Chase James is ready for his crowning achievement. Seven years after starting his pro wrestling journey, Spokane's "Hometown Hero" is about to have a match for the Pacific Northwest Championship — the top prize in Relentless Wrestling, the local independent wrestling company he co-founded and runs.
For those who only know World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE, formerly WWF) — and the jacked Adonis superstars like Hulk Hogan, the Rock and John Cena — the 32-year-old James doesn't fit the central casting mold. He's no tiny dude, but his build is more that of an everyman than a 'roided up genetic freak.
It's a near perfect low-70s sunny day in early June and the wrestling ring set up on the grass outside Trailbreaker Cider in Liberty Lake for Relentless Wrestling's second anniversary show is set to be the stage for James' triumphant moment.
There's just one problem: There's a 7-foot tall behemoth standing in the ring with a microphone telling the very real story about how doctors ordered him to stop wrestling due to a heart condition. The giant in question is Jackson Price, one of James' best friends and also a co-founder of Relentless.
And while the actual Chase James loves his pal, Chase James the wrestler is having none of the sob story. That's because the beloved babyface "Hometown Hero" recently turned heel and became a bad guy. James storms to the mat and berates Price with insensitive jokes about his ailment, and tells him to get out of his ring so he can have his title match.
But the joke turns out to be on James, when the brand new general manager of Relentless Wrestling — James' actual fiancee, Ashley Kersey — enters the ring. She bluntly informs her partner that he loses too much to get a title shot and, to his shocked dismay, instead books him in a match with the popular masked superhero, Jaiden.
It's just another wild day in the world of Spokane's blossoming indie wrestling scene, but one that emphasizes one major theme: Relentless Wrestling is a family.
THE RISE OF INDIE WRESTLING
In the decades after the downfall of World Championship Wrestling, the only visible professional presence for most Americans was WWE, with its touring and nationally televised programs. But for the committed wrestling nerds, tiny independent promotions like Ring of Honor were thriving and serving as a breeding ground for talent that would eventually rise to WWE superstardom. The success of smaller promotions that didn't really try to compete with the soap opera "sports entertainment" aspects of WWE found their niches and devoted fanbase. Soon independent wrestling was booming in many major markets.
Extremely talented wrestlers who weren't deemed WWE material because they were too small, couldn't cut promos (aka talk well on the mic), or had gimmicks that wouldn't translate to a mass audience found themselves traveling town to town putting on top-tier matches in tiny gyms and bingo halls.
Across the state in Seattle, DEFY Wrestling was founded in 2017 and grew to be one of the best indie promotions in the country. But in Spokane, things were more bleak. There would be promotions that would pop up from time to time for a few shows, but it was often amateurish, untrained "backyard wrestling," which lacked any sort of polish. They were more of a morbid car crash fascination than a professional entertainment product, giving Spokane a bad reputation among the pros.
Frustrated by this, James decided to do something about it in 2021. Along with co-founders Jackson Price and Andy Yank (owner of Brothers Flooring and Design), James decided to try to put on a proper indie wrestling show in June 2021 at Trailbreaker Cider. They called it Relentless Wrestling.
"Relentless came about because I wanted something to show my friends and family," says James. "I had so many friends and family members that knew that I was a wrestler, but they didn't know what that meant. In their mind it was like Hulk Hogan or the goofy side of wrestling. They didn't see people going through doors, hitting each other with chairs, or getting busted open, or doing flips and slams. ... I remember going in and I was like, 'If we sell 70 tickets, I'm gonna be happy.' And I think our first show we ended up doing like 160 tickets."
From years in the ring, James knew a network of talented indie wrestlers he could bring to Spokane. Over the two years of operations, this has included former WWE stars like Gangrel and Carlito and rising indie stars like WARHORSE and Tom Lawlor. The goal for the founders was to put on a well-rounded show that wasn't sloppy and could be appreciated by audiences of all ages.
"The cool thing about wrestling is that there's something for everyone: You're gonna see violence, you're gonna see comedy, you're gonna see love, you're gonna see horror, you're gonna see a little bit of everything," says James. "This isn't the 30-minute TV storyline soap operas, you're gonna see young hungry guys that are here to beat the shit out of each other and have a fun time. Once you experience it, you won't want to miss it."
WRESTLING IS FOR EVERYONE
It shouldn't need to be said in our post-modern pop cultural landscape, but pro wrestling isn't a real competition. But that doesn't mean it's fake, merely that the winners and losers are predetermined in order to further larger storylines. The best way to think of it is as a cross between stage performance and improvised physical fighting. They might plan out some beats of the matches — backstage during the show I watched as two performers go through a series of moves they want to perform almost like two little boys coming up with narratives for battles with their action figures — but much of wrestling is called on the fly in the ring.
Part of the goal of pro wrestlers is to do everything they can to make it look like they're hurting each other while actually keeping each other safe. But there's real wear and tear on the performers' bodies. James alone has torn his meniscus multiple times, dislocated his ribs, tore his calf, sliced his eyelid completely open, dislocated his shoulder, suffered multiple concussions, and broken his hand "probably every three to six months."
"You learn in wrestling that you're always going to be injured, so you learn to work around your injuries," says James. "I think it was most shocking for my fiancée because every other week something's injured. So now she's not even fazed by it."
The ring isn't soft. The steel chairs are steel chairs. The chops are legit. And in Washington state it's illegal to blade (intentionally cutting yourself in a match to cause bleeding), so if you're seeing someone bleeding or with a dollar bill stapled to their body... they did that the hard way.
"I'll literally be bleeding because I got busted open, and after the match [and someone will] come up and go, 'Man, how did you fake that?'" James says with a laugh. "'What part?' And they're like, 'When he took that staple gun and stapled a poster to your head.' And I'm like, '...he stapled it to my head.'"
The thing that's probably most overwhelming to newbies about attending an indie wrestling show is the pure intensity of the fans. Any good indie show features almost nonstop chanting from the fans ranging from "This is awesome! This is awesome!" when things are firing on all cylinders, to "Holy shit! Holy shit!" when a wrestler takes a dangerous dive. Relentless certainly fits that bill. While it might not be the most family-friendly environment if you're a stickler for cursing, there is something wonderfully wholesome in a twisted way about seeing a pack of elementary school girls in the front row flipping off the wrestlers they don't like.
"We're looked at as weirdos and freaks, because we enjoy falling down or watching people fall down," says Relentless fan and trainee Tim Beamis. "Yeah, we're weird, but we're also super welcoming to outsiders coming in. I've brought a few people that have never been to a show to a Relentless show, and they had a blast."
While Relentless usually operates inside Trailbreaker Cider, the second anniversary show brings the ring outdoors for a day of body slamming festivities. In addition to being a wrestler, Chase is the booker for Relentless and plans out the match card, so he's got a lot on his plate. Wrestling shows like Relentless can run for three hours with an intermission, and there's plenty of entertainment packed into that time slot.
There are suplexes on the grass. Wrestlers soar out of the ring to pummel their unsuspecting opponents. One competitor slams full speed into a stack of metal kegs while trying to attack his opponents. The performers come out to entrance music ranging from Madonna to Taking Back Sunday to New Kids on the Block. "Filthy" Tom Lawlor theatrically removes his jorts (to reveal another pair underneath). Kids run around carefree on the grass while the violence occurs in-ring. As the sunlight fades, a bank of lights dramatically illuminates the last few matches as bugs buzz around in its glow. An impromptu table is concocted out of kegs and a door, which of course leads to a splinter shattering top rope move. Fans kiss the biceps of a showboating WARHORSE.
In addition to James' impromptu battle with Jaiden (which James wins), there are a handful of standout matches and moments. The fan-favorite hardcore tag team Most Violent (Drexel and Funnybone) brutalize their cowardly opponents Flaming Aces, only for the heels to pull out a sneaky win and literally jump the fence and run away to avoid more punishment. The lone women's match on the card is a stellar one, pitting "The Emo Queen" Brooke Havok against strongwoman Amira. The last match of the night features New Japan Pro Wrestling standout Lawlor battling his stablemate Danny Limelight in a TV-worthy affair. And the first act of the show ends with a shock as the amped up, face-painted WARHORSE captures Relentless' Pacific Northwest Championship by knocking off longtime champ Keita.
All the wrestlers seem to be in fantastic spirits at Relentless. And the No. 1 reason why is the Relentless fans.
"I've had other indies that I've canceled on just to be here because I like the vibe so much," says the new champion WARHORSE. "I can't quite explain it, but the energy is different here. There's a certain level of investment that you can feel. These fans are different. They know that if they come to a Relentless Wrestling show, they're in good hands because they're gonna hold on to the edge of their f—-ing seats."
"I like that there were small children that give my opponents the finger. I've never been such an influence on the youth of America before as I am here in Spokane," says Drexel. "The energy that we get up here in Spokane, it's pretty insane. The fact that when we wrestled a superhero, when the superhero came through the curtain, the crowd chanted "You f—ed up!" just for walking out to face us — that's never happened in any other place."
Drexel's tag team partner Funnybone is much more blunt about it: "I like the fans. I like that they hand me dollar bills to staple to dumbasses."
The performers also rave about the atmosphere James creates as the man in charge.
"Chase knows what he wants, but he doesn't control everyone. He doesn't force it. It's more organic here," says Keita. "You don't get a lot of promoters like that."
"Chase is the grinder," says Relentless co-founder York. "He's the glue that makes everything come together. We wouldn't actually have this if it wasn't for Chase, because he can have his mind on his company and Relentless Wrestling 24 hours a day."
In addition to having a fan response, booker and family vibe that keeps bringing wrestlers back to Spokane, there's also an inclusivity that Relentless Wrestling provides without having to be loud about it. James consistently books queer and non-binary wrestlers like Brooke Havok, Keita and Kidd Bandit.
"I love the fact that they are inclusive but don't present their product in that way," says Keita, who is bisexual. "We should be booked on our talent and that's exactly what Relentless does, showcase what we do no matter how we identify, it's definitely the hidden promotion in the LGBTQIA+ community."
"I love the fact that they are inclusive but don't present their product in that way. We should be booked on our talent and that's exactly what Relentless does."
CHASE-ING THE DREAM
Relentless almost never came to pass. Three years ago, James was on the verge of death. His pelvis was shattered into three pieces, all of his ribs were broken, as was his tailbone. Doctors had to pump fluid out of his lungs and he lost a lot of blood. But this wasn't some in-ring catastrophe. James was in a high-speed car crash where his vehicle hit a telephone pole and a brick wall.
"They pretty much thought I was gonna die, but then I kicked out at two just because I'm that much of an entertainer," jokes James.
But pro wrestling has been pumping through James' body since he was a kid. So while doctors told him he might be confined to a wheelchair for nine months, he ended up only rolling around for three, and was back in the ring within weeks of being able to walk again.
"That was very scary," says Naomi Vinson, James' mom. "He wanted to get back in the ring sooner than we thought he should. But Chase does Chase. He can take a bump."
Mom knew her little boy was a wrestling fanatic since his early days. Born Chase James Wilson, he called Spokane home but sort of grew up all over the place. His parents were traveling vacuum salespeople and they all lived, with Chase's two brothers, in a motorhome. Nomadic life makes it hard to maintain childhood friendships, so James turned to pro wrestling to keep him entertained. When he was able to hang out with pals, they'd often act out the moves of their favorite WWF stars, like the Hardy Boyz, on a trampoline.
"My friends growing up were my wrestling action figures," says James. "I used to go to bed every night, and I would say in my prayers that I wanted to grow up to be a pro wrestler. That was all I ever wanted."
But wrestling became an afterthought when Chase was 19 and his father was diagnosed with cancer and eventually succumbed to the disease. To find a release for his emotions, James started mixed martial arts training. He moved to Seattle when he was 20, and parlayed a random driving contest by Subaru into a job being a stunt driver and spokesperson for the car company, thanks in large part to being a car guy and having automotive knowledge. In 2015, he moved back to Spokane, eventually starting his own business — Tier One, the Liberty Lake auto shop that also specializes in building race cars.
Back in Spokane, James stumbled across a low-rent wrestling school and realized he could actually pursue his childhood dreams of competing in the squared circle. However, he quickly realized Spokane's wrestling training options were not legit, so he began checking out wrestling schools in Seattle and Portland before eventually finding a home at the Buddy Wayne Academy in Everett (now known for producing All Elite Wrestling star Darby Allin and Buddy's teenage wrestling prodigy son Nick Wayne). Every Saturday James would wake up at 5 am, drive to Everett, train for three or four hours, and drive home.
"My goal with wrestling was always to be the guy that can have a good match with anyone," says James. "And I finally feel like I'm getting at that point where you can put me in there with someone who's been doing this for years or someone who has their first match and I'm gonna be able to put on a fun match that the crowd is going to enjoy."
SMACKDOWN IN THE SHED
With Jackson Price on the sideline due to his heart condition, James is the only local wrestler who's a regular part of Relentless Wrestling. But he's hoping it doesn't stay that way for long.
On a thunder-storming night two days before the Relentless anniversary show, James is standing on his head in a large shed in the backyard of his Otis Orchards home. On Thursday nights, this slightly leaky structure turns into Relentless Athletics, a new school for aspiring pro wrestlers that opened at the start of the year.
A ragtag group of just under two dozen wrestling fans surrounds him as he shows off his technique in the center of the ring.
It's an eclectic crew on hand. The youngest of the bunch is 15, while the oldest is 43. The energetic kid measures just 5-foot-4 and 120 pounds, while the largest participant stands 7-feet tall and tips the scale at 320 pounds. There are only two women in the bunch of trainees, one of which is James' fiancée Ashley.
The students wait patiently for their turn in the ring to do the basics, though with this many people, rotations sometimes take around 45 minutes. The students do head rolls, shoulder rolls, run the ropes, put each other in head locks, and take back bumps on the mat while James watches and gives tips on posture, footwork, and selling (making things look real and dramatic for spectators). After months of training, the trainees are anxious to start suplexing each other and jumping from the top rope, but James still emphasizes the basic core elements of professional wrestling.
"[Chase] is laid back and really cool," says the class' eldest member, Tim Beamis. "He's willing to give us time and let us work at our pace so that we're not gonna do it wrong. Even if it takes 1,000 times, we're gonna get it right."
For years, James had resisted teaching wrestling, but he eventually felt his hand was forced because so many locals wanted to train.
"I was getting messages every week from at least one person going, 'Hey, how can I become a pro wrestler?'" says James. "And I kept telling everyone, 'Sorry, there's nothing really here.'"
The problem was that wasn't entirely true. There were people willing to train aspiring wrestlers, but they lacked the expertise to do so, which infuriated James because he felt people with wrestling dreams were being swindled. So he decided to hold a wrestling tryout/seminar in January and if attendance was good he'd consider starting his own school. There ended up being 25 people at the tryout, so he started a class and 23 folks showed up. "And then I was just like, 'Crap. There's a lot of people that want to do this. And they're all so hungry, and they all have a lot of talent,'" says James.
It's an energetic and supportive environment at Relentless Athletics. James also doesn't leave any students behind, as long as they put in the work and follow his instruction, even doing extra training sessions on the side pro bono to help those struggling to keep up with certain aspects of the classes.
"It gets weird a lot of times, especially because I'm probably the least athletic one there," says trainee Heather Lynn. "It's just kind of like, you gotta go for it. I've been telling myself for the longest time I wanted to give it a shot and train, and the stars finally aligned and I got to do it. For me personally, I've always told myself, 'I want to get thrown through a table.' That's what I want to work towards."
CONSIDER THE BRUISING
For those who still insist pro wrestling is fake, consider the red handprint bruise strewn across my chest as I type this story up. I returned to Relentless Athletics a few weeks after my initial visit to do some boots-on-the-mat journalism. Over the course of a couple hours, James walked me through the basics of the squared circle: I rolled, I back bumped, I ran the ropes, I grappled... the whole nine yards.
The hardest element of the in-ring experience wasn't landing on the unforgiving mat (it's barely padded wood) or hitting the cable ropes at high speed. Rather, it's turning your brain's protective instincts off. The biggest struggles weren't the falls, but when my body reflexively tried to prevent my intentional falls, which led to the actually painful landings. You wouldn't think swinging your legs out and landing chest first would break your brain, but my legs kept instinctively trying to stop my descent, thereby making things much worse.
But with James' coaching, I made it through the evening bruised up quite a bit but still in one piece. To cap the night, James suplexed me to the canvas and gave me a flesh-on-flesh chest chop that echoed throughout the shed with a loud slap. There is something strangely satisfying about enduring the painful bits and making it out on the other side, a sort of masochistic achievement that surely is one factor in these indie wrestlers continually putting their bodies through hell for the public's amusement.
PUTTING THE HOME IN "HOMETOWN HERO"
While Relentless continues to grow its local fan base — selling out many of its shows — James spends much of his time mentally wrestling with the future of the company.
For him, Price and Yank, Relentless isn't about maximizing profit. It's a passion project, a high-level hobby they want to ride out as long as people keep showing up. Essentially, money made at a show is poured back into next month's show. The co-founders almost recoil when talking about the financial aspect of the business.
"Wrestling was designed, in the old carny way, to just take money from people," says James. "So it was never about being good. It was never about being the best. It was never about being entertaining. It was about how much money can you take from the fans. And for me, it's never been about that. I have a really good day job, so wrestling isn't my income. For me, it's just pure passion."
This March, Relentless ran its first big non-local show, heading to Los Angeles and running an indie show the same week WrestleMania was in town. It was certainly an achievement for a promotion out of the Inland Northwest that wasn't even 2 years old at the time, but James still had reservations about putting on a card where the majority of the diehard Relentless fanbase couldn't attend.
"Part of the reason why we started what we did is we were filling a void. And I feel like if we're going to these areas that already have wrestling, we're no longer filling a void. We're now competing," says James. "And it's weird, right? Because I don't want to compete with these other shows. I just want to have the best show we can."
And while he did wrestle during WrestleMania week and has plenty of friends succeeding in AEW and WWE, James no longer really harbors dreams about headlining major pay-per-views with the biggest wrestling companies on the planet. He's reached a level of contentment with wrestling being a joyfully violent pastime and not the only driving factor in his life.
"This is one thing that I always struggled with," James admits. "Because when I first started, that was the goal — go to WWE or AEW. And I have a lot of really talented friends who are now signed with those companies. And I saw what they were getting paid and I was like, that's not enough for me to move to Florida to do that. So it became this point for me where I was like, 'Why am I doing this?' For me, it was realizing that it's an escape, it's fun, and it's not exactly just for me anymore. I enjoy giving back. I enjoy having fans and friends and people that we can help make this area a better place."
For the wrestler Chase James, the Relentless Wrestling second anniversary show couldn't have gone much worse. He did pick up the win over Jaiden, but he was booed by the fans, double-crossed by his fiancee and he didn't end the night holding the title belt aloft. The bad guy had a bad night.
But the actual Chase James? For the Spokane wrestling community, he's certainly still the Hometown Hero. ♦
Relentless Wrestling 17 • Sat, July 15 at 7 pm • $30 • All ages • Players & Spectators Event Center • 12828 E. Sprague Ave., Spokane Valley • facebook.com/RelentlessPNW