All Eyes on Us

“I have watched pro wrestling as long as I can remember,” said Nicholas Bateh, chief promoter of River City Wrestling Con (RCWC), which is being held Saturday, June 29 at the Jacksonville Fairgrounds. “Every Saturday morning, I’d be sitting front and center with my dad and brothers watching NWA and World Class Championship Wrestling TV programs, which had some of my favorite wrestlers of all time. That never changed. I followed wrestling well into my adult life, attending every live event held at the old Jacksonville Coliseum.”

Decades have passed, but the passion remains, and now Bateh has come full-circle. The fan is now a part of the business … sort of. “I’ve always dreamed of operating my own convention after years of volunteering at others,” he told Folio Weekly. “Florida is packed with numerous pop culture conventions, yet no one ever branched into pro wrestling fandom. This always surprises me because of how many active and retired pro wrestlers live in Florida. I was born and raised in Jacksonville, so running it here was a no-brainer.”

For the uninitiated, a production of this size—showcasing live wrestling as well as superstar guest meet-and-greets—takes some time to set up. “The logistics are as one would expect for a convention,” Bateh explained. “The biggest challenge was finding a venue big enough to fit a live wrestling event. Of course, running a convention is not cheap. We have to pay for travel accommodations, appearance fees, hotels, venue and much more.”

Though this is the first of its kind in Northeast Florida, this particular programming method has become a common feature of wrestling culture; it’s a lucrative side hustle for the talent and a pilgrimage for the fans. Speaking of the fans—their loyalties will be divided this weekend. All Elite Wrestling (AEW) and CEO Gaming are promoting another major wrestling event—Fyter Fest—in Daytona the same day as RCWC. Why? You’d have to ask AEW, said Bateh. “We began planning River City Wrestling Con in August 2018, with the event going public in January 2019,” he explained. AEW, which is headquartered in Jacksonville, was born days later. Fyter Fest was announced in April.

Despite the possible challenges, RCWC organizers are more than confident, projecting as many as 2,000 visitors to descend on the River City. And there’s plenty for them to see. Bateh and his partners at New Horizon Entertainment have compiled a roster of nearly 30 retired and current stars of the business, including three former world champions. “We really struck gold with our inaugural lineup,” he said.

With all this wrestling talent, it’s hard to define any clear headliner. But if one had to pick, there are two contenders for that slot: Ricky “the Dragon” Steamboat and his longtime rival, Jake “the Snake” Roberts. Steamboat is a Championship Wrestling from Florida (CWF) and World Wrestling Federation (WWF, now WWE) alum whose matches with Randy Savage (1987) and Ric Flair (’89) are widely considered among the very best performances of all time, holding up against anything that’s happened in the 30 years since. Roberts is another golden great from the 1980s. (He’s moonlighting at Mudville Music Room after the convention, too. His sideline: a comedy/spoken-word set he calls Dirty Details.)

Other guests include Teddy Long, Rocky Johnson (father of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson), B. Brian Blair (another CWF icon), Vickie Guererro (widow of Eddie and longtime fixture on WWE Smackdown), New Age Outlaws founder Billy Gunn, Sunny the California Girl, Tenille Dashwood (who wrestled as Emma in WWE), “The Demon Assassin” Rosemary (who’s been a pioneer in using social media to enhance her on-air persona), her “cousin” Rebel, and “the Mouth of the South” Jimmy Hart, one of the most prolific managers in history. The wrestling media is represented by AEW/AMBY star Alicia Atout, artist Willie Smith and writer/historian John Crowther.

“Big Sexy” Kevin Nash is joined by Sean Waltman and Scott Hall (aka Razor Ramon), his partners in the infamous NWO faction. Both, incidentally, got their start here in Florida. Barry Windham is the son of Blackjack Mulligan, who figured prominently in CWF at its peak. His heel turn against then-partner Lex Luger occurred in Jacksonville in 1987, leading to membership in the Four Horsemen stable (led by Ric Flair). Other Horsemen in attendance are wrestler and manager JJ Dillon (another CWF mainstay), “the Enforcer” Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, one of the greatest villains there’s ever been. Blanchard’s nemesis, Magnum TA (Terry Allen), holds a special Q&A session at RCWC.

Two of the featured wrestlers are from Northeast Florida: former WWE Divas champion Barbie Blank (aka Kelly Kelly) and Elijah Burke, a former JSO officer who found fame in WWE under his own name before moving to Impact Wrestling as “the Pope” D’Angelo Dinero. He’s been able to see the changes in the local wrestling scene firsthand. “Well, for one thing, anyone can call themselves a wrestling promoter and a wrestler alike,” he said with a laugh. “So, you can pretty much find a wrestling show just about anywhere, something that was not commonplace in years gone by.” Burke was keen to be part of this first-of-its kind event. “At RCW, Pope will be Pope,” he explained, “dapping and rapping as only he can, signing autographs, taking pics, kissing babies, doing Q&As. I guess the real question here is, what won’t Pope be doing at River City Wrestling Con?”

Burke is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward recent industry developments. “It’s too early to say if Jacksonville has gotten more attention because of AEW’s inception,” he said. “I think AEW has gotten its well-deserved attention, and it will be interesting to see how affects the River City’s overall perception.” Today, much of the time of the local-boy-made-good is occupied running the Love-Alive Charity, a group he founded a few years ago to assist individuals experiencing homelessness, as well as forgotten folks, displaced families and kids living in impoverished communities throughout the greater Jacksonville area.

The convention is followed by a seven-match card that showcases rising stars. Opening the show it’s Myles Millennium vs. Snoop Strikes, followed by The Ugly Ducklings vs. GymNasty Boys. Women’s wrestling features prominently, with Tessa Blanchard (daughter of Tully, stepdaughter of Magnum) facing Kierra Hogan. Chance Auren defends his Federated Championship in an open challenge, opponent TBA. The Lucha Libre style is represented by Rey Fury, who faces Mr. Grim. Effy, an out gay heel who has changed the game for LGBTQ+ wrestlers, takes on Stunt Marshall. Many of these up-and-comers will soon be on your television screen.

Working the main event is Jon Davis, a Jacksonville native and 16-year veteran of the independent wrestling scene, with stints in Ring of Honor, NWA Florida, Dragon Gate USA, Full Impact Pro and numerous other promotions. At RCWC, Davis is set to defend his United States Wrestling Association (USWA) Elite Championship in a three-way dance against Saieve Al Sabah and former WWE star Matt Sydal. His pre-match meditations are the portrait of ringside hype and bravado. “Saieve Al Sabah is relatively new on the scene and is the hardest piece of the puzzle to figure out,” Davis told Folio Weekly. “He is very unorthodox and can strike from literally anywhere … Both men are amazingly talented. Both men deserve the respect and notoriety they are getting. Both men deserve a shot at MY Elite championship, but neither of these men are me!”

Like the rest of us, Davis is following recent developments in the industry with more than just professional interest. “Jacksonville used to be a hotbed for professional wrestling,” he said, “and with our sport hitting another boom period, and AEW making our city the base, we are going to have a ton of eyes on us. It is a very good thing for our sport and an even better thing for our city.”