Ohio, the 17th admission into the United States of America in 1803, is a Midwestern state in the Great Lakes region, named from its founding on the Ohio River, a body of water named from the Seneca indigenous peoples word ohiːyo’, which means “great river”. And in 2018, there is a great river of wrestling talent that is slowly becoming a small ocean, whether its making headlines in the WWE or being a major proponent of the indie wrestling boom in North America. Some of the biggest names and brightest emerging talents all hail from the Buckeye state, following a rich tradition of pro wrestling in Ohio, are making one of the biggest impressions in the squared circle. One shining example of this is the 6-man tag match this Thursday on IMPACT Wrestling that features IMPACT and indie faction OvE (Ohio Versus Everything), that includes former Ohio Is For Killers (OI4K) members Sami Callihan, Dave & Jake Crist, facing three other Ohio stars, Zachary Wentz, Trey Miguel and Ace Austin.
— The DRAW (@TheSamiCallihan) September 2, 2018
AL HAFT & THE NWA
Al Haft was a huge part of Ohio’s pro wrestling beginnings. A former pro wrestler himself (he debuted in 1917 as Young Gotch), he retired in 1932 from in-ring competition to focus full time to booking and running Midwest Wrestling Association (MWA), emerging as one of the great minds in early pro wrestling booking. In 1948, Al Haft and MWA were one of the original promotions that created the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). Haft had a keen eye for talent – from the 1920s to the 1940s, MWA was bringing in emerging talent like Gorgeous George and “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers. Haft was the first Vice President (under inaugural President Pinkie George, a promoter out of Massachusetts) and it was Haft’s MWA Heavyweight Champion, Orville Brown, who became the NWA’s first World Heavyweight Champion.
DR. BILL MILLER
Starting out in the early 1950’s in the NWA’s Midwest territories, as well as with Stampede Wrestling (then Big Time Wrestling) in Calgary, Freemont’s Dr. Bill Miller was one of Ohio’s first major stars in the wrestling world. In the 1960s he joined Verne Gagne‘s American Wrestling Association (AWA) as Mr. M, winning the AWA World Heavyweight Championship in 1962 for 224 days. He would be a perennial main event challenger, working in the WWWF against Bruno Sammartino, Detroit against The Sheik, and the NWA against the likes of Dory Funk Jr. A man of many gimmicks – he also wrestled as Dr. X, Big Bill Miller and The Crimson Knight – he’s most remembered as Dr. Bill Miller (so named because he was also an actual veterinarian).
A Rose Bowl winning member of the 1950 Ohio Buckeyes football team, Columbus, Ohio’s Shag Thomas got into pro wrestling after being cut by the NFL’s Green Bay Packers at the end of pre-season. Debuting in a time of racial segregation in the US, Thomas got his start in Canada, working with Stu Hart in Stampede Wrestling. He would return to the US a few years later, becoming a staple with Don Owens‘ Pacific Northwest Wrestling (PNW), winning the PNW Heavyweight Championship and becoming a 16x PNW Tag Team Champion.
SAM SHEPPARD (Mandible Claw)
A neurosurgeon from Cleveland, in 1954 Sam Sheppard was convicted of killing his wife, but a decade later he was acquitted in a re-trial and released. In 1969, he entered the world of professional wrestling (at the age of 45), and using the public’s still very ingrained notion he was guilty, he wrestled as “Killer” Sam Sheppard. His medical training lead to some unique move creations, but his most famous contribution to the sport was the invention of the Mandible Claw move, popularized by Mick Foley‘s Mankind character.
LES THATCHER & HWA
Cincinnati’s Les Thatcher debuted in 1960 in the Boston territories under Tony Santos, but spent the bulk of his career with NWA Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling. By the end of the 1970s, he was retired as an active wrestler, but remained as an announcer alongside the likes of Gordon Solie, Lance Russell and Jim Ross. In 1972, Thatcher produced the first ever wrestling T-Shirt, raced NHRA drag racing professionally from 1955 to the mid-60s, competed as a bodybuilder after his wrestling career ended, and in 1996, founded one of the most influential indie organizations of the late 90s and early 2000s, Heartland Wrestling Association (HWA).
In 2003, he co-founded Elite Pro Wrestling School with WWE Hall of Famers and NWA Legends Harley Race and Ricky Steamboat, that also features Dr. Tom Pritchard as a trainer. Thatcher practically built the modern wave of indie wrestlers that flooded the scene in the early 2000s, such as Dean Ambrose (Jon Moxley), Sami Callihan, BJ Whitmer, Pepper Parks (Braxton Sutter), Shark Boy, Jamie Noble, Elix Skipper, Umaga, and countless others. The influence of Les Thatcher on the current Ohio takeover is undeniable.
BORN INTO THE MOUTH OF MADNESS
Angelo Poffo was only a couple years into his 30+ year career as a wrestler when he and his wife settled down in Columbus, Ohio in the early 1950s. But it was there that their first son, Randy Mario Poffo was born on November 15, 1952. The young Poffo spent most of his childhood in the Zainsville area of Ohio, before his family relocated to Illinois during his high school years. But Randy Poffo would soon join his father in the family business, taking the nickname his mother called him affectionately – “Macho Man” – and rebranding himself as Randy Savage, working the NWA circuits of Championship Wrestling From Florida, Mid Atlantic, as well as having wars in Memphis, with his father’s International Championship Wrestling (ICW) and Jerry Lawler‘s Continental Wrestling Association (CWA). But the big lights of New York beckoned, and when Savage joined the WWF in the mid-80s, he became one of the biggest legends of the modern era. A 6x World Champion (2x WWF World Heavyweight Champion, 4x WCW World Heavyweight Champion), “Macho Man” was one of the pro wrestling world’s greatest performers.
THE FANTASTIC FULTONS
Chillicothe, Ohio’s Bobby Fulton found himself as one half of one of the most popular non-WWF tag teams of the 1980s, the rockstar duo known as The Fantastics. While his regular partner, Tommy Rogers, was from Florida, he routinely wrestled with his brother Jackie Fulton often replacing Rogers. The original Fantastics duo held multi-tag team titles across the NWA territories as well as in WCW: 2x WCW United States Tag Team, 2x NWA American Tag Team, 2x WCCW Tag Team Champions, 2x Mid South Tag Team, AWA Southern Tag Team Champions, and many more, while feuding with the likes of the Midnight Express, The Sheepherders (Bushwhackers), Hot Stuff International (Sting & Eddie Gilbert) and more. They also routinely worked in Japan with All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW). Fulton was also a standout singles star, winning the Junior Heavyweight titles with Joe Blanchard‘s Southwest Championship Wrestling, the NWA territory in San Antonio.
When not teaming with his brother, Jackie Fulton was a singles star of his own right. He debuted in 1987 with Championship Wrestling From Florida, as well as the AWA, before joining his brother and Tommy Rogers as the Fantastics trio in WCW. His stay was short lived and he moved on to Jim Cornette‘s Smokey Mountain Wrestling (SMW) in 1991. In 1992, he would head to All Japan, where he’d spend the bulk of the remainder of his career, before retiring in the mid 2000s.
Following the 1980s, as the WWF, WCW and ECW began to scout indie promotions for new talent, several Ohio born grapplers became prominent players in the 1990s, both at the highest level and on the emerging indie scene. ECW made early stars of Lima’s Al Snow, Cleveland’s Perry Saturn, and Pepper Pike’s Danny Doring, while Cincinnati’s Brian Pillman revolutionized the American cruiserweight style in WCW. Saturn and Snow would become strong players in the Monday Night Wars as well with the WWF and/or WCW. On the indie scene, Mansfield’s Brain Damage was an early star with the emerging Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW) and Cleveland’s Lou Marconi was an early indie star with Pennsylvania’s Steel City Wrestling (SCW) and the early days of Absolute Intense Wrestling (AIW), as well as working for ECW, WWF, and more.
The late 90s and early 2000s saw a slow surgence on the independent circuit. With the NWA territories in shatters since the WWF and WCW expansion, indies became the alternative to the big TV format. When WCW and ECW folded in the early 2000s, a boom of promotions erupted, such as Ring of Honor, TNA/IMPACT Wrestling, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla (PWG), CHIKARA and more, offering greater grounds to develop their craft before potentially heading off to the WWE. But over time, these indies became stronger, and several promotions gained TV exposure. During that time, Ohio wrestlers like Chris Hero (Dayton), Johnny Gargano (Lakewood), Sami Callihan (Bellefontaine) and Gregory Iron (Cleveland) emerged to change the landscape. Cincinnati’s “Wildcat” Chris Harris went to TNA and became part of one of the early 2000s most exciting tag teams, America’s Most Wanted, with “Cowboy” James Storm. Hardcore lunatic Jon Moxley (Cincinnati) headed to the WWE to become Dean Ambrose, Shark Boy (Lebanon) entertained with TNA, Jessicka Havok (Canton) and Madison Rayne (Columbus) helped the TNA Knockouts Division redefine women’s wrestling, Matt Cross (Cleveland) & Josh Prohibition (Brecksville) emerged as an exciting new tag team of athletic prowess, and Ethan Carter III (EC3) (Willoughby) taking over as IMPACT Wrestling’s great new hope. The WWE also took Cleveland reality star Mike Mizanin, aka The Miz (Parma), and former Kent University wrestling star Dolph Ziggler (Cleveland) and made them into World Champions. And Abyss (Cleveland) became IMPACT Wrestling’s Undertaker, a loyal lifelong leader, on TV and backstage, becoming the company’s backbone for two decades.
THE INDIES – AIW, Rockstar Pro, CKCW
With the indie wrestling resurgence of the early 90s and the boom we are experiencing now, Ohio was not one to sit on its laurels. Following in the footsteps of the MWA and HWA, Ohio’s gained a huge position in the US indie circuit with the formation of AIW by John Thorne and the late Chandler Biggs in 2005. AIW has become arguably one of the top promotions in the Midwest and a serious testing ground for indie wrestlers ready for the next level. A few years earlier, Jeff Cannon founded Ohio Championship Wrestling (OCW). OvE’s Jake Crist started up Rockstar Pro in Dayton in 2007 as the underground promotion, while recently Cleveland’s Cleveland Knights Championship Wrestling (CKCW) has taken a niche approach by becoming one of the hottest promotions on mainland United States to showcase the best emerging talent from Puerto Rico, emerging in 2016.
OHIO: THE LEGACY OF JT LIGHTNING
Up until this point, there is one very important name who was a part of nearly all that came to this point from the 1990s to the 2000s – a man by the name of James Haase. In 1992, he made his wrestling debut under his more familiar moniker, JT Lightning, and by 1993 had formed his own indie promotion, Cleveland All Pro Wrestling (CAPW). In a time where pro wrestling was at an all time mainstream lull, Lightning was determined to bring back exciting new pro wrestling to Cleveland and Ohio. After the next decade, CAPW would be an essential breeding ground for many of the emerging stars who would dominate into the 2000s, like Johnny Gargano, Raymond Rowe, Matt Cross & Josh Prohibition, The Irish Airborne (Dave & Jake Crist), and many more. When AIW opened shop in 2005, Lightning offered his talent and insight to help the promotion get its legs. Sadly, in 2011, JT Lightning passed away from esophageal cancer, which had spread throughout his body. His influence on the Ohio indie scene in the 1990s and early 2000s is as important as Les Thatcher’s, if not more so. The following year in 2012, AIW began an annual tradition of the JT Lightning Invitational, a 24-entrant tournament over two days, in his honor.
OHIO: THE NEW BREED vs. EVERYTHING
While the previous class paved the highway for the Ohio revolution in wrestling, it laid the tarmac for the current class, who are all sports cars making their marks fast and furious. But the veterans aren’t fading away slowly by any means. Sami Callihan is one of the top heels on the indie scene today, as well as one of the catalysts in the resurgence of IMPACT Wrestling. The Miz and Dolph Ziggler continue to shine in the WWE, while EC3 has become one of the top stars with NXT. Matt Cross has become nationally recognized through his work as Son of Havoc on Lucha Underground, while Jessicka Havok helps lead the women’s revolution on the indies, while Madison Rayne has spent the last year competing for Ring of Honor, IMPACT Wrestling, the WWE (in this year’s Mae Young Classic) and this past weekend at All In. Chris Hero has moved to NXT as Kassius Ohno, where he’s one of the brand’s most reliable locker room leaders. And Johnny Gargano is one of the faces of NXT.
On the indie circuit, the Crist Brothers – Dave & Jake Crist (New Carlisle) – continue to run with Sami Callihan, in the Irish Airborne, Ohio Is For Killers (OI4K) and now Ohio Versus Everything (OvE), as one of the indies most in-demand tag teams. Another top tag team, The Rascalz (formerly Scarlet & Graves), featuring Dezmond Xavier (Dayton) and Zachary Wentz (Dayton), continue to thrill, from IMPACT Wrestling to AAW. Trey Miguel (Toledo), a recent joinee of The Rascalz, is emerging as one of the next great stars, Angelo Dawkins (Fairfield) runs with The Street Profits in NXT, while Davey Vega (Cleveland) makes waves as part of The Besties in the World. After spending several years in WWE’s developmental as Briley Pierce, the younger brother of Dolph Ziggler has become a star on the indies in his own right, as Hot Young Briley. And “The Loose Cannon” Brian Pillman’s son, Brian Pillman Jr., is taking off on his own indie career, working with Major League Wrestling (MLW) as part of a new Hart Foundation. On the women’s side, Alexa Bliss (Columbus) is already a 5x Women’s Champion in the WWE, sharing a locker room with Dana Brooke (Seven Hills), while Naveah (Dayton), Faye Jackson (Toledo), Holidead (Cleveland) and Samantha Heights (Cincinnati) lead the charge of emerging stars. Rickey Shane Page (Lordstown) continues the Ohio tradition of toughness, in the vein of Brain Damage and Jon Moxley, as an American hardcore original, while Matthew Justice (Middlefield) is starting to write his own story in blood. The enigmatic magic of Ace Austin (Dayton) is also starting to turn heads, including his appearance in this Thursday’s all-Ohio match up on IMPACT. NXT has another heavy hitter from the Buckeye state, as one half of their resident Viking War Raiders, Raymond Rowe (Cleveland), looks towards NXT Tag Team gold.
Wrestling has seen scenes come and go, but nearly a century of groundwork in Ohio has created a vibrant wrestling community that is now producing some of the most unique and creative talent the industry has seen, with no signs of slowing down. Catch six of Ohio’s top talents this Thursday on IMPACT Wrestling on PopTV in the United States, Fight Network in Canada, Spike TV in the UK and others, when OvE faces Zachary Wentz, Trey Miguel and Ace Austin.
— The Golden Draw (@TheJakeCrist) September 2, 2018
EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to time and space, we couldn’t name every star and legend from the Ohio scene, but we hope you get an idea of the impact Ohio has made in wrestling and the undeniable influence it’s wrestlers are making today. Feel free to share any tales or stories of your favorite Ohio wrestlers in the comments below, either ones mentioned or ones worth mentioning that we haven’t!