Chicago’s indie wrestlers risk it all to catch a dream

CHICAGO — If you walk in the heart of Logan Square some nights, you’ll hear distant crashes and cheers as they bounce off the the Illinois Centennial Monument and tumble recklessly into your ears.

The source isn’t too far away. Up a long set of stairs, above the trendy bars and restaurants, a spotlit ring sits in the center of the historic Logan Square Auditorium. In between the tightly-coiled ropes, wrestlers punch, kick and fly before an enthusiastic crowd, sometimes even landing among the plastic folding chairs themselves.

This is Freelance Wrestling, one of more than a dozen independent wrestling shows in Chicago where athletes risk it all for their chance in the spotlight. Like minor league sports, there are no household names there (yet), and many hope to one day get called up to the big show. But unlike league-based sports, matches are organized independently by fans-turned-promoters who are often wrestlers themselves.

Like 28-year-old Freelance Wrestling co-founder Nick Almendarez, AKA Matt Knicks, who says he was “obsessed” with wrestling while growing up in Bridgeview, Ill. After deciding to pursue wrestling professionally, he started Freelance in  2014 to give up-and-coming athletes a chance to grow their skills and professional reputations. It's not necessarily the career path his family might have expected.

“I think there is a sort of stigma on independent wrestling if you’re not familiar with it,” he said.

Despite what people may think about wrestling, Almendarez said each show includes enough comedy, drama and death-defying stunts for even casual fans to enjoy.  

“Anybody can go see a movie, anybody can go see a band, but how many times do you have a chance to go out with a bunch of your friends and watch two guys beat each other? It’s definitely a selling point,” he jokes.

What started as a few bouts in a bar has since grown into regular matches featuring a rotating cast of characters and guest stars from around the world. Freelance’s reputation attracts a wide range of such characters, from the tough guys you may expect to Space Monkey, who comes to the ring complete with a mask, space suit and banana peels for slipping up opponents. At least one, Mustafa Ali, has gone on to sign with the WWE.

“I think a lot of times people’s characters that they come up with is either a reflection of themselves or how they want to portray themselves,” Almendarez said.

There’s a wide range of ambitions on display as well. For some, Freelance is their chance to express themselves. Others are full-time wrestlers, who travel from city to city to make their living performing in independent shows. 

“When you love something so much, even if it’s frustrating, if it’s painful, you’re like, ‘I can’t get away from it,’”Almendarez said.

It’s this passion that Almendarez says keeps Freelance going, and encourages athletes to risk serious injury in the ring. Each of the wrestlers are independent, so there isn’t exactly an employer-run health insurance plan. And yet they flip from the top ropes or jump headfirst on opponents standing on the concrete floor. Calling these stunts “death-defying” doesn’t seem too far-flung.

“The reality of the situation is every single time we go out there we’re putting our life on the line,” Almendarez said. “Wrestling is a predetermined thing, but everything else out there is real, we’re really falling, we’re really getting hit, we’re really going over the top ring and falling to the floor.”

On the night WGN visited Freelance for this story, an ambulance had to be called on two separate occasions. Once when a prone wrestler was kicked directly in the face, and the other when the aforementioned Space Monkey took a swan dive off the ropes and into a crowd wrestlers huddled together in the stands. The thud of his head hitting the floor stopped the action, and the crowd grew silent as people ran to his side. Both required medical attention. Both have since returned to wrestling.

Almendarez credits their passion and desire to break through for getting them back into the ring, even after serious injury. 

“We’re just a bunch of guys goofing off, fighting each other in our underwear, but at the end of the day people connect with that," he said. “We’re like trapeze artists, falling without the net.”