Hard knocks

Record pro­ducer launches wrestling com­pany as Las Ve­gas scene surges

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Ja­son Bracelin

THE PRO­DUCER takes in his lat­est project from a dis­tance, lest his sport coat get driz­zled in sweat and Pabst.

Kane Churko deals in sounds, the kind nor­mally heard on hard rock ra­dio. The 32-year-old record­ing whiz has notched sev­eral hits with genre heavy­weights such as Five Fin­ger Death Punch, Dis­turbed and Papa Roach.

His skill: mak­ing heavy me­tal angst hummable by mar­ry­ing tune­ful­ness with torque, melody with gui­tar mus­cle.

The re­sults: more than 8 mil­lion records sold from projects dat­ing to his teen years, when he earned an early record­ing credit on Bob Dy­lan’s crit­i­cally ac­claimed “Mod­ern Times” al­bum.

But on this balmy af­ter­noon in May, Churko is cul­ti­vat­ing a dif­fer­ent kind of loud, an­themic cho­rus: the in­vol­un­tary “ughs!” that come from be­ing drop-kicked in the so­lar plexus by a 250-pound bowl­ing ball of a hu­man be­ing.

It’s the de­but week­end for Churko’s new Ver­sus Pro Wrestling com­pany.

The sto­ry­line here is as wild as any WWE nar­ra­tive: An af­fa­ble, baby-faced, Cana­dian-born tech geek who first made a name for him­self by help­ing a bunch of tat­tooed rock dudes — and dudettes — reach the top of the charts is out to du­pli­cate that suc­cess in the realm of brain-busters and choke slams.

It all starts at the LVL Up Expo, a video game and anime con­ven­tion where the crowd comes dressed to im­press. Cou­ples are cos­tumed as Mario and Luigi of “Su­per Mario Bros.” fame along­side beefy, mid­dle-aged Wolver­ines rock­ing salt-and-pep­per goa­tees as they wan­der a maze of sus­pended ado­les­cence. Is that a full-size, real-life “Le­gend of Zelda” sword for sale? As if you have to ask.

Cue the head stomp­ing.

A skull-crush­ing start

In the ring, a large-and-in-charge Jace Bat­tle is pis­ton­ing his heels into the nog­gin of “skatepark scum­bag” Shaggy McLovin, a rel­a­tively skinny, long-haired ruf­fian whose theme mu­sic is Mo­tor­head’s “Ace of Spades” and who is known to pound cans of beer in the ring, send­ing the stuff fly­ing when he gets body-slammed.

“The im­pact that Jace Bat­tle’s foot had on Shaggy’s skull just re­ver­ber­ated through­out the en­tire Las Ve­gas Con­ven­tion Cen­ter!” the ring­side an­nouncer ob­serves, em­ploy­ing mild hyper­bole in the face of max­i­mum cra­nial crushage.

Ver­sus’ first shows here go over big: Ev­ery hour on the hour, throngs of pink-haired girls and their fel­low cosplayers gather in the cen­ter of the hall to watch fe­male grap­plers punch each other in the stom­ach and/or en­gage in ver­bal fisticuffs with of­fen­sive tackle-sized man-moun­tains such as Mosh Pit Mike, who gladly re­turns the in­sults.

It’s a sign of the times: Ve­gas is fast be­com­ing a bull mar­ket for pro­fes­sional face-slap­pers in span­dex and thigh-high boots.

Not only has Ve­gas de­vel­oped into a des­ti­na­tion city for prom­i­nent na­tional indie wrestling com­pa­nies such as Ring of Honor and Im­pact Wrestling to shoot tele­vised shows, but Ver­sus joins sev­eral lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions — Fu­ture Stars of Wrestling, Big Val­ley Pro Wrestling, Freak­show Wrestling — in feed­ing what has be­come one of the city’s most vi­brant, vo­ra­cious sub­cul­tures, one that’s bub­bling up from the un­der­ground to the fringes of the main­stream.

“In the three or four years that I’ve been pay­ing at­ten­tion lo­cally, the (Fu­ture Stars of Wrestling) shows have gone from a cou­ple hun­dred peo­ple to 600-800 peo­ple,” Churko says. “Even the small­est com­pa­nies have gone from 40 peo­ple in the room to 160 be­ing there in the cor­ner of a rolling rink — not even real, le­git venues. I’ve been to packed shows in the Mi­das Trop­i­cana garage. It’s like, ‘How is there even a show here?’ But there’s 200 peo­ple packed in­side this garage in the mid­dle of the sum­mer. I see it just like a record la­bel would, “‘Wow, they’re do­ing all this, with just

From hit­maker to heel

You could say it all be­gan in a Swiss bomb shel­ter.

It was there — in a bunker be­neath the Churko fam­ily’s tem­po­rary home in Blonay, Switzer­land, circa 2000 — that a young Kane Churko mas­tered Pro Tools, teach­ing him­self the ins and outs of the then-new record­ing soft­ware that has since be­come ubiq­ui­tous and rev­o­lu­tion­ized the way that al­bums are made.

Churko’s fa­ther, Kevin, him­self a big-name pro­ducer, moved his wife and kids abroad from their na­tive Canada in the early aughts to gain tute­lage from stu­dio maven Mutt Lange, best known for over­see­ing some of the top-sell­ing al­bums of all time, in­clud­ing AC/ DC’s “Back in Black” and Shania Twain’s “Come on Over.”

Af­ter his ap­pren­tice­ship was over, the el­der Churko es­tab­lished him­self by work­ing with the likes of Ozzy Os­bourne and help­ing turn Ve­gas-based Five Fin­ger Death Punch into one of hard rock’s top-sell­ing acts.

Kane honed his stu­dio chops along­side his fa­ther and was par­tic­u­larly adept at ab­sorb­ing the lat­est com­puter-based record­ing tech­nolo­gies.

He was earn­ing cred­its on Sugar Ray and Ma­roon 5 tunes be­fore he could legally buy a beer.

In 2013, he nar­rowly eclipsed fel­low Canuck su­per-pro­ducer Bob Rock to be­come the youngest per­son ever to win a Juno — the Cana­dian equiv­a­lent of a Grammy — earn­ing En­gi­neer of the Year hon­ors with his fa­ther.

The Churkos, who re­lo­cated to Ve­gas about a decade ago, run The Hide­out, a 13,000-square-foot record­ing com­plex in Hen­der­son whose walls gleam with their many gold and plat­inum records.

With a life­long pas­sion for mu­sic, the younger Churko had an­other child­hood love: wrestling, whose out­size char­ac­ters were true-life su­per­heroes to him.

“I didn’t read ‘Bat­man’ as a kid,” Churko says from in­side the small­est of The Hide­out’s record­ing suites, a gear-stuffed room where he prefers to work. “I watched Bret Hart on TV. That was my Bat­man.”

Hard rock and wrestling have long gone hand in meaty hand: Plenty of wrestlers use me­tal an­thems as their en­trance mu­sic and some of them, such as Chris Jeri­cho, even front their own bands.

For Churko, this con­nec­tion has a lo­cal di­men­sion: One of his good friends, Wes Lo­gan, is a singer for Ve­gas met­allers Dim and a vet­eran wrestler.

In a way, Ver­sus be­gan with Lo­gan: A few years back, he took Churko to a Fu­ture Stars of Wrestling show at Sam’s Town, the lat­ter’s first ex­po­sure to an indie event.

“You go to these in­de­pen­dent shows, and the wrestlers are there, in your face. A kid yells some­thing, they yell at the kid, the kid cries and runs off,” Churko says with child­like en­thu­si­asm. “Five min­utes later, some­one’s get­ting thrown right into your lap be­cause there’s not even a bar­ri­cade. To me, that’s an ex­pe­ri­ence un­like any other. It’s like see­ing your fa­vorite band at a 200-per­son club and you’re right there in the front row, feel­ing their spit while they’re sing­ing.” Churko was hooked. “From the time I went to that first show, I cir­cled back to Wes and just had a mil­lion ques­tions,” he re­calls of pes­ter­ing his fu­ture Ver­sus part­ner. “How does this work? What does it take to get in­volved? What do you have to know? I don’t want to watch the show any­more; I want to be part of it.”

Pro wrestling as punk rock

“Please don’t die.” Lo­gan, aka Beast the Butcher, de­liv­ers his plea only half-jok­ingly, ad­dress­ing a gath­er­ing of brawl­ing ro­dents and pile-driv­ing yoga afi­ciona­dos.

They’re crowded into a back room of The Nerd, a video game bar/bowl­ing al­ley/comic-book­come-to-life on the sec­ond floor of Neo­nop­o­lis where “cos­play meets cock­tails,” as the slo­gan goes.

A lonely Jabba the Hutt replica

sits in a cor­ner, eye­ing a man in a ze­bra-print vest and red sin­glet.

“What’s my mo­ti­va­tion?” the lat­ter won­ders aloud as he and more than a dozen wrestlers get ready for the show.

Nearby, a pair of tonight’s per­form­ers work through an out­line of how the ac­tion will go down.

“I’ll shake your hand, then smack you,” An­thony “Da Shade” Shade tells his op­po­nent, Greg “The Bridge Burner” Romero, whose pom­padour, mut­ton chops, fin­ger-less black gloves and spiked leather jacket give him the look of a corn-fed Fonzi crossed with a young Glenn Danzig.

“Smack the (ex­ple­tive) out of me,” Romero in­structs.

It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Fri­day night in Au­gust and Ver­sus’ third event will soon be un­der­way.

Lo­gan, Churko’s right-hand man, is over­see­ing the tal­ent tonight as well as get­ting into the ring, where he will don his trade­mark black leather mask with beaded braids.

Though the sun is go­ing down, tem­per­a­tures still hover around a pun­ish­ing 106 de­grees. The matches are tak­ing place out­doors, hence Lo­gan’s ear­lier warn­ing.

Down­stairs, Churko works on get­ting the show up and run­ning, mak­ing sure the sound sys­tem is di­aled in, set­ting up a video cam­era to film the ac­tion.

There are a lot of mov­ing parts here. “Even on the small­est in­de­pen­dent shows — 150 peo­ple and un­der — there’s still al­most 35-40 peo­ple that come to­gether to put it on,” Churko ex­plains, “which is al­most an ab­surd amount of pro­duc­tion for what you’re re­ally do­ing to scale with any other in­dus­try.”

It’s not cheap ei­ther, with venue and ring rental, in­sur­ance, hir­ing au­dio and video crews and pay­ing for the tal­ent.

“A show can cost around $1,000 or up­ward of $10,000 de­pend­ing on what you’re do­ing and who you’re bring­ing in,” Churko says.

This bunch isn’t fo­cused on the bot­tom line, though, es­pe­cially at this stage.

Three months af­ter launch­ing, they’re still de­vel­op­ing the brand and work­ing on es­tab­lish­ing a sched­ule of roughly a show a month.

The com­pany aims to be an in­cu­ba­tor of up-and-com­ing tal­ent and a more wrestler-friendly out­fit, one that gives those in the ring more say in cre­at­ing their char­ac­ters.

“It’s very punk rock,” Churko says. “This is where you’re go­ing to come to see new and de­vel­op­ing tal­ent ac­tu­ally have a place to de­velop.”

They’re off to a good start: Crowd sizes are grow­ing, and Ver­sus has al­ready been in­vited back to next year’s LVL Up Expo.

“It’s even more promis­ing than I think we thought it would be,” Churko says.

With Churko fo­cus­ing more on the busi­ness side of things, Lo­gan works closely with the wrestlers, striv­ing for unique matchups.

“I get to put peo­ple in po­si­tions that they didn’t think they were go­ing to be able to do,” Lo­gan says. “Once they flour­ish and have fun and want to keep do­ing it, that’s where I have fun.”

The idea is to give the wrestlers a sense of own­er­ship over what they’re do­ing.

“In­stead of each in­di­vid­ual hav­ing to work for a com­pany, we all to­gether work as the com­pany,” ex­plains Romero, who has been wrestling in Ve­gas for eight years, since he was 17.

“We don’t care about get­ting on na­tional TV, any­thing like that. It’s for the fans, for us.”

Not that there’s much dif­fer­ence be­tween the two.

Egal­i­tar­ian en­ter­tain­ment

Vin­cent Pride’s pecs turn a deeper shade of pink with each wal­lop.

The Neo­nop­o­lis show has be­gun, and the masked Ma­cho Mouse, whose black-and-yel­low sin­glet is dec­o­rated with hunks of cheese, is smack­ing around the cock­sure Pride, who soon turns the ta­bles.

“That’s an­i­mal abuse!”a crowd mem­ber shouts as Pride pum­mels his op­po­nent.

“Shut up!” Pride shoots back, mak­ing eye con­tact with his de­trac­tor, adding a per­sonal di­men­sion to their play­ful back-and-forth be­fore even­tu­ally get­ting pinned.

Here, there’s lit­tle sep­a­ra­tion be­tween the per­former and the au­di­ence, and the on­look­ers are al­most as much a part of the ac­tion as the wrestlers.

It’s a pas­sion­ate, highly charged give-and-take, a uniquely egal­i­tar­ian form of en­ter­tain­ment where the age-old bat­tle be­tween good and evil, virtue and vil­lainy gets acted out by artist and au­di­ence in loud, sweaty uni­son.

“You have this thing where the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the per­son in the ring and the fan is some­thing dif­fer­ent,” says Jon Bon­ham Fox, a vet­eran of the Ve­gas wrestling scene who has worked as a ring an­nouncer and com­men­ta­tor.

“You go out there and you’re pro­vid­ing some­thing for some­one who might have had a bad day or just wants to let off a lit­tle steam. It gets ad­dic­tive.”

And so for a few hours on a hot Fri­day night, the lady with the tat­tooed fore­arms and the black “Sued­er­ade” T-shirt, the guy boo­ing Pride, the big-name rock pro­ducer are all part of the show.

“We all like to play dress-up. We all like to be some­body else. We all like to en­ter­tain peo­ple,” Churko says of him­self and his wrestling brethren. “Some peo­ple just have that de­sire to join the cir­cus.”

Ben­jamin Hager Las Ve­gas Re­view-Jour­nal @ben­jam­inh­photo

Bran­don Gre­gory, top, aka Death Col­lec­tor Big Dirty, wres­tles Tyler Seifert, aka Tyler J. Wild­horse, dur­ing a Ver­sus Wrestling event.

Chi­tose Suzuki Las Ve­gas Re­view-Jour­nal @chi­tosephoto

Ver­sus Pro Wrestling owner Kane Churko stands by a ring in July dur­ing the com­pany’s first show at 1429 S. Com­merce St.

Ben­jamin Hager Las Ve­gas Re­view-Jour­nal @ben­jam­inh­photo

The Kings Ran­som tag team prac­tices in March at the Snake Pit Pro Wrestling Academy in Las Ve­gas. D’Lo Brown, left, and Sinn Bodhi, right, look on.

For­mer pro wrestlers D’Lo Brown, left, and Sinn Bodhi give in­struc­tion to The Kings Ran­som tag team at The Snake Pit Pro Wrestling Academy on March 6.

Austin Good­field, aka Ma­cho Mouse, at a Ver­sus Wrestling event Aug. 3 at Neo­nop­o­lis.

Blue Richards, aka Sap­phire DeVil, at a Ver­sus Wrestling event Aug. 3 at Neo­nop­o­lis.

Greg Romero, aka The Bridge Burner, at Neo­nop­o­lis. He has been wrestling in Las Ve­gas since he was 17.

Ben­jamin Hager Las Ve­gas Re­view-Jour­nal @ben­jam­inh­photo

Austin Good­field, left, aka Ma­cho Mouse, puts Vin­cent Pride in a head­lock dur­ing an event Aug. 3 at Neo­nop­o­lis.

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