MINISTRY Wrestlers bring religion -- and message -- to the mat
Some of the wrestlers are expected to follow a certain code of conduct.
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) -- Chase "Darkness" Cliett eagerly straddled the rope above his opponent, a dazed-looking wrestler in a red devil's costume. Flashing his tongue like a rock star, Cliett spun backward and snapped both his legs toward the horned wrestler, a convincing thud echoing his acrobatics.
Later, a few matches after the devil got knocked out, the pastor of the Wrestling for Jesus ministry, took center stage of the community center gym and preached.
"If you don't have peace in your heart, when are you going to get it?" said Steve Vaughn, who also doubled as the event's emcee. "There's a bigger plan, a greater scale -- someone who's greater than you. When are you going to finally get real with God?"
Is it the future?
His question begs another: Can professional-style wrestling really be the next frontier for Christian outreach?
Small bands of masked evangelists, clad in tights and armed with biblical names, argue it is -- and bring their message into the squared circle almost every week. The violence and intensity of wrestling, they claim, can be the perfect way to attract the alternative, younger crowd.
"I'm not going to sit here and listen to a shirt-and-tie preacher. But I might listen to a guy in spandex because he's like me," said Timothy "T-Money" Blackmon, who wears tight black shorts with a "T" on one buttocks and a dollar sign on the other.
The group he owns, Wrestling for Jesus, based in nearby Beech Island, S.C., has a core of a dozen wrestlers who perform in community centers, churches, neighborhood festivals and anywhere else that books them. Started in 2003, the group travels to as many as 50 shows each year, most attracting no more than 100 curious fans.
They're not the only wrestling group to heed the call.
Others join in
Texas-based Christian Wrestling Federation boasts a board of eight preachers in addition to a core of dozen entertainers that use each match as a "tool" to entertain a crowd while preaching a religious moral.
Ultimate Christian Wrestling, based in Athens, Ga., features a glitzy show backed by pounding music and special effects. Funded by a host of local sponsors, the group attracts as many as 500 a show and headlines big-name wrestlers such as "Glacier," a former WCW star.
Each wrestler for Ultimate Christian Wrestling is expected to live up to a code of conduct and must graduate from a wrestling academy before stepping in the ring.
"We want people to know we take this very seriously," said Rob Fields, a schoolteacher who wrestles under the name Rob Adonis. "This isn't for us to go out there and play. It's a lifestyle, a commitment you've got to make."
It's a sharp contrast from Wrestling for Jesus, which trains its wrestlers at a rustic backyard ring near Burnettown, S.C., where chickens cluck angrily at each visitor. The wrestlers, many fresh out of high school, often sport tattoos and piercings that they say give them more credibility with the audience they try to reach.
If not the glitz of a more professional match, the group's shows meet a lot of the other standards: prattling announcers, cheesy nicknames, tag-team matchups and, of course, heckling fans. Many in the crowd of 50 were jawing at the wrestlers throughout the recent show in Augusta, and more than one hot dog mysteriously found its way onto the ring.
But rather than plots revolving around money and sex, the Christian wrestling matches aspire to be more divine.
At the beginning of some shows, Cliett is strapped to a massive wooden cross on stage as piercing music is played. A group of evil wrestlers beats and bloodies him before the good guys dramatically come to his rescue.
In another plot, a wrestler about to face a feared champion is injured, and a weaker character volunteers to take his place. After the match's end, the injured wrestler asks why the other saved him. "Because Jesus did it for me," comes the response.
Vaughn, the group's pastor, calls himself an "oddball" who has always searched for different ways to outreach. "If you spin that attitude with a Christian message," he says of wrestling, "it works."
Not completely. Many churches won't even consider letting them perform. Once, a disgusted group of deacons barred the troupe from ever returning after seeing a show, said James "Hunter" Barrett, the group's vice president and one of the show's stars.
Things can go wrong
And there's always the danger of a live performance going disastrously awry. During the Augusta show, that's just what happened: Blackmon got into a squabble with a spindly 17-year-old referee that soon got out of hand.
Before long, the two were really fighting, with the teen angrily cursing while Blackmon pounded on his back. Babies began screaming, organizers froze and the confused audience of 50 awkwardly looked on.
Soon, the teen's parents had ditched their posts at the concession stand and jumped in the ring to break up the fight, helped by confused performers who had long-since changed into street clothes.
Before the red-faced announcers dismissed the stunned audience, a panting Blackmon took the mic, blaming personal problems for the fight.
"I'm supposed to be a man of God and I wasn't," he said, kneeling in the center of the ring. "To show that I am, I want to get down in front of everyone and pray."
After an uncomfortable silence, he stretched face-down on the center of the ring and wept.
Sometimes, even the wrestlers who aim to bring their audience closer to God can be all too human.
For more information about Wrestling for Jesus, visit the Web site at www.wrestlingforjesus.org.