By Mike Mooneyham
Aug. 6, 2006
There’ll be no shortage of stars when Total Nonstop Action Wrestling pulls into town this week.
One of the biggest attractions, though, won’t be a wrestler – at least not a full-time one.
Hermie Sadler, brother of Nextel Cup driver Elliott Sadler and a NASCAR star in his own right, will be at The Plex on Thursday night as part of TNA’s first live wrestling event in the Lowcountry.
Sadler is no novice to the wrestling game.
The 1993 NASCAR Busch Series Rookie of the Year began co-promoting TNA house shows earlier this year, under the auspices of the Universal Wrestling Federation, after taking part in several of the company’s televised and pay-per-view events.
An appearance on TNA’s first national pay-per-view in 2002 in Hunstville, Ala., turned into a five-show deal for Sadler that culminated in a PPV match with Ron “The Truth” Killings.
“Ron is a tremendous athlete and made me look like I halfway knew what I was doing,” says Sadler. “That was fun. There’s nothing quite like performing in front of a live audience.”
Sadler will be on hand for a meet-and-greet Thursday as part of a special package for Ultimate Experience ticket-holders.
“It’s a fun time for me. Being able to race some and being able to do some color commentary for the Speed Channel and being a part of the growth of TNA are three pretty cool things that I’m involved in right now. I look forward to coming to Charleston to see the wrestling fans and the NASCAR fans in that area. We’ll put on a good show. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
He caught the wrestling bug as a youngster when his father would take Sadler and his brother to Crockett Promotions shows at the Richmond Coliseum and the Dorton Arena in Raleigh, along with occasional mat cards at their high school gym in Emporia, Va. Later, through his friendship with Richmond natives and veteran wrestling referees Dave and Earl Hebner, Sadler started attending WWE shows where he met a number of grappling stars.
“It started out being a fan of the business and later turned into a situation where I made a lot of friends in the business. It kind of grew from there,” says Sadler, who adds that he was a big fan of Wahoo McDaniel and Ricky Steamboat.
“Ironically enough, Ricky is a good friend of mine today,” says Sadler. “He’s got a son trying to get involved in racing, and we’ve done some stuff as far as that. Ricky also did some shows for me as a special guest referee before he went back to work for Vince (McMahon). We’ve developed a good relationship.”
Sadler, who owns car dealerships in Emporia, South Hill and Franklin, Va., has sold vehicles to such wrestling stars as The Rock, Steve Austin, The Undertaker, Jeff Jarrett and The Dudleys. He’s a longtime friend of Jarrett.
“As far as being true friends on a personal level, Jeff and I have a lot in common. We’re about the same age, we both have three girls and our families are friends and go on trips together. When the opportunity came here to start the UWF, it was something I’ve always wanted to do as far as being involved in the business. And when the avenue opened up to form a relationship with TNA as far as doing their licensed house shows, Dave Hebner helped me start the company.”
“Earl Hebner is now general manager of the company, and his son, Brian, is a referee with our company,” adds Sadler. “I formed those relationships through the years from NASCAR and from being a fan of the business. It’s really helped me get my group of people together that I’m using today.”
At 37, Sadler is six years his brother’s senior, but there’s no competition there. Sadler pauses when asked who’s the better driver.
“You mean golf or racing?” he half-seriously asks. “It’s a difficult answer, with everyone having pride and all, but he’s had more success on the track and I’ve kind of turned into a fan of his. We both have had our good moments and our bad moments, but right now I’m a fan of his.”
Sadler began racing in go-karts alongside his brother and started him in late model stocks, but the two only raced against each other once back in 1998.
“As I moved on, he came in behind me. We help each other as much as we can. With the age difference, as far as racing and in football, basketball and baseball, we’re more supportive of each other. I’m the big brother who eventually got passed by the younger brother.”
Elliott, driver of the No. 38 M&M’s Ford Fusion, recently became the latest driver in the Nextel Cup Series to achieve lame-duck status in the 2006 season. Sadler asked for and was granted a release from his contract with Robert Yates Racing at the end of the season.
“He’s trying to re-establish himself and get back in the Cup series. I’m pulling for him,” says Hermie.
Rasslin’ and racin’
Pro wrestling and NASCAR – more popularly known in the South as rasslin’ and racin’ – have always had a strong connection in these parts.
“We have the same fan base,” says Sadler. “Both sports are very entertaining. Although wrestling is ‘sports entertainment’ and NASCAR is more of a true sport, the object of both is to entertain. And that’s one of the elements that I bring to my show that I’ve learned from NASCAR.”
The UWF co-owner promoted a wrestling show in Martinsville the Saturday night before a Nextel Cup race that involved a number of NASCAR personalities serving as wrestling lumberjacks. The list included brother Elliott, Michael Waltrip, Darrell Waltrip, Kyle Petty and Scott Riggs.
“All of them watch wrestling on a regular basis,” Sadler says of the racing contingent.
Sadler wrestled on the show, teaming with Fox Sports broadcaster Jeff Hammond and Team 3-D against Jarrett, Eric Young and America’s Most Wanted. A spot with Jarrett hammering Hammond with a guitar was aired on Fox Sports broadcasts.
Sadler laments the fact that much of the mainstream media doesn’t cover wrestling as a sport.
“To me it is a sport. These guys are just as much an athlete as a racecar driver or a football player, basketball player or baseball player. The only difference is that the outcomes are predetermined. They’re still great athletes and they still entertain and are very good at what they do. I push that point all the time. One good thing is that my NASCAR connections and media following have given me a crossover and a tie-in for mainstream press like Fox and USA Today to cover the sport and TNA.”
Sadler has even used a successful NASCAR marketing strategy and transferred it to promoting UWF and TNA.
One of his goals is to put the fan in closer contact with the performer. Through the Ultimate Experience package, the group gives fans more of a one-on-one opportunity to interact with the performers.
“We let the fans get in the ring with the wrestlers and take pictures and get autographs and that type of thing to create a more memorable experience. I’ve learned through NASCAR that one of the things that sets us apart is how accessible we are to the fans. We try to do the same things with the wrestlers. So far that’s worked pretty well.”
TNA on the move
Sadler says TNA to this point has been little more than Thursday night TV and once-a-month pay-per-view. But things are about to change.
“They’ve been centrally located down in Orlando and haven’t been taking the product to the fans out in the field. The fun part for us has been taking the UWF and taking the TNA brand and product out on the road and creating awareness for the wrestlers and for the brand and the product. I’m stepping up and taking the chance and taking TNA on the road. We’re getting a good glimpse of how many people are watching TNA by seeing how well TNA is received on the road.”
Sadler says TNA is at the point where the company is ready to step up and take it to another level. “I do admire the fact that to this point they haven’t wanted to bite off more than they can chew. Some companies try to grow too fast and have to scale back. TNA is taking one step at a time. The success of our shows last month in Philadelphia and recently on the east coast of North Carolina, and hopefully the upcoming shows in South Carolina, will give us the confidence we need to know that we’re ready to explode this thing and take it to a lot of big markets. If the fans accept it, there will certainly be more of it.”
Sadler says the plan all along has been to grow slowly, and to allow the response to the product dictate what the company’s next step will be.
“They’re taking things in bits and pieces at a time.”
The big news, according to Sadler, is that TNA is on the verge of expanding its weekly Thursday night show to two hours.
“There are a lot of good things going on with Spike TV. I know in the future they’re going to get more time. They are going to go from one hour to two hours.”
There’s no definite date yet, but Sadler says it’s going to happen “relatively quickly.”
“There are discussions going on right now about expanding the show to two hours.”
For now, says Sadler, the show will remain on Thursday night. But that, too, could change in the not-too-distant future.
“Obviously the goal is to be two hours prime time on another night. It’s one step at a time. TNA had to make sure they could handle and have success on Spike with a one-hour show. They’ve proven that. Spike wanted to make sure TNA had the talent and the ability to fill an hour. Now I think they see that they can fill two hours. Having another hour of TV is going to be huge.”
Sadler says the Carter family, who owns TNA, is committed to staying the course.
“I don’t think there’s any question about that. They’ve got a lot invested at this time. It took a lot to get the company to where it is today. It’s not that they don’t want to be aggressive, but they want to be smart. They’re doing things one step at a time, and growing when opportunities are there to grow. TNA is not necessarily on a time line for success; they just want to be successful. They know what needs to be done, but they also know when it needs to be done.”
Sadler says he has seen all too often when companies, including ones in the racing business, have prematurely made announcements about “great” sponsors and teams coming together, only to see it eventually explode in their faces.
“You never hear from them again. TNA is very methodical in what they’re doing. It’s still pretty much a family-owned business between the Carter family and Jeff Jarrett. Jeff’s got a lot on his plate right now, and there has to be more people on board to help do the things that need to be done, but they want to be sure they go about it at the right pace.”
Sadler sees the biggest stars in the company as Samoa Joe, AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels. The fact that they get the biggest pops on TNA shows and just happen to be the best workers in the ring isn’t a coincidence.
“You put them in there together, and they can tear the house down.”
He also likes Jay Lethal, Eric Young, Petey Williams and Abyss (Chris Parks). “He carries that mask and monster look and really gets over with the fans,” Sadler says of the 6-4, 350-pound Abyss. “He’s big, but he moves pretty good and is a good worker ”
Sadler thinks the extra TV time will get these characters over.
“TV is a very powerful vehicle. We hope that some of our big names will get these guys to the show. Once we get them in the building, the X division guys will bring them back.”
Making a difference
Sadler firmly believes he can be an asset in helping develop and nurture the live event programs.
“Jeff (Jarrett) and them do a great job with the TV side of it. I think I can help them market and promote and try to build a house show business. I have a lot of contacts in a lot of different towns and in a lot of different markets and venues. I think if there’s an area that I can help and use some of what I’ve learned through my years in racing and business, it’s trying to take the show on the road, so to speak.”
Recent TNA house shows in Williamston and Jacksonville, N.C., drew crowds of more than a thousand, with Jacksonville approaching the 1,800 mark.
“Fans are slowly starting to catch on and identify with the brand, and we hope our momentum continues. We’ve been happy with not only the crowds, but how the crowds are responding to the talent. That tells us that some of the people in these towns are watching TV. People are very in tune with what’s going on with Impact, and that’s encouraging to us.”
Sadler says the thing he enjoys most about TNA is the fan reaction it generates.
“I like to see people happy and kids with smiles on their faces. I like being involved with the storylines and the writing of the shows. Being able to go to a production meeting before the show and write the show and visualize the endings and seeing how they are received by fans – that’s been the biggest rush for me. Obviously there’s not many things beyond driving a stock car at nearly 200 miles per hour that’s going to excite me, but sitting down and trying to figure out how to get a pop, or a positive or negative reaction, or more importantly a reaction of any kind from the fans … That is what’s really intrigued me the most and piqued my interest.”
Sadler currently is involved in an angle with Earl Hebner. Hebner, who is infamous for his role as referee in the 1997 Survivors series double cross of Bret Hart, was fired in storyline fashion by TNA figurehead authority Jim Cornette.
“I’ll get in the ring to further some storylines when necessary, but I’d rather put the focus on the guys who are doing the work in the ring. I’ll get in there and do some mic work to go with some storylines, but the group of guys we have in TNA are a lot of fun to watch, and they don’t get enough ring time as it is. I’d rather have them in there for 25 minutes to put on a show than take up mic time with me.”
Sadler, who pilots the Aaron’s Dream Machine for Michael Waltrip Racing, has run in 12 events so far this season and has six more to do starting next month at Michigan, followed by Bristol, Richmond, Martinsville, Talladega and Homestead. TNA has sponsored Sadler in several races over the past couple of years, and he’d like to make it a more permanent arrangement, saying, “We’re trying to work out ways to further that relationship.”
Away from the track and outside the wrestling ring, Sadler is a family man who enjoys spending time at home with his wife, Angie, and three daughters.
With the exception of racing cars at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour and stepping into a wrestling ring every so often, Sadler could be your normal everyman. Maybe with one more exception. He has a habit of getting up every morning at 4 o’clock to eat a Rice Krispy treat and drink a half-gallon of milk.
“I guess there are worse habits I could have. I don’t why it is, but having three kids at the house, I don’t get a lot of work done until everybody goes to sleep. I usually stay up until 1 or 2 anyway. Every night between 4 and 4:15, no matter how tired I am or whatever, I seem to wake up and go to the kitchen and get a Rice Krispy treat and about a half-gallon of milk.”
He wouldn’t change anything in his family life, but if he could change anything in his professional one, he’d like to go back about 20 years and have the same opportunities but make slightly different decisions. He sometimes wishes he could turn the clock back to the early ’90s when he first started racing. Racing back then, he says, was fun on a Saturday night.
But wrestling, like racing, has changed over the years. And not all for the better.
“There’s no question. In racing a lot of things have changed, some for the good and some not for the good. It’s the same thing with wrestling. A lot of things have changed, but a lot has stayed the same. You need good babyface characters and good heel characters. You need storylines, feuds and rivalries. The fans tell us a lot just by how they respond.”
Sadler’s philosophy of promoting is to give the fans a family-oriented show. In some respects, he says, it’s what separates TNA from WWE.
“You’ve got to have some elements in wrestling to draw fans. We understand the importance of females and valets and those kinds of things, but we don’t want our show to be focused on that. We want those people to add to the show and get involved in wrestling, but we don’t want to sell our shows on anything but the wrestling that takes place in the ring. We want our shows to be known for good, quality, high-flying action in the ring. We want to build that first. We don’t want to take sex and violence and the whole nine yards and make that be the centerpiece of the shows.”
Sadler says his goal for the upcoming local show, like all his events, is to leave the fans happy and wanting more.
“If we have a thousand people come to the show, our goal when we leave is to have a thousand new TNA fans who are going to watch Impact next Thursday night. Next time we come to Charleston, they’ll bring a friend with them.”
“We’re not WWE. We don’t see ourselves in that mold,” he says. “But we’re going to bring a first-class wrestling show to town with some established stars and some great new stars. We’d like to make Charleston a town we come back to on a regular basis. We need to know from the people in Charleston that they’re supporting TNA wrestling. If they do, then we’ll come back. But I can’t believe, with the show we’ve got, that there won’t be a lot of fans in Charleston who will want to come and see this show.” Main event for Thursday night’s show features Samoa Joe and Petey Williams against NWA tag-team champs AJ Styles and Christopher Daniels. Doors for the Ultimate Experience open at 5:30 p.m., while general doors open at 6:30. Action gets under way at 7:30.
– For ticket information, call The Plex box office at 225-PLEX (7539), or visit www.uwfusa.com or www.highspots.com. Ultimate Experience ($50) and Theater Seats ($25) are on sale.
TNA shows also are scheduled Aug. 11 at the Jamil Shrine Temple in Columbia and Aug. 12 in Anderson in advance of the company’s Hard Justice pay-per-view Aug. 13 in Orlando, Fla.