Below is an article written by John Leland, a Newsweek correspondent. He describes the time he spent in the ring trying to learn the craft that is professional wrestling. So you want to be a pro wrestler? Here’s the reality check that you need–
A NEWSWEEK writer survives four days of wrestling school–just barely
Cliff Compton, as he is known professionally, stands 6 feet 11/2 inches, weighs 215 pounds and owns his own gym–on the whole, not the sort of guy I’d choose to tussle with. But on a cold morning in January, the two of us square off in an unheated cinder-block hangar in south Jersey. “Come on, NEWSWEEK,” taunts an onlooker helpfully. “It’s time to get slammed.”
Cliff and I circle each other warily, then tie up in the center of the ring–our arms locked at each other’s necks and elbows, bodies torqued in opposition. With a nod for me to jump up, Cliff lifts me off the mat, raising me horizontally at chin level. Then, like the man says, it is time to get slammed. For an instant I am in free fall, until wham! the concussive thump of a 40-year-old back slamming flat against the dirty canvas. I take inventory of the damage: nothing I can’t walk away from. Let’s do it again, from the top. Tie-up; lift; wham! So goes another lesson at the Monster Factory, a place that gives full meaning to the phrase, School of Hard Knocks.
In the world of professional wrestling, some men are born to cartoon greatness. But most learn it in institutions like the Monster Factory, one of a couple of dozen schools across the country where guys like Cliff learn the fine art of making it look real. For $3,500, “Pretty Boy” Larry Sharpe, a former top pro himself, molds able bodies into what they hope will be the next generation of WWF superstars. The lessons usually take about six to eight months, but Larry and his deputy, Ed Atlas, have agreed to run me through a four-day crash course, or as long as I can hang. I’m down for pain, I say, but not lasting injury. Ed smiles at the first part.
Larry has trained some of the top names in wrestling, including the Big Show and King Kong Bundy, but on this day, a half-dozen lesser mortals pace the ring: beer distributors, security guards, bodybuilders, schoolteachers. We start with the basic “bump”: fold your arms across your chest, tuck in your chin and fall flat on your back. And again. Most rings have a coiled spring under the center to absorb some of the impact, but this one relies on the natural give of the plywood, which is covered by an inch and a half of foam padding. The goal is to land flat, distributing the shock over as broad an area as possible. It is the wrestling student’s first act of faith. Like fledgling actors or musicians, my classmates believe unshakably that from this humble tumble lies the road to stone-cold greatness. “I’m positive that I’m going to do it,” says Ryan Miller, 19, a butcher who has emptied his savings to pursue this dream. “I met Ravishing Rick Rude when I was 7 years old. I said right then, ‘I want to be a wrestler’.”
Larry offers a frank assessment of my prospects. At 49, he has bleached hair, a giant cigar and a shiny Cadillac. Because of a run-in with the gout, he drinks only champagne. “You’re not going to walk out of here and get a job with the WWF, that’s for sure,” he says in his flat south Jersey accent. After decades as a “heel”–the guy fans love to hate–he communicates in the broad, expressive gestures of his profession. “If you concentrate, work hard, I can teach you how to wrestle. You would wrestle part-time and make your money back.” After this counsel, it is my turn to inflict some damage. I fling Jack McFadden, 31, an interior designer, against the ropes (he helps), then guide him through an aerial flip over my hip: my first hip toss. As he crashes to the canvas, “selling” the pain with a so-so paroxysm, I can see how guys get hooked. Jack whips me wrenchingly against a turnbuckle, to Ed’s withering appraisal. “That’s better, NEWSWEEK,” he yells. “It still sucked, but it wasn’t ridiculous.” This is the nicest thing he ever says to me, and I take it as a compliment.
Larry and Ed work on the basics: always twist your opponent’s left arm; two squeezes on your hand signal that it’s time for you to take over; keep your posture theatrically upright to play to the cheap seats, even in a side headlock. If you hurt your opponent for real, he might “get a receipt,” or return the favor. “It’s like a waltz,” yells Ed, counting off a one-two-three rhythm. “Your opponent is really your partner.”
Though it is premature, Larry agrees to steer me toward my gimmick, or ring persona. A good gimmick exaggerates one facet of a wrestler’s real personality. Larry sizes me up as a heel. This is good news. Heels generate the emotional energy, or “heat,” in any match, and are usually the “ring generals,” directing the moves (most wrestlers plan their opening and closing sequences, improvising in between). “With you,” says Larry, warming to the subject, “your personality is slightly introverted; your posture is not outstanding. You could be a sneak or a tricky guy that would hide gimmicks. You could take a beating, then every once in a while pull something dirty and sneaky and underhanded. Maybe a thumb to the Adam’s apple, or hiding brass knuckles or a roll of dimes in your tights.” Who wouldn’t love this game?
By the fourth morning, however, I reassess the damage. My ankles are on fire, my calves cramped. My right temple throbs from an inadvertent kick. My ribs hurt when I inhale, and I have to lift my head with my hands to get out of bed. Critics of professional wrestling scoff that the daring feats are all bogus, but wrestling fans buy into a trickier illusion: that a man can tumble headlong onto a table from 10 feet above and not be hurt–because everyone knows wrestling is fake. In fact, that man is in pain. For my last day, I decide, I will just watch.
As they run through the moves, Ryan takes a nasty header onto his face. A student named Anthony aggravates a separated shoulder. A rope comes loose, nearly spilling everyone onto the concrete. Larry offers bags of ice (everybody has already signed a release waiving his right to sue) and sympathy. “You gotta love the pain,” says Ronnie Koreck, a beefy insurance adjuster from Pennsylvania. Though he is 37, Ronnie assures me that he has lined up sponsors to help him reach the next level, wrestling in gyms and VFW halls for small paychecks en route to the top.
It is this faith that offsets the day’s pains, and the next day’s as well. No one teases me for wimping out. I say my farewell, but I will long remember my days in the squared circle. Every time I get out of bed.