I’ve often compared independent professional wrestlers to starving artists. Not because any of us can paint but because we share that common bond of not having a penny to our name until we make it big. Fortunately, there are those of us that are lucky enough to have a “regular” job to somewhat support our wrestling habit. There are those of us that are not so lucky for various reasons but we still share the same trials trying to sell our painting in the hopes to one day be famous. This is a little piece of how my journey started as an artist named Reckless Youth.
I was a starving artist in the sense of the word that I was going broke financing my wrestler career through the paychecks of my regular job. To be clear, I wasn’t making very much money working an average of three days a week and at the time I was an hourly employee. I was lucky enough that the job allowed me the flexibility to be gone just about every Monday and Friday while I gallivanted around the eastern half of the United States. The health insurance benefit was a definite plus especially at the rate at which I got various injuries including repeated concussions. Total side note It got to the point that remembering many of the towns I worked across the country were filled more so with thoughts of malls and hospitals. Total side note end Part of the flexibility agreement required that I travel with a company issued laptop to complete many duties while I was off playing wrestler in some VFW in the middle of nowhere. I remember wrestlers and promoters making comments that I must have a good job if they gave me a laptop to travel with. Because I enjoyed the mystique, I never let on that I wasn’t being paid for the additional laptop time and what little money I made from promoters wrestling was typically funneled right back to travel and food. I’m a crazy tax guy now and I have held onto my Federal Tax returns for many more years than I needed. I can remember in 1996 making about $2,000 wrestling and spending close to $8,000 doing so. At the time, I made around 16,000 that year at my day job after taxes. It’s safe to say that I was very thankful that I lived with my grandfather. He didn’t charge me for my room and food.
A little more
Some may know that my professional wrestling career more or less started in the Ohio and Michigan area. This wasn’t because I wanted it to but more so because I could not get booked in the various promotions minutes from my house in New Jersey. At the time, I had been black balled by Larry Sharpe because I refused to pay him any more money for wrestling school. That is another story for another time but he was the only promoter that supplied the few matches I had up to that point of my career. We are talking two matches just so we are clear. At the time, there were only a handful of promotions in the area and they all comingled. This basically meant that I couldn’t get work elsewhere in the area because Larry would and could put the kibosh on me. Because of this, I sought to reinvent myself by taking advantage of an opportunity to train in Ohio at Al Snow’s wrestling school. Little did I know that this chance would launch me farther than I had ever expected to.
Getting into it
I was working on a somewhat regular basis by late 1995 in the Ohio and Michigan area that filtered right into 1996. I was a monthly regular on Global Championship Wrestling in Lima and Great Lakes Wrestling in Detroit. As Global faded for normal independent wrestling reasons, I still found myself traveling out to work Great Lakes shows in Detroit. It was actually a suburb of Detroit called Wayne but it’s just easier to say Detroit so those that don’t know the area understand. For those reading that were from Wayne, please don’t be offended because I’m just trying to make it easier on all of us. Anyway, I have terribly fond memories of Great Lakes Wrestling probably because they were the first promotion to ask me back. Because I felt a certain bit of loyalty to the company for that reason, I always gave everything I had when performing for them even while getting $25 handshakes at the end night. At the time, I adored the business and could care less figuring that everything would pay off on the other side. While many of you might think that my sacrifice was with the low pay to high expense ratio but that couldn’t be further from the truth. My sacrifice came more from the associations and arrangements while working Michigan.
Enter the Machine Gun
Great Lakes Wrestling was run by a mark turned promoter named John Muse and a Michigan mainstay wrestler known as “Machine Gun” Mike Kelly. I don’t think there was a person that didn’t like and respect John Muse. The same could not be said for Mike Kelly. Don’t get me wrong, Mike was not a bad guy by any means but he was definitely a character. He was known as the Midwest Japanese Wrestling tape supply guy and for good reason. He had mountains of VHS tape (yes it was that long ago) with regular weekly deliveries. He was always kind with giving out tapes and much of the style I worked would not have been possible if not for his tape giving generosity. That being said, I can’t really say he was ever thee most gracious host.
It’s cold in here
During this time, I was a regular travel partner with Don Montoya. The Great Lakes guys were kind enough to book Montoya on shows as well and this definitely eased the 13 hour car rides to Detroit especially sharing the travel costs. Mike was kind enough to put us up in his house saving us from sleeping in the car or renting a hotel room but it always seemed to be an odd experience. Thinking back now somewhat, I guess Mike’s conditions were not terribly odd but not always as gracious as you might think someone would treat invited guests. I’m definitely stressing on the gracious part and you’ll understand in a minute what I mean.
Food and Drink
Mike never offered any food or drink for us while we stayed with him. The drink part makes this particularly odd because he worked for Pepsi Corporation and usually had cases of various soft drinks all around his house while we were there. It wasn’t unusual for him to reach in his Pepsi Corp beverage stocked refrigerator and pull out an individual bottle of Pepsi while he was talking to us without so much as offering anything to drink to us. I can remember one time Montoya asking for Pepsi but Mike actually told him he could not have any as he was leaning against cases stacked almost as tall as him. I guess he didn’t have enough or was stocking up for Y2K. He eventually caved in and one time he left two bottled waters between the both of us during a 2 day stay. Towards the end, Montoya just started sneaking cans when Kelly was somewhere else in the house or asleep.
You have to leave
One of the other many oddities was that we had to be out of Mike’s house in the wee hours of the morning because he was leaving the house for work. Mike typically worked his day job on a show day regardless of weather it was on Friday or Saturday. I’m not sure what he actually did for Pepsi other than having cases of various Pepsi brands stacked around his house for which we could not drink. We usually had to be out around 5am and would be left to fend for ourselves in a town we did not know. The last few times we stayed with him he directed us to a local gym that we could sleep in the locker rooms and take a shower. Since most places really didn’t open until much later, we often found ourselves huddled in Montoya’s extremely small and uninviting car for a handful of hours trying to catch up on sleep. Keep in mind that only a few hours prior, we had been driving to Michigan for 13 or so hours and would typically be in between wrestling events or our day jobs. It would be safe to say that we were very exhausted and much of my independent traveling years were lived on with the aid of Vivarin. A few times during the lake affect temperatures of 10 or 15 degrees, Mike would let us stay in his pool house and watch wrestling videos while he was working. To put it in perspective, this wasn’t a pool house like you would think of in the movies. This was about three sides of wood board and one side of sheer netting separating from the pool. On a 15 degree day, it felt like negative 20 in there. It wouldn’t be unusual for both Montoya and I to come home with colds after every Michigan trip.
Whales and Popsicle sticks
Staying with Mike Kelly wasn’t always that bad and I can understand his thinking looking back now. I can’t say how comfortable I would be letting some strangers have run of the house while I was not there. I think the food and drink thing might be a little much but it would definitely depend on if it was pay week or not and how many bills needed to be paid at that time. We all know that we are not making the big bucks running around in our underwear playing wrestler. There were the positives of having exposure to Mike’s massive Japanese wrestling tape library that did shape much of what I became at a time when no one was exposed to it the way they are now. There’s also the fantastically funny memory of Montoya, at a time when he was very big, trying to fit on the Army cot that we were given to sleep. It was like a whale trying to lay on a Popsicle stick elevated by Popsicle sticks. That night of much laughter was worth what little sleep I got. Too bad that was before camera phones and YouTube.
Everyone independent wrestler has stories of sacrifice in their road to selling or trying to sell their art. Some stories are long and painful while others have ben lucky enough to have been short and jovial. Most stories fall somewhere in between. While I did not make it rich selling my art, I do have fond memories that are priceless pieces of craftsmanship. These vivid accounts are the art that I can share with anyone that will enjoy reading them.