An angry white guy in a buzz cut, black leather jacket, camouflage shorts and combat boots marches toward his unsuspecting opponent — a flamboyant gay man. The Napoleonic aggressor is the leader of hate-based faction Violent Majority, a growing group responsible for attacks on black, homosexual, and mentally challenged people over the past few months.
Despite his small stature, it's hard to ignore the militant leader as he spews his twisted "American values," proclaiming that he is, "A thought that speaks, a voice that yells and an action that screams, 'Dwight Power! Dwight Power! Dwight Power!'" On this night, like so many others, Power's preaching results in chaos: The gay victim, Simon Sermon, lies on the ground in agony and Timmy McClendon, a special needs black man whose vision is impaired after a previous attack by Power, is forced through an unstable wooden table by the equally unstable Jamie Holmes, the Violent Majority's newest member.
Minutes later, witnesses to this heinous act step outside for a smoke or to grab refreshments at the concession stand. This hate crime-like scene didn't play out on Atlanta's streets — it transpired just before intermission at Platinum Championship Wrestling's weekly Friday night bout at the Academy Theatre, about nine miles east of Atlanta in the otherwise idyllic Avondale Estates.
On the offensive
Pro wrestling has never been known for being politically correct, but with personalities such as Dwight Power, Simon Sermon and the thuggish and violent trio the Konkrete Gorillaz, PCW undoubtedly pushes more boundaries than most wrestling outfits. And there's a reason for that.
Industry heavyweight World Wrestling Entertainment, whose rise to dominance in the '90s is referred to as "the Attitude Era" due to a similar use of racy characters and generally offensive story lines, now opts for a more family friendly approach to the spectacle. PCW founder and indie wrestling veteran Stephen Platinum, however, maintains that "Wrestling is the ultimate in bad taste."
"It's people settling every difference with violence," says Platinum, who lives with his wife and kid in East Point and underwent rigorous wrestling training in Japan in 1993 before hitting America's indie circuit. "I always laugh when people talk about family friendly wrestling or when I see some kind of Christian wrestling group. In PCW, we are a wrestling company and we play on obvious stereotypes."
Though some of Platinum's social commentary might seem grim, there's just as much humor as hubris involved in his theatrics. Platinum, with his medium build and ever-present green warm-up jacket, is an unassuming physical presence compared to his beefed-up wrestling roster. The bushy-browed late-thirtysomething with a Belushi-like appreciation of the absurd, wants to stand apart from modern wrestling outfits by blatantly marketing PCW less as a sport than as performance art. Because really, that's what professional wrestling has always been. His goal, according to PCW's motto, is "Saving the art of professional wrestling one match at a time."
Though the crowds PCW draws are modest (even at sold-out shows) and its budget minuscule, the emotion and theatricality are larger than life.
"I always say wrestling is about triumph and tragedy," Platinum says. "You have to create a pretty bad tragedy in order for it to register, then those moments of triumph are more glorious. And with PCW, it is often strangely dark."
PCW's roster includes as many characters with in-ring backgrounds as with onstage experience. In fact, many PCW personalities, Platinum included, participated in the weekly wrestling parody show B.R.A.W.L. a few years ago at Dad's Garage, the indie theater and improv group in Inman Park. That theatrical experience has now found its way from the stage to the ring. The irony behind characters such as Dwight Power or Mason, a self-proclaimed "demigod" sporting gladiator-esque attire and backed by a group of Mormon-looking cronies known as his Witnesses, isn't lost on the audience. The PCW crowd seems to relish the tension between applauding the performances and booing the staged evil.
"It's fully integrated audience participation," says longtime Dad's Garage funnyman and B.R.A.W.L. alum Lucky Yates. "At Dad's we don't always want people screaming during the entire show, but at PCW people are encouraged to react to the characters."
Yates points out that PCW isn't just theatrics; it takes real athletic ability to pull off a piledriver or an Enzuigiri kick. And like traditional improv theater, as well as old-school wrestling, PCW is dependent on audience involvement.
"The more the audience becomes its own character in the show," Yates says, "the more it becomes embraced as part of the overall experience."
As one might expect, it's a savvier audience than the crowds typically drawn to today's pro-wrestling matches.
"These are smart fans who know what goes on when the curtain is pulled back," says Corey Nachamkin, aka "Smark Rage" of local wrestling podcast WrestleRage.com. "They know that someone like Dwight Power is a character being played and not what that guy is like in real life."
With his own money and reputation — as well as some of those on PCW's roster — on the line, Platinum hopes for more than moderate success without looking like a second-rate WWE.
"I don't think we compete [with WWE], not in a meaningful sense," he says. "They are the juggernaut of the industry, but I really don't factor in any other wrestling group when figuring out stuff for PCW."
Local wrestling's next chapter
Tragedy and triumph. Power and glory. These are the building blocks on which pro wrestling was originally erected. A big part of that foundation was established right here in Georgia. Many of the industry's legends, including Jake "The Snake" Roberts, the Road Warriors, Dusty Rhodes, Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat and Ric Flair, were part of Georgia Championship Wrestling in the '70s and '80s. Through a complicated series of political and business moves — as well as an alphabet soup of acronyms — GCW evolved into the Ted Turner-owned World Championship Wrestling. During the '90s, WCW rose to challenge WWE (then the World Wrestling Federation) in a national prime-time ratings battle known as the Monday Night Wars. The groups also competed for live event attendance and merchandising revenue.
When WWE purchased WCW in 2001, the national wrestling landscape changed dramatically and fans were left with essentially one outlet. Though PCW's presence is not the threat to WWE that WCW once was, the two are definitely vying for the attention of local fans as of late.
Platinum hopes to woo more and more WWE fans by sticking to the historical model of "wild and woolly" shows that emphasize "the emotional and the personal."
"The history of wrestling in Georgia is an integral part of the wrestling business in general," says Platinum. "The stripped-down, simple feel to the shows helps stick to a style that an older Georgia wrestling fan would feel comfortable with."
Having recently graduated from one to two weekly shows (Platinum began hosting bouts at the Jungle in June), PCW, which began as the Platinum Wrestling Alliance in 2001, has become one of the country's most active indie wrestling organizations.
While WWE was at Philips Arena for its blockbuster Smackdown event July 6, PCW was putting on one of its most over-the-top shows to date, which concluded with a clash between the Violent Majority, the Konkrete Gorillaz, Shane Marx, Sermon and McClendon that caused the locker room to empty, and left Holmes bleeding after having a bottle smashed over his head. While WWE's Philips Arena show drew upward of 10,000 fans, the crowd at PCW's early July match drew a crowd of about 80 — large by PCW standards.
It's unlikely WWE is even aware of PCW's existence. But as WWE approaches its largest annual event, the April 2011 WrestleMania XXVII at the Georgia Dome, PCW is building toward its own big show: Sacred Ground: Chapter One at Kennesaw State University on Sept. 25.
For Platinum, it's the event that could put him on the map, or make PCW tap out if the event fails to attract the 5,000 fans he's hoping for — a far cry from the dozens that attend the weekly shows.
Confirmed to appear at Sacred Ground are some of the biggest names Platinum has ever worked with, including former and current, respectively, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling personalities Awesome Kong and Samoa Joe.
After hearing of Platinum's criticism of TNA, Samoa Joe issued an open challenge to PCW's wrestlers. Davey Richards and Roderick Strong from Philadelphia-based Ring of Honor, known for its less theatrical and highly athletic take on pro wrestling, are also scheduled to appear. And in perhaps the biggest announcement in recent indie wrestling history, there will be a title vs. title match between the champions from the National Wrestling Alliance — the country's oldest wrestling organization — and PCW. Rumor has it that another major indie promotion will throw its champion into the fray as well.
"This is definitely going to be a proving ground for PCW," says its current heavyweight champion "The Natural" Shane Marx, a working-class hero type whose appearance eschews the sleek and oiled bodybuilder image of more mainstream wrestlers. "Being PCW champion has been the biggest honor of my career. But the NWA title is one of the most prestigious in the business and I've been following its history since I was a kid."
With original entrance music and theme songs, video vignettes and recaps, character illustrations and in-ring training from respected wrestler Jay Fury, PCW is finally beginning to hew closer to WWE's style than the average indie federation in terms of production and entertainment value. And with a weekly TV show on People TV that will begin airing July 25, Platinum's goal to draw big pro-wrestling crowds — while maintaining his indie and artistic sensibilities — seems attainable.
Many wrestling fans think the marketing- and product-obsessed WWE has lost sight of certain elements that originally made wrestling so entertaining. That's where Platinum comes in.
"WWE, by far, makes the best television product in wrestling history," says Platinum. He points out that WWE's intent, like most of pro wrestling, is to make money — and they do it well. "But our emphasis is on the live show and creating new wrestling fans that like my kind of pro wrestling."
By "his kind of pro wrestling," he means the kind that honors the artistic angle inside the ring — without taking itself too seriously.
Going for the win
The success of Sacred Ground — and PCW — depends not only on how its wrestlers fare against outside competition, but also on how a larger audience reacts to its envelope-pushing characters and scenarios. Outfits such as Ring of Honor and the now-defunct Extreme Championship Wrestling (also purchased by WWE) have proven that there exists a cult wrestling audience smart enough to understand the irony behind offensive characters like Power and endearingly insane characters like tough chick Pandora. After almost a decade of WWE dominance, though, there's an entire generation of fans weaned on what many consider a sterilized version of wrestling.
"I want to win over wrestling fans who watched during the Monday Night Wars and stopped," says Platinum. "I want to convert new wrestling fans, such as teenage boys and girls coming to the show with their parents, so they leave thinking wrestling is fantastic. I want old-school fans, new fans, I want them all."
He's perfectly willing to admit that such aspirations are a bit outlandish. And why shouldn't they be?
"That may not be realistic," he says, "but a lot of PCW is not realistic."