Making it in the world of professional wrestlingFeatures, Long Form Thursday, March 24th, 2011
A crowd of 200 wrestling fans are starring toward the ring with a look of horror in their eyes. Everyone is witnessing the dastardly Wesley Pipes attack fan favorite Raj Mahal. Suddenly, the horrified crowd erupts into cheers. They all just noticed 67 year old Robbie Ellis is running from the backstage area to save Mahal from the brutal beat-down. Ellis was originally suppose to fight Pipes that night, but due to a sneak attack by Pipes earlier, Ellis was unable to fight. The fans cheer not only because Mahal will be saved, but Ellis will get also get revenge. Pipes slides out of the ring when he sees Ellis. However, once Ellis’ back is turned, Pipes runs into the ring and begins to assault the two men. Two referees attempt to get Pipes away from the ring, but he continues the attack. Eventually every security guard comes out and drags Pipes backstage as the fans’ quick glimpse of hope returns to horror. The referees help Ellis and Mahal to their feet as the crowd cheers for them. All of this, of course, is part of a show.
The wrestling world is indeed a bizzare one. Grown individuals put on tights and pretend to hate one another. Once their level of hatred reaches a certain point, the two settle their differences in a fake fight. How does one become interested in being part of this strange cross between sports and entertainment? Better yet, how does someone actually become a wrestler. For the majority of wrestlers, the interest begins at a young age.
“I started watching wrestling when I was four years old,” said Saint John wrestler John Clark. “Ever since I could put someone in a headlock I’ve wanted to do this.”
Clark wrestles all over Atlantic Canada. He is most famous for his work in the New Brunswick based XWA as the character “Nightmare“. The man who runs XWA, Ryan Heath, is also a wrestler. His dream of becoming a wrestler began early on his life as well.
“I’ve always wanted this since I was child. Always been the dream,” said Heath.
Once both Heath and Clark decided to pursue their dream, their friends and family didn’t exactly have complete faith in their career choices.
“It’s like if you say I’m gonna be rock star,” said Heath. “Everyone just looks at you and says yeah, ok. And my parents think I’m an idiot.”
While Clark’s parents didn’t exactly think he was an idiot, he still had trouble getting support from his peers.
“My family was very supportive because they knew it was something I wanted to do,” said Clark. “My friends thought I was a looneybin”
While Ellis is from a completely different generation than Clark and Heath, his love for the wrestling world grew in the same way.
“When I was a kid, maybe 12 years old, and the family would watch Texas ‘rasslin’ every Friday and Saturday night,” said Ellis. “As an adult I actually became friends with [former world champion Lou] Thesz. We both had wrestled as amateurs and I think that was the tie that bound us.”
Ellis began professional wrestling in 1967. Similar to Clark and Heath, his family and friends were uneasy to the idea. Unlike the other two, Ellis kept it to himself for almost 20 years.
“[My family and friends] pretty much thought I was crazy,” said Ellis. “But only my wife and a couple of very close friends knew anything about it until 1985.”
While it’s understood how someone gets interested in profession wrestling, the larger question remains. How does someone become a pro wrestler? Like most careers, one most go to school. Heath went to the southern states for his training.
“I went to a training school in Atlanta Georgia, run by former WWE/WWF wrestler Mr Hughes,” said Heath. “I went out there, did that for about eight, eight and half months. I came back here and here I am. ”
For Clark, he was actually approached to begin training. Someone noticed his size and suggested he try it out.
“I was in uptown in Saint John, and a man approached me about becoming a pro wrestler,” said Clark. “I had experience with amateur wrestling when I was younger, as well as fooling around in the backyard.”
Ellis, being a wrestling fan growing up, finally pursued his interest shortly after finishing college.
“I was in college and drove to Boston to see my girlfriend. I saw a sign on what was then the Boston Arena Annex which read, ‘Learn to be a Professional Wrestler’. I went in, but didn’t have the time to be trained,” said Ellis. “A couple of years after graduation and marriage, I went back and was trained by Billy Graham, a cop ¬not the famed superstar. We were living in Portland, so I traveled to Boston on Sundays for about six months. Just once a week. After about six months the promoter booked me for a show in Holyoke, Massachusetts.”
Despite that first match being over 40 years ago, it is a moment Ellis has not forgotten.
“My opponent was Pepe Perez. I was supposed to be the babyface, all young desire clad in white trunks with my initials and a star on the butt. But it was a Puerto Rican audience and it hated me from the moment I appeared,” said Ellis. “The bell rang and I was dropkicking left and right.Two minutes later, I was exhausted and couldn’t continue. But Pepe spoke no English and each time I was on my back and the ref counted, he would pick me up at the two count, in good heel fashion, and beat me up some more. Finally, I was able to explain to the ref who evidently explained it to Pepe and the match ended.”
While anyone who wrestles for pay can call themselves a professional wrestler, there are thousands of wrestling promotions world wide. For the majority of these promotions, they only run a couple shows a month. It is very hard for a wrestler to make a living on just professional wrestling. While difficult, it is still possible. Many wrestlers make a career in Mexico or Japan. But to make a living in North America, most wrestlers have to make it to the largest wrestling promotion in the world, the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).
“I wanted to be a wrestler since I was a kid but never thought I was big enough,” said Hughes. I met [professional wrestlers] Edge and Glen Kulka in a gym on PEI. They convinced me I was more than big enough and athletic enough.”
Once Hughes received the assurance from other professional wrestlers, he decided to give it a serious shot.
“Edge and Kulka gave me a number for [Canadian wrestler/trainer/promoter] Emile Dupree,” said Hughes. “I called him, sent him pics, Kulka vouched for me and I started training with [Dupree] the following spring.”
After building a reputation on the Canadian independent scene for years, Hughes took the initiative to be noticed by the WWE.
“I contacted WWE when I heard they were in Halifax and sent them tapes of my work,” said Hughes. “They called back after watching [my tapes] and gave me a match [on the Halifax show].”
According to Hughes, the match went well. It looked as though he may be offered a contract from the largest wrestling company in the world.
“After my tryout they were impressed and sent me outback to ‘magic room’ to get promo pics and all that done . They told me to keep in touch,” said Hughes.
In early 2005, Hughes was sent down to WWE’s then development territory, Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW). Unfortunately for Hughes, this is where his WWE career would stop.
“I was told after two weeks [in OVW] to go home and they would sort out work papers, contract et cetera,” said Hughes. “Three weeks later Simon Dean and Johnny Ace ,the head of talent, called and said I was ‘too much of a wrestler’, that I wasn’t ‘cosmetically appealing’, because I had scars on my head. They now wanted pretty boys like John Morrison, Randy Orton.”
Despite not getting a WWE contract, Hughes has not given up on professional wrestling. He still wrestles 75 to 100 matches a year. He also hasn’t ruled a run in the WWE or North American’s second largest wrestling promotion, Total Non-Stop Action (TNA).
“I haven’t been in touch with any of the North American companies but I have been with a few companies in Japan,” said Hughes. “I will always consider working for any promotion if the money’s right.”
While Hughes would be willing to work for a company if the price is good, he, along with most wrestlers, are not in this business for the money.
“People can they say they wrestle for the money, people can stay stardom, people can stay athletics. But when it all boils down to it, it’s for the fans,” said Clark.
Les Smith, a wrestler from Ontario, holds similar sentiments.
“The reason why I wrestle, the reason why I do this, the reason why I’m here is because I want to make kids feel the way I did when I was a wrestling fan,” said Smith. “I wanted to give that feeling back to the kids here. ”
For Ellis, he never wrestled for the money or even to make it a full-time job.
“I did have opportunities [to make it to the larger promotions] very early on,” said Ellis. “I never considered myself a great worker. I just loved doing it.”
Throughout his career, Ellis would go on tour with the hopes of breaking even from a financial point. He would continue to wrestle even though he wasn’t aspiring to become the greatest wrestler in the world.
“A couple of times I went on tour in the Maritimes and in the Midwest, when I would maybe break even or go home with a few dollars in my pocket,” said Ellis. “For most of us, it has very little to do with the money. But, like a lot of the guys, I feel like even getting small pay is a matter of respect. Doing it out of love is fine if you can afford it.”
Thankfully for Ellis, he can afford it. He and his wife run an art gallery featuring 19th and 20th century artists. Even if Ellis didn’t have the money from the art gallery, he is fairly confident he would still wrestling today.
“I hope I would still be wresting. But, I don’t know what I’d be doing to earn a living,” said Ellis. “I’m very lucky. Of course, I love [professional wrestling]. That’s primary.”
It is the love of the business that has allowed these men have been able to succeed thus far. They all agree you not only need to love the business, but you have to be willing to work hard.
”It takes years and years to finally make it,” said Heath. “It’s about getting your name out there. Doing as much as you can for each promotion you work for.”
“The main thing you can show in this business is respect,” said Clark. “You have to work hard and train even harder. Even if you don’t get booked [on a show], you should just go and help out. Any experience is good.”
When Ellis was asked what advise he would give to someone just getting into the business, his answer was simple but good.
“Don’t do it for the money.”
It was this attitude that has helped keep Ellis wrestling for as a long as he has. Watching the fans cheer for him at the XWA show, he certainly isn’t the only one enjoying his wrestling career.
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