there will be blood

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.




“[There was] heavy pill use, but I can’t blame it on that, y’know?” Gage says over a French toast breakfast at the City Cafe, a Chattanooga diner known for its far-reaching, brightly-colored selection of cakes. “I was at a down and out time in my life. I just gave up. Looking back on it, I can’t believe I did that. Only time in my life I said, ‘Fuck it, I’ll do this,’ and I did it. Something made me go in that bank, a higher power or something. You could see it wasn’t a planned out thing, it wasn’t thought about. It was me saying, ‘You know what? Fuck it. I’m going into this fuckin’ bank.’”

Brett Lauderdale, a former referee who is now the promoter of Game Changer Wrestling, was Gage’s closest confidant. He was aware that Gage was regularly taking painkillers, but at the time, this wasn’t seen as cause for alarm. “You have to remember, back in that time, especial-ly in the early 2000s, it was way more prevalent [in wrestling],” Lauderdale says. “This was when you could go to any doctor and get [painkillers]. What would be considered alarming to people now was not alarming back then, especially around wrestling. Lots of people were doing thesame thing. He would not have stood out in particular.”

Then, following the death of his mother in 2007, Gage’s drug use increased dramatically.

“I think that he stopped caring when his mom died,” recalls Lauderdale. “His mom was like his whole family. Him and his brother, as adults, never had a close relationship.” Nick and Chris had grown apart when the latter decided to leave wrestling for a “straight” life. With no other siblings, no close cousins, and his father out of the picture since his childhood, Gage had leaned on his mother almost exclusively as his support system. “I think he kind of mentally gave up,” says Lauderdale, “like, ‘there’s nobody for me to disappoint now.’”

Gage ended up addicted and, soon thereafter, homeless. He stopped working day job but somehow somehow kept up his part-time wrestling schedule. While not exactly forthcoming with details about this period in his life, Gage has mentioned that he stripped off an extra layer of clothes to change his appearance immediately after the robbery—an extra layer he had been wearing to keep as warm as possible in the frigid December weather.




Gage reached out to Lauderdale shortly after the robbery. “He contacted me with a story, and I was immediately able to figure out what had happened,” Lauderdale says. While he told Gage not to tell him where he was, he also repeatedly urged him to turn himself in. “I knew what was going on, and he knew, too, that it was only a matter of time before they caught him or he turned himself in ... He wasn’t ready, so it was something like, ‘Well, tell me when you’re ready.’”

He spent his 10 days on the run in Atlantic City casi nos, gambling away his ill-gotten cash. Hanging out in tightly-secured buildings filled with guards and, more importantly, security cameras, wasn’t the smartest move for a wanted man, but Gage wasn’t attempting to evade capture. He was biding time until the inevitable happened.

After a week and a half, the money was gone and Gage called Lauderdale again. “I said, ‘How about turning yourself in?’ I went and picked him up in Atlantic City,drove him to the police station, and he turned himself in.”

Lauderdale also recognizes that it speaks to exactly where finding Nicholas Wilson was on local law enforcement’s priorities list: “I don’t think they were looking very hard, to be honest with you.”

Gage plead guilty in April of 2011. There were no real hurdles to his deal because he was clearly in a bad way from opioid addiction. “In my experience, when people are robbing a bank with a note—and it’s a good thing it’s always a note—it just always smacks to me of desperation,”says Michelle Morgera, the prosecutor in Gage’s case.

“What led him to go to prison was probably a path that was gonna end the way a lot of those other death match wrestlers from his generation kind of ended up,” says Absolute Intense Wrestling promoter John Thorne. “Going to prison, getting the wake-up call, having to clean himself up and kind of face the consequences of the life that he was leading, I think that woke him up and saved his life.”




Gage’s in-ring persona has remained pretty much consistent throughout his career. The bandana he once wore around his face on his way to the ring is gone (there’s a running joke among wrestling fans that Gage didn’t have the foresight to use the bandana in the robbery). But Gage’s character is still the same faux-terrifying, supposedly gang-related persona that it was before his prison time, even if for obvious reasons it feels more real and lived in than it used to. While Gage was always a wild man, there’s now a real sense of palpable danger around him. He doesn’t shy away from playing up his criminal past, albeit inaccurately, describing himself, as “gang-affiliated” with three different criminal enterprises, Murder Death Kill Gang, Eastern Block, and H8 Club, none of which exist outside of the confines of professional wrestling.

This new incarnation of Gage also comes off as far more confident. His older interviews and promos have an all-too-familiar rehearsed-sounding quality to them that is common among second-tier performers. More recent ones sound more natural and extemporaneous. Gage’s gift of gab was always there, though. In the pre-incarceration clips, he is at his best when riffing instead of being overly focused on remembering what he needs to say about a specific match. He didn’t completely figure out how to harness this skill until he had years of free time on his hands to really think about his craft.

“I started figuring out the business, the character side and what wrestling is, and all that. I had the time to fucking study this shit,” Gage says. “Before, I didn’t care, I would just do some moves and get out. Now, I gotta come up with a character, [consider] the busines sside, and this and that. Figured all that out when I was locked up, man.” He also had friends like Lauderdale, the man behind the “Free Nick Gage” shirts, to help him get back on his feet. “When I was in there, and I knew that I wanted to go back and wrestle, he set it up like that,” says Gage. "My part was to go in there, work out, stay healthy, keep [my] nose clean, get out.

And people on my side out here? They’ll keep my name out there.”

Gage’s proficiency as a storyteller is a large part of his newfound popularity. But his bond with fans is also key to the equation.There are few wrestlers as giving with their time as Gage. Given his in-ring style and rough-hewn persona, you might not expect him to be approachable at shows. But unlike other in-demand indie wrestlers, Gagewill have extended conversations with fans or pose for their photos without asking for a dime in return. He has all the time in the world for “shot callers,” which can refer to either his most loyal fans or anyone who deals with him honestly. What he can’t stomach is “cop callers,” like the crowd of 2,000-plus fans who booed him after he beat the more well-known and mainstream Penta el 0M at a Game Changer’s WrestleMania weekend event in New Orleans. Gage then pledged to take on all comers in the parking lot. He very well may have meant it. Unsurprisingly, there were no takers.


Gage still does death matches on a semi-regular basis,and once a year, Game Changer puts on the bloody one-night Nick Gage Invitational Tournament in his honor. The 2018 installment takes place at the GALLI Are na in suburban Chicago, a ramshackle, tin shed-like structure without much ventilation or insulation that is buried inside a strip-mall swap meet building. The fans are as prepared for battle as the wrestlers, if not more so. Ringsiders have brought eye protection and face masks to avoid any complications from the numerous fluorescent light tubes that will be broken right in front of them. As the show kicks into gear, it becomes obvious that the masks are even more necessary than usual. Thanks to the poor air circulation, clouds of mercury dust, which play-by-play announcer Dave Prazak refers to as “spooky gas,” is lingering in the air longer than usual. If the goal of a death match is to not die, then there may be some fans who feel like they have been tagged into the tournament.

The gauntlet is thrown down as soon as the show starts, when Shlak tosses Jimmy Lloyd, who as a kid threw tantrums if his mom didn’t take him to the right death match shows, off the roof of the swap meet jewelry store and through a pile of doors, chairs, and light tubes. The first of Gage’s two matches, which comes up next, opens with opponent Scotty Vortekz repeatedly kicking bundles of the fluorescent tubes into Gage’s face before Gage ultimately returns the favor and wins.

Subsequent matches up the ante even further. Japan’s Isami Kodaka elicits chants of “you sick fuck!” from the fans after hammering metal barbecue skewers into GCW regular G-Raver’s head. Local favorite Markus Crane and Milwaukee native Dysfunction build an entire match around a coffin-sized box of actual dry ice. In the final match of the first round, Masashi Takeda—by general consensus the best death match wrestler in the world—takes on daredevil Alex Colon. Before long,Takeda is chewing on broken glass and getting beaten with a small dead tree supplied by a fan.

Gage returns for the finals, an elimination match with other round one winners: Kodaka, Crane, and Takeda. (“The Different Boy” Jimmy Lloyd has also won his match,but has suffered a cut on his arm so serious that he has tobe pulled, which is saying a lot.) Dozens of tubes have beenset up like a demented picket fence around the fighting surface. Within a few minutes, they have been replaced almost entirely by a mixture of blood and broken glass that shifts around audibly as each man takes a step on the mat. As Gage’s white Chicago Bulls jersey turns a deep shade of pink, the ring starts to look more like a crime scene than a stage for sports entertainment.

It’s absolutely a good thing that Gage’s matches don’t look like this all the time anymore. No one can do this style of wrestling forever, as Gage is well aware. “I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do after I’m done wrestling, to stay in this business and make a living off it,” he says. “When I’m 40—if I live to be 40—what am I gonna be? A fuckin’ wrestler still? Time beats everyone, my man. If it can beat Ric Flair, it can beat everybody, bro.” But he makes it clear that toning down his matches is not a way for him to stay in wrestling longer, feeling that being overly cautious is a good way to get seriously injured, at which point “your brain’s all fucked.”

Nobody should be doing this all the time. Maybe nobody should ever do it at all. But when you’re watching Nick Fucking Gage exsanguinate himself all over the ring canvas in a twisted love letter to his fans, it’s hard to imagine him any other way.