It takes a village to make a wrestler.
Though the fans of Appalachian Mountain Wrestling (AMW) may not appreciate “The Progressive Liberal” Daniel Richards for the far left ideology he brings to the ring, Richards appreciates the fans, and the promotion that gave him a platform to become an overnight internet sensation. Just a month ago, AMW had a couple hundred followers on their YouTube channel, with maybe twice that many views on the episode that caught the eye of Deadspin at the end of June.
“We’re approaching 50,000 the last time I checked,” Daniel Richards said, in an interview this week with Paste. “Our subscribers have gone up by a hundred, which proportionally is significant. We had 230-something before, and now we’re approaching 350 or more. That’s big for a little independent promotion like us.”
It’s a metaphor for the whirlwind month Richards has had. Part-time wrestler Daniel Richards by night, successful realtor Daniel Harnsberger by day, the 36-year-old has found himself at the center of a media whirlwind all thanks to his unusual gimmick: a true blue, die hard, yellow dog liberal decked out in Democratic donkeys and a shirt covered in Hillary Clinton photos, hitting the mat with conservative foes deep in the heart of Trump Country.
“To me it’s only made it more exciting and more enjoyable,” Richards said of the extra attention. “I think it’s brought a little extra fanfare which of course is a great thing. … I don’t know if it means I’ll strike it rich, but it certainly helps.” Even if it means a few extra hours of work, maintaining his businesses and new bookings in the wake of his newfound national notoriety. “I still have my real estate businesses to tend to, and that’s been harder. At the end of the day I’m not going to fail, it’s just been less sleep for this liberal.”
Though Richards’s on-camera relationship with the AMW roster, and certainly with their passionately conservative fans, is combative, he paints a more bipartisan picture of AMW’s perspective on his moment in the spotlight.
“Everyone knows what’s going on. I think at the end of the day everyone there realizes it’s a good thing for everybody, and there’s not been an interview of any significance that I’ve done where I haven’t promoted AMW,” Richards said. “I think I know that. It’s not like I’ve gotten a big head about this, Beau [James] hasn’t. Beau and I, with all the coverage we’ve gotten, we’re still the same two people we were before. Maybe it’d be looked at negatively if I was being an arrogant prick or something, but I’m not.
Beau James, Richards’s mentor and a man with more than twenty years of experience in the world of wrestling, went to a great deal of effort to smooth Richards’s path in the locker room when he first joined the AMW ranks, and Richards has mentioned in previous interviews James would feed him his lines and coach him on the gimmick in front of other wrestlers to make sure they knew Richards wasn’t just showing up to stir the pot.
When asked if that was still the case, Richards explained, “That was at first, because I’m an outsider to fans, I still am. But when I first came there I was an outsider to that locker room. So to make sure that I didn’t have instant heat in the dressing room, Beau made sure that people heard him giving me the direction. If I’d just come out and said that stuff, it’d be understandable, it’d be like who is this jerk? To put it mildly.
“So that was definitely done with my best interest in mind, and I appreciate that. But that’s the beauty of working for someone like Beau, because Beau is a wealth of knowledge and has the experience to understand a dynamic like that. He’s been around 28 years, wrestled all over the country, and rubbed elbows with some of the greatest wrestlers in the entire business. So I’m a beneficiary of his education, and I’m fortunate that he’s passing down part of it to me.”
Not to say that Richards isn’t as liberal as his gimmick—a gimmick topped off by a cross-arm neckbreaker finisher called the “Liberal Agenda.” Though he may not be quite as pompous as his “Daniel Richards” persona, Harnsberger is a proud liberal, and just as outspoken about it, a rarity in an entertainment business dominated by a family of wealthy Republican donors and a Trump cabinet member.
Harnsberger is surprised by everyone else’s surprise at his liberal leanings, but is quick in interviews to confirm they’re all his. “It’s shocking to me that everyone is shocked, even Chris Hayes on his shows said, you know, at first we thought this was a conservative playing a liberal, then we figured out he’s an actual liberal! And I’m like, yes!
“In the radio interviews they quickly find it out, and I’m pleased the feedback I get is, well, you know what you’re talking about. I don’t know every nuance of every policy but I do follow the news. I think it’s more important than ever to follow the news, not only because of the time and the President that we’re living in and under, just being in wrestling, I think it’s important to keep a pulse on what’s going on in the world.”
What is it like, then, to feel so passionately about your politics and climb into a ring where you know they’ll get booed nine shows out of ten?
“I’m a villainized version of myself because the fans,” Harnsberger said. “Beau could book me any way possible to try to get me loved by the fans, but if I just have the name The Progressive Liberal Daniel Richards, that alone… I’m just gonna get heat. It’s just heat with those people there. It’d be a tough go.
“So that’s why I’m villainized, and I play off of it, but I think that’s how you would go in real life. If you went to work and people were talking shit to you, you would just—I guess some people would wilt, but that’s not me. I would fire back. And that’s me. I antagonize them in the ring and then in my interviews, I try to. They’re so narrow-minded over there, including one of the wrestlers who thinks that if you’re liberal, you’re gay. And first of all, there’s nothing wrong if that is the case, I’m not, but I don’t really care that they think I am, so I’ll throw in a lot of extra flamboyance I maybe wouldn’t otherwise. It’s just to egg them on because they don’t like it. That’s fine. They’re on the wrong side of history, and you know, I’m not.”
There’s a level of nuance there even most big name wrestlers often miss—being a progressive character without going out of your way to make your progressive views the problem, and instead, just accepting the responses as they come. For Harnsberger, being “Daniel Richards” means putting a little salt and pepper on the person he is when he wakes up in the morning, but not making his ideals the butt of the joke. (More big name wrestlers could take a hint from Harnsberger in this regard.)
He doesn’t go out of his way to engage fans in political debate after matches, though, and has an old-school view of keeping kayfabe. “I try to stay away from any interactions from fans,” he said, “Because there’s nothing I hate more than watching someone who’s trying to be a heel and at the end of the night they’re glad-handing fans and holding babies, and I see that a lot.
“After a movie’s over, Tom Hanks isn’t coming out like, oh, this thing was all fake. It doesn’t happen. And I don’t want to compromise the hard work I’ve put in, especially with my character, to kill the suspension of disbelief I’ve worked so hard for.”
He did admit, though, that “I printed some pictures, I’m selling those bad boys.
“There’s a band I really like called One-Eyed Doll, the lead singer, her name’s Kimberly Freeman. I’ve seen them three times live, and she’s so interactive and personal with her fans … I think I take part of that and make it mine when it comes to interacting with fans of mine.”
For Harnsberger, the key to the gimmick—imparted to him by Beau—is understanding the audience and rolling with the crowd response, without letting his gimmick get lost or changed by the added attention. “I’ve got bookings in the future where people are going to cheer for me because of where I am. I’ve got a show in Annandale, Virginia, which is Northern Virginia, and I’ll be cheered there, or I’m pretty confident I will be. I look forward to that. I don’t need cheers, boos don’t hurt my feelings. It’s just an interesting change of pace, just like all this has been.”
The “Progressive Liberal” gimmick does give him some freedom to have fun toying with fans, though. “We went out to Gray, Tennessee, to a festival, and people are just booing me and saying stuff. And I interact with them, but totally as a heel. I’m considered smug and arrogant and all that so I play that up as I’m setting up my table, I’m like, ‘Move, move, the most famous wrestler in the world, setting up! Gotta sell pictures!’
“I don’t walk around thinking that, I’ve certainly gotten a lot of notoriety out of it … I did say in a post-match interview with Kyle [Maggard], on the live mic I said, ‘How does it feel to be beaten by the most famous wrestler in the world?’ And at least for the first week I might have had a justifiable claim there. That’s not for me to say, but at least in the first week I had a justifiable claim.”
Whether he’s been the most famous wrestler or not, Harnsberger has stayed humble and up front about his origins, and in most interviews only has kind words for AMW, Maggard, James, and the other professionals who have helped him hone his craft and find a home for his gimmick.
“The reason trickle-down economics doesn’t work is because of people,” Harnsberger said firmly, dipping back into the toes of the ideological waters that make him Daniel Richards even as he discusses his passion for AMW and appreciation for the help and support he’s been given since he returned to the wrestling ring. “Republicans say, ‘oh the rich guys are gonna start paying everyone else more when you give them the tax break.’ And that’s not what happens.
“In my universe, I just feel like you use good things that have been given to you to lift other people up, but also recognize what got you there, and to me, that’s all I’m doing is giving props to people who deserve it. The Richmond Times-Dispatch followed me around for most of [Monday], they photographed me while I was working out, but I wanted my trainer Jennifer Rothemich to be there with me. She’s helped me with my diet, I broke my hand like my second match for AMW … Jennifer helped me with that. I wanted her to be there so she could get a rub from it, at least people know hey, this gal is a personal trainer and it couldn’t hurt her for sure.”
Though Rothemich couldn’t make the interview, Harnsberger said, “I try to do that on all levels because it’s all a product … it’s just a team effort. We’re all independent contractors but truly, for this to work, everyone’s got to be involved and pitch in. I came up with a great gimmick, and it’s my idea and all that, but Beau helped me understand it better and then helped me understand my audience better. It’s not a one-man show.”
As for future opportunities, The Progressive Liberal has his eyes on one opponent for a potential future feud. “I think there’s a match that needs to happen between myself and Sam Adonis,” an independent wrestler in Mexico who wrestles as an ardent supporter of President Trump. “I knew about Sam—a friend of mine, she sent me an article about Sam and that’s how I first knew about him. Now it’s funny, now that I’m having my little run right now, people are putting us in the same light. Usually you see a story about me and there’s a story linked about him in the related section.”
A midterm election grudge match, maybe?
“We need to have something and we need to do it now, strike while the iron’s hot. But we’ll see. So Sam is one, the whole dynamic there if anything.”
He still has an eye on the big fish of sports entertainment, the WWE. “That’s where I’ve wanted to go since I was a kid. I stepped away from the business and had this big hiatus that I think really killed my chances of having any kind of stardom, but I made my goal this year that I want to be on there for a one-time match. And that can happen! We’ll see. I wanted that and to be ranked in Pro Wrestling Illustrated, so we’ll see if either happens.”
C.K. Stewart is a freelance writer with a lot of opinions about comics, wrestling and wrestling comics. He can also be found at Newsarama or livetweeting terrible pay-per-views on Twitter @ckayfabe.