5 Behind-the-Scenes Facts I Learned as a Pro Wrestler
Let's face it: Society sees "professional wrestler" as kind of a ridiculous job. You're getting paid to participate in a fictionalized romp consisting of men in tights pretending to injure one another. But like most jobs, it only looks easy from the outside.
I'm Dustin Nichols, former independent wrestler, and there's a whole bunch of fascinating and/or horrifying things you probably didn't know about the sport. For example ...
The Refs Are Often Telling the Wrestlers What Moves to Do Next ...
Take a look at this picture:
Adjust your gamma if you must. Sheamus is pretty white.
Notice anything odd about it, other than the fact that Sheamus' hair makes it look like there's a fierce blast of wind flying from the ref's mouth?
Look at the ref's ear. Why does he need an earpiece? What, does he have to be reminded of the rules of his fake sport during the match? Is he an undercover member of the Secret Service? Hell, you wouldn't think a WWE referee would need much of anything -- isn't his job to just sort of watch the match and conveniently get distracted when the heel (evil wrestler) does something shady?
Nope -- that ref is basically directing the action.
"Punch him directly in the dick. For real."
The wrestlers know what they're supposed to do up to a point, but they're not the writers, and they're not in charge -- there has to be someone directly in communication with the guys organizing the match to deliver instructions into the ring (such as in-match changes to the script), and that someone is the referee. He gets directions from the agents who set up the match (or in the case of the WWE, Vince McMahon himself) through the earpiece.
When you see the ref talking to the wrestlers, he's not offering warnings or stern reminders of the rules. He'll call out the next spots (moves) for the wrestlers if they need a reminder, stop matches from going too long, and make sure the match has the right flow. Sometimes a decision may be made to change an outcome in the middle of the match -- the ref can then jump in and do a quick count the next time the designated loser hits the mat.
And then gets assed.
Here's how the process works: a script is written (although professional wrestling is quickly becoming more improvisational), the promoter approves the script and the outcome, and then everyone learns their lines. So up to that point it's not much different from any live theater, except here you have this undercover director on the stage, surreptitiously doing everything from directing live changes to the story to relaying acting notes ("Tell Eddie to show more frustration!").
... And the Wrestlers Are Choreographing the Match on the Fly
Of course, the other difference from live theater is that in wrestling, if one player decides to improvise and the others aren't in on it, somebody can wind up in a fucking wheelchair. This is what most people don't get about pro wrestling -- it's "fake," but the wrestlers don't get to rehearse the match move by move. It's not like a fight scene in a movie, where the performers may spend weeks working out the choreography, yet every move needs both wrestlers cooperating perfectly or somebody's neck will get broken. That means the performers need to talk to one another.
Yeah, everyone kind of needs to know this one is coming.
Ever watch a match and notice how one wrestler will do a move where he's kind of just holding the other guy's head for a bit, maybe in a side headlock or an armbar, for no particular reason? This frequently used move is called a rest hold. Not only does this give the wrestlers a chance to take a breather, but they can also communicate with each other about what the next spots will be. This is either to remind the other wrestler what's coming up or just a friendly "Hey, dude, this is about to hurt."
Sometimes we're not even that subtle in the ring and just shout out under cover of the crowd what needs to happen next -- listen closely and you can even hear it during broadcasts:
Note the part at the beginning where a guy gets slammed and his opponent asks if he's OK. And when the guy says "no," he lies on top of him (in the guise of an attempted pin) to give him a moment to recover. That's the sort of thing that could simultaneously shatter your opinion of wrestling and make you realize how fucking amazing it is. There's a huge live audience there -- there are no time-outs, and anything that goes wrong has to be smoothly covered without breaking the flow of the action. You might notice that these are exactly the type of quick creative decisions that are difficult to make in the dazed moments after you've been bashed in the head with a folding chair.
And yes, the moves do hurt. Wrestlers sometimes go "stiff" -- which means they're forcing things to look as real as possible by, well, actually hitting the other person (Chris Jericho has a reputation for going stiff with his moves). Make your own boner jokes there, we'll wait.
You have four hours.
If you're wondering how people aren't constantly getting injured doing that, the answer is ...
The Injuries Are Real, and Common
It's true that wrestling scripts often include fake injuries as part of a storyline, but behind the scenes, real injuries are constant. Wrestling is the most physically demanding sport out there -- there's no off-season and not much break between matches. Lacerations are a daily occurrence, you suffer numerous knee and ankle injuries, and some injuries are so brutal that they need to be edited out for broadcast (get hit in the head with a foreign object at the wrong angle, and suddenly you've got a gash in your scalp that takes 22 staples to close).
There's been a lot of controversy lately about all of the concussions in the NFL and the long-term effects on player health. Well, pro wrestlers have a death rate 20 times higher than that of NFL players -- pro football has only lost six players directly from injuries since 1970 (and Major League Baseball has only had one since 1921). Meanwhile, between 1997 and 2004, 65 wrestlers died from heart attacks, growth enhancement abuse, and other causes directly related to wrestling. This isn't to downplay the health problems other athletes suffer -- long-term effects of head injuries are terrible no matter how you got them. The point is, only one of the above is thought of as a fake sport.
That's right ... baseball.
What makes wrestling so brutal if (most of) the punches aren't really landing? Let's start with the ring we're getting slammed into -- it looks pretty soft, but it's actually just a thin piece of plywood placed under thinner mats and a bunch of steel springs under that. And those ropes we get thrown into? Those are usually metal cables covered in tape. A few bounces off of those and you have bruises that'll be with you longer than the cartilage in your knees.
And that's just the standard setup; when wrestling gets creative, it also gets dangerous. Take the 1998 "Hell in the Cell" match between the Undertaker and Mick Foley (a legendary event among wrestling fans). It was a cage match in which it was scripted for them to fight on top of the cage, and then for Foley to be thrown off the cage 20-something feet down onto a "soft target" (a ringside table rigged to break his fall). Being thrown onto a breakaway table was dangerous enough, but it had been done before (although not from that height). Do not fucking try this at home:
Despite the announcer's reaction there ("They've killed him!"), that was all planned. However, something went wrong halfway into the match. After getting back on top of the cage, Foley was slammed down onto the chain link, which broke away, dropping him down onto the ring itself. The ring that, as I just explained, is just a thin mat over a solid surface:
You hear how the announcers are saying to stop the match? It wasn't acting. The people at ringside honestly thought he was dead. He wasn't, fortunately -- he "only" received "a concussion, a dislocated jaw, a dislocated shoulder, a bruised kidney, a gash in his lip, and had one tooth knocked out and another broken." And yes, he got up and finished the match.
So maybe it's no surprise that it was injury that ended my own career. It wasn't even during a match, but a training session. Which brings us to ...
The Training School Is Insane
There are schools for pro wrestlers, just like with any other vocation (it's not the sort of thing you can just go to the park and practice on strangers). And the training schools -- especially the ones back in the old days -- are brutal. Remember, everybody knows that continuing to perform through the injuries is a key part of the job, so that's how they filter guys out. And by that I mean they do their damnedest to cripple you. If you get injured and come back for more, the trainer sees you as worth their time. Hulk Hogan, famed wrestler and enemy of shirt sleeves everywhere, had his leg broken by his trainer in his first session. It's not quite as brutal these days, but let's face it: As long as wrestling is wrestling, the training is going to be about seeing if you can survive the equivalent of getting repeatedly run over by a spandex-wearing garbage truck.
"I'd invite you to feel my abs, but you'll be getting pretty personal with them soon enough."
During one of my training sessions, we were going to practice back body drops, a move where you are thrown, flip in the air, and land on your back. I had never practiced the move before, so their way of easing me into it was to have the biggest guy at the school (I'd say he was around 7 inches taller and well over 100 pounds heavier than I was) throw me into it.
The second time I tried it, he launched me as far as he could, which caused me to rotate too far. I wound up landing square on my ass, which severely (and permanently) damaged my back. I was too hurt to stand (I later found out I had a compressed spine, along with a bruised tailbone). So instead of a stretcher or something, I was carelessly rolled out of the ring and onto the ground (note: if you ever endure a serious back injury, it is advised that you not then immediately go flopping off of a high surface onto a concrete floor).
"Get back here, pussy! It's only a little paralysis!"
One of the guys asked if I was out for the day. When I said that I was, he demanded that I begin fetching them water. Since I couldn't walk, I crawled on my hands and knees into the kitchen and attempted to fill a pitcher from my knees. After crawling with it back to them, the other wrestlers and the trainer ignored me and went about practicing moves. And that's how it was -- injuries like mine were seen as part of training, and thus part of life for a wrestler. I still live with the pain today.
So what's the reward that makes all of this worth it? Not much ...
Almost All Wrestling Positions Are for Low Pay
When I wrestled, $50 a night was considered a good night. In the independent leagues, that's about as good as it gets, other than a few exceptions (such as if the wrestler is well known and loved, like when Raven left the WWE to go back to being an indie wrestler in 2003). So unless you work at the top echelon in the WWE or TNA (which is extremely hard to break into) where the top people make upwards of $10 million a year, you are not going to make a living from working as a wrestler. It's like a pyramid, where only the few guys at the very top get to make big money and become beloved stars of the silver screen.
The average promoter at the indie level just can't afford to shell out a lot of scratch. If they bring in a guest star for a show -- a more famous wrestler like Mick Foley or, more rarely, a celebrity (ladies and gentlemen, paranormal expert Bill Bean!) -- they likely have saved that money up for a bit. Certain promoters can pay more, especially if they're an established company -- for example, Resistance Pro Wrestling in Chicago pays pretty well, thanks to being run by Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan (no, really). But even with all the power of mid-'90s alternative rock behind the event, it still may not pay enough for most wrestlers to go full time. Your average independent wrestler likely works a regular 9-5 job and tries to wrestle anywhere from one to 10 times a month, depending on what the schedule will allow.
Even in the WWE, the pay for most wrestlers isn't great. Not everyone you see on screen is a well-paid regular -- local wrestlers are hired all the time for shows, often not even to wrestle. Sometimes scripts call for "security guards" or some other extras to get in on the action, like if the story involves a fight breaking out backstage, and nine times out of 10 local wrestlers are hired for that event. A lucky few get to enter "squash matches" where they get to fight a billed wrestler (and lose badly, to make the star wrestler look strong). I know some wrestlers who worked for the WWE in a few minor appearances; the top pay was around $3,000 for the tournament. While that is a quick buck, remember, most of these wrestlers then have to go right back to their regular jobs.
"Just put the reports on my desk. I'll get to them after the Vicodin kicks in."
Even among the headlining wrestlers in the WWE, the guys who are taking home six figures have to deal with the fact that A) you can't do this job forever and B) the WWE has no health insurance. So all those horrific daily injuries? Well, let's just say that "huge" salary diminishes with all the medical bills. Want to buy health insurance for yourself to cover them? Make sure you're sitting down when they tell you what your premiums are once you tell them what you do for a living.
So to review, it's almost as if pro wrestling is built on a system designed specifically to filter out all but the absolute craziest of human beings. Which ... actually makes sense, if you think about it.
Related Reading: If you liked learning about life as a wrestler, why not read about what it's like to work as a Dominatrix? Or get the perspective from life inside a mental institution? Cracked has made kind of a habit of talking to people lately: including this escaped Scientologist.