New Kid on the Block

Tiffany Nieves joins the River City Wrestling Con

Tiffany Nieves drove four hours for this. Nieves is only about a dozen matches into her career in professional wrestling, a career that began less than a year ago, and she has already gotten used to the frantic pace at which the business operates. On this day, she had driven up from Orlando to shoot photos with Jacksonville’s own Toni Smailagic, the results of which you are looking at right now. She would then drive right back to Orlando for her final training session, but first we drove around for a half-hour while this rising star of the indie wrestling scene explained, in detail, her origin story.

“I moved here when I was 18, and I turned 19 shortly after,” said Nieves, who was born in the Bronx, New York. “I had just finished my chemotherapy and started remission for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and I felt like everyone in my hometown looked at me as a ‘cancer survivor,’ and I just wanted to be a normal 19-year-old. At the time, I didn’t think of it as a blessing. I wanted to be far away from everyone who reminded me that I was once sick, that I needed to be careful.” She got sick at 17, which cast a shadow over the experiences that we all treasure in those years, proms and graduations and all that. “I just wanted to run away,” she said. So, she did, coming down to crash with a friend who was attending college downstate.

Nieves started training for wrestling in Florida, but the seed was planted up north, years ago. “I’ve wanted to be a wrestler since I was probably 8-years-old,” she said, “since I was old enough to know what was happening on TV. Growing up in the Bronx, my mom never let me outside. I wasn’t allowed to go to parties, sleepovers, nothing. The only place I had to play was my living room. After a while, watching movies gets pretty boring, but when you see wrestling on, I’ve got two siblings, so it was on!”

Her favorite match ever was Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania 12 in 1996; it took place when she was only two, but it’s required viewing for all students of the game, to this very day. She was also greatly influenced by John Cena, whose “Never Give Up” slogan truly resonates in the hearts of many young children, especially those fighting serious illnesses, as she was. (It’s no surprise that Cena is the most frequently requested celebrity by kids in the Make-A-Wish program, which Cena considers his greatest achievement in life.)

She wouldn’t say how much her training costs, but it’s generally assumed to cost several thousand dollars, at the bare minimum. By the time you see someone on TV, they have probably put five figures into their own development, and some even more. But it’s worth it, if you’re good. WWE superstars earn millions a year, not even counting the insane profits to be gleaned from merchandising and multi-media. Same goes for AEW, which is owned by the Khan family  and based here in Jacksonville, while many other people make a very comfortable living, just by working the indies. It’s very similar to the music business, in that way.

Nieves is just one among the veritable plethora of wrestling talent that will soon be assembled for this year’s River City Wrestling Con, being held at the Jacksonville Fairgrounds Expo Center June 11-12. The aforementioned “Hitman” Bret Hart will be there, along with Booker T, Kevin Nash, The Hardy Boyz, Arn Anderson, Diamond Dallas Page, Dan Severn, Jimmy Hart, Johnny Gargano, “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan, Lo Ki, Demolition, Kevin Sullivan, Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat and reigning AEW Women’s Champion Thunder Rosa.

Nicholas Bateh created the event in 2019, modeled on the various conventions common to the comic book and sci-fi genres, most notably San Diego Comic Con. Some local examples are CollectiveCon and Ancient City Con, events whose clientele naturally overlap with the one you’ll see in June. The pandemic forced cancellation of the 2020 event, but they returned strong last year, with nearly 100 wrestlers on hand and nearly 5,000 fans over the weekend. (Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeannie Buss was there on business, just hanging out watching indie wrestling at the fairgrounds; the only people who noticed were the ones who already knew her.)

In addition to the legends assembled in the main room, there will be a side room to showcase the vast array of video games related to wrestling, as well as tons (literal tons) of merchandise from all eras of the business. Personally-speaking, the merch booths are always my favorite part of these types of events; there are so many items that are almost impossible to find, even online, and a lot of stuff I never even knew existed. Note, also, that last year’s vendors did so well on Saturday that some of them didn’t even bother setting up on Sunday; they just showed up and hung out. Likewise, a number of wrestlers ended up waiving their usual fees and started signing autographs and taking pictures for free.

There will be food trucks and drink tents, beer and wine, snacks and candy. The official RCWC afterparty takes place that Saturday night, in a downtown area that was already sure to be busy, what with the city’s 200th anniversary celebration also taking place on all day June 11 at James Weldon Johnson Park, in addition to all the regular urban core shenanigans. You won’t even need a designated driver, because RCWC is partnering this year with the Southbank Hotel, right across the river via the Main Street Bridge, to offer rooms at a special smart-mark rate.

Best of all, there will be a ring setup inside the main hall, with wrestling matches taking place throughout the weekend. These matches will feature some of the most talented independent wrestlers from around the Southeast, with a number of national and international stars also flying in for the occasion. The main event will feature Jacob Fatu vs. Low Ki, which is guaranteed to be one of the best matches of the year, on any level, anywhere.

Events like these give serious fans a chance to experience pro wrestling in a setting and context that is reasonably faithful to the old school aesthetic, while also providing an opportunity to witness some of the rising stars of wrestling’s future, before those bright lights really start shining. These include folks like Jon Davis, Stunt Marshall, Effy, Kaci Lennox and Kelsey Reagan, all of whom have worked the RCWC in previous years.

The assembled roster represents three generations and six decades of wrestling history, much of which took place in Florida. Tiffany Nieves, however, will be making her inaugural appearance, and she’s as enthusiastic about this as she is about pretty much everything in her life, which is to say, she’s looking forward to it very much.