How a regional wrestling company is still standing in Louisville after being used and abandoned by the industry standard
By Michael Melchor, Executive Editor
For a period of over 14 years, World Wrestling Entertainment employed a series of smaller, regional wrestling companies all over the United States as training grounds for future stars. The practice started in 1998 in Memphis, TN and continued until August of 2012 when WWE built its Performance Center in Orlando, FL.
Of the eight different “farm companies” WWE either worked with or help set up, only one still stands today.
The Sole Survivor
Founded in 1997 as a member of the National Wrestling Alliance, Louisville, KY’s Ohio Valley Wrestling (popularly abbreviated as OVW) became WWE’s primary developmental territory in 2000 and is currently owned by former Louisville police officer Dean Hill.
On October 19, 1999, World Wrestling Entertainment literally became a corporate giant by going public on the New York Stock Exchange. About a year and a half later, the company decided that it needed a breeding ground for new talent.
They reached out to Ohio Valley Wrestling, a small regional wrestling promotion founded by former wrestler “Nightmare” Danny Davis in 1997. The connection came from Louisville native and longtime performer Jim Cornette who, at that point, was working for World Wrestling Entertainment.
During the height of WWE’s popularity, it was common to hear about “Tomorrow’s Stars… Today!” (which is also the slogan for OVW to this day). Names now well known to wrestling fans – for that matter, anyone with a passing interest in pop culture – passed through Louisville on their way to the big time. John Cena. Dave Batista. CM Punk. Randy Orton. These stars and many more spent time in Louisville before becoming household names.
WWE ended its relationship with OVW on until February 7, 2008 and moved all of its training efforts to Florida Championship Wrestling in Tampa. OVW was associated with wrestling companies Ring of Honor and Total Nonstop Action until early 2013. OVW has stood on its own since then and maintained operations for 20 years.
While many current stars learned their craft in Louisville, many others continue to do so today.
The Next Generation
Every Wednesday night and once a month on Saturdays (as well as the occasional spot shows), Josh Ashcraft is an insufferable prick. His cocky smile is a symbolic middle finger, his scowl a testament to his desire to watch the world burn.
Away from the bright lights at ringside, however, the OVW performer is living out a dream that began nearly 20 years ago. A dream that began by stumbling across his hometown promotion at the right time.
Ashcraft recalled how he was changing channels and came across wrestling he hadn’t seen before. The more he listened to them talk, he realized he was watching a local promotion right as it had signed a developmental contract with WWE. Ashcraft was able to see people like Orton, Cena, Lesnar, and Batista as they starting to cut their teeth in the business.
“Right there, I fell in love,” Ashcraft said.
For Ashcraft, a dream became a goal. Ashcraft became a fixture at OVW live shows but then spent some time away. Still keeping up with the product, Ashcraft was convinced to come out to a show one night where he was introduced to Brian “Cornbread” Ruth, then-Director of Operations for OVW. Ashcraft found himself riding to his first OVW show as an employee shortly after.
Ashcraft was thrust in the spotlight in abrupt fashion when OVW took part in a benefit show for the victims of the Indiana State Fair stage collapse.
“Our referee got stuck in traffic on the way to Indianapolis,” Ashcraft recalled. “We kept pushing bell time and pushing bell time and finally Paredyse (James Long), who’s a very good friend of mine, came up and asked if I had dress pants. ‘Here’s an OVW shirt – go be a referee.’”
In storyline, Ashcraft’s career turned to the dark side. Starting as a referee, Ashcraft became embroiled in a feud with another referee, Chris Sharpe. Ashcraft himself later became a crooked referee before settling on managing massive brutes like the War Machine (“Big” Jon and Eric Locker) and, currently, the Legacy of Brutality (Ca$h Flo and “Dapper” Dan).
The turn toward villainy suits Ashcraft’s personality in many ways. “Josh Ashcraft on TV and Josh Ashcraft in real life aren’t very different from each other,” Ashcraft said. “This is my outlet – this allows me to get out my anger, my frustration, my venom – everything that’s in me. So, when you walk up to me on the street and start being a dickhead, you’re gonna get the same back. Trust me – I get paid to be a dickhead. I’m a professional at it!”
Ashcraft’s seemingly inflammatory temperament is alleviated by the achievement of a lifelong dream. “I’ve wanted to be a heel pro wrestling manager my entire life,” Ashcraft said. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
For that, Ashcraft said he owes a debt of gratitude to former owner Danny Davis. ““I love this business and I love OVW,” Ashcraft said. “And there’s not a single thing in the world I wouldn’t do if [Davis] asked me to for the simple fact that I wouldn’t be doing what I love and legitimately living out a childhood dream if it weren’t for Danny.”
A Fan’s Perspective
For local fans like Virgil Peay, a loyal at each Wednesday night television taping, there is more camaraderie than combustibility in attending each show.
“I have been going for approximately 2 years now,” Peay said. “I love the story lines and I have actually became friends with a lot of the wrestlers and personalities.”
Peay was properly introduced to OVW by performer Ryan Howe, which rekindled a love for wrestling he had as a child.
“I have know about OVW for years, I could just never get anyone to go with me unit I met Ryan at a concert he was playing,” Peay recalled. “Ryan Howe and I are actually pretty good friends and have hung out together. Great guy and a great wrestler. I met him when he was sitting in with a band I used to follow. He is the main reason I got back into wrestling after a long hiatus.”
Peay attributed his waning fandom to the product WWE was producing. By contrast, the rekindling of that fandom came by way of Ohio Valley Wrestling after the association with WWE had long ended. “The WWE brand just isn’t for me,” Peay said. “OVW is more like the wrestling I grew up watching and he re introduced it to me.”
Peay also counts another OVW mainstay as a friend in a pretty high place. “I have also became friends with majority shareholder Dean Hill,” Peay said. ”I respect that man immensely, even though he has fired me numerous times from OVW – a running joke between me and him.”
Aside from knowing some of the talent and front office staff in OVW personally, Peay also enjoys much of the young talent the promotion has to offer. “Ryan Howe and Tyler Matrix are probably my two favorites,” Peay said. “Tyler is like Ryan – a great guy and I truly think you are going to see him a lot in other organizations eventually.”
So, how did OVW survive being affiliated with the largest company in the industry, only to be abandoned?
Peay believes a bit of nostalgia as well as up-and-coming talent has helped the company thrive.
“I feel that wrestling roots run pretty strong in the area with the old Memphis wrestling that came to town every Tuesday night at the old Louisville Gardens,” Peay said. “That’s what I grew up watching every Saturday morning. Plus they have a lot of talent on the card every week and a lot of experience in [trainers] Danny Davis and Rip Rogers. You also can’t beat the pricing for entertainment value.”
Ashcraft, meanwhile, believes that developing future stars have helped them remain strong, as well as the bonds OVW has forged with its fans and the city of Louisville. “Our slogan’s always been ‘Tomorrow’s Stars…Today,’” Ashcraft said. “We are a school, a training facility. We just happen to be one that has strong ties to the community. We do fundraising shows and the Kentucky Derby Festival every year. A lot of these people that come to these shows – and I was one of them – we’re family. No matter what happens, we’re always here for each other. No matter what’s going on in your personal life, you know that you can step away for a couple hours every Wednesday, first Saturday of every month or even our spot shows and be able to be around like-minded people.”
For Ashcraft, that bond is also more personal. “There have been points in my life where I have had everything,” Ashcraft said. “And there have been points where I have had nothing at all. The one thing that’s always been constant and always there for me was wrestling. And the one thing that’s always been there when times were the worst was OVW. That’s why I love this place.”