A part-time wrestler in a small Kentucky outfit has found the perfect formula to become the hottest name in the sport.
In a business in which schtick is almost everything, Dan Richards wrestles as the “Progressive Liberal.” He tells his audiences that President Donald Trump is a con man and accuses them of voting against their own interests.
He is the man they love to hate.
Richards has had a whirlwind of a week: NPR, Sports Illustrated, Deadspin, People magazine and The Washington Post have all been in touch with Richards, who has found a lightning-in-a-bottle gimmick for wrestling superstardom as the bad guy to deep-red state wrestling fans.
When he suggested to one small-town crowd that a wall should be built around their town rather than on the border between the United States and Mexico, Richards knew he was on to something. When he suggested to a crowd that he was there to take away their guns, that was even more tense. His finishing move is “The Liberal Agenda.”
Richards began playing the “Progressive Liberal,” basically a political Don Rickles routine for the Appalachian Mountain Wrestling program, before Trump’s election. This week, though, he suddenly found himself in the national spotlight.
Richards is in fact Daniel Harnsberger, a 37-year-old from Richmond, Va., who works in real estate and was once a newspaper reporter for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. He really is a liberal, but turns it up for ring drama.
Watching him is like looking at what might happen if Bernie Sanders got a wild hair and schooled Trump voters on every single thing he thinks they got wrong, then added a piledriver and maybe a five-star frog splash.
Well, not every single thing.
Richards said in a phone interview that he sticks to general topics in his peppery interaction with the crowds. If he were debating with Tucker Carlson of Fox News, he’d be happy to step it up to specifics. He’d also like to appear with Bill Maher on HBO, and he says HBO’s “Vice News Tonight” is coming to cover an upcoming match. He has two matches coming up this weekend in Eastern Kentucky.
People from here, we don’t like to be told how we should live, what we should do, and Dan does that pretty well.
Kyle Maggard, Appalachian Mountain Wrestling
In wrestling, the bad guy is known as the heel. Such wrestlers are required to assert their lack of likeability through speeches and on-camera interviews. One of his on-camera routines is correcting people’s pronunciation of “Appalachia” and “hollow.”
The good guy is called the “face.” Kyle Maggard, who works for Appalachian Mountain Wrestling, is a “face,” which is the audience’s favorite and Richards’ opponent.
“There’s no character,” Maggard said of Richards’ liberal speeches. “It’s not a play act or put-on. Dan is a hard-core liberal. ... People love to hate him. People from here, we don’t like to be told how we should live, what we should do, and Dan does that pretty well.”
Maggard said that Richards’ appeal to the crowd is his resistance to understanding mountain ethic: “The coalfields are the center of our universe here.”
President Donald Trump himself has appeared on WWE as a foil for WWE chairman Vince McMahon. Linda McMahon, Vince McMahon’s wife and a former WWE on-camera participant herself, is now the head of the Small Business Administration.
Richards is realistic about his chances of a WWE appearance.
“I’ll be 37 next month,” he said. “My knees have a lot of miles on them. They’re not looking for me.”
Still, he says: “This is how I feel. Wrestling gives me a platform to say it.”
If you go
“The Progressive Liberal”
June 30: “Progressive Liberal” Dan Richards will take on Kyle Maggard in a “crybaby match” as part of the bill at Wolfe County High School, 20 High School Road, Campton. Bell time is 7:30 p.m.
July 4: AMW live on Tour will have open-air matches at 11729 Main St., Martin at 6 p.m. Gates open and a block party starts at 5 p.m.