NWA Smoky Mountain Wrestling promoter Tony Givens at a recent event in Kingsport. Photo by Nick Shepherd.
KINGSPORT — A car pulls into the parking lot of the Kingsport Civic Auditorium on a warm, sunny afternoon. A man steps out clad in black from head to toe except for a blazing blue necktie.
He carries a small black folder in his left hand. As he walks in, he makes sure to offer a handshake to everyone. The greetings don't stop once he is inside a large room where people are bustling to set up for the evening ahead.
The night marks the culmination of months of preparation and hard work.
It's show time.
Tony Givens is the 31-year-old promoter of NWA Smoky Mountain, an independent wrestling organization sanctioned by the National Wrestling Alliance. The organization performs shows in the Northeast Tennessee area. Even at 31, he's a 16-year veteran of the wrestling game.
"I started when I was 15 years old. I was a ring announcer, I put up the ring, basically I did whatever was needed," he says. "When I was 17, I started wrestling and when I was 19, I started promoting the events."
That was back in 2002 when things were different for the promotion, starting with its name.
It was the CWA, Championship Wrestling Alliance, when Givens and a couple of his friends hung around after the end of shows. Soon he was setting up the ring. And one night, when there was no ring announcer, he volunteered — because he had a suit.
Givens began to promote the shows a few years later out of necessity. Things were less organized and business-like in those early days, which hurt the overall product.
"Wrestling in this area wasn't very good," he said. "I thought it could be better."
As Givens strolls around the auditorium on the day before Easter, he is clearly in charge. After consulting with some of the vendors, he walks past the ring.
Padding is being placed on the ring and taped to the wood underneath. He calls the head of the ring assembly crew over, lifts up two sections of padding and tells him to tape it down better then walks out of the auditorium and disappears.
When Givens became the promoter in 2002, he immediately wanted to get professionals in some of the support roles. One of his first hires was a college broadcast student for the ring announcer, who since has gone on to become a successful announcer for mixed martial arts events around the globe.
Another problem Givens noticed was the growing generation gap among some of the wrestlers. When he started wrestling, he was the youngest person on the roster and wrestling guys who were 10 to 20 years older.
Givens wanted to bring in fresh talent, people who were working on getting to the biggest venue in wrestling, World Wrestling Entertainment. When he first started, most of the wrestlers had already reached the peak of their careers.
He needed to change that.
Young, hungry wrestlers were recruited. Over the years, Givens established his promotion as one of the best in the country for young up-and-comers.
Minutes melt away as show time draws closer. A paper taped to the front door tells all employees to get in costume and head to the opposite hallway for promotional pictures.
The concession stand has no ice, so Givens directs some people to run down the street and grab a couple of bags. But a promoter's job is never done.
As the lights go up in front of the stage, he notices a pole hanging off the side. Givens tells the crew to straighten it, then disappears through a curtain to backstage as more wrestlers begin to pour into the arena.
Wrestling and promoting independent shows is not a huge moneymaker. Givens works full time as an operation manager at FedEx, with wrestling shows providing some secondary income.
NWA Smoky Mountain is a profitable small business now, but when Givens first took over, it wasn't that way at all.
"The truth is, I lost money from 2002 all the way to 2011," he said. "Basically, when we changed over to the NWA, everything fell into place."
The first show Givens ever put on, in 2002, did well, but success was elusive after that.
CWA had a television show that helped promote the live events, which are how the organization makes money. Givens — being paid $176 a week by FedEx — got a part-time job to pay for the TV show, which cost $175. He used the extra dollar to pay for the money order.
He needed the TV show to bring people to the live shows. Sometimes it did, but sometimes only 25 people were in attendance.
Givens had no formal training in how to handle business matters, such as negotiating the television contract. He kept losing money.
"I lost and lost and lost and lost until I literally, in 2011, just hit rock bottom," he said. "I went through a time of depression and literally just said, 'OK, no more games. I have the opportunity of a lifetime ... now we're going to do this thing.'"
Seconds tick down as the front entrance to the auditorium begins to fill up with fans.
A once-empty hallway is now filled with grown men in spandex discussing how they are going to beat each other up.
Givens is backstage with some of the wrestlers. A joyous atmosphere is taking over as show time draws closer. Laughter rings out; one wrestler is discussing a past match.
A subtle change begins to take place. Most of the event staff have changed out of their normal clothes and into button-up shirts and slacks.
There's a sense of urgency because the ring is not entirely ready yet. The turnbuckles, or corners of the ring, are still being adjusted. And the first match is scheduled to be inside a steel cage, but it's yet to go around the ring.
One of the cage's four walls is falling down, and Givens advises the crew on a quick fix using duct tape.
It wasn't long ago that Givens was trying to play the role of promoter and wrestler. He still wrestles, but not as much as he used to.
"There's other guys, younger guys, that are hungrier," he said. "My passion is running a wrestling organization, their passion is getting it done in the ring and they do a great job."
It's been a 12-year learning process for Givens, and he continues to soak up on-the-job training. He tries to stay on the cutting edge of technology in his promotion of the organization. Social media has become an invaluable tool.
As he has matured, so has his business. In 2011, when Givens was at rock bottom, he hooked up with the National Wrestling Alliance, partly for the exposure but partly for branding purposes. There are a lot of CWA organizations, but only one NWA Smoky Mountain. He has found success ever since.
Inside the Kingsport Civic Auditorium, a man aims a camera at the ring as the steel cage goes up. Givens tells his crew to open the doors. Fans of all ages, from the elderly to children, begin pouring in and filling the seats.
Givens takes a seat among the vendors toward the front of the auditorium as wrestlers prepare backstage. After a few minutes, Matt Rhodes, the play-by-play announcer for NWA Smoky Mountain, picks up a microphone.
"Ladies and gentleman, ARE YOU READY!!!!"