s not basketball, it’s not football, but you still have a feeling of, ‘Who is going to win?’ You still cheer for your heroes and boo for the villains.”

Performative wrestling broke off from amateur wrestling in the 1920s, and the sport-entertainment hybrid became popular with millions of Americans who watched local matches or listened to them on the radio.

The theatrical side of the business exploded with the advent of TV. Viewers got hooked on the visual antics of wrestlers like Gorgeous George and Pat Patterson, then “Macho Man” Randy Savage and Andre the Giant. The choreographed moves became over-the-top spectacles, and the art form evolved into what it is today.

Modern pro wrestling matches still feature the tight pants, the costumes, the crazy hair, the body paint. The wrestlers perform (sometimes outright silly) sketches to hype up the match, and once they start wrestling, it is a sweaty, surprisingly elegant combination of acro yoga, ballet, platform diving and martial arts.

“People have a prejudice against wrestling,” says Max Meehan, who runs a local wresting promotion company called Inspire Pro. “It’s looked at as this white-trash delicacy, but it’s a phenomenal art form that’s an intrinsically American phenomenon and dates back to the turn of the century.”

Meehan, who works in the music industry as the booker for the rock club Beerland, sees a disparity in how other indie art forms are more widely respected for honing their craft. “I don’t like calling it fake. You see bands that have a practice space, but no one calls rock ’n’ roll fake.”

People tell wrestlers that what they do isn’t real and that they aren’t athletes, but wrestlers aren’t respected as actors, either, Meehan says. “People have their cake and eat it too when they revoke professional wrestling as a profession.”

Many people at first think the wrestlers hate each other and are fighting, says Al Lenhart, co-owner of Wrestle Circus, the newest wrestling company in Austin. “But you get the best matches from people who are friends and have the chemistry together because they’ve trained for so long together.”

The audience, knowing there are some scripted moments, can look forward to the unscripted ones and also just get wrapped up in the fantasy.

Indie wrestling boom

When Lenhart told his wife, Lexi, that he wanted to start a wrestling promotion company, she said it sounded like a neat hobby. “Knock yourself out,” she said.

They both already had successful careers in sales, but Al Lenhart saw a business opportunity in an industry that held deep personal meaning for him. When his mom died when he was a kid, wrestling was a happy distraction for him and his brother, Jordan. Watching wrestling every week carried them through the hardest years, he says, and his brother knew then that he wanted to become a wrestler.

Jordan followed that dream and now wrestles professionally as Jordan Len-X, but it wasn’t until about a year ago that Al decided to get into the business as a promoter. He took Lexi to her first wrestling show, Wrestlemania in Dallas, and after just a few months of planning, the Lenharts debuted Wrestle Circus in October.

They sold out the first show in a venue that held several hundred people, and just a few months later they were selling out larger venues holding nearly 700 screaming wrestling fans. Fans pay $100 to sit in the front row, and some drive in from as far as New Orleans to attend. Starting this month, fans can watch the shows for free on Twitch, thanks to the streaming service’s first deal with a pro wrestling company.

“It’s so different than WWE because it’s so interactive,” Al Lenhart says. “The wrestlers start to know the fans. Fans take them out to eat after the show. There’s so much more camaraderie. There’s very little separation between fans and the wrestlers. The wrestlers sell their own merch; the matches often spill out of the ring and into the crowd. It’s a really cool bond between them.”

Lenhart tries to book the top wrestlers in Texas and match them against the top wrestlers in other markets. That means higher costs to produce each show, but the higher level of talent is what fills the venues and has, in part, elevated their reputation so quickly. The Lenharts have had requests to take Wrestle Circus on the road, but they plan to keep the shows local.

“Texas has a long history of wrestling, but other than VIP (in Dallas) and Inspire Pro, it was fading within Texas,” Lenhart says. “Now, we’ve popped up and have three strong, solid brands that brought the focus back on the Texas wrestling scene. Now everybody wants to get into Texas.”

In May, there were more than 40 major wrestling shows in Texas. A year ago, there were only about 10 that month.

Anarchy Championship Wrestling, one of the longest-running promoters in Austin, continues to host shows at places like the Mohawk, and de la Isla’s AAPW hosts a monthly show at his Pflugerville training gym. Another event in May was from the California-based Sabotage, which hosted its first traveling show in Austin that featured a nearly all-female roster.

In the year that Cerda and co-founder Rudy Hernandez have been running Heel/Face, they’ve seen wrestling attendance sometimes double.

“All it takes is coming once,” Hernandez says. “If you go to a WWE show, you’ll sit in the nosebleeds. Here, you can feel the energy, you can interact with the wrestlers. It makes you feel like you’re part of the show, not just watching it.”

For the most part, the business owners handle the increased competition in a friendly manner, collaborating and cross-promoting shows, but Wrestle Circus’ swift ascension onto the national stage has created some friction, especially after announcing plans to open a 24,000-square-foot wrestling center. They launched a crowdfunding campaign for $200,000 last month but closed it after hearing from a few outspoken opponents. But others in the industry, including competitors such as Meehan, say that when Wrestle Circus does well, everyone in indie wrestling benefits.

“Wrestle Circus has created a demand,” he says. “When there’s more wrestling and quality stuff happening, it brings in more people, and you make new fans.”

Lenhart says that even without the crowdfunding campaign, they are looking for investors to open a wrestling training facility and event venue. “We’ve been transparent from the beginning to say, ‘Let’s help each other out.’ We can lift each other up,” he says.

Getting into the story

Like Lenhart, Meehan had been a fan of wrestling as a kid, but he’d fallen away from it until a friend dragged him to an indie show on the East Coast where “the atmosphere was far more intimate than those (WWE) programs depicted,” he says. “It was edgier, and the action was updated. The energy was just crazy. You feel like you’re part of it.”

He attended the early Anarchy Championship Wrestling shows in the mid-2000s, and by 2012 Meehan was ready to launch Inspire Pro, which continues today with monthly shows.

Ticket prices at Inspire Pro are lower than Wrestle Circus, and the wrestlers aren’t as well-known, but that’s part of the appeal, Meehan says. Instead of a huge venue downtown, Inspire Pro has moved into other areas of town, from a ballroom in North Austin to an athletic center in South Austin. The company is often the first stop out of AAPW for the best graduates, including Ricky Starks, Kody Lane and Steve O Reno.

Meehan is also a screenwriter, and those skills make him an intricate storyteller who has wrestling stories planned out for the next two years. He knows wrestlers will get injured or picked up by a bigger promoter, so Meehan builds lots of flexibility into the plot.

“I wanted to do a show with continuity, with real, long-term storylines,” he says. “But things change. Nothing ever comes out how you envision it. There’s temperamental people, egos, people who get injured, people who move on to something else. It happens.”

The core wrestlers who are part of that story live across the country, but they travel every weekend, sometimes wrestling in two shows a night if the venues are close enough. Unlike in the WWE, indie wrestling companies don’t have contracts that prevent the performers from wrestling for competitors.

“It’s been really cool to see indie wrestling grow with these new styles and to revolutionize what people are expecting from wrestling,” Meehan says. “There’s no absolutely correct version of wrestling. There are only different preferences and colors. What someone else thinks is good wrestling isn’t what I think is good wrestling.”

‘A social ritual’

It’s an hour before Wrestle Circus starts on a Sunday afternoon in late April. Dozens of fans have already claimed front-row seats, including a group of about six friends who now sit together at every show.

“It’s become more than just a wrestling match; it’s become a social club,” says Carlos Hernandez as they explain how they met (at a wrestling show), how far they drove to come (Fort Worth, Houston) and what they talk about on social media in between shows (wrestling).

“It used to be just (Veterans of Foreign Wars) halls,” says longtime indie wrestling fan Rob Watson. “Every now and then, you’d get a convention center, but with companies like Wrestle Circus, the production value is better, the venues are better, the rosters are insane.”

Joey Roberts, who lives in Tomball, says he loves feeling like he’s part of the show.

“You’re a lot more involved than at a WWE show. I got in the ring with (local wrestler) ACH; that’s the coolest thing I’m ever going to do,” he says. “It’s like Christmas every month.”

Meehan says this kind of fan reaction is common in indie wrestling.

“At the very bottom of it, wrestling is a social ritual,” Meehan says. “People are frustrated with their everyday lives, and they can go to this temple to watch someone that they identify with. They can cheer what that person represents and avenge something that really frustrates them. It’s a cathartic experience for people watching it.”

Making the doughnuts

Woodard might be gaining momentum as Allie Kat, but most days you’ll find her slinging doughnuts at Voodoo Doughnut downtown.

As a wrestling fan growing up in Arlington, she didn’t think she’d ever be athletic enough to enter the business. When she moved to Austin three years ago, it was to pursue an English degree at the University of Texas, but de la Isla unlocked a passion in her she never knew she had. She changed her mind about getting that English degree and enrolled in his school.

“George is like my dad. He’s like a dad to everyone here. He really cares. He has a real family at home, but he puts in way too much time into all of us,” Woodard says. “We learn the physical side, eating right, getting sleep, taking vitamins, showing up to class to get your cardio in. But you also learn that there’s a look, knowing how to wrestle and knowing how to tell a story.”

Even though she graduated, she still attends practice to help other wrestlers, like Barrera, overcome their fears and accomplish whatever they set out to do in the ring. Woodard says she wouldn’t mind writing about wrestling one day, or maybe even running a training school, like de la Isla. For others, their wrestling dreams won’t be fulfilled until they are wrestling in front of 100,000 fans at Wrestlemania.

But every single one of them has to first learn how to fall.

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