Author: Stephanie Hoff
I’ve always been interested in the culture of WWE or World Wrestling Entertainment – the top dog of entertainment wrestling. Where do the WWE athletes come from? What is it like to be in the sport? Is it a true sport – or simply just an act? What’s it like to be someone who doesn’t fit the stereotype of a wrestler – white, straight, bulky, and male?
I talked with Tyler Schwartz, a young man from Waterloo, Wisconsin. This past year, he’s been training under ACW – All-Star Championship Wresting – which is an independent wrestling company that is like a smaller version of WWE.
He was generous to share with us his knowledge and experience below:
SH: Can you explain WWE? TS: WWE is as high up on the professional wrestling ladder that you can go. They are the biggest wrestling company in the world and it’s most wrestler’s dream to work there one day. There used to be a few other competitors on television such as ECW and WCW but during the late 90’s and early 2000’s, WWE had purchased both companies essentially turning WWE into a wrestling monopoly. There was a smaller company out of Florida called TNA that seemed to possibly be their next competition, but they were no match for the WWE powerhouse. Over the past 10 or so years, because WWE hasn’t had competition in the television ratings, the WWE product has gotten rather stale. The fun, unexpected segments you’d see in the attitude era are no longer. Often, you see the same match up’s week in and week out but sadly, they know wrestling fans will probably watch either way because it’s the only wrestling program on TV. Now, with the rise of AEW, WWE is starting to feel like they must actually put some effort into their programming again and its already starting to show with their weekly programming getting much more entertaining the past few weeks.
SH: What drew you to WWE? TS: I have always had a passion for wrestling. It started out when I saw Stone Cold Steve Austin on my television. I saw this guy do things like run over his boss’s car with a monster truck, spray people with a high-powered beer hose, and fill somebody else’s car with cement. Wrestling back in the late 90’s was called the “attitude era” because it was a bit more edgy than it is today. A lot of wrestling fans call it the golden age of wrestling because it was the perfect mix of brutality and entertainment. After getting sucked into wrestling during the attitude era, it became a mild obsession. I had posters all over my walls and would be glued to my TV every Monday night for WWE Raw (or WWF it was back then). The closest I thought I’d ever come to be a wrestler is doing the moves on my younger sisters while on a trampoline. I’ve always been kind of a little guy. You see these wrestlers on TV and 90 percent of them back then were huge meatheads and the ones that were my size usually got obliterated in five seconds. I was comfortable being a fan, and only a fan.
It wasn’t until my early 20’s when guys more my size were becoming world champion in WWE. Seeing these guys win world titles in the biggest wrestling promotion in the world got the gears turning in my head. They had me thinking, “Well, if this guy can do it, and he’s only got 30 pounds and maybe an inch on me, then why can’t I?” As time went on, more smaller guys made it to the top of WWE’s ladder. Then I started seeing more “flamboyant” characters start popping up like Velveteen Dream and Dalton Castle.
As a gay male it was interesting seeing these types of characters get such a positive reaction. In the past, wrestling promotors would very rarely use openly gay wrestlers/characters and when they did they were always made out to be the heel (bad guy). If they weren’t the bad guy, they’d usually be playing a very flamboyant character that would never stand a chance against one of the “macho men” wrestlers. Today, Velveteen Dream, who plays on NXT, is their North American Champion and gets great crowd reactions every time he steps foot in the ring. Wrestling’s target market is a more conservative crowd, so to see these crowds get behind a character like that was very eye-opening. It made me realize, who cares what my sexual orientation is? If I can wrestle, and be entertaining while doing it, then it shouldn’t matter. That’s when I made the decision to just go for it and the worst that could happen is that I wouldn’t like it and could always quit. I’m glad I made that decision because it was the best thing that’s ever happened to me! SH: What type of WWE are you doing?
TS: So, WWE is just the top wrestling company. What I do is considered the independent scene or “the indies”. The wrestling ladder goes independents > televised independents > bigger wrestling companies (WWE, AEW, TNA). Working in the independents means you are literally an independent contractor and you set your own price, control your own schedule, and must market yourself to other wrestling promotors. After working on the independents for years, perfecting the craft of wrestling, then you might be good enough to make it to a televised independent show; examples of this would be ROH or Evolve. Once you’re on a televised independent show, then your goal is to impress the recruiters at WWE and other more popular wrestling organizations. Once they see your work, they’ll ask you to come in for a tryout. I’ve heard an official WWE tryout is one of the hardest things any person has ever gone through, and this is coming from athletes who have done strenuous tryouts before.
If you’re determined enough to make it through that, then you may make it into WWE’s developmental program called NXT. NXT is a show that’s only on the WWE network and it’s ran a lot like an independent wrestling show. It’s much more focused on fantastic wrestling than crazy storylines and such. It also gives wrestlers a chance to see how WWE does things as far as camera angles, entrances, and match set ups. Then once WWE thinks you’re ready, they will call you up to their main weekly programming. Once you’ve hit that, it’s just a matter of how big of a star do you want to be. SH: Is there a lot of chapters like that in Wisconsin? What about the rest of the U.S?
TS: There are a lot of independent wrestling organizations in Wisconsin. Some examples would be ACW, Brew City Wrestling out of Milwaukee, WPW, and Frozen Tundra Wrestling. There are plenty more within Wisconsin and hundreds more within the U.S. In the past, if you wanted to be a wrestler you had to find one of the few promotions in your state and earn your keep by helping out with shows and from what I’ve been told, they were much tougher on you back then. Today, anybody can pay their way into a training facility. SH: What type of people are you practicing and working with?
TS: We started with a group of 14 – there was one girl who was with us for two weeks, but eventually dropped out. The ages range from 17 to around 50 years old, with most of us being in our mid-20s. Everyone lives around 20 miles of the Oshkosh area; I’m the furthest away. The largest guy is 6’2” and 360 pounds. Most of us are closer to 5’10” and 180 pounds. All of the guys are super awesome and make coming to practice a very enjoyable few hours!
SH: What do practices consist of?
TS: The first few classes were literally learning how to fall, or “bump”. Bumping is safely landing your body on the mat while trying to make a noise to give the move more impact. You’d think that’s straight forward, but in order to do that safely without giving yourself whiplash is harder than it might seem. After you get the basics of bumping down, you move on to transitional holds and small moves like suplexes and body slams. We’re at the point now that we all have an idea of what we want our characters to be, so we think of moves that will benefit our character and try them at practice with the other guys.
SH: What does the show consist of?
TS: Our shows usually have 7-8 matches on the card. The first match is usually a fast-paced match to get the crowd pumped up for the rest of the show. Then you have a few more matches which leads into an intermission. After intermission you usually have one or two more matches plus the main event. Main events are usually for a title or have some sort of special match like a ladder match, or one of my favorites, a “fans bring the weapons” match. You can expect a normal wrestling show to go 2-3 hours and they’re usually very cheap to attend. Even if you wanted to sit first row, you’re still only looking at about $40 a person which I think is very reasonable for first row. General admission is usually around $20 – $10 a person. Our company ACW, is very family oriented so you can bring the little ones and not have to worry about seeing too much blood or cursing. There are more extreme organizations out there where you can see loads of blood if that’s something you’re into, but most legitimate wrestling organizations aren’t focused on shock and awe.
SH: There’s a saying that WWE isn’t a real sport, what do you think?
TS: This is probably my biggest pet peeve ever! Before training to be a wrestler, I knew wrestling was predetermined. If you don’t realize that by now, you clearly aren’t that interested in the product. Just about everybody knows that the winner of matches is decided before the match even happens. However, that doesn’t mean what they do is FAKE! You must be in great shape and be able to do extreme amounts of cardio in order to safely execute everything in that ring. Here’s some common misconceptions I hear…
1) “The ring has springs under there, right? It feels like a trampoline I bet.”
A ring is made of steel with wooden boards on top of the steel. The wooden boards then have a 1-2-inch padding on top of that. The padding is most likely worn from getting used for years so there’s not much of a cushion for you to fall on. It all comes down to learning how to land flat without hitting your head on the mat. Trust me, I’ve rocked my head a few times and it’s not fun. There’s even been times where I felt like every bump I took was spot on and each one didn’t hurt individually, but then you get home and relax for a couple hours and your whole body is just aching. You have to love doing this otherwise you’ll wonder why you’re doing this to your body.
2) “Why do you care about something that’s fake?” WWE is sports entertainment. You can’t look at WWE on the same level as NFL, NBA, NHL, etc. WWE is in a category of its own. You don’t go to a movie theater and watch a movie thinking the whole time, ‘wow this is fake.’ You must suspend disbelief when watching wrestling as well. You
don’t have to think it’s real, but just enjoy it for what it’s worth. If you see two guys do things you’ve never seen before, it should impress you even if they’ve practiced that spot once or twice before going out to the ring.
3) “But if its predetermined, how do you get better than other guys?” From what I’ve seen, making it up the ladder is all about how much you put into each and every opportunity you’re given to go out and entertain the fans. If you get the fans to care about you, and start gaining a following, you are much more likely to get booked places because promotors want wrestlers that will draw a crowd and sell tickets. If a promotor sees that you put on good matches, they’ll most likely book you again. Promotions lead to a title opportunity. Also, you must work safely each time you’re in the ring. If you get a reputation for being an unsafe worker, most bookers won’t hire you and other wrestlers won’t want to work with you.
SH: What makes a good WWE athlete?
TS: I truly think charisma is more important than the actual wrestling ability. Wrestling moves can be taught to just about anybody, but to have that star power and charisma that crowds latch on to is something that only certain people have and it’s very hard to teach that. If you have the charisma part down, then you get into a gym and get into shape. Not every wrestler ripped with a six pack, but they look believable in a fight. You’ll have to work on your cardio, so you don’t get winded mid match. I know when I first started it was crazy how winded I would get in the first few minutes of a match and we’d barely have done any moves. You also must have decent memory and communication skills. Some wrestlers like to talk out every detail of their match beforehand while others like to call it on the fly while they’re wrestling in the ring. Each method has its pros and cons but for either one, you need to be able to talk to your opponent while remembering what’s coming next. It can get complicated sometimes and it’s something I’ve struggled with myself.
SH: What is your goal as a WWE athlete?
TS: Honestly, it’s just to have fun. I don’t have any big goals to get signed by WWE or any other organization. I’ve only had a handful of legitimate matches so far but every time I get to go out there in front of a crowd, I get a feeling like I can’t get anywhere else. This is something I will be doing for years to come and can’t wait to see where it takes me!
SH: As an openly gay male, what is the WWE experience like for you?
TS: Well I went into training with the plan to try to keep my sexual orientation a secret until I felt more comfortable with everything. Up until this, I didn’t hide who I was at all. If you asked me, you would get an honest answer. I just didn’t want to be looked at differently because of my sexual orientation. My plan was to do an openly gay character though, so I knew it’d have to come out eventually. Well it didn’t take long before I ended up telling the guys in my class and I don’t think any of them were shocked. After I told everybody, I was expecting some to treat me differently but that’s not at all what happened. All the guys treated me just the same and yes, I do get the occasional gay joke, but I can tell it’s not coming from a place of hate or prejudice. I’m nervous to see how an independent crowd will take my character, especially since Wisconsin a more conservative state.
SH: Is there a lot of diversity in WWE?
TS: Unfortunately, no there’s not a lot of diversity in wrestling. I’d say 80 percent of wrestlers are straight, white, males. There are very few women on the independent scene. I have yet to meet another openly gay male wrestler in Wisconsin or in the surrounding area. Chicago has a few that I know of, but it would be kind of cool being labeled as the first openly gay wrestler in Wisconsin.
SH: Do you think you can be an advocate or role model for gay youth interested in WWE?
TS: I would love to be! One of my friends from work brought their kids to my first match and since then her daughter has been obsessed with wanting to become a wrestler herself. Granted she isn’t gay, but it shows how much of an affect I could have on the future of somebody else. I hope to show gay youth specifically that even if you might’ve been picked on in high school or you’re not the biggest, most muscular guy in class right now, with hard work and determination you can get to the same level I’m on right now! My best piece of advice I can give you is don’t wait till you’re 27, like I did, to start. If you feel like this is something you’d like to try, sign up for classes! You might need your parents to help with the financial side of things but if it’s something you have a passion for, they should help out! It would be an honor to be the reason why some little guy or girl got into wrestling or felt more confident in their own skin on a daily basis just from watching me wrestle.