"For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."
Chaos ensues in the parking lot of the Miracle Center Church on Commercial Avenue in the heart of Southside San Antonio. A thousand screaming kids and parents, many with concerned looks on their faces, gather around two grown men in tights, who are pummeling each other with bare fists under the glow of the 15-foot flourescent cross that sits on the church roof, illuminating the night sky and the scene below.
Bruno Richie and Weazy Woo finished their official wrestling match minutes ago. Stunning Bruno with several high-flying acrobatic moves, Weazy put the larger man down for the count despite a 50-pound weight disadvantage. While Weazy celebrated his underdog victory with the cheering, all-ages audience, Bruno attacked Weazy from behind, throwing the smaller man out of the ring.
The action continues to move through the crowd, each successive chop to Weazy’s chest followed by gasps of disbelief from the spectators. Will anyone stop the brutality?
Eventually, fake security guards pull Bruno off of Weazy, and the wrestlers head backstage, where they share a hug in the Sunday-school portable that doubles as a dressing room. Minutes later, a new match is announced, and the crowd cheers for another hero and villain.
To those who show up without advance warning, the scene is downright insane. Isn’t the church supposed to be about Bible study, prayer, and turning the other cheek? To the indoctrinated, this is Warriors 4 Christ Wrestling, an independent promotions company that brings souls to the Lord through the power of drop-kicks and body slams. It invites fans to get closer to Jesus from the top rope, spreading the name of God on the back of the billion-dollar industry built by the secular World Wrestling Entertainment and World Championship Wrestling.
The scene at Miracle Church has the feel of a festival. Small babies and grandparents are part of the crowd. Booths line the grounds, selling hot dogs, cotton candy, non-alcoholic beverages, and wrestling merchandise such as the lucha-libre masks that are worn by many of the kids. It’s easy to imagine that this is what traveling tent revivals in the 1930s were like; substitute a preacher and stage with Jesse Ventura and a three-rope ring.
Tonight’s event features six matches. Christian band Stained Cross kicks things off, and Christian rapper M.O.C., aka Messenger of Christ, provides the half-time entertainment. When the show is over, the wrestlers, still in their costumes, join pastor Henry Bacera Jr. of Christian World Worship Center as he addresses the audience. A former Southside Chicago gang member, Bacera launches into an evangelistic sermon, inviting any of those in attendance willing to give their lives to the power of the Lord to join them in the ring.
As the sermon stretches past the 30-minute mark, only a third of the original audience lingers. But when Bacera calls on the crowd to be introduced to Jesus Christ, several dozen children and teenagers step forward. It’s a surreal moment, a mash-up of Jesus Camp and Wrestlemania.
At the center of Warriors 4 Christ’s scripted mayhem is 40-year-old founder Curtis Stone, a 25-year veteran of the pro-wrestling business. Stone weighs around 335 pounds. He’s wide-shouldered, sports long hair and a beard. His eyes give the impression he’s seen too much time in the ring, dealt with too many injuries, but for all the hard years under his belt, Stone is a genuinely friendly guy, his conversation sprinkled with “brother,” “bro,” and “man.”
Stone got his wrestling start as a teenager. The child of a broken home, he made ends meet collecting money for drug dealers, using his size to do others’ dirty work. He fell into wrestling by chance in the early ’80s, after he ran into a group of pro-am wrestlers at a Pizza Inn.
“At the time, I was working out at a gym called Mr. Texas,” he says during one of several interviews. “These guys with bleached-blond hair walked in, and they asked, ‘Hey man, do you know a place to work out?’ The guy’s name was Rick McCord, and he helped me break into the business. Then a lot of guys took me under their wings because I was young and they wanted to help me out.”
Soon Stone found himself hobnobbing with Texas wrestling’s elite. He eventually appeared on telecasts for East Coast Wrestling and WCW, beginning a love affair with the sport that lasts to this day.
“I got the name Nightmare because I was a mean kid, I was a mean guy,” Stone says. “They tried me as an Indian in the ’80s, and that didn’t work, so they said, ‘Everyone is afraid of you, so let’s call you Nightmare.’”
Like Mickey Rourke’s character in the Wrestler, a film Stone lauds for its authenticity, Stone immersed himself in the lifestyle, traveling the Deep South and as far north as Chicago and New York, wrestling before large audiences for a fraction of what pro wrestlers make today, but partying just as hard, drinking, and doing drugs — although he insists he never touched steroids.
“We were making no money wrestling back then,” Stone recalls. “We were making 10, 20, 30 bucks a night. You would have to wrestle Friday in Corpus, Saturday in San Antonio, and Sunday in Houston just to make a couple hundred bucks, having to wrestle four or five times to make that much, four or five guys in a car.”
Meanwhile, to make ends meet, Stone still collected money for drug dealers. In 1987, he had an epiphany. After an especially tough day on the streets, he came home to a distraught wife who thought he might have been seriously hurt, or worse. By that time, Stone had already been shot at and stabbed.
“I laid down in bed and just started crying,” he remembers. “For the first time in my life I started weeping, and I didn’t understand why. Then I started thinking, ‘I need to read a Bible.’ Every time I read the Bible I got thirstier. From that day on, I decided, I’m going to be a good person. I wasn’t going to hurt people, do drugs, or drink alcohol.”
While his drug bosses were none too pleased, his new lifestyle encountered even more resistance from his wrestling buddies, who gave him a hard time for preaching between matches. He persisted through several more years of wrestling and locker-room evangelizing, finally hanging up his boots after enduring broken ankles, a broken collarbone, herniated discs, too many stitches to count, and debilitating head trauma.
“I lost my memory,” Stone says. “A lot of my memory was gone from so many concussions. It was sad. I enjoyed teaching the guys in the locker room about Christ. For me, it was a great tool to evangelize.”
Stone’s growing devotion to the church gave him the idea to merge the gospel and his devotion to the sport. He started Southern Heat Wrestling in 1999 with his wife Kathleen, who supports W4CW with her job at USAA.
Southern Heat Wrestling was founded as a non-profit group to raise funds and mentor youth, offering an opportunity to those who wanted to learn how to wrestle. Stone decided to change the name to Warriors 4 Christ Wresting after churches turned him down cold because of the suggestive Southern Heat label.
Wrestlers 4 Christ is headquartered at the Alive MMA gym off of Evers Road on the Northwest side of town. The dozen or so W4CW wrestlers train upwards of 15 hours a week, sharing the space with mixed-martial-arts fighters. Stone trains and mentors men as young as 11 and as old as 45.
“I was going though a rough time in my life,” says current W4CW champion Rocky Morocco, a young wrestler who performs under the name the Holy Hawaiian. The smell of sweat and testosterone lingers as we talk. “I graduated from high school and left home at 18 years old. I was hungry for a change. At that time I was going through a rough time, being alone, depressed. ... That’s when I met Curtis.”
Other W4CW wrestlers share similar stories. They were lost; wrestling gave them focus and purpose. One middle-aged man joined W4CW with his pre-teen son, hoping to bond with him through time spent between the ropes. Weazy Woo, aka Kenneth Johnson, is a shy, well-built man, who cites Rockers-era Shawn Michaels as his inspiration. He moved to Texas from Georgia, where he says he wrestled for promotions that never gave him a fair shake.
On a Tuesday night in early spring, more than half-a-dozen young men are in the ring at W4CW’s gym, practicing moves, getting direction from some of the more experienced wrestlers. None looks anything like the steroid-juiced men of pro wrestling, although at around 250 pounds, Morocco has the heft to take on most anyone in the ring. All of them are devoted to the cause, saying Stone led them to a better life helping the community grow through wrestling and the word of God.
“We’ve been blessed,” says Morocco. “We’ve been able to pull in people with no big names, me being the main event. Not many people know Rocky Morocco, and people still come. The reason is we do it solely for the community. It’s something I can do that I know God will bless me for doing it. It’s an escape for me.”
Preaching the gospel in novel ways is common, especially among Evangelicals, in order to draw non-believers to the word of Jesus Christ. It’s not unusual to see Christian productions staged under the guise of magic shows, rock concerts, and laser-light spectacles that put the most hardcore Pink Floyd tributes to shame. Why not pro wrestling?
But W4CW has local critics in both the secular and religious worlds. The organization has the distinction of being one of the first of its kind in the area, and many still don’t know what to think of the combination. After staging a fundraising event at the Lighthouse Charter School at the Lackland Baptist Church, the administration told Stone W4CW wouldn’t be invited back. The school didn’t return calls seeking comment.
“It sounds a little weird, and I don’t think `the kids` would connect with it,” says Nils Smith, the Student Pastor at Trinity Baptist Church, who stages a weekly college-age worship event called Segue. “I think it might be something they would probably laugh at and go to see out of curiosity. The advantage of something like that is we want to get our message out in the world, and as long as it doesn’t compromise the message, I could see its place. Some of our kids just went to see WWE in Houston, but I wouldn’t get into it. It seems silly to me.”
Wrestling fans are critical, too, wary of a promotion that incorporates religion into their favorite pastime. River City Wrestling and the Texas Wrestling Association hire wrestlers with more extensive backgrounds and many more hours logged at the gym in order to stage more professional shows. Those wrestlers have gone on to perform with big-name associations such as TNA Wrestling, WCW, and even the largest, WWE.
W4CW is a distinctly DIY organization. Moves in the ring aren’t pulled off with the synchronicity of the pros, and the acting is more wooden than a Keanu Reeves outtake. The wrestlers are far from the physical monstrosities seen on television. But based on audience, W4CW is one of the most successful wrestling outfits out of an estimated dozen wrestling organizations in the area, drawing anywhere from 500 to 2,000 people per show and staging upwards of 40 events a year throughout Texas, the South, and Mexico. Stone claims WC4W has raised thousands of dollars for churches, orphanages, and women’s shelters, and they were named Promotion of the Year in 2008 by the San Antonio Independent Wrestling Scene.
“It’s not uncommon for wrestlers in other promotions to not even see the ring for six months,” says San Antonio Independent Wrestling Scene reporter Barry Yount. “But Curtis believes in letting the guys in the ring right away, to see if this is what they want to do. That sometimes comes as a detriment to the show.
“While the wrestling still has much room for improvement, the production quality is top-rate, and I can firmly assert that no other promotion in the area brought as many new fans to their shows than W4CW. I am counting on the wrestlers of W4CW to continue to improve their match quality to the point that they can be viewed as something more than a promotion with more heart than experience and talent.”
Stone credits W4CW’s success to its church ties. Families know it’s safe for kids, he says, and it recalls a simpler time when wrestling was more about good versus evil than soap-opera plots and skimpy clothing. Often the shows are free, as a way to bring people to the church rather than fill the coffers.
“I used to watch wrestling with my grandmother,” says Stone’s wife, Kathleen, who is vice president of W4CW. “It was OK to watch it back then. We want to bring that back so families can see it together, without any of the vulgarity or the crazy stuff that goes on in wrestling today.”
Standing around the noisy Sunday-school portable at the Miracle Center, Army soldier Caleb Mieves, aka the Caribbean Tiger, recalls his dream to wrestle as a child growing up in Puerto Rico. The 28-year-old Mieves often makes the drive from Temple to participate in W4CW events and films videos of his matches for his 7-year-old son.
“These are fights for freedom, for demonstrating who you are,” Mieves says. “We’re not doing real fights, we’re doing fights to entertain people. We’re not killing people while we do this. We’re showing there’s support out there for the
Backstage at the Miracle Center, men in tights discuss their matches. They run through their match scripts after Stone gives them their pairings, and they say a prayer before the matches begin.
Stone loves the crowds that come out to the events and the chance to give back to the community as a devoted Christian, he says. But it’s the opportunity to change young men’s lives through his passion for wrestling that moves him most deeply.
“My entire life I’ve wanted to work with children,” says Stone, who gets emotional when he talks about his calling. “When I can take someone off the streets of the West Side, South Side, East Side, North Side, wherever they’re from, and make their dreams come true, man ... I have guys that literally cry after their first match because that was their dream.”
“Churches call me and ask, “Do you do the devil versus Jesus?” Stone laughs. “These guys are trying to become real wrestlers. This isn’t a play. They get beat over the head with chairs; they get thrown over the ropes. That’s what life is: The good guys get beat up.” •
The next San Antonio W4CW events is at 2pm April 19 at The Christian World Worship Center, 6633 Walzem Rd. Info available at saindywrestlingscene.blogspot.com