When you pay $20 a day to get the shit kicked out of you.
Everybody except for the smallest of children knows by now that professional wrestling isn’t real. The men and women in the squared circle are just pretending, taking part in a choreographed ballet of brutality.
But even though the fisticuffs are fake, the pain is all too real. You can’t just jump into the ring and expect to be able to wrestle. Schools all over the world take young men and women and teach them how to express themselves in the game of human chess. And getting there isn’t easy. I talked to former and current students and trainers to learn about what goes into becoming a pro wrestler.
Ryan Owens decided he wanted to get into wrestling in his late teens.
“I was 19 about to turn 20 and doing absolutely nothing with my life. Up to that point I had focused so hard on just getting through high school to move out of an abusive home that plans past survival really were not concrete.”
Owens had dropped out of college where he was studying computer science and settled into pumping gas, working as a sound man and picking up odd jobs. That certainly wasn’t anything to build a career on. A childhood love of pro wrestling, coupled with a natural resistance to pain, led him to look into learning the craft.
He did some research and ended up enrolling at Killer Kowalski’s school in Malden, Massachusetts.
Walter “Killer” Kowalski was a Polish-Canadian bruiser who retired from the ring in 1977 to open his school. He trained many of the sport’s top talents like multi-time WWE champion (and current Executive Vice President of Talent) Triple H.
Admission fee at Kowalski’s was $2,500, which was good for life. You paid and you could train whenever you wanted. Unfortunately for Owens, he signed up right as Killer was getting out of the business and selling his operation.
“Two other guys I made friends with at Kowalski pulled me aside after I had been attending for a few weeks and let me know that Brutal Bob Evans had a place in Rhode Island [where] he was training guys.”
So Ryan started showing up at Evans’s gym. The cost there was $20 a day, or you could pre-pay for a month at $150. A day typically started with stretching and warm-ups, then the class would work on three individual movements?—?falls, runs and the like?—?before combining them into one fluid sequence.
“Keeping straight a multi-step sequence was horrific. I was always extremely frustrated with the inability to transition from being able to do the individual components really well to [doing] them as a set. I had started collecting concussions after high school and they likely were a cause for that.”
Even massively underweight and malnourished from extreme poverty, Owens stuck with it for years. Eventually he had to quit.
“My knees. I played baseball, football, and wrestling seasonally growing up so my knees were always aching. I had a lot of visits to doctors when I was a teenager and the diagnosis was to just ice my knees afterward and I’d grow out of it when I stopped growing. I also had a hernia the entire time I was going through this. I saw this weird bulb on my pelvis and would just push it in and keep going. I did a lot of things in class way earlier than I should have and took bumps I should have refused given my lack of training because I really wasn’t in a good state of mind.”
Ryan’s story isn’t unusual. The demands that wrestling training puts on the body are beyond many people. Even gifted athletes wash out when they can’t take the non-stop abuse to their joints.
Concussions are also a major issue in wrestling. Former WWE star Chris Nowinski left the business to become an advocate for head trauma research, and his Concussion Legacy Foundation has been studying the brains of wrestlers after they die. Almost unilaterally, they’re found to have severe degradation from taking too many hits to the skull.
Wrestling trainees aren’t insulated from the realities of the business. Any good trainer will let you know what you’re getting into. Unfortunately for some aspiring wrestlers, not all trainers are good.
The old maxim “those who can, do?—?those who can’t, teach” is sadly still alive in the wrestling world. Many schools are run by former “enhancement talent,” people who worked for the big companies in a role of losing to stars (in order to make the popular guys look good). There’s nothing wrong with that as a job, but it doesn’t help their students learn what it takes to rise to the top. Worse, because there is no regulatory agency or set of standards for wrestling training, just about anybody can rent a warehouse, set up a gym and claim to show you the ropes.
Thankfully, the age of the internet has cracked down on many of these low-rent operations, and most of the big-name schools have solid pedigrees. Here’s a pretty cool blog that breaks down dozens of wrestling schools.
Pro wrestling, like pizza, has a bunch of regional variants. The classic American style is all about beefy bodybuilders, upstanding heroes and vile villains. In Japan, they value intense realism with painful strikes and dangerous holds. Mexico’s masked lucha libre style incorporates wild daredevil moves in and out of the ring, and in England grapplers learn a panoply of sneaky escapes and twisty submissions.
The Chikara Wrestle Factory in Philadelphia, run by long-term indie star Mike Quackenbush, is the only school in the States that claims to teach all of those styles and more. They also offer a free introductory class for amateurs to see if wrestling is right for them.
I talked to Tom Bente, a current student there. Like the Killer Kowalski school, the Wrestle Factory charges a lifetime fee (in their case, it’s $4,000) that allows him to train at his own pace. Tom decided he wanted to get into wrestling his junior year in high school and scraped up the money. He’s been training for about a year.
Tom’s a big guy, so the move he has the most trouble with is the resorte. Also known as a “kip up,” it involves rapidly moving from laying on the ground to standing. After a year, Tom’s already having trouble with his shoulder. He told me he thinks he can work through it, but it’s something he’s worried about.
In general, aspiring wrestlers don’t go directly to the big leagues. Instead they hone their skills in the dozens of small independent promotions around the world. The Wrestle Factory is associated with Chikara, so trainees typically start out there before plying their trade elsewhere.
Tom hasn’t made his debut in the ring yet. “Everyone debuts when they’re meant to, and I don’t have that answer,” he told me. “I couldn’t even begin to guess.”
I also spoke to Ophidian, one of the teachers at the Wrestle Factory. After training at the school for a year, he made his debut in 2007 as a masked, snake-themed Egyptian wrestler. (Yep, Chikara is pretty weird.)
“The physical aspect of what we do can be taught to just about everybody,” he told me. “We’re able to change and modify the motions and exercises so that you can learn them. The hardest part to teach is the actual performance. The psychology of entertaining people and what you present to a live crowd?—?the creation of the art.”
Ophidian got into training from his dedication to the art. Even after “graduating” the Wrestle Factory, he kept showing up to every class he could make, internalizing the curriculum and eventually getting his own shot at teaching.
If you don’t think you have what it takes to make it in the ring, you might be surprised. Ophidian says the most important aspect is cardio, “anything that gives you the stamina to handle a 2–3 hour training session,” but you can work on that outside the gym. He’s even created a series of “Ring Shape” videos that will help you work on essential core strength when you’re not in class.
The Wrestle Factory is universally beloved by everyone I’ve talked to who was associated with it. They treat training not as a way to separate rubes from their money, but as a way to pass on a beloved vernacular art form to a new generation.
WWE, the leader in “sports entertainment,” opened its own wrestling school in 2013. Dubbed the Performance Center, it’s probably the best-equipped training facility in the world. Twenty-six thousand square feet?—?with a whopping seven rings?—?the Performance Center is also home to veteran trainers who have honed their craft all over the world.
Unfortunately, you can’t just drop some coin and walk in. Classes here are by invitation only. The company selects groups of independent wrestlers, athletes, fitness models and genetic freaks to come learn the trade. Trainees eventually graduate to NXT, the company’s developmental program, where they hone their skills in front of smaller audiences.
What’s interesting about wrestling training is how beneficial it can be even if you don’t plan to step in the ring. Body awareness is the most essential trait in the squared circle?—?a combination of balance, poise and core strength. Wrestlers regularly find themselves upside down, backwards and sideways, and just as often are hitting the mat hard on their back, knees and belly. If you don’t land right, you’re in for a lot of pain.
The vast majority of pro-wrestling trainees never hit the big time. But if you ask them, few regret the time they spent learning the ways of the squared circle. Sometimes being taught how to get knocked down can help you stand back up.