LOUISVILLE, KY — Not everyone noticed the man with the slicked back hair and haughty eyes standing beside the announcer’s desk taking notes on the match inside the ring, but those who did had one of two reactions. Standing in black slacks, a ruffled white shirt, and a crushed blue velvet robe, those who only knew him from WWE nudged their neighbors and whispered, “Damien Sandow!” 

Fans who watch the current NWA — and those with longer memories — whispered a different name: “Aron Stevens!” 

The appearance of the arrogant erudite felt inevitable. He still resides in the Louisville, Kentucky, area, and he’d been spotted slipping in and out of the backstage area a few times over the past couple of months. But fans never saw the next surprise coming. Right after the match, the Hardcore Legend and WWE Hall of Famer Mick Foley appeared on the new, four screen Jumbo Monitor to announce his long-awaited return to Ohio Valley Wrestling at January’s Nightmare Rumble pay-per-view. 

Welcome to the new Ohio Valley Wrestling, post Netflix. 

To borrow a now-famous remark from Cash Flo, this is no longer the Little Engine That Could. This is the Little Engine That Truly Believes It Can. A year ago, the promotion struggled to reach half capacity every Thursday for its television taping. Now, even with a hike in ticket prices ($10 to $15, if you buy in advance) and expanded seating capacity, almost every show is a sell out. 

“Who’s here from some place other than Kentucky or Indiana?” asks ring announcer Eric Cornish during a commercial break. New faces appear every week from all over the country: Chicago, Seattle, Austin, Los Angeles, Michigan, West Virginia, North Carolina, Florida. 

Alfred Konuwa, who writes about pro wrestling for Forbes, loved the series so much he traveled to Louisville the Saturday before the series dropped to watch the September pay-per-view. Chris Kael from the band Five Finger Death Punch showed up one week, though he’s far from the biggest celebrity to grace Davis Arena in 2023. That honor goes to “Baby Billy” Walter Goggins, who showed up with the cast from the Mildred Burke biopic two months before Wrestlers dropped on Netflix, but that’s a whole other story in itself. 

Senior official Daniel Spencer poses with Chris Kael of Five Finger Death Punch after a recent OVW TV broadcast.

OVW did not need a documentary to secure its status as a special place in the annals of professional wrestling. Even diehard “WWE or Bust” fans can tell you about the “Developmental Era” of the early 2000s. OVW founder Danny Davis and head trainer Rip Rogers prepared some of the biggest names in  WWE history for their moment in the spotlight: John Cena, Batista, Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton, The Miz, Cody Rhodes, Mark Henry, Big Show, Beth Phoenix, Kelly Kelly, the aforementioned Damien Sandow, and many more. 

That said, the OVW of 2022, as seen in Greg Whiteley’s highly acclaimed docuseries, was a far cry from its glory days. The giant pay-per-view banners that once graced the walls were long gone, replaced by smaller ads for Dan-O’s Seasoning (“Yum yum, get ya some!”), The Ringside Podcast, and other local advertisers. The dual entrance ramps — one for babyfaces, one for heels — vanished shortly after Al Snow took ownership from Danny Davis. 

The roster no longer resembled that of a wrestling school. While many of the top stars were OVW students at one time (Jessie Godderz, Tony Gunn, Ryan Von Rockit, and too many more to mention), you could hardly call them students today. Their ranks now included long-time independent veterans, including several from OVW’s long-time cross town rival IWA Mid-South (Maria James, Cash Flo, and Hy Zaya) plus dozens of young hopefuls who had come to OVW as the second or third stop in their career. 

One of the questions posted to social media after the series aired was, “How much of this documentary is just the wrestlers working us?” Given the worked nature of some so-called wrestling documentaries, especially those produced by and for bigger name starts, the skepticism is understandable. 

Whiteley interviewed dozens of wrestlers and backstage crew for the docuseries. He went into their homes. He followed them to their “shoot” jobs. He traveled across the river to the Jeffersonville Arena to watch some of them train and conduct some of the interviews. He took the time to get to know them, to uncover their real stories. 

The wrestlers let it all hang out. They held nothing back. What you saw, what you heard, was a shoot.

Likewise, there was nothing fabricated in the storyline of a promotion facing financial trouble. Whiteley and his documentary crew captured a company in transition with their 4K lenses. The new ownership group led by Matt Jones and Craig Greenberg (now the city’s mayor) legitimately questioned the weekly live broadcasts that were draining the company of money.

“That was all real,” says Jessie Godderz, who sat in some of those meetings. As a business owner himself, Godderz empathized with the situation the new owners were in. The company had outside stakeholders, and they were not going to keep throwing good money after bad. 

While OVW’s owners needed to stop the bleeding, they never had any intentions of closing up shop. They wanted OVW to grow. They, along with Al Snow, wanted to change the image of OVW, transforming it from the great wrestling school of the past to one of the premiere wrestling promotions of today. 

The steps taken during the summer of 2022 certainly helped. Attendance grew over the last year. More wrestlers, including the current NWA World Heavyweight Champion EC3, attached their named to the company. But nothing changed the promotion’s fortunes quite like the arrival of Wrestlers on Netflix. 

Davis Arena was just over half capacity on September 14, less than 48 hors after the premiere, but change was already in the air. The biggest difference that night? The reaction to Mahabali Shera. Fans of the Netflix series learned about Shera’s journey from India to become a professional wrestler in the US. They saw him drop the title to James Storm, and they saw his comeback derailed by an unfortunate injury. 

Now teamed up with Cash Flo, Mahabali Shera is once again one of the most beloved babyfaces at OVW. Photo by Lloyd Thomas.

Netflix viewers didn’t see the comeback that happened after the documentary crew left town. They didn’t see Shera turn heel and join “Mr. PEC-Tacular” Jessie Godderz, Shannon the Dude, Luke Kurtis, Joe Mack, and Adam Revolver to form THEE FACTION. But even those who did refused to boo Shera any more once they knew his full story.

It caught Shera completely off guard when the little kids at ringside held their hands out for high fives and fist bumps. He couldn’t help himself. He smiled. He gave them high fives. He didn’t formally leave THEE FACTION for a few weeks, but Netflix had already made a difference in one wrestler’s career.

The following week, OVW had its first TV sellout in years. Dozens of fans were turned away at the door, most reaching for their phones to buy tickets for the following week. OVW raised ticket prices. They released tickets for the next several weeks on their website. Those shows sold out. The pay-per-views for the fall, including No Rest for the Wicked, Thanksgiving Thunder, and Christmas Chaos, sold out well in advance. You better believe tickets for the Rumble will be gone in short order with the recent Mick Foley announcement.

OVW stars, especially those featured in the Netflix series, saw their social media numbers jump. “I’ve had more than a thousand new followers in a week,” Maria James told me on September 21. James featured prominently in the docuseries thanks to a feud with her real life daughter Haley J that culminated into a deathmatch aired on OVW pay-per-view. She pretty happy to see her numbers go up — until she compared notes with her child. 

“Haley got 10,000 new followers overnight. I’m like hello? I’m her mother!” Despite the faux jealousy, she’s a proud momma. 

Haley and Maria, who continue to do double duty as The Mother Truckers for Women of Wrestling, are both more in demand because of the series. Maria, who was told she had to give up wrestling after a knee surgery just a few years ago, is lacing up the boots when she can, taking full advantage of the moment. Several OVW talents were featured guests at Wrestlecade in November. A carload made the trek up to Ontario for a big independent show. 

Several wrestlers who were not featured prominently in Wrestlers have started to break out. The Outrunners, a tag team comprised of long-time OVW vets Truth Magnum and Turbo Floyd, were well on their way to a bigger spotlight even before the premiere of Wresters. They appear regularly on NWA and Ring of Honor. Tiffany Nieves, who had a nice push as the OVW Women’s Champion during the fall, now receives prominent billing on NWA programming. A few OVW roster members appear poised to join her. 

But not everyone is in a rush to jump to WWE, AEW, or even the NWA. They see the changes happening backstage as well as in the newly-renovated Davis Arena.

Matt Jones announced that OVW would be going on tour nationally in 2024, and he’s working hard to secure better broadcasting deals. The company announced a new strategic partnership in early December with the local investment firm Genvec Ventures. And you can likely expect more cameos in the future, like the recent appearance by Real1, the former Enzo Amore, as a special guest referee. 

Yes, that’s Real1 (aka Enzo Amore) overseeing the action between Tony Gunn and Jack Vaughn. Photo by Lloyd Thomas.

The owners believe in OVW. The wrestlers believe. The OVW faithful sure as hell believe, and new investors are buying in. On December 20, Al Snow announced a new partnership with The Unit, a sports betting and gaming product development group. The new agreement expands The Unit’s presence in the sports and entertainment market while offering OVW to increase its engagement with fans online through free-to-play games and more. 

“Partnering with an organization that has the global reach and respect of The Unit will only continue to grow our momentum and push us further into the global mainstream!” boasts Al Snow in the release. “We’re excited to get rolling with this new relationship with the heavyweight champion of software development!”

Wrestlers continues to win fans, both for OVW and itself. The series was named one of the year’s best by The Hollywood Reporter. It was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. Celebrities like Ken Jeong and Rainn Wilson both tweeted their admiration for the show. Every new shout out, every new honor gets blasted all over social media by OVW’s roster and fans. Fans and wrestlers continue waiting for word on a potential second season. 

Will OVW become the little engine that did? Only time will tell.

Certainly the timing for a long-time, regional promotion to break out is right. And they wouldn’t be the first to do so. The “eye test” may tell you the chances of OVW becoming a national player are slim, but as many an irate Florida State Seminoles fan will tell you, eye tests are no way to determine winners and losers. 

Greg Whiteley’s Wrestlers put a great, big spotlight on OVW, and they will have every opportunity to play this out. Whatever happens from here, Al Snow and company are going to give it everything they’ve got. 

TOP PHOTO: Jessie Godderz knocks down Shane Mercer, as referee Jake Cloyd looks on. Photo by Lloyd Thomas.