Published December 13th, 2019 at 9:30 AM
When it comes to the sports entertainment industry, the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) is the top dog. Billionaire owner and president Vince McMahon’s business made over $900 million in revenue in 2018. Its YouTube channel has over 50 million subscribers.
While McMahon, 74, sits atop a mountain of money, the WWE rides on the strength of its wrestlers. They are professional athletes who are recognized worldwide. Nearly all of the WWE talent started out in “the indies,” or independent pro wrestling promotions that are based out of bingo halls and similar neighborhood venues.
Kansas City Xtreme Wrestling (KCXW) is one of those promotions.
Walking past the small line of waiting fans and into the Ararat Shrine Temple on the edge of Raytown, the room just feels dangerous.
There’s an old-fashioned square wrestling ring in the middle of the cafeteria-like space. A fall from the top rope to the tile floor below appears to be cushioned by only a thin black mat.
Maybe a few hundred folding chairs surround the ring. One suspects there are weaponized folding chairs below the ring.
It has to be one of the few sporting events where beer still comes in a glass bottle.
This is the stage for KCXW’s top wrestlers to show their stuff. Tonight is ‘Xcellence’, Kansas City’s version of Wrestlemania. The venue is a far cry from a sold-out arena, or even from the city’s top high school football stadiums, but that’s the business.
Pro wrestling at this level is a bit like doing stand-up comedy for an audience of 10, but more physically daunting. Fans check any disbelief at the door and walk in with the expectation to not only laugh, but scream, rage, cry, cheer and anything in between. They ride or die on the action.
Two hours into the evening, the needle tips from feels-like to confirmed danger. The Metro Title match has KCXW’s largest audience to date on the edge of seats and rowdy. Title contender J. Savage rises to his feet, exhausted, to unrelenting chants that pour from the hearts of young children.
“GET THE MOUSETRAPS!” (clap, clap, clap-clap-clap)
If this sounds absurd — good. That’s exactly how it’s supposed to be. It’s also a long way from where KCXW founder and president Jordan Smiley discovered what has now evolved into KC’s independent wrestling promotion and training ground.
Back in 2007, Smiley left the military and started a vlog-like internet TV channel, where he interviewed local musicians and entertainers. Not long after, he picked whispers off a grapevine that led him to an undisclosed backyard. There, he saw a grown man flip out of a treehouse into a wrestling ring and onto an opponent.
“I was like wow, this is the coolest f— thing,” Smiley said, looking back.
A lifelong wrestling fan, Smiley offered his video production services. Soon, the backyard bash grew too large, faced questions regarding legality and was shut down.
It was the birth of KCXW.
Today, running five years strong, Smiley’s promotion is hitting its stride. Its success lies in the storylines.
“Why do people like sports? (Wrestling) has that ‘I want my guy to win aspect’ — the eternal struggle between characters,” Smiley explains. “We get to play out a reality of the world in the ring and that can be quite powerful to people. It’s all about the story.”
KCXW’s most inspiring storyline to date may be the journey of third-year wrestler Lavender Sky.
A spot on the Xcellence card speaks to what her match against best friend-turned-enemy Branae, who recently made an appearance in “the big leagues” on WWE’s Smackdown, means to the very fabric of her being. Lavender Sky is a trans woman getting her first-ever shot at the KCXW Women’s Title belt.
“I feel like I’m fighting for every other LGBTQ person out there that’s wanted to do what they want to do in life, but were too afraid to do it,” she says. “I’m here to show that you can be who you are with no consequences.”
Lavender’s entry music hits and she glides down the stage and toward the ring in her high cut leotard, which glows with sequins. She enters the ring and all gloves are off. Branae makes it clear she’ll do anything to stomp out a former friend — especially when the referee isn’t looking.
The pair exchange vicious blows to a raucous and divided crowd enjoying their evening on the fringe of normalcy. Branae plays dirtier and dirtier with slaps, kicks, hair pulling and more hair pulling.
But then, the tide suddenly turns.
A sequence of blows and tough-nosed grappling brings Branae to the mat, where she lies unable to recover. Lavender Sky scrambles to the turnbuckle, where she climbs to the top.
It’s time for the finisher.
“Raised on wrestling,” Lavender Sky leaps from the turnbuckle, imitating WWE legend Jeff Hardy’s Swanton Bomb. It’s a layout frontflip that allows Lavender to look Branae in the eye in a full swan dive, before tucking at the last moment and slamming onto her body below.
Three counts later and every member of the promotion is in the ring celebrating. KCXW has it’s newest breakout star and Women’s Champion.
Soon Lavender Sky will hug her title belt as KCXW’s first trans champ. She’ll then text her brother, who joined the Marines before their tag team dream became real, with the good news.
The kids wouldn’t demand the mousetraps unless they were truly embroiled in J. Savage’s quest for the Metro Title.
Of course, the mousetraps only became an option in the self-explanatory “I Quit” match after tables, chairs, a Playstation controller cable, trashcan and forceful haircut didn’t do the trick.
The Metro Title match between J. Savage and Juno Granger is a vintage tale of good vs. evil.
J. Savage is KCXW’s darling boy, who fell in love with wrestling at a young age sitting on his grandma’s lap. He dreamt of becoming an actor or pro athlete like his favorite wrestler, The Rock. Overweight and not the most athletic, he ruled out his pair of dreams until discovering KCXW online.
Three years into his wrestling career, Savage has completely remade his body with a strict workout regimen and diet. He’s since held the Metro Title twice — most recently by way of burying his opponent alive in a Casket Match.
Granger later took the Metro Title from Savage and issued a message via YouTube — taking a shot at his rival’s livelihood, asserting that the ex-champ has nothing to fall back on if he utters “I quit.”
“That’s a question I had to ask myself: ‘Is that true?’” says Savage, before the big match. “I wake up every morning, I kiss my wife and I hug my son and I’ve got everything to live for whether that pertains to pro wrestling or not. That gives me more of a reason to stand up and fight for myself and everyone who comes out to watch us put on the show.”
And did he ever.
If Branae fights dirty, Granger fights filthy. For much of the match, the pair battled outside of the ring among the people, just like in the action movies. The Ararat Shrine volunteers, selling $3 hot dogs, watched the action at arms length.
Granger’s decision to drag Savage into a street fight outside of the ring may have only fueled the two-time champ’s will to win. A pro-Savage mob of fans follow the action and record with their phones. They hang and heckle on every blow, until finally back in the ring, Savage gets a hold of Granger’s mug. In one final effort, Savage yanks Granger’s head backwards until he utters the golden words.
The return of his belt and glory that ensues is just a taste of what’s possible for J. Savage at the top of his local independent promotion. While the glitz and glam of pro wrestling at the next level is why many wrestlers pursue their bingo hall dreams in the first place, Savage’s reason is as simple as KCXW’s homegrown setup.
“The only reason I haven’t quit wrestling over the last three years is because of my nephew,” says Savage, who’s been a father figure for the young wrestling fan since he was just a baby. It could be the beginning of a family tradition.
“Me doing it makes it possible for him.”
This article is a part of Flatland’s SportsTown Series: A collection of stories covering the average athletes, niche-sport elites and everyone else dedicated to the games you’ve never heard of, could easily be a part of, and just might want to love that make Kansas City truly a one-of-a-kind sports town.