Grappling With My Love Of Professional Wrestling
I've never been afraid to admit it, in fact ever since I was a kid I watched, studied, defended and eventually loved Professional Wrestling. For me, when it's done right, there's very few forms of entertainment that truly suspend your disbelief like a great wrestling match can. Now I have to clarify that my passion for "pro-wrestling," is matched equally by my dislike (I won't say hate) of "sports entertainment." This isn't a knock on the men and women who are working in World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), or TNA. Both of these rosters bust their ass night in and night out and there are some really talented people in both companies, it's the presentation that I feel seems different. Now this post isn't about a pro-wrestling vs. sports entertainment debate, there's plenty of that already on the net. Instead I want to trace the steps on why I love it, and its effect on me to choose a life in the entertainment business.
My First Match
I'm not blowing smoke up my own ass when I say I have a incredible memory. In fact all my friends are constantly impressed how accurate, and how detailed my memories are. So when I say wrestling was always on in my house, it's true. As far back as I can remember when my dad was home there was one of three things on the TV: The Montreal Canadiens game; a PGA Golf Tournament; or Wrestling. It was one of the few things he and I could bond over. I mean I love the Canadians, but his two passions were really drinking and golf. Before they divorced I can think of countless Sunday afternoons with my dad passed out in his chair, with about 15 empty beer bottles on the table, clutching a Golf Digest, with some PGA Tournament blasting out of the TV set. Funny thing is, no one in the house dared to change the channel. Because if touched the dial on the TV (yes I'm that old), or the remote, he would snap awake and tear your head off with all the wrath of a born-again preacher.
But every Saturday evening, and Sunday afternoon (well during the winter anyway if there wasn't snow on the ground he was at the golf course) we had "our time." Back then it was still the territory days, when each region of North America had it's own promotion and own stars. The promoters in our area of Canada were the Tunney's from Toronto, their promotion Maple Leaf Wrestling, was broadcast every weekend on CHCH Channel 11 from Hamilton.
At this time the Tunney's were still partnered with the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), so we were treated to stars like Harley Race, Dusty Rhodes, Ric Flair, Greg Valentine, and so many others. It was hard hitting, it looked believable, and although my father kept insisting that it's "fake," and it was a "show" that didn't matter. I was hooked. By the time I was 9 things had begun to change and the WWE (WWF at the time) had now exploded and was on every TV across North America, it was then that my dad finally agreed to take me to a live match.
I still remember how excited I was when my dad arrived home with three tickets for 5th row floor seats. To be honest my dad never really spent time with us, so that third ticket for my sister (I found out years later) my mom insisted my father buy. It was for a Sunday matinee show at the London Gardens, and at 9 years old the two weeks I had to wait before entering that arena to watch the men who have now become my heroes do battle seemed like an eternity. But finally that day came.... And dad was nowhere to be found.
Turns out he woke up early to get in a quick 18 holes but insisted, in his scrawled illegible note, that he would be back to take us. My sister and I sat and stared at the clock, waiting. My mom paced around our living room like a caged mother lion protecting her cubs. Finally she threw her arms in the air and said, "get in the car we're going!"
As angry as my mother was in this moment I think the sight of me so excited with clutching my Dynamite Kid LJN wrestling doll , began to rub off on her. She began to laugh and ask questions about who I thought would win, and who I really wanted to see besides Dynamite. Without missing a beat I looked up at her with all sincerity and said, "Rowdy Roddy Piper."
"Why?" She asked, "he's so mean, and nasty."
"Because he's cool, and he wears a kilt!"
See, even in the beginning I never really rooted for the babyfaces (good guys) I always enjoyed the heels (bad guys) and at that time there was no one badder than Roddy Piper.
I still remember the way that the Gardens felt on that day, as we filed into our floor seats I stared at the dimly lit ring in the center of the arena my skin turned to goose flesh as my heart skipped a beat. Something was pulling me towards that squared circle, and I had no clue why.
The first match on that card was Sika "The Wild Samoan" versus "Iron" Mike Sharpe (aka "Canada's Greatest Athlete"), from years of watching these guys on TV I assumed this match was going to last about two to five minutes, because that's what they do on TV right? Boy was I wrong. These two men pounded and stretched each other for well over 20 minutes. Even though these guys were nobody's on TV anymore, they could still go. This first match also showed me how "fake" wrestling wasn't. The first time Sika backed Sharpe into the corner and slapped him across the chest it echoed throughout the building, and being five rows away I could see the sweat flying, as well as the welts and swelling forming with each subsequent shot. That was the first moment I realized that there was something more going on here. I sat mesmerized from that match to the intermission when finally Hot Rod came out to talk to the fans.
For a heel, Piper was a promoters dream at that time. He climbed in the ring and with a mere look to the crowd the started to hate him, then Roddy did what he does best got on the microphone and began berating the crowd. Within a few short sentences he had that audience so angry that while some fans threw garbage, there were even more rushing to the barricade to get at him. During all this chaos I began laughing, just seeing that shit disturber smile on Roddy's face in the midst of all this anarchy made me laugh. That's when I glanced up at my mom, who was laughing too. She leaned down and whispered into my ear, "I see why you like him, he's very funny. But he's still mean."
A Teenager Going From Rowdy To Perfect
From that Sunday on, anytime wrestling came to London we had tickets to go to the Gardens. I have a lot of great memories of those shows. One night my mom brought my friend Chris along with us, we were seated just above the entrance to the locker room and if we leaned over we could get our hands slapped by the wrestlers coming out. Which was a HUGE deal to us at the time. So as the first match is being announced we rush to the aisle and lean our hands over, that's when Chris got the first brush with fame. S.D. Jones came by and slapped his hand, but ignored me and my sister.
"Damnit!" I yelled. "How did he miss me?"
Chris awkwardly opened and closed his hand, then brought it up to his nose and smelt it.
"What did he hit you hard or something?" As bummed as I was that "Special Delivery" didn't give me the high five, I was concerned for my friend.
"No," Chris said taking his hand away from his face. "But I wouldn't be too upset he didn't touch you. He smells weird."
This was the same night my little sister, who was leaning along with us, hoping that one of these titans would give her the same brush with greatness that Chris had, fell. Seems she was leaning a little too far and slid over the edge, but instead of dropping about seven feet to the floor one of The Killer Bees, they were just making their entrance, managed to catch her and put her safely behind the barricade.
This became kind of a monthly family outing. Every month wrestling would come to town, and every month my mom, my sister, and I would be there. My dad never came with us, which I always thought was strange as he was as big of a wrestling fan as I was. Perhaps this was his way to begin separating ties from my sister and I before they finally divorced. I was obsessed with being a wrestler by this time. I started working out, drinking a ton of weight gain, and eating six meals a day. But sadly genetics has worked against me, the heaviest I would ever be is 175 lbs, no matter how hard I tried. That's when I started to realize that what I truly loved in wrestling were the guys who could talk, and back it up.
As time went on my sister lost interest, and my mom would just drop me an a friend off at the arena to see the shows. Around this time Piper left to do the John Carpenter film They Live, and for me it felt like no one could really fill that villain role for me. Roddy gave his heart and soul out there, he would back down from no one, and on that mic no one was better.
So with Roddy gone I tried to root for other wrestlers in the company. It didn't matter if they were a babyface, or a heel, I was looking for someone who could captivate a crowd on the mic and then back it up in the ring. It was still the Hulkamania era, so other than Randy "Macho Man" Savage and "The Million Dollar Man" Ted Dibiase the WWE's villain roster wasn't that strong. Other than prepping a big monster for Hogan to beat at an event, and then that wrestler was gone. Never to be seen, or heard from, again. Then one Saturday morning I turned on the Superstars TV show and these incredible vignettes from a wrestler named Curt Henning started to air.
I knew Curt from the American Wrestling Association (AWA), which has started to run a weekly wrestling show on TSN (Canada's version of ESPN) along with the newly re-launched Stampede Wrestling promotion out of Calgary. Curt always impressed me, the son of the great Larry "The Ax" Henning was a staple in the AWA and was known for being a legitimate tough guy, and someone that you needed to respect or he would hurt you. His son Curt however wasn't 300+ pounds that his dad was, he was lighter, faster, and in some cases more technically sound than most of the wrestlers working at that time. But now that Curt had entered into the WWE, he gained a new persona: Mr. Perfect.
I was barely a teenager, and although my dream of becoming a wrestler I knew could never be realized my passions for film and comedy had started to take over. But I didn't stay away from my weekly wrestling fix. Instead of studying the actual moves and how things were done, I began to study the psychology of the "sport," as well as the formula for a good promo. For the next few years I gleaned small nuggets of various performances, and storylines and compared and contrasted them to film and comedy. What worked? What didn't? How did someone just enter the arena and control an audience by a look, or comment, or small move that would cause that entire crowd to either love or hate him/her?
At this time pro-wrestling had become very cartoony and unbelievable, but I still studied and took what I could from a product I grew up watching in a smoke filled arena, that had morphed to the bright lights and pyro we see today.
An Adult Who Still Checks In
I stopped watching pro-wrestling (now rebranded by the WWE as "sports entertainment") in 2001 when the small upstart company who tried to shake up the industry, Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), closed down. It marked the end of decades of loving that business, but I felt I had taken all I could learn for my own craft. Funnily enough the most I ever learned and still apply today, especially in my stand-up act I learned from Roddy Piper and "Mr. Perfect" Curt Henning.
Piper taught me to never back down from a challenge. It doesn't matter if it's a movie I'm jumping though hoops to make, or I'm dealing with a heckler when I'm onstage. If you want something you go out and take it, fight for it, and stand your ground. And above all else, your sharp wit is your greatest weapon.
Henning encouraged this behavior but showed it from a different angle. I don't always have to physically fight, or breakdown into childish name calling when dealing with a hostile crowd. Instead I learned to utilize my intellect, my gift of gab, and my confidence in myself to do what I do without a mistake.
Sure there's been some great promos since those days, but they are few and far between. The CM Punk "Pipe Bomb" promo was the most recent example of what a character who's good on the mic can do, especially when they allow him/her to go out and just talk. No script. No safety net. Just speaking from your heart.
But as great as that piece of TV was, in my mind it'll never hold a candle to this: