Thursday, November 29, 2007

How to Break into Pro Wrestling

To break into professional wrestling, you need to network with industry insiders, gain a solid knowledge of backstage politics, hope for a little luck, and grow an incredibly thick skin. Here's my story...

Make Friends in the Business

My first "insider" contact in professional wrestling was the Rev. Billy C. Wirtz. I had watched the flamboyant 6'4" manger on Championship Wrestling from Florida during my sophomore year at UNC. It turns out that he lived in Raleigh, NC and was a professional touring comedian/musician. I met him after a show at the Skylight Exchange in Chapel Hill, and he couldn't have been nicer. He turned me on to the insider wrestling newsletter, The Wrestling Observer by Dave Meltzer.

The Observer pretty much taught me everything I needed to know about the professional wrestling business. Through my research, I learned about an upcoming South Atlantic Pro Wrestling (SAPW) show promoted by Greg Price. SAPW was the remnants of a promotion started by George Scott, John Ringley and Mike Lamberth called NAWA. The trio hoped to recapture the glory years of Mid-Atlantic Pro Wrestling. "Number 1" Paul Jones and Frank Dusek eventually took over and rechristened the promotion SAPW. I attended the Denton, NC card in January of 1992, met Greg, and asked if I could mail him some ideas for wrestling storylines.

I went back home and typed up a very detailed storyline involving a face turn by The Russian Bear Ivan Koloff. The Berlin wall had just fallen, and it seemed like a good time to freshen up Uncle Ivan's character. Ivan would bring out a handwritten letter from his mother imploring him to end his hatred of Americans, and to embrace the very country that had brought him so much success. Of course, the entire angle was just a ruse to set up Ivan and his nephew as "The Hardliners" - the last of a dying breed of communist sympathizers.

As luck would have it, SAPW just lost its booker - the volatile Ragin Bull Manny Fernandez. Greg liked my ideas and asked me to write for the TV shows. Just like that, I was the booker for a nationally-broadcast wrestling promotion at the age of 21.

Learn from the Past While Looking Forward

Greg let me decide who wrestled and why. The television show was beyond stale, and I implemented a lot of changes - many of which were not well-received. They included:

  • Having Chief Wahoo McDaniel lose a retirement match where he could no longer wrestle on television. The Chief was getting old and his matches were a TV snore-fest. But he was still a good ticket seller and recognizable name. My idea was that he could still appear on TV, but people would have to attend the house shows to see the Chief exact his revenge.
  • Having our champion, The German Stormtrooper Helmut Hesler, win matches cleanly. I borrowed a lot of ideas from All Japan Pro Wrestling, and this one did not go well with the boys. I wanted the heels to win their matches cleanly, and only cheat on occasion. To me, building up a strong champion made it more impactful when he eventually lost. By the way, the long-term plan was for the belt to eventually go to a young Rob Van Dam.
  • Incorporating "shoot" (real) segments into the program. On one occasion, I had wrestler Roughouse Graham interrupt an interview with RVD and Bob Caudle saying he was sick of how he was being treated in SAPW. He dropped some insider names and walked off the set as we cut to black. This was not an "Internet" angle designed to cater to hardcore fans (we had neither the Internet nor hardcore fans). This was simply a way to break up the monotony of a one-hour wrestling show and hopefully get fans talking. It did just that.
  • Having "jobbers" (the guys who always lose) win matches. We had some pretty good job guys, and again the idea was to create an "anything can happen" television show.

I also did other "controversial" things at the time including babyface vs. babyface matches with lighter-weight wrestlers to let the workers showcase their abilities outside the confines of a traditional good guy vs. bad guy context. Many of my ideas eventually came to light in ECW and WWE.

In fact, the famous RVD vs. Sabu "respect" series in ECW was exactly like a very detailed storyline I had written for RVD in SAPW that never aired. Coincidence? Probably. I also wrote a very detailed character sketch for "The Drifter" to be portrayed by Bryan Clark (Nightstalker, Adam Bomb, Kronik). He was to be a mysterious tweener (neither a good guy nor a bad guy) designed to appeal to disenfranchised youth. Similarities to this character were later popularized by Raven, and to a lesser extent, Stone Cold Steve Austin.

Perhaps the biggest change I brought to SAPW was actually writing out scripts for the shows. I'm not sure if I was the first wrestling script writer in the business, but no one there had ever seen or heard of one. It just hadn't been done before. To protect me from the boys (they did not like the idea of written scripts), Greg posted the scripts on the walls and claimed ownership.

Sample Wrestling Script:

Sample wrestling script - click to enlarge

Alas, my proposed Rob Van Dam vs. Vince Torelli (aka "The World's Most Dangerous Man" Ken Shamrock) feud never took place.

After eight glorious television shows, SAPW was on its last leg and Greg was ready to jump ship. He lined up an investor in Augusta, GA to start a new promotion and talked me into going along. Believe it or not, I dropped out of the prestigious Masters of Accounting program at UNC to move to Augusta to produce a new wrestling show. I was offered $25,000 a year and carte blanche to mold the show as I saw fit. How could I say no?

Know When to Walk Away

Things in Augusta never quite panned out like they were supposed to. I was getting paid, but it didn't take long to see that the money for the TV show and training facility wasn't coming. With the writing on the wall, I gave notice to Greg and returned to Chapel Hill to pursue a career in comedy.

I grew up a lot in a very short amount of time. I made a life-long friend in future WWE champ Rob Van Dam. I have a lot of good stories that involve Rob, and they certainly deserve their own post later on. I also have fond memories of watching movies the likes of which I had never seen before (or since) with "Father" James Mitchell, dodging strange overtures from the Iron Sheik, dining with Junkyard Dog, and acting as a very unlikely bodyguard for Bambi at seedy (and that's putting it nicely) autograph signings.

I also witnessed a lot of things that aren't suitable for print in this forum, including a few felonies.

I walked away from the business, only returning sporadically to ring announce a special show, appear as a pro wrestling manager, or get assaulted by the Hardy Boys. I also spent some time in ECW, where I shared stories with Chris Jericho, rode through South Philly in the Insane Clown Posse's hoopty, and picked up Terry Funk in Sabu's Winnebago.

I later conceptualized and self-published the critically-acclaimed book Tributes: Remembering Some of the World's Greatest Wrestlers along with the help of Dave Meltzer and Ted Hobgood, before later selling the rights for the book to another publishing company.

At the height of wrestling's popularity in the mid-90's, I had the possibility of working alongside Vince Russo and Ed Ferrara as a WWE script writer. I declined even going to Stamford for an meeting. My dream of working in pro wrestling had long since passed.

Like many old-time fans, my love of wrestling was irreparably broken when WCW died. Vince McMahon's current WWE is a far cry from the believable style popularized in the Carolinas by Blackjack Mulligan, Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, and countless others.

Once in a while, I'll run across an old YouTube clip that reminds me of my former love and rekindles my memories in pro wrestling.

I have no Masters degree, but I have no regrets.

1 comment:

Ted Hobgood said...

Ah, the days when you could plan your wrestling program on a dot matrix printer!

And yeah, we had a run-in with the unpredictable Manny Fernandez in OMEGA. Someone had pulled a rib on him by telling him to show up at our show, and we'd have work for him. We didn't. I knew he was a loose cannon, so I warned Matt about him. Matt handled it very well and The Ragin' Bull departed without complaint. I think he did murder the guy who called him though.

I really should put the Swami Tabouli Couscous pictures up on the internet. Pay me my ransom, or they will be published!!!