Every Saturday night in National Guard Armories, VFW posts, school gyms, and other small venues, local athletes fly through the air, get kicked, punched, flipped, and sometimes even hit with chairs. They are the local professional wrestlers.
Most people are exposed to professional wrestling though the television shows and pay per views of the mammoth World Wrestling Entertainment Company better known as the WWE. The WWE evolved from the old WWF which was the first truly world-wide professional wrestling promotion.
In the olden days of professional wrestling, the sport was comprised of various territories where promoters had a near monopoly on local venues, talents, and audiences. It was rare that one promoter would tread on the turf of another. Wrestlers were sometimes able to move from territory to territory building their skills as well as attempting to build their fortunes. Each territory had its own “World Champion”, local TV show, and its own stable of wrestlers. Within each territory there was normally a set schedule of shows. Larger towns would have a show on the same night each week, at the same location. Smaller towns would have a show on perhaps the first Saturday night of every month. The promoters never changed, the venues rarely changed, the scheduled hardly ever changed, and the performers sometimes changed.
All this started to change in the late 1970’s when the son of a New England wrestling promoter decided that he was going to do something no other promoter had done before, create a national wrestling promotion. Even after firm discussion from his father how something like this simply was not, Vincent K. McMahon started on his mission to dominate professional wrestling in America. McMahon started by acquiring the services of the top wrestlers from each of his rival promotions. Champions from across the country were plucked out of their territories and moved to the new WWF. With all of these different stars the WWF now had instant national appeal which was parlayed into a nationally syndicated TV show. Now people from all over the country could tune in and see the biggest stars like Hulk Hogan, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, Andre the Giant, The Iron Sheik, and The Junkyard Dog in their living rooms every weekend.
With a nationally syndicated show and most of the top talent, the WWF took the plunge into physically invading the other territories. For the first time ever a single promotion was going to tour nationally. Wrestling shows were booked all over the country costing the company millions. The national expansion was dependent on the success of a new concept in professional wrestling the “supercard”. The supercard concept was invented a few years earlier when a group of local promoters called the National Wrestling Alliance, decided to pit their top stars against each other in a single show called Starrcade. McMahon’s idea took this concept a step further. He sought to create the “Superbowl of Wrestling”, so he created WrestleMania.
WrestleMania would be a wrestling extravaganza geared toward people who had never seen wrestling before. Entertainers outside of the industry were invited to attend. Cindi Lauper, Mr. T, Muhammad Ali, Liberace, and even the Rockettes participated in the night’s festivities.
What WrestleMania did for the national popularity of wrestling, it did the opposite for the local promoters. With all of the best talent easily accessible on TV, the territory system began to quickly unravel. In a matter of a few years the dozens of strong regional territories dwindled down to just a handful based mostly in the south. Where many wrestlers were once able to carve out a decent living locally, now just a few wrestlers are taking in the lion’s share of money. Outside from a brief challenge from Ted Turner owned World Championship Wrestling (which was later absorbed by the WWE) Vince McMahon has had a lock on the American and even worldwide wrestling industry. Local pro wrestling has effectively been turned into a semi-pro sport and the territory system as all but disappeared.
What exists today are now hundreds of micro-promotions across the country that host events at various locations. Omaha has at least two promotions which put on shows in and around the Omaha area, and talent is almost exclusively local. One such promotion is Magnum Pro which was founded by Nathan Blodgett in 2011. Blodgett took the plunge into pro wrestling himself after ditching work to attend a match as a 19 year old. Blodgett’s career took him across the U.S. and Europe on the quest for wrestling glory.
While Blodgett still wrestles, most of his efforts go into building Magnum Pro. One thing people will notice right away about a Magnum Pro event is the production value. There are lights, entrance themes, video montages, promos and even a web show. There are also live announcers that provide commentary for dvd’s of the shows. Gone are the days of simply ringing a bell and watching two behemoths brawl. Pro-wrestling is all about telling a story.
In order to boost attendance at shows former stars from the WWE will often be booked. This gives the local fans a chance to see old heroes up close, and local wrestlers an opportunity to work with some of the best wrestlers in the business.
The stories of the individual wrestlers are as diverse and colorful as their wrestling personas. Wrestlers like Kaine Taylor, who wrestles under the moniker of Taylor Orion, balances two jobs, being a father, and training. At 26 years old Taylor looks at wrestling more as a hobby rather than a potential career. While there are stories of people going into professional wresting much to the chagrin of their parents, Taylor had a completely opposite experience. His biological mother, who he didn’t reunite with until he was 17, is very supportive of his wrestling exploits. While even famous wrestlers like Dwane Johnson tell stories of their wrestling fathers trying to discourage their entry into pro wrestling, Taylor’s mother was set to do whatever it took to make it happen. As happens to many people, life gets in the way sometimes and fatherhood took a ringside seat in Taylor’s life. Unfortunately the life of a wrestler and father very rarely mix well. Once Taylor decided to have his six year old daughter watch him wrestle live one night and it ended up with his daughter in a puddle of tears. She was not yet ready to grasp the idea that wrestling is staged.
Amazingly not all children are scared of the hard hitting action in the ring. Jesse Sturgeon AKA, JC Slater, current champion of Magnum Pro Wrestling has a biggest fan that is also his smallest fan. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise though as Sturgeon himself became enamored with wrestling as a child. “I first wanted to be a wrestler when I was four”, Sturgeon shares as he recounts his early memories of watching Hulk Hogan, The Macho Man Randy Savage, and the Ultimate Warrior. Wrestling was a bonding experience between Sturgeon and his father who was diagnosed with MS when Sturgeon was in the 7th grade. This diagnosis proved to cement the idea that Sturgeon wanted to be a pro wrestler himself.
Sturgeon looks the part of the prototypical “babyface” (good guy) wrestler with his good looks and toned physique. Sturgeon couples his physique with a well rounded gimmick of a 1950’s style “retro” champion who wears ray-ban sunglasses and letterman’s jacket to the ring while being escorted by his classically attractive lady valet. Interestingly, Sturgeon is a big 90’s fan and used a character from the show “Saved By The Bell” as the inspiration for his own in ring persona. And no, it wasn’t Dustin Diamond’s “Screech”.
Much of Sturgeon’s young life was spent going to wrestling shows with his father and older brother. Today at 30 years old Sturgeon’s life still revolves around the ring. By day he works installing sprinklers for a local irrigation company while squeezing in weight training and cardio six days per week. Sturgeon still holds onto his dream of making it to the WWE. That dream takes him all across Nebraska and South Dakota hoping to develop his skills to make the final push toward stardom.
While Sturgeon has been fortunate to have a long career, the strain of wrestling can stop a career before it has time to make it to the next level. At 23 years old Jeff O’Shea, a wiry high flyer, called it quits on a 10 year career that began as a 13 year old hanging out after wrestling shows helping out wherever he could simply so he would not told to go away. O’Shea progressed from helping tear down the ring to working sound, to eventually getting in the ring as a referee. At 17 he was able to actually wrestle in the ring and begin his quest for stardom. Six years later, after winning his biggest tournament ever, he exited the ring, trophy in hand, leaving his shoes on the mat, the symbol of retirement for a wrestler.
O’Shea’s retirement is typical of a local pro wrestler. The demands of school, work, family, and the future finally push pro wrestling to the side. For every wrestler in the WWE there are hundreds just like them working a full day then performing that night often in front of a smattering of fans. The wrestlers of Magnum Pro have it better than most, as there are often over 200 fans at matches and wrestlers are assisted with things such as cutting promos, character development, merchandise sales, and they have the opportunity to periodically train with former WWE stars. Even with these advantages O’Shea made the decision to step away at a relatively young age.
In every pro wrestler’s career, there comes a day of reckoning when they must decide how high they think they can realistically climb in the sport, and are they able to make the sacrifices it requires.
Is it possible to gain the weight required to maintain the physique now often required for success? It is worth the physical pain, chances of permanent damage, the risk of bankrupting medical bills? Is it worth the hours spent away from loved ones traveling, training, setting up the ring, all for the few minutes a night of glory inside the squared circle?
For every wrestler, no matter the heights they may have ascended to, the answer will eventually be no. It is this fact that binds all professional wrestlers. The answer usually comes quickly unlike other sports where athletes can decide that this will be their final season.
For a pro wrestler they never know if this will be the last time they will climb up to the top turnbuckle, leap through the air and come crashing down on their opponent, go for the pin while the crowd yells… “one”…”two”…”three”.