A Work of Love: The Hidden World of Pro Wrestling

Phil Schneider’s journey, like all great adventures, began at a Japanese video store.

“If you wanted to find some Starrcade, I Like to Hurt People or something like that, you needed to go to the video stores that were, like, mostly porn,” he said. “They had some grittier wrestler videos. That was my introduction to it as a kid.”

The larger-than-life characters of professional wrestling attracted Schneider in the 1980s. But what began as a youthful interest developed into a full-fledged obsession.

Yet, his true quest began years later as a teenager when he happened upon a Japanese video store near his home.

Unknowingly, he stumbled into a golden era of Japanese wrestling.

Companies like All Japan Pro Wrestling, New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling were putting on matches that are still regarded as the best the sport has ever seen. This was the last spark needed to ignite a lifelong passion.

Now in the 1990s, and before the formation of online video streaming, Schneider got involved in the VCR tape trading scene.

Creating “Schneider Tapes,” he made a name for himself.

“I was like a hip-hop DJ — except I was doing wrestling mixtapes,” he said. “I would sell those for beer money in college.”

After thousands of hours, and many beers later, his passion is becoming profitable.

Schneider is a wrestling historian, writer for The Ringer, founder of Death Valley Driver and the author of Way of the Blade: 100 of the Greatest Bloody Matches in Wrestling History.

His book delves into the most primal component of pro wrestling: blood. He says that blood can make an art form more approachable, whether it’s post-World War II France attempting to mend fresh wounds, the golden age of Mexican luchadores, the King’s Road of the 1990s in Japan or even the independent scene in the United States.

“When you see a guy covered in blood, it allows you to get into the experience a little more. It removes the obvious parts of wrestling that are not an athletic contest,” Schneider said. “It gets more into the animal brain. That’s what great wrestling can tackle.”

The concept of “great wrestling” has grown far beyond Hulk Hogan’s Greek god-like look and instructions to viewers to listen to their parents and take their vitamins, Schneider says. This concept, he argues, has also taken him across cultures and times.

“You’re never going to see it all right? There are always so many different flavors. It’s never going to be like ‘well I’m if I’m tired of there’s nothing about current wrestling that excites me,’” he said. “I could always go back and watch something else that is amazing.”

Wrestling has become a never-ending pursuit for the self-proclaimed completionist. And if his four decades of adoration can speak to anything, it’s that professional wrestling may be an inexhaustible passion. While he may never ‌see it all, that won’t stop him from trying.

​​Pro wrestling has taken on a unique identity in every corner of the world. The sport originated from legitimate wrestling that would take place during carnival sideshows.

The distinctions between Mexico’s colorful, high-flying lucha libre and Japan’s hard-hitting and “stiffer” puroresu, for example, can jar, although the styles do overlap.

Scholars like Dr. Tyson Platt, an associate professor at Alabama State University, have recognized this and made evaluating it a part of their work.

“Wrestling is not intended to be a grand statement to be retained throughout history,” he said. “It’s supposed to describe where we are right now.”

Platt grew up in the southern United States, also known as “Horseman Country,” where wrestling remained distinctively different from its northern counterpart. Named after the famed wrestling faction, The Four Horseman, it is just one of many cultural takes on professional wrestling.

In his essay, “The Transmission of Cultural Values Through Professional Wrestling: A Cross-Cultural Comparison,” he compares and contrasts the disparities in the sport between the United States and Japan, in particular.

Platt discusses how profit motives reward stories and characters that mirror the target audience by comparing it to a revealing moment.

“The stories that we tell in these subcultural experiences, and I mean that in a kind of pejorative way, I think that most people feel like when they’re watching wrestling, no one cares what they’re doing,” he said. “So they can kind of express their real selves.”

Wrestling in the United States is now consolidated by World Wrestling Entertainment, which is still the country’s largest promoter. In Japan, though, the quest for wrestling supremacy is still a multi-company contest. New Japan Pro-Wrestling and Stardom are two of the most notable, with the latter uniquely being an all-women promotion.

While the wrestling in both countries is the same, as Platt illustrates, it’s the subtleties that set them apart. The emergence of mixed martial arts as a recognized combat sport played a significant role in this.

“That should have changed the way wrestling matches were worked, and they did in a lot of places,” he said. “I mean, you look in Japan, the lessons were learned quickly and meaningfully and it’s almost like it didn’t happen in WWF.”

While in-ring styles vary, so do the concepts that determine if someone is a good or evil person.

In America, Platt observed that villains are associated with technical prowess as a performer, whereas heroes in many storylines succeed by having higher morals.

In Japan, a character’s expertise is regarded as a commendable attribute. Instead of cheating or engaging in illegal behavior, evil characters frequently fail to show sportsmanship and disrupt the “fighting spirit” that is supposed to be displayed between competitors.

When first consuming professional wrestling, it’s best to see it as theater.

Dr. Christiana Molldrem Harkulich is a renowned director and dramaturg who works in both professional and educational theater. For about a decade, she has also been a professional wrestling fan.

“If you know anything about 19th-century performance culture, the audiences were alive and vibrant and would throw things and boo and hiss and I’ve always wanted to know what that would feel like,” she said. “And really, it’s just going to a wrestling show.”

She spent much of her career using theater to analyze and implement intersectionality, and she said how witnessing a live audience react to something like wrestling set off her “little intellectual buzzers.”

By merging them, she has delved into the developing field of professional wrestling academia.

Her essay that was published in 2019, “Sasha Banks, the Boss of NXT: Media, Gender, and the Evolution of Women’s Wrestling in WWE,” delves into Banks’ ascension in World Wrestling Entertainment.

“Sasha at that moment, as a black woman who is incredibly petite, was doing things with her character that I just thought were incredibly smart, very savvy and really unique,” Harkulich said.

As she pointed out, the rise of certain female wrestlers is far from a cure for the issues that continue to plague women in the industry.

Despite the talent and potential for significant storytelling, Harkulich feels that major wrestling organizations will require a larger structural shift before this can happen on a more frequent basis.

“I think I’m a generally optimistic person and I want things to be better,” she said. “It makes me sad when we don’t get that revolutionary potential fulfilled.”

While she has yet to see that promise fulfilled in the ring, chances for women in professional wrestling have grown, allowing them to appear more regularly outside of it.

Pro wrestling uses characters and storylines as triggers for matches to occur. But much as in classical Greek theater, there must be someone to help guide the audience through the events occurring.

Samira, a 22-year-old wrestling broadcaster and correspondent, is a modern-day chorus character. In companies like Major League Wrestling and the National Wrestling Alliance, her role in showing and furthering storylines is vital.

When her uncle first exposed her to pro wrestling as a child, the sport immediately stood out as something special. “It was just different. Not a lot of people, when you’re growing up, especially as a girl, like it,” she remembered.

This affinity with performers like the legendary wrestler, Randy Orton, who is still one of her dream interviewees, lasted throughout her childhood. Through Twitter, she became involved in the internet wrestling community as she got older.

In 2018, an encounter with WrestlingNews.co on the platform unintentionally launched her career in professional wrestling. After being able to interview Kelly Kelly, a former WWE wrestler, she found her calling.

Since then, she has worked for SEScoops, another wrestling news website, as well as collaborating with promotions MLW and NWA.

Recently, she was given the opportunity to cover the Revolution pay-per-view for All Elite Wrestling, America’s second-largest wrestling company. Despite seeing the inner workings of what goes into professional wrestling, her love for the sport has failed to diminish.

“Even though you know how everything works behind the scenes, you get to really know actual wrestlers themselves — the person behind the character,” Samira said. “So that’s actually also another really cool part.”

Her participation as a woman of color in pro wrestling reflects a changing and more inclusive American landscape that has long been controlled by white men. Despite this, she is cautious when working.

“You have to watch your back, especially as a woman in the business,” she said. “You just need to make sure you watch who you trust. I know I don’t really travel alone; I make sure to take somebody or know somebody that will keep me safe.”

Ella Jay, another content creator and founder of the A Wrestling Gal podcast, was encouraged to join the industry by Samira. Each refers to one another as their best friend.

“I went to college for psychology and minored in creative writing. I ironically took a couple of journalism and communication courses with my free electives,” she said. “So maybe I should have taken that as a sign‌. But I don’t have any degree in it.”

In November 2021, Jay, who was representing SEScoops, made headlines after being cut off during a conference call by AEW owner and billionaire Tony Khan when she suggested the company should put on an all-women event.

Despite Khan’s subsequent apology to Jay, the incident ignited a bigger discussion about women’s roles in professional wrestling. Jay emphasized how making a mistake as a woman might lead to greater scrutiny, citing increased pressure.

“If you screw up or if you don’t know something and you’re not knowledgeable about this, I feel ‌you will be more downplayed,” she said. “And more judged than your word versus maybe identifying as a man. It’s always been a male-dominated industry.”

Rather than abandoning the industry, Jay has found inspiration in difficult times. However, witnessing so many people rush to her help and defend her, especially some with a larger platform, emphasized the importance of having a voice.

Through research, interviews and conversations, her show delves further into the female perspective both inside and beyond the ring. Despite the show’s gendered focus, Jay is more intent on having fun.

“If I happen to break this stigma or make a change or make a difference in the process, that’s just an added bonus,” she said. “Honestly, I just love the work I’m doing and getting to network and share stories of people within the progress and community.”

Despite not being a sport in the traditional sense, professional wrestling relies heavily on athleticism to execute in what is effectively a continuous fight scene. While it can be worked around, it often follows the same idea: the younger, the easier it is to perform athletically.

In 2005, at ‌39, Steve Bouranis began training as a wrestler.

With nearly two decades of experience, Bouranis has seen and done nearly everything there is to see and do in and out of the squared circle.

“​​I was the medic. I was the ref. I was a manager. I was a wrestler. I did whatever,” he said. “Because I’m the old guy.”

Growing up and watching wrestling at his grandfather’s side in the 1960s, Bouranis’ involvement in the sport came significantly later than for most fans. His beginnings as a medic tied together with his then-job as a firefighter into something he was already interested in.

However, when New York Wrestling Connection, of which he is now a co-owner, needed a referee, he moved from the sidelines to the center of the action.

“Here, ref training is the same as the wrestler’s training, you have to learn how to take bumps because you’re going to take bumps,” Bouranis said. “You have to know what you’re doing since you’re in the ring.”

Founded in 2001, NYWC is the oldest wrestling school on Long Island, with its base in Deer Park, New York. Former WWE wrestlers Matt Cardona and Brian Myers are two of the school’s most famous alumni. However, in recent years, the company has seen a new generation of talent emerge.

Serving as a school and promotion, NYWC’s students are also their performers, meaning that their product is reliant on the talent his school produces.

“We’ve always looked out for people and give them 100 chances and you know, you get some kooks. They fuck up and take a vacation,” Bouranis said. “But the doors always open for that person — it’s just a matter of coming to sit down to talk about it.”

Bouranis confesses that his current role as co-owner is that of the “mean grandpa.” When Covid-19 struck, however, it assaulted his business from all sides. It was impossible to train performers since there was no close touch, and putting on shows was impossible because there were no social gatherings.

Companies like the WWE or AEW could afford to run crowd-less shows in Florida, where both were deemed essential businesses. But for Bouranis and NYWC, it wasn’t financially viable nor legally possible.

Yet, as regulations in New York loosened up, training resumed. Bouranis claims that it still took a great deal to make sure that they were keeping everyone safe while minimizing potential contact.

“We set up a key box, and you would pick somebody as a partner, and you guys were the ones who were going to work out together,” Bouranis said. “You had a time slot to come here, take each other’s temperature, sign in, clean the ring and everything else. That’s how we did that for the longest time.”

Another Long Island promotion that only puts on shows, Victory Pro Wrestling, suffered as well. VPW’s owner, John Radioo, took over the company during the pandemic.

“I’ve only been running the show for the last year. Those six shows and this one that’s all I’ve done,” he said. “So that’s crazy. What have I done? Nothing, I’ve done nothing.”

While the company could not put on shows, Radioo took the time to transform his website into a local news hub, allowing followers to stay informed while also providing them with a reason to visit the site.

He maintains an upbeat attitude and has already begun implementing methods to keep VPW developing as shows can be put on again.

Booking his shows in two or three-month storylines, he’s hoping to make his company’s monthly shows more captivating for his audience.

“Give the fans just enough to know that’s what they want, and then you don’t give them the whole package,” Radioo said. “Now they’re salivating. They want to see more of it. They want to see what happens next.”

VPW held its 16th-anniversary show in March 2022. When asked what keeps him hooked, it rests in a genuine love of pro wrestling, “the roar of the crowd, the excitement, the behind the scenes, shock over surprise. All that is a good place to start.”

If there was a hall of fame for professional wrestling journalists, there’s a good chance you’d find Keith Elliot Greenberg in it.

At 63, Greenberg is a New York Times bestselling author and a television producer. Having worked for NBC and WWE Magazine, he has written biographies on wrestling’s greatest figures and continues to produce work.

Inheriting a fascination with pro wrestling from his parents and grandparents, wrestling was more than ‌entertainment in his Brooklyn home.

“My paternal grandparents were both immigrants from the former Soviet Union and they were true believers,” Greenberg said. “My grandfather’s favorite wrestler was Bobo Brazil. But as a couple, their favorite wrestler was Bruno Sammartino, because he embodied immigrant struggle, and they took it ‌seriously.”

Originally wanting to be a cartoonist, he realized he didn’t have the discipline for it. “I remember my father saying to me, ‘Well, look, you’re not good enough to be an artist. You’re not going to be a lawyer or a businessman because you’re not that conservative. You may not realize this, but you’re a pretty good writer. You should start majoring in journalism.’”

Having been a fan of wrestling magazines, he explored and found enjoyment in journalism and writing. Soon after, he was getting paid to write.

“I went from having jobs where I was like slogging it out in the bagel store to getting a check in the mail, not a large check, but a small check for actually writing,” Greenberg said. “I thought, ‘Man, I can sit down at a typewriter and get paid first. I think I can live this life.’”

Initially writing for pornographic magazines, one magazine he was writing for was in the same building as US Weekly.

Deciding to take a chance, he walked into the office and pitched a profile on the great Bruno Sammartino’s son, who, contrary to his father’s wishes, was pursuing a career in professional wrestling. After having it accepted and published, Greenberg’s world changed forever.

After his name got out there, he pitched a story to the New York Daily News. He sought to go one step further in exploring pro wrestling and why media didn’t cover it, despite monthly shows at Madison Square Garden being sold out every month.

“I understood a little bit that it was theater, but I said ‘it’s the world’s most violent soap opera,’” Greenberg said. “A portion of the audience knows its theater, a portion of the audience believes, but they all want to be around it. They all need that experience.”

Shockingly, they gave him the green light. They gave him a press pass and a photographer, and suddenly he was in the backstage area of Madison Square Garden. Unsure how he was going to talk to people he grew up watching, he was reminded that he was writing for the New York Daily News. At this moment, he wasn’t a fan. He was a reporter.

That was until the legendary wrestler, Bob Backlund, came up to him wearing the WWF Championship.

“‘Oh, my goodness, I’m going to interview Bob Backlund. I’m actually interviewing the champ,’” he said. “And from that point, I kinda knew this was a well I could dip into from time to time.”

That stage fright, even after ‌these years, still lives in Greenberg. Comparing it to bothering a politician before a rally or speech, it’s a matter of picking your spots and being respectful. Having written books on wrestling legends Ric Flair and Freddie Blassie, independent wrestling and more, Greenberg has continuously grown and accepted wrestling’s development.

“I’m not just the nostalgia act, a guy who wrote for the WWF magazine back in the 80s and 90s. There’s a reason for me to be involved in it now,” he said. “And I have a monthly column for Inside The Ropes magazine in the United Kingdom. So there’s a reason for me to be there. And if I’m going to be there, and I’m going to be covering it.”

And, while he understands that his participation in wrestling will not make or break the industry, he strives to broaden the perspective of lifelong fans while also enlightening newcomers on the appeal of this thing that “we live for.”

Before concluding, Greenberg shared a story from his time as a producer at NBC. Working with a few other die-hard fans, work often became dissections of recent pay-per-views or Monday Night Raws. They would analyze it, talk about character development and talk about the plot.

One day, an associate producer came up to the group while they were talking.

“She said ‘I grew up in Maryland, and my mother always told me, don’t date a wrestling fan and don’t date a NASCAR fan,’” he said.

He added that he understood her mother’s wish for her to advance in life, only for her to go to NBC and see a group of people discuss professional wrestling in the most educated way imaginable.

“I said, ‘I understand why she gave you that advice. But things are not always as they seem,’” he said. “And you know how I learned things are not always as they seem? I watch professional wrestling.”

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store