This story is part of an episode of Inside Appalachia about Professional Wrestling in Appalachia. Click here to listen to the full episode.

In the All Star Wrestling ring in Madison, West Virginia, Rocky Rage used to be one of the most beloved local characters in the arena. But then he made the switch from hero to bad guy.

It happened last year, just after he left West Virginia to perform at some out-of-state shows. Rocky had been the heavyweight champion at All Star, a beloved local figure who always drew big reactions from the crowds as he took on bad guys and pummeled them in the ring.

But when he returned, another player had taken his title. According to Rocky,  his character did a 180. Now he’s this arrogant guy, completely full of himself. He talks back to the crowd and calls himself the “Savior of Wrestling.” He says he’s even made kids cry —and he loves that.

“I can’t say he’s nice in front of people,” whispers Casey Shingleton, one of the other wrestlers at ASW. “But he’s nice.”

Fellow wrestlers at All Star Wrestling in Boone County
Photo credit: Emily Hilliard, WV Folklife Program

Shingleton, whose wrestling name is The Dark Horse, says the audience in Madison changed as Rocky went rogue.

“I mean Rocky’s the same dude. He hasn’t changed a bit. In the audience, I’ve noticed they’ve started to gravitate more towards the bad guys, here. They seem to like the villains, that’s for sure.”

Rocky’s Family: ‘Every Match I Worry’

By day, Rocky Rage  goes by Rocky Hardin. He lives in a small one-story home in Montgomery, West Virginia. A small creek runs beside the house.

He has a wife, a daughter, and just like most people, they’re a busy family. His wife works long hours, and he’s often out of town wrestling.

Sunday afternoons are one of the few times they’re all together. On one recent Sunday, Rocky’s 3-year-old-daughter Avery has a coloring book on the floor with a stack of pens, a highlighter, and a box of colored pencils. She’s got long blonde hair, and a fierce, determined look on her face as she demands her dad help her color in a robot coloring book.

“She loves to color. That’s her thing,” Rocky says, picking up a red crayon and filling in the lines while his daughter instructed. “Like you give her some crayons and a coloring book she’s content forever. It’s pretty cool.”

Avery is a big wrestling fan. “We’ve taken her to some WWE shows in Charleston. She loves it! She goes crazy!” says her mom, Jamie, Rocky’s wife of three years.

Rocky is even teaching Avery some wrestling moves. (Avery is undefeated in these matches against her dad)

Avery loves to go see her dad wrestle live, most of the time.

“The only time she’s ever freaked out at a show was [when] I was bleeding a little bit, and I was in the locker room,” says Rocky. “Avery saw me and she saw me with blood on my face, and she freaked out a little bit. So if I know there’s gonna be a match to where there’s a chance there might be blood, it’s definitely something that I don’t want her to see anymore.”

Rocky’s daughter and wife
Photo: Roxy Todd, WVPB

Rocky and his wife met through wrestling. He was training her to learn wrestling, and the two hit it off. Jamie says she wasn’t looking for a relationship but they had “an undeniable chemistry.”

And though she’s a devoted wrestling fan, Jamie says she’s terrified that, one of these days, Rocky could be severely injured. He’s already had a number of neck injuries while in the ring.

“Every single match I worry. And I see it with other wrestlers too. A lot of the wrestlers are married, they have kids. They’re getting older. You don’t want to see somebody, in five years, be in so much pain they can’t do anything because of wrestling,”she says.

But at the same time, she says she couldn’t imagine if he wasn’t a wrestler. “It’s such a big part of who he is.”

Teaching Wrestling

Until recently Rocky was working as a nursing assistant for steady income. But earlier this year he decided to step away; it was tough work with long hours, and he hardly ever got to see his daughter.

He’s also able to focus more on his wrestling career. Lately, he’s been traveling to perform at out-of-state matches. He wouldn’t say how much he earns for these shows, because he didn’t want to start drama between wrestlers because it can be a sensitive issue. But he says it’s enough that he can pay the bills.

His local home base remains the All Star Wrestling ring in Madison. During most matches, Rocky gets to the Civic Center around 2 p.m. and works for about three hours training the newer wrestlers.

Some of the students Rocky is training
Photo: Emily Hilliard, WV Folklife Program

He got his start just like this, about 15 years ago, learning from other wrestlers in Portsmouth, Ohio, where he grew up.

There are wrestling schools throughout the country, but they can be expensive and require huge time and financial commitments that most local indie-wrestlers can’t afford. So, like Rocky, most aspiring wrestlers get some of their only training in moments like this, before the doors have opened and the audience files in.

Most of the coaches like Rocky charge for training. It’s not a lot, and sometimes they’ll offer tips to each other. But, normally, if you want to train you should expect to pay a bit of money to learn.

Preparing for the Match

Around 5 p.m. Rocky goes down to the locker room to start getting ready for his match.

On this night, he’s scheduled to wrestle a team from Pennsylvania he’d never met before, called Tough Guy Inc.—made up of Brutal Bob and Tough Tim Hughes. And even though these guys are veteran wrestlers, seen on national television, stepping into the ring with someone for the first time can heighten anxiety.

Rocky in the locker room before a match
Photo: Emily Hilliard, WV Folklife Program

“It can be challenging sometimes when you’re in there with a guy you don’t know. ‘Cause you’re really trusting somebody with your life. If they pick you up, you’re hoping that you’re able to walk when he puts you down,” says Rocky, as he was going through his suitcase, picking out the boots he would be wearing later that night.

“My goal for tonight: Walk out of the ring, hope the fans love it, and hope I’m able to walk.”

Because even though there is an element to wrestling that’s predetermined and choreographed, it’s still very physical. These guys are taking real hits and stiff falls, and it’s tough on their bodies.

One of his best friends here is Matt Wolfe, whose wrestling name is Shane Storm. When they wrestle tonight, they’ll be tag partners, so they’re on the same team. But they’ve wrestled against each other a lot too here in Madison.

They’ve had fights together where they appeared to be giving each other brutal beatings. Rocky says one of his favorite matches was one where they hit each other with a real chain. “We both had bruises in the form of a chain. Like we would take [the chain] and slap each other life a whip, slap each other on the back of the head, wrap around, got me in my face.”

But back in the locker room, they’re patting each other on the back and passing compliments back and forth. “Once you have that level of brotherhood, we can go in and lay out the hits as hard as we can. We can go out there and knock each other’s teeth out, and when we get back here hug and know [we did’ what we needed to do.”

Photo: Emily Hilliard, WV Folklife Program

There’s another legendary fight between Rocky Rage and Shane Storm that has become Madison wrestling lore. Rocky’s wife, Jamie, got in the ring, and Shane Storm actually beat her up.

“Nailed her, good, right in the face too,” says Rocky. “That was on the verge of a riot. Like people were hitting him, they were trying to get to him, he actually had a fan or two hit him. It was fun.”

Of course, the point of all this is getting a big reaction from the crowd. And these fights probably got some of the biggest reactions in ASW history.

“The crowd was absolutely beyond themselves,” Jamie says. “They could not believe that he had just done that. The adrenaline you get from that, it’s amazing.”

But then, a little while after that epic fight, Rocky Rage turned into the villain. For years he’d been the local hero in Madison. Then he lost the heavyweight championship to his one-time best friend, Shane Storm. So Rocky says, his character did a 180.

“When I turned on my buddy and was the bad guy, like, kids were crying and running out of the building. It was crazy. I got a few death threats.”

Backstage Stress 

Around 8:00 in the evening, the matches have already started upstairs. But down in the locker room, there’s some stress around the main event. The performer who was supposed to be there is delayed, so the lineup got switched around, matches and opponents shifted, and Rocky would now be in the main event.

“But yeah, my head is going every different directions. Make sure everyone knows what we’re doing tonight. I still, as you can tell, haven’t gotten dressed yet,” Rocky says.

Photo: Emily Martin, WV Folklife Program

But he still doesn’t get dressed at this point because one of Rocky’s close friends, and a fellow wrestler, learns that his best friend killed himself.

Rocky and all the guys backstage are there with him right after he finds out. They hug and comfort him and surround him in a circle.

“That’s that brotherhood thing right there,” Rocky says, visibly emotional. “We’re there if something happens in the middle of the night I’m out the door. And vice versa. That’s just how it is.”

This is all happening backstage — all these raw emotions — and upstairs, another match is going on, the crowd has no idea anything unusual has happened.

Rocky says even having us there recording backstage is unusual — having the press step behind the curtain, so to speak, see what it’s like down in the locker rooms. This is a whole new world to most wrestlers.

“20, 30 years ago, we wouldn’t even be sitting here doing this. You know, because the business was protected a lot more back then. And if you came up and you says, oh wrestling, ‘is it fake, is it scripted?’ oh you were gonna get chased out of the locker room.”

Rocky eventually does leave to get dressed for his match and starts to prepare in his mind.

“Usually I’ll say a little prayer, a lot of people don’t know that. But I’ll say a little prayer and just, hope everything goes OK, everybody’s safe. Everybody gets home safe and hope everyone’s well. It’s something I do and a few other other guys do when they get out.”

8-Man Match

And then, it’s time for the match. It’s an 8-man Tag Team match, four tag partners on each team.

As Rocky Rage comes out, the crowd goes nuts. Mostly, they’re booing. There are kids standing on their chairs yelling. And grownups who just keep yelling ‘Rocky sucks’ — all through the match.

Rocky starts off fighting against several members of the opposing team.

Rocky in the ring
Photo: Ken and Lisa Cantrell

Then, things get a bit dicey for Rocky’s team, his match partner Shane Storm begins to take a beating. There are ax handles (a move where players drop their forearms down on the other person), a few moments where it looks like some of the wrestlers are biting Shane Storm’s arm. Finally, after about 30 minutes, Tough Guys Inc. takes control again. Eventually, Tim climbs up to the top rope and his partner Brutal Bob slams him onto the prone Shane Storm.

And with that move, Rocky’s team loses the match.

As Rocky walks out, there is this moment where an entire section of the crowd is booing him. So he turns to him and growls, his arms outstretched. A little girl screams, and then laughs, seemingly happy to have gotten a reaction from one of her favorite villains.

Backstage, Rocky says of all the fans, it’s the kids’ reaction that he appreciates most.

“I love seeing the kids. That cracks me up. Whether they’re booing me, cussing me, flipping me off. That’s funny. I had an 8-year-old use words that I was just blown away that he knew. But that’s what it’s all about. It’s awesome. It’s a rush.”

And though one day, he would love to open a wrestling school here in southern West Virginia, for now, Rocky says he’s not planning on stepping back from the spotlight anytime soon.

“Everybody asks me, like if they find out the injuries I’ve had, they’re like, ‘Can you just step away?’ And it’s like, ‘Uh, yeah at some point.’ But right now it’s just too much of an adrenaline rush. And every time I think about taking a break something happens, and it just sucks me back in. So,or the foreseeable future, this is my life.”

This story was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting

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