March 29, 1987: The third annual WrestleMania, the superbowl of professional wrestling, is being held at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan. More than 93,000 people attend, setting a record for indoor sporting events that will not be broken for 23 years. Several millions more tune in through pay-per-view.
The headline match is between Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant, two former friends who have been divided by their desire for the World Heavyweight Championship, the pinnacle of pro wrestling success. During the final moments of the match, Hogan miraculously executes a scoop slam, lifting the 520-pound Andre, turning him upside down and plowing him into the mat.
Three years later, four-year-old Ryan would marvel at the feat, watching it on his cousin’s bootlegged VHS recording in Chicago. “It was those moments that really stuck with me,” Ryan says. It’s the first memory he has of professional wrestling, and it introduced him to a world he would follow for years. “It had the athleticism and the theatrics that sports have, but it had more drama than any other sport.”
Hogan’s seemingly impossible scoop slam was, of course, carefully choreographed, but that didn’t keep it from being an impressive display of physical strength, agility and even grace — just like the open secret of professional wrestling’s scripted nature doesn’t dispel its attraction. Although many young fans begin watching with an earnest belief in what they see, they all come to a tipping point at which the truth is innately understood. Ryan reached that understanding in a way uncommon to most:
“I don't remember there being a moment when I was like, 'Eh, this is fake.' It was probably in junior high when I started doing it myself and I realized I could trick my friends into thinking what I was doing was real.”
In 1993, Ryan’s family moved from Chicago to Manhattan, Illinois, a suburb just on the edge of being rural, and it was there that the seven-year-old began to wrestle. Ryan today attributes that initial desire to become part of the show to wanting to one-up his heroes. “Maybe it's an ego thing, that I was like, ‘I think I can do this better,’” he says, adding, “When I was a kid and I'd be jumping on my ma's bed, watching wrestling and wrestling a pillow … that dopamine I would have when I would do that faded over time. Eventually you want to do it yourself. And the adrenaline you get when you do it is bar none.”
So with a “community of nerds who liked wrestling” (his words), Ryan took to the mat … sort of. He and his friends started wrestling at the park, throwing each other around with real enthusiasm, and when the opportunity presented itself, they constructed makeshift rings.
Ryan wasn’t allowed to have friends over, but in the hour-and-a-half between when school let out and when his father reached home, he and his friends would race to his apartment and put together a ring using his parents’ mattress as the mat and Ryan’s twin-size bed as the top rope. When a lookout spotted Ryan’s father, the boys quickly put everything back the way it was; then while his dad had his routine after-work shower, Ryan’s dozen friends surreptitiously made their exit.
“There was one day he just didn't take a shower, and my friends were like, 'I have to be home now,’” Ryan recalls. He tried to keep his friends at bay, but eventually had to come clean. He confessed that he had friends over, and while his dad chewed him out, a parade of boys appeared, then just as quickly disappeared. “He was like, ‘What the fuck?’ I got in so much trouble for that.”
Future rings had longer lifespans. For their most elaborate DIY construction, the boys found a clearing in a small wooded area that was obscured from the neighbors. With mostly salvaged panels of plywood, full-size mattresses, layers of carpeting, PVC pipes, cables, hoses and tarps, they were able to build a ring that Ryan acknowledges was, in retrospect, “almost exactly how a professional ring is made — but we didn’t know that.”
Thus, RPW — originally Ryan’s Pro Wrestling and then, when they became more serious, Rabid Pro Wrestling — had a home. The boys made logos, created a website (Ryan’s first foray into web design), staged matches, produced edited videos and even drew spectators. “Because we were off of a bike trail, people would hear us and come find us,” Ryan explains. “A bunch of stoner kids, people who got drunk in the woods would come and just watch. It was a little weird at first, but as soon as you get in a match you don't care about that.”
RPW matches were never rehearsed, but the moves were practiced the day before each event. And although RPW was very much backyard wrestling, Ryan points out that it wasn’t the stereotypical, gruesome manifestation, with untrained kids spilling blood for shock value. “We were more about storylines and the athleticism of it,” he says. While RPW members were creating overarching storylines and their own characters, Ryan was drawn to the darkside, already becoming a goth and beginning to develop the persona of an off-the-hinge wild man, which he would return to later.
But all this isn’t to say that RPW was devoid of violence. One particularly brutal lineup pitted Ryan against John, his best friend and RPW co-organizer, for a series of three matches. The first was a submission match, in which the loser must tap out. The second was a ladder match, in which the winner climbs a ladder to retrieve a trophy belt. And the third was a flaming table match, in which — you guessed it — the winner must put the loser through a table that is literally on fire. For the table, the boys used a long piece of drywall held up with two sawhorses. Pour on some kerosene and toss on a lit match, and you’ve got yourself a flaming table.
It was decided beforehand that it would be Ryan, the face of RPW, who would be powerbombed (lifted so that his legs were on John’s shoulders before being slammed down, back first) through the table. “I had to go through it and roll off,” Ryan explains, “because I didn’t want to be on fire. And, really, what happens is, when you throw someone through a table, the light goes out, because it’s just the fluid and the fluid is gone.”
“You don’t feel the flame at all,” he says, then quickly adds, “You can. If you really fuck it up.”
If all of this — from the wrestling in the woods to the flaming tables — sounds a little too routine, know that it didn’t seem that way to everyone.
“You know, my parents were really good about not restricting me,” says Ryan. “I think my parents in particular had enough respect to know that, though I was doing something dangerous, all kids do, and I was still pretty safe about it.”
Other people proved to be less understanding. The DIY ring described above was actually RPW’s second; the first one being repeatedly vandalized, the group was forced to find a new location and secure their gear. “We would pack up the ring for the most part, except for the wood and the mattresses,” Ryan explains. “All the carpet padding and carpet and stuff, we would roll that up and then hang it up in a tree with a pulley system, like how you'd protect stuff from a bear, because people would come and slash your shit. … We'd do that, and we'd lock it so you couldn’t get in.”
The put-downs weren’t all anonymous vandalism, either. Ryan describes a particularly bad incident:
“In my senior year in English, we had to do a thing where we had to look up what careers we wanted ... and I still wanted to be a professional wrestler, like, legitimately. So I researched it and wrote a paper on it. Some guy gave me shit, and my teacher said, ‘This is not a real job,’ and I asked, ‘Well, who defines what a real job is?’ She couldn’t answer me, so she let me [write the essay]. [When I turned it in] some jock said, ‘Being a professional wrestler is a fucking faggot job.’ … I didn’t [get upset] because I understood he was some stupid kid. He was a freshman or whatever trying to one-up the senior. My other goth buddy in the class, who was also doing backyard wrestling with me at the time, decided to stand up for me, even though I didn’t ask him to. He said, ‘It’s people like you’ — this jock kid — ‘who make people like him’ — me, a goth kid — ‘do Columbine.’ … So we got suspended for that.”
Perhaps the biggest detractors from Ryan’s professional wrestling were the ones teenage boys fret over most: girls. Ryan’s then girlfriend was there to witness him being put through a flaming table, and although they didn’t discuss it, he imagines she wasn’t thrilled. “I’m sure she was like, ‘Wow, he’s crazy,’” he speculates. “Or maybe she was like, ‘He’s crazy. What the fuck am I doing?’”
“At the time, I didn't realize it was embarrassing because I was a nerd and a goth kid,” Ryan explains. “People didn't like me anyway, so I didn't care really.” But eventually the stigma attached to professional wrestling — whether it’s that backyard wrestling is for maladjusted youths or that even top-tier shows are a lesser form of entertainment — did begin to have a bigger impact on Ryan. Even years later, while he was in formal training and putting on shows with an independent fed, Ryan kept his wrestling a secret from Mandi, his new girlfriend. “Mandi was extremely out of my league,” he says, “and I didn't want her to be like, ‘Ugh! Gross! You're weird!’” That sentiment led Ryan to whitewash much of his pro wrestling career. He’s deleted almost all of the photographs and videos that he had of himself wrestling, including those from RPW and beyond. (The videos of Ryan used in this piece were all obtained from friends who kept old footage.)
The shifting priorities and interests of adolescence came together to put RPW down for good. Ryan got more into music and started joining bands. He traded in one hobby for another and, at 17, hung up his proverbial tights.
Ryan was 19, living in Chicago again and attending film school when his old friend John told him about another fed, Elite Pro Wrestling, that was just starting. “It was walking distance from my friend’s house, so it seemed stupid not to,” Ryan says of joining Elite Pro. “I always had interest, but the opportunity was never there.”
The fed ran a school in which the bookers, who organized the events and planned the overarching storylines, trained students. For $150 a month, students had access to the gym, which included a professional ring and was housed in an industrial warehouse. They also took classes in not just professional wrestling techniques, but basic cardio, karate, judo, traditional wrestling and even yoga. “It was very much like having a personal trainer,” Ryan recalls. Students also acted as jobbers, wrestling anonymously in startup matches at events and providing the manual labor. Ryan and John proved so committed as students that the Elite Pro trainers gave them a key to the gym.
For the first time, Ryan was in formal training, travelling from Chicago back out to the suburbs each Thursday for classes, and wrestling in a real ring at rec centers, gyms and other venues throughout the region on Fridays, Saturdays and sometimes even Sundays. In exchange for helping out behind the scenes, he was also advancing in the lineup. He was only earning, at best, $20 a match, but he was wrestling in front of dozens of fans and was finally able to shed the anonymity of a jobber to develop his own character: “ryan_project.” The attitude was Joker-esque, borderline psychotic, and the look was deliberately goth, down to the black clothes, makeup and electrical tape. Ryan channeled much of his own personality, style and angst into the character, and found the ring more accepting than friends, girlfriends and classmates sometimes had been. This was captured best in the Elite Pro bookers, who “even though they used to be jocks in high school, they lost all that,” Ryan explains. “There was a real human bond between everybody.”
The highpoint of Ryan’s career — at which, he admits, he was still only a low- to mid-level act, or “carder,” in the fed — came in 2008, during a three-day car convention at the McCormick Place convention center in Chicago, where Elite Pro had set up a ring. Ryan wrestled for crowds of up to 500 people for three or four times a day through the long weekend. Looking back, he says, “I think those were some of my best matches.”
“You never really quit, you just stop doing it regularly,” Ryan says, comparing professional wrestling to any other hobby. He admits that it was at least partially this hobbyist mentality that kept him from pushing his wrestling career further. “I went to [Ring of Honor], I hung out with those guys,” he explains. “I didn't have the dedication to do that. I had a daytime job. I knew, for me, personally, that I was a weekend warrior. It was a hobby, and I knew it.” He adds: “I'm not shitting on anybody who ever made it a career — in fact, [they] have more dedication than I ever had. Because it takes a lot. Not only do you have to promote yourself, you have to be your own agent. You have to be your own character. You have to want people to be there and to care about you. At the same time, you have to do some favors to get to that position.”
Those favors also became a sticking point. While Ryan wanted to wrestle, all of the additional duties expected of him — building and tearing down the ring, moving equipment and driving trucks, editing videos and updating the website — started to wear him down. “I just didn’t have the patience for it anymore, and I think it was the extra stuff that really burnt me out,” he says. “I wanted to just show up and wrestle and go home.”
Two months after Ryan began tiring of the behind-the-scenes work, Elite Pro announced that it was going to sell its ring, and that put his career on hold indefinitely. “The company folded and I lost my crew, the people I knew and grew and trained with,” he says. “I had no real desire to start over at a new place.” Considering the economics of professional wrestling, there were no hard feelings about Elite Pro’s closure, no accusations of selling out. “We all understood there’s no money in the wrestling business,” Ryan explains. “That was their chance to get out and get some money from it — not a lot of money, but to break even or to just get a little, like $1,000 maybe.” The fed held one final show, then called it quits.
Even after he left the ring, Ryan remained interested in wrestling. “All my friends kept doing it, and I would go and support them and hang out sometimes,” he says, “but I just didn’t have the dedication to continue to do it.” Many of the folks Ryan wrestled with continued their careers to varying degrees of success. The most encouraging story is of Dean Ambrose, who wrestled with Elite Pro under the name Jon Moxley before advancing to WWE and even performing at this year’s WrestleMania. Many others undoubtedly dropped profesional wrestling, succumbinging to the demands of work, family, life — all of the things that make a “full-time hobby” like wrestling so difficult to maintain.
For his part, Ryan finished film school and spent six years working for a media conglomerate in Chicago before relocating to New York City in 2013 to start as Black Balloon Publishing’s lead developer. During that time, wrestling fell beyond the wayside, into those recesses of memory where we hope aspects of our past will be lost forever, the realm of embarrassing exes and even worse bands. Professional wrestling became another life, ryan_project another person. The 12 years Ryan spent in the ring — whether it be the one constructed from his parents’ mattress or the one he and his friends built in the woods or the one he put together and broke down for Elite Pro night after night — those years seemed to evaporate. Still Ryan admits, “Tomorrow, if I had the opportunity — if one of my friends said, ‘Hey, I have a wrestling show, would you like to be on the card?’ I’d say sure.”
(Video credits: Elite Pro Wrestling)