If you’ve ever found yourself wanting to be a professional wrestler, this edited extract from Carrie Dunn’s new book, ‘Spandex, Screw Jobs and Cheap Pops‘ is for you…
Historically, the UK scene has had a very mixed reputation for the quality of its training.
Mark Sloan, who founded the Frontier Wrestling Academy in the south-east of England, doesn’t believe that in reality it’s any worse than any other sport. “There is a lot of bad stuff out there,” he says. “But people will just try it anyway.”
Johnny Moss concurs, commenting scathingly: “The majority are run by people who haven’t even had proper training themselves. Unfortunately what happens is someone who is an awful wrestler that struggles to get booked anywhere ends up setting up his own promotion, so then they are guaranteed a booking, then opens a training school as it’s a good little earner! All I will say to anyone who wants to learn how to wrestle is research the school you are thinking of going to, who are the trainers? What have they done? Where have they wrestled? Who have they trained?”
Harvey Dale, a manager and ring announcer, is heavily involved with ‘The House of Pain’, one of the most reputable training schools in the UK, headed by veteran Stixx. Talking to him, he is obviously angry about the bad schools – not necessarily from a business point of view, but because of the danger caused by inadequately-trained wrestlers performing on shows.
“There is a whole host of ‘self-taught workers’ and ‘backyarders’ appearing on ‘shows’ at the moment,” he says, using those quote marks with heavy irony. “These guys – usually guys in their very early 20s or late teens – then think that they know it all and are safe to teach others how to work safely. This is where the danger comes into it.”
He continues: “Students go on to ‘perform’ [on shows] long before they are ready to be anywhere near shows. They are used by the ‘promoters’ because they come for free, the excuse being that ‘they need to gain show experience’.
“But they don’t. They need to train in a safe environment with a competent trainer and school for a sufficient amount of time long before they ever need to gain experience in front of a live crowd.
“The major issue with this is that these guys train at these awful facilities and then their ‘trainer’ gets them ‘booked’ on a ‘show’ with a couple of months of training badly once a week. The student then believes that they must be fantastic to have got onto a show so quickly, they tell their mates what a wonderful school it is and how the trainer has ‘helped’ them start their career so quickly – and then they move onto an environment without crash mats outside the ring, without the knowledge of how to genuinely bump safely in front a crowd and basically endanger themselves and the person that they are in there with.”
The late Andre Baker founded NWA-UK Hammerlock in 1993, and his training school had a strong monopoly on the market for several years, before the company stopped running events in 2007 and wound up two years later. His standards were high.
“Andre was the first person I know of to introduce a grading system to pro wrestling,” recalls Danny Garnell. “He got us accepted by martial arts governing body as ring wrestling as an exhibition of real wrestling. So you had to do your yearly grading, and with your grading comes insurance, so we were all insured on the shows. It did limit injuries, and you knew that people you were going on with were as competent as you, maybe more competent, so you had that confidence that they could work safely.”
Jon Ryan, the ‘bad boy of British wrestling’, began training with Hammerlock as a 17-year-old in 1997, and as a regular attendee found himself used as the trainers’ demo dummy.
“Andre had a very specific view on how you should be forced to train to get into wrestling, and a lot of what he stood for I still believe is valid today,” he says. “Part of what made a lot of the guys from Hammerlock very different was the fact that we were made to understand shoot or submission wrestling, which is very important as you get a feel for how the body moves and equally importantly you understand the concept of what hurts which can only make a wrestler’s selling [reacting to a strike] better.”
Sometimes the trainees themselves create problems. “We’d often have these guys that had come down to the gym and on their first week they’d say to Andre, ‘OK, how many weeks do I need to train for before I get into the WWE?’ Straightaway that’d get Andre’s back up,” says Hammerlock graduate Dean Champion, who now runs the promotion himself. “He’d say, OK, hang on a second, you’re in your first week, you’re practising your break falls, you need to learn to walk before you run, and I think that upset some people. He didn’t cut his words. He’d tell you the way it was, so to speak. If you were doing something wrong, he’d tell you it was wrong, but that was Andre’s way.”
Previous generations of wrestlers had learnt their trade by doing the hard labour of setting the ring up, and then, after proving their dedication through that manual work, being thrown between the ropes with grizzled pros and finding out the tough way how to take bumps, meaning that the industry was still a very closed shop.
“I wrote to [Brian] Dixon at All Star saying I was interested in becoming a wrestler, and I know a lot of guys that I’ve spoken to all did the same, and he wrote a polite letter back saying ‘you need to come to shows, help set up the ring, and if you’re lucky, you might get ten minutes in the ring with a wrestler before or after the show’,” says Champion. “There was nowhere where you could go and someone would take the time to actually stand next to you and say, ‘OK, you need to do this, this and this, this is how a lock-up is, this is how an arm-drag is,’ and actually take you through the basics. Andre was the first person to see a gap in the market, he realised that the WWF was getting bigger and there were these kids out there that wanted to do this, so he went down that route.”
After training at Hammerlock, Jon Ryan became a trainer there himself, and is characteristically blunt about the methods he used.
“My teaching style – I would say I was a prick. I used to really enjoy coaching back in the day and I didn’t take any prisoners – if you bumped badly you would do it again and again and again and again until I was happy. But the interesting thing is I really believe that was the best way. I think some people may not have been happy with it and thought I was a cock, but I think they still respected me for it. I did mellow towards the end of my coaching days and I honestly think that this had a detrimental impact on the quality of the coaching.
“I remember one summer camp at St Margarets Bay in Kent, someone did something to piss Andre off and told me to teach them a lesson. So I went into the dorms at 6am with an airhorn and shouted for everyone to get up and out like a drill-sergeant, made them run down to the beach and run shuttle runs with the slowest having to do press-ups with their faces in the sea for a punishment. I think Stu Sanders [WWE’s Wade Barrett] and Ricky Martin [of recent Apprentice fame] were at that camp! Maybe that was a bit far…”
‘Spandex, Screw Jobs and Cheap Pops’ is out now.