In the first part of this story —(which you can click here to read)— you learned about my love of pro wrestling. However, few people know how close I was to getting into it as a possible career. I could've been the inspiration for the movie "The Wrestler"! It never quite materialized that way, but it makes for a great story...
It's 1997, high school graduation was approaching fast and everyone was headed in different directions. One day in class we were handed these sheets of paper courtesy of the yearbook staff that asked us about our goals and ambitions for the future. I was still struggling with a lot of things in 1997 and had no room for future plans. In truth, I barely survived high school because of my health and other personal issues. I had no idea what to put for an answer, but I had always wanted to take a shot at getting in the wrestling business. So I wrote semi-seriously in the space that said profession: pro wrestling manager. Look in your yearbooks '97 Stillwater grads, it's there in black and white. By the time graduation rolled around, I started to feel better physically and my semi serious answer in the yearbook didn't seem so far fetched. I decided to do a little research about pro wrestling schools and the possibility of my dream becoming a reality. I looked on this new invention called the internet as well as paging through old wrestling magazines, gathering information about training facilities throughout the U.S. I received responses from wrestling schools in Florida, California, as well as local schools in the Twin Cities area. My mother, bless her heart, was so supportive. Even though in her head I'm sure she thought I was crazy, ultimately she has always wanted me to be happy. She even helped me search for schools and visited a few with me that she was not impressed by.
I told some of my extended family what I was doing and my Uncle Bruce, who seems to know everybody, mentioned that he played baseball with veteran pro wrestler "Jumpin" Jim Brunzell in high school and could set up a lunch/ Q & A with him if I was interested. I jumped at the chance (no pun intended), and a week later we were sitting at Decoy's Restaurant in White Bear Lake, MN.
Jim was so cordial and patient with me. He indulged the life long fan inside of me and answered a ton of questions including being a part of Wrestlemania III, his career in the AWA as one half of the High-Fliers with the Greg Gagne, and as a member of the Killer Bees in the WWF with partner B. Brian Blair. He then told me the down side to pro wrestling. I had only seen what happens in the ring, but wrestling was a business just like any other. It is a fraternity that is hard to get into, much less succeed in. On some levels, it is harder than getting into the National Football League (NFL), which is damn near impossible unless you are an amazing athlete. In addition, the NFL has 32 teams in the league. In 1997, there were only three major leagues to pro wrestling: WWF, World Championship Wrestling (WCW), and Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) with rosters of thirty wrestlers or less, so the odds were stacked against me from the get-go. Jim continued on by talking about all the personal and physical sacrifices that you have to make to be successful. First of all, the physical toll it takes on your body, even as a manager, is extraordinary. The human body was not made to do what wrestlers do night after night, and you rarely get time to recoup. Furthermore, you are traveling most of the year which eventually wears on body, too. Not to mention your relationships with family and friends. He said he missed a lot of birthdays, holidays, special moments while he was on the road. He also said it is a very cut throat career where people only look out for themselves, so I had better be prepared to handle that. He then recommended a local school in Roseville, MN for me to investigate and ended lunch by saying this:
"I am not trying to discourage you, I am trying to educate you. If you have a dream and are willing to make the sacrifices to achieve it, then I say go for it!"
I appreciated the time Jim spent with me and took his advice to heart as I made my call to the "New AWA Pro Wrestling" Promotion and Training School. I spoke with a man who told me to come for a training session and see what I could do. His name was Ken Patera, a former Olympic weight lifter, world class power lifter, and recently retired pro wrestler. After his Olympic days were over, Ken trained with Vern Gagne to be a professional wrestler and was very successful from the late 70's to the late 80's competing for championships in the original AWA and WWF. Injuries had cut his career short, so he retired from active competition and decided to train up and comers how to be pro wrestlers.
My first and only day of at the school was interesting. I stepped into this dusty, dimly lit storage area with a ring set up in the corner and gymnastic mats surrounding it. Contrary to popular belief, the ring was not like a trampoline. It was a large, square-shaped, steel foundation covered with wooden planks that did nothing but increase the sound of impact and the feeling of pain. Covering this wood and steel sound system was a mat no thicker than half a thumb length and a large cloth drapery similar to what a painter would use when protecting a carpet. This was very real and very intimidating, but I was determined to step inside the squared circle. Before that could happen, I met with Ken in his office. He was also was an intimidating presence and got right down to business with me by asking me why I wanted to be a professional wrestler. I told him I didn't want to be a pro wrestler. I wanted to be a manager. I told him I had no business trying to be a pro wrestler because I was way too small and could never hold up physically, but I have watched wrestling for years and I think I had a good eye for what works and the concept of being a manager: Never stop talking and piss people off. Ken smiled and said "Okay kid, let's see how today goes and then we will talk about being a manager." I shook his hand and we headed over to meet some of the other trainees. Ken introduced me as as possible manager prospect and wanted the associate trainer and "the boys" to give me a taste of what was in store for me if I signed up.
I hopped into the ring over the top rope (which immediately pissed off the trainer and I regretted it) and started to learn how to take a proper fall or "bump" in pro wrestling. I was not allowed to take pictures while I was there, but I have included some YouTube videos of different training facilities to give you some idea of what I am talking about:
You can see and hear it, but the only thing I could tell you to do that would be comparable would be this: go somewhere with a wooden patio deck, bring a yoga mat and lay that down on top of the wood, then - with your arms spread width-wise - land on our back feet flat and palms down. Now do it for an hour straight. It hurt like hell and it sounded like a cannon going off every time I landed, but I never complained once. I knew, based on what Jim said, that they were trying to break me. I had to suck it up or I would never be accepted into this fraternity.
The next drill was running the ropes, which is more complicated than it looks. You have to take long, even strides so that your opponent can time out their next move. Not to mention the rope burn that happens every time you hit them right underneath the armpit and around the waistline. I was terrible at this part, but figured as a manager I was supposed to suck at the wrestling part and really only needed to know how to take a bump anyways. Plus, it was my first time doing it, so I figured I would pick it up eventually. Here is a great example by a young kid:
The last drill was called the "simple spot drill." A "spot" is known as a sequence of of two or three moves that are discussed by both wrestlers before a match. It's a way for the participants to make the action flow smoother and is sometimes used to bookmark a certain point in the match. Usually the wrestlers know how much time they have in the ring beforehand, so they try to discuss moves and events that will fit within the time frame they are given. I caught on to this quickly for three reasons:
1. I had watched enough wrestling to figure this out.
2. 99.9% of wrestling is worked from the left side and starts with the left arm. I am left-handed, thus: left-handed = Simple for Josh.
3. I had enough background in amateur wrestling since I was five to be somewhat athletic; especially with this spot. It included a headlock take down landing in the bump position, escape, get up, turn to left, and repeat. Here is an abbreviated example:
After doing this for what seemed like an eternity, the assistant trainer stopped us and told us to take a break. He walked toward the office, waving me over before he went inside. He looked at me and said "Not bad kid, where did you learn to do that?" I said to him in as serious a voice as I could between gasping for breath, "In my living room and on the wrestling team in high school." He rolled his eyes and replied "It figures. It's a shame you aren't bigger." With that, he walked into the office and shut the door behind him. I took what he said as a complement, but two things entered my mind. My first thought was he might be blowing smoke up my ass as a way of convincing me to sign a contract. My second thought was, other than a few athletically built guys who were fans just like me, the rest were couch potatoes who even I could see were never going to make it. I hoped I he thought I was better than them. Still, he didn't say I sucked and I took it for what it was worth.
A few minutes later, the assistant trainer opened the door and shook my hand, thanking me for coming before sending me in to talk to Ken. I sat down and Ken looked me straight in the eye and got right to the point. "That guy says you'll do just fine. Here's a contract. Sign it, write me a check for $3,000, and you can start to train as the first manager for the New AWA as soon as it clears." Woah, slow down big fella! That was a lot of money to pay someone to train me in a business I may never make it in, especially if I wasn't going to even wrestle! I said that exact sentence to Ken. We went on to have a healthy discussion that ended with Ken telling me to come back when I was ready to commit. I thanked him for his time and headed home knowing I wouldn't be hanging at that "frat house" anytime soon. When I got home I took off my shirt and looked in the mirror. I looked like a leopard with all my welts and bruises. It took me two weeks to heal, but it was totally worth the pain.
The experience was unforgettable. How many people go through their life without having the opportunity to even attempt their dream? Not me. I only stopped because I knew physically I would never make it and I didn't have three grand to give him. I look back and know I made the right decision, especially now when I have days where I can't walk up a flight of stairs without struggling. Who knows if I would have done anything, but the bottom line is that I tried. I gave it my best shot and that has to count for something. In my heart, I've always done the best I could with what I have been given and this was proof of that. I was even happy with the complement I got from the trainer, even if it may have had an ulterior motive attached to it.
"It's a shame you aren't bigger." That may go on my tombstone.