With Terminus, Jonathan Gresham and Baron Black Aim to Revive Atlanta’s Wrestling Legacy

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With Terminus, Jonathan Gresham and Baron Black Aim to Revive Atlanta’s Wrestling Legacy

It’s a week before Thanksgiving and pro wrestlers Jonathan Gresham and Baron Black are talking to a journalist and a radio host in a booth in the back of an East Atlanta pizza place. If you didn’t already know, it’d be easy to tell who the athletes are: they’re the ones eating salads and picking the top off of cheese sticks to avoid all the carbs in the dough. The yahoos wolfing down oversized slices with sausage and pepperoni? Definitely not pro wrestlers. What brought them all together was a shared love for the one true art of pro wrestling, and specifically a new promotion called Terminus: Modern Age Grappling that Gresham and Black are launching in Atlanta—a once legendary city in the annals of pro wrestling that has struggled to maintain its legacy in the 21st century.

Gresham and Black founded Terminus for several reasons, but one of the main ones is to reestablish Atlanta as a top city for pro wrestling. It’s a mission they’ve undertaken with the pride of true locals; Gresham grew up just a few blocks from Zoo Atlanta and Grant Park, and Black hails from the city’s West End. They learned how to wrestle in Atlanta, started their careers here, and both live in the city today. Their love of pro wrestling is intertwined with their love of the city, and to signal their goals to those who would most appreciate them, they’ve given their new promotion a name that should instantly stand out to anybody who knows Atlanta’s history.

In 1837 a small community developed around a new railroad junction in north Georgia. That settlement’s original name was Terminus, and for a while it was a place you only got out at if you were changing trains between Chattanooga and Savannah. It grew quickly over the next two decades, though, going through several name changes, and one good old fashioned burning to the ground, before eventually becoming one of the biggest cities in the country and the unofficial capital of the South. Terminus was the first name of the town that ultimately became Atlanta, and thus a perfect name for a new promotion that pays respect to the city’s wrestling history while also pulling it into a brighter and more progressive future.

“I wanted a name that resonates with Atlanta because that’s what we want to represent, without calling it ‘Atlanta something something,’” Black explains, while pulling a layer of cheese off a strip of pizza dough. “Terminus is perfect. It’s a cool damn name. And it has an impactful name when you say it to people. They’re like ‘What is this? I’m interested. I’m intrigued.’”

Black is right: wrestling fans are intrigued. Terminus has drawn great interest online since it was first announced in November, and its first show, which is happening at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in Atlanta this Sunday, sold out of its advanced tickets. (Standing room only tickets will be available at the door.) It’ll be streaming on Fite TV for anybody who wasn’t able to get a ticket or make it to Atlanta—or for any locals who have been scared off by the snow forecasted to fall that day. (Atlanta doesn’t do well with snow. Don’t make fun of us about that.)

For Black and Gresham, Terminus is the product of a combined 29 years in the business. Separately and together they’ve racked up countless miles driving across the United States from show to show, and Gresham has spent a great amount of time refining his skills overseas. In that time Black has become a regular for All Elite Wrestling, the upstart wrestling promotion that airs nationally on TBS and TNT. Gresham, meanwhile, is one of the biggest names on the independent scene today, the reigning Ring of Honor World Champion whose unique ground-based technical style is both thrilling and believable. They’ve both come a long way from where they started, two young kids in Atlanta who loved wrestling and were desperate to break into the business however they could.

More so than in decades past, the current generation of pro wrestlers often grew up as fans. Future wrestlers like Black and Gresham would watch such heroes as Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, and Kurt Angle on TV every week, and when they got old enough sought out whatever kind of training they could. For Gresham and Black, that both meant studying under Curtis Hughes at the WWA4 Wrestling School in Atlanta. Hughes, a journeyman wrestler who worked for the WWF, WCW, ECW, and AWA during a career that began in 1988, turned into one of the best wrestling trainers of the last two decades. In addition to Gresham and Black, his students include WWE star Apollo Crews, current Impact World Champion Moose (who will be wrestling on Terminus’s first show), longtime WWE wrestler Heath Slater, Impact and AEW star Kiera Hogan, and high-flying indie stalwart AR Fox. Hughes retired as the head trainer of WWA4 in 2016, passing the reins over to Fox, but he still occasionally wrestles on independent shows, and former students of his are thriving at all levels of the wrestling business. (Fox has kept WWA4’s good name intact, with one of his first students, Austin Theory, currently featuring in a WWE storyline alongside Vince McMahon himself.) Hughes helped shape an entire generation of wrestlers, especially those who have kept independent wrestling alive in Atlanta, and his influence can be seen all over the Terminus card. Both Gresham and Black readily acknowledge the impact he’s had on their careers, and how they wouldn’t be where they are without what they learned from Hughes.

Considering Atlanta’s prominent wrestling history, and the number of stars who started here, it’s surprising that its independent scene has never really caught fire. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and several cities smaller than Atlanta have thriving independent promotions that regularly bring in top national wrestlers. Ever since the Atlanta-based World Championship Wrestling shut down in 2001, locals have tried to create something like that here; the most notable recent indie was Atlanta Wrestling Entertainment, which after several years of ups and downs announced it was going on an indefinite hiatus at the end of 2021. Even somebody as iconic as Dusty Rhodes—a legitimate mainstream celebrity in Georgia and Florida—failed at launching a successful indie promotion here when he founded Turnbuckle Championship Wrestling in the dying days of WCW.

The one exception is Mucha Lucha Atlanta, a lucha libre promotion that routinely draws 1000 fans or more to shows at the Espacio Discotheque in Norcross. Mucha Lucha accomplishes that by bringing in some of the top names in lucha libre, and advertising heavily—and almost exclusively—to the Atlanta area’s sizable Latino population. They’re the biggest success story in Atlanta wrestling since WCW, but have regularly flown under the radar for fans who aren’t part of its target audience. Gresham cites Mucha Lucha’s success at promoting itself as an example that Terminus hopes to learn from. If he’s picked up any lessons from them, they’ve apparently worked, as Terminus’s first show officially sold out days in advance.

Gresham and Black recognize how hard it’s been for local promotions to get attention in a city full of entertainment options. “I feel like Atlanta’s lacking a little bit on the independent level of professional wrestling,” Black acknowledges. “Usually you don’t hear much about the wrestling shows here. Maybe because they’re not advertised enough or maybe a lack of interest. But I want something here to help get Atlanta to be a hotbed of wrestling again.”

When asked if he thinks part of the problem is a lack of appropriate venues in Atlanta, Gresham disagrees, and points to his experience overseas as a counterexample. “When I was living in France I would fly over to the UK and do this company called Fight Club Pro,” he says. “At the time they ran out of the upstairs of this nightclub called Planet. And they would pack out—man, I mean like 3, 4, 500 people. And at the bottom the club would still be playing music and people would be having fun down there, but then they’d come upstairs and watch a wrestling show. And it was super cool.”

During the conversation, the two speak at length about the large number of wrestling fans who don’t even seem aware that an independent scene exists.

Baron Baron: What I’ve noticed is when AEW or the other television company comes [to Atlanta] I see droves of wrestling fans. I remember one time I was at a very small show, nothing big, we were just trying to get people out to see it as one of those big television shows ended. Just talking to people as they go to the MARTA train and stuff like that, and most of them lived in Atlanta. They just never heard of anything else outside of what they’ve seen on television. I think the crowds that were there, I think most of them are still living here, they just don’t know what’s going on.

Jonathan Gresham: It’s all about reach. I’ve told this story several times. I was on the road, and this happens a lot. I leave the airport, get picked up by an Uber or something, the guy starts a conversation in the car, asks what I’m in town for. I tell him I’m a wrestler, he goes “oh, pro wrestler or amateur wrestler?” and then he marks out because he’s a big wrestling fan. But he has no clue about the show that I’m doing in town. You’d be amazed at how many people don’t know about—like when I take an Uber from the airport to the PWG hotel, they don’t know PWG exists. It’s all about reach to me, getting to the core audience, figuring out how to talk to them. [PWG, or Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, is a cult favorite indie in Los Angeles with an international reputation, and one of the most important independent promotions of the last decade.]

Atlanta is a party town. It’s full of nightclubs. It’s full of bars and event spaces and concert venues and public school gyms. A determined promoter could find any number of locations to run a show in the city. Atlanta Wrestling Entertainment ran a variety of unexpected venues, including, to their eternal credit, an annual show at a local convention for pinball and arcade machine collectors. Venues clearly aren’t the problem, so Gresham explains why he thinks no local promoters have made much of a dent in the city over the last 20 years. “It’s about the willpower, the right talent, and just the vision,” he says. “I don’t think people have a vision of doing anything big. I think you have to dare to do something big and just roll the dice, pretty much.”

With Terminus, Black and Gresham are daring to do something big, but also something fairly unique. They don’t just want to revive wrestling in Atlanta; they want to change how fans view independent wrestling and the familiar in-ring style that has dominated that scene since the mid ‘00s.

It starts with the company’s full name—Terminus: Modern Age Grappling. “When people see pro wrestling advertised they know what it is,” Gresham notes. “They have an idea. But when they see Terminus, is it pro wrestling? ‘Modern Age Grappling,’ like what does that mean? So now we’re getting people who watch wrestling but also people who are curious. So now what we have to do is perform well, give them something different, and hopefully they’ll be returning customers.”

To that end, Gresham explains, they’ve been keeping a keen eye on the current indie scene while crisscrossing the country, “trying to pay attention to stylistically what would fit the company. We’re still kind of searching for those diamonds in the rough that don’t really appear much in Atlanta. Wrestlers that don’t really come to Atlanta, that’s what we’re looking for.”

When asked to explain what sort of style Terminus is aiming for, Gresham and Black slide into a lengthy, detailed conversation about the last 15 years of independent wrestling in America, the importance of in-ring storytelling, and the hybrid type of wrestling that can be found in ROH, AEW, PWG, and most major indies.

Gresham: In my mind, any combat sport, like boxing, mixed martial arts, it’s more interesting when two distinctively different styles clash. So modern wrestling, in my mind, everybody is a hybrid wrestler. To me it started back in probably 2006 when Gabe Sapolsky brought Dragon Gate to America. And then the Dragon Gate guys did their awesome six-man tag [at Ring of Honor’s first Supercard of Honor show in 2006] and everybody went apeshit. So the guys that were known as technicians started to implement this genre of wrestling into their repertoire. Then everybody started doing superkicks. Everybody had a submission. Everybody had a dive. You no longer had just the Bryan Danielson versus the Low-Ki striker. You no longer had Samoa Joe, an MMA fighter, versus Doug Williams, a British technician. You never had those distinctive styles anymore after Gabe Sapolsky brought Dragon Gate to America. So wrestling has evolved to where everybody is a hybrid wrestler who does everything. So I want Terminus to focus on those individual styles. Lucha libre, brawling, maestro style… I want to really hone in on those styles and bring them to Atlanta to really show that pro wrestling has all these different distinctive styles and fans can really appreciate it the way they do mixed martial arts.

Baron: Styles clashing always, to me, brings out the best in both competitors. It always makes for a more exciting bout to watch. It’s not predictable. I think that’s what really happened with Georgia wrestling. Once independent wrestling got to where everybody is a hybrid wrestler, I think people got a little bit bored with it. Because every time they saw a guy come to the ring they all did the same thing. And a lot of people also don’t put enough investment into the actual story they’re trying to tell when they come out there as well. When they have the same repeat carbon copy of the same wrestler over and over and over, you start to think you can miss this show because you’re not really going to miss anything. You can just catch the next one. And that just keeps repeating until nobody’s coming.

Gresham: Every form of entertainment gives you information to understand the next chapter. You have to understand act one to have a good or better understanding of act two. In wrestling I think a lot of guys have been drawn to this high impact, 10 to 15 minute style of wrestling where they forget that the core of wrestling, because it’s entertainment, is storytelling. If a movie was just action action action, how much can you sit there and watch that before just giving up and getting on your phone? So I feel like a lot of guys have leaned on it and use it as a crutch, to just be these high impact and really impressive high flyers, instead of worrying about the story. Whether it’s the news, whether it’s a movie, a book, a videogame, you have to understand chapter one to understand the next chapter. And you have to do the same thing with wrestling. You have to start telling those stories in the match, from act one all the way to the finish of a match. And I think you can capture audiences that way instead of… to me a pop is not an emotion. You know what I mean? Laughter—if you can make someone laugh, then you’re more than likely to get in their good graces. I think that’s why Colt Cabana is probably one of the best performers in wrestling, because he can get you emotionally connected to the match through laughter. I think that’s beautiful. Not enough guys master that, telling a story.

That last critique sounds rather close to a common complaint about today’s wrestling espoused by an older generation that dismisses the current state of the business. The idea that wrestling today is just a bunch of flips and high spots with no story, no thought, and no psychology runs rampant among a certain segment of longtime wrestling observers, including former wrestlers and promoters. It’s often heard not just about the independent scene in general, or any single promotion, but about specific stars of today, especially AEW’s core of Kenny Omega and the Young Bucks. When it’s pointed out to Gresham that he sounds a little similar to those critics, he clarifies his stance, and how it all comes down to wrestlers being smart about their careers and doing what’s best to develop their skills and insure their longevity within the business.

“The Bucks and Kenny, they’re special to me,” Gresham explains. “Because they took time to simmer on the independents. A lot of these younger guys, they want the instant gratification of everything. So a wrestler trains for a year, he learns some flips, he’s doing that because he believes that’s what’s hot and that’s what’s going to get him on the show, instead of learning the essence of pro wrestling, which is the selling, the character, how to tell a story, how to really capture an audience’s attention instead of ‘I do these cool moves, cheer for me.’ You want to connect with someone on an emotional level. A pop isn’t an emotion, it’s a reaction.

“I remember going to Japan and watching women cry during a [Hiroshi] Tanahashi match, or Masato Tanaka’s out there battling with Shinjiro Ohtani and I see women in the front row literally crying their eyes out. It’s because they’re emotionally connected and they’re playing their roles in the ring. And Kenny and the Young Bucks, they traveled around the world. A lot of guys don’t get that opportunity. Back in the territory days, guys traveled around different territories, some of them got lucky enough to travel to other countries and learn those things like how to work an audience and how to get them invested. So the issue now is the fast track. [Wrestlers] want instant gratification. They’re doing the moves and the kind of matches that they believe the promoters want; they’re not doing what they love about pro wrestling, what made them fans, they’re not doing that. For me, I’m doing exactly what I love about pro wrestling. And I think that’s what helped me, because people can feel that I’m passionate about what I do. A lot of guys are just going through the motions, and that’s why they’re frustrated that they’re not getting booked places. Because they don’t actually believe in what they’re doing. They’re doing it because they think the promoter wants them to do it. They’re doing it just to get booked. Once you forget about getting booked and just perform for the love of wrestling, that’s when you’re at your highest level.”

That’s something Gresham learned quickly in his career, he says, after mimicking his biggest influence too closely in his earliest matches. “At the beginning, to be honest, I was just copying Rey Mysterio,” he says. “And after everybody was like, ‘hey man, you wrestle just like Rey Mysterio,’ I knew I couldn’t continue that. So I was like, how do I change? I knew I had to do something. So I really started to overthink wrestling.”

Gresham credits his success to that early commitment to focusing on the details and thinking deeply about what he was trying to accomplish in the ring. He passes that on to every younger wrestler he advises. “I tell this to people that I do training seminars with all the time: you have to overthink wrestling,” he explains. “Anybody that makes a movie, let’s say the guy that made Lord of the Rings, they didn’t just write it down and go ‘Hey dude, I’m good. Here it is. Make it a movie.’ They sat there, it took months, maybe years, to create all the characters and the situations and the emotional investment, and to actually put it out. To me that’s what pro wrestlers should do. But so many of them want to just get fast tracked to television. But once you get there you have to keep the job, and that’s the hardest part, keeping the job. The journey to the job is the most rewarding part, in my mind.”

Gresham and Black’s journeys have taken them far from their earliest days in Atlanta, and all within an industry that’s seen incredible volatility over the last few years. WWE went on a spending spree in the late ‘10s, signing many of the top independent talent in the US, and almost single-handedly disrupting a once-thriving UK indie scene by starting its own local promotion. AEW launched in 2019 and gave the business a second major company with a primetime slot on a major national cable network. Covid hit the indies hard, though, and WWE suddenly pumped the brakes on its talent hoarding strategy, releasing dozens of wrestlers throughout 2020 and 2021, despite record profits. Near the end of 2021, Ring of Honor, once the second most prominent American promotion after WWE, announced it was releasing its contracted wrestlers and would pursue a new model of booking freelancers for specific shows starting in 2022, the way true independent promotions do. During the pandemic AEW regularly booked several independent wrestlers a week for its online shows (including Baron Black), but that has slowed down since they’ve returned to the road, with the company opting for monthly one-day tapings in Orlando to fill out its YouTube schedule. Independent wrestling has always hinged on the passion of its participants more than any kind of profit potential, but the last year has been perhaps the most tumultuous for wrestling employment in a long time.

That’s one of Terminus’s most important goals: to empower freelance workers in an unpredictable industry. Ideally it’ll become another major independent promotion that can serve as both a reliable payday for wrestlers and get them the kind of exposure they need to get bookings at other promotions, or even catch the eye of major companies like AEW, WWE, or New Japan. Hopefully it’ll also empower Jonathan Gresham and Baron Black as they continue to write their own stories and dictate their own fates, and help them not remain beholden to companies and promoters that can stop working with them with no notice. Perhaps most crucially, Terminus is also a chance to empower Black wrestlers specifically, who work in a business long defined by systemic racism and overt bigotry, and that rarely affords Black wrestlers the same opportunities as white ones. And it’s all happening in a city once synonymous with wrestling, and in front of a crowd of local kids who could be the next Jonathan Gresham or Baron Black—the next hometown hero keeping the flame of Atlanta wrestling alive for all the fans of the future. Terminus’s slogan is “all roads lead here;” it’ll be fascinating to see where those roads take Terminus and Atlanta in the future.

Terminus: All Roads Lead Here airs as an online PPV on Fite TV at 6:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, Jan. 16.

The current card for All Roads Lead Here:

Jonathan Gresham vs. Josh Alexander: Ring of Honor Original World Title match
Bandido vs. Baron Black: Ring of Honor World Title match
Moose vs. Mike Bennett
Jordynne Grace vs. Kiera Hogan: Impact Digital Media Championship match
Liiza Hall vs. Janai Kai
Lee Moriarty vs. Jay Lethal
Daniel Garcia vs. JDX vs. Khash vs. Adam Priest
Dante & Joe Keys vs. Tracy Williams & Fred Yehi

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.