FLINT, MI — The physical contact aspect of sports entertainment still remains a major question for performers such as Michigan natives Jake Doyle and Yus Smith, who are continuing their path to wrestling superstardom at IMPACT! Wrestling.
Independent wrestling promoters were forced to cancel their upcoming shows while other pro wrestling juggernaut companies like WWE found legal loopholes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“From the business side, I understand, but it sucks and you don’t want that to happen to anyone,” says Doyle, who wrestles under the name Cousin Jake as part of the tag team, The Deaners at IMPACT!, and is known as Jake Something in the indie circuit.
“At IMPACT! there were a handful of shows in March that were supposed to happen, but they still paid everyone when they were canceled. That was really cool of them. One of the shows was in Michigan and they were co-running it with a different promoter and he had money tied up in it and he got his money back too. Everyone still got paid.”
Although both Doyle and Smith are rooted in Saginaw, the city of Flint was a launching point for their independent wrestling careers. Like all great beginnings, it started at an elementary school thanks to a connection with a local wrestler, Ren Jones, aka Palmer Cruise.
“My friend Ren, his brother Kevelin is the principal at Doyle-Rider Elementary, he got hooked up with a deal where he ran a couple of shows. It was pretty much like an assembly and those kids loved it so much,” says Doyle. “You could almost see that it was giving them hope which was cool.”
Recalling his matches in Flint, Smith immediately recalls the impact that performing at Flint schools had on his life.
“They’re loud and they absorb everything. They boo every bad guy and cheer every good guy. Every punch, every dropkick, it’s amazing. They just want to see you wrestle,” says Smith. “There’s no better feeling than going in front of a crowd that appreciates everything you do. The shows I’ve done in Flint were some of the best I’ve ever done. We’d say the same thing in the locker room, ‘I could come here every weekend.’ I can’t wait for all of this to be done and have someone throw an event in Flint so we can kick things off right.”
Doyle and Smith had a weekend of shows canceled, and with WWE unsure if they were canceling Wrestlemania—their biggest event of the year—the independent circuit was forced into canceling their massive week in Florida due to the uncertainty. The severity of the situation was starting to kick in.
“You can get a lot of work down there and a lot of exposure. My friends and I had a lot booked and that fell through,” says Smith, who wrestles under the name Rohit Raju at IMPACT! and Hakim Zane in the indie circuit, recalling what may have the biggest weekend of his career. “It’s weird when you’re going every weekend doing multiple shows and now all of a sudden that’s cut off, it’s just super awkward.”
WWE resumed their weekly tapings at their Orlando-based Performance Center after they were deemed an essential business in Florida. Following suit, IMPACT! Wrestling taped several weeks of shows in advance at Skyway Studios in Nashville, Tennessee inside of an empty arena to later air on AXS.
“It was wild, man,” says Smith. “You go there and usually, everyone’s hugging each other, high-fiving or shaking hands, but as soon as you get there everybody was away from each other with their masks on trying to keep their distance and you really only talk to and were close to the person you were doing the matches with. Luckily I was around the same people, give or take one or two.”
IMPACT! Wrestling, like its competitors WWE and AEW, has taken strict measures to ensure the safety of their talent and staff. Instead of a tiny locker room, the wrestlers were in a large facility to get ready for their matches, and when they were finished wrestling they had to immediately head to their single-occupant hotel rooms.
“You couldn’t even enter the building unless the doctor cleared you,” says Doyle. “Everyone had to be far apart from each other. Everything still ran very smoothly.”
A major change for the wrestling world was adjusting to empty arenas and wrestlers not being able to feed off of the energy of the crowd–something all performers are used to at the beginning of their careers.
“You take that first bump (fall) or take that first hit and your body is like, ‘Oh my god, what am I doing?’ After a while, you start getting in the motion and it’s fine,” says Smith. “You play to the camera instead of just the crowd. Then you’re really trying to get your character work over and bust your butt to make sure the people at home are entertained and you’re putting on a good product.”
Cousin Jake and Rohit Raju wrestle for Impact Wrestling every Tuesday night at 8 pm on AXS and Twitch.