By Dan Mathewson
Ask any wrestling aficionado about the greatest wrestlers from the last quarter century and one name you will consistently hear is “The Heartbreak Kid” Shawn Michaels, the wrestler discussed at the very end of part one of my series on the intersection of religion and professional wrestling. With the charisma of The Rock, the wrestling skill set of Bret “The Hitman” Hart, the masochistic daring of Jeff Hardy, the microphone skills of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and the eye-candy good looks of Chris Jericho, Michaels was the proverbial total package, possessing in abundance every trait of the superlative professional wrestler with no discernible deficiencies.
Shawn Michaels also converted to Evangelical Christianity toward the tail end of his wrestling career after coming to terms with his own self-destructive habits and crumbling family life. As Michaels explains in his autobiography, Heartbreak and Triumph, when he accepted Jesus into his heart, he felt at peace for the first time in his life. He finally experienced lasting relief and joy—something he only felt in fleeting glimpses during his wrestling career.
Michaels’s story—the wrestling megastar who converts to Evangelical Christianity—is surprisingly not terribly unusual; in fact, it is common enough that within the booming industry of professional wrestler autobiographies, an informal sub-genre of Christian autobiographies has emerged. Here, such wrestling legends as “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, Lex Luger, Sting, “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff, “The Russian Nightmare” Nikita Koloff, and Road Warrior Animal recount their journeys from wrestling stardom to salvation, stories that all seem to have the same narrative flow: ascent to the heights wrestling fame and fortune; plummeting into the depths of substance abuse and infidelity; finding Jesus, peace, and fulfillment; and then exiting the mainstream wrestling stage.
Many of these superstar wrestler converts also trade their wrestling fame for second careers as speakers on the evangelistic circuit appearing at churches, Christian conferences, and youth rallies. Here, they recount their life stories and implore their listeners to accept Christ as they did—and then hawk their autobiographies at tables set up near the exits as the audience files out.
Wrestling legends exploiting their fame for evangelistic purposes presents a confluence of the worlds of religion and pro wrestling quite different from what I explored in part one of my series, namely, World Wrestling Entertainment’s (WWE) and Total Nonstop Action’s (TNA) use of fictionalized representations of religion—religious gimmicks and storylines—to further the entertainment and profit-generation goals of these big-time wrestling corporations. In the case of the wresters-turned-evangelists, by contrast, the instrumentality flows in the opposite direction: here, it is the religious who enlist pro wrestling in the cause of winning souls.
In what follows, I probe deeper into this usage of pro wrestling for sacred purposes. The story of the wrestler-turned-evangelist, however, is only one part of a much larger narrative—one that mostly transpires far removed from the glamour of the mainstream wrestling stage, in the much smaller, much less visible world of independent pro wrestling. To introduce more fully this larger narrative of the religious use of professional wrestling and the much less visible world of independent pro wrestling, I turn to a wrestler very much at the center of both, “Mr. #1” George South.
“Mr. #1” George South
With his entrance music blaring over the sound system in the cramped American Coliseum, the evening’s best-known (and least-loved) wrestler, “Mr. #1” George South, makes his way down the short aisle to a chorus of insults and jeers. As usual, South is in a testy mood; he snarls at the fans in his signature gravely voice, jabbing an aggressive finger at several who are seated ringside. His wrestling outfit is minimal: a bandana and modified t-shirt that are both removed when he enters the ring, wrestling boots, knee pads, and black trunks with the words “I love Jesus” blazed in big white letters across his butt. South is making a guest appearance this particular evening at American Pro Wrestling, a small, independent wrestling promotion in upstate South Carolina, about eighty miles down the road from his home in Concord, North Carolina.
To recognize the name George South, you may need to be a wrestling fan of a certain vintage and geographic locale. South was a mid-level mainstream wrestling star in the 1980s-era National Wrestling Alliance and World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment), and later, in Ted Turner’s now defunct World Championship Wrestling. Throughout his time on the mainstream wrestling stage, South worked mostly as “enhancement talent”—that is, a wrestler whose role it is to augment the profile of his bigger name opponents by making them look good in the ring. Though “jobbers,” as such wresters are more derisively called, perpetually get beat up and lose their matches, South was and continues to be fairly well known in the southeast.
South has now moved on from the big-time stage of mainstream professional wrestling, but he remains involved in the wrestling world full-time: he runs his own professional wrestling training school in a small warehouse in Charlotte, North Carolina; he helps operate an impressive internet-based wrestling collectibles store, www.highspots.com, out of the same warehouse; he owns, operates, and wrestles in his own Charlotte-area independent wrestling promotion, Exodus Wrestling Alliance; and he makes special guest appearances at a variety of independent wrestling promotions throughout the southeast, including the aforementioned American Pro Wrestling in upstate South Carolina.
Independent Professional Wrestling
George South’s current setting in the world of independent professional wrestling is quite a shift from his prior gig on the mainstream wrestling stage. Though independent and mainstream wrestling offer audiences basically the same product—scripted feuds between wrestling characters—they differ immensely from each other in scale. Contemporary mainstream wrestling (WWE and TNA) is big business: weekly performances broadcast on national television, touring wrestling shows that run in different cities multiple times each week throughout the year, large audiences in major sports stadiums and arenas, stables of the most talented and physically impressive wrestlers in the world, and in-house publishing firms and film studios that churn out scores of fast-selling books, magazines, and DVDs.
Independent wrestling has almost none of this. In fact, independent wrestling isn’t any single entity, it’s composed, rather, of thousands of small and autonomous wrestling organizations that stage wrestling shows—sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly, sometimes simply on an ad hoc basis—in school gymnasiums, state fairgrounds, Boys and Girls Clubs, National Guard Armories, or small auditoriums in a single geographic area, usually a single town or small portion of a state. Independent wrestling shows are almost never broadcast on television; they are local affairs for local live audiences and usually feature local wrestlers who have varying degrees of experience and talent, who all earn their livings at other jobs and wrestle on the side for very little pay— oftentimes none at all if they appear early in the card.
This split between mainstream and independent wrestling has a long and rather complex history that reaches back to professional wrestling’s old territory system that was in place for much of the twentieth century (if you’re interested in this, I highly recommend Scott Beekman’s Ringside: A History of Professional Wrestling in America). This complicated history has resulted in a two-tiered professional wrestling landscape, mainstream and independent, that is often compared to professional baseball’s major and minor leagues.
This comparison is only partially accurate. What is correct is that wrestling’s major leagues, WWE and TNA, are the gold standard of professional wrestling; if a wrestler makes it in either, he or she has arrived at the pinnacle of the business. What is also correct is that there are a handful much smaller, but still quite prestigious wrestling promotions that feature stables of very talented wrestlers—both castoffs from the big leagues and young up-and-comers—who hope to land in the major leagues one day. Like baseball’s minor league system, these minor league wrestling promotions are mostly followed on a regional rather than national level, and there is a hierarchy of prestige among them (though with no official designations like minor league baseball’s AAA, AA, A, and so forth). Minor league promotions include Ring of Honor Wrestling, Dragon Gate USA, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, Chikara Pro, Family Wrestling Entertainment, and my favorite current wrestling organization, the fantastically entertaining, Charlotte-based Premiere Wrestling Xperience. One small difference between wrestling’s major and minor leagues is that these minor league promotions have no formal relationship with the big leagues; they are independent of them and of each other. The only exception is the WWE-owned WWE NXT, an Orlando-based promotion where the WWE sends its youngest talent for seasoning.
The glaring problem with the comparison between mainstream and independent wrestling with baseball’s major and minor leagues is this: though a tiny fraction of the independent promotions function as a kind of informal minor league for WWE and TNA, the vast majority do not. Most of them exist, rather, simply to provide local live wrestling entertainment for a given small town or city, not to supply the major leagues with their future superstars. Indeed, independent wrestling promotions are more akin to community theatre than to minor league baseball. They consist of local actor/wrestlers of varying experience and talent who entertain small crowds of locals, not as preparation for future careers on Broadway, but for the sheer love of their craft. And as with local live theatre, there are glaring differences between the various independent promotions in terms of caliber of venues, price of admission, size of crowds, quality of product, and overall entertainment value.
American Pro Wrestling, where George South sometimes appears, is on the higher end of the quality scale in comparison to the independent promotions nearby. It stages weekly shows every Saturday night in its own small auditorium, charging $10 per adult and it features a mixture of wrestling novices, locally established independent wrestlers of varying skill, and, from time to time, ex-mainstream wrestlers like Ricky Morton (of “The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express”), “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff, The Barbarian, and “Mr. #1” George South.
For the most part, the ex-mainstream wrestlers who make appearances at American Pro Wrestling retain their old mainstream wrestling gimmicks that once brought them fame during their time in the wrestling limelight. Ricky Morton, for example, who is now well into his fifties, still sports a blond mullet and plays the role of the pretty boy, rock ‘n’ roll heartthrob. George South, too, still plays his patented mean and snarly “heel” character, though he’s now scaled back his once glorious mullet.
Christianity and Independent Professional Wrestling
One glaring difference, however, between George South in his mainstream and independent wrestling iterations is that in the latter he always advertises an overtly Christian message during his wrestling shows, whether by passing out evangelistic tracts to fans during intermission or through the words “I love Jesus” or “John 3:16” on his wrestling trunks—words he was expressly forbidden to display when he wrestled for Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling.
When I saw South wrestle several months back at American Pro Wrestling, the “I love Jesus” message on his trunks was entirely at odds with wrestling drama that unfolded in the tiny, dank, and sweltering American Coliseum. South portrayed his characteristic “heel” character: he was surly, he repeatedly insulted the crowd, and he treated his opponent with arrogant contempt. His heel persona so contradicted the message on his trunks that, at one point in the match, an irate fan in the front row began to scream at him, “Jesus wouldn’t act that way! Jesus wouldn’t act that way!” South responded by sticking out his tongue at the fan.
Those with any kind of knowledge about professional wrestling might assume that the “I love Jesus” message that South advertised across the butt of his wrestling trunks was part of the irony of his heel character—a way for a villain to enhance his despicability through a flagrant display of religious hypocrisy and thus “get over” with the crowd and generate “heel heat” (as it is known). As I discussed in my previous article in this series, there have been many prominent mainstream wrestlers over the years whose wrestling gimmicks have employed this kind of ironic usage of religion—wrestlers like the smarmy televangelist, Brother Love; the loathsome Evangelical convert, Dustin Runnels; and the angry critic of America, Muhammad Hassan.
When George South wrestles in the independent circuit, however, his religious message is no gimmick. He does not announce his love for Jesus ironically in order to generate “heel heat” and neither does he announce it as a sort of “worked” (or fake) earnestness in order to receive what is called “babyface pop” (i.e., cheering for a good guy wrestler).
In fact, at American Pro Wrestling, religion—or at least Christianity—is rarely incorporated into the fictionalized wrestling drama (or, as they say, made into “a work”). If wrestlers “work” a Christian “gimmick,” they do so at their own peril, for there are some themes that are thought to be sacrosanct: play with them in the wrong way and people will become legitimately furious with you and never come back to watch you wrestle.
I saw, first-hand, this reverential attitude toward Christianity displayed at American Pro Wrestling. A few years back, I was discussing with American Pro Wrestling’s promoter, Chief Jay Eagle, the Baptist preacher gimmick that one of my Wofford College students, wrestling in an upcoming show that we were organizing, would use. (Why I, a religion professor, was involved in the wacky world of professional wrestling is a story that you can watch here and here). Eagle explained that my student, who would wrestle as “The Preacher” and be a fire-and-brimstone villain, would not be permitted to carry an actual Bible to the ring as he marched down the aisle, condemning the fans to hell for their presumed multitude of sins. Playing with Christianity in this way would be to cross a line of decency and would not be received well by Eagle’s small-town, blue-collar crowd. At American Pro Wrestling, though you may play with various culturally charged themes like racial bigotry and homophobia, you play with the Bible at your own peril.
Fortunately for The Preacher, the wrestling show was held at Wofford College in front of a crowd of mostly students, faculty, and administrators. Not only did he carry a bible to the ring, his valet, Bobbie Jones, carried an offering plate, which she’d use as a weapon later in the match.
When I related this story about The Preacher and his Bible to George South, he told me of a fire-and-brimstone preacher-character called “The Reverend Slim” who used to wrestle years ago for Eagle at American Pro Wrestling. Evidently that reverend carried a hymnbook to the ring, not a Bible. In South’s estimation, this whole Baptist-preacher gimmick already crossed the line of decency, whether an actual Bible was involved or not. Christianity should not be an “angle” that a wrestler uses to get “heat.”
George South: “I love Jesus”
George South certainly is not trying to catch “heat” when he displays a Christian message on his trunks. For though his in-ring heel persona is a “work” (i.e., part of the fiction of pro wrestling), his “I love Jesus” message is what wrestlers call a “shoot” (i.e., something authentic). The real George South—not the wrestling character—really, truly loves Jesus and wishes to share his love of Jesus with others.
South’s personal website displays this tension between the artifice of wrestling and the sincerity of religious sentiment. The main page is a scattered combination of Christian admonitions and inspirational messages mixed in with a plethora of wrestling photographs, graphics, advertisements, and blog entries. The site’s daily scripture verse, for example, appears right above the display of various pro wrestling championship belts. A scrolling ticker message at the bottom of the page has three phrases that repeat on a continuous loop: “Train with George South,” “Mr. #1 George South pro wrestling school 704.577.5503,” and “Jesus died for your sins!!!!!” Likewise, the large blog area of the page contains different sections in which South writes in several distinct voices: the top section is for George South the evangelist, who delivers a brief inspirational message about Christ’s love; the next section is for George South the promoter, who informs potential paying customers of his upcoming shows; the last is for George South the heel wrestler, who insults the reading audience.
It is the tension between first and last of these George Souths, the evangelist and the heel wrestler, that seem so irreconcilable when South performs in the wrestling ring, with “I love Jesus” or “John 3:16” advertised across his trunks as he cheats in the ring and snarls at the crowd. Chief Jay Eagle who runs American Pro Wrestling recalled a particularly striking clash between these two seemingly opposite George Souths in a violent match a couple decades back between South and The Italian Stallion—a match that turned particularly gruesome, as they often did in decades past. The sight of “‘John 3:16’ [printed] on his trunks, [and] blood pouring down his face” was a jarring image for Eagle—the reminder of God’s love so out of place in the gory scene. “I always felt like if he’s gonna push the John 3:16,” Eagle continued, “[then] he should be babyface”—that is, a good guy wrestler whose virtue mirrors the religious message he advertises.
South, however, is not troubled by the contradiction that Eagle perceives between his mean heel wrestling persona and his sincere Christian message. In fact, he believes performing as a heel increases the effectiveness of his evangelistic mission, for if he wrestled as a good guy, as Eagle suggests he should, someone might think that his religious message is part of his good-guy gimmick. “They expect the good guy, more or less, to come out and kiss babies and shake hands,” South reasons. “If the good guys comes out and has ‘I love Jesus’ on [his trunks], people won’t even respond to that because they think, ‘Good guys are supposed to love Jesus.’” If a fan, however, is incensed at a heel, reproaching the misbehaving wrestler that “Jesus wouldn’t do this! Jesus wouldn’t pull hair!” then, according to South, “It worked.” He has forced the fan to think about Jesus. This fan is one step closer to being saved.
Using whatever “works” to spread the message about Jesus is an attitude of evangelistic utilitarianism that has characterized American Evangelicalism from its inception. Despite their reputation as strict moralizers and stringent critics of the secular world, Evangelicals have actually long displayed remarkably tolerant attitudes toward technological advances and popular cultural trends, characteristically viewing these as neutral mediums that can be made to transmit either worldly messages of a sinful secular society, in which case they should be condemned, or godly messages of Christ’s love and salvation, in which case they should be utilized to their fullest. This pragmatic approach to cultural innovations has led to all manner of Evangelical adaptations: from the embrace of catchy folk music and the techniques of live theatre in the revival meetings of the Second Great Awakening, to the early adoption of the mediums of radio, television, internet, and smart phone apps to transmit Christian content; from the Evangelicalization of rock ‘n’ roll music, romance novels, video games, and action films, to the even quirkier inventions of Christian genres of skateboarding demos, clowning routines, rock climbing groups, and, juggling performances.
“The old devil has used [this] stuff; how come the Lord can’t use any of it?” South reasons employing the utilitarian logic of his Evangelical community. “Use anything you can to share Jesus,” South admonishes—whether wrestling trunks, evangelistic tracts distributed to wrestling fans, or best yet, what is introduced below, entire wrestling shows.
Professional Wrestling as Christian Ministry
On a late-August afternoon several weeks after his guest appearance at American Pro Wrestling, George South pulls his white Chevy Suburban into an open, grassy picnic area on the grounds of Freedom Christian Center, a non-denominational Pentecostal church in the north end of Charlotte, North Carolina. Behind his truck, South tows a flat-bed trailer that carries a dismantled professional wrestling ring—the same ring, he will later inform me, in which the legendary wrestler, Road Warrior Hawk, fought his final match before his untimely death in 2003. Over the course of the next hour, South and his crew will haul the various pieces of the ring off of the trailer—corner posts, crossbeams, plywood, and turnbuckles—and assemble them, one-by-one, off to the side of a large picnic pavilion. Inside the pavilion, church volunteers begin to make preparations for the crowd that will soon assemble: tables are arranged, hotdogs and hamburgers are grilled, and a large sound system is powered up. Loud Christian rock music begins to blast throughout the picnic grounds.
After the ring is assembled, South’s crew heads off behind the pavilion and across a parking lot to the children’s ministry building. They commandeer one of the classrooms to use as a dressing room where they will exchange their ring set-up clothes for their professional wrestling digs: colorful wrestling trunks, shiny wrestling boots, knee pads, wrist tape, and whatever other accouterments comprise each wrestler’s individual get-up. By 7 p.m., a crowd of approximately fifty people has gathered around the ring, most of them school children out for one last night of summer freedom before the beginning of the new school year the following morning.
For the next hour and a half, the wrestlers of George South’s wrestling promotion, Exodus Wrestling Alliance, will entertain the crowd with a wrestling show similar, in many ways, to the American Pro Wrestling show in which South appeared several weeks earlier. There are in-character wrestlers who play to the crowd. There are matches that feature stylized faux-fights, a referee who is blind to the mischief of the villains, and a main event that features George South, himself, the evening’s best known star. As is typical of independent professional wrestling, the show has little glitz and glamour and it features local wrestlers with varying degrees of experience and skill.
Also typical of independent wrestling, Exodus Wrestling Alliance will turn a very modest profit this evening—whatever is collected by a church volunteer during a hastily organized offering for the wrestlers at the end of the show. This is fine with South for, unlike a typical wrestling show, whether independent or mainstream, this one has been organized not for the purposes of turning a profit, but as an exercise of evangelistic utilitarianism: using what works—the wrestling, the food, the music, the giveaways between the bouts—to entice the school children to the church grounds in order to hear a brief message about Christ’s love.
South, himself, delivers the message to the school children this evening. He does so immediately following his own wrestling match (which he wins by bashing his opponent with a parking cone several times and then pinning the stunned man). His message is brief and to the point: he tells the children about his love for Jesus and then urges them to remember that Jesus died for their sins. The evening ends with South leading the children in prayer.
Christian Professional Wrestling
This evening’s Exodus Wrestling Alliance show is a standard example of a small sub-genre of independent wrestling generally called “Christian professional wrestling.” The sub-genre was created in the early- to mid-1990s when George South and “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, one of the biggest superstar wrestlers at the time, had the idea to use their wrestling talents to lure a crowd of non-Christian wrestling fans to church. After finding a small Baptist church in Mississippi amenable to the idea, South and DiBiase staged the first Christian professional wrestling show: wrestling matches headlined by the mainstream wrestling superstars, followed by an evangelistic message and altar call, delivered by DiBiase.
Believing they had found a powerful ministry tool, South and DiBiase began to stage all manner of Christian wrestling shows throughout the years: at churches, at National Guard Armories and State Fairgrounds, in middle and high school gymnasiums, at Evangelical youth rallies, and even at the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the NASCAR race week, where South continues to hold an annual wrestling outreach. Over the years, South and DiBiase have been joined for their wrestling shows by other Christian wrestling legends such as “The Russian Bear” Ivan Koloff, “The Russian Nightmare” Nikita Koloff, Sting, Lex Luger, The Road Warriors, and Shawn Michaels.
Nowadays, with DiBiase busy with his own, more traditional evangelistic outreach, Heart of David Ministry, South runs the Christian wrestling events on his own—and he does so several times each year. Every once in a while, however, the two will get together to run a Christian wrestling show like they used to, in the old days.
Over the years, dozens of other Christian professional wrestling organizations have popped up, most of them clustered in the South: Georgia, Tennessee, and the Carolinas, in particular. With names like Carolina Christian Championship Wrestling, New Life Wrestling, Christian Premier Wrestling, and Rugged Cross Championship Wrestling, these wrestling outfits tend to organize periodic shows in various small venues in a single town or city, advertising the events in local church newsletters, on posters hung around town, and on their Facebook pages. Many of the organizations, however, remain operational for only a few years before they disband, to be heard from no more. Such is the case for the Christian wrestling organizations featured in the two documentaries discussed in part one of this series, Ultimate Christian Wrestling and Wrestling For Jesus, as well as a host of others (e.g., Throne Wrestling Federation, Inspirational Championship Wrestling Alliance, Warriors 4 Christ, Georgia Christian Wrestling Federation, and so on).
The most organizationally sophisticated of all of the Christian wrestling promotions is likely Christian Wrestling Federation, based in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas. Formed in 2000, CWF has organized over 535 shows in thirty-one states and three countries according to the promotion’s website. The organization also features perhaps the largest stable of professional wrestlers of any Christian wrestling outfit and it has its own auditorium where it runs monthly shows that are broadcast via the outfit’s YouTube channel. The promotion is so well run and so well known that contemporary mainstream Christian wrestlers often make special guest appearances, such as AJ Styles, Elijah Burke (aka. “The Pope,” D’Angelo Dinero), and, more recently, Michael Tarver.
Key Features of Christian Wrestling
The distinguishing trait of Christian professional wrestling promotions is their self-description not as sports entertainment, which is the common designation for pro wrestling organizations, but as Christian ministry. Christian Wrestling Federation, for example, explains on its website that “The Bible says we are to use unique and different ways to reach people for Christ. This is what the CWF is all about . . . reaching people in a unique way . . . The focus of the CWF is to win souls for Christ.” Similarly, Christian Wrestling Association, International describes its purpose as “Old School Wrestling and Jesus! Our main mission is to get the word of Jesus Christ out to the world.” Likewise, Carolina Christian Championship Wrestling, on its Facebook page declares that its purpose is “Reaching people for Jesus Christ through wrestling.”
The evangelistic utilitarian logic evident in these mission statements—using wrestling as a tool to bring sinners to Christ—leads to two important features that distinguish Christian professional wrestling organizations from other wrestling promotions. First, the Christian organizations intentionally eschew a wrestling product popularized in the mid-1990s in the WWE—a style that featured raunchy, sex-related themes, and morally complex wrestling characters whose popularity stemmed from their own self-promotion and hubris. Instead, the Christian wrestling promotions keep their operations more in line with 1980s-era wrestling with “family-friendly” themes, child-appropriate language, and morally simplistic characters who are either unambiguously good or bad. As Carolina Christian Championship Wrestling advertises, they offer “old-school wrestling with Jesus in the midst.”
There is, however, variation among the Christian wrestling promotions regarding how explicitly “Christian” the wrestlers’ gimmicks and their storylines are. In some Christian promotions, the baby-face and heel wrestlers (i.e., good guys and bad guys) are themed with explicitly Evangelical traits. “The Jesus Freak” Rob Vaughn from the Christian Wrestling Federation, for example, is a baby-face character whose primary feature is his enthusiastic love of Jesus. Likewise, Carolina Christian Championship Wrestling’s baby-face tag-team, “God’s Army,” signals their virtue by pausing in the ring to pray before their matches and by obeying the rules as they wrestle with grit and determination. A final example is the baby-face wrestler, The Iron Cross, who wrestles in a variety of independent promotions, both Christian and not. He always wrestles wearing a mask decorated with a large cross on his forehead and, when working Christian shows, comes to the ring carrying a Bible and distributing Christian pamphlets to the crowd.
Heel characters, too, are sometimes themed after the range of vices in the Evangelical moral order. These gimmicks tend to be far more creative than their baby-face counterparts, for while there is only one narrow way to be good, there are a myriad of ways to be bad. Carolina Christian Championship Wrestling’s “Evil Inc.,” for example, is a large team of diabolic wrestlers, ranging from the Lord of the Underworld gimmick (“Rage” Davidson) to a kind of demonic carnival clown gimmick (Michael Kaine). At their lead is the aptly named “Father Darkness,” a wrestling manager in clerical garb who carries an oversized “Book of Darkness” to the ring and who cowers as though in physical agony when the crowd chants, as it inevitably does, “You need Jesus!” (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap). Another example of Evangelically themed heel wrestlers is New Life Wrestling’s “Stud Stable,” a reprieve of the earlier mainstream teams of the same name, which is led by a loudmouth, Boss Hogg-looking manager who lures wrestlers to his team with bloated promises of money, women, and lives of luxury. Stud Stable wrestlers are disrespectful and cruel braggarts who sell out their closest friends for the promise of worldly goods.
The Evangelically themed baby-face wrestlers generally are fan favorites, receiving the biggest “pop” of the evening when they wrestle, but it’s also true that certain heel wrestlers, due to wildly entertaining alacrity with which they throw themselves into their characters, find a minority of fan support. Such is certainly the case with both Evil Inc. and Stud Stable; when they wrestle, not only can a smattering of cheers be heard amid the chorus of boos, their supporters also wear t-shirts and raise homemade signs that declare their allegiance to the heel wrestlers.
Some Christian promotions infuse Evangelical themes not only into their wrestling characters but also into the wrestling storylines that are developed show-by-show. In 2013, for example, Carolina Christian Championship Wrestling’s main “angle,” which it developed month after month in successive wrestling shows, involved the struggle between competing factions of wrestlers for “control” of the organization. On the one side was Evil Inc. with the aforementioned “Father Darkness” deviously plotting nefarious schemes to seize power for himself. Defending the wrestling organization against this evil incursion was the combination of the aforementioned “God’s Army” along with “The New Age Freebirds,” a team of southern Christian good-ole boys. The dramatic tension of the storyline centered on the “question” of which faction was stronger, the one deceived by the devil or the one that followed Jesus.
Another common technique that some Christian wrestling promotions employ to infuse Evangelical themes into their shows is to have a wrestling match morph into a dramatic morality play enacted by the wrestlers-turned-actors. One example comes from footage of a Christian wrestling show in the documentary, “Ultimate Christian Wrestling.” In the evening’s final match, one of the wrestlers found himself flung into the corner of the ring with several attackers looming over him. Right before the attackers began their assault, the arena suddenly went pitch black for a few moments. When the lights turned back on, the fallen wrestler was now standing outside the ring, while a bearded, white-robed actor playing the role of Jesus was now sprawled out in the corner of the ring, exactly where the wrestler had been lying. The attackers assaulted Jesus as the wrestler looked on in guilty anguish, offering dramatic expressions of gratitude that Jesus bore his punishment in his stead.
George South describes another example of such a dramatic morality play in the early Christian wrestling shows he and Ted DiBiase used to organize. South would wrestle the final match of these shows. As soon as it would end, DiBiase, in his “Million Dollar Man” persona, would come to the ring and attempt to buy South, offering millions of dollars if the wrestler would sell out and become a villain. South would then dramatize the struggle of choosing right or wrong before announcing to the crowd that he could not be bought because he had already been purchased by the blood of Jesus.
Likely the most extreme example of a Christian promotion infusing its wrestling with Evangelical themes comes from a particular 2009 Christian Championship Wrestling show. Not only did the show begin with worship and prayer, but the ring announcer, who happened to be a local pastor, also offered little mini-sermons between each bout, explaining the moral implications of the match just fought (e.g., cheaters and liars do not triumph, a little encouragement brings tremendous results, and so forth).
Though some Christian wrestling promotions infuse different kinds of explicitly Evangelical themes into their wrestling shows, it is much more common for the wrestling characters and storylines to simply be “family-oriented,” meaning without raunchy or sex-related themes, without vulgar language, and with wrestling gimmicks that correspond to the ethical standards and values that predominate in the local community. The most popular baby face in New Life Wrestling, for example, is “Bomber C-4,” a wrestler whose popularity stems as much from his imposing stature as it does from his constant “good guy” perseverance and encouragement of fair play. Another example is Redneck Rebel, who, despite his slight stature and rather limited wrestling skills, is one of the most popular baby-face wrestlers in Carolina Christian Championship Wrestling. The most notable aspect of the wrestler is his liberal display of the Confederate flag. Not only does he carry the flag to the ring, but the crossed stars emblem decorates his hat, vest, and cut-off jeans, and it is tattooed across his chest. He connects so well to the predominantly low-income, southern white crowd because he projects himself as one of them: an average good ole-boy, “helluva fella.”
If the first distinguishing feature of Christian professional wrestling is that it offers the audience a “family”-oriented product, whether explicitly Evangelically themed or not, the second and most obvious marker of the genre is that at some point during the show, usually immediately after the final match, there will be an evangelistic “message” delivered from the middle of the wrestling ring. Oftentimes the evangelist will be one of the evening’s wrestlers, though sometimes it might be a local pastor or another featured guest. The message, however, almost always includes the evangelist’s own spiritual autobiography (or “testimony”) and an urgent plea for the non-Christians in the crowd to receive Christ’s salvation. Following the message, there is often an “altar” call where audience members are invited to the ring to commit their lives to Christ and to receive prayer, either from one of the Christian wrestlers or from other volunteers.
This shift from the zaniness of professional wrestling to the utter seriousness of one’s eternal salvation can sometimes make for a rather puzzling transition. See, for example, this promotional clip of a past Christian Championship Wrestling show where the masked wrestler, The Iron Cross, who had just pinned his opponent, took the microphone and proceeded to tell the crowd about God’s plan of salvation still wearing his wrestling mask and skimpy trunks (begin at the 1:43 mark).
Another example of this sometimes awkward shift from wrestling craziness to evangelistic sobriety comes from a past Christian Wrestling Federation show. Here, the new CWF “commissioner” introduces a special “guest enforcer” to the evening’s wrestling card, the mainstream wrestling superstar, Elijah Burke (aka, “The Pope” D’Angelo Dinero). As his entrance music blares, Burke proceeds to the ring, takes the microphone and begins not to verbally harangue the heel wrestlers (as would be the standard wrestling thing to do), but to share with the crowd his own personal journey to salvation and his current relationship with Christ.
A final example of this sometimes puzzling transition to evangelistic seriousness comes from a New Life Wrestling show I attended in late 2013. During the particularly vicious final match, a half-dozen wrestlers suddenly charged to the ring from the backstage area, interrupting the match and attacking the combatants for no obvious reason. They fled to the back following their attack, after which the aforementioned Bomber C-4, New Life Wrestling’s chief baby face, also came to the ring carrying a microphone in his hand. He then began to witness to (or attempt to convert) one of the original combatants who had been attacked. It took me several minutes to figure out that Bomber C-4’s message to the wrestler was not part of the wrestling fiction; he was really, truly attempting to share Christ’s love with the wrestler in the ring. A similarly confusing moment at the very next New Life Wrestling show prompted a fan seated near me to ask in a loud, dumbfounded voice, “What is going on?”—a question I surely would have had too, had I not been waiting for the odd evangelistic moment of the wrestling show to arrive.
However awkward the transition to the show’s evangelistic message may seem, for those like George South who run Christian professional wrestling promotions, this evangelistic message is the most crucial moment of the whole event; indeed, it is the purpose for the existence of the entire organization. For like South’s show in the northern part of Charlotte at Freedom Christian Center, success is measured not by how much gate revenue has been collected, but whether the unsaved have heard the gospel message, and whether souls have been saved.
How successful Christian professional wrestling promotions are in winning souls for Christ is up for debate, even within the Evangelical community. On the one side, promoters of Christian wrestling organizations defend their ministries by proudly counting the number of audience members who come forward to the wrestling ring during the altar call. “7 souls sought the grace of the Most High,” read the status update on Carolina Christian Championship Wrestling’s Facebook page following its October 19, 2013 show—a typical summary of the only information relevant to the success of the prior evening’s event. For its part, Christian Wrestling Federation boldly displays on its homepage a running tally of the number of conversions—“over 21,000” throughout its thirteen-year existence, a quantification of success if there ever was one, by the standards of evangelistic utilitarian logic.
No matter how many conversions, these Christian wrestling promotions claim, there are many others within the Evangelical community who are deeply suspicious of these ministries. Opposition seems to come in distinct varieties. The first is a sort of irritated astonishment that such a ministry actually exists, for like almost everyone else, the vast majority of Evangelicals have never heard of this kind of ministry before. Non-Evangelicals are far more likely to be mildly entertained when they learn of the existence of Christian pro wrestling, whereas Evangelicals, since they often perceive theological wrong-headedness in the enterprise, are more apt to be perturbed.
Two different kinds of oppositional responses come from Evangelicals who live in towns where Christian wrestling promotions operate and therefore are already aware of their existence. The first is to express extreme dubiousness toward professional wrestling’s potential as an effective evangelistic tool. As George South is fond of repeating, always with unmasked irritation at the patent wrongness, in his view, of the declaration, “People tell me all the time: ‘That’ll never work!’” While South and his Evangelical opponents agree that evangelistic utility is the proper measure of a ministry’s success, they reach very different conclusions about whether his wrestling promotion is, in fact, effective. In South’s view, if his opponents say it is not, then they are willfully ignoring the only facts that matter: the number of souls won for Christ.
The other common oppositional reaction by Evangelicals already aware of Christian wrestling’s existence is to doubt not the utility of pro wrestling as a ministry tool, but the sincerity of the gospel message the wrestling promotions deliver. According to this critique, pro wrestling cannot be combined with a Christian message because wrestling is already a morally compromised enterprise. Randy Ferguson, who runs Carolina Christian Championship Wrestling, encounters this attitude from some of his town’s larger, more affluent Baptist churches who “want nothing to do with [his ministry]” because they associate professional wrestling only with what they see on TV: “the half-dressed girls, the cussing . . . [the] steroids and human growth . . . hormones.” This negative view of pro wrestling, moreover, also causes some Evangelicals to doubt the sincerity of the very conversions that Christian wrestling promotions point toward in defense of the viability of their ministries. As George South claims, he is commonly accused by other Christians of using pro wrestling as some sort of ruse to trick the non-saved into converting—an accusation he dismisses with disdain.
That criticism exists within the Evangelical community to Christian wrestling promotions should occasion no surprise. Intra-Evangelical opposition to the combination of its gospel message with an unexpected cultural form has been as common throughout history as has been the evangelistic utilitarian logic that has impelled the Evangelical innovators to combine the two to begin with. Even those Evangelical combinations that appear so commonplace and uncontroversial today—things like expressive preaching styles, emotive worship songs, and Contemporary Christian Music—were often viewed with deep skepticism within certain sectors of the Evangelical community during the eras in which they represented the cutting edge of Evangelical innovation.
What perhaps is more surprising than the existence of Evangelical opposition to Christian wrestling ministries is that these Evangelical opponents express similar sentiments—that religion and wrestling should not be combined—to those expressed by certain pro wrestling enthusiasts regarding the religious gimmicks and storylines they see in the WWE and TNA. Both sets of critics advocate “the separation of church and religion,” as one wrestling blog cheekily puts it, though for diametrically opposite reasons. For the Evangelical critics, it is because pro wrestling vitiates the gospel message. For the critics among wrestling enthusiasts, it is because religion sullies mainstream wrestling’s quality.
Despite what the critics on either side hope, the combination of religion and wrestling will no doubt continue well into the foreseeable future. WWE and TNA will continue to use religious gimmicks and storylines for entertainment purposes, as long as these help generate profit. Evangelical innovators will continue to use of professional wrestling for evangelistic purposes, as long as people keep getting saved.
Or, in the words of George South, who no doubt speaks for all who combine religion and wrestling, “I just keep doing it.”
American religion, bible, Christianity, culture, entertainment, evangelical, pro-wrestling, religion, ritual, TNA, visual culture, wrestling, WWE