By Thomas Leturgey
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
Like most forms of live entertainment, professional wrestling in and around Pittsburgh has been extremely sparse since March 16, when COVID-19 forced the shut-down of, well, pretty much everything. At this point, most promotions in Western Pennsylvania haven’t held events in close to seven months.
Independent wrestling in Western Pennsylvania has flourished for years, with well-established federations running regular shows with great crowds. Pittsburgh’s KSWA, Elizabeth-based IWC, West Newton’s RWA, and Connellsville’s RYSE Wrestling are three of the leading promotions in the region. Locally, only IWC has dipped its toes in competitive waters with wrestling cards at the Wild Things ballpark in Washington, PA and socially distanced drive-in experiences in Fayette County.
Restrictions in Allegheny County continue to nix any events with crowds large enough to make an event profitable..
For the promoters, professional wrestling has come to a standstill. Many wrestlers have been forced to look at alternative side-hustles to make ends meet, while others need to consider full-time work. It’s interesting to note that all wrestlers appear to be thriving, despite the shutdown.
One of those athletes who has been working nearly exclusively as a wrestler is Sam Polinksy, who goes by the ring-name Sam Adonis. The Monroeville native, who made headlines a few years ago as a “Pro-Trump bad guy” while wrestling in Mexico, is a now a delivery driver. “It would have broken me if I didn’t sign on at Amazon,” he recently told the Current via email.
Always on the go, Polinsky had been piloting Mexican-infused “WrestleRex” cards at the Rex Theater on the South Side. (COVID-19 has also left entertainment venues with an uncertain future.)
A full-time professional wrestler since 2012, Polinsky had also been wrestling locally and was flying all over the country as was “one of the busiest unsigned talents on Earth before COVID 19,” he says.
Polinsky moved to Mt. Washington “with the love of my life” and has managed to stay front-and-center in the professional wrestling world. In August, he sat down with wrestling legend Chris Jericho for an episode of his popular “Talk Is Jericho” podcast. Polinsky says that in many states, professional wrestling is picking back up and he’s starting to travel again. “My best days are ahead of me,” he adds.
Laura Loveless is best known for her time in RYSE, which runs events in Connellsville, Fayette County. She is one of the region’s most sought-after wrestlers.
During the day, Laura has worked in Human Resources for nearly six years. Before COVID-19, she was preparing to attend an exclusive wrestling seminar in Chicago, but that will have to wait. Since then, Loveless has looked at other ways to improve her already-impressive social media brand outreach and digital marketing plan.
“I’ve been revamping my YouTube page and all of my social media outlets in general,” she wrote in a recent email.
The lack of wrestling has not really affected her financial situation. “If anything, the situation taught me to adapt and overcome the limitations COVID imposed on the wrestling industry,” she says. “It’s made me appreciate treating wrestling as an actual business.”
Loveless hopes that independent wrestlers don’t get discouraged during this downtime. “I hope they explore all the opportunities of digital mediums; I hope they still work out and practice. I hope they never forget their craft,” she says. “Things will get better, but we have to put in the effort first if we want to see the changes happen.”
Bobby Piskor has worn several hats during his wrestling career (referee/wrestler/booker).. For 11 years, Piskor has served as a Secretary for an Allegheny County District Magistrate. The day job has given him the flexibility to work evenings and weekends on his in-ring craft.
“Before pandemic, I finished a memoir on my professional wrestling career, as I competed in my last scheduled bout in January,” he wrote last week. Earlier this year, he finished a memoir about his friend, trainer, and mentor, Devil Bhudakahn. Bhudakhan (real name James Fawcett), a local wrestling mainstay beginning in the 1990s, committed suicide in 2007. The book serves as a tribute to Piskor’s friend. “It has gained a lot of positive feedback and opened up a conversation about the effects of suicide. People began sharing stories, and experiences with each other. My goal was to allow people who may have [thoughts of suicide] speak up and seek out help.
As for the future of independent wrestling, Piskor is hopeful. “Selfishly, I want things to go back to the way things were,” he says. “Realistically, I know that they will not be anytime soon.”
One of the region’s most unique wrestlers and professionals is Max Petrunya. He is a former KSWA Heavyweight Champion and current IWC wrestler known throughout Western Pennsylvania and beyond as “The Gavel” David Lawless. For a decade, Petrunya (www.maxpetrunyapc.com) has been a licensed attorney, who at one time worked for a well-known local personal injury firm dealing with medical malpractice and nursing home abuse. He went out on his own more than a year ago.
Never one to lean on wrestling earnings to pay the bills, Petrunya is busier than ever. “I have had the opportunity to work on cases against the NFL and NCAA for football players suffering from traumatic brain injury from repetitive head trauma,” he says. He’s worked on a number of civil rights cases and counseled professional wrestlers and musicians regarding entertainment law and contracts.
“This time has given me a greater appreciation for what we do as (wrestling) performers and how valuable our shows are to our fans. I am very blessed to be able, both physically and mentally, to still be able to provide entertainment and my brand to the fans.” Lawless says he’s looking forward to getting back to a booked schedule and “offering fans a much-deserved break from everything else going on in the world.”
Derek Widziszewski is one of the region’s most colorful and passionate independent professional wrestling promoters. Known as “Dr. Feelbad” to his fans and locker room colleagues, the man behind West Newton’s RWA Wrestling is just as energized about his promotion’s brand as he was when it was launched nearly a dozen years ago. “It’s been a crazy year,” he said recently. The last RWA event was March 7, a mere nine days before the Commonwealth was locked down. One of Western Pennsylvania’s most consistent federations, RWA lost a minimum of nine shows because of COVID-19.
Business had been booming for RWA. The West Newton gymnasium where he runs monthly events had regularly been packed by fans. “[A crowd of] 200 in attendance was a bad night,” he said. The venue’s capacity is 300, and two recent shows were sold out.
A very passionate promoter, Widziszewki says that he has become “far more political” in his personal discussions. He notes that like professional wrestling, the game of politics fields an array of “good guys” and “bad guys.”
Widziszewski runs a successful promotion, but it’s not enough to be his only job. “I don’t half-ass anything,” he says. He works as a home-care professional with two clients, and is employed by a Brownsville-area pizzeria. The fiscal rewards from wrestling go back into running the business. He also notes that no one in his immediate family was out of work during the pandemic.
As far as the future, Dr. Feelbad offers a hopeful prognosis that indoor shows can resume by January. He says the RWA’s upcoming 12th-anniversary event should be an all-out celebration. “I truly miss the fans,” he says. “We are working very hard to come back at 100 percent.”