When underground fighting comes up in the media, the setting’s the same: a derelict arena inside a building in the middle of nowhere or below the streets, hidden far from any metropolitan glamour. Enter the Dragon and Mortal Kombat might have classed it up with their island fortresses, but the participants still had to ride boats to get there. Pro wrestling definitely flirts with this style of interior design as well, if Lucha Underground’s Temple and the American Legion Post #308 in Reseda, California that houses Pro Wrestling Guerrilla are anything to go by.
800 Congress in Austin, Texas wouldn’t fit that stereotype at all. Sitting across Congress Avenue from the hallowed Paramount Theatre, three blocks away from the Austin Capitol Building, it was once a restaurant, and has air conditioning and a sparkling clean interior. But some nights, if you’re passing by, you can see something unexpected through the grey iron fence and the wide front windows: a wrestling ring, surrounded by a mass of humanity.
Intrigued, you might go on in towards the door, stopping for a quick greeting with a friendly Englishman in a monocled, mustachioed mask named Jervis Cottonbelly, the sweetest man in wrestling. Turn to your right, and a row of tables staffed by various wrestlers will be more than happy to sell you merch, sign things, take selfies, or just shoot the shit as those who weren’t able to get tickets peek at you through a row of windows that are always tinted an envious shade of green.
And then the bell rings, and the dance begins, with movements of violence, technical and high flying wizardry, and comedic shenanigans. Welcome to WrestleCircus, the hottest new pro wrestling movement in the United States.
Al Lenhart, a longtime wrestling fan, and his wife Lexi, a not so longtime fan, kickstarted WrestleCircus five months ago with “The Opening Act,” along with Al’s brother Jordan, who wrestles with the company as Jordan Len-X. Even in its infancy, the card was pretty stacked, with the main event crowning TNA’s Ethan Carter III the first Ringmaster Champion. The four events after that continued to up the ante, and comparisons to PWG abounded, while local wrestling fans became re-energized in a town that hasn’t got many outlets, aside from Inspire Pro Wrestling and the occasional WWE show.
“Austin is a place that really gets behind independent art forms, so the Austin crowd is primed to support something like this,” muses Al. “Every one of the wrestlers are behind the curtain talking about the crowd. We had a show that was five and a half hours and the fans stayed to the end.”
The fans have plenty to stick around for. On February 19th, WrestleCircus will be putting on their biggest show to date, Taking Center Stage, and 800 Congress will almost certainly sell out their five hundred plus seats and their standing room (which is funny, since Al says the owners of 800 Congress almost didn’t want to be known as a wrestling venue). And for the first time, those unable to come can see the show as an internet pay per view, with Kevin Gill, “the punk rock Oprah,” providing commentary.
Ricky Starks is one of the many Texas talents energized by WrestleCircus’s success. One half of the team Extra Talent-ed, he and his best friend Aaron Solow head into Taking Center Stage with the opportunity to become the first WrestleCircus Big Top Tag Team Champions. But they face a brutal gauntlet: a battle royal against three other teams with demonic resumes and reputations: the Pretty Boy Killers, Keith Lee and Shane Taylor; Bullet Club’s Guerrillas of Destiny, Tama Tonga and Tanga Roa; and half of Suzuki-gun’s Killer Elite Squad, Davey Boy Smith Jr., teaming up with Houston Carson. (Smith’s regular partner, Lance Archer was scheduled to appear, but is suffering from a herniated disc.) Starks isn’t fazed, though.
“It’s a defining moment for us, and I have no doubt in my mind that we will be the first ever WrestleCircus tag team champions,” he says. Starks got a personal call from Lenhart to come to WrestleCircus after the owner saw some of his footage. “He said: ‘I watched your stuff, I like it a lot. I really want you on my show.” That was all it took, and now Starks is super excited about the prospects ahead.
“To me, this is another area where I can cultivate me as a person, where I can feel appreciated by fans and promoters, where I can say ‘Hey, I helped build this beautiful company.” But Starks emphasizes that he wants to build the brand more than himself.
Then there’s another local powerhouse, “Mr. Money’s Worth” Sammy Guevara. Despite losing to Tony Nese at The Opening Act, Guevara rebounded majorly, defeating huge names like Prince Mustafa Ali, Mr. 450, Colt Cabana, and Shane Strickland all in a row. However, hardly an instant after Guevara scored the three on Strickland in January, he was informed of his greatest challenger: the sensational Future of Flight, Ricochet.
Thanks in part to his work with WrestleCircus, Guevara’s been getting more and more bookings, especially in Evolve after Gabe Saporsky got wind of him. Lenhart sees Guevara as a major candidate for the face of WrestleCircus, something Guevara is excited about living up to, especially when doing it against someone like Ricochet.
“When you think WrestleCircus, you gotta think Sammy Guevara,” he says confidently. “I’ve been there for every show, and I just want to go out there and give it everything I’ve got, creating matches and making new things to make it grow. Even though they bring in a lot of names, people are starting to see me as a name that they’re bringing.”
Brian Cage, the eponymous “Machine” of Lucha Underground and the current Ringmaster Champion, faces his first big defense of the title, and WrestleCircus sure won’t make it easy for him. Looking to pull the pin on Cage’s title reign is Zack Sabre Jr., who has been a kleptomaniac of shows in his native England and around the world, especially in WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic. But Cage isn’t backing down, especially since he feels incredible representing the company as champ.
“A lot of people use me as a top star, but no other promotion has given me the ball to run with,” the Machine says happily. “So I feel honored that this promotion with such high prestige is trusting me to carry to the goal. Everything about this federation is top notch, because every aspect and variable of it, the fans, the management, is the absolute best. I’ve been quoted as saying WrestleCircus is the Lucha Underground of the independents.”
Although Al and Lexi are amazed at how quick things have gone, for the moment they’re sticking to their day jobs in sales, since WrestleCircus isn’t a profitable enterprise yet.
“We would love to be able to do it full time, but with independent wrestling, very few [promoters] are making the money to do it,” Al muses. “Right now, we’re just kind of happy to be breaking even on the shows.” WrestleCircus has done a few shows outside of Austin, but Lenhart says the vibe wasn’t as good, so plans for touring are on hold for now. He also floats the possibility of more hardcore matches down the line.
Looking to a closer future, the next show in March will be more unique than usual, because as all Austinites know, March brings the South by Southwest festival. WrestleCircus will hold a show at Austin’s iconic rock club Emo’s on March 17, during the heart of the music festival. It’ll be WrestleCircus’s first show while top players in film, tech and especially music are in town. But Al Lenhart doesn’t just want to compete with SXSW, he wants to be just as big a draw.
“I want WrestleCircus to be a part of what people do when they visit Austin,” he says of his dream for the promotion. “If somebody comes from out of town and wants to experience the ‘Keep Austin Weird’ culture, they can come down to Austin and check out a WrestleCircus show.”
Sam Jackson writes for Cracked. Looper and Grunge, and just about anybody who wants him. He’s on Twitter @darwinaward44.