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PORTLAND, Maine — With no end to the pandemic in sight, the state’s most successful professional wrestling organization is going the way of Major League Baseball and the NBA. It’s putting on its spectacular, bombastic shows without an audience, for the cameras only.
Hulking men and intimidating women are still flying from top ropes, smashing each other with elbows and fists. There’s plenty of ringside trash talk, too. What’s missing is the beer and popcorn — and the ticket-buying mob, screaming for their favorites and booing the heels.
In the before times, hundreds of paying customers crammed into each sweaty Limitless Wrestling live event. They often sold out. Now, with the coronavirus raging and gatherings limited to 50 people, that’s no longer possible. That’s why the Bangor-based outfit has just started videotaping fresh matches on a closed, sanitized set in Orono. The new material starts streaming online as paid content this week. It won’t be a direct monetary replacement for live shows, owner Randy Carver said. But it might be enough to stay in business until it’s safe for fans to watch wrestlers take a folding chair to the face in person again.
“We were planning on producing 14 live events this year under the Limitless banner, which would have been the most we’d ever done,” said 23-year-old Carver, who started the company at 18 with money he borrowed from his parents.
The growing business was already the biggest wrestling circuit in the state with a huge online following and an extensive line of merchandise including trading cards, T-shirts and DVDs. Carver also owns a wrestling school in Brewer which trains new talent.
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In mid-March, when COVID-19 shut down most of Maine, it hit Limitless Wrestling like a dropkick to the jaw.
“It was a big blow,” Carver said.
Carver had already sold more than 300 tickets for a scheduled March 21 show in Yarmouth. It was close to selling out.
He had to issue refunds to most ticket-buying fans, though some opted to hang on to theirs for a future event. A few super fans told Carver to keep the money as a donation against the tough times ahead. He was still on the hook for extensive advertising expenses and most of the air fares he’d booked for out-of-state wrestlers to get to Maine.
As the pandemic stretched on, Carver was eventually forced to cancel all of Limitless Wrestling’s live events for the rest of the year. That was tough to take, financially.
“That’s our bread and butter,” Carver said. “That’s how Limitless Wrestling functions.”
After nearly four months off, Carver knew he had to do something to keep the cash flowing and stay relevant to his audience. Earlier this month he rented a hall in Orono and spent two days videotaping enough matches for a 10 or 11 episode online miniseries. The hour-long episodes will air, starting this week, on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on independentwrestling.tv. Fans will also be able to tip wrestlers directly via an online mechanism.
Due to interstate travel restrictions, Carver stuck to local wrestlers from Maine and New Hampshire. Some are fresh out of his wrestling school.
“A ton of the roster is unavailable, so It’s a lot of people who normally wouldn’t get a shot at a bigger, Limitless Wrestling show,” he said. “It’s providing a lot of new opportunities for people and we’re starting kind of fresh.”
The drama and storylines will be all new. He didn’t want to give much away about them but could guarantee there’d be no mention of the pandemic. Carver is tired of talking about it, and bets his fans are, too.
“I don’t think we need to do anything concerned with that,” he said. “I think all the jokes have already made their way into the annoying area.”
Even with the coronavirus surging outside of northern New England, Carver had no trouble finding performers.
Danny McCormick of Bangor wrestles under the ring name DangerKid.
“It was no problem at all,” McCormick said. “I’ve been training the whole time. I was even able to bust out a few new things I’ve been working on.”
While taping the matches, everyone involved in the production — from wrestlers to the camera crew — had their temperatures checked every day. Carver made sure there were never more than 30 people in the building at one time. The ring was swabbed and disinfected between matches, as well. Referees wore gloves and masks and there was plenty of hand sanitizer to go around.
“We took every precaution that a small, independent company could do,” Carver said.
Without a paying audience, Carver had other wrestlers sit in for them. They all wore masks and sat 6 feet apart. He admits it wasn’t quite the same without a large, weekend crowd but he is happy with the way it turned out.
“There was still an energy in the building, even without the live, paying audience,” Carver said.
“It was definitely weird,” McCormick said. “I had a certain sense of anxiety, performing just for other wrestlers. They know what to look for. It made me kind of nervous.”
Limitless Wrestling has a sizable internet presence, with 716,000 Youtube followers and close to 10,000 more on Facebook. But content on those platforms is currently free and Carver is hoping fans will open their wallets for the new, online-only matches. Monthly subscriptions are $10. He has no live, in-person events scheduled.
“I don’t think that’s a realistic possibility right now. There could be an outbreak tomorrow that could put Maine in a bad position in a week,” Carver said. “I don’t have any answers right now.”