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Painful theater

Wrestlers at Compound Pro go all in

Joseph Rushmore

A wide-chested, tattooed, buzz-cut blond wearing black and turquoise tights emerged from backstage through black curtains. “Hooked On A Feeling” by Blue Swede blared out of the speakers.

Ooga-chaka ooga-ooga, ooga-chaka ooga-ooga—

In front of the wrestler stood a ladder. He bent his knees and slid underneath it in one smooth, cocky motion. His blood-red shirt said ANDERS in big white letters above a roaring lion’s head and Always pays his debts above that.

Aaron Anders ran a full circle around the wrestling ring, high-fiving fans—several of whom wore his branded shirt—left and right. Earlier, I’d asked him how he was going to get into his opponent’s head.

“Uh, I’m already in it,” he said, before turning to sell more t-shirts to waiting fans.

I’m hooked on a feeling, I’m high on believing—

Michael Wolf—the clear heel of the match—was met with rounds of boos from the crowd as he came out. He glowered, looking like he might actually growl, grabbed the ladder, and slammed it shut. Wolf walked it to the ring, slid it under the ropes, and hopped inside.

Anders and Wolf stared at one another as they came forehead to forehead, one ladder laying between them and two waiting outside the ring. The title belt for which they were about to compete hung from the rafters above.

Wolf threw an elbow across Anders’ throat. Anders yelled but wasn’t quick enough for Wolf, who threw him into the ropes and flipped him over them. Outside the ring, Anders ran to the wrestlers’ entrance and grabbed another ladder. As he finished sliding it under the ropes, Wolf picked him up and body slammed him onto the floor, then jumped back in the ring and kicked the ladder at Anders, who was just standing up.

As the ladder match increased in intensity—the two men slamming each other onto, or with, the ladders—the crowd began to chant.

Aa-ron An-ders.

This-is awe-some.

Wolf sympathizers howled in unison.

“I’ve heard it described as painful theater,” said Mitch Baxter, owner of Compound Pro Wrestling.

Sherrie Bullock, Compound Pro’s resident photographer, calls wrestling a “cool soap opera.”

“And one of the most interesting things for me is the fans,” Bullock said. “I get to laughing at these fans. Some of the things they say. They heckle. Some only cheer for the bad guys because they want to be that person.”

Teenager Harley Larrabee, whose favorite Compound Pro wrestler is Nathan Estrada (his tagline is “Fear the Fro” and his wrestling tights feature a lime green hair pick) said, “These wrestlers are nice to the fans. And even if you’re the bad guy or not, everybody still cheers for you.”

She’s been attending Compound Pro almost every weekend for a year.

Nine-year-old Hayden Prickett, who holds a red belt in Taekwondo, was at Compound Pro for the first time that evening.

“I love mainly the energy,” he said. “It really spreads to a lot of people. [Wrestling] is what I want to do in the future.”

The organization, which Baxter bought in 2016, sits inside a nondescript shopping center at 51st Street and Sheridan Avenue in the back of Perfect Practice Athletic Center, behind rows of batting cages, Astroturf, and posters of little and junior league baseball players.

“We capture people’s attention with storytelling,” Baxter said. “If you can get them lost in the moment, suspending their disbelief, then you’ve got something there. It’s an emotionally driven business. If you can get people emotionally connect, you’ve got something.”

Baxter got into wrestling as kid, first in Henrietta, when he would invite friends over to split the cost of pay per view fights.

“He’d tell them to bring $5 and a snack,” said Baxter’s mother, Martha Mitchell, of those early days. Mitchell helps Baxter with front-of-house operations like ticketing, admissions, and the snack bar.

As a teenager, over a summer in Broken Arrow, Baxter decided he wanted to do more. So he built a ring in his backyard and found some willing participants, partially through an AOL chatroom called “Backyard Wrestling.”

“It was just art at that point,” he said. “It wasn’t a business. But I got the rhythm down—what it feels like to go through
a match.”

Brian Breaker‚ who wrestles at Compound Pro (and whose real name is Ryan Collins), was friends with Baxter back then and wrestled in the homemade ring.

“If you could call it wrestling,” said Breaker. “I don’t think I was even 16. I wasn’t driving. We thought we were doing a cool thing. Looking back, it’s obvious we didn’t know what we were doing. But in wrestling you can’t do it ’til your 18, so it was a way for us to do it. Our only avenue in.

“I found wrestling early in my life, like when I was two or three. It’s kind of consumed my life in a lot of ways and I never grew out of it. That led me to the backyard wrestling. Eventually that led me to realizing I wanted to do this, so I found a reputable wrestling school in Missouri.”

Both Baxter and Breaker trained and traveled as professional wrestlers. Baxter was picked as an extra for WWE but decided that wasn’t the path for him and opted out of pursuing anything further with the organization.

“There’s not just one way to do it,” he said. “Whether it’s being a journeyman—getting exposure across the U.S.—or you might run into somebody who knows somebody. Like in music. Or, when WWE comes to town, you could be an extra, where they pick four to a dozen local talent. If they like you, they’ll offer you a tryout.”

“I was signed by WWE in 2012 with their developmental system, NXT,” Breaker said.

Breaker was there for a year, but said that “things didn’t really work out.” Since, he’s done three tours of Japan, where wrestling is huge; the most recent was last November.

“We’re trying to create enough exposure by booking outside talent to get more eyeballs on our product here,” Baxter said. “When that happens, we’ll get more national exposure. So we hope people will say, ‘Oh, wow, you work at Compound Pro?’ We’re well on our way even though we’re just in our seventh month.”

Baxter trains wrestlers five nights a week at the ring. For a new wrestler, training usually lasts seven months before
they fight.

“Compound is a good place to learn what to do correctly to prepare you to wrestle anywhere. Running weekly shows like we do gives our guys a lot of time to try things out. And it’s good to get more experiences in. We prepare them for bigger companies with the experiences we throw at them—like putting the mic in their hand and having them sell a match. And we bring in a lot of talent from outside to challenge them.”

Typically, a Compound Pro show is two to two and a half hours long and will feature four out-of-towners and 12 Tulsa wrestlers in about six matches.

“People sometimes have preconceived notions of what [wrestling] is,” Breaker said. “But it’s a story. We have a hero and villain in a ring and they’re going to fight. And it’s kind of open-ended and interactive. The crowd is screaming and yelling and that’s encouraged.

“And the worst seat in [our] building is still a good seat. It’s like watching a live stunt show with a story involved. And it’s cheaper than a movie.”

“I think [wrestling] is on an upswing again,” Baxter said. “Right now I feel like it’s a good time. It’s becoming cool again. I notice a lot of people being more opened minded today about the arts, trying to find something unique and different. And this is all that. It’s the arts. It’s athleticism. But it’s theater at the end of the day.”

Back in the ring, Anders re-positioned a rickety ladder underneath the championship belt and began to climb. Wolf, recovering from having just been pulled off the ladder and slammed on the ground, climbed behind Anders. Anders prevailed, sending Wolf to the ground one final time.

“Pull it, Anders, pull it! It’s just a piece of string!” one fan screamed as Anders struggled with the belt.

“Must be Superman hair!” yelled another.

Anders, sweaty and out of breath, loosened it from its tie, winning the match. He stumbled down the ladder and held the belt above his head, a champion.

Clapping and hollering fans sent white crepe paper streamers flying into the ring from all sides of the room.

Compound Pro Wrestling shows are every Saturday nights starting at 8:00 p.m. and running until about 10:30 p.m. General Admission ranges from $10 to $15 and front row seating from $15 to $25. For more information, visit compoundprowrestling.com.

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