Wednesday, April 1, 2015

1, 2, 3….. We Have a New Champion!: The Construction of a Professional Wrestler

by Ben Sinclair 

Becoming a Professional Wrestler is more than just taking a folding chair and hitting someone over the head with it. In most instances, that is considered assault. There are several important and highly recommended steps that an individual should take in order to perform safely in the world of Pro-Wrestling.

I am providing the following steps that I completed BEFORE I WAS ALLOWED TO PARTICIPATE IN A WRESTLING SHOW. It is imperative that you, as the reader and potential wrestling student, understand that professional wrestling is a dangerous form of sports entertainment. Performers such as Stone Cold Steve Austin (Broken Neck), John Cena (Complete Triceps Tear), and Owen Hart (Death – Fell from atop of an arena while performing a ring entrance), have sustained permanent and life altering injuries while participating in wrestling matches. During my two years in wrestling I personally suffered: a concussion, 2 broken ribs, a boxer’s fracture in my left hand, pulled muscles in both my groin and back, and numerous facial lacerations. Again, I cannot stress this enough, do not, under any circumstances, try to imitate what you have seen on TV wrestling shows without the proper training. Serious injury and even death can occur.

Now that I have scared you safe, let’s take a look at the journey from desire, to pro wrestling greatness.

First and most importantly, find a reputable pro-wrestling school or pro-wrestling trainer. Pro-wrestling schools are typically ran by the same company that puts on wrestling shows in your area. The training is conducted and supervised by a seasoned wrestling veteran and several other pro wrestlers at various stages in their respective careers. Most wrestling schools and trainers require a one on one interview and payment of a tuition that goes to cover the costs of training and the facilities. My tuition cost was $600 and a written agreement to perform in 6 wrestling shows without pay towards the end of my training period.
I attended training in Jacksonville, Florida at the Continental Championship Wrestling training facility. I use the term facility loosely as it was just a wrestling set-up in the back yard of another wrestler. If it was raining, we did not train. This type of set-up is typical of most independent wrestling schools as the expense of having a training facility in-doors can be substantial.
Accepted students must also sign a hold harmless waiver that absolves the parent wrestling organization and its affiliates from any liabilities if said individual is injured or killed while in the performance of pro-wrestling. 

On average, a pro-wrestling student undertakes roughly 3 to 6 months training or up to a year to learn basic wrestling moves, holds, and in-ring safety. My training lasted 5 months as I was able to demonstrate proficiency in the required basic move sets and skills in a shorter amount of time. The length and intensity of training depends on how quickly and safely a student is able to perform wrestling moves and holds correctly. Wrestling companies prefer to train their own performers from the ground up. This is to insure that they can monitor how safety conscious a wrestling student is while in training. This will determine if the student can be trusted with the safety of another individual in the ring. 

During this training period, a student may assist the wrestling company outside of the training facility. Tasks such as: posting flyers for upcoming shows, printing show programs, wrestling ring maintenance, and providing security at wrestling shows also contribute to the student’s knowledge and familiarity with the business of pro-wrestling; it also gives the student their first exposure to performing in front of crowds.

During my training period, I handled security surrounding the ring, filmed wrestling shows, built an entrance ramp, participated in set-up and tear down of wrestling rings before and after shows, posted flyers, built promotional signs, and assisted in the construction of a new wrestling ring. Towards the end of my training phase, I also assisted in the writing and production of wrestling show programs and storyline developments.

Second, students must learn the art of the selling their performance. Much like a car salesman sells a car, so to must a pro wrestler sell the action in the ring. In a wrestling match, how devastating or ineffective a punch or kick looks depends on how well both performers sell the devastation or delivery. 

In pro wrestling, all punches, kicks, holds, throws, etc… are “pulled” or delivered softly in order to prevent injuries to the other performers. Although it may look like a punch or a kick administered to an opponent just knocked him senseless, in reality, the opponent barely makes contact with the other performer. If the wrestler getting hit does not sell the punch or kick, then it looks fake. However, when the person getting hit throws their head back or stumbles at the moment of contact, it looks like he had his block knocked off. Pro wrestlers that can sell effectively not only make the other performer look good, it also adds to the illusion that what is happening in the ring is real.

For me, one of my favorite wrestling moves was called the “Big Boot” which was performed after throwing an opponent into the ropes. Once a wrestler is thrown into the ropes, they spring off and run back towards the other wrestler, at that point I would lift my right foot and leg into the air seemingly making contact with my opponent’s face, at which time my opponents would sell a devastating blow to the face and fall to the mat dazed. It would give the illusion of getting kicked in the face, realistically, contact is barely made with wrestler’s face prior to falling or “selling” the brutal impact. 

Third, after training is complete and the art of the sell is learned, students must decide on their in-ring persona. Prior to deciding on a persona, it must first be determined if you are going to be a good guy, known as a face, or a bad guy, known as a heel (I was always considered a face performer). Next, a student’s in-ring persona or “character” is the basis around which every part of the performer’s wrestling ability revolves around. This includes developing a name for the persona. Most students are discouraged from using their own personal name. This is to insure privacy to the both the performer and their families. Pro-wrestlers like the “The Rock” (Real Name: Dwayne Johnson) or “Hulk Hogan” (Real Name: Terry Bollea) conceived their names to coincide with their in ring personas and wrestling abilities. The most effective in-ring personas and character names are extensions of the individual’s personality or lifestyle.

Once a character name and persona have been chosen, the wrestler must decide on what type of outfit or “ring attire” they will wear while performing. The ring attire must be in line with what the name and personality display. For instance, if your character was that of a military hero, your name may be “Sergeant Storm” (My In-ring Persona), and you may choose to wear military camouflage with black boots to the ring. I also carried an American flag attached to a short pole to complete the American hero image. Everything must go together or it can confuse members of the crowd at wrestling shows. Independent wrestlers have to supply their own wrestling attire, knee and elbow pads, and any other accompaniments to complete their in-ring character.

Fourth, after training, selling, and character development, a student must learn how to control the audience with the action in the ring. From the time a pro-wrestler enters the wrestling arena until he leaves, his main goal is to control the audience and their response to what is going on in the ring. 

Face performers play on the audience’s emotions to elicit cheers and encouragement that they feed off of. When the face character has been beat down and is on the verge of losing, he finds ways to get the crowd involved. Once the crowd begins to cheer, the face character somehow finds the will to carry on. Effective face characters make an audience member feel good about routing for the hero and gives them the impression that their support helped the hero both physically and mentally come back from the edge of defeat.

My connection with the crowd began when I first entered the arena. I would circle the ring and shake hands and then hand out small American flags to the kids in attendance. This was an excellent way to endear yourself to the younger audience which in turn would endear me to the parents and older generations as well. 

The heel performer’s main goal is to develop “heat” by getting the audience to hate him and boo his every move. Heel characters do whatever it takes to get the upper hand. They cheat by using dirty tactics like low blows to the face character’s crotch or by eye gouging them with their thumb. The heel also employs “cheap heat” tactics like threatening to hit elderly audience members and by hurling insults at the crowd.

In my first match, I faced “The Outlaw” Jamie McKinnon, who was a heel with a bad boy persona. Each time he would enter the arena, he would call the crowd “stupid” or “simple minded” which garnered instant cheap heat from the audience. During the match, he would seemingly cheat by gouging my eyes and delivering low blows to my nether regions in order to attain the upper hand. All this to the dismay of the audience who was pulling for the “American Hero” face character (me).

A pro-wrestler must master the ability to control the crowd. The performer’s abilities and the quality of the wrestling match are all determined by the crowd’s reaction. Failure to keep the audience hanging on to every action in the match can have a detrimental effect on the performer’s career. If nobody wants to watch you perform in a wrestling match, you will not be asked to participate in wrestling shows.

Fifth, a performer must learn the principles of “kayfabe” and how to effectively use it. Kayfabe is defined in the wrestling business as “The suspension of disbelief.” Pro wrestling has fascinated audiences for centuries on the notion that the action taking place in the ring is real. Wrestling fans, particularly older generations (above 55 on average) have always believed that pro-wrestling is real and that every aspect of the wrestling business is true. They are under the assumption that everything from in-ring personas to outlandish story lines are completely true, when in fact, they are a fabrication.

Every aspect of what you see and hear at a wrestling show or on a wrestling television show is completely preplanned and scripted prior to the performance that the audience sees. From what a pro-wrestler says during a promo (interview) to who wins at the end of a match is discussed and approved by numerous individuals beforehand. This is how pro-wrestling has maintained the grand illusion of being real is attributed to the wrestling business maintaining kayfabe. 

One of my experiences with kayfabe came after a wrestling show in Fernandina Beach, Florida. That evening I had wrestled “Dark Justice”, a militant heel character that had earned an extreme hatred during our match by breaking my flag/pole over my back in an attempt to earn a victory. In reality, I was good friends with Dark Justice, (Real name Howard Upperman). We were in the process of disassembling the wrestling ring for storage when a young fan somehow gained entry back into the arena after the doors were locked. He spotted the two of us helping each other and was confused by what he observed. Once Howard and I realized what was happening, we dropped what we were doing and started trading punches until Howard turned and retreated to the locker room. This gave the illusion that we were enemies in real life and the wrestling ring.  

During a 40 year span that began in 1950, pro-wrestling enjoyed a strict level of kayfabe. It was the unspoken/unbroken rule for all pro-wrestlers to live their life by. Face characters would never be seen in public with heel characters. Personal names of performers were strictly confidential and forbidden to be given out. There have also been reports of masked wrestlers never going out in public without wearing their masks. Kayfabe is what made professional wrestling more appealing to audiences than even pro football and baseball during this time frame. It has even been rumored that there was a secret handshake that helped wrestlers indentify other wrestlers from imposters, but I have never seen it.  

The next step, a performer must learn how to call a match while it is going. Even with the majority of the wrestling business being scripted, a performer must learn how to master calling a match while participating in it. Calling a match is similar to a quarterback on the football field calling plays in the huddle so that the other players on the field know what is going on.
Both participants and the “wrestling booker” (the person in charge of running the show) usually meet several hours prior to the start of a wrestling show in the back dressing rooms or in a private office to discuss certain aspects about the upcoming match. It is at this point that the match winner is determined and key moves or “spots” are discussed. Not every move or hold is discussed during this meeting and it is left up to the performers to determine the action between scripted segments. 

Typically the senior most performer in the match controls the action in the ring regardless if he/she is selected to win. Performers continuously communicate with each other during the match. Rest moves such as headlocks, arm bars, and leg locks give the performer’s time to catch their breath and time to discuss what action comes next. 

Moves or “spots’ are often paired in groups of three. For example, say the heel performer has the face performer in a headlock. The senior performer will then say “I am going to work my way out of your headlock, deliver 3 elbows to your midsection, shoot you into the corner and I will attempt a clothes line, put your foot up at the last second (to simulate getting kicked in the face).
My favorite spots were to lock-up by applying a side headlock to my opponent, then throw them into the ropes, and give them the Big Boot, as mentioned earlier, then after they are down on the mat, I would throw myself into the wrestling ropes to spring off and then deliver a leg drop (Dropping one of your legs across a downed opponent’s neck). All three moves were discussed previously while locked up with my opponent without the audience seeing the conversation that took place. 

Other actions that may be used to coordinate in-ring action includes: while in a side headlock, tapping your opponent on the back three times means to hit the ropes (run into and spring off of the ropes) and after a dangerous spot has been performed and both performers are down feigning injury, the referee with inconspicuously squeeze both performer’s hands twice to make sure they are ok. If the performer replies with 2 squeezes, it indicates that everything is ok. If one squeeze is replied, this lets the referee know that the performer may need some extra time to recover. No squeeze means that the performer is hurt and immediate help is needed. At that time, the referee will stop the match and call for help. All the while, the crowd is unaware that both the performers and the referees have been carrying on full conversations in front of them. This also contributes to kayfabe.

During my first match with Jamie McKinnon, it was planned that he would get a metal folding chair from the audience and then strike me in the head thus causing a knock-out blow. Everything went according to plan except that Jamie had unintentionally hit me hard enough in the head with the chair to cause a concussion. While I was down on the mat, when I was supposed to sell being knocked out, I was actually knocked unconscious for a brief moment. The referee then came to check on me by squeezing my hand. Luckily, I came to as soon as he squeezed my hand a second time. Slightly dazed, I finished the match. I had severe headaches for a week afterwards.

Lastly, keep your day job. Pro wrestlers on the independent circuit do not make much money. A typical wrestling show performance may earn you $10 to $25 a match. The amount you are paid always depends on how much money is collected at the show through sponsors, admission, and merchandizing. If a major star or talent is brought in, it can be expensive. This can lead to some journeyman wrestlers not getting paid at all. Don’t fret! You gain valuable experience and exposure with every performance. 

After my training phase, I earned $25 per show. At that time, we were running 4 shows a month which earned me $100 pay for the matches, that coupled with the $25 earned from headshot photos sold at the merchandise table added up to $125. After a year, my match pay increased to $100 per show due to my participation in writing and developing storylines for the other wrestlers and scripting promotional interviews for upcoming shows. 

The following tips and recommendations will also assist any pro-wrestling students after they have completed training:

Get a headshot of yourself in character – At every wrestling show, vendors will often have headshots of the wrestlers to sell to the crowd in attendance.
Practice your autograph – Remember, when signing your autograph to use your character name, not your personal name. Yes, you will get to sign autographs, so be ready.
I signed 5 to 25 autographs per show. The autographs seekers were typically young children aged 8 to 15 and seniors, 65 and older.
Film each of your matches – If you are wanting to venture outside of your wrestling company’s area, you will need to make a video collection of your matches to present to other wrestling organizations. This acts as a visual resume and can help you get more opportunities to wrestle.
Take your gear bag with you – Always take your wrestling gear with you when visiting other wrestling shows as a spectator. Wrestling shows always have no-shows and cancellations of scheduled talent. If a wrestling company is familiar with you they may ask you to perform at a moment’s notice.
Utilize social media – Create a Facebook profile and a YouTube channel to showcase your matches, announce upcoming events, and to get feedback from your fans.

In closing, it is my hope that the listed steps that I have provided will guide you in your journey to wrestling greatness. Roughly 1-3% of all independent wrestlers ever make it to the big leagues like the WWE, but don’t let that discourage you! Even the big stars such as Stone Cold Steve Austin, The Rock, Sting, etc… all started out as independent wrestlers just like you!

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