Lords of the ring: first bout

Did you know that Richmond has one of the most well-organized and successful independent wrestling federations in the entire country? RVANews takes a closer look at this wrestling league in the first part of a four-part series.

I’m at 5114 Glen Alden Drive, headquarters to Ground Xero Wrestling, an independent wrestling federation based in the Richmond area. A yellow ’96 Honda Shadow VT1100 motorcycle pulls up into an empty parking space to the left of my car, and the rider, wearing a black leather jacket and blue jeans, pulls off his helmet. He has on a white bandana. Behind his head is long, recently washed hair that is tied into a bun. He pulls out the white earbuds of his iPod and smiles.

“You Nathan?” he asks. “I’m Aaron,” telling me that he and the other wrestlers will be loading up in the back.

After I follow him to the back of the building, he unnecessarily apologizes for being late–it is, after all, 9:00am on a Saturday and Aaron is married with a one-year-old son. He unlatches a Master Lock and opens the bay doors, lighting up a wrestling ring in the back right corner of the large space. There are folded chairs lining the left wall, and posters of various WWE promotional events, most featuring wrestlers I don’t recognize–I haven’t watched a professional wrestling match on television since I was eight-years-old, back when I called myself a Hulkamaniac.

Apparently, there’s been a scheduling mixup, and the rest of the wrestlers won’t be arriving until 10:30am. I sit down in an unfolded metal chair, while an antsy Aaron alternates between various restless positions: both hands holding onto the ring’s ropes, or kicking his legs back and forth when he squats on the edge of the ring, or simply folding his arms as he stands up straight. His broad chest reminds me an old farm tractor’s grille. He has muscles, but they are neither as defined nor over-the-top like those of comic book heroes or professional body builders. But, quickly I am convinced that he is one of the nicest, most sincere people that currently inhabits the planet.

Aaron’s 29 years-old, a graphic designer who’s worked in Richmond since he graduated from James Madison University in 2003. He did freelance work for a time before starting 903 Creative. When speaking of his artistic skills and business to me, he says, “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Oh, but he does do something else.

Aaron is one half of the Drago Dynasty, a masked wrestling duo that made their first appearance in September, 2010. He and Garett Freeman, an EMT in his early 20s, play the twin brothers Kyo and Renshi Drago, the “true Weapons of Mass Destruction of China.” It’s an apt title, it seems, as they share the honor of holding the GXW Tag Team Title. When punching and kicking in the ring, the two wear full-body black spandex outfits with tank tops and kitschy horned dragon masks.

“We talk on the phone a lot,” says Aaron of his partner. “He’s my closest friend here.”

Most of the wrestlers at GXW are friends. Most of them are also similar to Aaron and Garett in another regard: they have full-time jobs–training and wrestling at events in the evenings and on weekends. Some have the hope that wrestling will one day turn into their full-time job.

During our chat, a truck pulls up outside the the facility, and a big man wearing shorts and a t-shirt strolls up to the back door. It’s locked. “Open up,” he says, and he’s not asking. Aaron jumps down from the ring and opens the door, and the big man walks in like he owns the place. Turns out he does.

“I’m Dave,” he says, reaching out his hand to shake mine. He is the owner and founder of Ground Xero Wrestling.

He is the foreman.

The Foreman

“Virginia is a no-bleed state.”

This is Dave Cullen speaking. Sitting in his office, in front of him are papers, promos, and pens strewn across his desk–a large desk, the type of large desk that says “I’m the boss.” Dave Cullen is the boss of Ground Xero Wrestling (GXW). By “no-bleed” Cullen means that wrestlers in the state of Virginia are not legally allowed to fight if any wrestler sheds even the smallest drop of plasma. This Virginia statute prevents scenes similar to one in the Mickey Rourke film, The Wrestler, where the main character surreptitiously removes a razor blade from his taped-up wrist and slices his forehead open. It’s a regulation imposed by the state legislature that Cullen doesn’t seem to mind. The ring, he says as we chat in his office, “is not a sanitary place” and “there should be standards.” This, after all, is a dangerous profession.

He’s a big man, Cullen, strong, intimidating, but never, never rude. Although fans won’t see him in the ring, he is the true face of Ground Xero Wrestling. As we talk he looks me right in the eye, and I instantly think of a foreman: a hard worker, dues paid in full, one who is far too smart to let his knowledge go to waste. So he becomes the boss, not to boss others around but to teach the younger guys. If you asked me to describe Cullen in one word, I would have to cheat and use two: old school.

He started wrestling sixteen years ago when he was twenty-six. “Grandfather, step-father were all wrestling fans,” he says. When I ask him why he started wrestling well into his twenties and not earlier, he said that information wasn’t available like it is now. He means, more or less, the Internet. When I search Google for “local richmond virginia wrestling” I get 1,870,000 results. These leads and jumping-off-points were unavailable when Cullen was a younger man, so it took him time to find his way into the business. Since entering professional wrestling, he has run three schools and helped others run theirs. In 2006 he started Ground Xero “from the ground up with zero dollars,” choosing the name as a reminder for humility’s sake.

Fluorescent lights shine down on us, and around us are walls made of concrete blocks, scattered on which are framed photographs of Cullen’s wrestlers. There are no windows in his office, no windows in the weight training room, and if the garage door at the rear of the facility remains closed, no windows to allow natural light to shine into the space where they keep their practice ring. What may seem like rather melancholic digs to many is actually a rare treasure.

There are over 2,000 wrestling federations across the country. The most popular are World Wrestling Entertainment (formally known as the World Wrestling Federation until the World Wide Fund for Nature forced a name change) and Total Non-Stop Action (TNA). There are six Virginia-based federations, most of them, Cullen tells me, are run out of individuals’ homes. “We’re the only one in the Richmond area.” I ask Dave when he started GXW, and he gives me the exact day: August 15, 2006–his birthday.

Unlike baseball’s minor league affiliates scattered across the country, these independent federations have no connection with WWE or TNA. In order to break into the bigs, as it were, wrestlers must build a name for themselves in these independent federations. If a wrestler is tough enough, talented enough, and lucky enough they may attract the attention of the right person that will get them access to the most popular (and profitable) rings in the country. The likelihood of this is rare.

As with anyone who pursues a passion, wrestlers must make some sacrifices. “You have to miss birthday parties,” says Cullen. “Is that right?” he asks rhetorically. I ask him if his wife is supportive of his business. “She doesn’t like it.” But she’s beginning to understand it more…”she’s coming around.”

Aaron’s been married for eight years, and when he came to Cullen to ask if he could begin training at GXW, Cullen told Aaron that there was a prerequisite. “Dave wanted to talk to me and my wife,” says Aaron. Together. “Spouses,” says Cullen, “have to support you 100 percent.” Wrestling has to be more than a hobby, more than a way to pass the time on the weekends.

“Wrestling has to become your wife.”

The Misses

While I chat with Cullen in his office, an irregular stream of men much taller and stronger than me stick their head in to say hello to the boss. They ask if there’s anything in particular that Cullen wants them to pack up for their show later tonight at the Aurora in downtown Richmond.

“Grab the suitcase with the chains,” he says to one of the wrestlers.

While wrestling dates much further back than the modern era, there is a more modern mode of fighting that is all the rage these days–MMA.

Mixed Martial Arts is essentially kick-boxing without the padding. As a result, many consider it the ultimate form of fighting–mano e mano–and why the most popular (and financially lucrative) MMA league is named the Ultimate Fighting Championship. It is not uncommon for blood to splatter in the ring, or to see grown men throttle one another.

“MMA is like wrestling now,” says Cullen, acknowledging that independent wrestling federations like GXW have an additional obstacle to overcome aside from the general public often not knowing that such federations even exist. Although wrestling is not as savage as MMA, the “art” of wrestling, as Cullen calls it, is nonetheless injurious. “When we hit a concrete floor,” says Cullen, “we hit a concrete floor.” But there is one thing, above all, that differentiates professional wrestling with that of MMA: theater.

Although Cullen will be the first to admit that it’s not Shakespeare, there is more to wrestling than merely slaps and kicks and body slams–there is something that wrestling must add in the absence of the blood that an MMA fight so generously provides.

“We have to put a story in the ring,” says Cullen.

He and Garett Freeman, an EMT in his early 20s, play the twin brothers Kyo and Renshi Drago
He and Garett Freeman, an EMT in his early 20s, play the twin brothers Kyo and Renshi Drago

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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