Best Seat in the House

During the weekend of July 31-August 3, Mid-Atlantic Wrestling (in conjunction with the National Wrestling Alliance) hosted the 10th annual Legends Fanfest in Charlotte, North Carolina.  The events included a Hall of Heroes banquet, a four day convention, and a “Future Legends” wrestling camp.  I was lucky enough to be in attendance.  The four days were a blur, but I wrote down everything I could and this is the result

Charlotte

After getting on the #11 bus, it’s a straight shot up North Tryon to get to where I need to be.  The driver is helpful, though soft spoken.  Somewhere in our broken communiqué he understands that I need to get off at Hampton Church road.  It’s a good thing too since it’s a side road that I would have easily missed.

I take in the local scenery along the way, looking for any places I might want to visit later.  All I see are garages, nail salons and barbershops.  And I got my haircut before I left town.

I make it to the hotel.  An initial examination reveals no fresh chalk outlines.  That’s a good start.  I get my key and enter my room and immediately notice that it hasn’t been prepared yet.  I should go tell someone, but I don’t.  I’ve been on a bus for the last twenty four hours and I just want to lie down and think.

*****

The last time I took the Greyhound to go somewhere it was a lot less packed.  You had your choice of window seats.  Then again, that’s because I was going to Calgary in the middle of winter, which apparently is not a prime vacation destination at that time of year.  That trip had a cool, subdued vibe.  I mean, I was still in Canada after all.  But heading down south had a different feel to it altogether.

First of all, the t-shirts.  I don’t know what it is about traveling by bus, but it brings out the best t-shirts.  “It’s our job to take your load…not take your crap!” one proudly proclaimed, a mantra for truckers everywhere.  A young man had another that read “The original celebrity chef” underneath the beaming image of Colonel Sanders.  And then, my favourite, “The best smelling pits in town”, which requires no explanation.  When you know you’re going to be spending hours on a bus, you may as well plan ahead since you know by the end of the trip you won’t care what you look (or smell) like.

There was one tense moment that’s worth mentioning.  Somewhere between Michigan and Virginia we picked up a fellow who had the unfortunate habit of singing along with whatever song he happened to be listening to on his ear buds.  Worse, he only seemed to listen to the same song over and over again and he only sang one part of that song.  It was maddening, though ignorable.  At a stopover, a Greyhound employee confronted him about it and then things got weird.  All I heard was the employee say “You don’t talk to me like that!  Your ride stops here, buddy.  I’m calling the cops.”

Sure enough, the cops arrived and asked the parties involved to step outside to discuss the matter.  The rest of the travellers sympathized with the singing man.  They said he wasn’t doing anything wrong and that if the employee had a problem with him he should have asked in a more polite manner.  However, someone who was closer to the conversation said that the singing man threatened to kill the employee if he didn’t back off.  Not cool.  The issue eventually defused itself.  There was some discussion of “disturbing the peace” and “jail”, but nothing came of it.

What really irked everyone was that our trip was delayed by over an hour and we thought it was because of that incident.  It turns out the next driver was just late.  After getting to know him better, we all realized why.  Even after everyone boarded, he took his sweet time meandering about the bus and then he felt compelled to explain to everyone why he was late rather than get going as quickly as possible to get back on schedule.  I’m pretty sure he was f**king with us intentionally.  Lord knows how these drivers deal with boredom.  He did tell a pretty good joke though, which I will share with you now:

A man goes to a science fair to check out the latest inventions.  The gadget that catches his eye is a robot that can tell when someone is lying.  He thinks it’s neat and purchases one for his house.

Later that night at dinner, the man sits with the robot and his family.  He asks his daughter, “What did you do today, sweetheart?”

The daughter replies: “Not much.  I went to the library with Lisa.  We studied for a few hours and then I came home.”

*POW*

The robot punches the daughter right in the mouth!

The father nods, pleased that the robot works.  “Alright, alright, I know you’re lying.  Why don’t you tell me what you really did today?”

“We skipped the last class of the day and went to go see a movie,” the daughter confesses.  “Then we went back to Lisa’s place and then I came home.”

“Okay.  Thank you for being honest.”  He turns to his son.  “And what did you do today?”

The son replies: “I was at John’s house.  We watched some TV and played some video games.”

*POW*

The robot punches the son right in the mouth!

The father nods.  “What did you really do?”

“I was at John’s house!” the son replies.  “But we didn’t watch TV.  We found some of his dad’s old girlie magazines and we looked through them.”

Laughing, the mother says: “Yep!  He’s your son, alright!”

*POW*

Raise the Big Top

The Dr. Tom Prichard Future Legends Wrestling Camp was set to start at seven in the morning.  I showed up at a quarter to.  There’s nobody there, which is awkward since I don’t actually have access to the facilities at the Hilton University Place.  I consider beating on the glass door, but think better of it.  Wouldn’t there be wrestlers milling about?  After double checking my e-mail, I realize I need to head to the ballroom downstairs.  I don’t know about you, but where I come from most areas designed for physical fitness aren’t carpeted.

Wrestlers are trickling in now.  Several stop to say hello and shake my hand, likely assuming that I’m part of the camp.  I am, but not in the way they’re thinking.  I’ve signed on to be an observer, a role that allows me to be in the thick of the action without being an official part of the wrestling fraternity.  I understand this is an uncommon opportunity.  I’d brought my runners just in case I was asked to participate in any camp activity and now I suddenly wish I was wearing nicer shoes.

Seated at the opposite end of the room is an older gentleman who I assume is an observer like myself.  His name is Harrison.  We’re fast friends.  He’s from South Carolina, a lifelong wrestling fan and a staple of the local wrestling scene as far as I can tell.  He’s a physical trainer who deals with wrestlers all the time.  Definitely a good person to know in this situation.

Once I’m settled in, I’m able to take a better accounting of the room.  This is the first time I’ve seen a ring put up.  Let there be no misconceptions about the alleged trampoline-like qualities of a wrestling ring.  It’s thin, wooden slats on top of stiff metal.  Over the course of a long career, a wrestler will be asked to fall on it thousands of times.

Like any social situation, it’s interesting to see who does and who doesn’t know what they’re doing when it comes to assembling the ring.  Who takes charge and who sits back?  Should the veterans who paid their dues long ago still have to do this?  Should the newer guys take the initiative at the risk of overstepping their boundaries or exposing their rookie status?

There is a distinct lack of interesting hair, up top or facial.  I only see one dude rocking the 80s wet look.  He’s Ross from England, aka “The Muscle Cat” Saxon Huxley.  There’s also Plunkett whose long beard makes him the spitting image of Keith Jardine, and Steve Off, who in addition to having short spiky hair was blessed with naturally crazy looking eyes.  Maybe “blessed” isn’t the right word.

We start off with an old school roll call.  I make note of a few names I recognize and others that Harrison tells me to keep an eye on: Cedric Alexander, Rhett Titus, Chase Owens, Donovan Dijak, and Jaxson James.

The third observer, Glenn, tells me to keep an eye on Aaron Ritchie as well.  I ask him why.

“That’s my son.”

Show Me What Ya Got

The first drill is a dizzying sequence of Irish whips, drop downs, leap frogs, reversals, and vaults out of the corner.  The trainers point out that a drop down is meant to be an attempt to trip your opponent, which is something that never occurred to me in my years of watching wrestling because you never see anyone get tripped up by it.  The first of many lessons to come.

Inevitably, there are a few people that struggle with the drill.  It’s a test of cardio, agility, and core strength and I’m told that the mat has some give to it, which is making it hard to jump.  I figured this was their way of weeding out the stragglers, but something else happened entirely.  Wrestlers stumbled, tripped, fell down…and the ones on the outside only grew more vocal in their support.  This wasn’t a hazing, it was team building.  They were making adjustments, learning from each other, all the while picking the next man (or woman) up.  Keep in mind that they were all competing for a $2,500 camp scholarship (in memory of wrestler Reid Fliehr who passed away last year), not to mention the chance to stand out in front of four esteemed trainers.

That energy carried over into the camp matches.  The wrestlers were randomly paired up and told to put together a quick match, which was then immediately critiqued by the trainers.  Now, I tell myself, this is where the wheat will get separated from the chaff.  But again, that wasn’t the case.  Without an actual audience, the waiting wrestlers had to act as the crowd and they did so with gusto.  It was much appreciated too, because the trainers did not hold anything back.

“The schtick belongs out here.  Once you get in that ring, be a f**king wrestler!”  Les Thatcher says when he first sees Mike Sydal’s pre-match yoga antics.

“You cannot punch a girl in the face!”  Says Tom Prichard after Cedric goes after Chasity in their intergender tag match.  Over the next few days, the incident is brought up whenever Tom feels like busting Cedric’s chops.

With everyone looking so serious, Nigel McGuiness reminds the good guys that “It’s okay to smile.”

And Lance Storm reminds the bad guys of their basic motivation: “Why should you cheat?  Because s**t’s not gettin’ done.”

So it goes over the next four days, with every wrestler getting at least two opportunities to show what they can do.  Between the four trainers, they don’t miss a single detail whether it is a misplaced facial expression, a minor execution issue, or even unnecessary verbal outbursts.  When too many wrestlers call out to the crowd to cheer, Les warns that “The next person I hear say ‘Come on!’ I’m going to fine them ten dollars.”

It must be grueling having to sit through so many matches in a row, but I suppose that’s part of the discipline.  By the time the last of the first round of matches roll around, everyone is kind of burnt out.  All it took was a mental slip and a plain blue shirt to bring them back to life.

The Legend of Blue Shirt

If you’d asked me who would be the breakout star of the camp, Sean Deemer would have been somewhere near the bottom of my list.  At first glance, he didn’t have much of a physique.  He was quiet and based on what little data I had I wasn’t too impressed by his ability to get around the ring.  I took it as a bad sign that his match ended up being the last one of the first round of practice bouts.

Nigel had taken it upon himself to play ringside announcer and he called out the names of the participants.  First, he announced Anthony “All Good” Greene, who had already wrestled a match the day before.  He was solid, reliable, exactly the kind of guy I’d trust to have a good match with Sean.  When it came time to announce Sean, Nigel forgot his name.  He glanced over at him and said, “…and in this corner…uh…‘blue shirt’.”  Everybody chuckled.

Tom rings the bell.  Right out of the gate, the crowd starts chanting…

Blue shirt!  Blue shirt!  Blue shirt!  Blue shirt!  Blue shirt!

When a wrestling crowd starts getting behind something, it is like a tidal wave.  Eventually, everyone gets washed away in it.  Anthony and Sean had the crowd on the edge of their seats.  When Anthony used dirty tactics, we booed and hissed at him gleefully.  When Blue Shirt came back with a series of shoulder blocks, we leapt out of our seats.  To Sean’s credit, he never got caught up in the raucous reaction.  He stayed focused on beating Anthony and that’s all it took to keep us invested.  I looked over to the trainers to see Nigel with a big grin on his face shaking his head.  He knew what he’d done.  Even Lance was caught hiding a smile.

At the end, Blue Shirt got pinned because Blue Shirt had to lose.  It was a beautiful story they told where the hero dies in the end.  In losing, he earned our love forever…or at least for the next few days.  It was a practice match that nobody taped and so it will never be seen again.  And yet it was so much more than that.  The magic of wrestling in six minutes and a blue shirt.

This Boy’s Life

“The finish was a clusterF**K!”

Those are the words of Gerald Brisco after having watched a tag match end in confusing fashion.  The four young men involved stand in the ring and take their verbal whipping, the harsh words refining them like sandpaper.  Even if they know what they did wrong, they might not know what they have to do to fix it.  Aaron leans over the ropes, his face as calm as ever.  He’s been training for about six months.  This was his fifth match.

You can imagine how things went a day earlier.  Against Barrett Brown (a nice guy out of Texas with a mean scowl), Aaron struggled at the start of the match.  In particular, a sloppy looking arm hold caused Tom to have a conniption at ringside.  He actually had to press pause on the match to correct the action.  It’s not a good start, but any frustrations are put into a different context when Aaron is asked about his experience level.

“I hate you.”  Tom jokes when he hears that Aaron is just seventeen years old.

A handsome, athletic kid, Aaron certainly has the look of a person who might excel at sports.  He shows good moves in the ring even if he’s a long way from knowing how to string them together into a meaningful narrative.  And his demeanour rarely changes, which is both encouraging and worrisome.  On one hand, being able to shut up and listen is a rare and important skill for someone to have at such a young age.  On the other, he doesn’t look like he’s having any fun.

Harrison and I talk to Glenn to find out more about what drives Aaron.  As it turns out, Aaron is a young father.  His family (including his mother and his girlfriend) have come to the camp to support him but also to keep an eye on the baby while he is pursuing his dream.  Aaron is certainly not the only father attending the camp, but I don’t see anyone else tending to a stroller in between sessions.  His girlfriend even stops by to see how he’s doing.  She tells me that before she met Aaron, she didn’t have much interest in wrestling.

“Have fun in there,” I tell him, as if the thought hadn’t occurred to him.  That’s advice I offered to every wrestler I got a chance to talk to.  Early on, the trainers present the harsh reality that we are living in one of the most difficult times for a professional wrestler to make a good living.  The WWE employs less than a hundred personalities (not including their developmental division NXT) that we see on Raw and SmackDown every week.  There are other North American promotions with a television presence, but the end goal for most wrestlers is a regular spot with the WWE.

Fun is not the number one priority at this camp.  For the younger guys, they need to do everything in their power to show that they belong and playing grab ass in the ring isn’t going to do them any favours.  For the veterans, they have to be thinking that it’s about time their love of the business translated into love from the business.  It’s great to be able to do something you’re passionate about; it’s even better to get rich doing it.

Back to Aaron.  I don’t know if he wants to wrestle because he thinks it’s cool or he’s always wanted to try it or he’s a natural being pushed into it or if he thinks it will put him on the path to fame and fortune.  What I do know is that he has one more mouth to feed, meaning he’s going to have to go from young man to young professional in a hurry if this is truly what he wants to do for a living.  I wish him the best of luck.

The Art Of Two Elephants F**king

It’s no secret that everyone was tight on the first day.  Some stumbled through the drills while others were lacking punch during their matches.  Cue Dr. Tom Prichard.

With most of the organization and paperwork out of the way, Tom is free to get down to the brass tacks.  When he sees something done wrong, he leaps up, tussles his hair and stomps around half-lecturing, half-demonstrating.  As he goes over the subtleties of bumping, I marvel that he can still do them at all.  It’s a tricky, painful technique, but he knows it’s the only way to make sure they learn to do it right.

“The business is a mindf**k!” he says, reinforcing the notion that if you want to be a wrestler you better know what you’re getting into.  “You don’t know who the next star is until he becomes the next star.”  Any one of the forty wrestlers in this camp could make it big someday.  Maybe none of them will.  Tom isn’t concerned with that.  His job is to teach these guys and girls how to work a crowd and how to do it without breaking their fool necks.

He warns us about some potentially foul language he’s going to use to discuss what he considers to be needless risks.  Two women immediately leave the room.  He asks us to imagine stepping outside of the hotel and seeing two elephants having sex.  You’d presumably be in awe and eager to rush back to your friends to tell them, “Holy s**t, there are two elephants f**king!”

Five minutes later, you go out and see them again you’d probably think “Holy s**t, those two elephants are still f**king!”  But after the third, fourth, fifth time…it would lose its effect.  This is what happens when wrestlers try to put too much into their matches.

“Ten pounds of s**t in a five pound bag” Les says, adding further sophistication.

You lose the story and when you lose the story, you lose the audience.

Tom can’t help but get his blood up when he sees something wrong.  At one point, a particularly confounding tag match sees him assuming the roles of all four men.  He’s hitting the ropes, bumping on the mat, fighting for the tag, executing a one-man comeback…it’s amusing, but amongst the fun and games is a lesson on using instinct and common sense.  “React.  Don’t act.  Draw upon your real experiences.”

Glenn notes that Tom loosened up on the second day of camp, which helped to loosen everyone else up.  He also makes note of the words on Tom’s shirt:

You can try.
You can take your best shot.
Or you can do whatever it takes.
Which one are you?

“A good wrestling match is like good sex.  It starts with foreplay and builds to a climax.”

I came in not knowing much about Les Thatcher.  Now he might be my favourite person in the whole entire world.

I’m not just saying that because he took the time to come over and check on the observers, though that certainly helped.  Even if he hadn’t said two words to us, I caught more than enough of his sound bites to come to the realization that my world is a much better place with Les in it.  Let me explain.

Les got his start in the sixties, long before I was born and long before I even had any concept of what wrestling was.  Like most kids my age, I was drawn in to the Hogan-Warrior-Savage WWF era, which is well removed from the southern style that was being celebrated that weekend.  I have no concept of where Les comes from.  Somehow that didn’t matter.  Somehow in listening to his stories I came to understand that the fundamentals he grew up with and now taught still formed the basis of the wrestling that I enjoy to this very day.

It helps that his stories are frequently hilarious.

During the opening drill alone, he drops several lines meant to motivate the wrestlers and get them to settle down.

“You might catch a sentence or a word, but you won’t get the story.”

“It’s about seconds and milliseconds.”

“Slow.  Down.  Are you guys double parked?”

“That Superman whiff in the corner is bulls**t.”

Okay, that last one might have just been mean.  The bottom line is that Les gets the job done and he expects his charges to do the same.  When preserving an art form, there is little time to mince words.  As a lifelong wrestling fan that only recently started going to live shows, I can appreciate the urgency of his lessons.

“If people want to watch the WWE, they’ll stay at home,” he says.  “On the independent scene you have to tell a story to get them to buy a ticket and come out for the show.”  In other words, you’re fighting an uphill battle.  How do you get people to pay to see you when there’s a proven product they can catch on television for free from the comfort of their living rooms?  It’s all in the telling.

Les speaks with the kind of tone where his compliments and his insults have equal impact.  You never get the sense that he’s too angry nor that he’s overly enthused.  After another tag match, the four wrestlers await Les’s verdict.

“You guys frightened me,” he starts.  “You listened.” Relieved sighs all around.

Two Bucks and a Compliment Will Get You a Soda

Here’s a shocking revelation for you: I’m not Gerald Brisco.

After watching the matches or seeing a wrestler do particularly well with a drill or lesson, I’d make sure to give them a metaphorical pat on the back.  A good match here and a nice work, buddy there.  It never hurts to say nice things to people especially when you’re dealing with a hard working bunch like this.  That said, kind words from a stranger can only go so far.

What these wrestlers really came for was the sage wisdom of their trainers, especially one Gerald “Jerry” Brisco who was listed as one of the guest coaches on the Future Legends website.  Jerry is one of the talent scouts for the WWE.  He’s got a wide body, like a box.  When he smiles, he smiles with his whole face and when he talks you get an earful of that Oklahoma drawl.

Now I don’t know what his level of involvement was supposed to be at the camp, but he was advertised in the same paragraph as the other trainers.  One would reasonably infer that he would be working alongside them.

He ended up attending the camp for about half a day.  Put yourself in the wrestlers’ shoes.  As incredible as it must have been to learn from Tom, Les, Nigel, and Lance, one of the most exciting aspects of the camp was the possibility of talking to someone with a direct line to the biggest wrestling company in the world.  It’s one thing to be able to draw upon the rich history of traditional wrestling to improve your skills; it’s another thing entirely to be able to ask Jerry what one might need to work on to make real money in this business.  Some people can toil away in this business for years without knowing why they haven’t got that phone call from New York.  One conversation with Jerry could change their whole lives.

I’m not calling Jerry out as I understand he likely had other obligations to attend to.  His son was wrestling that weekend.  There were dozens of his friends who he likely hadn’t seen in years.  Stuff like that would reasonably shove a camp full of rookie wrestlers to the backburner.  It’s just unfortunate is all.

When I bring up the issue with a few wrestlers (not to mention having to deal with a larger than expected camp roster, which limited their in-ring and 1-on-1 time with the trainers), most of them just chuckle and repeat one of the business’ most common refrains:

“Card subject to change.”

“You can choose not to listen to any of us and do it your way.  You’ll be wrong, but…”

One thing I had to make sure not to do when I got the camp was mark out.  I gave myself a minute or two to get excited about meeting the wrestlers and the trainers, then I had to settle the f**k down.  It worked.  Except for when it came to dealing with Lance Storm.

Lance is a hero of mine.  He’s always represented Canada with pride and he’s one of the most respected wrestlers to have worked for the three major American companies of the mid-90s to early-00s (ECW, WCW, WWE).  He is constantly communicating with his fans on Twitter while also maintaining the sanctity of the business.  Most importantly, he stepped away from being a full time wrestler to focus on his school and spend time with his family.  The wrestling world is filled with stories of men and women who hung on too long just for the sake of glory or to keep the cheques coming in.  Lance chose not to become one of those people.

Lance is as hands-on a trainer as you can get and when he talks wrestling he swears a lot.  He’s also much funnier than people think:

Tom: “Look, I don’t go to the gym as much as Lance, but…”
Lance: “Really?”
Tom: “F**k you!”

Demonstrating proper technique is like a nervous tic for Lance.  Rather than talk your ear off about how to do something right, he’ll take a few seconds and just show you.  I see him taking students aside in between the practice matches to help them work out their kinks.  Even during the Q&A, as soon as he hears a question that he can answer by getting physical you know he’s going to do it.  Plunkett asks him a question about chops and I see Lance put down his coffee cup.  He’s going to chop this dude’s beard off.  Just when I think my prediction will come true, Lance stops short and gives Plunkett a light tap on the chest.  Lesson learned.

His other tic is a verbal one.  “For some reason you can’t put a match together without saying ‘f**k’.”

Despite the foul language (or perhaps because of it), Lance never fails to get his points across: Engage the audience intellectually.  Make them feel what you feel.  Don’t take unnecessary bumps when building up to one good one will get an even better reaction.  Somewhere in the middle of his teaching, I muster up the courage to ask him a question that I’d been pondering for years regarding a fan made list of the best wrestlers in the world that Lance once took great umbrage too.  Keep in mind, this was thirteen years ago.

Lance smirked.  “The DVD [Death Valley Driver] 500.”

I was happy he remembered and I wondered if his feelings changed at all with fans being “smarter” to the business than ever (or at least thinking they are).  Does it matter if we know who is responsible for a good match, who carried the heavier load?  Or should we just take what we see at face value?

Lance’s viewpoint is relatively unchanged: Unless you’ve been in the ring with someone, it’s impossible for you to know how good they actually are.  It’s possible to paint in broad strokes.  For example, you don’t need to be in the business to know that Bret Hart is a better wrestler than say…me.  But once you start comparing Bret to Steve Austin or Steve Austin to Ric Flair or Ric Flair to Harley Race…what’s the point?

“Do you enjoy that painting?”  Lance asks.  “Good.  Enjoy it.”

It’s a satisfying enough answer for me.  If we accept that wrestling is art, then we must also accept that there is room for subjectivity.

“What about lucha libre?”  Someone asks, bringing up the Mexican style of wrestling that is worlds apart from what they’re teaching at this camp.

Without missing a beat, Lance responds coolly: “I don’t understand lucha libre.”

That settles that.

“Are you going to pick those up?”
“Pick what up?”
“Those names you just dropped.”

I felt pressure to ingratiate myself with the wrestlers even though I had signed on strictly to observe.  It is a delicate balance, roaming amongst the wildebeests without disrupting the herd.  Often, the mere sight of me writing in my notebook was enough to raise eyebrows.  It helped that it has a shiny, garish cover with the words “Don’t Quit” in ornate lettering.  It looks more suited to scribbling bad poetry (of which there is plenty) or writing about how Sally gave me a funny look in third period today.  But it was a gift from a dear friend of mine and the message on the cover, while cliché, is also timeless and perfectly suited to the environment I found myself in.

“What are you writing about?” they’d ask.  It was harder to answer than you might think.  This started as nothing more than a personal collection of observations and amusing quotes that I could blog about for the sake of posterity.  But every time someone came up to express their curiosity or support I realized that I might actually have to write something that other people would want to read.  Regardless, it became a great way to start conversation.

The other method that served me well was mentioning wrestlers I’d seen in person.  The first time this happened was completely by accident.  During one of the Q&As, I asked Lance Storm a question about whether a wrestler needs to change their act if they’re getting a reaction from the crowd, but it’s not the reaction they’re looking for.  The example I used was Toronto native Brent Banks who plays a total s**t heel much to the delight of the crowd who laugh and cheer his exploits.  The bottom line was that if he’s trying to get booed then he needs to do something different.

After the session, Farhan Faruqui walked up to me and said he knows Brent and just like that we’re talking.  Farhan immediately stood out from the crowd due to his dark, foreign complexion and a bright orange shirt he was wearing (that combined with his body type prompted Lance to tell him that “you gotta clear orange with Taz.”).  He mentions that he knows Sebastian Suave.  Suave runs Smash Wrestling, one of Canada’s most respected promotions.

Gradually, I chipped away at the barrier between fan and wrestler until I got to know everyone well enough to give them the “smile and nod” when I passed them in the halls.  Some of them never warmed up to me completely, which is understandable.  Others (particularly the Canadians because we’re a kind, gentle folk) were much more forthcoming and I’m proud to call many of them friend.

By the fourth day, even the most reserved wrestlers (including Chase Owens, the man responsible for the header quote above) warmed up to me.  I respect that most wrestlers probably doesn’t have time to spare on folks intruding on the business.  But all you have to do is ask the right questions.  And occasionally pick up the alcohol.

The Doctor Is In

One dilemma that Harrison and I faced was finding good places to eat.  He works in health and fitness and I’m cheap.  There were plenty of places to eat around the hotel, but it was essentially a crapshoot as far as knowing what locations would be able to satisfy both our dispositions.  In one such diner, we ran into one of the wrestlers who we recognized immediately because…well, wrestlers just have a different way about them.

Dan Rodgers works out of Scotland.  Like most wrestlers, his dream is to make it big in America.  Unlike most wrestlers, he has a career as a doctor waiting for him at home.  He currently takes shifts at the hospital to make ends meet.  Unfortunately, his license doesn’t carry over to the United States so it’s not as simple as just moving over here and doing the same.  We’re about the same age, so I can relate to the urgency one starts to feel about deciding what to do with the rest of your life.  Go back home to a steady job or stay the course with the notion that that big break is just around the corner?

To Dan’s credit, he does a brilliant job of using his real life to inform his character.  He tells me about how he’s thinking of cutting a promo revolving around religious skepticism.  I remind him that we’re in the Carolinas.  He does it anyway.

People pray.  Fine.  But who do they pray to?  They pray to God.  Do you know how much that insults me as a doctor that you pray to God?  Was it God that busted his arse for five years in medical school?  Was it God that was doing a hundred hour weeks?  Was it God that was jumping up and down on your Gran’s chest saving her life?  No.  It was me.  It was Danny Boy Rodgers.  And you remember that.  ‘Cause whoever gets in that ring with me…when you’re down on your knees and you’re begging and you’re pleading and you’re praying…don’t pray to an imaginary man in the clouds.  Pray to me.  Because as far as you’re concerned, in this ring, between those ropes, and under those lights, I AM GOD.

Powerful stuff.  It works too.  A couple of other wrestlers go up and base their promos around him and how doctors failed to take care of their loved ones.  When promo work gets that personal you know you’re doing something right.  Sometimes all you have to do is be willing to take that risk.

Wrestlers Are Just Normal Folks Like You and Me, But Cooler

There are three girls at the camp: Tessa Blanchard, Jessie Kaye, and Chasity Taylor.  They immediately stand out and not just because they’re female.  Tessa is the daughter of    Tully Blanchard and the stepdaughter of Magnum T.A., two wrestling legends.  At nineteen, she’s already building up a following.  She and Chasity even get a booth during the Fan Fest to take photos and sign autographs.

Chasity surprises me.  After going through Tom’s body parts group twice, I joke that she must be a submission expert by now; as it turns out, she actually does aim to be a submission stylist, which you wouldn’t expect from a petite blonde with the nickname “The Southern Sweetheart”.  She’s also a line dancing enthusiast, whatever that is.

Jessie has a more muscular, brawny look in contrast to Tessa and Chasity.  During the opening workout, she gets in the ring with Dijak, the tallest man in the class.  She’s fearless.  When I ask her what it’s like to be one of the only girls here, she says “I don’t wrestle like a girl.”

Ross (the aforementioned Muscle Cat) hails from England, though he’s currently plying his trade in California.  His persona is based around being enlightened or operating on a higher wavelength or taking the red pill or some such thing.  It’s pretty much an excuse for him to call the audience a bunch of slobs, which is always fun.  Other than that he’s a great guy.

Chase and Rhett Titus came into the camp with impressive credentials and they didn’t disappoint.  Between the two of them, they’ve wrestled for major companies including Total Nonstop Action, Ring of Honor, and New Japan Pro Wrestling.  Chase even made a brief appearance on an episode of SmackDown.  You can tell they’re on another level from the majority of the camp, but they don’t carry themselves with any sort of ego.  They face off twice at the camp and on the Saturday night show, putting on the most well wrestled matches both times.

Mattia Thomsen and Travis Cole hail from Calgary, Alberta.  Travis trained with Lance (as did fellow campers Dan, Ross and Troy Tollison), while Mattia is following in the footsteps of his wrestling family.  He has some difficulties during the camp, particularly when it comes to mustering up the emotion required to cut a proper promo.  “I’m supposed to be talking about who I am…I’m nineteen years old!  I have no idea who I am!”

Later, we joke about how cool it would have been to base a promo around existential dread.  Sure, it might have convinced people to crawl into their tubs and curl up into the fetal position as opposed to purchasing tickets to a wrestling show, but it would have been memorable.

Anthony Greene was my pick to take home the camp scholarship.  “All Good” had to wear many hats during the camp.  He wrestled three times, stepped in to referee when Nigel got banged up, and was the first to volunteer when it was time to do promos.  I wasn’t as privy to his day to day performance as the trainers, but just based on my observations he would have been the one.

Josh Powers looks like John C. Reilly.  But don’t tell him that.  He doesn’t like that.

Logan Sutherland doesn’t say much.  He’s another camper who doesn’t look like a wrestler at first glance.  I ask him if he’s enjoying the camp and he responds with a monotone “I love it.”  Good talk.  It’s not until I’m sitting with him and watching the first show of the weekend that he opens up.  He has a lot to say about what’s going on in the ring and I realize that he’s a fan like me (albeit a fan with the guts to actually step between those ropes and give it a go).  He’s not here to talk about himself, he’s here to talk about wrestling.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the passion that these guys and gals have for the business.  Ask any of the trainers a question and you’ll get three different stories.

A question about Brad Armstrong strays into discussion on the “it” factor, the 10,000-Hour Rule, the look, Chris Hero, and nutrition.

Another question about bumping strays into a discussion of different eras, punching, Jerry Lawler, Memphis, and head shaving.  It’s not just the trainers either.  Chase has an endless array of stories about his matches and I’m sure he’s not the only one.  This is what happens when you’re dealing with people who make a living off of tall tales.

On the last night of camp, several wrestlers are hanging out and searching for something to watch on YouTube.  There are no viral videos or crazy news stories or remixed memes; the one thing everyone wants to watch is bad wrestling promos.  All day, every day, these folks live and breathe the business.  And line dancing, apparently.

Here, There Be Giants

Surrounding the Future Legends camp was the 10th (and unfortunately final) Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Legends Fanfest.  That meant a who’s who of wrestling royalty could be seen passing through our modest ballroom, including Dusty Rhodes, Rocky Johnson, Joey Malenko, Kevin Sullivan, and, of course, Ricky Morton.  Some thirty five years after the start of his career, Ricky is still a rock star.  My own personal encounter with him was certainly…memorable.

Ricky: “Man, it smells like seal pu**y over here.”
Me: *silence*
Ricky: “You want to know how I know what seal pu**y smells like?”
Me: *silence*
Ricky: “I’m a perverted motherf**ker.”

When not showing off his zoological expertise, Ricky was busy infecting the young wrestlers with what would become the unofficial “gang sign” of the Future Legends training camp, a sequence of slaps and shoulder shrugs punctuated by the phrase “Bubba…sheeeeeeeit…” (here’s the Muscle Cat with a demonstration)

As for Dusty, arguably the biggest star of the weekend, he stuck around to watch the camp in action.  Of course, even legends get distracted from time to time.   After Ethan Case got through doing a series of exhibition moves, he walked over to me and said “You know what the best part of that is?  I just did all that and Dusty didn’t look up from his phone.”

Tully Blanchard and Lanny Poffo were nice enough to stop for a pep talk and to answer questions.  It was a busy weekend for them as they were also inducted into the Hall of Heroes (the other honorees were Ox Baker, Gerald Brisco, Tommy Young, Joey Malenko accepting on behalf of his father Boris, and Tully along with his Four Horsemen compatriots Arn Anderson and J.J. Dillon).

“Does that make sense?”  Tully had to keep asking.  He’s straight and to the point so I can understand why he might worry about being misinterpreted.  Aspects of wrestling that are common sense to him could sound like another language to wrestlers of today depending on their influences and where they trained.  “Think shoot and work.”  Another phrase he repeats.  You’re working together, but you’re competing.  Mindf**k.

It takes a certain kind of person to play a villain, to carry themselves with that demeanour even in retirement.  To be a “flaming f**king a**hole”, as Tom puts it.

“I wasn’t likeable.” Tully says.  He was damn good at his job and he knew it, but that meant not being fully appreciated for it.  “I wanted people to respect my abilities.  Because then when I would cheat, they’d hate me even more.

Think shoot and work.

*****

In stark contrast to Tully’s brevity, Lanny has made a career out of the gift of gab.  He lit up the Hall of Heroes banquet with a speech that was equal parts poetic and bawdy, but always entertaining.  Thankfully, he left something in the tank for us.

Lanny has a natural, booming voice.  It’s incredible.  I almost laugh when he asks if the camp can hear him in the back.  Every word he says is annunciated perfectly.  You get the sense that this persona is a put-on except that it’s never, ever off.  He has a plane to catch, but not before sharing a couple of priceless stories with us.

The first is about his late brother, “The Macho Man” Randy Savage.  Every wrestling fan knows about Randy’s classic encounter with Ricky Steamboat at Wrestlemania III.  It remains the template for the modern WWE main event style match (despite not being a main event itself).  Even though he would go on to become a multiple time world champion and a top superstar for years, that match is still considered by many to be his crowning achievement.

According to Lanny, Randy always wanted to top the Steamboat match.  He had plenty of great matches in his career (his Wrestlemania VII tilt with The Ultimate Warrior being a particular favourite of mine), but Wrestlemania III always lingered.  That event occurred in 1987 and he retired as an active competitor in 2000.  For thirteen years, he couldn’t get away from Wrestlemania III.  That doesn’t mean he didn’t try.

Randy knew that there was one guy on the roster who could help him recapture that magic: Shawn Michaels.  He planned an elaborate match, but the WWF said “No.  Too old.”  For whatever reason, they’d made up their mind about keeping him on as a commentator and nothing more.  So Randy made up his mind too.  When his contract was up, he went to see World Championship Wrestling, the second biggest wrestling company in North America.  He set up a meeting and sold himself in a one hour presentation.  They signed him and Randy would go on to win four more world titles.

“Even The Macho Man didn’t win them all,” Lanny said.  “But he did better.”

Lanny wasn’t one to take things lying down either.  During his early days with the WWF, he knew his career was stagnant.  As “Leaping Lanny Poffo”, he was well liked, if not memorable.  It wasn’t until he transformed into the arrogant and calculating “Genius” that he was able to come into his own.  He continued with the poems that he had become known for (though they were now designed to infuriate the crowd) and developed an effete walk, which only made him more detestable.  It was something he had to practice, much to the shock of his then wife.

“You have the guts to do that?”  She asked.

“I don’t have the guts not to!”

When you’re up against the wall, sometimes you have no choice but to run right through it.  Or in Lanny’s case, gingerly prance around it.

Tainted Love

On the third morning, the remnants of the Hall of Heroes banquet were still present.  I got the feeling that the camp was going to be pumped up after what they saw the previous night.  That is, if the festivities didn’t take too much of a toll on them.

A scratchy voiced Tessa ambles up with a weary look on her face.  The after effects of performing Wannabe at James Mitchell’s karaoke party.  I’m sorry I missed it, but not as sorry as I am when I heard about Nigel McGuiness.  Apparently did a stirring rendition of the Soft Cell (or Gloria Jones, if you’re so inclined) classic Tainted Love.  My only major regret of the weekend was missing that performance.

(Please take a minute to read Nigel’s thoughtful account of the weekend)

I’ve mentioned the extreme level of specificity that the trainers were able to go into and nobody exemplified that more than Nigel.  The minute tweaks that he would suggest to the students were borderline insane.  He would always start off by saying “Just a couple of little technical things…” before proceeding to put on a clinic on the finer points of headlocks, wristlocks, reversals, facial expressions…no detail was considered insignificant.  It’s that dedication to perfection and individuality that will make you stand out as a performer.  Nigel would know.  He was nothing if not original.

“What would everyone else do in this promotion?  I’m not going to do that.”  When you’re struggling to get noticed, you have to think like you’re playing Scattergories: Only unique answers are rewarded.  When Nigel was first starting out with Les, he dubbed himself “The Ironman” Nigel McGuiness and he would literally walk around with a clothes iron.

Les: “What the f**k are you doing?  Is this guy on LSD?”
Nigel: “You laugh, but when Gabe [Sapolsky, the founder of RoH) heard about me he said ‘Is that the guy with the iron?’”

Near the end of the Q&A session, Les praised Nigel for the enormous success he had in his career despite Nigel falling just short of the WWE (reportedly a lingering injury scared them off).  But like Lance, Nigel looks happy and healthy.  He left the business when he wanted to.  He’s formed priceless relationships.  He mentions getting to know a fan named Mandy who regularly sends him random messages like, “My dog fell asleep on my pillow.

“Brilliant!”  Nigel exclaims.

If I may paraphrase Lanny: You can’t win them all, but you can do better.

Back For The First Time

You might think I’m burying the lede here, but the camp was such a satisfying, strange, and involving experience that the Fanfest and Hall of Heroes banquet were almost an afterthought.  Besides, there are smarter people than me to put all of that in the proper context.  That said, the experience was not lost on me.

Thanks to the quirks of random seating, I got placed at the table right next to the stage.  I was closer than Barry Windham, Paul Orndorff, Adrian Street…I could only imagine them wondering “Who the heck is this punk and how did he get such a good seat?”  I kept waiting for someone to tell me there’s been a mistake.

I had the pleasure of getting to know the legend at our table: Danny Miller (of The Miller Brothers) and his lovely wife, Karin.  They were a tag team that existed well before my time.  I was so grateful that Karin was willing to share stories of Danny’s career and his travels and even how they met (perhaps the most extraordinary part of all since Karin was born in Germany.  They’ve been married for 54 years).  Even after seeing all of the legends up on that stage, the people that left the biggest impression on me that evening were Danny and Karin Miller.

Which makes it all the more inexplicable that I couldn’t be arsed to say good-bye to them when the night was over.

The inductors and inductees all did a fantastic job of keeping the crowd engaged.  For me, the best was Jim Cornette.  Jim is a wrestling personality who I’ve seen and heard on television, online interviews, podcasts, etc., but I’d never had the privilege of seeing him in person.  He was presenting a plaque to Tommy Young, one of the most respected referees in history.  It takes a special kind of speaker to shine the spotlight on someone whose job was to stay out of the way.  Jim knocked it out of the park.  This might sound like a sanctimonious thing to say especially considering where I was, but I swear during his speech I felt The Holy Ghost.  I had to shake his hand, tell him how much it meant to me.  I have no idea why that seemed so important at the time.

After rudely interrupting Jim just so I could have my moment, I realized that I’d missed the Millers leaving.  I walked around looking for them, asking if anyone had seen them, but they’d presumably gone up to their hotel room already.

But hey, at least I got to shake Jim Cornette’s hand.

*****

Karin had mentioned that they might attend Saturday’s matches, but I scanned the room and couldn’t see them anywhere.  It was on my mind all day.  To think, us Canadians are known for our manners.  I had brought shame to my country.

It made it hard to focus on the matches, though I recall them being enjoyable.  Mickey Gambino (a camp participant who I didn’t even recognize due to a superb shift in mannerisms) got things started against Wes Brisco.  Jessie got called up as a replacement to wrestle Amazing Kong, one of the most intimidating female wrestlers in the world.  It looked like they genuinely beat the crap out of each other and by the end of the match, Jessie’s nose was bloodied.

Chase and Rhett stole the show while Cedric had an exciting match with former TNA Heavyweight Champion Chris Sabin in the PPV main event (there was a second live main event that could not be televised due to one of the teams being currently signed to TNA).  With all due respect to my camp boys, the match that stood out to me the most was The Rock n’ Roll Express versus Bobby Fulton & Tom Prichard.

You have to understand that for the most part I’m a child of modern WWE programming.  These days, wrestlers on television are dour and serious and overly concerned with looking cool, not to mention that they have to deal with multiple layers of corporate oversight.  You rarely see them get crazy.  Not Bobby Fulton crazy anyway.  That’s a whole new level of crazy that I wasn’t ready to deal with.

I’m not going to pretend that the tag match was some kind of technical masterpiece.  It was driven by comedy and nostalgia and the commitment of all four men to do whatever it took to give the people their money’s worth.  Maybe there was too much stalling, maybe having Bobby and Ricky’s kids at ringside was ridiculous, but for me the whole thing was aces.  At one point I made eye contact with Bobby who was in full fury and I felt genuine fear that he might climb up to my seat and crack me one.  Seeing Bobby, Tom and The Rock n’ Roll Express in action leaves me longing for a time I never even experienced.  That seems as good a way as any to sum up this trip so far.

When the show was over, I glanced around the room at the departing crowd.  Just a few rows down, I spotted Karin.  Our seats were on two separate platforms so I had to hop across to get to her.  I wasn’t missing a second opportunity to thank her for her time.  I apologized for leaving so abruptly the night before and she signalled for me to lean in closer.  I thought it was so we could talk over the buzz of the crowd, but she pulled me in for an embrace.  It was truly an honour to meet her and Danny.  There are people I’ve gone to school with or worked with for years who I barely remember.  I spent a few hours with the Millers and I won’t ever forget them.

*****

Sunday was even more of a showcase for the camp.  In addition to Cedric, Chase, Mickey, and Rhett working again, Joey Janela wrestled Wes Brisco while Chasity and Tessa wrestled each other.  It was a treat seeing the cheery Chasity switch roles with the more severe Tessa.  I made sure to jeer Chasity with as much bile as possible, which she would later thank me for.  Only in the world of wrestling can you yell “You suck!” at another human being and have them be grateful for it.

Even better, the rest of the camp was involved in an over the top “Future Stars Battle Royal”.  I was on my feet the whole time, much to the chagrin of the folks sitting behind me.  I could see Cheeseburger hanging in there, Travis blatantly mugging for the camera, Will Ferrara and Ethan battling to be the last man standing.  There were legends scattered amongst the crowd, cheering them on.  Ethan won, but it had to be considered a victory for the whole camp.

*****

After the matches, everyone does what they can to make themselves useful.  The wrestlers are taking down the ring for the last time and carrying it out to the truck, which leaves the rest of us to awkwardly stack chairs around the ballroom.  I team up with a woman named Rachel to clear the upper level, but we don’t make much progress.  We get to talking.  Rachel is training to become a wrestler.  I’m starting to think everybody around here is.

Hanging Moss

In a perfect world, I would write about every person I spoke to and every encounter I witnessed, if only to crystallize that weekend.

Lost amidst the larger than life heroes was the unsung staff that kept everything running smoothly.  Zack Salvation (a former wrestler acting as a ‘producer’ for convention and the weekend shows) tells me that the real pain in the ass was organizing the photoshoots.  For example, Ricky Steamboat had to do 177 pictures.  Each picture takes 6-7 minutes to print.  Steamboat was only available for three hours.  Do the math on that and what you’ll get is a broken clock.

Bob Keller is a booker, promoter, organizer, and generally important person who never seemed to be far from the ring.  On Saturday, a fan came to him with a ring bell covered in signatures to show off to Bob.  The problem is that the bell belonged to Bob and it had been stolen from him four years ago.  The fan was aware of this, but chose to flaunt it anyway.  After much hemming and hawing on the fan’s part, Bob decided it just wasn’t worth the trouble and let him keep it.  There are some battles you’ve won before they even start.

And then there’s Greg Price, the man behind it all.  He was like a ghost all weekend, though I hadn’t really been looking for him.  I’d been told that he preferred to stay behind the scenes, to let the talent soak in the glory.  He had a hand in almost everything that happened that weekend, so whether he was looking for it or not, there was plenty of praise to be thrown in his direction.

If you’re wondering, Jessie ended up winning the camp scholarship.  She had a hard time on the first day and I know she improved by leaps and bounds.  Enough to have that hard hitting match with Kong anyway.  Most importantly, she didn’t seem to have much time for my questions, which should have been a good indicator that her eye was on the prize the whole time.  Even without her life’s story, the sight of her tearfully accepting the award while surrounded by wrestling stars from different eras summed it all up better than I ever could.

Home

Monday morning waits for no one.  I packed my bags, taking solace in the fact that while this was the end of my adventure for now, the incredible people I’d met are continuing to pursue their dream of making it in this impossible business.  I was heading back to reality; the Future Legends camp is their reality.  There comes a point in every relationship where you cross a line and for better or for worse, you can’t go back.  I like to think that’s what happened to my relationship with wrestling while I was in North Carolina.

*****

On the way back north, I end up getting the same bus driver as before.  I’m thrilled to see him.

*POW*

At least he has another joke loaded up for the trip back:

 

A man and his wife are in need of a new mule.  They’re poor, so they have to settle for the cheapest one they can find.  They are offered a strong, healthy looking mule, with the only caveat being that the mule is extremely religious.

“If you want the mule to go, you have to say ‘Praise the Lord!’  If you want him to stop, you say ‘Hallelujah!’”  The mule salesman instructed.

“Okay.  We’ll take it.”  The man says.

The man and his wife are travelling along the road when an insect stings the mule on the backside, sending it running wild!  “Hyah!  Hyah!  Hyah!  Stop!”  The man yells at the mule.

Seeing a cliff up ahead, the wife remembers the salesman’s words.  “Honey, the mule is religious!  What were you supposed to say?”

“Oh, that’s right.  Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!”  Sure enough, the mule froze in its tracks.  They had stopped just short of going over the edge of the cliff.

Seeing how close they were, the man wiped his brow and exclaimed: “Praise the lord!”

4 thoughts on “Best Seat in the House

  1. Wow, what an incredible experience! :D Although 60% of what you said went way over my head, I really enjoyed reading about your adventures! :D So awesome!

Leave a Reply to FlamingSheep Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>