Save for that one hilariously terrible storyline in which Vince McMahon wrestled God Himself, the drama unfolding in the squared circle of professional wrestling might seem worlds apart from the solemnity of a church building. Yet, somewhere between the quiet reverence of a cathedral and the electrifying atmosphere of today’s wrestling arenas, arises an unexpected symmetry.
On a recent evening, I found myself sharing a dinner table with the creative and business leaders of a local independent wrestling promotion. I hesitate to call this promotion “small,” considering its multi-state reach, but it’s a far cry from having the clout of, say, World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. (WWE). I had attended the promotion’s wrestling event earlier that same evening and—much to my surprise—had been invited to dinner with the admin team afterwards.
Amidst the clinking of glasses and the murmur of conversation, a fascinating perspective emerged. The approach to wrestling taken by this particular group was unique, to say the least. At multiple points, the refrain, “It’s like a church,” was used to describe how they viewed their promotion. And this is not to say that the promoters sought to bring fans a religious experience; rather, their ethos was one of authenticity, sincerity, and the creation of a familial bond with fans.
The first thing I noticed after being in the arena for about twenty minutes was that the promoters talked to everyone. Children were greeted with as much warmth and enthusiasm as the adults. But what struck me was the way in which the promoters talked with many people as if speaking to old friends. More than a few of the conversations I overheard could be described as “catching up,” and completely void of the usual kind of self-promotion that one could have reasonably expected from independent promoters carving out their own place in an already competitive field. There was a firmly established community in place, and that meant something to both the promoters and the people attending the show.
This is due, in part, to the fact that most of the people in attendance were friends and family members of the show’s talent, which also accounts for the diversity in age. There were grandparents, parents, spouses, brothers, sisters, and children in attendance. One of the attendees I struck up a conversation with was the father of a wrestler performing that night. When I asked him if he recognized most of the faces in attendance, he nodded and said, “Most of them are families or friends. A lot of these kids running around belong to the wrestlers.”
There were many children at the event, most of them in t-shirts representing their favorite wrestlers (who just so happened to be a father or an uncle). Though I was never any sort of die-hard fan, I had grown up during the “Ruthless Aggression” era of WWE, which saw some pretty insane and wildly inappropriate storylines play across television screens. Professional wrestling is no stranger to heightened levels of violence or more risqué productions, and I wondered about the family-friendliness of this promotion. When I asked one of the showrunners about this, it was explained that the wrestlers appraised the crowd and adjusted their levels of in-ring intensity accordingly. “If there are more children in attendance,” the showrunner said, “the wrestlers know to dial it back. But if there are more adults, they’re a little more loose and the show is more adult-oriented.”
The proceedings were decidedly “dialed back,” but not at the expense of audience engagement. Everyone from the wrestlers to the announcer knew how to “work the crowd.” Heels (the industry term for “bad guys”) taunted both children and adults alike, making fun of everything from their appearances to their sources of income without resorting to blatant profanity. Perhaps unexpectedly, the audience rolled with the punches (no pun intended) and gave as good as they got. At one point, when a girl shouted for the announcer to stop talking and get on with the show, the announcer looked around at her and quipped, “Whose child is this?” It was a subtle but effective way of acknowledging the insult and eliciting laughter from the adults in attendance.
After a particularly chaotic match that saw a plethora of tag teams take to the ring, one of the defeated wrestlers was making his way back to the locker room. His character was unmistakably a heel. He stood nearly seven feet tall and was dressed in leather and chains. A boy who came up to about his knee sprang in front of him and, with finger raised, shouted, “You lost!” The wrestler simply smiled and said, “That hurt,” stepped past the boy, and went on his way. This wrestler later told me he had driven nearly twelve hours to be at the event.
While the world of professional wrestling might be monopolized by WWE and a handful of other large-scale promotions, where storylines are sometimes driven more by profit than emotion or zeal, this independent promotion stands in sharp contrast. The genuine interactions and the authenticity of the wrestlers, even in that minute exchange between a veritable giant and a small boy, speaks to a certain kind of depth and dedication that is frequently glossed over by the masses due to the stigmas attached to the medium. What possesses someone to haul themselves twelve hours—one way—to be laughed at by a child, especially when that someone is massive and muscle-bound and could easily have annihilated everyone in the ring if he had actually wanted to?
This moment, subtle as it may be, is emblematic of the broader ethos at play. The independent circuit is a world where the emphasis shifts from merely providing a spectacle to forging a genuine connection with the audience. In fact, it could be argued that the independent circuit begins with that genuine connection and the spectacle comes secondarily. Whether one is loved or hated by the fans is not as important as the reaction itself. There is a sense in which being a lukewarm attraction spells disaster for a young wrestler’s fledgling career, specifically because apathy works against one’s character and the story unfolding in the ring. Of all the opponents a wrestler faces, apathy is, in a way, the ultimate adversary.
Though most of the evening was fraught with excitement and comedy, things began on a somber note. The announcer took to the center of the ring and called for a moment of silence as the ring bell tolled. He explained, briefly, that the gesture was one of respect for a former wrestler who had recently passed away. As an outsider, I genuinely had no clue as to who this individual was. Yet most everyone in the arena, from the wrestlers to the fans, seemed to have an idea and bowed their heads in deference as the bell solemnly sounded.
“He was someone who fell through the cracks,” one of the showrunners later explained over post-dinner coffee. There were genuine tears in her eyes (which, for what it’s worth, I read as true empathy and not guilt) as she added, “Everyone in that ring is wrestling for a reason.”
It is hard to argue that the stigma attached to professional wrestling is largely unearned. Barry W. Blaustein’s iconic 1999 documentary, Beyond the Mat, offered viewers an unadulterated look into the lives of three well-known professional wrestlers. Drugs and alcohol factored heavily into the life of one of them who slithered between the larger federations and the independent promotions. More recently, the controversial Dark Side of the Ring (2019 – present), produced by Vice Studios, highlights a wide range of tragic stories from the professional wrestling business, covering everything from the Von Erich family to the Benoit double murder-suicide.
The perception of wrestling’s “dark side” has long cast a shadow over the industry, feeding the narrative that the squared circle is a place of not just physical but emotional and personal battles. The prevalence of injuries, the lack of pay and benefits, along with the inherent ostracizing that comes with being affiliated with something as “low-brow” as professional wrestling all come together to create a perfect storm that easily sweeps away more addiction-prone personalities. It also doesn’t help that the press, television shows, and documentaries have all placed a magnifying glass over the scars of the performers. Yet, like any narrative, this tends to be just one side of the story.
“We’re trying to do something different,” the promotion’s owner said to me as we were leaving the restaurant. And by “different,” I don’t think he just meant business tactics. Right before we headed out, one of the promoters had described to me how they were hoping to set up a kind of wellness center for wrestlers struggling with personal issues, giving them an outlet to voice and work through those problems with the aim of curbing any tendencies to resort to drugs or other methods of self-medication.
To outsiders, it might seem surprising that among the theatrical rivalries and intense storylines, such a sense of solidarity exists, especially behind the dark curtain of a smaller, independent professional wrestling promotion. These are not the villainous promoter-type characters made popular by the Mr. McMahon persona during WWE’s “Attitude Era.” Instead, these are genuine folks who care deeply about the well-being of their roster. The tears, the dedication to making sure no one else “falls through the cracks” like their colleague, all testify to a wrestling promotion that is looking beyond the spotlight.
“To us,” said one of the promoters, speaking of the wrestlers and the fans alike, “they’re family.” Seeing how they interacted with the attendees earlier in the night, I’m inclined to think this is hardly a platitude.
Strangely enough, when I first walked into the venue, I felt a bit like I did when I stepped through the doors of a little Baptist church just north of Brazito, Missouri. Everyone was known. And not in the cheap kind of way that so many megachurches propagate, where simply saying “hello” supposedly constitutes interest. The community fostered within the confines of this independent wrestling promotion bore the hallmarks of the tightly-knit communities of smaller churches, like the one I grew up in and encountered again in Missouri. To be clear, it’s not about the spectacle of professional wrestling being somehow akin to religious ceremony (although there is a kind of “liturgy” at work), but the underlying ethos that drives both.
Smaller congregations are often marked by genuine connections, where every face is recognized, and everyone feels an absence. These are environments where the emphasis was not on numbers but on the quality of relationships, and the sincerity of the people.
The promoters of this wrestling event were conducting business, sure. But they were also nurturing relationships, fostering community, and ensuring that each individual felt seen and valued. The point here is not to devalue or compare the spiritual depth of a church service to wrestling; instead, it’s an observation of how the essence of a close-knit community can manifest in the most unexpected places, when candor is given time to take root. In an era where both the religious and entertainment landscapes are often dominated by grandiosity and anonymity, such pockets of genuine connection and earnestness stand out.
As the world races forward, prioritizing scale and spectacle, there is a timeless value in such authentic spaces, where everyone knows your name and every handshake means something. And if that kind of forthright and unpretentious fellowship can be found inside of an independent wrestling arena of all places, then the bride of Christ is certainly without excuse.