All of my life, when people learn of my past as a professional wrestler, I am faced with the same question. "That stuff's fake, right""
Without fail, just as many of my peers do, I pause for a second - half in disgust - half preparing myself to once again defend my former profession, while at the same time giving insight into the skill required to avoid possible danger.
For me, wrestling was NEVER "fake". It was always incredibly real both in and out of the ring. Politics occur in locker rooms and promoter's offices behind closed doors, and this is where the real battles are fought. Mostly these battles are over money, or your status on the card. Some guys were better politicians than most, some were like me, and just happy to be on a card. Non-fans are bored with this aspect of the business, they just want you to validate their claim that wrestling is "fake", and that nobody really gets hurt.
Fake. I don't like that word. My dictionary describes fake as "a worthless imitation passed off as being genuine". Doesn't fit anything I have ever done in life. In respect to my wrestling career, I went through 12 months of training before I had my first match, and then it was another few years before I started getting comfortable about what I was doing. Wrestling is ever changing and ever-evolving. Some guys you work with all of the time, and some guys you'll work with once and never see them again. There is something to learn from everybody, at least that is my opinion. Learning never stops. When you stop learning you become careless. These days training camps pop guys out of training in 6-8 weeks and throw them into the ring. The quality of the training shows through in today's product. I have always contended that if the training was better in these schools, the independent promotions would be able to display a better product to attract a wider audience. The focus is on filling the roster and not on training.
And what about my training" I had the pleasure of being trained by Hiro Matsuda. Some of the guys that helped out around there were Duke Keomuka, Charlie Katani (Professor Toru Tanaka) and Masa Saito. Placed above all else was a respect for yourself and the business. Matsuda commanded respect and wasn't shy about putting you in your place when you needed it. My first injuries occurred in training. I got stitches in my tongue after biting through it while taking a back bump. I had the wind knocked out of me several times, bruised ribs, countless sprains, and the sorest a$$ in the State of Florida for the year 1979. Dick Murdoch stopped by once and I had my teeth knocked loose courtesy of his elbow. This was all before I had my first match.
My first match, I broke my thumb, had the air knocked out of my body, & fell on my head and saw stars. I needed assistance getting my gear off, and later that night my ankle swelled up to the size of a grapefruit. The next night, I was back in the ring, hobbling on one foot against Matsuda, who assured me, "You not hurt yet. When you hurt, I tell you." What a guy.
Over the years you learn ways to not get hurt, but getting hurt is unavoidable and just part of the business. All rings react differently, some ropes are tighter or loose depending on who put them together, and everybody you work with reacts and moves differently. Timing is the key, as well as communication, but things do go wrong from time to time, no matter how careful you are, and despite your level of experience. It's not very difficult to twist a knee, turn an ankle, pull your back out, or receive the regular scrapes, abrasions and bruises that come with the territory. None of this is "fake". Getting hurt, or receiving the injury is one thing. Working through it is something else. I remember having to prep my legs to last the 7-10 minutes that I would be out there, and go back to icing them down after the match and walk like cripple out to my car. The adrenaline takes over while you are out there, and afterwards, when the endorphins wear off the pain slowly starts to throb; you begin your nightly ritual of ice packs, Excedrin, and alcohol poisoning.
There is nothing fake about taking a bump. It hurts. You can either absorb the ring, or the ring can absorb you. Many workers will tell you that it becomes second nature after a while, but it was always my opinion that the more you took something for granted, the more likely you were to get careless and get hurt from it. I always received injuries when I least expected them. It's also important for me to explain that when it comes to injuries, it's not who you work with, but how you work with them. An unintentional thumb in the eye is much more menacing than a scrape or bruise, because you need to recover from a thumb in the eye as quick as possible, bruises and scrapes (for me at least) were noticed after the match, and half the time you were unaware of how they were caused. In the ring injuries are usually caused by factors, and if you look at what led up to the injury, you can usually identify what when wrong and where. The injury that ended my career was caused by three factors.
Factor #1: I was in the ring and under the influence of an illegal controlled substance (another story -but something that occurs quite often in this business - not proud of it, but it is extremely important that I tell you that this was the main thing that shortened my career - as well as many others)
Factor #2: I became careless and paid for it. I was performing a move that I did almost daily, working with someone I was familiar with, and my lapse of concentration, combined with my impaired judgment led to disaster.
Factor #3: There was a complete breakdown of communication between me and the guy I was working with, which was 100%, my fault.
To make a long story short, we set for a sunset flip, and I ricocheted off the ropes like a bullet, flipped over at a million miles an hour (which caught the guy I was working with by complete surprise), and I over-rotated my body, completely ripping my right hip out of its socket. Not only was there damage to my hip, but my pelvis had been fractured as well. None of that was fake, nor was the recovery. It would be years before I was comfortable stepping back through the ropes, and by then I had lost more than a step or two.
Wrestling injuries are extremely real. Along with the fractures, bone chips, and muscle strains, I received scars on my back, arms and shoulders, my forehead, and my knees. It's important for me to say that I had no health insurance, and when I was hurt and did go to the doctor, it cost so damn much that I had to wrestle more to come up with the extra cash to pay the bill off. This would only extend the duration of the injury, and this cycle was never-ending. If I hurt my right knee, my weight would shift to the left knee for a while, and when the right knee heeled, it was time for the left knee to go out due to overwork and exhaustion. So what do I say when I am asked if wrestling is fake" I usually ask them if I can body slam them and ask them the same question afterwards. That usually catches them off guard, while at the same time causing them to take a few steps back. In today's era where everybody knows that wrestling is a work, I get told that wrestling is "phony crap". No matter what the average Joe wishes to call it, I.e. fake, phony, pre-determined, rehearsed, it doesn't change the fact that professional wrestling requires great training, skill, imagination, trust, forethought, bravery, and dedication by the men who participate in it. Not everybody has the talent or ability to climb into the ring (injured) and execute moves, sell their character, and get a crowd reaction while at the same time exercising great care to ensure that nobody gets seriously hurt. All of that has to occur at the same time and it has to occur constantly - and there is nothing fake or phony about that. Some guys do this for years and get little or no respect from those who do not understand the dynamics of the industry, or the pitfalls of injuries and traveling constantly. When my career ended, I didn't receive a gold watch, or a thank you from the company. They just separated themselves from me and any liability for my injuries, and that was quite typical. I don't have sour grapes about it; I take full responsibility for the occurrence of the injury and the factors that led up to it. In fact it helped me turn my life around steer me in the right direction. Everything happens for a reason.
Professional wrestling is not fake. It is a spectacle that has become ingrained in our memories, for some of us, setting up the time line in our lives, and reminding us of where we were when certain events happened, or when a certain worker came into town. It's a part of our lives, and there's nothing fake about that either.