Manny Smith wanted the world to see him wrestle.
Smith, who grew up wanting to become a professional wrestler, spent hours researching wrestling promotions in Utah while he was in middle school years ago. But there were few opportunities. Every time he looked for places to wrestle, he saw links to training grounds in Florida — often the first step that wrestlers like John Cena and Dave Bautista took to make it big.
In December 2018, Smith decided to host his own professional wrestling show called Festivus Fights. It was going to be a one-and-done event.
“We drew a pretty good crowd,” Smith said. “We drew ... over 100 people to our first show, and we realized that it was kind of a community. The community needed something like this at that time.”
That show turned into another show — Aftermath, hosted in January 2019. It drew 300 people.
“Two shows and we’re already like, all right, the community kind of needs something like this,” Smith said.
Then came another show. And then another. And another. Smith and his team wanted to gain traction — to see if they could get enough people interested to host monthly events. They reached that point. They opened a wrestling school to help people learn the ways of wrestling. They drew big names, made connections with some of the largest wrestling promotions out there. They signed a television deal. One show turned into an entire promotion — a wrestling business called Devotion Championship Wrestling.
Now, three years later, Devotion Championship Wrestling is celebrating its third anniversary with an event on Dec. 4 at The Gateway in Salt Lake City, a culmination of three years of constant grinding and hustling that has been bolstered by family and community.
“I wanted to wrestle in front of my family,” Smith said. “Well, now, my family became part of the show. ... So it’s kind of really like that family-friendly environment.”
Smith is one of the promotion’s biggest stars. He’s not the champion, but he’s always in the running. His dad is the commissioner. His son has a role on screen. And his wife is one of the biggest up-and-coming women pro wrestlers in the world.
So how did a family business like Devotion Championship Wrestling grow?
What is Devotion Championship Wrestling?
Devotion Championship Wrestling isn’t an independent wrestling promotion in a dinky, poorly lit room in the back of a warehouse. The matches take place at The Gateway. You’ve probably seen them at the Union Pacific entrance. They’ve since moved to another place in The Gateway.
The DCW wrestlers show up every week. They collide in the ring and outside of it, involving the fans as much as possible.
Weekly shows air on FITE TV, an app that streams local and national pro wrestling, MMA and boxing events from across the country. Weekly episodes of DCW’s show are about 30 minutes and feature anywhere from two to three matches.
But DCW isn’t some simple independent organization with a wrestling ring and men in tights. They compete outside the ring, too. For example, attendees of the 2021 FanX Salt Lake City Comic Convention might have spotted the DCW ring among vendor booths. At that event, the DCW held live wrestling matches, which included a title change. Wrestlers battled their way through the FanX crowd, all for the sake of a championship.
For DCW, FanX was a sign of growth.
“I think it’s community-based like this way though,” Smith said. “Look at the FanX thing. That was probably one of the biggest things because there’s like, a lot of pop culture fans who have no idea we exist.”
The most die-hard wrestling mark will consider DCW a lower budget production for locals, up-and-comers and for wrestling fans. It’s nowhere near the glitzy WWE or the high-level AEW you see on TNT. Rather, it’s closer to Ring of Honor — a major independent promotion that is a breeding ground for some of pro wrestling’s biggest stars.
What makes DCW more than a backyard wrestling promotion in The Gateway is that it has a connection to bigger wrestling promotions, namely Impact Wrestling.
Smith said he has a direct connection with Impact Wrestling — formerly known as Total Nonstop Action wrestling — and works with them consistently. Wrestling fans will remember TNA as the promotion that went toe-to-toe with the WWE for some time, signing major players like Kurt Angle, Christian Cage and Hulk Hogan during its prime years. Over time, the organization went under a number of rebrands and changes that dwindled its national significance. The seeds of TNA are still there — pay-per-view events like “Bound for Glory” still show up every year — but Impact Wrestling has carved out its own niche of the wrestling industry.
In many ways, Impact Wrestling is a safe place for pro wrestlers who don’t seek out the major spotlight of a WWE or AEW. For example, the tag team of Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson — who wrestling fans will remember as members of the Bullet Club — are the Impact tag-team champions. The team — known now as the Good Brothers — had a previous stint in WWE. But they now wrestle on Impact.
And, funny enough, they have made appearances at DCW. They’re slated to appear at DCW’s upcoming third anniversary event.
But DCW isn't only a connection to veterans. It has created new stars like Reka Tehaka — who got her start with DCW and is married to Manny Smith. She wrestled on AEW Dark, an event of lower-tier matches of new stars and veterans that don’t make it onto the TNT show.
Needless to say, DCW is more than just some local wrestling joint. It’s a stepping stone toward something bigger — the overall wrestling industry.
DCW, AEW and Impact Wrestling: Steps to the future
DCW has made it easier for people to become professional wrestlers. Smith’s leadership includes connecting those on the DCW wrestling cards to Impact Wrestling or AEW Dark. In fact, the upcoming anniversary event will have wrestlers who have been on AEW Dark’s cards. Heck, his wife is constantly featured on those cards.
DCW gives up-and-comers a chance to put themselves in the spotlight. If they want to be a big-time pro wrestler, DCW can be the first step.
“If you want to do anything at all, you got to go out and do it,” he said. “You can’t just sit there. If you want to do the bare minimum of life, you’re never going to get any results. But if you give it everything you’ve got, who says you can’t be the best at what you do?”
Smith said that DCW has been an example of how the pro wrestling community can be so small, even if it feels so big. He said he’s made connections with some of the top legends and names in the industry.
The pandemic hit DCW, too, of course. Some of the bigger names involved with DCW have had to move onto other projects — they once had Vince Russo, one of the biggest wrestling creatives in the industry, working with the promotion — and they’ve had to decide how to bring in wrestles closer to Utah for their shows.
They’re bringing in wrestlers from Colorado and California for the anniversary event. Not to mention Kid Bandit, who has wrestled on AEW Dark. World-class talent will appear, Smith said.
The show is the starting point for what’s coming next. Smith wants to make an impact of his own for 2022. The promotion has already grown so much in the last three years. He wants more to occur in the forthcoming year with more major players jumping into DCW and bringing in more fans to the shows.
More eyes on the wrestling matches. More fans to cheer on the stars and jeer at the heels.
More community to help it all grow.
“My plan is to just kick the dang door down,” Smith said. “Who says we can’t be as big as Impact? Who says we can’t be as big as WWE? We’ve already grown since day one. Now, what’re the next three years gonna look like for us?”
Correction: This article previously referred to Christian Cage and Christina Cage.