“All Ego” Ethan Page and “Smiley” Kylie Rae at Logan Square Auditorium Credit: Basil Mahmud

During a recent All Elite Wrestling (AEW) Dynamite event at the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates, broadcast live on TNT, one of the AEW’s main talents, Cody Rhodes, stepped into the ring to face off against local wrestler “Marvelous” Matt Knicks. Rhodes is a legacy wrestler—his father Dusty Rhodes was a common adversary of Ric Flair—and is known as one of the good guys in the newly popular AEW promotion. More often than not, if he’s about to fight, the audience is cheering for him. But things were a little different when he challenged Knicks. The crowd of thousands started chanting “Freelance Wrestling.”

“The crowd is legitimately chanting ‘Freelance Wrestling’ to the point where [Rhodes] kind of stops in the middle of the ring and looks around and looks at me and gives me a smile,” says Knicks who is known by day as Freelance Wrestling founder Nick Almendarez. “Never in my dreams did I think that would happen.”

Just five years earlier, Almendarez, now 29, was on the verge of quitting wrestling. Sick of the politics and personal grudges of the community, he made the decision to retire, but not before throwing his own wrestling show with his friends, just for fun. The wrestlers and audience members who attended that first night at the now-shuttered Abbey Pub liked it so much that Almendarez decided to do it again. Soon it became a bimonthly show—first at Abbey Pub, then Bottom Lounge—and since 2017 local and traveling independent wrestlers have been able to show off their moves every month at Logan Square Auditorium during Freelance Wrestling.

Almendarez says he kept going partially out of spite and wanted to create a new platform for all the wrestlers he loved to get attention and hopefully land a TV gig. Such was the case with Mustafa Ali, a former Chicago Police officer who became a Freelance Wrestling regular in the show’s early years. In 2016 Ali wrestled in his first match with the WWE, and now he can be seen on SmackDown every week. “It’s really cool to see guys that are super passionate about wrestling and have the talent to back it up getting those opportunities and the recognition they deserve,” Almendarez says.

A typical Freelance Wrestling show features a mix of homegrown talent and other independent wrestlers passing through, looking for an opportunity to get in the ring. Almendarez and a small team plan out long-term storylines with a core group of wrestlers, then adjust month-to-month based on who has been injured, who is in town, and who may have been signed to a contract. It boils down to a battle of good versus evil; before the night of the event wrestlers are told who is the face (good guy) and who is the heel (bad guy), and they do what they can to get cheers and boos respectively. Then, Almendarez says, they just bring their coolest moves into the ring.

“In reality, it is a scripted thing, the moves aren’t done with legitimate intent of hurting somebody,” Almendarez says, “but every time we fall, every time we tumble off the side or jump from the top rope, that’s 100 percent us putting our lives at risk. We’re basically just trapeze artists falling without the net.”

In an effort to keep the local scene growing, Almendarez started the Freelance Wrestling Academy with fellow wrestlers Bryce Benjamin and Isaias Velazquez. The trio trains around 25 people out of the Pro Wrestling Tees warehouse space. They hope to secure their own facility in 2020, which could eventually serve as the permanent home for the monthly Freelance Wrestling events. Even when the featured independent wrestlers move on to the national stage, Almendarez wants to make sure the community he’s built continues to thrive and that Freelance Wrestling is always home.

“It means a lot to me to be able to say, these are our guys and gals,” Almendarez says. “Every time they go out there, they kill it.” v