LURAY, Va. (AP) - Jeff X was writhing, the victim of a backdrop slam that left the diminutive wrestler from Coeburn sprawled on the mat.
His opponent, all 6-foot-5, 240 pounds of him, turned to face the crowd, a sea of people liberally speckled with camouflage and Hemi Orange, then flexed both biceps in triumph.
“Hillary!” shouted Dan “The Progressive Liberal” Richards, straining to be heard over the rockabilly band playing on the nearby stage, the blat of monster truck exhaust notes from across the grounds and, maybe loudest of all, the boos of the audience.
“#Impeach” was printed across the front of his blue trunks. “Dump Trump” was on the back.
“Build the wall,” someone shouted back.
The show over July’s last weekend was part of Cooter’s Last Stand - billed as the last of the series of “Dukes of Hazzard” fan festivals organized by Ben Jones, the former Congressman and actor who played the Duke boys’ favorite mechanic on the television show.
For the unfamiliar, this brand of wrestling is probably best understood as sweaty theater rather than a traditional athletic contest. “Sports entertainment,” they call it in the big leagues.
Most shows feature a babyface - or, simply, “face” - the wrestler the crowd is supposed to root for, and a bad guy, called a “heel.”
There was no doubt who was who at Cooter’s Place, where some 20,000 people were expected over the course of the two-day event in Luray.
Pickups parked in the fields across U.S. Route 211 sported stickers like “Don’t steal, the government hates competition,” ”We the people have had enough,” and “Republican: Because everyone can’t be on welfare.”
Page County went 73 percent for President Donald Trump, and “Hazzard Nation” may be an even bigger backer of the first member of the World Wrestling Entertainment Hall of Fame to serve as commander in chief.
“Who voted for Trump?” Jeff X asked the crowd after trotting into the ring to cheers, drawing a lusty chorus of whoops.
Richards, a 37-year-old real estate agent from Richmond whose real name is Daniel Harnsberger, was met with a torrent of invective as he ambled into the ring, wearing knee-pads featuring a parody of the “Ghostbusters” logo with Trump’s face.
“Vote Democrat,” he shouted.
For Harnsberger, who has been drawing national and international media attention for the past month for the wrestling persona he’s been developing since 2015, it was another perfect venue. He’s made a name as a down-talking D.C. elitist tailor-made to taunt the wrestling fans of Appalachia, who he calls “hilljacks” that live in “hollows,” not “hollers.”
“We had people try to fight him earlier,” said Beau James, a longtime wrestler and promoter from Kingsport, Tenn.
James, who has known Harnsberger since shortly after he started wandering into matches while attending Concord University in Athens, W.Va., is something akin to the Liberal’s strict wrestling sensei.
“There’s no praise for doing your job. But there is a boot in your ass for not doing your job,” James said.
James helped Harnsberger fine-tune The Progressive Liberal, feeding him a few lines at a show in Racine, W.Va.,about a year ago. One mentioned Hillary Clinton coming for the crowd’s guns once she won the election.
A guy walked up with a pistol on his hip and “begged us to try to take it from him,” James said. “We knew we had something.”
Harnsberger, a 1999 graduate of Midlothian High School and a former college basketball player with a communications degree, had wrestled on and off for the better part of the past 14 years in one-offs and small-time circuits. He once took a five-year break because he realized he wasn’t doing himself or the business any favors.
“I told Dan: You’ve got to find yourself,” James said.
Before a Deadspin piece at the end of June that hoisted him out of obscurity, the biggest thing in Harnsberger’s life was a career move: from regional manager for a courier company to newly licensed real estate agent looking to start a property management business.
Instead, his summer has been a whirlwind series of interviews, from rolling on the mat with a Vice News reporter to amicable verbal sparring with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, squeezing in Sports Illustrated, CBS, the BBC and dozens of other outlets in between.
“This whole thing has just been a crazy dream,” Harnsberger said, who also got billing in promotional materials for the Luray show alongside WWE Hall of Fame tag-team duo The Rock ‘n’ Roll Express and Jimmy Valiant, also known as “The Boogie Woogie Man.”
“It’s unlike anything I would have expected,” he said. “Truthfully I don’t want it to end. It’s a high: the attention and the recognition.”
“I didn’t like that guy at all,” said Jennifer Purvis, 37, of Luray, a wrestling devotee who was ringside for many of the two-day matches at Cooter’s, spending much of the time screaming at Harnsberger.
“To put ‘Dump Trump’ on his rear end? I’ve never seen anything like it.”
But even in deepest Trump country, there was also some knowing admiration for his heel performance.
After Harnsberger eventually pinned a determined but overmatched Jeff X, then mounted the turnbuckles and screamed, “I’m a winner” to the crestfallen crowed, a tall man in the audience with a little girl on his shoulders shook his head and chuckled to himself.
“Best gimmick I’ve seen in a while,” he said to no one in particular before herding his kids off toward the massive lines where fans patiently waited for autographs from “Dukes of Hazzard” cast members like Catherine Bach, who played Daisy Duke.
There were even a few who liked his brand of politics.
“It’s ballsy. Out here it’s brave,” said Naomi Baez, 21, of Norfolk, of Harnsberger’s character.
Her father, David Baez, 48, also of Norfolk, said he didn’t quite grasp the concept until he saw the crowd.
“I thought he’d be the good guy. We have to remember where we are,” he said. “I know this is a shtick he does but we love it.”
The Progressive Liberal is indeed a gimmick, but only in the wrestling sense of the term, in that it’s a calculated, amplified persona designed to rile up the crowd. Harnsberger insists the character is a reflection of his real-life politics and beliefs, if not necessarily his personality.
Out of the ring, Harnsberger comes off as almost bashful for someone who delights in getting half naked and exchanging verbal abuse with crowds of strangers. He tends to look away when he talks about himself. He repeatedly references his need for more ring time to improve his wrestling.
And although he exhorted the crowd to look at his “beautiful liberal body” minutes earlier, outside the small tent that passes for a dressing room and rest area for the wrestlers at the event, he laments legs that he says are too skinny.
But a guy who knows a thing or two about wrestling thinks Harnsberger is the “total package.”
“He’s a beautiful kid. He’s got it all,” said Valiant, who has a wrestling school near his home in Shawsville, near Blacksburg. “You’ve got to have everything going for you to make it in business, especially our business. A lot of guys, if you don’t get it in 10 years, you’ll never get it. … He’s really sincere and wants it. So many kids want it but most don’t want to work for it.”
For all of the attention Harnsberger is getting, life in regional wrestling remains a grind. He and many of the wrestlers at the Luray show had wrestled the night before at the New River Valley Fair in Dublin. They packed up that night and drove more than 180 miles up Interstate 81, slept at their motel in Harrisonburg for few hours and were at Cooter’s bright and early to set up.
“Everyone thinks it’s super-glamorous,” said Harnsberger, who is single, has no children and has never been married. “It’s not always. You pay a lot of dues. … It doesn’t make sense why anyone would love it, you just do. If there’s one reason, it’s the rush of getting a reaction from the crowd.”
In between matches, while attempting to sell a few autographed photos, he waits for a food voucher from the organizers, eventually spending it on a sad-looking, burnt double burger and soggy fries.
“It’s awful,” he says between bites. “Sooooo terrible.”
A decent meal will have to wait until he, James and some of the other wrestlers commandeer a table near a corner at the Golden China buffet in Harrisonburg after the day’s show.
“Far left, like me,” he texts a reporter coming to meet him. Much of the meal is off-the-record to avoid breaching “kayfabe,” a wrestling term that refers to the portrayal of the characters, storylines and feuds as genuine.
There is one major revelation, though. Harnsberger, who has just spent the day in an unbridled “Dukes of Hazzard” extravaganza, has never seen the show, nor any of other ‘70s and ‘80s programs the other wrestlers regard as cultural touchstones.
And it’s hard to get a sense of what Harnsberger’s fellow wrestlers make of The Progressive Liberal and his newfound celebrity.
“It’s an example of good things coming to people that work hard,” said Kacee Carlisle, who grew up in San Francisco, lives in Northern Virginia and said she fell in love with wrestling at age 8. “He’s handling it well.”
Stan Lee, another wrestler from Tennessee who has been wrestling with Harnsberger, occasionally as his tag-team partner, said he wasn’t initially sure about the persona and his pro-Clinton attire.
“The election’s over,” he told Harnsberger. “I don’t think anybody’s going to care anymore. … When he came out with that shirt, people hate that. And they hate the character.”
Whether it’s love or hate isn’t important, as long as a wrestler gets the crowd to react.
“That is the hardest and most important part of wrestling, becoming somebody people care about,” said Adam “Hangman” Page, a 26-year-old wrestler from South Boston, who was born Stephen Woltz.
Page had spent the previous five years teaching high school in Halifax County and wrestling on the side until he made the jump to full-time grappler last year, splitting his time between Ring of Honor Wrestling in the United States and New Japan Pro-Wrestling overseas.
He has never met Harnsberger, but can’t escape stories about him on social media and wrestling and news sites.
“He’s not wrestling for any of these huge national companies but I see his name every time I turn around,” Page said. “He’s found a bit of a niche for himself. … No matter where he is, people are going to have an opinion about him the second they see him. And that’s good.”
Kelly Fuller, 47, of Midlothian, was raised in family of wrestling fans and in a room covered with posters of wrestlers.
“I planned to marry Ricky Steamboat when I grew up,” she said. “That didn’t happen.”
Her son, Charles, 13, has spent much of life in and out of hospitals and doctors’ offices for grueling hemophilia treatments. A bright spot has been the Make-a-Wish-Foundation and the chance to meet his wrestling heroes, including big names like Brock Lesnar. His Make-a-Wish T-shirt has dozens of wrestlers’ signatures.
In Luray that Sunday, it got one more from Harnsberger, who added a bumper sticker that he inscribed with “When you turn 18, vote Democrat.”
“Don’t take that,” Charles’ mom said jokingly. “We’re Republicans.”
It’s the last day of Cooter’s Last Stand, and Harnsberger is surprised at the “gimmick” money - autographed photos and similar merchandise - that he is making from a crowd that has overwhelmingly booed him.
But any cordiality at Cooter’s, where “Uncle Jesse’s Rules” against “cussin’ and fightin’” have largely held sway, is about to disappear.
Harnsberger is about to face off against James, his friend and mentor, for his final match. He hints that he has something special planned and might not be around for an interview afterward.
He enters the ring with his standard taunts - “I’m going to turn this town into a sanctuary city” - before pulling a trash bag out of his trunks.
Then, at a venue where Ben “Cooter” Jones himself warned potential guests, “If you don’t like rebel flags, please don’t come;” where there are Confederate battle flag oversized dice hanging from rear-view mirrors; where replica General Lee Dodge Chargers with rebel flags on the roof are parked as far as the eye can see; and where Confederate soldier re-enactors stand in the audience, Harnsberger performs a move that draws a genuine gasp or two from the crowd.
He pulls a rebel battle flag from his trunks, wipes his backside and crotch with it, spits on the ensign, and stuffs it in the garbage bag, eliciting howls of rage before James knocks him to the canvas from behind. Much of the match revolves around rescuing or stuffing the flag back into the trash bag, but James is getting the worst of it, including getting strangled at one point with Harnsberger’s Hillary Clinton T-shirt.
The audience’s despair is mounting, along with calls for Harnsberger to get hit with a chair. Finally someone throws one into the ring.
And though James has already secured the upper hand by grabbing the hammer used to ring the bell and clobbering Harnsberger with it, he delivers the coup de grace with folding chair, stretching Harnsberger out on the canvas.
Then, to the crowd’s delight, he pulls the trash bag over Harnsberger’s head. The Progressive Liberal squirms around inside before tearing a hole and sticking his head through. He leaves the ring, still wearing the bag, to jubilant jeers.
The South is avenged.
A few minutes after the match, Harnsberger sends a text.
“I am in the tent. We can talk outside of it. Should be safe,” he writes.
One little kid gives him a high-five, and he banters with a few others. But then he gets a dose of the undercurrent of ugliness that colored much of the 2016 presidential campaign.
A big man, though he still has to look up at Harnsberger, with a young girl in tow makes a remark about the absurdity of a woman president. Harnsberger replies that other advanced countries have had female leaders. The argument devolves, but the man eventually compliments the idea of the character and walks away.
That kind of exchange doesn’t bother Harnsberger, but, to borrow a favorite pejorative of Trump’s, he said he does find it “sad.” He says he tries to engage with the people at his shows in a constructive way.
“There are reasons why people vote for Trump and I think when you’re having a political conversation it’s good to understand someone else’s thinking on the other side,” he said. “Maybe you can have a more productive discussion, whether you change someone’s mind or not.”
Then, a kid waiting in line for an autograph from one of the “Dukes of Hazzard” cast members yells out: “Snowflake!”
“No one asked you punk, so go away. I’m talking to a reporter,” Harnsberger says. “Who’s a snowflake now? You’re backing up.”
Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, https://www.richmond.com
Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.