In the age of Trump, the Progressive Liberal is wrestling's perfect heel

Matthew Lane • Jul 8, 2017 at 9:00 AM

KINGSPORT — Daniel Richards goes to work wearing a Hillary Clinton T-shirt with pads over his knees bearing the Democratic Party donkey. He pronounces Appalachia “Appa-lay-cha” and is not a big fan of the Fox News Channel.

In short, he’s probably the most hated man in Eastern Kentucky right now.

Richards (whose real name is Daniel Harnsberger) is a professional wrestler with Appalachian Mountain Wrestling and goes by the name of the Progressive Liberal. AMW calls Hazard, Ky., home and the federation performs in small towns like Buckhorn, Campton, Jackson and Happy.

Outside of Louisville and Lexington, every other part of Kentucky went for Trump. It’s in the heart of the Bible Belt, in the middle of coal country and a place wary of outsiders.

Which is why the Progressive Liberal is the perfect heel for AMW.

“This is not a character. I lean left and I’m not saying things I don’t believe,” Richards said during an hour-long interview with the Times-News.

Richards stands 6 foot 5 inches tall, weighs in at 245 pounds and lives in Richmond, Va. He turns 37 on Monday and started wrestling out of college at the age of 23, but took several years off due to personal reasons. Then about two years ago, Richards decided to give the profession another, serious go, and the Progressive Liberal started to take form, eventually debuting in the summer of 2015.

“I said, I’m going to try this. I knew this was heat and would be, and with Trump winning, it’s taken off,” Richards said.

Local wrestler and promoter Beau James, who does the booking for AMW, first wrestled Richards back in 2004 and told him at the time that “he needed to find himself.” When he saw the Progressive Liberal at a show in Charleston, W.Va., two years ago, James said he knew Richards had something.

“The reason this captivates the people who are watching this ... when they see Dan and the emotions he draws out of people, it’s shocking to them,” James said. “It doesn’t matter where we’re at — people are coming after us and they want to fight. We love it.”

When Richards comes to the ring, he’s wearing his trademark shirt with Hillary Clinton faces all over it or a “Not my president” shirt. He espouses his left-leaning ideology, tells the crowd he wants to educate them, how they vote against their own interests and sometimes suggests the fans give up their guns.

“Fox News Maggot!” he yells at one opponent. His finishing move is called “the Liberal Agenda” — a cross-arm neck-breaker.

To say he’s not liked by the folks of Eastern Kentucky would be an understatement.

In less than two weeks, the world has taken notice of the Progressive Liberal. The sports website Deadspin first did a story about Richards less than two week ago. Richards was in the gym working out at the time the story broke and knew nothing about it.

From there, Sports Illustrated reached out to Richards and James for an interview, and since then every major network and news organization has run stories on or requested interviews with the Progressive Liberal.

“We had no idea what was coming,” James said. “Within 24 hours, I was on the phone with every major news network in the country negotiating deals for exclusives.”

A quick search of Google will turn up stories about Richards on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News, CNN and the BBC. HBO ran a segment on Richards and James during its Wednesday night “Vice” newscast, and other requests are still pouring in.

The response has been overwhelming.

The AMW YouTube page has had more than 50,000 hits in seven days. All of its social media pages have jumped considerably. Even Hollywood has reached out to Richards and James.

Richards’ story is he’s an outsider (hailing from Washington, D.C.) coming into the mountains, telling folks how to speak, how to live and how to vote.

Coal is not just a job for the people of Kentucky. It’s a way of life, James said.

“Hillary stood on a stage in Charleston and said, ‘I'm shutting the coal mines down,’ James said. “She might as well have come into these mountains and said I’m coming to kill your firstborn. We grabbed the attention with that. And we’ve brought attention to our history and what we love to do for a living.”

But it’s not all about getting heat with the fans and filing high school gymnasiums on a Saturday night. Richards and James note AMW is also giving back to the communities of Eastern Kentucky.

The first AMW event took place in September 2016, and every one has been some type of benefit, James said, from raising money for little league teams to high school football, eighth-grade field trips, scholarship funds and ministry events.

The group has also gone into the schools and held literacy and anti-bullying programs. After one such event, a local principal told James six parents had called to say their children had been bullied.

“We don’t want to just take from the community; we want to give back,” James said. “It’s more than just a wrestling group. We’re part of the community.”

Though they may be a part of the community, Richards is still one of the main heels of AMW. When walking down the streets in Eastern Kentucky, he’s being yelled at. In the arena, the crowd chants “Trump” so loudly that interviews can’t be heard over the microphone. One man even walked out of the concession booth patting a gun on his hip.

Richards is definitely generating heat from the fans.

“I’m enjoying every second of it,” he said.

If you’re interested in seeing the Progressive Liberal in action, he’ll be at two free Southern States Wrestling events this weekend: On July 8 at 12:30 p.m. at Calvary Baptist Church in Kingsport and on July 9 at 6:45 p.m. in Gray at the Appalachian Fairgrounds.

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