This is part two in a series that covers the development of independent wrestling in the United States. Click here to read part one.
The difficulties of the lifestyle and the lack of guaranteed money at the independent level have changed the game for who are becoming professional wrestlers. In previous generations, specifically during the territory days; talent for professional wrestling typically came from collegiate athletics; football players and amateur wrestlers who turned to pro wrestling because there was more money in it than being a Phys Ed teacher. In the territory days, it was also possible for an athlete to make a lot of money in their first year in the business if they had a marketable look; which is hardly the case today.
The ones sticking it out on the independent circuit and training to become professional wrestlers are more likely to be lifelong fans than star college athletes. While everyone would like to get paid, wrestlers training today have various goals, not all of which are to perform at WrestleMania and win the WWE Championship.
Buffalo-based wrestler Brandon Thurston has been working on the independent circuit since 2003, and also serves as a trainer for a wrestling school, Grapplers Anonymous.
"When I first started pro wrestling, I wasn't really sure what I wanted to get out of it other than that I just wanted to have good matches, I didn't have any real goals beyond just getting better. I was a fan of wrestling and I wanted to try it out," Thurston said.
"Everyone has different goals, not everyone gets into wrestling because they want to walk down the ramp at the Tokyo Dome," Mike Quackenbush, who trains students at the The Wrestle Factory in Philadelphia, said. "Some people get into because they are fans, some people will start training because they are looking for a new social circle."
While independent wrestling has been built on flashy moves that are typically more dangerous than the moves done by generations past, the flip side is that that kind of innovation forces talent to be more professional and careful when it comes to performing their craft.
"When I first started, the only thing I was told would be that there would be a headlock and an elbow drop, which doesn't need a lot of practice. Today, someone will say to you 'Hey man, I do a Canadian Destroyer and it comes off the top rope and it has to look like this', well we are going to spend a lot of time practicing that so I don't end up in a wheelchair," Quackenbush said.
Both social media and a greater focus on professionalism has largely rooted the wild, rock n' roll culture out of independent wrestling. Unless a wrestler has a particular amount of notoriety or market appeal, independent wrestlers rely on their reputation of being a professional to getting booked.
"I'd like to say that just by being a good wrestler and a good promo, talent will be able to get booked, but that isn't the case," Thurston said. "You have to be able to put yourself out there, and you want talent and promoters to want to work with you. If you are going to be riding in a car with someone for 7 hours, you want to know that they are going to be a professional."
In a previous era, unprofessional transgressions would be overlooked, but in the modern age when unprofessional behavior draws criticism not only for the talent, but also the promotion that it takes place in; promoters are cautious with the talent they bring in and wrestlers have to ensure that their reputation is pristine.
"You used to be able to get booked just by word or mouth, you would give someone your phone number and someone would say 'well this guy has a really good moonsault' and that was the end of the story," Quackenbush said. "In an age where the minute you behave like a jackass it gets trumpeted on social media, you have to be more than that. The idea that you were your professional brand manager, that meant nothing in the 90s and it means everything today."
Still, while there is more money in the independents than before and the industry is safer, the profession is still extremely difficult and talent that once dreamed big often end up burned out by the exhaustive travel and physical demands that are required to make it.
"Talent will tell me they are just sick of the lifestyle, that they haven't been to a birthday, a wedding or a family function for years because of wrestling. That they can't have any type of long-term relationship with a significant other that isn't immediately corrupted by their wrestling career," Quackenbush said.
In addition to his work at The Wrestle Factory, Quackenbush has served as a guest trainer at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, where he helps train athletes who are new to professional wrestling. Even with the support of the world wide leader, Quackenbush said that talent that is unmotivated by anything besides fame and fortune is going to get burned out by the industry.
"Down there I would get people assigned to me to help work on their character, and my first question is to ask them why they want to become a wrestler. I was stunned by how many people said they were here to get famous and make money. Virtually everyone that said that to me is no longer in wrestling. If that is the thing you are chasing this lifestyle will chew you up and spit you out, even if you have been recruited by the industry leader," Quackenbush said.
On the flip side, training life-long fans to become pro wrestlers poses its own set of challenges. Fans who grew up idolizing talent that put others over and unselfishly worked with others to make their opponent look good, but the wrestling industry involves a level of selfishness in order for talent to make it.
"Some of my students I have to teach to be a lot more aggressive in their actions and to take control of a match," Thurston said. "Everyone that grew up as a fan, they want to be the person that sells a lot and gives to their opponent. They want to be the person people want to work with, but wrestling requires aggression and self-promotion."
While even skeptics of the industry will normally admit that the professional wrestling industry is a difficult one to work in, the perils of the industry are still often glossed over as "paying your dues" and seen as a rite of passage by some professional wrestlers who frequently mention their struggles in talking segments to promote themselves.
"What does sacrifice even mean to a human being? When it is early on a Sunday morning and you aren't sure if you are going to get out of bed in time to avoid pissing yourself? When you can't stand the non-stop protein shakes and workouts because you haven't eaten a real meal in weeks?" Quackenbush said. "What does it mean to get on a flight to go to another town where you don't know anyone and the closest thing to a human interaction are the likes and tweets you'll get on social media, to the point you don't even know how to interact with real people anymore? Those are the things nobody tells you about."
Make sure to check back on 12/2 for the part three of the series, looking at the future of independent wrestling and the new promotions that are shaping it