No Wrestling Please
Written by: Zach Winston
*CONTENT WARNING* - Graphic descriptions of combat violence, blood, and gore.
It was about a six-and-a-half hour drive from Boston to The Showboat Hotel in Atlantic City, where Game Changer Wrestling was hosting their annual Tournament of Survival event that afternoon in The Carousel Room, celebrating its seventh installment. Eight of the world’s most talented performers - coming from as far as Wales and Japan - competing in an evening-long bracketed tournament similar to WWE’s old King of the Ring.
But Tournament of Survival isn’t the type of professional wrestling event one can just find on cable television or standard pay-per-view. Due to it’s graphic violent content, one must dig somewhat deep into the internet until they make their way to footage of GCW’s major events on FITE.tv - a streaming/video-on-demand service for independent combat-sports promotions.
Obviously, professional wrestling has always maintained a consistent presence in my thirty-two years, but I’m a relative newcomer to the niche-within-a-niche of “deathmatch wrestling.”
In the past, I’d seen some serious bloodbaths from hardcore wrestling legends Mick Foley, Terry Funk, and Sabu in Extreme Championship Wrestling in the nineties. I’d seen botched “juice jobs” from the likes of Eddie Guerrero and Steve Austin in WWE during the early-two-thousands, but my first time being fully exposed to the true art of bloodshed was during Season 3 of Viceland’s gripping documentary series Dark Side of the Ring.
The subject of that season’s third episode was wrestler Nick Gage - an innovator of the American deathmatch style - titled The Ultra-Violence of Nick Gage. Real-name Nicholas William Wilson, Gage began his hardcore wrestling career in 1999 working for Combat Zone Wrestling - a predecessor to GCW, and descendant of ECW. He’d spend the next sixteen years making a name for himself in the merciless underground of local, independent professional wrestling, winning multiple championships and accolades along the way.
Since the intellectual property of ECW had been sold to WWE in 2001, hardcore wrestling had only become more violent, more bloody, and more destructive. Wooden tables had been replaced with panes of glass, kendo sticks had been replaced with fluorescent light-tubes, and it was never out of the question for the ropes to be replaced with thick lengths of barbed wire. It was a whole new act in the epic play of the history of professional wrestling, and you could find the absolute-best of it in CZW’s iconic Tournament of Death event.
Tournament of Death VIII took place on June 6th, 2009, featuring Nick Gage up against Germany’s Thumbtack Jack in the final round. Past stipulations in the prior rounds that afternoon included a “Fire Death Match (No-Ropes Flaming Barbed Wire),” a “Dining Room Deathmatch (Tables, Chairs, Silverware, and more),” a “Barbed Wire Boards & Light Tube Bundles” match, a “Panes of Glass Deathmatch (Barbed Wire Glass, Light Tube Glass & Panes of Glass),” a “Thumbtack Kickpads” match, a “Jack In The Box Deathmatch (Panes of Glass, Cinder Blocks, Light Tubes, Syringes, & more),” and two “Fans Bring The Weapons” matches.
But the most fatal chapter was still to come.
The final round would be contested in a “200 Light Tubes, Panes of Glass, and All the Other Shit in the Back We Could Find” deathmatch. Nick Gage and Thumbtack Jack - each of-whom had participated in the two prior rounds - climbed into the ring, light-tubes adorning the ropes - clanging their clumsy chime, with four large panes of glass propped up in each corner at various angles. Both competitors - still caked in blood from their previous battles - engaged in what first appeared to be a pure athletic contest, until Gage broke a bundle of three light-tubes over Jack’s head. From there, the match devolved into a savage dance-of-death, with Jack eventually throwing Gage outside the ring, letting him get real close-and-personal with about seven or eight tubes - one causing a deep incision in his armpit area, and severing an essential artery.
Gage was immediately escorted from the outdoor venue in middle-of-nowhere Delaware - inhabited by about eight-hundred blood-thirsty wrestling fans at the golden hour - by a team of medics who looked like they’d hardly finished their first year of nursing school. As every wrestler in the CZW locker room ran out to keep the rabid audience entertained, Nick Gage continued bleeding out onto his Jordan-Bulls jersey, despite the medical team’s best efforts. Soon-enough, it was beyond their expertise, forcing them to outsource to local emergency services.
While being helicoptered off the premises, Nick Gage was legally pronounced dead due to blood loss.
“[Nick Gage] died at Tournament of Death” says Jon Moxley - another deathmatch veteran, and current standard-bearer for All Elite Wrestling during his interview for Gage’s Vice documentary. “It’s supposed to be a turn-of-phrase. You’re not actually supposed to die.” Fortunately for all of us, ‘The Deathmatch King’ was resuscitated, living to brawl another day.
But this is the exact kind of thing I had prepared myself for when buying my tickets to GCW’s Tournament of Survival VII.
Among the finalists this year were veteran Matt Tremont - winner of eight prior deathmatch tournaments (including CZW’s Tournament of Death), and the 23-year-old Welshman Drew Parker - returning from a career-defining tour of the deathmatch circuit in Japan, competing in a “No-Ropes Barbed Wire” match… with a large scaffolding looming ominously in the background, standing at about ten feet above the ring.
Prior to the bell, both men posed in front of the prospective Tournament of Survival VII trophy, being presented to the winner by Alex Colon- winner of the previous three tournaments, and ‘Sick’ Nick Mondo- CZW deathmatch legend, both competitors proudly wearing the stale-crimson colors of their previous contests.
Some of the major acts-and-scenes of this production included Tremont shoving a handful of broken glass into Parker’s scalp, Parker using his own forehead to break several bundles of light-tubes over Tremont’s own thickly-calloused forehead, Tremont jabbing a dart into Parkers mouth, only to have it jabbed into his own head minutes later, and both gladiators plummeting from sky-high off the scaffolding onto the reddish-brownish-whitish ring below.
It was unlike anything I - or any of the people I was with (shout-out to Droo, Chris S., Chris P., Bubba, and Matt!) - had ever seen.
For the first time, Tournament of Survival would be a weekend-long expo for extreme, hardcore wrestling fans to celebrate all of the deathmatch greats - past, present, and future - with The Deathmatch Hall-of-Fame induction happening that evening, which was unlike any awards ceremony I’d attended before.
Among that evening’s inductees were deathmatch legends JC Bailey (inducted posthumously by long-time rival Mad Man Pondo), ‘Mr. Insanity’ Toby Klein (humbly inducted by Deranged), manager ‘Discount’ Dewey Donovan (inducted by long-time client Nick Gage), and Wifebeater (inducted by ‘Sick’ Nick Mondo, in what was a highly elegant speech for someone who once attacked him with a weed-whacker).
It took place in the same ring from that afternoon’s tournament, on the very canvas those eight competitors painted with their own blood, decorated with the same barbed-wire on the far set of ropes (don’t worry, the other three sides had been removed). The closest thing to a tuxedo or an evening gown was the neon-green sport coat worn by Donovan - crusted in blood from over twenty years of serving at ringside for the deathmatch elite, and Gage wearing a gold watch - stoically eating from a large bag of multi-colored Swedish Fish in the front row.
“I look around this room, and I see so many memories that have been knocked out of my head,” jests Klein during his acceptance speech, followed by polite appreciative laughter from the intimate gathering of deathmatch workers and fanatics. But the reality was that Klein was the third person that night to make reference to how often he’d been knocked over the head throughout his ruthless career in the American deathmatch frontier. Several wrestlers struggled to read the text off their tablets that night, the result of their many sacrifices to the profession they’ve so-proudly served.
They hardly seemed to regret it.
The next day, GCW hosted their first-ever Cage of Survival event. The main attraction- one final showdown between bitter rivals Alex Colon (three-time GCW Tournament of Survival winner) and John Wayne Murdoch (reigning GCW Ultraviolent Champion), who would be meeting in a design of deathly proportions engineered by the sickest minds in the wrestling business, and carefully crafted by the most hardened hands GCW could find, inside “The Cage of Survival.”
The closing scene in the final act of the play that was GCW’s first-ever Tournament of Survival weekend may very-well have been the most unforgiving of them all. Colon and Murdoch entered to a divided crowd, uncharacteristic of the deathmatch status quo who’s usually just happy to see bloodshed, no matter who’s bleeding. But this wasn’t like any other headlining match of a GCW card.
This was the first-ever Cage of Survival.
Brazenly challenging his opponent’s fortitude, ‘The Blood-Fighter’ Colon opened the match by climbing atop the cage onto a ladder lain lengthwise across the steel fencing brackets, beckoning ‘The Deathmatch Duke’ Murdoch in a summons to contest high above The Carousel Room, with four elaborate chandeliers hanging at their sides, and a thick pane of glass spread across two 2x4s at their side.
After exchanging several blows, Murdoch dropped to his knees, climbing to the outside where a big stack of light-tubes were waiting for Colon to be pulled down into. Colon laid quivering atop a bed of broken glass as Murdoch jabbed him with the business-end of one of those same broken light-tubes. They continued to fight on the outside, making sure each side of the front two or three rows had their own piece of flesh, blood, and broken glass commemorating the event.
Once they made their way back into the ring, the crowd had started leaning in Colon’s favor, instigating a “John-Wayne-Puss-y” chant. Using some of his traditional wrestling talents, Colon soon gained the advantage by executing a series of suplexes and strikes on Murdoch. Of course, this was only to secure a better position to execute some bitter torture on Murdoch. But one bad move would cost Colon the advantage, giving Murdoch his opportunity to strike.
The camera-side of the cage was lowered horizontally (a clutch move by the video team), a large pane of glass laying on top. The ropes were lined with fluorescent light-tubes, which Colon was attempting to send Murdoch through. But Murdoch saw an opportunity to lift Colon over his head, and throw him onto the glass pane on the lowered-end of the cage outside. But what neither man (nor the creators of this sadistic structure) seemed to have predicted was that the steel fencing would give out, sending Colon to the unprotected floor below.
While a team of medics and officials checked Colon’s vital signs outside the cage, Murdoch worked the crowd like a true heel. He proceeded to throw a light tube at the near-motionless Colon, and dragged him back into the ring. The crowd was once-again torn- do we “boo” Murdoch for what he did to Colon, or do we “cheer” him for causing so much carnage?
Once he regained full-consciousness, the bloodied and scarred Colon somehow found the strength to protect himself against Murdoch while they tee’d off on one another, using various instruments of destruction. Once they’d run out of weapons, members of the ring crew sent whatever miscellaneous debris they could find left-over from that weekend’s yard sale, until both guys eventually provoked one-another back atop the cage… where it all started.
Murdoch threw himself off the lengthwise ladder laying across the top, raising Colon high up-above to the elaborate chandeliers decorating The Carousel Room, sending themselves through that thick pane of glass spread across the 2x4s at their side, down to the mat below. Murdoch lifelessly threw his arms across the chest of Colon for the pin which - to everyone’s surprise - would only be a two-count. Cries of “ho-ly shit” and “this-is-awe-some” poured out from the surrounding onlookers in disbelief, as we watched these two men risk life-and-limb for our entertainment.
As I watched Colon and Murdoch shake hands upon concluding their deadly ballet - Colon having scored the victory via submission - I couldn’t help but think of the great method-actors of my time. Would Jared Leto go to those lengths to convince us he was a psychopathic clown or a heroin addict? Would Leonardo DiCaprio climb those same peaks to convince us he was a slave-owner or Howard Hughes? What about Daniel Day-Lewis, arguably the most highly regarded method-actor of all time?
“Daniel Day-Lewis is a fucking pussy” says Effy, a GCW standard-bearer and creator of the Wrestling is Gay brand. “It’s the same thing, except we’re taking it to the next level,” a sentiment shared by most every wrestling professional I’ve shared this idea with - if not in such imprudent terms. “Can you act? Yes. Can you memorize lines? Sure. Can you take a metal folding-chair over the head? Most people, no.” And Effy knows what he’s talking about- he’s a Screen Actors Guild member, AND he’s faced Nick Gage.
Acting - when taken at face value - is not such a complicated thing. That’s not to say there isn’t a delicate art or technique to playing a character. But at it’s heart, acting is professional make-believe- a game that every child can play. If you can memorize your lines and muster up some level of charisma, the rest is more-or-less good casting, and showing up on time. Method-actors seek value beyond the face of acting which - more often than not - complicates things on the set or in the rehearsal hall.
Wrestling - on the other hand - almost can’t be taken at face-value. For several years, Bret Hart wouldn’t allow himself to be seen in public with his brother Owen, who he was in a rivalry with at the time. Because of this, when Bret called himself “the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be,” we believed him, even when he didn’t win. We know The Undertaker isn’t a real undead wizard, we know ‘The Fiend’ Bray Wyatt isn’t a real monster, we know Danhausen isn’t a real… babadook, or something? I don’t know…
Point being- these people don’t have to make themselves bleed real blood to convince us they’re real wrestlers. There are wrestlers who do it on cable every week while hardly breaking a sweat. So why do wrestlers like Nick Gage, Matt Tremont, Alex Colon, Drew Parker, and John Wayne Murdoch feel the need to commit such acts of self-destruction for our own entertainment? According to promising deathmatch up-and-comer Cole Radrick, “because I fucking love this shit!”
And when he says it, I believe him.