… AND JUSTICE FOR GAGE

The Redemption Of Indie Wrestling’s Deathmatch King

TEXT BY: MIKE BESSLER

Attention movie executives: We have a pitch for you. The life of Nick Gage is full of action, intrigue, and heartbreak. But it’s ultimately a gritty story of second chances. Filming locations would span from coast to coast, including fairgrounds, gyms, a bank, and a prison. Depending on how much blood and gore you can stomach, the film will either be rated R or NC-17.

Nick Gage isn’t the kind of kid-friendly hero consumers might find on a lunchbox. And he is just fine with that. At 39 years old, IWA Mid-South’s “King Of The Deathmatch” has experienced more trials and tribulations than 99 percent of us might endure in an entire lifetime … and it’s made his connection to fans that much stronger.

Gage got his start in wrestling in 1998 under the tutelage of Combat Zone Wrestling founder John Zandig. The following year, he became CZW’s first heavyweight champion. In the decade that followed, he came to epitomize CZW’s ultraviolent style, earning multiple championships and a slew of dedicated followers. But, behind the curtain, Gage struggled with a foe mightier than any opponent he ever faced in the ring. Over the course of several years, he had developed an addiction to the prescription painkiller oxycodone, which ultimately trapped him in a spiral of pain and desperation.

Although Gage kept his problems secret from friends and family, things came to a head on December 22, 2010, when he robbed a bank in Collingswood, New Jersey. Gage turned himself in to authorities on December 31, the day after being publicly named as the suspect in the case. His notoriety as a standout on the independent wrestling scene brought special attention from media outlets. And, as he sat in jail awaiting sentencing, Gage finally decided to open up to a reporter from The Philadelphia Inquirer, candidly discussing his problems for the first time.

“Sometimes it’s hard when you put all your stuff out there,” Gage recalls. “I was good at hiding it. But clearly something was wrong if I’m going in and robbing a bank. What am I going to do, lie? Why not let them know?”

That cathartic interview laid bare the personal problems that had pushed Gage to his lowest point. Not only was he addicted to a powerful opioid, but he had yet to come to terms with the death of his mother—who had passed away from breast cancer just a few years earlier. He had also lost his father to cancer when he was only 15 years old. Suppressing grief and loss with self-medication, Gage’s life became chaotic and unmanageable.

“I just never wanted to embarrass her,” Gage said of his late mother. “I barely got in trouble, and, if I did, it was minor stuff. But once I lost her, I was like, ‘Who cares?’ Doing drugs, you don’t care about anything. You just do whatever the hell you want.”

Gage served a total of five years in prison for his offense. But, throughout his sentence, fans stood by him.

“I love the fans,” Gage said. “When I was locked up in prison, I would get mail and cards from people I didn’t even know, writing me and saying, ‘Keep your head up’ and ‘Can’t wait until you get out.’”

While behind bars, Gage came to realize the size, scope, and human cost of the type of substance abuse that had caused him so much pain. In 2010, his close friend (and fellow CZW wrestler) Trent Acid lost his own battle with addiction. But Acid was far from the only one.

“Once I got home from my prison stint the first time, I went over to my boy’s house,” Gage said. “And he gave me this list of people we had gone to school and graduated with who’d overdosed and died. And we’d be like, ‘that guy?’ That hit me hard.”

Though shaken, Gage was determined to reestablish himself in the ring. He was welcomed with open arms by the New Jersey-based Game Changer Wrestling—a hardcore promotion cut from the same cloth as CZW.

“I wanted to give back to the fans for writing me all those letters,” he said. “So I thought, Let me put on a deathmatch show, and I’ll call it The Nick Gage Invitational. Game Changer helped me put on the show, and it was a success.”

It was a success; only Gage wasn’t there to enjoy it. Due to a parole violation—an issue he now refers to as “B.S.”—the event’s namesake sat in jail, unable to compete in his own show.

Once free for a second time, Gage was determined not to lose his freedom again. He began working even harder in the ring. And that hard work paid off in December 2017, when he defeated Matt Tremont for the GCW heavyweight title—beginning a nearly two-year reign as champion. The only way he could have reached that goal, he insists, was to be totally committed to the business.

“I haven’t had a job since 2007. How can I have a job when I’m on the road all the time?” Gage said. “I tell these young guys, ‘If you want to do this for real, you’re going to find out if you want to be a wrestler or not. You’re going to have to wake up early and catch a plane or get in a car and drive everywhere. And you’re going to have to do it every freaking weekend. If you don’t love this thing, it’s going to eat you alive.”

And Gage clearly loves wrestling. Due to his undeniable work ethic, raw charisma, and willingness to take risks, he has emerged as a main-event attraction and a locker room leader—an inspiration to fans and peers alike.

“Nick is great at motivating people,” said Tremont, who knows firsthand how brutal Gage can be in the ring. “As a teenager, he was the equivalent to Hulk Hogan to me. He has always been a positive influence on me.”

2019 proved a banner year for Gage, as he appeared in dozens of promotions all over the U.S. and also competed in Mexico. His willingness to leave it all on the canvas—including pools of sweat and buckets of blood, when necessary— garnered the attention of Sports Illustrated, who included Gage in its list “The Top 10 Male Wrestlers Of 2019.”

Like many grapplers, Nick Gage was poised to climb new mountains in 2020, only to be deterred by the COVID-19 pandemic. As confident as he was that he would return to the ring as he faced down a prison sentence a decade ago, Gage says he will be ready for action once the world returns to some degree of normalcy.

“I’m going to come back and just go hard, claim my spot, and see if someone can knock me off,” he said. “I’m going to keep doing this until I don’t like it anymore … or I die or I can’t wrestle anymore.”

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