LAWRENCEBURG – Outside the abandoned warehouse in Cable Park off U.S. 127, a once yellow, now black forklift lies in an empty concrete lot, its seat, steering wheel and dashboard melted into a pile of goo and burnt cloth.
Black stains crown the doorways and loading docks to the whitish structure, left by the smoke that billowed when firefighters from three jurisdictions opened the entrances.
This 12,000-square-foot building near Lawrenceburg once housed Monster Rings and Cages, a successful business that ships boxing rings, wrestling cages and other fighting equipment worldwide.
Mike Samples, a former professional wrestler who grew up in Frankfort, founded the company in 2000, and says anytime you see a cage on TV, it’s likely one of his.
Alex Farris, the company’s shipping manager, steps through one of the blackened doorways to search for anything salvageable. There isn’t much; Samples said the fire on Sept. 12 ruined the building and nearly everything inside, causing $700,000 to $800,000 in damage.
“You couldn’t see any metal in here,” Farris says, pointing at the ceiling. “Of course it was all fully insulated.”
Now, only the metal is visible, but light shines through slits in the roof where burnt insulation dangles like Spanish moss from thick steel beams. The beams actually partially melted in the fire, Samples said.
It was the insulation – plus the vinyl, the ropes used on the rings and the foam pads on the cage floors – that caused the mostly metal building to burn so hot for so long when a fan shorted the electrical system, Samples said.
He said he had just gotten a big delivery of foam padding at the warehouse on the day of the fire. The pads are made of polyethylene.
“It’s a chemical blend, so they burn, and they burn, and they burn, and they burn,” Samples said.
So, too, did the building, which the company had occupied since last October.
“There’s our old band saw,” Farris said, pointing to an expensive, now ruined piece of equipment used to cut the steel to make cages. Gone, too, is the room-sized paint booth where the cages were colored, an iron worker machine used to press steel, a plasma-cutting machine, the office computers, the offices themselves, and, worst of all, the company’s inventory.
But, like Samples himself, the company refuses to stay on the mat.
Sandwiched temporarily in a 4,800-square-foot building on Industry Road near downtown Lawrenceburg, welders work on steel beams for new cages with new welding machines while Farris and other employees – there are 14 total – drive up with a trailer full of metal pieces from the old warehouse that were once steps onto the fighting arenas. They are burned, but can be saved.
The company previously used this building for three years before moving to Cable Park. But back then it had all 7,500 square feet of it. Now, another company rents a large portion, which puts a strain on available space.
“This is a half of a half of a half of what we had,” said Corey Dennis, a five-year employee.
Samples said there is no room to fit some of the machines he needs to replace, but he is making do, having other companies cut steel for him while he waits for the imminent check from the insurance company – the money he needs to tear down the old warehouse and rebuild, bigger and better.
“We’ve got about four 30-foot steel cages to do, plus boxing rings,” Samples says of his current workload. Farris said that, before the fire, the company would make two to three units per day during a normal week. He said it is still making two a day, though space has limited the company to generally producing smaller cages.
Belgian customers recently visited the company, Samples said, and helped work out a deal to sell its products across Europe. John Wayne Parr, a customer and a nine-time world champion Australian Muay Thai fighter, also visited, Samples said.
One cage the company was building is heading to a gym in Louisiana, and a future one to China. In the past, the company has sold products in Dubai, Thailand, New Zealand and other nations.
Samples’ company claims to be the largest manufacturer of its kind in the United States, and his client list seems to confirm it. He said he builds many products for strongman competitions, plus cages for most of the mixed martial arts companies, other than the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and all the steel products for Everlast, a fighting equipment brand.
“Every time you turn on television and see a boxing event, we probably built the ring,” Samples said. That includes the ring at Madison Square Garden in New York.
In fact, even if you’re not watching boxing and see a fighting arena on television, it’s likely one of the company’s products.
Samples, who played the character of “Hollywood” or “Movie Star” Mike Samples during part of his professional wrestling career – constantly hogging the microphone in a display of self-promotion egotistical even by wrestling standards – says he makes lots of products for the little and big screens.
The ring for “Hulk Hogan’s Micro Championship Wrestling” (little people wrestling) on truTV? Yes. Monster Rings and Cages made that. The rings for the Kevin James movie “Here Comes the Boom,” coming out on Oct. 12? That too. The ring from the two-part 2009 special episode “iFight Shelby Marx” from Nickelodeon’s hit children’s television show “iCarly?” Yes, and Samples says he and all his employees watched it.
“You can imagine, take a look at these guys, steel-working guys,” he said, pointing out strong men in welding helmets with grease-stained hands and dip tobacco-stained gums. “And they were at home watching ‘iCarly.’”
“Hell yeah I did,” replied Dennis, through a lip full of Kodiak, when asked if he watched it.
Samples said all of his cages were built with an emphasis on strength and durability (the same could be said for his imposing stature).
“There’s no substitute for quality, and no one complains about the best quality,” he said.
While Samples founded the company in 2000, he has been building cages since the 1990s. Back then, he was a full-time professional wrestler in Japan and would travel there every month.
Before working for Big Japan Pro Wrestling, he worked for nine years as part of the United States Wrestling Association, a defunct Tennessee-based competitor of what is now known as WWE, or World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. YouTube videos of his time at USWA are online, and an interview with a Japanese fan comes up in a Google search.
Samples said he visited Japan less as he grew the business. He broke his pelvis in Japan in 2002 during a fight when he landed on his knees and head at the same time. Doctors put four plates and six screws in his pelvis, and said he would never walk again without a limp, Samples said.
But after a year, Samples went back to Japan to wrestle for a few more tours. He retired on his own accord to focus on his business – not because an injury forced him.
“I just wanted to prove I could make it back,” he said.
So, too, he has quickly bounced back with his business. When interviewed the day after the fire destroyed his building, Samples said that, while he had no idea where he was going to relocate, he couldn’t let his employees down. Many are young men he recruited out of Anderson County High School’s vocational program and have worked with him for several years.
Dennis said that when he saw the burned-out warehouse the next day, he worried about losing his job.
“I have a little girl, I’m married, so, yeah, it would suck,” Dennis said.
Zack Stratton, a welder who has worked at the company five years and has a pregnant wife, worried too, though he said his wife has a job at a bank.
“I really didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said.
But they’re back in business, even with the temporary limitations. Farris said they just really wanted their tools and workspace back.
Samples was planning a 6,000-square-foot addition to his warehouse before the fire. He said when he gets his check he’ll tear down the ruined building and rebuild it and the addition. The groundwork is finished, so he said it should only take four to six months.
Samples repeatedly said he was just glad to escape the fire with his life. He was in the office around 7 p.m. that Wednesday night when he heard a scream from an employee who was cleaning. Before he fled the building, he remembered seeing one of his cages wreathed in flames.
“I walked out of a burning building,” Samples said. “I got no complaints.”
He, did, however, have good insurance.