My name is Luke Gallagher, you may know me as the owner and EIC of the news and entertainment blog known as NerdBastards.com. I’m an active voice on the site and behind-the-scenes puppet master. What I am not, is a personality. I’m not one of those bloggers who like to insert themselves in their work and be some sort of online celebrity. I prefer take a note from Justice Leagues Martian Manhunter and sit up in my watchtower overlooking everything whilst eating copious amounts of Oreos. But, for a change, I’d like to open up and tell you something that I don’t talk about often – a very different direction that my life almost took. One involving bumps, jumps, and curiously tight fitting spandex.
Before I was the head honcho of Nerd Bastards and writing about nerdful things, I wanted to be a professional wrestler. Trouble was, the reality didn’t quite match up to the fantasy.
I suppose this where I say a little thing about my childhood and the affect wrestling had on my young and impressionable mind. I was an only child, my mother worked a ton, my father was my best pal, and we moved around a lot, setting roots and making friends was not part of my childhood. For me, TV was the great denominator in my life – TV was my other-mother, teacher, and secret lover. I’d sit Indian-style or lay upside down on the couch and watch an ungodly amount cartoons, as well as I Love Lucy, Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island and I Dream of Genie. Baby sitters loved me, because they didn’t have to do anything except plop me in front of a TV and feed me, and then send me off to bed. Of course, there was a lot of wrestling.
Like any other kid, I was enthralled by the colorful cast of musclebound characters and their battles. Wrestling at that time, for me, was as close to witnessing real life superheroes as one could get. It was exciting, it was fun, and just the kind of grand-scale action and silliness that fueled my whimsy.
As mentioned, I moved around a lot as a kid, which made making lasting friends difficult. But for those few relationship I was able to cultivate, it was wrestling (and cartoons, toys, and comics) that always seemed to be the connecting force – that shared sense of commonality “Oh, you like Hulk Hogan too? Let’s be friends”.
During the 90’s I would feverishly watch Monday Night Raw or WCW along with their respective Pay-Per-Views either at home by myself or with the occasional gathering of friends. We’d even go to LIVE shows, dress up and act like jackasses (Shout out to Jon, Jaime, Ken and Peter Sciretta of Slashfilm.com). It’s funny, you mock wrestle when you’re a kid and that doesn’t quite stop when you’re a teenager either. Quite a number of beds, playgrounds, and backyards were used as makeshift wrestling arenas, and don’t tell my mother this, but a few cookie sheets might have been used as illegal weapons.
I should also mention that school was never really easy for me either. I hated the authority figures that were teachers. I wasn’t interested in any classes or materials being taught, and of course, the angst and loathing you get when dealing with the drama that is other kids. School was just a massive inconvenience. The constant question from teachers, parents, and other adults: “what do you wanna be when you grow up – what are you gonna do with your life”. Always my response would be “Wrestling”. It seemed a lucrative venture and an exceptional profession for an exceptional kid like me. Naturally, reactions were met with head shakes and the autonomous “what are you gonna fall back on?”. Dismissive attitudes be damned, I was gonna be a pro wrestler!
You could say I entered professional wrestling school out of spite just as much as it was in fulfilling my dreams.
I was a 17 year old sophomore in High School when I discovered Killer Kowalski’s Pro Wrestling School. Classic era wrestling fans will know Kowalski (pictured above) as the villainous Polack and his signature “Claw” move where he’d take his hub cap sized hands and wrench a man’s gut until he cried for Momma. His school, originally located in Malden, MA was about 2 hour drive from where I lived in Natick, MA.
The first time I visited the school, I didn’t know it was a pro wrestling school. The property, nestled in an old-town office/store strip, was actually labeled “Richard Byrne’s Tang Soo Do Karate Studios”. Climbing up the double flight of stairs, the upper foyer had a couple of ratty old couches. The walls were adorned with Master Richard Byrnes life in movies and promotional karate posters, the dude was kind of in love with himself. No way was I in the right place… then I heard some loud bangs, thuds, smacks and cavemen-like grunting. To the right of the foyer was a shoddy hanging curtain separating the entrance to the main gym.
Yes, it was a karate dojo, a big one, which happened to have a wrestling ring in off in the corner. Kowalksi and Byrne shared the business space. I walked in that first time seeing a rotation of bodies flying back and forth off the ropes and jumping in and out of the ring while a coach shouted at them like an Army drill sergeant. Immediately to my right was the legend himself, Killer Kowalksi. A very large and lumbering old guy in typical old person clothing, wearing a toupee so bad it looked like it was ordered from the junk ad section from the back of an old magazine. He was just sitting there, overlooking the class. I remember him staring not at me, but through me. I would say I remember what first words he said to me but I don’t. I was too excited and his Polish accent was so thick and heavy he sounded like Charlie Brown’s mother.
I would later come to learn that he didn’t really teach the class – he just sat there and collected his money. The only time he talked is when someone would ask him a question, to which they never got a direct answer. Usually, anytime someone got Walters attention it was an excuse for the veteran to go into some long winded “back in my day” type story that had no relevancy to the question whatsoever, but those were good stories. You’d hear him talk about the glory days of wrestling, the behind-the-scenes and in-the-ring antics, camaraderie, occasional horrors (guys purposely hurting each other), and what he did to make a living as a wrestler.
A typical Walter story
The underlying message/lesson of all his stories was the idea getting people to notice you. In fact, he’d often say – repeatedly – “Make The People Notice You”. That’s when he would truly come alive, that’s what he wanted to impart. The rest of the time, he just sat there drinking his weird vegetarian concoctions from his over-sized mason jar, and dishing out his “magic” magnets to help injured/sore students recover from their aches and pains. He was a weird guy.
But I digress…
The head coach (the one shouting commands to the class) came over and introduced himself to my father and I as Mike Hollow (pictured right). Dude was like a G.I. Joe action figure wearing a baseball cap. He pulled the classic “so you wanna be a wrestler” question – the one that you often hear legends (like Hulk Hogan) talk about right before having their legs broke from person they hope to learn the business from, it was a very different kind of business back in the day. What I got instead, was a friendly and welcoming, “Well alright,” followed by a routine spiel of upstart costs, monthly dues, and class schedule. At the time, I didn’t have the $1,500 enrollment fee. It wouldn’t be another 3 months until I saved up enough scratch to join the school. Those were the longest 3 months of my life – that school was only thing I thought about. Learning the secrets behind curtain and actually doing the moves I saw on TV… to live the wrestling dream. It was my obsession.
From the very beginning, the first thing I learned was that wrestling is hard. I assume you already know that wrestling is fake – that matches are fixed and that the punches, kicks, and body slams are just performed to look like they inflict injury. That, however, is where the word “fake” ends. The rest of it, the physicality and theater of it all is very real. Well, at least the physicality anyway.
Seeing wrestling on TV and doing it for real are two very different things, obviously. But there is a clear distinction between emulation/horse play among your friends and being in that ring running the ropes and taking bumps. The cardio… you would not believe the amount of cardiovascular endurance in takes. I mean, you’re in constant motion for X amount of time, on top of lifting and muscling another person – be it drills or a full-on match. It’s exhausting. Least not bit of all, the pounding your body takes. Here’s something most people, including fans, do not know – that ring is not forgiving. The ring is made up of steel frame with plywood laid across steel brackets. Above that is a an inch or two of dense foam with the a thick canvas covering. There is some give and a little bounce, but throwing your body down on that mat – repeatedly – is a shock every time.
Now the ropes… oh those ropes! Only the WWE seems to use actual ropes, most outlets use steel cables wrapped in insulting foam wrapped in tape. There is virtually no give at all. You see the guys on TV coming off the ropes like it’s a slingshot, but that is an illusion of the body contorting into the ropes and then quickly throwing the body in the opposite direction in one fluid motion. Run into ropes full force and you will be left with a trio of hideous bruises on your leg, waist, and underarm. Every new guy, myself included, learned this the hard way.
In wrestling school you also learn the business lingo and slang. Words like:
Kayfabe, to portray things as they real or true at all times.
Baby Face -good guy
Heel – bad guy.
Spot – Planned high points in the match.
Mark – Wrestling fans/target audience/people who believe wrestling is real.
Sell – React to a move -like a punch or kick- as if it was done for real.
You start off learning basic moves – How to lock up with another guy and how to take a bump. The latter means throwing your back onto the ground but doing it in a way that protects yourself, namely your neck and head. It’s all about keeping your head tucked and your body flat and spread out so that the force is distributed. Easier said than done, but do this correctly and you could fall of most typical ladders and not seriously injure yourself.
The usual wrestling class at Killer’s ran about 2 hours and was broken down into 3 parts – warm ups, demonstrations, and drills. Warming up consisted of doing 50-100 air squats (Gawd, did those suck!), push-ups and sit-ups and other calisthenics; followed by running in the ring bouncing off the ropes 2-5 times and then either falling out of the ropes or leaping over and out of the ring. Before any drills, the lead coaches would demo a new or old move; either something as a basic Arm Bar or something advanced like doing and receiving an elbow drop from the top rope (let me tell you how terrifying it is seeing a 200lb+ body come barreling down on you from 5-10 feet in the air… no matter how many times you tell yourself it’s fake and you won’t get hurt, you brain will always betray you). The entire class would then take turns pairing up with each other to practice the move going through the motion(s) and working towards a full speed action. The latter part of the class would have students pairing up and doing a succession of drills that incorporated the newly learned and past moves to create a short snippet of what you might see in a match.
Occasionally, in class there would be time set aside on working on mic skills. Wrestling is just about as much as what happens in the ring as it does out. The greats in wrestling are the greats in wrestling because of the characters they portray and the colorful things they say when a microphone is put in their face. This, turns out, was my weak point; my kryptonite. I couldn’t talk. I’d stand there in front of the whole class as the coach says “OK, Joe Schmo is calling you out – says he wants to put you 5 feet in the ground. What do you have to say?”. I’d mumble ” I… I.. I’ll see him next Tuesday” or something to that affect. I couldn’t come up with anything elaborate to say on the spot. It would be something I would try to work on but would remain a challenge I would never quite over come.
If there was time left over at the end of a class, some of the veterans/pros would put together a 5-10 minute match, complete in character. That was always amazing to watch. It was a ballet of sorts – a story of good vs bad in an orchestrated dance of head locks, body slams and leg drops. Having seen and learned the mechanics and methodology that goes into to creating a good physical story, well, my appreciation for wrestling reached new heights.
One the the many in school matches that would often transpire.
It wasn’t until 6 or 7 months of training 2 hours a day 3-4 times a week, until I had my first match.
A local wrestling promotion tapped the school to fill slots/bodies for a Battle Royal it was advertising on its card. Me and about 10 other experienced students got our first taste of performing in front of a live audience. My coach Mike Hollow and assistant coaches would be in the Royal as well. This would also mark my first time in a wrestling locker room.
You know that scene in 300 where the soldiers are preparing for their big fight by massaging and greasing each other up? Yeah, that’s what happens in a typical wrestling locker room. Grown men flexing and pumping up, while other men oil them up so their muscles would shine. Since it was more homoerotic than I felt comfortable with, I put on my gear privately in the bathroom. I put my boots on, wore some torn jean shorts, and a ripped flannel shirt and would perform under the name “Lucas McPain“. A Cactus Jack wannabe, stupid, I know.
Also on the title card that night was a match between Yokozuna and The (Fake) Undertaker. Wrestling fans will remember Yokozuna as the very large sumo wrestler from the early 90s, and The Undertaker, well everyone should know who that is. In this case, though, The Undertaker was being portrayed by Brian Lee. He actually wrestled as The Undertaker (the two looked alike) for a short time in the 90’s when the real Taker was taking time off (pictured to the right, Lee as the Undertaker to the left of the REAL taker). Lee was keeping up the shtick.
I met both of these stars in two distinct memorable ways. With Yoko, I had entered the locker room and saw a spread of Chinese food on the table, a lot of it. I thought it was a buffet for the whole crew. I asked another wrestler if I could have some to which he (snickering) said “go ahead”. The moment I put my hand on a piece of beef on a stick, the ground shook and from behind me I heard a boisterous “Hey! What are you doing?!” It was Yoko, bigger and fatter than he ever looked on TV. The Chinese food was his, all of it. “I…I… I was just getting you a plate” I said. He laughed and said “I’m just f’n with you, you can have some if you want”. I didn’t dare actually take any. Yoku proceeded to waddle off yelling for the promoter to get him his money. I guess the promoter had a reputation for being a dick and screwing guys out of money.
In the other corner of the locker room was Brian, a large nearly 7 foot tall guy who looked the biggest baddest biker you’d never want to mess with. He was telling a group of wrestlers how Jesus saved his life. In his hay day, he apparently had a issue with drugs, and told a story where he was so hopped up on PCP that it took 12 cops and shotgun held to his face to restrain him. He put his ways behind him and found the lord. What he didn’t lose, though, was his humor and spirit. This is a guy who was a big bag of smiles and always the prankster. I would learn this first hand.
It was time. Time for the Battle Royal. Time for me to take what I had learned and show my worth!
The Battle Royal started with wrestlers gathering into the ring one at a time. I was behind the curtain waiting for my time to go. It was pre-planned that I was going to be one of the first few guys thrown out of the ring. Brian, who was hanging back, had other plans for me. Well, first, he tried to put a piece of toilet paper down the back of my trunks to embarrass me, but I caught him. He said “ah, you bastard, but hey listen… I want to you go out there and when you get thrown out, I want you to come back here and then go back out there”. I said “uh, are you sure?” to which he said “yeah, it will be great, don’t worry about it. Just do it”. So I did. Several times.
I emerged from the curtain in full character. I was a heel and I made the people know it. Working my way to the ring, I’d mock spit at fans and get in their face telling them to “shut up” and “sit down”. I entered the ring, and got up on the second turnbuckle and flipped off the audience. I continued to give nasty glares and hand signals while waiting for the rest of the wrestlers to get into the ring. Suddenly, it was time. The bell rang. It was chaos. A melange of bodies in motion. A wrestler locked onto me, gave me a kick to the gut to which I returned his blow with several punches, followed by an arm bar and face smash to the turnbuckle. I worked him to the corner and proceeded to give him a succession of 4 chest slaps. He dodged my 5th slap and we exchanged places. He kicked me in the gut again and then dished out chest slaps of his own (you should know that chest slaps are 100% real. No faking at all. They hurt. A lot). Staggered, I stumbled out a few feet where my opponent whispered in my ear “you’re going over” and then hip tossed me out of the ring. I slam the mat with my fists acting angry. I turn to a fans and flip them off “the hell with you” and make my way to the backstage.
After a few minutes, Brian taps my ass and says “Go!” I run back down the entrance way, fans confused with some trying to rat me out to the refs. I throw myself back into battle tussling with a few guys. My coach Mike spots me and with shock in his eyes he mutters “What are you doing?” I ignore him and proceed to assist another wrestler in tossing another wrestler out of the ring. As I turn, I take a drop-kick to the face and am out of the ring again. This time, a secondary ref (outside the ring) proceeds to scold me and points his finger back to the entrance.
We exchange a few words, but I concede and limp back to the backstage. “Again” Brian says “Again”. This time, I run slide into the ring. Only about 5 guys left including my coach. Who happens to be the one I foolishly try to square off against. No sooner am I up, do I find myself being tossed into the ropes. As I come off, Mike and another wrestler double hip toss me… I go soaring over the opposite side ropes – who knew I could fly…oh wait, I can’t – and come slamming down on the guardrail outside of the ring. No need to sell, the pain was real. The guardrail knocked the wind out of me. Holding my gut, I get into with the ref again. This time, haphazardly slapping him across the face. He slaps me back, grabs my ear and proceeds to walk me around the ring and kicks me butt like a bad dog. Disgruntled and in pain, I walk back to the entrance cussing out a few fans along the way.
Back in the locker room Brian pats me on the back and says “That what it takes.” I didn’t know what he meant, I was too filled with adrenaline to register everything that happened. The Royal ended a few minutes later. As I was getting my gear together, I hear my coach come shouting down the hall “Where is he? I’m gonna kill that bastard!”
Scarred for my life (Fuck, I’m gonna get my legs broke for sure), Mike comes up to me and says “What the hell was that!?! Who do you think you are?” I see Brian laughing in the back. Like a pussy I point to Brian and said “He made me do it,” to which Brian shook his head and said “I dunno what he’s talking about” (That fucker!). Mike realized what was going on, and then he did something unexpected… he shook my hand.
He said “Don’t ever do that again, but that was good Lucas, that was good.” The refs from the match came over to me and thanked me for getting them more involved with the match. Brian said once again “That’s what it takes,” referring to the attitude and willingness to go the extra mile for what it takes to making it in the business. Leaving the building, I even had a fan (just one, but hey) ask for my autograph. I felt like a million bucks.
The following day at class, Walter (who had been at the show as a special guest) did something he almost never did – he got up off his chair. He stood in front of the ring, called me over next to him and asked the rest of the class to come around. “I’m always telling you to make the people notice you,” he said, “He made the people notice him.” Then he clapped for me, in which the rest of the class followed suit. Even though, I would ultimately quit wrestling, to have this legend take notice of me, let alone honor me, it is up there as one of the most proudest moments in my life.
I would do one more battle royal a few months later. This one being outside, and much like my first royal, I wanted to do something to get the people to notice me. So upon getting thrown out of the ring the first time, I made my way back to the ring driving a golf cart to which I was then thrown into when being tossed out of the ring. While the crowd loved it, I got a mouthful in the locker room. Not everyone is as understanding to unplanned and unapproved rogue acts.
So… for a while wrestling was pretty great. I was living the fantasy. I was looking forward to working my way to one-on-one matches. But then a series of not so good things happened.
The one thing they never really tell you in school is how to get work as a wrestler. The only thing ever said to me was to reach out to promoters, introduce yourself, and cultivate relationships. So I tried that. There was a local show in one of my neighboring towns. I got to the show early and asked to speak to the promoter, who I would discover as the same promoter from my first battle royal. Great, I thought, I have an in! I introduced myself as a student of Killer’s and Mike’s and offered myself up for that night and any future events.
What I didn’t know was that the promoter had a falling out with Mike. Apparently, Mike jumped ship and became the champion for some other circuit. The promoter eyes turned red upon hearing Mikes name and said “Don’t you know he’s champion now. I have nothing to do with him and want nothing to do with him. Either buy a ticket or get the hell out of here.” This was my first experience in learning that the wrestling business is high-school with money.
Around this same time, things were changing at Walters school. Wrestlers/students were leaving in droves to another promotion and a new wrestling school in Andover, MA. I didn’t want to betray Walter and leave him too, but the new school offered 2 wrestling rings and the backing of a Chaotic Wrestling, a promotion doing a lot of shows in the New England area. I thought it would give me a greater chance of doing shows.
First week into the new school, I sprained my ankle, badly. At this time, I was also doing terrible in real life school. I was failing actually. There was no other option other than to put wrestling on hold for 6-8 weeks while I healed up and tried to get in the good graces of my teachers so that I could graduate.
Upon coming back to wrestling school, I was not welcomed with open arms. Some were courteous and what not, but really, everyone just kind of ignored me and went about their business. This shook me. Being shown a level of disinterest, atop of being out for so long, I was off my game. I got sloppy. I was fucking up moves I could do in my sleep. I suffered another shock to my ego. The coaches didn’t want a sloppy guy tussling with the veterans, so I got bumped down to the other ring where the NEW guys were learning the ropes. I was told it was just for a while, just until I shook the rust from my boots, but there I stayed.
What really broke me, was that the school wanted to take a picture of all its veterans and best students. So of course, I hopped into the ring with my veteran brothers because I was a veteran goddammit. I squeeze myself in the end of the group and stood proud. I would come to school the next day and see the photo framed on the wall. Who was the one guy cut out of the photo? Me! I’ve never felt so crushed.
Now, I could say it was that dismissal and the drama of the new school that did me in. I can’t blame them. This is a business where you’re only as good as your last good effort. You only get out of it what you put into it. Our life is simply a reflection of our actions. Life will give back everything you have given to it. Your life is not coincidence, it is a reflection of you.
After 2+ years of being a student, my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I came to the shocking realization that I was nothing more than a fan-boy wannabe. I wasn’t very big, tiny actually, compared to most of the monsters in the ring. I didn’t have the mic skills. I didn’t have a memorable persona. I was never gonna have any truly great matches. I wasn’t going to make it anywhere. I wasn’t ever going to do anything worth remembering. Even if I stuck it out, I could see my future. A future filled with working local townie shows at run down VFWs and events halls as a jobber dealing with shit head promoters who don’t give 2 shits about you, and wrestlers who are only looking out for themselves.
It would only matter of time until I pissed someone off, got screwed over, or got hurt, and then where would I be? I also shouldn’t forget that I would have to endure feeling alone and the real sense of being used. When it came down to it, I found out that wrestling is a really shitty business. You’re nothing but a whore. A whore for the pimps that are promoters. A whore for the people. I’m not knocking it. That’s the business, but I didn’t like that. I found I didn’t want that to be my life.
The difference between learning to be a wrestler and actually being a wrestler – the reality of the actual business and life that follows is the is the equivalent of learning to swim and then having someone drop you in the middle of the ocean saying “Good luck, fucker.” Some select few swim onto the big blue yonder, but it my case, I knew I would have drowned. At the end of the day, I realized my limitations and just how far I was gonna go. Even if I were to get some level of notoriety, my end of days would surely be sitting next to #LonelyVirgil.
Did I fail as a wrestler? No, the title of this piece a tad misleading. It’s not that I tried my best and failed miserably, it’s that I failed to know better. But that’s not a bad thing.
I look back with a sense of pride and think fondly of getting the opportunity to do what most fans only dream of doing. I paid – literally and physically – to experience the fantasy. I learned, eventually, that actually living it was another matter. Much like any kid who goes to College with a plan, what you set out to do and what you find yourself actually doing are almost never parallel.
Everything you do in life – your successes, your failures – is a learned experience and sets you on the path of person your truly meant to be. As Killer Kowalksi once said “Shoot for the moon and if you miss, at least you’ll land on a star.” Of course, the nerd in me says that’s false – the nearest star is 93 million miles from the moon, but that’s just a charming way of saying get up and have an adventure.