While WrestleMania is the most important day on a WWE Superstar's calendar, the crowds of wrestling fans WrestleMania attracts to its host city also make it the biggest weekend of the year for independent wrestlers and those signed to smaller companies.

Among the many wrestling events in New Orleans between now and WrestleMania Sunday is a big "locals" show on Thursday, April 5 featuring New Orleans' own WildKat Sports. It's part of a multi-day non-WWE showcase called WrestleCon, which includes a convention at the Sheraton New Orleans and a series of wrestling events at the Sugar Mill. 

To get a local grappler's perspective on all this, I talked to "Outlaw" Matt Lancie, a Wildkat mainstay.  At the April 5 show, Lancie will be matched up with longtime rival Danny Flamingo, a trash-talking Chalmatian who calls himself "The Prince of Paris Road." Danny's scrappy and nasty, but I'm expecting the Outlaw to whup the pink Flamingo violet.  Lancie's also been invited to participate in the prestigious 40th "House of Hardcore" show on Saturday, April 7, a late-night event emphasizing (or at least paying tribute to) the less family-friendly, more "extreme" facets of pro wrestling.

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You can tell a lot about a wrestler just by how he or she carries themselves, and Lancie's brooding bad attitude and in-ring brutality made a strong impression on me the first time I saw him, years ago. The way Lancie walked, his hunched shoulders, pissed-off scowl and jutting chin all said "Don't mess with me." The ring bell starting the match was like a switch that flipped him from sullen to savage. He battered the hell out of the unfortunate across from him with hard fists and clotheslines, and when the match was over Lancie beat up his own tag-team partner for good measure.

I've seen him in a lot of matches since then. There are plenty of muscled-up "tough guys" in pro wrestling, but Lancie really manages to come across as the kind of dude you'd leave a bar by the back door to avoid - a big, dangerous bastard who's angry at the world and can't be reasoned with. Fortunately, he's much nicer on the phone.

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Gambit: Being an independent wrestler, are you on the road a lot?

Matt Lancie: I’m actually on the road right now. Me and a couple of guys are in a van on our way to Maryland for this show tonight at Maryland Championship Wrestling. That’s a good 17 hour drive from New Orleans. A few days ago it was Dallas. Guys like us, we’re on the road most likely over half the year, especially on weekends.

How long have you been in pro wrestling?

It’s going to be eight years this year.

How did you start? Were you a lifelong fan?

Yeah, you know, I watched it when I was younger and everything like that. But I actually started wrestling due to one of my good friends, Jack Ford. He told me about WildKat, said, "Oh, this training school is having tryouts, you want to come with me?" I said, "Sure, I’ll go with you. I’ll do the workouts." I got in because of my friend, I stayed because I love it. He left, I'm still here.

I’ve been a fan of your work for a long time - you've got great presence, backed up by a hard-hitting, old-school Southern badass style of wrestling that I personally love. Can you talk about specific influences on your approach or technique?

I’m more of a bruiser, yeah. Hit first, ask questions later. How I portray myself and my style is definitely based more on '70s and '80s wrestling, which was more smashmouth - not all these flashy moves and stuff. That’s what wrestling is, to me: a hard-hitting, physical sport. Some people tend to forget. But when you get in the ring with me, you’re getting into a fight. My main influences back in the day... I kind of go with a style based off of Tully Blanchard and Magnum T.A., people like that.

You were out with an injury for a while. What was it - something with your leg?

Yeah, I tore an ACL actually. That was my third torn ACL; I’ve had three ACL tears and two shoulder surgeries. When I tore it that time I didn't really take any time off, I just taped it up and wrestled for over a year with it, and during that year I ended up fracturing part of my leg because of the tension and everything that was causing.

I didn’t know I'd fractured my leg until I actually went to surgery. It was one of those things that was kind of every day for me: I felt pain, I kind of got used to it. Comes with the territory. But then I had to take an extra six weeks off after surgery - you know, before I could even rehab - because my bone was fractured. That’s part of why I was out for so long.

Was there doubt in your mind that you could come back from that?

Oh yeah. There was definitely doubt at first - the doctors telling me, "You’re going to have a cane, you’re not going to walk right." But man, I feel like I’m healthier than I was before surgery. They told me it was going to be a year and a half after before I could do anything, but I got cleared within two or three months of rehab and was fully back in the ring within nine. I feel like I’m healthier; I’m taking care of myself. I’m watching what I do because of that.

Your match April 5 is against "The Chalmatian Sensation" Danny Flamingo, a very unpleasant dude who's always got a lot to say. Y'all have been an odds for a while now; what's been the biggest challenge for you with Danny as an opponent?

The main thing is, you know, he’s crafty. We had a street fight at the Shamrock [on S. Carrollton] a couple years back...

I was there! You beat him all over the bar.

Yeah, then you remember. He managed to get the better of me that night. I took him too light; I was toying around with him. So going into this, I have a chip on my shoulder to not only kick his ass but get my win back.

There will be people from all over the world in town for WrestleMania, so you'll be wrestling in front of a very different crowd. Psychologically, does that make a difference to you?

Yeah. Four years ago I was a little cocky. You think you're ready, but it's a totally different ballgame. Now I’ve been here eight years, going through injury and learning a lot of stuff. I feel like mentally I'm in a better state.

When you’re wrestling in front of your hometown crowd, they know what you're about. But for these shows, like when I'm on the road, I've got to go out there and within the allotted time present myself and get across who I am. Everybody wants to get seen. Everyone is thinking they’ll make it big, right? Between the WildKat show and House of Hardcore, I'll definitely have the right eyes on me, so I don’t want to miss that opportunity. It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m up to that challenge.

Can you talk a little bit about your involvement in House of Hardcore, for people that don’t know what it is?

Absolutely. Back at WrestleCade up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Tommy Dreamer, who is the owner of House of Hardcore, held a seminar. At the end, he picked the top three guys to be on the House of Hardcore show for WrestleMania weekend, and two of them were me and Jay Spade from WildKat. We'd been busting our asses, but that was a big nod.

House of Hardcore is pretty much a hybrid version of old ECW [Extreme Championship Wrestling]. Not all crazy extreme - I mean, blood, tables, you get some of that stuff. But House of Hardcore definitely has the old school feel that ECW had, as well as keeping up with the new age of wrestling. I’m definitely excited about working there because, like I said, it’s another opportunity. And I’m excited to work for Tommy Dreamer.

Is there something in particular during WrestleMania weekend that you’re looking forward to seeing, that you’re not in?

Well, the last few years WildKat has been going around with WrestleCon, having a table out there WrestleMania weekend, doing a couple of shows, and between behind the scenes work and working shows, I don't really have a chance to take a step back. Even as a fan you’re never going to get to see everything, you know?

I would love to go to WWE Axxess or the Hall of Fame, anything like that. I’ve never been, because I’ve always had shows- I’ve always been working. But WrestleMania coming to a town is one of the biggest things if you’re a pro wrestling promoter or worker. You have 100,000 plus coming in, and if you don’t take full advantage of it, then you know you’re squandering that, you’re wasting the opportunity. And I want to make the most of it. We’re definitely ready here. I’m ready. It’s going to be a fun weekend.

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Tickets to all WrestleCon events, including the April 5 WildKat show and the April 7 House of Hardcore show, can be bought at www.wrestlecon.com/buy-tickets