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The Secret, Not-So-Glamorous, Life of a Pro Wrestler

The Secret, Not-So-Glamorous, Life of a Pro Wrestler

Craig Donofrio

Original illustration by Agathe Bray-Bourret

Original illustration by Agathe Bray-Bourret

Have you ever wanted to give Jeff in accounting “Macho Man” Randy Savage’s signature flying elbow drop? Or daydreamed about delivering a clothesline to your boss? For most people, becoming a professional wrestler is just reverie—but what if you did trade in your cubicle for the squared circle

Aside from your bruised body, expect your bank account to take a hit from which it may never truly recover. You’ll train hard, and hustle harder, to make ends meet. And you’ll likely log thousands of miles on the road and countless nights in cheap motels as you travel the circuit. And be sure to kiss 9-to-5 benefits like health care or a 401(k) goodbye.

Still ready to enter the ring? Here’s how the pros navigate the financial and physical hardships of life in the industry.

Willie Mack (aka Willie McClinton, Jr) is 5 feet 10 inches and weighs 280 pounds. At first glance, he doesn’t look like he should be able to do a standing shooting star press. But he can. And on an episode of Lucha Underground, he does, crashing onto his opponent and the thinly cushioned ringside floor. The match is a no-disqualification, falls-count-anywhere match: a grueling fight known for the use of foreign objects—chairs, ring bells, stop signs—and for wrestlers leaving the ring to get slammed all around the venue.

Throughout the match, Mack is thrown onto the bleachers, a glass poster frame smashes over his head, and he takes a suplex onto an unforgiving, wooden surface. But he gives as good as he gets—leaping anywhere from 7 to 10 feet, propelling himself from the bleacher railings onto his opponent, Cage (aka Brian Cage), who is laying on a table that splinters with a satisfying crack. Later, Mack cracks open two beers, claps them together, takes a dramatic swig, and gives his foe a stunner in homage to Stone Cold Steve Austin’s finishing move. At the end of the 14-minute match, Cage slips on spilled beer, giving Mack the opportunity to pin him for the win. The crowd rains down cheers of support and appreciation.

It wasn’t always like this for Mack.

Mack is 30 years old and living in Los Angeles, but still carries the molasses accent from his home state of North Carolina. To get ready for his first match 11 years ago, where he and his friend squared off in an Elks Lodge, he trained for nearly a year.

“It was easy, but I was still kinda nervous,” said Mack. “The DJ was stupid and didn’t play my right music. He had me coming out to some Lil’ Kim. I was like, what the hell you doin?”

Mack started early, right after high school. “I graduated and got my diploma. The next day I knew it was wrestling training, so I bought me some shoes and some kneepads and whatnot, and went there and worked out and trained,” he recalled.

After his first match, he wrestled every weekend while working in a pizzeria to support himself.

“Sometimes you’d be lucky to make $25 [for a show]. Sometimes they just give you a soda and a sandwich,” he said. 

Flipping Burgers to Flip People

Even the most frugal wrestler needs to lay down some significant cash when starting out. Most importantly, you need to find the right place to train or you’ll either end up seriously injured or seriously injuring someone else.   

“No. 1, if you want to be a wrestler, you have to find a proper school,” said Taya Valkyrie (aka Kira Renee Forster), a 33-year-old from Calgary, Canada, currently working with the wrestling promotions Lucha Underground and Lucha Libre AAA Worldwide. “You have to find someone who’s going to protect you properly and teach you how to bump [absorb the impact from a move without injury] the right way.” In 2010, Taya trained “five times a week, three hours a day” for six months under the wrestler Lance Storm at his Storm Wrestling Academy in Calgary. The current training program at the Storm Wrestling Academy—five days a week for 12 weeks—costs 3,750 Canadian dollars ($2,756) if paid up front or 4,250 Canadian dollars ($3,124) with a payment plan, which is typical of training programs of that duration.

Taya supported herself by working as a personal trainer and at a nightclub. “It was 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., wrestling every single day, and then I would go to work,” she said. After completing the Storm program, she worked as an independent wrestler for about a year before selling all her stuff and heading to Mexico to train in the Lucha Libre style with Lucha Libre AAA Worldwide. She’d only paid for about three weeks’ worth of training and had no plan of where to go afterward, but she met the late Perro Aguayo Jr., who mentored Taya and offered her a spot in his stable of other pros. It was still tough living. “I eventually ran out of money [in Mexico]. I was taking the subway and eating hotdogs and rice because I couldn’t afford anything else,” she said.

It’s a typical path the world over. Now 35, Adrian McCallum, a British pro wrestler better known as Lionheart with Insane Championship Wrestling in Glasgow, started his career at 18, when he lived at home and worked “in bars, as a waiter, anything you could do” to keep his ring addiction fed.

Gerard Durling, a 31-year-old retired pro wrestler from Scranton, Pennsylvania, said he worked at Burger King and attended community college while training part time until he “took the leap of faith” and moved to Philadelphia for full-time training with Chikara Pro, a wrestling promotion that mixes Lucha-style wrestling with comedy.

On top of training, wrestlers need to buy gear. You don’t necessarily need anything special to get started—Mack said he walked into a Big 5 Sporting Goods for his starting gear—but as you keep going, you might want to upgrade. A pair of wrestling boots can cost anywhere from $150 to over $500. Those tiny spandex trunks? About $50—lettering and custom colors are extra.

 “Wearing the same gear over and over again looks bad,” said Durling. “You want to have different takes on it.”

Then there’s travel. Think your daily commute is exhausting? Try hopping in the car for eight hours to make it to a show, wrestling, and then crashing at a hotel or friend’s house, only to do it all over again the next night.

Renting a car and splitting travel costs with a few fellow wrestlers is the most common way of traveling, which has its downsides. “It was so much fun being on the road, but it was so exhausting being on the road,” said Scott Levy, better known as Raven, the brooding star of Extreme Championship Wrestling. ECW was the top independent wrestling promotion of the 1990s, which made its name through its gritty storylines and bloody “hardcore” matches in which wrestlers scrubbed each other with barbed wire bats and slammed one another onto thumbtacks.

The territories Raven traveled in were wrestling promotions that dominated certain areas of the United States and Canada. For example, Stampede Wrestling stretched from Calgary into Montana, the WWE (then the WWF) covered most of the Northeast, and the American Wrestling Association covered a big swath of the Midwest. Today, these territories have either dissipated or have been absorbed the WWE. In their places, independent wrestling promotions (or the indies) have taken over. Wrestlers not exclusively signed to a promotion now travel the indie circuit, working from one promotion to the next.

Soft punches still break bones

Of course, the hours and travel aren’t the only thing that’s brutal about this sport. Pro wrestling gets the bad wrap of being “fake”—as if fans didn’t know the Undertaker is not, in fact, an undead wizard. But even if wrestlers are throwing soft punches and helping their opponent slam them through a table, they’re still tough.

“I’ve had my hair ripped out, my nose broken,” says Taya. While training in Mexico, she learned how to do a top rope moonsault—a backflip performed from standing on the turnbuckle, while facing away from the opponent, landing on them stomach-first—without crash pads. In mid-jump, a wrestler can be 10 feet off the mat, and a slip could end a career.

“It was scary, but we did it—but no crash pads, how stupid was I? It’s crazy looking back at it,” says Taya.

Durling’s first concussion came from smacking his head onto the edge of a plank in the ring. A wooden board had bowed, and its edge pushed up beneath the padding. Durling took a hard bump from the top rope and slammed the back of his head against the warped board.

“I couldn’t remember people’s names, where I was, it was pretty bad,” said Durling.

Six weeks later he received a second concussion when his opponent’s heel “went into my eye socket” due to Durling not laying in the right position to take an aerial move. A third concussion—a minor one—happened due to a mistimed punch.

When McCallum’s neck crunched underneath the full weight of himself and his opponent, he couldn’t feel his legs. It was 2014, and current-WWE star AJ Styles had performed his finisher, the Styles Clash, which requires the person taking the bump to look up instead of tucking the neck down. McCallum forgot to look up, and he landed directly on his head instead of his chest. Initially, medical staff didn’t know if he would be able to walk again, much less wrestle—McCallum had broken his neck in two places.

“They told me I should have been dead,” McCallum said.

It took 10 months of physical rehab and then a few more months to get back in shape. He’s now back to wrestling.

Also on his side was the United Kingdom’s National Healthcare System, which allowed McCallum to recover without getting buried in medical debt. American wrestlers typically have to take care of their own health care. Wrestlers are contract workers, so even huge promotions like the WWE aren’t required to provide health insurance. Instead, the WWE requires wrestlers to buy their own health insurance for “everyday health maintenance and ailments” but also notes it “does cover 100 percent of all costs associated with any in-ring related injuries and associated rehabilitation.” 

But even provided health care may not be enough to protect a wrestler’s physical condition—or their job. Doubts on WWE’s wellness program have been cast, most famously by CM Punk, who claimed the care he received from the WWE was negligent enough to lead to a serious staph infection and that he was encouraged to wrestle while still injured. Additionally, you might not have a job when you come back: According to Forbes, which combed through a bunch of WWE contracts: “WWE is also entitled to either suspend or terminate a wrestler's contract in the event that he/she suffers an in-ring injury and is sidelined for longer than six weeks.”

Private insurance doesn’t come cheap, either. “I was paying about $300 a month back in the ECW days,” said Raven. Raven, now 52, still wrestles occasionally. “I don’t want to bump anymore, I’m too beat up,” he said. Mostly he focuses his time elsewhere, like his new podcast, The Raven Effect. But he can still feel the side effects of his wrestling career. He has occipital neuralgia, a medical condition which causes upper neck pain and “shooting pain toward your eyeballs,” as he put it. This developed recently, many years after taking chair shots and cane strikes.

“It’s weird, you would think this would have happened during my career. I guess it was just years of wear and tear, or something. I don’t know,” he said. He said he currently pays $880 a month for a top-tier Blue Cross health plan.

Wrestlers also tend to work while they’re injured. They may not want to give up their spot in a storyline, lose momentum, or just can’t afford time off.

“When you wrestle, it’s like, you gotta get [yourself] out there,” Mack explained, recalling the time his appendix burst just eight months after he started wrestling. “I was supposed to go to a wrestling show, but right after I walked out the door, I threw up some green stuff—the lining of my stomach, they said. I was rushed to the hospital, and they said if I had gotten there any later, I’d have been dead,” he said.

After surgery—you can still see the scar on his belly—Mack was supposed to spend eight months in recovery. He made it four months before he started wrestling again. “I had my gauze on and stuff, and I tied something on there to soak up the moisture, put a T-shirt on, and wrestled.”

Raven also wrestled with three herniated discs in his lower back. “I would have been healed in six months, [but] it took two to four years because I was working all the time,” he said. It’s also common for wrestlers to work while they’re sick, and wrestling with minor injuries is a guarantee.

There’s money in merch

It’s a grueling job. So just how much money can you expect to make?

Wrestlers are freelancers, so they individually set their own rate, also known as a booking fee.

“It’s not hugely influenced on the size of the show,” McCallum explained. “It’s like, I have this fee, I put the same effort into a small house show or a large venue.”

Wrestlers with name brand value can command several thousand dollars per appearance. Most wrestlers don’t publically advertise their fees, but reports on some notable wrestlers are out there. For example, ex-WWE superstar Ryback reportedly charges between $4,500 and $5,000 per appearance. Simon Gotch, who was recently released from the WWE, charges around $1,500. AJ Styles pulled in $350,000 with his TNA contract in 2013. On average, wrestlers on WWE’s main roster make $500,000 a year, but top talent rakes in a lot more. Forbes reported Roman Reigns and Randy Orton earned an estimated $3.5 million and $1.9 million, respectively, last year. Wrestlers’ booking fees can also require airfare and lodging.

Then there’s merchandise sales, which is a crucial source of income for most wrestlers. Durling said that while he was making between $50 and $350 a show, he could make upward of a $1,000 selling merchandise.

Durling’s main gimmick was Vin Gerard, a bad guy (or “heel”). He sold bandanas, pins, and T-shirts at every show. He sold the Lucha mask he once wore as his previous character, Equinox; when fans heckled him with the mask, “Vin” became enraged, which helped sell even more masks for potential hecklers.

His most successful merchandise idea was selling autographed photos he called “Hate by 10s” through MySpace. Someone would order an 8-by-10 print, and he’d comb through the buyer’s MySpace, find something about them, and write a short message detailing why he hated them. “Maybe they were a Philadelphia Eagles fan, so I’d say something like, ‘The reason why I hate you is because the Cowboys are the best team in the NFL.’ Then they’d end up posting it online and one of their friends would want to get one, so I was making a lot of money off that. One week I might make $250 just selling Hate by 10s,” he said.

Life after wrestling

Despite the profitability of his marketing campaign, the pro wrestling lifestyle was wearing him out. Durling retired from wrestling when he was 25. He had been doing programming work on the side and received a lucrative investment to market an app he developed. Durling is now the founder of Coal Creative, an internet marketing company based in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He still loves wrestling. Recently he co-founded another startup, Powerbomb.tv, an on-demand streaming service for independent wrestling promotions.

“I was kind of burned out in general, I wasn’t seeing myself progressing forward. I was going in a lateral line of contentment and not really committing myself to the level I once was,” he said. “And you know, you’re telling me you have this lucrative investment, which beats busting my chops for $50.”

And unlike wrestling, Durling’s financial interests now are things he can keep doing as his body ages.

“Old timers will tell you to save your money. You know, no one thinks about retirement but by the time you’re 45 or 50, there’s no pension. So if you don’t want to get a job in the real world, you have to do conventions and work in the indies and stuff,” said Raven.

If you do make it to the major leagues of the WWE and their creative team develops your character while you’re working with them, they own it. You’ll have to change your ring name to something else when you go to work elsewhere. You’ll also have to change the name on any merchandise, which can be a problem for some wrestlers. This is why the wrestler Ryback legally changed his name from Ryan Reeves to Ryback after the WWE quit-fired him.

Some of the old timers saved almost obsessively during their careers. WWE hall of famer Mick Foley was notoriously cheap, sometimes sleeping on the floor of his co-workers’ hotel rooms or in airport lobbies. Sometimes he’d exchange flight tickets provided by the WWE for the cheapest rental car available and buy a gigantic bag of popcorn for the ride. Other guys, like Ric Flair, spent money like water. Flair was known for dropping upward of $10,000 on flashy robes he’d wear to the ring. 

But even with the need to navigate money pits, broken bones, tireless hours, and constant bruises, pro wrestlers say it’s worth it.

“You have to be sure this is what you want to do,” said Taya. “Sometimes you get no sleep, sometimes you don’t get paid what you deserve, but you put it all on the line anyway.”

And some just couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

“When I was a kid, I said I wanted to be a ninja or a pro wrestler,” said Mack. “But I can’t be a ninja now.”

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