There's nothing quite like the crowd at a professional wrestling match.
Sure, fans are wearing T-shirts for the wrestlers they love, and they're screaming at the ones they hate, just like every other sport. But there's a knowing smile on most everyone's faces. They’re in on it.
C.J. Esparza, 31, from Bloomington-Normal has been wrestling his whole life. He started as a backyard wrestler with a homemade ring. Now he’s part of the high-flying tag team duo Zero Gravity, along with longtime friend Brett Gakiya.
“A lot of people refer to it as the magic,” Esparza said. “There’s this magic that you create when you’re putting on a good match. When you’ve got the crowd rolling. They’re with you every step of the way. Your match is going to plan and everything is hitting on all cylinders. There’s this energy in the building. It’s the best thing.”
Zero Gravity was featured at last weekend's Iron Spirit Pro wrestling event at Normal's Community Activity Center. Iron Spirit Pro is a young independent wrestling company—or "promotion," as they call it. It's a year old, and this was just the fourth event.
The Rock may be a movie star and the WWE is a cultural behemoth. But until recently, independent pro wrestling really didn't have a foothold in Bloomington-Normal.
“So all of a sudden, Bloomington is a little bit of a hot spot, which is awesome. Because I’ve been wrestling for 14 years, and there’s never been any independent wrestling in Bloomington until recently,” Esparza said.
Logan Bruce, the founder of Iron Spirit Pro, said was inspired in part by the success of another downstate wrestling company, Dreamwave, years ago in LaSalle, Illinois.
Independent wrestling is in a boom period right now, Bruce said, but there are few options in downstate Illinois. WWE isn't really appealing to hardcore wresting fans anymore, he said.
“They don’t really cater to what are called lapsed fans, who used to watch in the 1990s when it was super hot with the Attitude Era and stuff. And since then it’s gotten way more PG. It’s a kids show. Which is fine. Ours is definitely a family-friendly show,” Bruce said.
For its fourth event on Saturday, Iron Spirit Pro brought in an old-school wrestling ring and plopped it right in the middle of Normal’s Community Activity Center, where normally you'd see people voting or kids playing floor hockey.
It's the same building where the Heartland Theatre Company does its shows. And it's where Nick Brubaker took acting lessons as a kid.
Today, Brubaker is one of the best-known Bloomington-Normal wrestlers. He wrestles under the name Brubaker—or by the nickname Filth King.
“I’ve gotten that name because of my tactics in the ring, as well as some of my imagery—the tattoos and the piercings,” Brubaker said.
Brubaker said he loves the theatricality of wrestling—the combination of athleticism and charisma that he says other sports can lack.
“As opposed to saying we’re out there having real fights, it looks more like two superheroes clashing, which kind of allows more leeway for the men and women to wrestling, and for smaller guys to wrestle the bigger guys and still have it be believable,” Brubaker said. “Because we’re not out there saying this is a real fight between two people. We all know we’re having fun out there.”
That said, Brubaker has a laundry list of injuries. He’s fractured his skull and broke his nose about 20 times.
“We’re always in pain, or at least I am,” he laughed. “But we find ways to get through it so we can do the thing we love.”
One of the hardest parts is the business side of the business. For independent, unsigned wrestlers, they try to book themselves an event or two every weekend. The goal is to get signed and get on TV.
On weekends Esparza is flying through the air with Zero Gravity. During the week he's a supervisor at Four Seasons, where he trains.
Brubaker, 33, is a fitness coach at Orangetheory Fitness. He's also a father to two boys, ages 5 and 6. He's on the road a lot, but the road is where he learned how to wrestle.
“It’s just finding those different strategies and techniques to get the crowd to do what we want them to do, which is really the name of the game when we’re out there,” he said.
At Saturday’s event, the crowd loved one of the youngest wrestlers on the bill: Savanna Stone. (No, that’s not her real name.)
Unlike the others, Stone didn't grow up watching wrestling, idolizing Hulk Hogan or Shawn Michaels or Stone Cold Steve Austin. She was a 16-year-old high school volleyball when she saw a wrestling match on YouTube and thought it was cool. She told her parents she wanted to try it.
“I got the obvious reaction when you say, ‘Hey Mom, I want go out and wear some skimpy clothes and wrestle in front of a bunch of guys.’ So you can only imagine that,” Stone laughed.
Stone’s parents are among her biggest fans. Dad helps drive her to events. Mom helps with merchandise and promotion.
Stone, now 19, is also a college student in her hometown of St. Louis. She loves life on the road, like Saturday night in Normal wrestling the Sorceress Hawlee Cromwell. (Spoiler alert: Stone was the winner.)
It was the only women's match of the night. What it's like to be a woman in the wrestling business?
“It’s very, very hard,” Stone said. “Anyone who’s looking to be in this business, I’d absolutely say jump in, start as soon as you want. Follow your dream. But know there are a lot of challenges, especially starting young in this business like I did. Any age really.
“Have close friends but don’t trust everyone. Your fans are going to be what gets your through,” Stone said.
Stone’s goal is to get signed, to join a larger wrestling promotion and work her way up to the big time. She's already had a taste of it. She wrestled on WWE Raw once back in 2018.
Her favorite part is the fans, especially the youngest ones.
“There was one night I was (wrestling) a guy. We’re allowed to do that—girls, guys, it doesn’t matter. And there was a little girl (in the crowd) who came up and said, ‘Wow, we can beat the guys too?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, of course!’ And she was like 6 years old. To be able to have that match, and her get something out of it like that, I love being able to give that to little kids,” Stone said. “If I get that, that makes me happy.”
Bruce, the Iron Spirit Pro founder, said he’s also thinking about the future.
Iron Spirit Pro will expand this fall with its first event in Champaign on Sept. 21, followed by another show in Normal on Oct. 12. Another independent company, Chicago-based Kaiju Attack Wrestling, also occasionally does shows in Bloomington.
“I could see us doing a three or four-city loop around central Illinois in the towns that nobody is hitting, but I always think Bloomington-Normal will be our home,” Bruce said.
After that, he'd like to get his shows onto a video on-demand platform, so that people can discover Iron Spirit Pro—and its talent—from wherever they are.
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