LIMA — Young fans gathered in the lobby of the Bradfield Community Center on a recent Saturday night, waiting for Joshua Robinson, an independent wrestler known by the stage name Mojo McQueen, to come out and sign autographs.
It’s intermission at W.A.R. Ohio, an independent wrestling show held in Lima for the last 16 years.
The crowd keeps growing. Intermission is one of the only times fans can interact face-to-face with Robinson and the other wrestlers, who are treated like celebrities here.
Robinson wasn’t always a popular figure here. His stage character, Mojo, is a member of “Voodoo Village.” He wears a black mask adorned with horns, flanked by a black leather vest with skulls for sleeves, leather leggings and no shirt.
“They used to be afraid of me,” Robinson said, hiding inside an unused classroom while taking a break between matches and intermission. “I was the bad guy. They got scared.”
But after years of traveling from his home in Chicago to Lima for W.A.R., Robinson has earned the respect of fans here, who are very loyal to the W.A.R. Ohio show itself.
“The fans here still believe in professional wrestling,” said W.A.R. Ohio founder Thomas Williams. “It’s still good guy vs. bad guy. It’s still good vs. evil.”
The first W.A.R. Ohio show drew 541 people to the UAW Hall on Jan. 18, 2003. Williams started the show with several friends after what he described as a bad experience with another professional wrestling tour that used to hold shows in Lima. Williams has since split from the other founders and runs W.A.R. independently with a small staff. But he still vies for crowds that rival that first night, 16 years ago. Anything less than that would be a “failure,” he said.
Putting a show together
Preparation for each show starts weeks in advance. Williams is already working to organize his next event, planned for Feb. 2 at Bradfield Community Center in Lima.
The wrestlers, known as talent, need to be booked. Each show follows a story arc that builds for months, a task which Williams often handles himself. There are programs to print and tickets to sell. Sponsors need to be contacted. Venues need to be booked.
But things don’t start to get hectic until the week before a show.
“From the time he wakes up till the time he goes to bed, the week of the show, he’s working on show stuff,” said Christine Myers, Williams’ wife. “I’m listening the whole time, because it’s a stressful week. And it’s really stressful for him just because he’s a perfectionist … from Sunday to Saturday night after the show, it’s all wrestling.”
The opening act is crucial.
“If your ring announcer doesn’t look the part, they’re automatically going to start judging you,” Williams explained. “If your wrestling ring doesn’t look like what they see on Monday night wrestling, they’re automatically going to judge you.”
The same is true for the referees and wrestlers themselves.
“He’s very picky,” Myers said. “He looks for people that looks like wrestlers … There are some people out there who are just like, ‘You’re kidding me, you’re a wrestler?’ But he’s very picky.”
Williams devoted himself to W.A.R. in part because of his health. Three years ago, he weighed 500 pounds.
“That’s the one thing that I felt I was good at, was wrestling,” he said. “I felt at the time I needed it.”
He’s lost about 250 pounds since then, but his new inspiration is giving back.
“I think that’s one good quality in Tom is he truly does care about Lima,” Myers said. “He loves the fact that he’s in a position that he can give back to the community.”
Williams says W.A.R. has donated at least $350,000 since the program was founded. That includes tickets donated to fans who are living paycheck to paycheck or donating food to the VFW for Thanksgiving.
“A lot of people don’t realize, Lima is a struggling town. A lot of the area is struggling. I want to be that positive thing, that they can come to the show, they can have a good time, there ain’t no drama, booze. There’s none of that,” Williams said.
W.A.R. doesn’t meet the conventional definition of family entertainment. Williams himself rates the shows as PG-13, given the at-times foul language, violence and revealing wardrobes. But Williams still considers the shows a safe place for families here to enjoy a night out, even with the stigma that surrounds professional wrestling.
W.A.R. is a mom-and-pop operation, exclusively in Lima. Williams and his staff insist that the only reason W.A.R. continues to thrive here is the loyalty of the fans.
The crowds are passionate. Fans cheer, boo and shout insults as wrestlers enter the ring. Loyalties to individual wrestlers are formed over months and even years, but those loyalties may change.
“There’s a guy that’s in the crowd, his name is Chocolate Thunder. Big guy. Yelling, screaming. He’s getting out of his seat. He’s putting his fingers in your face. He’s (yelling), ‘You’re nothing. You suck. I hate you.’ Blah, blah, blah. And now he’s my best friend,” Robinson said. “I come out to the ring, he’s like, ‘Ah Mojo.’ I’m like, man, you know a couple months ago you told me that you hated me, you wanted me to die.
“These folks, man. They really get into it. That’s what makes me love wrestling. It’s a good time.”
Williams described his fans as mostly blue-collar.
“You’re not going to see nobody at our show in suit and tie,” he said. “You’re not going to see that. You’re going to see people that are manual laborers. You’re going to see the people that are (living) paycheck to paycheck. You’re going to see the people that that’s their one night out a month.”
The line between reality and fiction often blurs as fans lose themselves in the story lines.
One night, during a show at the Civic Center, fans nearly broke into a riot after a group of wrestlers turned on W.A.R.’s top star — Matt Taylor — after a cage match.
“I legitimately thought we were going to have a riot, that’s how impassioned the fans were,” said Josh Mayer, a long-time fan and referee for W.A.R. “They were wound up. … People were ready to come over the guardrail.”
When fans are unable to make it to a show because they can’t afford it, Williams says he often donates those tickets.
“Why not just let those kids think that dad is the greatest thing ever,” he said, “and they can still come to the show and have a great time.”