For as long as recorded history begins, and no I’m not a historian of any sort but I’ll take a guess and say even pre-dating records, we’ve had a fascination with fighting. Whether it’s gladiators in a pit, bears tied to a pole or a sweaty Hulk Hogan blown up on a television screen, it’s safe to say that even if you personally don’t care for wrestling, collective society does.
But wrestling isn’t just about some primal urge to watch an opponent get obliterated by a man named Superfly. There’s a more theatrical, dare we say even artful, side to wrestling that isn’t often discussed.
I sat down with local pro-wrestlers Ben Ortmans and Chris Tidwell (aka Big Ben and Notorious T.I.D.), owners of Cross Body Pro Wrestling Academy in Kitchener to explore this avant-garde view of the sport.
“I have to believe that [critics] would at least be honest with themselves to look at it like it’s performance art, because it is,” Tidwell explained. “I would think that even people that don’t like pro-wrestling have to look at it like performance art.”
When I picture an artist they’re usually drinking black coffee and give forlorn sighs at all the right moments. They aren’t bodybuilders called Undertaker.
But obviously it’s me, and my admittedly elitist views, that are getting in the way here. Going back to 1895, the first wrestling film, Ringkämpfer was created. It featured vaudeville star Eugen Sandow, who’s often known as the “father of modern bodybuilding.” In vaudeville, he was known as the world’s strongest man who would often do muscle display performances and would model statues like The Dying Gaul. Vaudeville has always been known for its theatrical entertainment, so it’s fitting that this is where pro-wrestling’s roots really began to grow.
“There’s a little bit of improv, a little bit of stand-up. There’s stories about good versus evil, there’s stories about right versus wrong. Cheating versus doing the right thing,” Tidwell said.
The matches tell stories that are comparable to ones you read in comic books, it’s just like one continuous boss-battle.
“For somebody who hasn’t seen [pro-wrestling] before, it’s essentially a comic book come to life. A lot of different characters coming in but at the end of the day you’ve got your main villain and your main hero. Those two are going to do battle,” Ortmans elaborated.
Both Tidwell and Ortmans spoke about the creativity behind the characters seen in pro-wrestling.
“Each one of us has the ability to individualize our own characters, our own ideas of what we think those characters should be doing. It gives us the ability to act out, so to speak,” Tidwell said.
“Like any form of self-expression, it’s not just limited to one thing,” Ortmans concluded.
But wrestling isn’t all just one big performance. While the fighting is dramatized, real skill is required to throw that punch without actually hurting your opponent. Just in case this writing gig doesn’t pan out, I asked Ortmans and Tidwell what it takes to become a pro-wrestler.
“We take bumps and bruises and falls in unnatural ways and condition our bodies to take those falls and not get injured. It takes a certain mindset to be able to say this is acceptable for me to do to myself,” Tidwell said.
“It takes a thick skin, because this is a cutthroat dog-eat-dog business … along the way there’s going to be a lot of BS, a lot of hardship and a lot of sleepless nights … If you completely immerse yourself into the lifestyle of it it’s going to be a lot easier for you. Most importantly it takes a great attitude and the ability to eat a lot of shit without a fork.”
Ortmans echoed Tidwell by explaining the necessary separation between mind and body.
“The best advice I was ever given in the wrestling business was ‘don’t think.’ Thinking causes fear, fear causes hesitation and hesitation causes injury,” Ortmans said.
In their own way they both discussed a fear that can come from the wrestling. Fear of embarrassment, fear of serious injury and even fear that all the energy into training was for nothing.
“There are things in life that you have to do, even if you’re scared,” Tidwell said, as it became more apparent that he was particularly good at ending thoughts with line of wisdom that you could apply to all aspects of life.
No matter Tidewll or Ortmans’ fears or hesitations, one thing that continues to triumph above it is their passion.
“I grew up in Las Vegas … I was there, and it was Jimmy Superfly Snuka, he was working a program with Colonel Debeers and ends up getting busted open. They had to bring the ambulance out and cart him off and everybody was freaking out, losing their marbles. For me, I found I wasn’t watching the wrestlers, I was watching the people in the audience. It was always, that’s what I need to command, I need to make these people do that for me. From that moment on I was hooked in wrestling,” Tidwell reminisced.
“I saw Hulk Hogan when I was a kid and I never had another thought … they had me literally from day one,” Ortmans recalled his own moment of clarity.
At the end of the day, pro-wrestling still isn’t an act anyone would call a classical art, even if it is steeped in history. But undeniably there’s something more than just sweat, rage and a whole lot of testosterone. That unconventional side of it, the side that keeps it separated from being in the same leagues of MMA or Julliard, is what makes gyms like Cross Body Pro Wrestling Academy so perfect for Kitchener-Waterloo.