I got hooked on professional wrestling when I was a kid. I'm not sure when exactly it was, but I remember I was watching Saturday Night World Championship Wrestling on WTBS, and I saw Tully Blanchard squash some preliminary guy, then walk over to David Crockett and Tony Schivone at ringside to talk shit about something. I immediately wanted to see more. Somewhere along the line I decided that I wanted to be a professional wrestler. Sure, I also wanted to play catcher for the Cincinnati Reds, or perhaps get bit by a radioactive spider and gain superpowers. Hey, I was a kid.
I was fortunate that Cincinnati seemed to get a wider variety of wrestling programming than many places. I was able to watch the Four Horsemen try to run Dusty Rhodes and Magnum TA out of town, Randy Savage destroy the throat of Ricky Steamboat, and Col. DeBeers piledrive Jimmy Snuka on the concrete. I spent many a youthful Saturday flipping back and forth between the different wrestling shows, and the different baseball games on television. Saturday morning was for watching superhero cartoons, but the afternoons were for watching sports.
At some point I got away from wrestling; I just didn't follow it as much as I did when I was a kid. It probably coincided with the different wrestling programs vanishing (as the territories went out of business), and the most accessible stuff being the World Wrestling Federation's product. I was a big fan of guys like Arn Anderson, so I wasn't as keen about watching guys like Doink.
When I got to college, I discovered the wondrous world of independent wrestling, due to a local Columbus promotion having some semblance of a television show on public access. It was bush-league, but entertaining enough, and it made me start watching wrestling regularly again - WCW Monday Nitro! Monday Night Wars! Then I discovered ECW, and it really reminded me a lot of what I used to watch when I was a kid. So, once again I was hooked.
Eventually I made my way down to the local Columbus promotion, the IWA, and after checking out a few shows live, I decided I really wanted to try it myself. I hung out after a few shows and talked to some guys, and even ran into a couple guys on campus. Before I knew it, I was in the ring - not knowing a damn thing about what the hell was going on - but working matches. I was looking for training and an opportunity to work anytime I got the chance. I wanted to be a wrestler, and here I was in college, where I am supposed to be preparing for what I want to do with the rest of my life. Yet I am out busting my ass to be a professional wrestler.
When I was breaking into the business, the prominent thought in my mind was not about getting paid. Maybe I wanted to be a star, or a main event guy - who gets into wrestling and doesn't fantasize about headlining a Wrestlemania or Starrcade? Who doesn't think about wrestling in the main event down at the building you used to watch your heroes wrestle?
It might sound dumb, but when I was breaking into the business, there were three companies out there doing good business, just in the United States. It was the midst of the wrestling boom, and all of the promotions were heavily going after new talent to fill out all the television time they had. I never really had a strict desire to work for one particular company over another, because at that point I knew guys getting dark matches and tryouts with the big boys. I just focused on learning my craft, and getting better, waiting for my time to come, and someone would give me a chance to prove myself.
Many of those opportunities dried up when WCW and ECW went out of business, which left the WWE as the only game left in town. I came to a realization at which a lot of other guys never would; The guys that used to have good paying jobs with the major promotions were going to turn up in the independent promotions, and swallow up all the good paydays. This helped me set a clear goal for myself as a professional: Make a living from wrestling.
I never wanted to treat the business as a hobby. I left behind my friends and family and moved two states away to pursue wrestling, not to play wrestler. I always realized that there is a limited amount of time to pursue any athletic endeavor, because everyone will get old and be betrayed by their body at some point. I never wanted to grow old and regret not taking the shot at wrestling when I was young. I made up my mind that I would work whatever jobs that paid the bills, while I would put all of my effort into making a living wrestling. Wrestling came first - before family, friends, or money.
Straight out of wrestling school, no wrestler is able to demand enough money to live off of. At some point you have to "pay your dues". Paying those dues means sacrifice. I was always willing to make those sacrifices to be a professional wrestler, while others turned away and decided that rather than make a sacrifice, they would just do it for fun - a hobby. I saw paying my dues as an investment of my time and youth into a future goal.
I also figured out pretty quickly that there were hundreds and hundreds of talented wrestlers out there, and that every single one of them thought that they were going to be headlining Wrestlemania. There were plenty of wrestlers out there now that could draw money or have great matches on television, but they are not what the WWE is looking for. Unfortunately, there are also not very many other places out there worth a damn to build an exciting and viable product to showcase these guys. So again, a lot of guys have to make a choice: work their ass off to become a very good wrestler, work their ass off to get signed by the WWE, or treat it like a hobby. Or quit wrestling.
Being a good wrestler, and being a WWE prospect are not necessarily the same thing. The things that will get a wrestler booked on the independent circuit are not the same things that the WWE is looking for. The WWE is looking for someone with a marketable look, with a raw skill set that they can develop. A vast majority of the time, the WWE process is more of a casting call than it is signing the top wrestling talent. For every Daniel Bryan there is a Miz. For every CM Punk there is a Mason Ryan. There is no "amateur draft", where the top prospects and most highly skilled wrestlers are recruited into the WWE with a pile of money available after years of hard work honing your skills. The WWE doesn't necessarily pick the best talent; they pick the individuals that they think they can market the best. .
From the start I tried to get as much ring time as possible, so that I could sharpen and polish my in-ring skills. I tried to work on my skills as a wrestler and storyteller (and after some time, as a matchmaker and a promoter as well). I knew that with my body type and skill set, if I ever wanted to support myself from wrestling, I had to make myself a commodity that promoters would be willing to pay top dollar for.
Getting paid on the indy circuit is mostly about respect and covering expenses. In a lot of ways, the paydays that are being handed out at most promotions are not enough to change your status in life, at least not without having a lot more of those types of bookings. A lot more. When you first start out, there are tons of expenses that you have to just eat as an initial investment in your profession. You have to just have to chalk it up to paying your dues while you learn the craft. You have to pay someone to train you, you have to buy ring gear, you have to have dependable transportation, money for traveling expenses, and more. When you get out of wrestling school, no promoter is going to give you any money right off the bat, because you haven't earned it. Wrestling isn't the NBA or the NFL where you get paid for your talent or potential - in wrestling you make money by proving that you are a draw. Since no one is really a draw, you must turn yourself into a commodity that promoters feel that they should pay good money to feature on their cards. A commodity that ticket buying fans will pay to see.
My goal was always to fill my schedule up and to find as many consistent bookings where I received a regular payoff, that way I could use those dates and payoffs as a negotiating point. I tried to use my schedule as leverage against promoters. When you start filling up your schedule and you have promoters wanting to book you, the bargaining position is better when it comes to negotiating a price. When a promoter wanted to book me and my calender was full for two or three months out, I have leverage when it comes to my asking price, and for what the promoter wants to do with me. It also allows me to go back to promoters I am already working with and negotiate for more money .
When you can get a promoter three hours away to pay you $50 a pop twice a month, the local guy that wants to give you $5 and a hotdog has to step his game up to keep you around. Once you have promoters contacting you to do business with them, you are able to negotiate paydays, to be treated with respect. When someone promises you $50, gives you $5 and says that if you don't like it you don't have to work there, that is disrespect for the time and effort you put in to your craft. Let promoters treat the hobbyists like that.
I made a lot of choices in my career, some good, others bad. But they were all choices that were what I thought were best for me professionally, rather than as a hobbyist. Sometimes I had to drive three hours to wrestle a match and break even on expenses, just to show the local promoter that is underpaying me that I had the ability to replace his bookings. Sometimes this led to better paydays, sometimes this led to an eventual parting of the ways. But at no point in my career did I say "screw this, I am not wrestling for anyone that doesn't pay me like I am a star." That would result in me losing the ability to practice my craft. A craft that I sacrificed family, friends, and money for. Despite the fact that I was doing everything I could to make a living off of wrestling, why would I ever do that?
And that is why the question about why I wrestled to begin with is important. I didn't dream of drawing big houses and making good payoffs from promoters when I was a kid sitting on the couch watching Arn Anderson spinebuster fools. Just like when I dreamed of being a baseball player, I never dreamed of being a ballplayer so that I could get a fat million dollar contract. I wanted to grow up and play a game. When I got into wrestling, I realized that I was doing something that I had always dreamed of, and I wanted to do whatever I could to perpetuate that dream. At some point though, you have to look at things as an adult and be able to walk the fine line between destroying your own body for pennies, and not doing what you have always dreamed of doing. That is the difference between being a professional wrestler, and a hobbyist.
They say that if you are good at something, that you should never do it for free. This is true. But unless you have evidence that you are good at something, why would anyone ever pay for you to do what you are good at?