Published on December 5th, 2017 | by Bobby Mathews0
IT’S A WORK: Breaking into the Wrestling Business the Hard Way
Breaking into the wrestling business still isn’t easy–but it’s not like it once was. There were old-timers who protected the business and wouldn’t let just anyone try out to be a wrestler. It was a tough, hard business, and the guys who could go for real wanted to make sure that the people they shared their locker rooms with would take the business as seriously as they did.
Everyone knows the story of Hiro Matsuda breaking Hulk Hogan’s ankle when Terry Bollea was just a tall, chunky beach bum of a kid who thought he wanted to get into the wrestling business. Matsuda thought he’d seen the last of the kid, but when Hogan showed up again and again, Matsuda began to take him seriously and started training him.
Wrestlers like Matsuda, Bob Roop, and Mike Graham made sure wrestlers who wanted to break into the business in Eddie Graham’s Championship Wrestling from Florida had what it took to be tough inside the ring and out. Anyone could try out, but after an hour of free squats, wind sprints, push-ups, and sit-ups, Roop would take them into the ring and apply the sugar hold, an excruciatingly painful submission move.
Most people begged for mercy. The ones who could take it might–might–be called back to train.
In the Carolinas, notoriously nasty tough guys Gene and Ole Anderson applied the same kind of pressure to the young men who tried out. In a shoot interview with HighSpots.com, Magnum TA talked about going to try out with the Andersons. TA, a former amateur wrestling champion in his native Virginia, saw that the Andersons were just stretching the recruits and had no interest in training them. He left, and Buzz Sawyer instead offered to train him, so TA followed the Mad Dog to the Pacific Northwest, where he soon debuted under his real name, Terry Allen.
Magnum says he only worked out in the ring twice prior to his first match, which was against Buzz for promoter Don Owen. “[Buzz] saw potential in me, but he also saw me as a mark.”
And then there are the people like Lynn Denton, who broke into the business during the territory days and wrote about his career in one of the most underrated wrestling books in Grappler: Memoirs of a Masked Madman. Denton worked his ass off for a year, learning from a wrestler hardly anyone outside of rural Texas had ever heard of, just to climb into the ring in front of 200 people.
The truth was, no beating–no matter how severe–could have prepared anyone for the hell that was Joe Mercer’s wrestling school. About twelve of us hopefuls were packed into that old, dusty warehouse and for the first three months we didn’t once get on our feet.
“Contrary to what you may hear, this ain’t some show,” Joe yelled at us. “This is a sport. You will respect it or get the fuck out.”
The ring looked (and felt) like a souvenir from the days of George Hackenschmidt. My face was constantly being rubbed into the mildewed mat as Joe taught us the basics of technical wrestling. Sit out, go behind, back down, sit out. Then it was a chicken wing, a hammer-lock or any other move that he could demonstrate while inflicting agony and suffering.
When we finally got off the mat, it wasn’t much better. We had to learn how to “run the ropes.” I quickly noticed that term was false advertising because these “ropes” were really steel cables. I had to keep bouncing off of them until I swore that I broke a rib.
Then it was time to take bumps. Joe was still “protecting the business” so he wasn’t necessarily trying to “protect our bodies.” He would slam us to the mat as hard as he could, and we had to land correctly in order to lessen the impact. It wasn’t easy–if you landed on your heel the wrong way you’d be limping for a week. That old mat was harder than a slab of concrete.
Keep in mind that Denton, who would go on to main-event in Mid-South for Bill Watts and book the Pacific Northwest for Don Owen, was still just a senior in high school at this point. The constant work wore down trainees until there were few left. The hard work weeded out the wannabes.
Former WWE superstar Bob Holly shared how he broke into the business after growing up as a wrestling fan in his memoir, The Hardcore Truth. It almost didn’t happen for him. He didn’t know where to go to get trained, and the one wrestler he knew wouldn’t even give him the time of day.
…I still held the dream that maybe somehow I could be a wrestler. Back then, there wasn’t really anywhere to learn. Finding a wrestling trainer back then was almost impossible, because the internet didn’t exist and wrestling schools weren’t listed in the Yellow Pages. It was all word of mouth and you had to know the right people. If you were able to get trained, then you would learn your craft and perfect all your moves in the territorial promotions before you went to the big time of the WWF or the NWA, but getting in the door was hard unless you knew somebody.
Although I didn’t know anybody, my manager (at work) did. One Saturday, we were working and watching wrestling and he came out and said, “I know this girl who knows one of these guys …” So knowing what a big fan I was and how much I wanted to wrestle, he said he call her and see if she could get me to meet this guy. I thought this was going to be my only chance to get into the business, so I bugged my boss and his friend to death for this guy to get in touch with me.
Marcel Pringle, when he was not on TV being “Marvellous,” worked a regular job as a welder … One day after he got off work, he came by and I finally got to meet him. I asked him if he could train me. He told me he couldn’t. I asked him if he could put me in touch with a trainer. He told me he couldn’t do that, either, that there weren’t people around there who could train a guy like me. Like I said, everything was really closed-shop back then. He thought I was just another guy who said he wanted to be a wrestler because he’d seen it on TV. I managed to get his phone number–which he reluctantly gave to me–and was persistent, calling him an and asking him if he’d train me. He kept putting me off and putting me off and then one day, out of nowhere, he told me that there was this place in Pensacola, Florida, that was opening a training school. He told me years later that this was his way of getting rid of me since I was bugging the hell out of him all the time!
And then there are the superstars like Chris Jericho, who was incredibly disappointed to find out that the wrestling business was, in fact, a work. In his first memoir, A Lion’s Tale: Around the World in Spandex, Jericho talks about being an 18-year-old mark working on the ring crew during a tour of small-town Canada. The more experienced wrestlers teased Jericho, but one of them took him aside.
Fortunately for me, Catfish Charlie was a great guy. He was a journeyman wrestler who never made it to the big time, but he took a liking to me and filled me in on the wrestling business. When I complained to him about the dudes calling me Prettyfer, he sat me down and said, “You know what? If you’re going to be in this business, you need to learn a few things.
Charlie sensed that I was dead-serious about becoming a wrestler and he also realized that I had no clue about how it really worked. He explained that in the wrestling business there was a tradition of weeding out the guys who didn’t belong and weren’t tough enough to make it. If the guy being made fun of got upset, the heat was turned up until he snapped. He continued and explained that wrestlers weren’t really fighting each other during a match but were working together to put on a show. I wasn’t stupid and at this point he was simply confirming my suspicions. But I was in for a real shock when he answered my next question.
“Yeah, I guess I see what you mean about the lesser guys, but the champions are really the best, right? I mean, they really win their matches.”
He looked me dead in the eye and said, “No, the champions are just like everyone else. They win when they’re told to win and lose when they’re told to lose.”
That was a hard one for me to fathom …
But then there were guys like Bobby “The Brain” Heenan, who knew long before he broke into the business that everything was a work. Before Heenan’s first match, managing Guy Mitchell and Joe Tomaso as the Assassins, he rode to the venue in Louisville, Kentucky with a pair of bona fide legends. Heenan shares the story in his first book, Bobby The Brain: Wrestling’s Bad Boy Tells All.
I met Bruiser and Wilbur Snyder at the Holiday Inn. Guy and I got into the car and we started off for Louisville. Dick and Wilber were sitting in the front seat and talking in this language I didn’t understand. Later, I found out it was Carny. I didn’t know about it then, so I really didn’t listen. They’re talking about this and that and I was counting cows thinking that I’m driving to Louisville, Kentucky, and I don’t know for what. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I know I’m going to manage, but I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. I had been around and had seen what managers do, but I did not know what they wanted me to do.
As we arrived, Bruiser and Wilbur decided it was time to officially break me into the business. Bruiser threw this mask at me and said, “Put this on.” As I slipped the mask over my head, he continued, “We don’t hurt each other. We make it look like we do. And if you tell anybody what’s going on, I’ll break both your legs, your arms, and your back. And when you get better, Wilbur will break them.”
I gulped, “OK, fine.” What’s funny is that I used to sneak down into the dressing rooms and listen to them talk. I knew it wasn’t real from the beginning …
But perhaps the greatest breaking-in story comes from the legendary Jackie Fargo. Before he was the Fabulous One, Fargo was just a guy trying to break into the wrestling business.
“Up to the day of his death, Jackie Fargo steadfastly refused to break kayfabe … with one exception,” wrestling historian Scott Teal wrote in a Facebook post. “He talked to me in December 2010 and gave me a full-blown interview, with the provision I wouldn’t publish it until he was gone …”
The interview shows up in The Wrestling Archive Project, Vol. 2, at Crowbar Press. In this excerpt, Fargo shared how he learned the wrestling business was a work. It’s a great story. Here it is, in the Fabulous One’s own words:
Pat O’Hara. Okay! He came in for a week. This was the week before my first match. He wrestled in every town that we had running … Columbia, Goldsboro, Fayetteville. On Monday night, he got his shoulder broke in (pause) … whatever town we were in. He wrestled Johnny Long. Johnny threw Pat over the rope and Pat broke his shoulder … supposedly, you know. (laughs) I’m over there trying to help him. (laughs) Boy, was I dumb.
The next night, I’m getting ready to wrestle and he’s back there in the dressing room working out. I said, “Damn, are you gonna wrestle tonight with that broke shoulder?” (laughs) He looked at me like, “Are you for real? Is this a rib or what?”
I went to Johnny Long and said, “Man, he can’t wrestle with that broke shoulder, can he?”
Johnny laughed and says, “Oh, yeah. He’s tough. He heals easy.”
I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about! So they broke his shoulder again that night. (laughs) I said, “I told you mothers he wasn’t well enough to wrestle.” (laughs)
So they did the same gimmick all week. I didn’t get smart to it until the last night. (laughs) They broke his shoulder every night and it took me six nights to catch on. (laughs) That’s a true story.