STOMPIN’ Steve, a mountain of a man at 6-foot-7, 320 pounds, looked out at the raucous fairgrounds crowd as a little pool of red liquid formed at his feet.
He had just fallen like a tree, taking his opponent with him into the ropes. Along the way, he hit the ring’s turnbuckle with his face.
That stuff on the mat? Well, that was his blood.
“I just felt a little scrape,” said Steve Bragg, a 37-year-old Columbus resident who three years ago took up professional wrestling to work his way out of weight, depression and anxiety issues. “I put my hand up to my face and it was wet.”
In professional wrestling, blood is liquid gold.
“I’ve been busted open several times,” Bragg said. “It makes it more real. And when your adrenalin is flowing, you really don’t notice it. ‘What’s this? Blood on my face?’”
“There’s a time for blood,” said 59-year-old Jerry Wilson, who has promoted shows in Columbus for the past 14 years. That series continues Saturday night at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds as Wilson has put together an eight-bout card that will, in part, help the Firemen’s Cheer Fund.
“This is the best show in the Midwest,” Wilson said. “There is action and fun and entertainment. The crowd is nuts. I’ve got some of the same people in their seats from 14 years ago.”
A photographer by trade, Wilson used to photograph matches and “kind of liked the rush.” So he did what he could to learn the business of promoting a match and eventually tried it himself.
“You have to give people something they want to see,” he said. “They are paying their money, and they don’t have that much. The crowd makes the show.”
While the crowd can make a show, it’s the group of wrestlers who are willing to do whatever is necessary to entertain the paying customers.
“There definitely is a lot of pain,” said 34-year-old veteran Ricky Cox, whose alter ego is Ricky Ruckus, the Hoosier Pro Wrestling heavyweight champion. “It’s far from fake.”
Cox was fascinated by the first pro wrestling card he attended, back in 1999 at the National Guard Armory in Columbus. He immediately signed up for a training session to learn to be one of those guys he saw in the ring.
“We started with 10 guys the first day of training,” he said. “We ended up with three.”
A cook at the time, Cox would drive to Madison three times or more a week to train. He was about his current size of 245 pounds.
“I would come home sore and I couldn’t roll over at night,” he said. “It was one of the most physically demanding things I ever had done. But I got to really love it.
“Wrestling is part theater and part sports, putting them together. And wrestling can get you through some tough stuff.”
A self-described “knucklehead” as a teen growing up in Columbus, Cox found a lifestyle similar to one of his heroes, the late “Macho Man” Randy Savage.
“Macho Man would just draw you in,” Cox said. “That’s my favorite thing. The people are all there watching me. And the main thing about wrestling is to be yourself. I just turn it up a notch and I might say things a little louder. But my friends would know that is me.”
Cox makes a living on the independent circuit, traveling to shows throughout the Midwest. There has been a price.
“I’ve had two herniated discs and I’ve blown my right knee out,” he said. “But wrestling still is a high for me. It’s one of my great pleasures in life. When I am in the ring, I feel at home.”
Donnie Morgan found a home for himself in the ring as Donny Idol, the HPW Tri-States champion. The 2003 Columbus North High School graduate had been a fan as a kid and would attend shows at the Armory.
“It was different,” he said. “You were right there in the action. It was amazing.”
He started training at age 16 and finally made his first appearance at the fairgrounds at 17.
“It threw me off because I am small anyway (165 pounds) and I thought my opponent would be a lot bigger than me,” he said. “But my first opponent was a midget. That dude taught me so much. And I got to be the big guy.”
With red hair and an Opie presence, Morgan would make his entrance to the ring as Wilson played the theme from “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Although the crowd loved it, Morgan wasn’t so pleased.
“I wanted to be taken seriously,” he said. “If I was going to be a bad guy, I wanted the crowd to hate me.”
So Wilson, 26, let Morgan develop his own personality in the ring, often leading him to play the bad guy’s role.
“A good pro wrestler is someone who can connect with the audience,” Morgan said. “You have to be able to tell a story in the ring without words.
“That’s what wrestling is ... a ballet. The person you are in there with is your partner for the night.”
Bragg didn’t know if he would be a good dance partner.
“I wanted to try pro wrestling when I was a lot younger,” he said. “But I blossomed up to 500-some pounds.”
He then saw the 2008 documentary “Bring Your Weapons,” by The Republic photographer Andrew Laker, who offered a stunningly realistic view of the independent wrestling circuit. Bragg was intrigued.
He lost 175 pounds and signed up for a training class for pro wrestlers.
“It was extremely hard that first day,” Bragg said. “But I told myself I wouldn’t make any decisions that first day. I do remember that every time I fell on my back, I would smack my head.”
Morgan explained that when a pro wrestler falls and hits the mat, or “bumps,” he needs to tuck his chin so his head doesn’t whiplash into the canvas.
“My first bump, I still remember the tingling that went through my body,” he said.
But Bragg, who is a 1993 Hauser graduate, did return.
“Wrestling has given me a lot more confidence,” he said. “I know I have a lot farther to go (losing weight and learning the sport), but there are people out there who make me want to do it.”
He already has come far.
“The first time, I was stiff as a board,” he said. “I didn’t show much emotion. But being 6-foot-7 in boots helps. There are not a lot of guys out here who are that tall.”
Since he fought his shyness, Bragg was put in a “good-guy” role. It has fit him well.
“I like all the new friends I have made,” he said. “And I have people who believe in me. It makes me feel like I can try more things in life ... do more things. I am used to all these people who go to the matches now, and they feel like family. I am not so shy.”
And bleeding or not, Bragg often is recognized around town.
“Kids come up to me in Walmart,” he said. “They say, ‘You’re Stompin’ Steve.’”
Darned right he is.
If you go
Pro wrestling in Columbus
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds
TICKETS: $15 ($1 of each ticket goes to Firemen’s Cheer Fund)
MAIN EVENT: Tommy “Wildfire” Rich and “Dangerous” Doug Gilbert vs. “Diceman” Ronnie Vegas and T.J. Powers
ATTRACTIONS: Doink The Clown and Flash Flanagan vs. Sexy Shawn Cook and The Zombie Rob Ramer
HOOK AND LADDER: Columbus firemen Mike Wilson and Brian Bailey will be in action.
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