With his animal print shirts, blonde mullet, and Ric Flair-esque soliloquies promising to rain down hot vengeance on his enemies, Tiger King’s Joe Exotic had all the makings of a great pro wrestler.
So it should come as little surprise that Exotic, whose real name is Joseph Maldonado-Passage, once held ambitions in the pro wrestling world, going so far as to hold matches at his infamous zoo, with tigers and wolves and fireworks all part of the show. Take that, Boneyard Match.
Exotic worked occasionally as a professional wrestling commentator from 2014 to 2018 and held a pair of wrestling shows at the infamous G.W. Zoo during that time. We caught up with wrestlers and the promoter that worked with Exotic about the bizarre experience, even by pro wrestling’s standards.
Exotic’s relationship with wrestling started when he met Texas businessman and pro wrestling promoter Robert Langdon at a “Monkey Ball” charity event hosted at the G.W. Zoo sometime around 2010. Langdon currently runs Texoma Pro Wrestling (then NWA Texoma), a southern independent wrestling organization that’s had AEW’s Sammy Guevara and Lance Archer and WWE’s The Viking Raiders and Shelton Benjamin pass through its ranks.
Exotic and Langdon bonded over their ownership of exotic animals, and eventually decided it would be mutually beneficial for Exotic to do colour commentary on NWA Texoma events and stream them on Joe Exotic TV. The pair’s friendship grew to the point that Langdon actually walked Exotic down the aisle for his marriage to his fourth, and current, husband, Dillon Passage.
For three-plus years, Exotic commentated for NWA Texoma, injecting his own particular energy into the programs, which meant fundraising pleas for his zoo and space for his bonkers music videos.
“Joe knew nothing about wrestling. And we knew this,” Langdon said in a recent interview with VICE. So he paired Exotic with two veteran wrestling performers in the booth. “We spent a lot of money on the show to make sure Joe looked professional.”
On October 26, 2014, a four-match card was held in the middle of the afternoon in the parking lot of the G.W. Zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. Langdon described it as “hotter than Hades.”
Two years later on the July 4 weekend, the ring moved into the zoo itself, as Langdon and Exotic presented “NWA Texoma Wrestling at the Zoo and Fireworks,” pairing a wrestling show with a nighttime fireworks display, since Langdon also owned a fireworks stand. It was to become one of the weirder wrestling events on record.
The show had a significantly better lineup than the parking lot event, featuring former WWE star Charlie Haas taking on indie standout Moonshine Mantell and former NWA champion Tim Storm (who performed on the first show as well) pitted against Jaxon Stone.
“You meet the biggest characters in (wrestling), so when I first met Joe Exotic, it was just another night. I didn't think anything of the stuff he wore, the tigers, anything like that, I was just like, ‘yeah, this is definitely pro wrestling,’” Mantell said.
“He fit right in just perfectly.”
Wrestlers who were regulars with NWA Texoma had been around Exotic and his animals in the past, as he frequently brought tigers with him to events in Texas and let wrestlers and fans interact with them before and after the show. Having outrageous characters hanging around a show isn’t novel for people in the carny world of pro wrestling, but wrestling in front of nearly 200 caged tigers certainly was.
“When we were driving there, it just seemed like we weren’t going to the right place,” said Stone, who had previously experienced plenty of gimmicky promotion nights during his time as a baseball player in the Atlanta Braves farm system.
“When we got there, nobody else was there; it was just an empty field. I was contemplating my whole career as a pro wrestler, I was like, ‘What am I doing? I should go home.’ But then Charlie Haas and Tim Storm showed up and I was like ‘OK, these guys are stars, I should calm down now.’”
Wrestlers were given free rein of the zoo to interact with the animals while the grounds were mostly quiet and without visitors.
“That's probably why it was my favorite booking, because I got to have a one-on-one session with these cats,” said Mantell. “It was just a day of fun. It was a very lighthearted day. It was just a day at the zoo, but hanging out with people that you work with every weekend. There was no pressure; there was no big crowd. We were basically wrestling in front of kids and family members, and then there were fucking tigers running around.”
The “locker room” was set up on an outlook gazebo where zoo patrons would watch tigers. It also overlooked the notorious pizza stand, which was where Tiger King alleged expired meat from Walmart was cooked that was also fed to the tigers. As Stone put it, “You could go down and tie your wrestling boots next to the chickens.”
On the first show in the zoo, tigers roared nearby and wolves prowled in the distance. Estimates for attendance range from 20 to 45, not that unusual for an indie wrestling show. As ludicrous as the entire scene was for those who were there, the most memorable thing wasn’t the animals, but the over-the-top pyrotechnics that were blasted off during wrestler entrances, despite there being next to no one at the show.
“I’m fired up. I knew there was gonna be pyro, so I was like, ‘I don’t care how many people there are.’ But then when I came out and my pyro just turned out to be smoke, because I was the first guy out and I don’t think Joe Exotic had worked out the kinks of his pyro yet,” Stone said. “And then I’m standing in the middle of the ring and Tim Storm has Triple H WrestleMania pyro.”
For the wrestlers back in the locker room, the pyro was hardly the stuff of Monday Night Raw dreams.
“You'd be sitting in the back and your ears would just be ringing. I remember the entire show, absolutely dreading going through the curtain and having the pyro go off on either side of my head. It was fucking nuts,” said Mantell.
By the time Mantell entered the ring for the main event against Haas, the sun had fallen and it was quite dark. The highlight of the match may have been when Haas was thrown to the outside and was spooked by nearby chickens before retreating back into the ring. At the end of the stream of the event, Exotic’s lip-synched country song about tiger rival Carole Baskin allegedly murdering her husband played immediately. For the people in attendance, there was a two-hour firework show following the matches.
“Anywhere that we can try to put on a show, we’re gonna try to do it, but the most outrageous one is doing it at the zoo. It was really different. We didn’t pull a large crowd, so I kinda lost my butt on it. But it wasn’t about the money; it was about the animals,” said Langdon.
Exotic’s involvement with wrestling came to an end as his life unravelled in 2018. Jeff Lowe, his business partner, had turned on him and assumed ownership of the park, squeezing him out of its operation. Exotic was looking for an escape, and turned to his wrestling buddy. He posted a tearful farewell video on his Facebook page from the back of the stretch limo that was in Langdon’s name, and set off to try to start a new life. (This video appears to have been scrubbed from the internet.)
Langdon said he offered to let Exotic and Passage live on 20 acres of land he owned. He told Exotic there would be space for some tigers as well. Instead, the couple and their four dogs moved to a Motel 6 in Pensacola, where Exotic found work as a bartender and dishwasher.
“Three or four months later, I get a call that Joe had been arrested,” Langdon recalled.
In September 2018, Exotic was on his way to apply for a third job at a local hospital when he was arrested, and eventually convicted, on 17 federal charges of animal abuse and two counts of murder for hire, for a plot to kill Baskin.
Langdon’s organization has continued into its 13th year, helping foster some of wrestling’s top upcoming talent. All of the shows Exotic worked on, including the show from the zoo itself, are still available on Joe Exotic TV on YouTube. The shows and its performers are enjoying additional attention thanks to the rousing success of the documentary series.
“It’s become like the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my career,” said Stone. “It’s my WrestleMania moment, baby!”
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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.