IRONTON, Ohio — “There’s something unique about this space.”
Standing just outside the Ironton, Ohio, warehouse where he runs his day job, Joe Pace surveys the gravel lot adjacent to a grassy field. He stands behind a wooden folding table, still wearing his knee pads, boots, trunks, and a black T-shirt that bears his name. He’s had a long day, and he and head trainer of the FTC’s Art of Grappling School Bobby Blaze have put countless hours into planning for this night.
Was it a success? It appears to be, to the outside observer. All Pace sees is the potential for more. More fans. More community awareness. More incredible memories.
“I haven’t truly figured it out yet,” says Pace. “But I will.”
Pace is not looking over an arena, mind you. It’s a vacant lot with a large, rusted metal wall as its backdrop. Fifty paces to his left is an active railroad track. Two trains went by during the show, one less than during last year’s event.
To his right, about 50 paces, is a flood wall beyond which the Ohio River rushes briskly between the town of Ironton, Ohio and Ashland, Kentucky. You can see the purple lights on the support wires of the Ironton-Russell Bridge that went on just two hours earlier — one hour after the 8 p.m. bell time.
Joe Pace was born and raised in the Tri-State area where Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia meet. After starting his training at Ohio Valley Wrestling under Nick Dinsmore, he came home to learn from Ashland’s own Bobby Blaze. He founded FTC (Failure to Confirm) Wrestling in 2016 with one goal: to bring quality wrestling back to the area.
“Ashland had a rich history of wrestling in the armory,” he says. “We wanted to continue that level of show.”
In the space between Pace and the railroad tracks, a devoted team of wrestling students, some still in their gear from the show, disassembles the FTC Wrestling ring and loads it into the trailer. Just a few moments earlier, Blaze was standing too close for comfort when part of the light rig near the entrance curtain fell over into the grass. Extra hands now hold on to the remaining supports as the dangerous work of disassembly continues.
Let’s be honest: anyone looking from a satellite view at this location would be hearing Jim Cornette scream, “Mud show wrestling.” It’s a far cry from the giant stadiums the WWE and now AEW pack out on their pay-per-views. You’ll forgive me not using the term “premium live events.”
Nevertheless, the students of Art of Grappling, the regulars of FTC, and the specials guests — and boy, were some of them special — gave the 220-plus fans who turned out on a cool summer night one hell of a show at Midnight Madness II on July 22, 2023.
Ironton sits at the far Southeast corner of Ohio. Take the Ironton-Russell Bridge, just a few minutes drive from here, you’re in Kentucky. Head east and hop another bridge, you’re in West Huntington, West Virginia. This is the gateway to Appalachia, a land of mystery, beauty, and wonder. It’s just an hour’s drive from here to the creepy little hamlet of Point Pleasant and a landmark every wrestling driving through will not pass by: the “Shiny Hiney” of the Mothman.
It doesn’t get any more blue collar than this, in or out of the ring. People don’t come here to sports entertain or be sports entertained. FTC is rasslin’. It’s grappling. It’s old school storytelling, carried out under the watchful eye of former Smokey Mountain Wrestling champ Bobby Blaze.
Blaze is truly a local legend. He’s one of two big time wrestlers to hail from this Eastern Kentucky community, the other being 1950s star Betty Jo Hawkins. He went to high school here, starred on the basketball team. Those who are old enough remember seeing him play the same as they remember past legends who played at the University of Kentucky, and they are proud of their sports legacy around these parts.
Case in point, Bobby and his brother Jimm Smedley told me the tale of Sam Kouns, a guy who was once the sixth man for the Ashland (Kentucky) High School basketball team. “He grew a couple inches when he graduated and played two years at West Point, where he later became an assistant coach alongside Mike Krzyzewski for Bobby Knight.”
“He became the best player in West Point’s history!” saysJimm.
Bobby winks. “But he couldn’t start for Ashland!”
Just a few blocks away from where we stand is the building that houses FTC’s Art of Grappling School, where many of tonight’s competitors train. Founded in 2020 by Joe Pace, Bobby Blaze, and Jillian Hall, the school also offers training in conditioning, MMA, and boxing.
Head wrestling trainer Blaze teaches the business the way he learned it from “The Great” Boris Malenko, many years earlier in Florida. It’s fitting that on this same night, 687 miles away, Malenko’s son Joe is receiving the trainer’s award on behalf of his father from the George Tragos/ Lou Thesz Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in Waterloo, Iowa.
Like all great trainers, Blaze has the ear of every young man and woman on the card. Prior to the show, he is constantly pulled aside by one wrestler after another to go over their plans for the night. He listens, he affirms, he advises. The students listen. They say, “Thank you, Coach.” One leaves, and another approaches. Blaze barely has time to take a sip of his beer in between conferences.
Midnight Madness II is, as promised, bigger than year one. A (say it with me) Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm-Flailing Tube Man greets fans and late-arriving wrestlers as bell time approaches. Three food trucks are waiting to serve up Kona Ice, gourmet lemonade, and slow-smoked barbecue. The slaw served with the pulled pork sandwiches will make you do a double take. Yes, that’s definitely green apple in the creamy mix.
And yes, those are definitely flame throwers stationed just outside the entrance where adjacent to the ring.
Bobby Blaze beams with pride as one of his students, Sarah Bubbles, takes the mic to kick off the evening. “She sang the anthem at a show last week,” he says. “She really did a great job.” Bubbles does not disappoint. Sure, she’d much rather be wrestling tonight, as she did in year one, but she earns a well-deserved ovation for her rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Two of Sarah’s colleagues kick off the show. FTC Women’s Champion Laura Lawless becomes the first heel to berate the crowd, and she’s fantastic. She leans between the ropes, singling out the most vocal of her haters, a bold move here in Ironton. You see, if this show was one mile to the South, there would be a barricade between the fans and the area directly around the ring. The rules here in Ohio are vastly different than in Kentucky, and there’s really nothing to stop an angry fan from getting too close for comfort.
Laura’s diarrhea of the mouth ends when Kendall Ryan approaches the ring. Normally a heel in the parts, the strong and confident Ryan carries the hopes of the fans on her back as she faces off with the squirrelly champion.
Sarah Bubbles is back at the request of Joe Pace, working as your special guest referee. She earns some criticism from the fans the first time she goes to the mat.
“Come on, Bubbles, that was a slow count!”
Another fan turns and shouts him down. “She’s a good ref!”
Bubbles disappoints everyone when she doesn’t see Lawless put her feet up on the ropes for the three count. One fan practically does climb in the ring, trying to get her attention. Bubbles calls for the bell. Lawless grabs her belt and runs. As for Ryan? Ryan turns on Bubbles, laying her out. Then, without a microphone available, she stuns the fans.
“I’m moving to Jacksonville! I quit!”
Bobby Blaze turns to me. “I didn’t wanna spoil it for you,” he said. “She’s got a new job she can work from anywhere, and she’s headed down South.”
Ryan shares with me after the show that the loss of a close friend had inspired her to make the move. “I’m taking my shot while I can,” she says. “I’ve got some meetings set up. I’m very excited.”
The shock of Ryan’s announcement dissipates as ring announcer Daniel Blevins welcomes Nick Hamrick to the ring. Hamrick has a great look and a strong physique, but he’s facing a huge challenge this night. His opponent is one of the best (currently) unsigned men in America.
It’s been a minute since I’ve seen Jake Crist in a wrestling ring, and this isn’t the farthest I’ve driven to see him. Crist was once a member of the Impact roster, and he was once at the core of a group of wrestlers based in Dayton, Ohio, who truly brought out the best in each other. He’s as sharp as ever versus Hamrick in a wild affair that sees the managers at ringside get into the action as well. Crist makes Hamrick look like money, but in the end, the veteran gets the win with a sharpshooter.
Match number three, a confrontation between Wes Segura and Apostle, gives fans a peek at one of Art of Grappling’s most intriguing students. A soft-spoken gentle giant, the tallest man in the locker room draws your eye as he stands at ringside cheering on Segura. He calls himself the Voodoo King, and according to Bobby Blaze, he’s stepped up his training game as of late.
“He’s got a lot to learn,” says Blaze. “But you can’t teach 7-foot-5.”
All 7-foot-5 of Voodoo King leaps into the ring to stare down and chase off Apostle after Segura loses. His time has no yet come, but fans can sense, there’s something special in the mountain of a man.
The first half of the show closes in a flurry as Myron Reed, the New South Wrestling champ, MLW star, and the newest member of team Rascalz, defends his New South title against two men. The match definitely sticks out from all that has come before. Reed’s a different wrestler than the Eastern Kentucky fans are used to, less of a storyteller and more of a dynamic flyer. Still, he wins the crowd over. They gasp several times as Reed’s cat-like quickness, reminiscent of Randy Orton, is on full display in a win.
As impressive as Reed looked in the ring, it’s what he does after that truly speaks to his potential. At the first opportunity, he huddles with one of his opponents, who traveled to Ironton with him that night. They rewatch the match. They are looking for weaknesses, for opportunities. Reed is far from a complacent wrestler. His desire to get better, to be the best, is evident in this quiet moment.
Through every match, Blaze is also coaching to anyone close enough to listen. Right off the bat, he’s pleasantly surprised by the four man match that begins the second half of the show. A few of the boys competing are students of his, and while it’s not perfect, it’s exactly what he wants to see.
“They’re listening to me,” he says. We reminisce about the year before, about a match that spilled outside the ring and went behind it, out of view of the fans. Not this time. All the brawling remained front and center, and no one got in too big a hurry.
“You see that?” says Blaze. “He took his time. He let the audience catch up.” Blaze is particularly proud of Chase Ward, aka Psych Ward, who started training with Blaze when he was just 18. “He was 17 when he first asked about becoming a wrestler. I told him to come back when he was 18. One day, I heard a knock at my back door. I opened it, and there he was. ‘I’m 18,’ he said. ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Let’s get started.’”
Not every match can make the fans happy, and the victory of Dillon McQueen brings out the boo birds. McQueen has made a few trips to FTC, and Blaze sees real potential in him. “He’s a classic heel, and behind the scenes, he’s a real professional.”
Prior to match six, Bobby takes the ring personally. He’s there to interview another student, Reese Ramone, Reese is not only a student at Art of Grappling, she’s a student at Marshall University in nearby Huntington, West Virginia, where she’s an engineering major and a majorette in the marching band.
This is a big night for “The Show Pony.” Reese is a natural heel, and one year ago, she appeared in some social media posts beating poor Sarah Bubbles over the head with a boot at the first Midnight Madness. But something happened over the last year. The fans came to love her. Like one of her heroes, Eddie Guerrero, she’s reluctantly moving into the role of babyface. Blaze conducts an interview with her to aid in that transition, and he turns the mic over to his protégé.
Ramone is ready. She tells the fans how she was standing just a few feet from where the ring now stands when she got word her dad had died, right after she started training. Her real life grief, it seems, led to her being stand-offish and cruel with the fans. But now, now she’s thrilled to have them behind her.
Unfortunately for Reese, so is Kayla Kassidy, a deadly beauty trained by Rev. Ronnie Roberts and the Legendary Larry D. Sensing her opportunity, Kassidy ambushes Ramone from behind while she basks in the cheers from her fans. It’s a battle, but the newly-minted fan favorite turned the tables on Kassidy and gets her hand raised in victory.
Blaze spends the majority of the penultimate match bragging on more of his kids. He singles out Brent “The Bolt” Jaxon, a 17-year-old who has his own fan following of family and friends that come to every show. This is a big night for The Bolt, it turns out. Although a heel, the teenager becomes conflicted when his tag partner “The Lunatic” Caleb Throne urges him to use some dirty tricks and cheat. Bolt ends up turning on Throne and celebrates victory with his opponents, Brox Boulder and Troy Watson.
“Brox isn’t a leader in the locker room,” says Blaze. “He is THE leader. I saw potential in him early, and he does so much behind the scenes. He helps other guys get bookings. He’s a big help to me in training, as is Troy, who can do anything in the ring. Troy reminds me a lot of a young Sean Waltman, and I love the way he helps others out. Both of them are day one students.”
Joe Pace makes his entrance for the main event hoping for a confrontation with the long-time thorn in his side, Jock Samson. While the details of Pace’s long-running feud with Samson were unknown to this once-a-year visit, the fans certainly knew what was up. They know the Pace-Samson rivalry as well as they know the journey of Brent Jaxon, Reese Ramone, Chase Ward, Sarah Bubbles, and every other man and woman who calls FTC home. FTC does not deal in one-off spot matches. They do long term storytelling, the way it used to be, the way many still like it.
“I hate shows that have meaningless matches just for the sake of having matches,” says Pace. “A good match has people for the night; a good story keeps them coming back night after night.”
Pace and Blaze have something truly unique in FTC. They teach wrestling the old fashioned way, the way Boris Malenko taught Bobby Blaze. They book the old fashioned way, the way men like Jerry Jarrett and Jim Cornette used to do. The fans eat it up. The wrestlers are better for it. When they leave, as Kendall Ryan is about to do, the hope is that they’ll be ready to step in any ring and make their old friends and fans proud.
The grassy parking lot is nearly empty now. The colored lights of the Kona Ice Truck have finally departed, leaving only the handful of floodlights and the colors of the Ironton-Russell Bridge to illuminate the grounds. The trailer will soon be filled and locked. The remaining wrestlers still in gear will change. Another show is in the books, and everyone’s looking ahead to the next.
They love their sports here in the Tri-State. They still honor and remember the legends of the past. In due time the memories made tonight will become part of that lore, inspiring another generation and then another to follow in the footsteps of Betty Jo Hawkins, Bobby Blaze, Joe Pace, and the young men and women who proudly call themselves FTC.
FTC runs shows within a two hour radius of Ironton and has hosted over a hundred events to date. They sometimes partner up with Time Warp, a popular collectible and memorabilia shop, on special events like the twice yearly Bluegrass Wrestling Con, which returns on October 7.
Fans who want to check out FTC can see the action for themselves on their YouTube channel. You can also catch Brox Boulder’s podcast Hitting the Ropes on the same channel. For news on upcoming events, follow FTC on Facebook.