Saturday, March 21, 2009

My Life and Pro Wrestling: The Real and Scripted - Part 2

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.

Peaceful Things,


Saturday, March 14, 2009

My Life and Pro Wrestling: The Real and The Scripted - Part 1

I may not have made it through my life without pro wrestling. That may be the first time that sentence has ever been written. I am actually laughing my ass off as I write it, but I am very serious. It is a part of who I am and, even though people think I am nuts to say it out loud, I am proud of being a pro wrestling fan.

Like many children in 1980's, I started watching wrestling when I was little and got hooked. Watching these larger-than-life characters like Hulk Hogan, Sting, The Road Warriors, "Macho Man" Randy Savage, and the Ultimate Warrior face off against the biggest and baddest wrestlers in the world was a fantastic escape from reality. In a way, it's similar to how people start watching soap operas. It just kind of happens. In fact, pro wrestling has often been called the “male soap opera” because the stories are based on the same outlandish and bizarre criteria. The difference is that instead of someone having an affair, or being blackmailed, or dying in a plane crash, all of the wrestling story lines culminate in the ring where these pseudo-gladiators battle to resolve their issues.

As a kid, my mom and dad would watch it with me from time to time, telling me who their favorites were. Once they bought me and my friends tickets to a live matches for my eleventh birthday party which ranks up pretty high on my list of "favorite birthdays". Even my sister would watch with me, cheering who I hated just to annoy me. In addition, my mom allowed me to have "Wrestlemania Parties" at my house. The parties always escalated into our own wrestling matches in the living room that created a few holes in our walls from using the recliner as a top rope and turnbuckle. Sorry again, Mom! Other times, the action would move to the front yard where the neighborhood kids could join in and their parents would cringe at their participation in such a ridiculous activity. I was ecstatic! The more kids in the battle royal, the better!

I'll take partial blame for my infatuation with pro wrestling, but it may not be entirely my fault. Wrestling was part of my family long before I was born. Apparently, my great great grandfather on my mother’s side was a carnival wrestler of Irish and Scottish descent. I do not know his name, but I do know he stood 6’ 4’’ with red hair, chiseled features and a stocky frame. Throughout his career he wrestled his way through different territories across North America. A territory was a particular region of the country that a wrestler would work in for six months to a year and then move on to a different one. For instance, a wrestler could work in the northern states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas. Once he had faced all the opponents he could, he would go down to the southern states like Georgia, Alabama and Florida and wrestle a whole slew of new opponents in front of a new crowd.

My father’s side of the family was into wrestling in the more traditional sense; as a form of entertainment. My grandmother had twelve boys (no girls, but that is a story for a later time), and it was a semi-regular thing for my great grandmother, Grandma McArdle, to take her however-many grandchildren to the wrestling matches at the Saint Paul Auditorium or the Minneapolis Armory to watch wrestling greats like "Da Crusher", Dick The Bruiser, and Baron Von Raschke wreak havoc. "Granny Mac", as she was affectionately known, was a die-hard wrestling fan who always had her patented whistle in hand to grab the attention of the referee when the bad guy had an illegal foreign object in his tights that he was going to use against his opponent. At the end of the evening, she encouraged her grandchildren to run down to the ringside area to get autographs. Granny Mac even suggested they attempt to jump into the ring and wrestle around. From what my father and uncles tell me, they were spit on, spilled on, and Lord knows what else every time they went to the matches. I can only imagine the chaos. Maybe these little bits of family history left me with no choice. Being a pro wrestling fan may have been my destiny...(cue the corny music!)

Other than my family history and "Wrestlemania Parties", there are two memories of pro wrestling that stand out from my childhood. The first was in 1986. My sister and I were poster children for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation (CFF) and were lucky enough to participate in all the events for the local Minnesota Chapter. We met many local and national celebrities including some pro wrestlers from the American Wrestling Association (AWA). They were a Twin Cities based territory that showcased matches all over the U.S. as well as Japan. Angela and I were asked to participate in a commercial that promoted a wrestling event they were having where a portion of the proceeds were going to the CFF. I was well aware of the AWA and very excited by the opportunity to meet a few of my heroes.

When we arrived at the AWA headquarters there were albums full of autographed pictures of the wrestlers waiting for us, as well as a staff member who took us on a tour of the studio while we waited to make the commercial. During the tour, I was fortunate to meet a young Shawn Michaels and Marty Jannetty, who were happy to chat with me and even let me try on one of their Tag Team Championship belts, which, even at its smallest size, fell right off my waist like a lead weight and clanged on the floor. Eventually, we headed to the interview area where we were met by Verne Gagne, one of the most legendary icons in amateur and professional wrestling, who affectionately called me his “buddy" all day long. Next, we met Verne's son Greg, a talented second generation pro wrestler that was pulling double duty by conducting the interview that day. Finally, we saw the two monsters who were going to hold us during the interview: Scott Hall - AKA Razor Ramon years later in the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) - would be holding Angie and Leon “Bull Power” White - later known worldwide as Vader - would be holding me. At the time, they were both awaiting their big breaks in the wrestling business. These men were massive at 280 and 400 pounds respectively, but were so gentle and gracious with us. Scott Hall in particular was awesome. He horsed around with me and gave my sister little kisses that she later said tickled because of his mustache.

The second moment I recall was WWF's Wrestlemania III. I was able to watch it on pay-per-view at home with my dad. It was an amazing sight. Over 93,000 people jam-packed the Pontiac Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan (where the Detroit Lions played at the time) on March 29, 1987 to watch Hulk Hogan battle Andre the Giant in what was the pinnacle of the pro wrestling boom in the 1980’s. Wrestlemania is the Superbowl of pro wrestling, where they always had the best matches of the year. Needless to say, I loved the whole event from bell to bell. The part I remember the most was not a match, though. It was an interview with Hulk Hogan an hour prior to his match with Andre. Here is the full two minute interview below:

For some reason I related my life to this portion of that interview:

“…I realized that, sooner or later, you gotta live and die and you gotta face the truth. And for you, Andre the Giant, it’s time to face the truth, brother. Because, when I think about what you and I have to do, man; what I have have to do is nothing. All I have to do is merely beat a 7’ 4”, 550 pound giant. But Andre, you gotta face the truth, brother. In its purest form, man; the purest truth there is, man: The training, the saying the prayers, and eating the vitamins. And to beat me man, you’ve gotta beat every Hulkamaniac, every little Hulkster in the world, everyone that plays it straight, all the ones who don’t take any shortcuts, brother….”

If you can, forget the tear-the-shirt-off, over-the top theatrics, and the fact that he later admitted to taking "shortcuts." The message struck a chord with me, even though I was only seven years old. In my world, I was "Hulk Hogan", Cystic Fibrosis was my “Andre the Giant”, and my “Hulkamaniacs” were my friends, family, and even the strangers I didn’t know who were going through the same struggles. It just made sense to me. much as pro wrestling can make sense.

The years passed and thousands of hours of wrestling later, I was still a huge fan. Long after my friends had moved on to other interests, I was still watching religiously. Since wrestling had no off season it was always there to keep me company. I watched it through every phase of my life. From my days at home while Mom was at the hospital caring for Angela, as a security blanket when Angie passed away, during countless hours of therapy, and through my own illnesses, surgeries, and hospital stays. One time while I was in the hospital, Hawk from the Road Warriors came to visit me. Unfortunately, I had just come out of surgery and wasn't awake enough to chat with him. Damn the luck! I could have impressed (or scared) him with my vast wrestling knowledge.

My family and friends continued to tolerate my fascination with pro wrestling and even went so far as enabling it on several occasions. My Uncle Bruce would occasionally buy the pay per views and guess what happened? I was wrestling in the living room again. This time with my cousin Andy, who thought I was going to kill him. However, let me go on the record and say that was never my intention and he always won our "matches". Bruce would also purchase tickets for the matches when they came to town and invited me to tag along with his family. I am sure this was a way for him to revisit memories from his past with "Granny Mac" and create new ones with his own children and his nephew. The best part of it was knowing how much everyone enjoyed it, particularly Bruce, who I remember laughing out loud every time we went. It made me feel like less of a nerd when I saw people having as good of a time as I was.

Even now, the people that know and love me still embrace my inner-wrestling fan. You know what I was given for Christmas this year from my brother-in-law and his girlfriend? A foam rubber "Light Heavyweight Championship" belt! If I would have ever been a wrestling champion, light heavyweight would have been the right weight class! My friends will call me randomly with questions about pro wrestling which I shouldn't know the answer to, but often do. Last year, my father and a few of my uncles invited me to play at the History Theater. It was written by and starring Baron Von Raschke and chronicled his life and career in pro wrestling. I loved connecting with my father and uncles that night, chatting about wrestling and hearing who their favorites were as kids. Most importantly, my wife Carly continues to tolerate my love of wrestling. She knows it makes me happy, so she just smiles and rolls her eyes every time I have it on. I am living proof that you can be a wrestling fan and still get married. Shocking, I know.

For over twenty years I have been devoted to pro wrestling. Through the good and bad times of my life, it was there to keep me entertained and fill my head with memories that still make me smile. Someday when my friends or cousins start having kids, maybe they will go against their better judgment and let "Uncle Josh" take them to the matches to make some new memories. No wrestling in the living room afterward, I promise! Well, maybe just a little for old times sake.

If you think my story stops here, you are dead wrong. Keep you hands and arms inside the car at all times because next week my roller coaster wrestling tale takes me in the ring where I have an opportunity to follow my dream...I know you are all on pins and needles!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Dichotomy of Good and Evil During Double Coupon Day

It was lunchtime and the fridge and cupboards in my kitchen contained food that I would only consider eating if given good odds by a Vegas bookie, so I headed off to the grocery store to fill my cart and (eventually my belly) with food on a pleasant fall afternoon. I arrived at the the store and started making my way toward the entrance when I noticed an elderly woman struggling to lift her bags into the back of her car. Being the chivalrous fellow I am, I offered her assistance. “May I help you with that?” I asked politely. She turned toward me and mustered all the strength she had left to give me...”The Finger”. Yes, you read that right. There was no warning, no red flag. She went from zero to sixty on the speedometer of refusal. I was speechless and backed away slowly since her middle digit was still fully loaded and aimed directly at me. Then, she turned back toward her car and continued loading her groceries, huffing and puffing away as if nothing had happened.

Once I got over the initial shock, I went over the incident in my head. I kept wondering if I had inadvertently offended her. I don’t think I was patronizing. I didn’t call her ‘Ma’am’, I didn’t reach out for her groceries before I offered her my help, and I don’t feel like I am an imposing presence to anyone. Perhaps I offended her by even offering, which may have made her feel embarrassed. I have been on her side of that situation before, but don’t ever recall reacting in such a rude manor. What the hell was wrong with her?! I was only trying to help. Still frustrated, I grumpily continued my shopping.

Later on during that same trip to the store, a different elderly woman passed by me in the baking aisle and smiled politely. I was a little hesitant to smile back until I noticed she still had her mittens on. I figured I was safe from any more obscene gestures or elderly wrath, so I sheepishly grinned back at her. Moments later, as I reached up to grab an item on the top shelf, I felt a sharp and firm pinch on my butt cheek and nearly toppled over from the surprise. I quickly recovered and looked around for the perpetrator. No one was behind me, but as I looked down the aisle, the woman who had just smiled at me was scurrying away as fast as she could. Her left hand was mitten-less and she took a moment to turn around a giggle at me before disappearing around the corner. Did she really just pinch my butt? A bewildered grin came across my face as I let out a slow, deep sigh. Did I have a sign on my back that said “Make me feel uncomfortable today?” At least this lady thought I was cute enough to pinch me, which was flattering in a very weird way.

Don’t get misunderstand me, I’m not judging either of these women based on this one encounter. Chances are that the “evil” woman in the parking lot may be the kindest and sweetest person walking the face of the earth. I just happened across her at the most inopportune moment and BAM!! “The bird” flies right in my face. The “good” woman on the other hand, could be pure evil through and through, devouring small children like the witch in Hansel and Gretel. At that time, they represented the epitome of good and evil and I was the midpoint between them. It's an odd and entertaining encounter that took me a while to get over before I felt comfortable smiling at anyone who could be on the senior tour.

What'd You Think?

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Peaceful Things ~ Josh
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