Independent wrestling is thriving across North America. Small towns and big cities have fans that are shunning the bright lights of arena wrestling shows and are filling the smaller venues that provide an intimate entertainment experience that is affordable and family friendly. A promotion that has stood out is located in the Buffalo and Niagara Falls area of Western New York State and it is called Empire State Wrestling. Some would say that ESW is family.
For 17 years Empire State Wrestling has provided a place for local dreamers, serious wrestlers, legends and indy heroes to ply their trade. The sheer length of the promotion’s existence is a testament to the visionaries behind the venture and the great fans in the area.
THE BEGINNING OF PUMA POWER
Jonny Puma (Scott Heim) was an aspiring wrestler who entered the sport after a career as a stand-up comic. “I started training and I physically took to it,” recalled Puma. “I was never an athlete growing up. I was an ugly, fat, nerd. I found out that the guys who fit in the best in wrestling grew up the same way. Wrestlers were before their time as now it is cool to be a nerd. Wrestlers sit in the locker room and talk about comic books and Star Wars and stuff like that. The reason I took to it right away was because I had been doing stand-up comedy and it fit like a glove. I had that ability to jump on the microphone and it just flowed.”
He found a home in wrestling and for the very first time Puma felt comfortable in his own skin surrounded by colourful characters. “What made it magical was the camaraderie,” said an emotional Puma. “We had a bunch of like-minded guys who found each other. I didn’t know guys like this existed; I was the only oddball in my group who thought this way.”
It was with these new friends that Puma realized he wanted to wrestle more often so a bunch of his fellow grapplers decided they would start their own promotion. With naïve ambition the group founded Empire State Wrestling and ran their first show with a homemade ring in 2002.
“It was just a bunch of guys who never thought they could do something like that so they just busted their butts to make the show happen,” said Puma. “It just started growing and we became a very tight-knit group. There were two different camps, the guys who grew up in the 1980s and the younger guys who grew up on ECW.”
With the success of their first show the hungry wrestlers ran more events and were surprised by the size of the crowds. Right from the start Empire State Wrestling drew fans to the show, although, in the beginning it was mostly friends and family who enjoyed seeing the local guys put on some fun entertainment. With over the top storylines and interesting characters the crowd was always left with a cliff-hanger ending in order to bring them back.
“Since I had dabbled in entertainment and knew less is more, that seven matches on the card was perfect, and sure you had a hardcore match, but then you would follow it up with a comedy match,” said Puma. “It was fun and it was very character driven and since I grew up in the ’80s it was big, flamboyant characters and storylines and the rest will follow. You don’t have to be extremely talented; if you weren’t, no big deal, it is my job to cover it up and build around it. Everyone played a role, everyone knew their role, which was important, and everyone played their role. We had some fun shows and it was a really good time.”
Long-time Western New York State wrestler Brandon Thurston started with ESW in its second year. “ESW, when it started, was more of a social group you might say,” recalled Thurston. “When I started out and the guys I started with didn’t think of it like kids did today, where you make an Internet presence and work as many places as you can. We didn’t have that mentality; it was, ‘I’m an ESW wrestler and maybe the WWE will come to our show and see us someday.’ We had the mentality of we are going to be ESW guys and it was a really close-knit group of guys. I don’t know what I did in my early twenties other than hang out with ESW guys. It gave people a place where they could bond with other people and feel like they had some belonging.”
Puma echoed the feelings of Thurston from those early years. “We were constantly all together for Christmas, New Year’s, birthdays,” said Puma. “The day after the show was one of our best times because we would get the tape, the VHS tape, of the show, order some fast food and sit back and just shoot on each other. It was great; it was a really good time. Johnny Adams was one of the early guys, Chris Cooper, Will Calrissian, the Davidson brothers were founders along with myself and then we had a bunch of knucklehead kids who wanted to go through tables and stuff and it was a good mix. We learned a lot from them and they learned a lot from us and we made a great family.”
This feeling of belonging was anchored by the presences of Puma. Pro Wrestling Illustrated senior writer Dan Murphy joined the group early on. Murphy took on the role of a troubleshooting commissioner and a co-booker for the young promotion from 2003 to 2007. It was during this time that the fans nicknamed Murphy “Sweater Guy” for the simple reason that he wore sweaters when he cut promos in front of the audience.
Murphy has high praise for Puma and his role in laying the ground work for a lasting indy promotion. “ESW would never have existed without Jonny Puma,” said Murphy. “Puma had the passion and the vision, and the personality that inspired everyone around him. I know that a lot of indy feds call themselves a family, but Puma was everybody’s half-nuts brother. He made everyone want to give their all — not just to ESW, but to get the most out of themselves. Puma galvanized that locker room in the very beginning and has been the true cornerstone of ESW since the beginning.”
Thurston agrees with Murphy’s sentiments. As a young person starting out Puma had a big influence on him. “Puma is just a very charismatic figure just in life,” said Thurston. “He is 18 years older than us and we met him when we were 18 years old and he knew about life.”
RAISING THE BAR
One of the key turning points for Empire State Wrestling happened when Murphy brought in Canadian wrestlers Derek Wylde and Cody Steele, who is now known as Cody Deaner. The two wrestlers looked good, had great ring gear, were in top shape, and were serious about their craft. Wylde and Steele/Deaner were obsessed with improving and wanted to wrestle everywhere and anywhere.
“They had a great influence on us, especially the young guys and they helped us evolve,” said Puma. “That was a huge turning point with ESW, we didn’t see them as a threat. They put on their match and the whole locker room was watching it and it had an impact. That match put ESW in the direction that it has been going in since then. It was a ‘get better or get out attitude’ and everyone that stayed with us upped their game and felt compelled to do so. I can’t state that enough, it was a big turning point with those two.”
Cody Deaner saw the match as a pivotal moment that affected his professional aspirations. “I remember this time in my career at ESW very fondly,” said Deaner. “I feel it wasn’t just a turning point in the promotion, it was a turning point in my career too.”
“I remember the match feeling very special as it was happening. As the match progressed, I could sense from the crowd that they were witnessing something they’d never seen before. They got louder and louder and acted with genuine surprise and excitement as the match progressed. It might sound like I’m tooting my own horn, but some performers get this sense. This ‘feeling.’ This feeling when you know what’s happening is special. And I definitely felt that the first night I was in ESW. And that thought was solidified when I got to the locker room after the match. The boys were so gracious and complimentary. They seemed just as excited as the fans.”
“This was a big turning point in my career. I got footage of the match and sent it to the WWE. I got a call a month later offering me my first tryout with the WWE. That’s what landed me a spot verses Kurt Angle on SmackDown in Rochester, NY. This was my first big break in my career. And I owe a lot of it to ESW.”
The improvement in wrestling changed the look of the promotion and soon the crowd started to change. At first it was a friends and family affair, but with the quality of the action improving, wrestling fans started to attend. The person Puma feels is most responsible for the evolution of the promotion is Brett Stymus.
NEW LEADERSHIP GROWS THE GAME
Stymus started out as a wrestler with ESW in in 2005. He was setting up the ring, doing camera work and then moved up to the roster. This was his time of paying his dues. After a few years on the circuit Stymus had a decision to make in his life, wrestle or be a family man, or do something else.
“The thing that got me into the promoting was I found out I was going to be a dad and I didn’t think I could be a dad and be on the road,” said Stymus. “So my son is nine now and I have been doing the promoting of ESW for eight and a half years. I love wrestling and I couldn’t get it out of my system so I just do whatever I can locally with it.”
The change in ownership was a great challenge for Stymus and became his labour of love. Puma praises Stymus.
“He was young enough and hungry enough to take it in a direction to take it in the direction it needed to go,” said Puma. “I still love wrestling but luckily Brett was there at the right time as wrestling started to change. He knew enough to change ESW to suit it whereas I wouldn’t say there aren’t a lot of friends and family in the audience, I would say these are wrestling fans. These are the same fans that go to see Ring of Honor, go to see WWE and want to see wrestling. They are getting fans that love wrestling and they get it now. Back in the day you would get more of an ’80s style show, which I think people were yearning for back then and you get friends coming and they would bring their kids of course. Now ESW is all down to Brett taking the base and expanding on it and being enough in the know and having his finger on the pulse of wrestling to capture that while it was happening. He has done a great job.”
It is a frequent occurrence that ESW shows are packed to capacity. It is not uncommon to see lineups wrapping around the venue. Local fans love the promotion and fans from many hours away drive to see the high calibre shows.
“Brett Stymus has done a remarkable job in building the ESW brand and product,” said PWI’s Murphy. “He does a fantastic job balancing the use of local workers and bringing in outside talent. That’s a key to success, teaching your fans to see your local guys — your regulars — at the same level as outside names. Brett has done that. The core ESW audience doesn’t wait to hear the special attractions. As soon as a show is announced, they make plans to attend because they know ESW is going to deliver.”
The secret to the success of ESW comes from hard work and giving the fans a quality product and the humble Stymus says that is down to the workers. “It is a group activity and not just one person,” said Stymus. “It is pretty much the wrestlers. I can’t thank the wrestlers enough; if it wasn’t for them going out there each time and doing what they do on the show the audience wouldn’t be here. I work a regular nine to five job and I don’t just have money to book this guy from California or that guy from Mexico or that guy from Florida. It is the local guys really spreading the word and the entertainment they are providing for everyone. I feel like I am the boring guy in the back dealing with paper work, but the guys in the ring are really making it happen.”
One of those local wrestlers who have cut their teeth at ESW is the dynamic Kevin Bennett, a real up and comer on the indy scene. “Kevin came to us when he was 15 or 16 years old,” said Stymus. “In New York State you can’t wrestle until you are 18. Kevin was coming in helping to set up the ring, he was the cameraman, he does great video editing and when he was almost 18 I started to take him on the road just within a couple of hours and showed him what he had to do and gave him pointers. His talent is just phenomenal; you just can’t put your hands on it. For his age he will probably be the best thing that has ever come out of Western New York. He is progressing so well and I just see him keep going.”
As much praise as the boss has for Bennett, Bennett has the same for ESW and his comrades in the locker room. “ESW has put together a great team of individuals that have a mutual vision of success and prosperity,” said Bennett. “ESW hasn’t been the same since everyone has been on the same page! In other words, truly progressing day after day, week after week and month after month. We’ve seen progression from the production and internet promoting, to the consistent training regimen and conditioning by the wrestlers. To me, ESW is not only a wrestling promotion, it is a brotherhood. The bond between the performers/staff are practically family. I think it’s safe to say that I’m not the only one that believes that. With the mindset and vision that we have today, we will continue to grow and reach new heights.”
Over the years ESW has brought in name wrestlers from the past that do intrigue the fans, but it has often been rising star wrestlers such as Johnny Gargano, Dalton Castle, Curt Hawkins, Silas Young, Mark Haskins, and Kevin Steen that have really created the buzz and they are always amazed by the ESW crowds.
“You have to study what is going on everywhere,” said Stymus. “It is tough to do, as things work for some places but don’t work here. It is really a give it a shot and see what happens thing. You have to watch what is going on. You have to see who is a natural draw. You have to see who is having attention drawn to them, whether that be on the internet, or Ring of Honor TV, or whose name is popping up the most. Find out who is creating a buzz because you want them there.”
Mexican wrestling sensation Pentagon Jr. was amazed that the crowd knew who he was. “It was my first time here in Buffalo,” said Pentagon Jr. “I think Buffalo, I don’t know the people know Pentagon. I don’t know. Surprise. Tonight (the crowd chanted) ‘Cero Miedo.’ Wow, that’s wonderful bro.”
Ring of Honor’s Silas Young was impressed as well. “Wow,” said Young. “What a good crowd and it was packed.”
Cody Deaner is a fan. “I loved it there. And I still love it there every time I get the opportunity to go back there. ESW holds a special spot in my heart.”
Impact Wrestling’s Braxton Sutter has been working behind the scenes, timing the show and combining ideas with Stymus on booking as well as competing in the ring. “I think the whole thing with me and the growth of ESW here is basically my love for Western New York and the city of Buffalo my home town,” said Sutter, who worked earlier in his career as Pepper Parks. “No matter how many times I move away I always migrate back here. I always knew ESW had so much potential and Brett, the owner, did too and now the two of us working together we are just trying to take it as far as we can go with it. It really is showing by the quality of the product, the crowd has been on the rise and everything.”
Sutter’s long association with ESW has allowed him to see what wrestlers can increase the attendance at an event. “The first example of an outside wrestler really drawing was Kevin Steen,” said Sutter. “I remember it was right before he did his tryout at the Performance Center because I had done one and he was asking me about his. Steen was the first example as that was the biggest crowd we had seen and we have had very good crowds for 10 years, and it was down to Steen because that crowd flooded his merch table as soon as he came out. That is all Brett, he booked him and knew he would do a great job. Then the second one was Pentagon; dude, SMASH Wrestling is a couple of hours away in Toronto and SMASH fans came down for that. A lot of fans from Syracuse came for that. It was really cool and they were there to see him.”
Empire State Wrestling has grown in to a successful wrestling promotion that has a devoted fan base as a result of energetic people such as Puma, Stymus and Sutter. This wrestling promotion is more than a company. Founder Jonny Puma looked back lovingly on his passion, ESW, and sees more than the ring, the sweat and hard work.
“I enjoy the friendships,” said an emotional Puma. “I love popping in to the ESW shows and seeing the guys and hanging out. All of my guys have retired from the ring and are having families and I did the same thing. It is nice to have it as a great memory. Me and Will Calrissian are going to go to an upcoming ESW show and have a couple of drinks and just enjoy ourselves.”
Empire State Wrestling is not just family friendly entertainment; for many people ESW has been a place to find family.
ESW GRADS MADE GOOD
1) Pepper Parks/Braxton Sutter
2) Dalton Castle
3) Johnny Gargano
4) Jamin Olivencia
5) Kevin Steen/Owens
6) Jinder Mahal
7) Allie/Cherry Bomb
8. Ruby Riot
9) Kashius Ohno/Chris Hero
10) Cedric Alexander
11) Luke Harper/Brodie Lee
Caleb Smith can tell you that the ESW crew and owner Brett Stymus are a great bunch of people! Check out their shows and as Billy “Red” Lyons used to say “Dontcha dare miss it.”