words: david bixenspan
photography: nils ericson
The bearded man in a light blue hoodie and white gloves approaches the teller window inconspicuously, like he’s just there to conduct a transaction. It’s around 2PM on Wednesday, December 22, 2010, and attire aside, he could be just another customer at this PNC Bank branch in Collingswood, New Jersey. The man then hands a note to the woman on duty, who later tells police that, while she can’t remember exactly what the piece of paper said, it was something along the lines of “give me money or I will shoot you.” But the man never brandishes a weapon, and after a little over $3000 has been doled out, he flees on foot.
At some point during the robbery, the mask-less man stares directly into the bank’s security camera—a crucial mistake that makes identifying him easy. A screenshot taken from the video begins circulating and almost immediately, local pro wrestling fans begin calling the police to identify the perpetrator as 30-year-old Nicholas Wilson, better known as Nick Gage, a wild, foul-mouthed brawler who has built his career on bleeding and breaking things.
Gage is known for taking part in “death matches,” which often involve some combination of barbed wire, broken fluorescent light tubes, and other sharp objects, such as cut-up soda cans. Death match fans are uniquely loyal misfits who project their internal struggles onto a group of self-mutilating performance artists. These are exactly the type of fans who will buy official “Free Nick Gage”T-shirts when they go on sale a few days after Gage surrenders to police on New Year’s Eve.
Every year, wrestling fans from around the world converge on one of two high school gyms in the Chattanooga area for August’s annual Scenic City Invitational. Local hero Joey Lynch, who wins the tournament after years of coming up short, is the biggest story of 2018’s event. He also participates in the most memorable match of the weekend, a dramatic stunt show with quinquagenarian ex-WWE Tag Team Champion Pierre Carl Ouellet. But for sheer star power, no one can match the rampaging force of nature that is Nick Gage, whose aura inside and outside of the ring is undeniable. He captivates fans by slugging it out with Kerry Awful as they sit in fans’ chairs and beating the dastardly Corey Hollisup and down the bleachers. The audience hang on his every word when he’s handed a microphone. Children and adults alike flock to him at intermission, hoping for any interaction with the wrestler who consistently comes off as cooler than anyone else in the room.
Gage has been a fixture on the independent wrestling scene since 1999. But since his 2017 release from Trenton’s Jones Farm prison, where Gage served a five-year sentence after pleading guilty to second degree armed robbery, the now-middle-aged antihero has been one of the sport’s hottest commodities. There was never any question that Gage would return to wrestling when he got out. But no one, including Gage himself, could have foreseen him becoming one of the indies’ most popular—and beloved—figures, or just how much of a role his crime would play in his meteoric rise. “Nick Gage is probably the closest thing to a compelling multi-layered movie character that you could encounter in real life,” says wrestler Joey Janela, who grew up watching Gage in Combat Zone Wrestling and performs alongside him in multiple independent promotions. “A lot of people say,‘Pro wrestling saved my life,’ but I think in his case, pro wrestling absolutely saved his life, and he’s giving back to the indie wrestling community.”
The world that NickGage left in 2010 was one where a weapon-swinging vulgarian—someone with no shot at a WWE contract—could never earn a full-time living as a professional wrestler. But by the time Gage was a free man again, indie wrestling had become a viable career path. In the intervening five years, the WWE had embraced the indie past of wrestlers like Seth Rollins, AJ Styles, and Kevin Owens, creating a bridge between the two worlds that boosted the indies’ exposure and increased the popularity of their current performers. Indie wrestlers could leverage social media, helping them get their name out and make more money selling merch. And while the vast majority of indie wrestlers still work a second job (or have wrestling as their second job), at least a few dozen are now able to parlay this increased interest into a full-time gig even without the once all-important TV exposure.
Even so, Gage’s current popularity is more than a little confounding. The current boom in independent wrestling has coincided with the rise of an ultra-athletic, highly technical, up-and-down style of simulated combat popularized by the likes of Styles and Rollins, Gage’s matches don’t come close to fitting this bill. A brawler through and through, Gage is more likely to punch an opponent in the face or hit him with some kind of ghastly fan-provided weapon than dazzle spectators with elaborate high-flying moves or the intricate mat-based grappling exchanges that many of his peers specialize in. Gage occasionally breaks out something fancy to mix it up, but what fans look for when they see Nick Gage advertised is violence and intensity. Pro wrestling maybe entertainment, but Nick Gage is in the hurt business.
Growing up a wrestling fan in South Jersey in the ’80s, Nicholas Wilson didn’t gravitate toward the cartoony WWF. Instead, he favored the hard-edged shows coming out of the South, like the National Wrestling Alliance, which was broadcast on Ted Turner’s Supersta- tion WTBS. While the WWF was a slick product, the NWA shows hit you on a gut level. From the athleticism to the blood, they were, in every sense, more real. From top to bottom, the NWA roster—which included names like Ric Flair, Dusty Rhodes, The Road Warriors, Sting, Lex Luger, and The Midnight Express— was stronger. NWA wrestlers took pride in pulling off exciting, sometimes macabre matches that, unlike in the WWF, were often enhanced by the participants actually cutting themselves to draw blood.
Gage wasn’t alone. The NWA was wildly popular in the Philadelphia area and its influence turned the City of Brotherly Love into the most bloodthirsty wrestling market in the country. The wrestlers themselves were happy to oblige. One night in 1986, Athletic Commission head J.J. Binns almost stopped a supershow at Veterans Stadium midstream when Wahoo McDaniel got a piece of razor blade stuck in his forehead while attempting to mutilate himself.
In the ’90s, ECW, a new local promotion started combining extreme violence with a Buzz Bin-era MTV aesthetic. It caught Nicholas and his brother Chris’s attention, andthey soon bought ringside season tickets so they could watch wild, furniture-breaking matches with former and future WWE wrestlers like Sabu, The Sandman, Raven,Rob Van Dam, and Tommy Dreamer up close and personal. The Wilson brothers would act out ECW-inspired wrestling matches in their spare time, eventually putting on small shows in their backyard for about 20 people. After getting a referral from the father of a schoolmate, both Wilsons signed up at a wrestling school run by area journeyman John Corson. Upon finishing the program in 1999, Nicholas Wilson became Nick Gage and started wrestling professionally on the roster of Corson’s new Combat Zone Wrestling promotion, a more violent, nu-metal version of ECW. Immediately, Gage became one of the operation’s core performers.
“I built that promotion from day one, when it was just a wrestling school and we didn’t have a company,” Gage says. “We’d put on birthday [party] shows, and this and that, and turn it into something.” There, Gage was joined by Chris, who wrestled as Justice Pain; Corson, better known as John Zandig; and others from the school. They prided themselves on their take on death matches, which were dubbed “ultra-violent” wrestling for branding purposes and even by death match’s paltry standards were extremely light on storytelling. Gage saw little action in tamer matches. This took a toll on him and set into motion the circumstances that would land him in prison within a decade.