In a room stagnant with stale air and the unmistakably American aromas of tobacco spit and burnt popcorn, a riled-up mob assembles under blinding fluorescent lights — a glare that points out every mismatched chair, every lump in the mat, every sign telling patrons, "We Cash Paychecks."
At ring center stands the big man, the hero, whose plight has the crowd of taunting kids, shrieking women and jeering middle-aged men on its feet. With the ref distracted, as seems to happen often, the bad guy sneaks up behind him with a metal folding chair.
Wham! The unforgiving wallop sends the helpless giant down to the sky-blue mat. Beads of acrid sweat trickle down his brow to salt his gaping wounds. Strutting, jiving, his adversary gloats as the outraged onlookers loose a bowel-rumbling salvo of catcalls.
It's all energy and noise — the blaring cacophony of heavy metal music, the deafening chorus of mockery and derision, the slamming-door sound of bodies hurtling through space to land flat-backed on the floor. The only thing louder is the neon spandex that encases the quarreling roustabouts at the eye of this human hurricane.
Welcome to the antiquated banquet hall of a seedy hotel on the edge of East Nashville, where this scene has played out every Friday night for nearly five years.
Nestled in the shadow of LP Field, the pinnacle of Nashville's pro-sports aspirations, sits the Stadium Inn. Despite its name, it doesn't seem to attract many tailgaters. Once known as the Heartbreak Hotel — and that was in better days — it's a place where each room rents at a flat rate of $100 a week to derelicts, desperadoes, vagabonds and a gallery of folks who fall somewhere in between.
But every Friday night, a passionate confederacy of underdogs and their followers inject a shot of life into the ebbing Music City hotel. Traveling sometimes several hours to get there, they transform the 200-capacity hall every week into a hallowed turf where fleabag means yield small triumphs.
Since May 2005, the Stadium Inn has been home to the United States Wrestling Organization. The USWO is the brainchild of independent wrestling promoter Tony Falk and his partner, main attraction and 21-year-old son, L.T.
Before the Falks, the Stadium Inn had previously hosted the USA Championship Wrestling promotion, which jumped ship when crowds began to dwindle. It was then that hotel manager Bill DeShields, a wrestling fan known to dabble in promoting, reached out to Falk's father Tony — a longtime promoter, professional wrestler and trainer who had been building a small but vital circuit in Madison.
Knowing the Madison followers couldn't fill enough seats to keep them afloat, L.T., then 16, began busting his ass to draw his dad a bigger crowd. Like a kid flogging his garage band, he started putting up posters, recruiting talent and talking up the event to anyone who'd listen.
The USWO's weekly matches have turned the Stadium Inn into a kind of buzzing speakeasy — an attraction spreading like a secret handshake among sensation-hungry hipsters on both sides of the river. Every weekend, a cast of working-stiff gladiators plays to a growing audience made up of gawkers, die-hard wrestling aficionados, and low-income families looking for cheap entertainment.
Some voyeurs are there just to point and laugh, sure. But when people buy into the spectacle, when the low-budget circus the Falks have built pays off in uproar — well, those moments are more fulfilling than the plays that bring tens of thousands of Titans fans to their feet within eyesight of the Stadium Inn every fall.
Traversing the gauntlet of urban decay that is the Stadium Inn's lobby does not rank high on most Nashvillians' bucket lists. The immediate greeting at the front desk — a makeshift sign reading: "No drug dealers or prostitutes allowed" — translates more as a disclaimer than a warning. Nearby, listless loiterers pump change into decades-old vending machines.
From the end of the hall, however, you hear a pulse-quickening thump! thump! thump! It only gets louder as you walk closer. It's the growing drumbeat of the USWO's carnival of cartoon violence, and it builds to an unsettling crescendo as you approach the banquet hall.
Waiting on the other side of the doors is a veritable cornucopia of Americana. With three rows of unmatched seating on each of its four sides, the square ring takes up the lion's share of the room. The surprising thing, to fans raised on the WWE's arena shows, is the intimacy. Each night's full-contact soap opera plays out within about 10 feet of the crowd, under a black ceiling low enough to scrape foreheads.
It's the crowd's turbulent cross-section of humanity, in part, that makes the USWO bouts addictive. Chuckling first-timers lean back with arms folded, just across from a heckling section of fist-shaking housewives. Foul-mouthed old women, underdressed Snooki impersonators, farmers, children, jocks and squares — the hall might seem like a sociological powder-keg waiting to blow.
But all the fury is directed right where the USWO wants it — at the ring.
At press time, the current USWO main event champion is Jeff "The Crippler" Daniels. A grizzled middle-aged heel, the Crippler sports a helmet of dyed black hair — destined to inspire a lawsuit from Gene Simmons — matched by a goatee of intimidation that frames his villainous smile. Like his fallen challengers, onlookers get no clemency from Daniels, especially from the sight of his only item of clothing — a blue thong with "CRIPPLER" in flowing cursive across his backside.
Any scene with the Crippler could be ripped straight from a Jerry Springer episode, afternoon TV's analog to the Stadium Inn. On this night, Daniels' voluptuous wife Dominique — the lightning rod of the banquet hall — repeatedly enters the ring during his matches, mostly to distract a ref with serious attention deficiency.
"Skank-free zone! Skank-free zone!" hollers a small section of heavily made-up women decked out for the night. They yell at Dominique with fire in their eyes as they challenge her to catfights, and they're not pretending. Dominique rewards them with a few lashes of her sharp tongue, returned with shrieks of "Dirty old whore!"
At ringside, front row center, sit Charles and Kevin, munching popcorn and hollering taunts at the burly combatants in the ring. The two kids have clearly been coming for some time. When asked their favorite move, they pipe up in unison, "The six-one-nine!" What's the 411 on the 619? "They grab 'em, they put their neck on the rope, then they run to the other rope," Kevin says. "Then they kick them in the face."
Every Friday night, men in tights bearing handles like Rudy Switchblade, Johnny Punch and Se7en pummel one another with an unending repertoire of pile drivers, brain busters, choke slams and leg drops. The outcomes and the grudge-match storylines have been carefully worked out ahead of time, to be sure. But anyone who thinks it's all fake has never gone to the mat.
Whenever they stomp the ring's hollow floor to enhance the illusory power of their punches, there's definitely an element of community theater. Even so, the moves require timing and athleticism. Add the dizzying dialogue of ring announcements and trash talk, garbled through a PA system that makes every uttered word sound like it was sampled from a Strokes record, and a typical match might as well be a bootleg recording of the fall of Saigon.
Visible throughout this sensory overload is the weathered face of veteran USWO promoter Tony Falk, who holds court behind the ticket desk. A warm and soft-spoken Southerner who greets all with a smile, Falk nonetheless has an imposing stature — the only evidence of the boisterous bleached-blond bruiser once known as Boy Tony.
A lifelong lover of wrestling, Falk was promoting matches before he even knew the word. As a kid, he'd use a carpet and garden hose to fashion a makeshift ring behind the Paducah, Ky., housing project he grew up in.
"It was really in my blood," he says. By age 12, he was putting up rings alongside future wrestler Ricky Morton of the Rock 'n' Roll Express. After lying about his age, he began wrestling at 14 under one of the most legendary characters in a business full of them: "Gentleman" Saul Weingeroff, the Nashville-born wrestling manager who handled bad-guy "heels" such as the notorious Von Brauner brothers and Tojo Yamamoto (and once entered the 1964 presidential election as a gimmick).
When Weingeroff folded his promoting efforts, Falk went back to school. He didn't return to the business until the early '80s, when he befriended a young minor league baseball-player-turned-wrestler named Randall Poffo. Randall's father Angelo — a former pro — took Falk on to wrestle alongside his son, in a startup promotion he dubbed the ICW. Randall Poffo would go on to become the world-famous Macho Man Randy Savage.
As Boy Tony, a Boy George type guaranteed to rile up hayseeds, Falk spent the next decade playing Jabroni to such notables as Jerry "The King" Lawler, Abdullah the Butcher and Shawn Michaels, competing in a handful of main events but mainly taking his bumps as an undercard. Admittedly, he never got in good enough shape to ascend up the marquee, but he would prove his talents on the sidelines tenfold.
As an agent he helped train future superstars the likes of Mick Foley, Lex Luger and The Undertaker. In the '90s he refereed Stone Cold Steve Austin's first professional match, and in Tennessee he helped physically break in Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson — who contended against Falk two or three nights a week while cutting his teeth under a development deal with the WWE.
"I was able to help [those guys] on their way up," Falk says, "and now here I am, in Nashville, Tennessee, helping my son and many other young [wrestlers]."
Between the USWO's Friday event, Saturday amateur matches and afternoon training academy, Falk's weekends are spent professorially imparting his wisdom to the next generation of Tennessee wrestlers. Weekdays, he makes ends meet with a day job delivering commissary meals to Middle Tennessee jails.
From its home in the Stadium Inn, it's clear that the USWO is not supported by its profits, but by Falk's loyalty to his wrestlers — and his quest to give his son L.T. the practicum in wrestling promotion that money could never buy.
"[The USWO] gives my son a place to practice his craft, and maybe someday he [and several others] can make it," Falk says. The grail, as he explains it, is a potential stepping stone to a shot with the TNA — the Nashville/Florida-based professional wrestling organization co-founded by another of his former Padawans, Jeff Jarrett.
At 50, Falk quotes Garth Brooks in saying "I'm much too young to feel this damn old" when talking about the herniated disc and spinal arthritis he has to show for nearly 40 years in the ring. Even so, he says it was all worth it. "I loved taking all those bumps to entertain the crowds," he says. To this day, he still puts on the tights and boots for the occasional match, as in Lewisburg only a few weeks ago.
But the ring isn't the only place he's taken his bumps. He laments not having trained harder in his prime or learned how to save his money. He desperately wants his son and students to learn by way of his example. As if on cue, a young wrestler comes up to him for his pay, and Falk shells out what he can. "Thanks, Uncle Tony," the kid says, and ducks out into the night.
Falk may be the patriarch of the USWO and its wrestlers, but it's his son L.T. who runs the show. A baby-faced Mississippi good ol' boy, at age 21 he's a living shrine to the business — a walking Wikipedia of wrestling lore, stats, practices and history. His mother even wrestled professionally in the mid-'80s. He attended his first match a mere two weeks after his birth, and like his father, he entered the ring at 14, never to look back.
"I was just sort of expected to follow in [his] footsteps," L.T. says. He has spent years traveling from match to match across the Southeast and Midwest, learning the business under his father's guidance. Between the road and the league, professional wrestling is the only life L.T.'s ever known. He's never had a job outside of wrestling.
L.T., who has two children of his own, took the stage name Mr. 110%. It fits. He books the talent, handles the D.I.Y. promotion, determines the ongoing story lines and choreographs the matches. Taking his cues from the golden era of wrestling his father knew so well, he stretches their shoestring budget as far as he can to make the shows stadium-sized spectacles.
While the league attracts a handful of up-and-coming hopefuls, mid-level pros and the occasional "special guest on their way out [of the business]," former USWO wrestler Petey Wright says the majority of its wrestlers — who range in age from 17 to 60 — are regular guys who come to the Falks' weekend training academy nursing a childhood fantasy. Just about all of the ones who stick with it long enough to get competent get ring time. If they show they can draw a crowd, they move up further towards the main event.
The wrestlers who draw well get paid — though Wright doubts it's ever more than a couple hundred bucks. In other words, the hierarchy of the USWO isn't terribly dissimilar to that of the local music scene. And like any scene, it's governed by unwritten codes of conduct.
Among these, Wright says, is what's called a "receipt." When a wrestler accidently hits his opponent, the one struck gets a pass to hit back — but only mid-match. Seniority makes a difference.
"If an older guy hits [you] accidentally, [you] don't have a receipt on him," Wright says. "The first rule in pro wrestling is to respect your elders. The older you are, the more you've seen, the more respect you get and the more respect you deserve. And it better be shown."
There are also rules against sharp props and profanity in the ring, for the benefit of the many children who attend the matches — the same children fond of bellowing "You suuuuck!" at the USWO's heels. There's a little bit of locker room drinking that the wrestlers keep to themselves, and an infestation of rats: wrestling slang for groupies who divide their time among the contenders.
Considering all the time he spent at the Stadium Inn, Wright says, it surprised him that he never saw any guns, drugs or criminal activity. OK, there was the night a body was recovered in one of the rooms. (The cops wheeled it through the lobby as a match commenced.) But he notes that foul play was not suspected. And yes, OK, there was the night a disgruntled fan pulled a knife on a wrestler when a match didn't go his way. To a wrestler, that's like getting an Oscar.
"I swear, half of them think it's real," Wright says of the fans, to whom the wrestlers ascribe nicknames like Chicken Hat. It's not uncommon for the faithful, especially kids, to ask for autographs. Even in a hotel venue where the front desk's posted greeting is "Absolutely No Refunds," some USWO wrestlers peddle glossy glamour shots of themselves at the gimmick booth.
While the smoke and mirrors behind professional wrestling have long since been exposed, many guy-by-day/god-by-night contenders live in constant fear of demystifying fans. Committed wrestlers typically seek out menial jobs in places like factories or warehouses. They shy away from work in the service industry, where they run the risk of unwanted recognition.
"If somebody buys a ticket on Friday night and sees you kicking butt and doing your thing, and then they go to Mickey D's or Taco Bell and see you [behind the counter], it kills it," L.T. says.
By contrast, others assume characters that are funhouse-mirror images of their everyday lives. There's the 41-year-old lifelong wrestling fan who works in a Murfreesboro nursing facility, where his job can keep him working 55 hours a week. What keeps him going is the 10 minutes each Friday night he spends in the USWO's ring as The Psycho Medic — the Mr. Hyde he plays to his day gig's Dr. Jekyll, and a character Tony Falk helped him concoct.
"I think about it everyday," the mysterious Psycho Medic says. "I can't wait for Friday night to get here. It's something that I'd always wanted to do since watching it on TV when I was a kid."
The life Petey Wright escapes when entering the ring is markedly different: He's a male model. (Last fall, he became a legend in the locker room when he made tabloid headlines by shacking up with Lindsay Lohan after a risque photo shoot. Amusingly, the incident resulted in a flurry of calls to the Stadium Inn from the likes of Us Weekly "investigating" his pro-wrestling past.) But the 21-year-old fan favorite looks back on his days of broken bones in the banquet hall with great fondness. Now living in New York, he jumps at the opportunity to come back to the Stadium Inn.
"They love doing it so much," Wright says. "It's not even about the money, although I'm sure they'd love to make a lot of money." He says that, by and large, the competing wrestlers are all in the same boat. "They're all doing it because they love it too."
The latest act to galvanize the USWO crowds is the colorful tag team duo Knuckles and Knives — who look as if they were plucked straight out of the late '70s London punk scene. With his swaggering sneer and spiked bleached-blond hair, Johnny Punch (Knuckles) looks like Billy Idol if Billy Idol could actually kick someone's ass. His partner, Rudy Switchblade (Knives), dons a tight black vest and pompadour befitting the late Clash singer Joe Strummer.
The hero's welcome they receive upon entering the hall to the doombeats of Andrew W.K.'s power-anthem "Ready to Die" prompts a fever-pitch response from the audience, easily the biggest of the night. Kids grab at the wrestlers' props of choice — guitars and basses that double as weapons for exacting braying agony from their foes.
Unlike Petey Wright or the Psycho Medic, Punch and Switchblade make their living in the ring, and both have done their time pursuing wrestling's white whale — a contract with the big-time WWE.
Based in Louisville, Ky., they're on the road three or four nights a week, grinding it out on the regional circuit of independent wrestling leagues. Because of Nashville's outrageously rabid crowds — and the Falks' equally matched love of wrestling and respect for the business — Punch says the USWO is his favorite event to work each week, and that the "one-of-a-kind" venue is easily his favorite spot on the circuit.
"The poles are cut short, the ring is small and we sometimes bang our heads on the ceiling tiles when we jump off the top rope, but that's all part of the charm of it," Punch says. "It's a great place to be, and you can always get a cheap room afterward."
While Knuckles and Knives are the rarified example of ring-sustained wrestlers, Punch says they too are living out a fantasy — actually, two fantasies at once. As Punch sheepishly admits, "Rudy and I aren't the best musicians. ..."
After nearly half a decade laboring in relative obscurity, the USWO has noticed a striking change in their patronage and general attendance, as word of mouth has steadily spread through Nashville's indie rock and punk scenes. If their faces weren't familiar from hipster haunts like the Mercy Lounge, 3 Crow Bar, Springwater or 5 Spot — where, last year, a USWO appreciation show was held — you might not even notice them when scanning the banquet hall.
With their universal proclivity for irony, these newbies may be first seduced by the novelty of the event, only to realize that the Stadium Inn is where irony goes to die. On the dividing line of East Nashville and the rest of Tennessee, the USWO has serendipitously become a odd cultural green zone for worlds in collision and temporary collusion — where a 22-year-old vegan micro-blogger might jokingly wear a Moon Wolf shirt he scavenged at the Smyrna Salvation Army, while seated next to the 63-year-old meemaw from Manchester who was the shirt's original owner and reluctant donor.
Jesse Baker, who books bands and runs sound at popular Elliston Place rock club The End, went to watch the wrestling after DJ and party planner Pimp Daddy Supreme raved to him about it, saying, "Dude, you have to come down here! It's the best thing. Ever. In the history of the world." The thing that most struck him about the event was the diversity of the crowd.
"About 30 percent of [them] were kids I see at Springwater," Baker says.
The condensed seating area in the Stadium Inn banquet hall did not become a de facto meeting place for the two Americas haphazardly. L.T. Falk marketed to the patrons he lovingly refers to as "that 5 Spot clique." To his pleasant surprise, they came, serendipitously making their maiden voyage to the Inn on the very same night that Knuckles and Knives made their electrifying USWO debut.
"I papered the town out there in Inglewood and East Nashville, I believe that's the community for some of them?" L.T. says. "I think it's The 3 Crow Bar or 5 Spot or somethin' like that?"
You might think Tony Falk and the other wrestlers would resent their presence. But when Falk points out how their presence shakes up the crowd dynamic, it's only to note how green they are as spectators. Wrestling personas fall into two categories — babyfaces and heels — and it's standard protocol for the crowd to cheer the babyfaces and jeer the heels. The hipster set is oblivious to this, and it just so happens that they tend to root for the heels.
"They just cheer for whoever they want to cheer for," L.T. says. "They keep the crowd alive. They're not shy or afraid to yell, shout and jump up and down.
"When I first saw them [out there] I was shocked [thinking] 'I know they can't be wrestling fans,' " he adds. "I'm just glad they chose to take the time to come and see what my show is about. [They] chose to spend their hard-earned money, and sure enough, they liked it and are continuing to come. It's a good thing."
It's a good thing that also might make the USWO the latest in a long line of slumming-late-adopter indulgences — like shooting pool at Melrose Billiards, or joining Springwater's stationary stable of drunks for Tuesday-night karaoke. The difference is that with uncharacteristic consistency, they find themselves coming back for the same reason as the regulars, and for the same reason professional wrestling has ebbed and flowed in church basements and union halls and school gyms for more than a century. Fun is fun, and when the big man stands up from his folding-chair concussion to punish the wicked, he stands up for all of us.
Meanwhile, with times as tough as they are, the Falks are thrilled to have an uptick in attendance. Even if the newcomers end up moving on to the next stop on the cultural scavenger hunt, several constants will remain at the Stadium Inn. The PA will make every gargled announcement sound like Charlie Brown's teacher. Tony Falk will smile his crinkled smile at L.T. every time his genius huckster kid steps into the ring to sell one of his crowd-pleasing storylines. And the regulars will chant the name of every babyface, curse every dirty heel, and relish the gritty familiarity of the banquet hall that has just enough room to hold them all.
The only time L.T. Falk shows any hesitation talking about his chosen career path is in discussing the staged aspects of wrestling matches. He settles the matter firmly: "It's fixed, not fake." No doubt many USWO fans would say that's true of life itself. It's for them, at the heart of the Stadium Inn, that Tony and L.T. Falk are keeping it real.
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