GALVESTON — Professional wrestling maintains a unique stranglehold on American pop culture.
Neither a purely competitive sport nor totally scripted form of entertainment, pro wrestling has its roots in the traveling carnivals of the 19th century.
Back then, a champion wrestler would take on all comers until a planted audience member would thrash the champ, with the participants and carnival promoter splitting the stacks of money that the crowd had bet against the challenger from their midst, never realizing he and his champion “opponent” were working in tandem.
The pseudo-sport has come a long way since then. The industry leader, World Wrestling Entertainment, is a billion-dollar, publicly traded, corporate juggernaut that makes as much money from licensing its larger-than-life characters as from live events. However, WWE is not the only show in town.
Smaller, regional companies dot the American wrestling landscape, and one of Galveston County’s own, the Coastal Wrestling Federation, stormed onto the island Saturday for an afternoon convention and evening show of matches dubbed “Coastal Mania.”
By midafternoon, more than a thousand wrestling fans had come through the Galveston Island Convention Center, on Seawall Boulevard, to buy memorabilia or to meet their favorite stars.
The featured guest was Mick Foley, the first man to hold the dual designations of world heavyweight wrestling champion and New York Times best-selling author. However, the lineup was 100-plus wrestling performers deep, with wrestlers representing various eras dating back more than 40 years.
CWF owner Derek King said the idea for the convention and show came from the success that wrestler appearances have had at comic conventions and similar events throughout the nation.
“It occurred to me that events like this never seem to get closer to us than Houston,” the Texas City resident said, “and since I live here, I thought we should make this happen.”
Rosenberg resident Nazario Rodriguez came “just on the spur of the moment,” to see his favorite, Foley. Rodriguez said he planned to make a day of it on the island.
“I’ll be taking a nice walk on the beach this afternoon,” he said. “This really is a great place to have a show like this.”
La Marque resident Johnny Watts, who has worked as villainous wrestler and manager Johnny Blade in the area since the 1990s, said that he was thrilled with the turnout, but also said he wouldn’t be thanking fans directly, only because he enjoyed being a wrestling antagonist.
“Being a bad guy is too much fun,” said Watts, who worked as a manager in Saturday night’s event.
Foley was only one of more than a dozen former world champions on hand Saturday. Another was Lisa Marie Varon, a former WWE world women’s champion who wrestled as Victoria and Tara. Varon has scaled back her wrestling to part-time to focus on her Chicago restaurant, The Squared Circle. Since she does not make live events as frequently as she did a few years ago, Varon said that conventions were a great chance for her to catch up with her wrestling-industry pals.
“It’s like a mini-reunion,” she said.
Varon also said that while she enjoyed interacting with her fans on her website, seeing them in person was almost always a treat.
“I’m actually really proud of the promoter for all the people who turned out,” she said. “I’ve really gotten a kick out of talking to the people who came out, because this isn’t like when one of us appears at a comic con — this is pure wrestling, so the people who came really are the hard-core wrestling fans, and they know their stuff.”