Taking Bumps: Secrets of an Ypsilanti-based training school for professional wrestlers
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
"I'll probably be blackballed for this," Jeff Davis says from the middle of Ypsilanti's Riverside Park.
It's tough to imagine anyone could take offense at the display, but what looks like adult playfighting to the typical passeerby is an unveiling of the secrets of professional wrestling.
Davis, 35, known in the squared circle as "Bash Boulder," is the founder ofÂ Full Nelson University, an Ypsilanti-based training school for professional wrestlers, one that sprang from his imagination and his mother's basement.
It would be incorrect to say that Davis is showing his trainees the ropes because Full Nelson University hasn't gotten quite that far. Not only does the fledgling training school have no gym to call home, it has no ring.
"We're going old school," Davis, an Ypsilanti native, jokes about the F.N.U. set-up under the picnic shelter at Riverside.
Old school, on Sunday afternoon around 1 p.m., means wrestling in the great outdoors, without the benefit of wrestling mats.
Rick Grissom, 25, of Ypsilanti, has been coming out to Riverside for about six weeks worth of training sessions. One-timers at F.N.U. pay a $5 fee. Long-haulers train for free but must commit to regular sessions.
Grissom says pro wrestling has been his dream career dream since the age of 2. A former backyard wrestler as a young teenager, Grissom was forced to put his interest in staged grappling on hold in high school as friends left in search of girls, football, studies and life in general.
Anyone who's been a wrestling fan as long as Grissom has seen many professional wrestlers pass away before their time.
Davis calls the combination of steroids, alcohol and cocaine the "wrestler's cocktail." He instructs Grissom, and other trainees when they come, to steer straight and narrow of the temptations the road offers.
"You can't really be a big smoker and wrestle," Davis said. "You won't have any endurance. Same thing with drinking. And we all know what steroids can do. That's why so many guys go before their time."
Most wrestlers ignore Davis' warnings. Grissom plans on heeding them. At 5 feet 6 inches tall and medium-build, in a profession where towering physiques are exalted, Grissom believes keeping his nose clean is his only shot.
'Paying dues' entails working for little or no money as a rookie, helping promoters set up and break down rings just for the chance to compete.
'Making it' means working 300-plus days a year for a major wrestling promotion. Once there, the dues-paying process starts over. No matter how much time a guy puts into his persona, or his craft, the writers who script the matches ultimately hold the power. The only wrestlers with any power are the headliners.
Is there a happy medium between the two?
"I don't know if there is," said Dan "The Beast" Severn, former UFC and N.W.A. champion, who runs his own training school, "Price of Glory," in Coldwater.
Severn, as the name of his school betrays, objects to the free training sessions more than anything.
"Where's the hunger, if you're getting it all free?" Severn asked.
Mike Brin, 58, commutes to Davis' training sessions from Saginaw. The General Motors retiree knows his ship has sailed on the wrestling front - he's too old. But Brin believes he has the personality for a "heel," or bad guy, manager, "Sweet Pappa Red."
Though Brin's future job description entails hyping up live crowds, a good manager has to take bumps every now and again. Pro wrestling is psychology as much as it is performance art. Brin, a longtime pro wrestling fan who recently decided to pursue the dream, doesn't yet have anyone to manage, but when the crowds come out, Brin will work to round out the Sweet Papa Red persona.
Davis' job often requires a bit of tough love. While Grissom has the fire to make it, Davis said, his diminutive stature will make the road more challenging. Brin, on the other hand, is well-connected to the local business, but needs work on his character. Everyone's path is different.
There was one trainee, Davis recalled, who always flinched when being chopped - behavior unacceptable at the professional level. Davis turned the student's fear into a teachable moment by tying the young man to a tree and letting his wrestlers take turns chopping his chest for almost an hour.
Then Davis ordered the man to wrestle a 10 minute match. Any flinching during contact would start the process all over again.
The man didn't flinch, and hasn't since. Another lesson learned.
Davis' approach, training wrestlers in public, without the benefit of a ring, is controversial within the business.
"Kingpin" Dave Martin, who runs Prime Time Wrestling in Metro Detroit, also owns PTW Academy, a training school run by Shane Douglas, better known to 1990s wrestling fans as "The Franchise."
Tuition for PTW Academy runs at $3,000. Martin said that each wrestler progresses at his own pace. There's no time limit on the training, but Martin said that his guys often get upwards of 180 hours training time before seeing action in front of a live crowd.
Martin said that training should take place in private.
"It's kind of selling out the business, training in public," Martin told AnnArbor.com. "(Mixed martial arts) is eating our lunch right now - the last thing we need is young kids knowing for sure that it's fake, learning how to do it. The kids are the ones who drag their parents out and get them to buy tickets and t-shirts."
"Was Christmas ever as good as when you thought Santa Clause was real?" Martin asked.
Bill Goldberg, who once occupied the top spot in the business for now-defunct World Championship Wrestling, agreed.
Goldberg said that pro wrestling lost its veil of realism years ago, but that unveiling ins-and-outs of the business could inspire more backyard wrestling - exactly what the business does not need.
"Look. Everyone knows wrestling is staged by now - you'd be crazy to think otherwise," Goldberg explained. "My concern is that when you train in public, the people who watched you might think, 'Hey, I can wrestle now, too.'"
Davis responds to that concern by issuing a disclaimer before each training session, that the stunts he performs are the work of professionals - or aspiring professionals - and not to be tried at home.
At least, that's what he will say, when F.N.U. starts drawing a crowd.
James David Dickson can be reached at JamesDickson@AnnArbor.com.