Multi-colored disco lights and loud music all add to the bombastic atmosphere of New Ohio Wrestling’s latest showdown. From an indoor sports complex in Grove City, NOW may not have the production values of professional wrestling in arenas or on television, but it does draw a crowd.
"Anyone can put on a show," says Sherman Tank. "You wanna put on an event."
Tank runs the lights and sound system behind the black curtain from which wrestlers emerge, their name announced to the crowd. This night's event features seven matches, and wraps up by 10 p.m. so kids can get to bed at a reasonable time.
The Columbus-based company began two years ago, touring and drawing fans from Central Ohio's smaller towns. Touting itself as family-friendly entertainment, New Ohio Wrestling has gained popularity while playing into centuries-old racist tropes.
Planning The Match
Donnie and Terry Hoover, who founded NOW, have four daughters. They say the league allows Donnie to re-engage with his passion, wrestling, and let his family enjoy it at the same time.
"Some promotions do a lot of blood, hardcore weapons," Hoover says. "Our family-friendly version is they don't cuss. They argue with the kids, they do what they're supposed to do, but there's no slip of the nudity, vulgarity."
What they're supposed to do is entertain. As WWE and the new Netflix show "GLOW" have shown, wrestling is as much theater as athleticism.
Before the first match, Hoover passes out a four-page play-by-play rundown to all the wrestlers in the locker room. They already know who will win and who will lose.
The night's victor will be “Dark Star” Matt Taylor - he's from Grove City, and won’t fail in his hometown.
There is also The Black Superman Onyx, a large African-American man. The nearly all-white audience loved him.
And among the tag teams was hillbilly Jock Samson and his partner Papa Dingo, an "African savage captured in Madagascar."
Playing The "Savage"
Jock Samson's outfit includes a cowboy hat and shorts. Even though Papa Dingo is African-American, he wears blackface makeup and a zebra-print singlet.
"This is our first night," Jock Samson says. "I flew him over here on a chartered flight from, I believe, Uganda?"
"Madagascar!" Papa Dingo interrupts.
"Madagascar, you know, one of them islands out there in Africa," Jock Samson continues.
As a "savage," part of Papa Dingo's character is that he's too unintelligent to speak. So Jock Samson translates everything he says.
"This is our first time tagging together because I went on a big tour of Southern Africa," Jock Samson tells me, "and then I hit the island of Madagascar and I said, 'Look at the big, savage, son of a bitch. I need to bring him to the states.'"
According to Laura Green, "these stereotypes of the animal-like savage were used to rationalize the harsh treatment of slaves during slavery as well as the murder, torture and oppression of African-Americans following emancipation. However, it can be argued that this stereotype still exists today."
During the interview, Jock Samson and Papa Dingo pressed me to get into the act. That night I wore a soccer jersey from Uganda - my ethnicity.
"He would like you to be his 16th wife," Jock Samson says, as Papa Dingo grunts. "Well, I mean, you don’t have a choice, really. The tribes of Madagascar, they just tell their wife what they’re gonna do."
Papa Dingo starts to pat my hair and touch my shoulders. After a few uncomfortable minutes, we went our separate ways.
Simple Entertainment Or Cheap Heat
That night, Papa Dingo wouldn't break character, so I tracked him down after the event. His real name's Jabari Hawthorne, and he's been wrestling since he was 13.
"I came up with Papa Dingo once we was in Southern Ohio with WBW (World Bigtime Wrestling), and they wanted a character that was over the top, kind of a big, strong, savage guy," Hawthorne says.
Hawthorne says he drew inspiration from Kamala, a wild "savage" gimmick played by James Harris in the WWE.
"Absolutely not, I don't think it's racist at all," Hawthorne says.
He says his act is "simple entertainment" that makes people laugh.
"At anytime, I can change and do what I wanna do," Hawthorne tells me.
Papa Dingo is simply who Hawthorne wants him to be.
"I think gimmicks are necessary, especially if you wanna do merchandise or t-shirts and things of that nature," Hawthorne says. "And on top of that, I enjoy doing it."
These kinds of stereotypes are nothing new in wrestling, according to Laurence DeGaris, a former pro-wrestler who writes about the performative aspect of wrestling.
"You're in the ring in tights. Your body's exposed," DeGaris says. "So for wrestlers, your body's always the center of your gimmick. I mean, you can't escape it."
He says wrestling's reliance on stereotypes is called "cheap heat," a way to illicit reactions.
"We Just Let Them Do Their Thing"
Still, this "family-friendly" event has plenty of fans. Twelve-year-old Gwen Quinby loved the show.
"My parents found out about it and our family's gone to every single one," Quinby says. "It's way closer than in WWE, and the people get up close and it's live action."
Asked about the stereotypes in his show, Hoover says he doesn't assign characters to wrestlers. Hoover says he's known Hawthorne since he was 14. When another wrestler couldn't make it to the event, Papa Dingo was asked to step in.
"The majority of their actual matches and stuff, we let them figure out," Hoover says. "They're the professional wrestlers. They know what they like to do, want to do. So we just let them do their thing."
So far, the model's finding success, and New Ohio Wrestling is sticking with it.