Spider-Man squirms and contorts his way out of the Joker’s grip, flipping onto his back like his agile, superhuman arachnid namesake. The next instant, Spidey launches into the air, delivering a swift kick to his opponent’s face.
It’s going down at the LVL Up Expo, an annual anime and video game convention that takes place each spring at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Starting last year, the event began incorporating wrestling into its offerings, in partnership with the local promotion company Versus Pro Wrestling.
If Las Vegas seems like a natural fit for independent professional wrestling, that’s because it is. It’s high-octane fun—adrenaline-laced action and entertaining story lines, each match telling the tale of a villain and a hero, respectively known as the heel and the face. Think Hulk Hogan and Randy “Macho Man” Savage, pile drivers and backbreakers—but on a much smaller scale.
A one-off megaevent like All Elite Wrestling’s Double or Nothing bash (coming to town on May 25) can sell out MGM Grand Garden Arena in a matter of minutes. But independent local wrestling? That’s something else entirely; it’s loaded with grassroots charm and has been steadily growing its Vegas fan base.
“Vegas has really become a hot spot for pro wrestling,” says popular local wrestler Brett Hyde, better known by his ring name, Damian Drake. “People want to be entertained, but they can’t always go to the movies or Cirque du Soleil. Wrestling is just another entertainment [option here] if you don’t want to go the casino.”
Enter Stage Right
Vegas-based promotion and training school Future Stars of Wrestling— run by Joe DeFalco, who could be considered the Vince McMahon of Vegas wrestling in terms of influence—will celebrate its 10-year anniversary in June. Sinn Bodhi’s Lucha Libre Las Vegas has seen its audiences grow since launching in 2017. Big Valley Wrestling is a family-friendly promotion, and Versus Pro Wrestling, run by Vegas record producer Kane Churko, frequently finds itself faced with a good problem: crowds that hit their capacity.
“This year has gone exceptionally well for us, even better than we thought,” Churko says. “Having the scene grow so much, I think a lot of people wondered if there was space for everyone, if it would squeeze some people out or hurt someone’s bottom line. I think it’s actually the opposite. The pie is getting bigger.”
When Churko isn’t booking wrestling matches, he’s running the Hideout Recording Studio with his father, Kevin Churko, working with heavy-rock acts such as Ozzy Osbourne, Five Finger Death Punch and Papa Roach. Kane Churko explains that the two industries are more similar than you might imagine. “For me it’s like putting on a multiband show—all the wrestlers are kind of like their own little band, and the ring is the stage.”
Churko got into wrestling a few years ago after his friend—and now VPW partner—Wes Logan brought him to a match. “I’d never seen actual wrestling in the flesh,” says Churko, who watched WWF (now WWE) as a kid but hadn’t viewed wrestling of any kind in years. Churko’s passion was reignited.
“I loved it, especially compared to watching it on TV. It was a whole different experience, much more punk rock. I relate it to music a lot. It’s in your face, people are falling in your lap, and you’re getting the elements on you.”
Before launching his own promotion company, Churko started training to become a manager at the Future Stars of Wrestling school—also known as the Snake Pit—a route that many amateurs take. There, he learned the ropes under Bodhi, a former WWE star and head coach at FSW. What does a pro wrestling manager do? “Lie, cheat and steal,” Churko laughs. In the ring, the lines between real life and fantasy are blurred, and that’s half the fun.
“It was scary. Really fun, but at the same time, it was a very immediate reality of, this is hard; it’s not painless,” Churko—resembling White Stripes-era Jack White in his fire-engine red pants, black tee and slicked-back hair—says at the LVL Up Expo. “Seeing how hard everyone really works, you almost don’t take that into account when you watch the show. Then you go behind the scenes and you realize these guys are training several days a week, several hours a day, doing everything from intense cardio to working on their look and their bodies.”
Inside the expo, fans dressed in their cosplay best have gathered on the convention floor to watch two robots fight to their battery lives’ end. Churko explains that Versus differentiates itself from other wrestling companies in town by focusing on video game culture, and, “for lack of a better word,” he says, nerd culture. Video games and anime focus on fandom and gripping narrative arcs, so wrestling is a perfect fit. “We incorporate a little bit of extra comedy, [so] it’s very family-friendly,” Churko says. “It provides a sense of overall fun and lightness.”
You can’t talk Las Vegas pro wrestling without nodding to GLOW, the Netflix series based on the real 1986 professional wrestling promotion, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. The TV show takes place in LA, but in real life, the matches were held here, at the now-shuttered Riviera. Many of the wrestlers were professional dancers and showgirls recruited from local casinos, and according to reports, this summer’s third season will find the gals hitting the road for Vegas, paying homage to GLOW’s historic ties to the city.
GLOW might have paved the way for women to get involved in wrestling, but it was reportedly plagued with sexism and other issues. The late ’90s apparently weren’t much better for female wrestlers. But today, it seems the wrestling landscape is changing for the better at the independent level, and women in particular are gaining ground.
Shayna Lazarus, also known as Mazzerati, is one of those women. She got into wrestling after catching a show at FSW.
“I’ve always been a fan of wrestling, ever since the mid ’90s, [but] I felt like wrestling would always be a dream,” Lazarus says. When she heard that FSW had a training school, she joined immediately, falling in love with competing and learning how to work the crowd.
These days, Lazarus, 28, and her boyfriend Nick Bugatti are a local wrestling power couple, also known as “Mazzagatti.” “I’m a bad guy, so I get all the hatred,” Lazarus laughs. “Sometimes fans can be pretty brutal, but my boyfriend and I are really bad heels. We talk so much crap to the crowd that it’s expected.”
That kind of heat, or tension, between competitors and fans is a huge part of pro wrestling—and what makes each story line so compelling. “I love performing in front of crowds; I love entertaining them,” Lazarus says. “It means a lot to me when people say, ‘You made my night.’ Being able to make the crowd feel like a part of the show and make them feel special? It just feels great.”
Man with the plan
It’s 5 p.m. on a Monday at Future Stars of Wrestling headquarters, where Sinn Bodhi—a senior coach and former WWE wrestler—is teaching a wrestling class. Also here today: DeFalco—the man who started FSW a decade ago. And he’s not what you might expect. For one, he’s not a wrestler. He’s a passionate New Yorker who talks fast and projects that city’s classic attitude. He’s also a serious wrestling fanatic.
“As a young kid I was a wrestling fan,” says DeFalco, who remembers watching matches on Spanish channels with his great- grandmother. “She was a huge wrestling fan.”
In 1991 DeFalco moved to Las Vegas, cutting his teeth in nightclubs as a Latin freestyle DJ, spinning sounds that were popular in New York and Miami—Puerto Rican acts like The Cover Girls. In the late ’90s, he launched a wrestling radio show that eventually operated out of the WCW Nitro Grill at Excalibur. His first interview, he says, was with the Rock.
Because of the popularity of UFC in Las Vegas, DeFalco explains, wrestling was deregulated here in 2009, allowing him to try his hand at promoting. His first match was at the Rancho Swap Meet, featuring former Chippendales dancer, onetime Bachelor in Paradise contestant and current Ring of Honor wrestler Kenny King.
“Nobody had run a localized wrestling show in Vegas in probably 10 years,” DeFalco says. Today, he heads up the most successful independent wrestling promotion in Las Vegas and runs the facility where most local wrestlers train—even those who don’t wrestle for FSW. (The promotion celebrates 10 years on June 23 with a match at Sam’s Town.) The senior coaches at FSW—Disco Inferno, D’Lo Brown, Jake “The Snake” Roberts, Bodhi and King—all have serious wrestling pedigrees and have worked with promotions like World Championship Wrestling, World Wrestling Entertainment and more.
As DeFalco speaks, there’s an unmistakable sound of bodies hitting the mat in the next room. There, two male wrestlers are tossing each other around the ring—well, one guy is doing the throwing. The match might seem uneven, but that’s what it takes to prepare for the main event.
The wrestlers pause for a moment, the smaller man looking like he might tap out, before they continue. Watching the whole time is Bodhi, a bearded giant covered head-to-toe in tattoos. His bald head shines under the light as he instructs the wrestlers. After a quick grapple, one of them flings himself off the ropes but doesn’t land his move. “Fifty squats!” Bodhi exclaims. The action stops as everyone in the room obeys his command. “Three, four, five, six …” The students beginning counting, their legs buckling. One wrestler’s face contorts as he struggles in pain. “Relax,” Bodhi tells him calmly. A few minutes later, someone else makes a mistake. The punishment? Fifty more, as Bodhi watches, smiling.
“I want to train these guys and girls to think with emotion and to think in story-telling,” Bodhi says. “As a coach, I don’t want to be mama bear or papa bear—I want to be just right.”
Bodhi takes an unusual approach to coaching. A disciple of Jake “The Snake” Roberts, he incorporates much of the WWE Hall of Famer’s in-the-ring psychology. And he’s tough where it counts. “The old-school way was, they would train you till you broke. They just wanted to see if they could weed you out. No crying in baseball, no refunds in wrestling,” Bodhi explains over coffee at the Jokers Wild casino. “I’m not Mother Teresa by any means, but I enjoy invoking a lot of positive emotions. It’s an emotional roller coaster, and it’s our job to take you on that.”
Bodhi still wrestles, mainly on the Lucha Libre circuit, and he also runs Freakshow Wrestling, a promotion that incorporates circus and carny acts into one unforgettably wild show. In the ring, Bodhi cuts a menacing figure, dressing like a killer clown. But up close he’s warm and friendly—and full of wisdom and aphorisms, which he shares liberally. He says things like, “Butterflies, they’re high-octane. If left unchecked, they’ll burn you up. But if you harness those butterflies, they make awesome fuel.” He’s like a modern-day Mr. Miyagi, and it’s little wonder students and wrestling fans adore him.
I love telling stories and being able to feed off the crowd,” says Julian Rhodes, a local wrestling manager better known as Primo Pulpo or the Latin Kraken, who also trained under Bodhi. “It’s such a unique medium—there’s no other like it.”
Rhodes got into wrestling late in life—he’s now 30—and found managing a perfect fit. “There’s a lot more lasting power,” he says. “The role-playing aspect and being able to improvise a lot of stuff on demand made me realize I really enjoy performing. It’s 100 percent entertainment. To me, that’s what makes wrestling a bit more honest. It’s being honest that it’s entertainment.”
For Las Vegans looking to become a wrestler or a manager, or simply fulfill a dream of getting in the ring one time, a foray into independent pro wrestling typically begins at FSW. “A lot of people don’t like the name Future Stars of Wrestling, because it’s saying they’re not stars,” DeFalco says. “But [professional wrestlers] Eli Drake, Brian Cage, they all started with us in 2009, 2010.” Fast-forward to 2019 and they’re big names in the wrestling world.
“I look at FSW as guys that are super, but you just don’t know who they are yet because they haven’t had their break,” DeFalco says.
Shane Strickland? He’s signed to WWE. Kevin “Killer” Kross? He’s signed to Impact Wrestling. And both pros got their start at FSW. Chris Bey, Damian Drake and Mazzerati are some of FSW’s most popular wrestlers right now, and any one of them could break big soon.
Considering wrestling is a young person’s activity—most participants burn out as they age—there’s a lot of room for turnover. And that means FSW will always have new faces looking to ride the next wave.
Inside the outdoor dome at Plaza Hotel & Casino in Downtown Las Vegas, a huge crowd has gathered to watch wrestlers Shaggy McLovin-, a bratty skateboarder with curly blond locks, and Kyle Hawk, a headstrong Native American warrior, go square off for Cinco de Mayo.
The match begins slowly, but soon McLovin and Hawk are flying off the ropes, putting each other in headlocks and jumping into the crowd. The wrestlers shout expletives at one another and do their best to create tension between the fans. “Beat him up!” one attendee yells. “We came here to see a wrestling match!” another chimes in. Twenty minutes later, McLovin emerges as the winner, before a live mariachi band ushers in the next combatants.
Wrestling isn’t for everyone. As Bodhi reminds, it takes drive, passion and character to want to get smacked around in a ring, all to put smiles on people’s faces. Wrestlers get dropped on their heads and suffer concussions. They break bones, and their emotions get pushed to the brink. But that’s what it takes to make it to the next level.
“When I was a kid I would do [wrestling moves] off the back of my couch,” Hyde says. “Whether I go to WWE or not, I can at least say I lived my dream because of FSW. We’re just one big, out-of-control, crazy happy family.”
And there’s no question that DeFalco is FSW’s supportive patriarch. “I can’t even count on my fingers how many guys have gone on to bigger and better things,” DeFalco says. “For me, it’s awesome. [We’re] creating the new stars.”