Joey Harrison has been through a lot in his seven years as a professional wrestler: locker-room-clearing brawls, chairs matches, a six-way casket match in which he bodyslammed his opponent onto thumbtacks. He’s never felt more disrespected, though, than he has by United Pro Wrestling Association owner Donald Brower.
“Brower has never really liked me,” Harrison says. “He’s tried to underpay me, bury me on the show, called me a ‘bathroom break wrestler,’ saying he gave me opportunities.”
Harrison says he warned Brower, but when the UPWA promoter deliberately cost his Cruiserweight Champion a match in October, he did the only sensible thing: slapped his boss in the mouth.
It’s all par for the course in independent wrestling, where employees feud openly with their bosses, individuals are separated into good and evil (“babyfaces” and “heels”) and coworker disputes are resolved with steel chairs. You, too, can get a taste of the action when UPWA comes to the Edge Soccer Programs Saturday night.
UPWA’s roster is an eclectic mix of characters, body types, ages and experience levels. Victor Andrews (real name: Roosevelt Conyers), a.k.a. Mr Everything, is the young upstart. Team Pitbull is the old-school heel stable that liken themselves to The Four Horsemen (Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling legends Ric Flair, Arn Anderson, Ole Anderson and Tully Blanchard). Papa Stro—a.k.a. 46-year-old Rob Kellum—summons his strength from a sinister doll.
Kellum is the grand-nephew of WWE Hall of Famer Gorgeous George. He participated in World Championship Wrestling in the ‘90s as The Maestro. Over his 30-year career, he’s wrestled legends Ivan Koloff, Jerry “The King” Lawler, Scott Hall, Jake “The Snake” Roberts and Rob Van Dam. This Saturday in Wilmington, he’ll square off against Andrews in a match to determine the number one contender for the UPWA Heavyweight Championship.
Like many wrestlers, Kellum comes from a surprising background: In addition to being a collegiate wrestler, he dabbled in high school and college theatre. “I was in ‘Macbeth,’ ‘Hamlet’…I was in ‘Cats,’” he says. “My choir teacher was livid when she found out I got into wrestling.”
He channels that experience into Papa Stro—a character he describes as “very dark, very mysterious, very eerie.” Stro is rarely seen without his doll Dorothy, who represents “souls of lost children that give him the power to go after all the wrongdoings and evil in the world.”
His match against Andrews is just one of just eight on the card this weekend. Harrison will defend his Cruiserweight Championship against an opponent to be determined, and Team Pitbull will compete in singles matches against members of East Coast Syndicate and Team Sexxy.
UPWA wrestlers largely describe themselves as a brotherhood. Whereas larger companies like WWE have robust production budgets and travel with a crew of hundreds, UPWA wrestlers help set up the ring, and often create and sell their own merchandise. As independent contractors, they also drive hundreds of miles each weekend to perform, sometimes for several different promotions. 23-year-veteran Trey Gilbert, who wrestles under “Tre-g” as part of Team Pitbull, says the sacrifices can be great. “You miss people’s weddings, you miss bar mitzvahs, you miss kids’ birthdays, you miss nephews being born, you miss parents being sick.”
The passion draws them in more than finances. Most have to pick up extra work to make ends meet. Gilbert coaches youth football. Andrews models and works at the bookstore at the university where he takes classes. Harrison works at a gym and makes balloon animals for kids’ birthday parties. Even Brower has a second job, writing about high-school wrestling. Kellum, who now serves as ambassador for the Onslow County Chamber of Commerce and board member of Eno River Media, a film advocacy company based out of Raleigh, once made airplane seats for Delta.
Yet, most say they wouldn’t change a thing about choices that led them to UPWA.
“If anything, I would love to do it more,” says Andrews, who regularly brings his 4-year-old son to the ring with him.
Gilbert even met his wife at a wrestling event. “A lot of guys think if you don’t make it to the greatest pinnacle of working for [WWE] or Japan, you’ve lost,” he says. “But I’ve been to Puerto Rico, I’ve been able to go see part of this world that other people never get to see … it has its pay-outs.”