Ryan Deshon’s professional wrestling career might not have reached the WWE, but as in all pro wrestling, it’s the story that counts.
Note: This piece was originally published with accompanying videos on The Airship.
This is Ryan Deshon. He’s currently Black Balloon Publishing’s lead developer, but before he was designing websites like this one, he was throwing down in the world of professional wrestling. This is the story of how Ryan got into and out of the ring.
March 29, 1987: The third annual WrestleMania, the Super Bowl 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.
Wrestling 101: How to Punch and Kick
According to which style of wrestling you practice, there are different ways to do basically everything. The ‘80s American style of punching is to graze your opponent while stomping to imitate impact. Punching in “strong style,” a combination of American and Japanese styles, involves keeping a hollow fist and making contact to create the sound and look of an actual blow. And if you want to let your opponents know that they’re hitting too hard, you can give them a “receipt” by actually punching them with a closed fist and following through to illustrate how much it hurts.
If you aren’t giving a receipt or practicing strong style, which typically involves making contact, most kicks are made to graze the opponent, slapping the inside of your thigh with a free hand to create the impression of connecting.
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.”
Although professional wrestling is sometimes looked down upon as a lower form of entertainment, its matches often follow the traditional narrative structure of supposedly higher artforms, like classic plays. The shine features the hero beating the villain, or “the heel,” until the cut-off, when the heel cheats or otherwise gains the upper hand. During the heat, the hero continues to be pummeled, until the comeback, when he rallies. (This would be the moment that Hulk Hogan would “hulk up.”) This is sometimes followed by the false hope, when the heel once again begins to rise. Regardless, the match will typically conclude with the finish, an over-the-top performance that brings the hero to victory.
Not only does this traditional narrative structure draw in the audience, it also allows wrestlers to pace themselves, to know when to kick out of a hold and when to stay down for the count with just a few whispered words from their opponent — “This is the finish!”
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.”
Professional wrestling leagues are referred to as promotions, federations or “feds.” Generally speaking, there are four tiers of feds, with World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly World Wrestling Federation) being the largest. A publicly traded corporation, WWE puts on about 320 shows a year, which are broadcast to 36 million viewers in more than 150 countries. It also licenses videogames, action figures and apparel, and produces its own videos, records, books and even feature films.
Directly below WWE are feds like Ring of Honor and Dragon Gate USA, which have international reach, though to a lesser extent. Beneath these are independent feds that operate in regional circuits with little mainstream media exposure. Finally, you have backyard wrestling, involving untrained performers and, occasionally, the more controversial, gorey theatrics.
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.”
Wrestling 101: How to Clothesline
Rather than clobbering your opponents, a clothesline is delivered like a punch over their shoulder, catching them on the chest with your bicep to produce a smacking sound. The person receiving the clothesline snaps back, falling to the floor to imitate being knocked down.
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.”
Although WWE made $99 million in profit in 2013, most independent feds operate at a loss, with either the owners or other benefactors providing the funding. This is almost a mathematical inevitability: A great draw for an independent fed might be 250 people at $10 a head; that money is put towards expenses — renting the venue, transporting the ring, etc. — then distributed amongst the 16 to 20 wrestlers according to their drawing power. For a 20- to 30-minute match, a headliner might earn $60 plus travel expenses and be put up at a friend’s place. A “jobber,” the lowest rung of the wrestling hierarchy, is the equivalent of the opening band and the roadie, performing anonymously and for free to learn the ropes, while also assisting behind the scenes to set up and break down the ring, drive the truck and do whatever else needs to be done.
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?’”
Wrestling 101: How to Fall, or “Take a Bump”
In American style, you snap yourself back, spreading your arms to distribute the impact while slapping the ground to make it seem harder. Luchador style features more grapples and throws in a ring that’s sometimes made of concrete, so falling entails rolling with the tosses.
Recovering from a bump also differs with style: In American style, you always get up to your left; in Luchador style, you always get up to your right. Either way, this is to ensure your opponent can predict where you are going to be. This also preserves the momentum of the match by avoiding situations in which opponents are facing away from each other.
“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.
Considering professional wrestling’s origins as a sideshow exhibit in North America, it’s no surprise that it was (and still is) much maligned, looked down upon as cheap entertainment for the uneducated. It was only following the advent of television that professional wrestling reached a broader audience, winning wider acceptance and ushering in a golden age during the 1950s. A second golden age followed in the ‘80s and ‘90s, with WWE (then WWF) consolidating national audiences and putting on record-breaking events, such as WrestleMania. In the late ‘90s, pro wrestling’s reputation — although not its viewership — took a hit when a new hardcore style increased the amount of violence in the ring. With its growing popularity, professional wrestling as a cultural phenomenon became the subject of academic inquiry and other, “higher” artforms. The pinnacle of this trend was undoubtedly Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film, The Wrestler, which was universally praised by critics and wrestlers alike.
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.”
Wrestling 101: How to Splash
A successful splash (to an opponent lying down) or a crossbody (to one standing) is more in the hands of the target than the wrestler in flight. To deliver either a splash or a crossbody, you always aim your head to the left and pull back your arms and legs after you jump. This ensures you don’t elbow or knee your opponents, and it gives them ample room to catch you.
If you’re receiving a crossbody, you jump right before contact is made, catching your opponent and throwing out your legs to imitate a fall. If you’re receiving a splash, you pull your body up from the mat so you can fall back down on contact, distributing the impact while also playing it up.
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, traveling 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.”
In 2009, Elite Pro founder Mike “Acid” Nolan received an offer to buy his ring from Billy Whack of the now defunct Lunatic Wrestling Federation. Seeing an opportunity to recoup his losses from three years of financing the fed and perhaps even make a small profit, Nolan agreed to sell. Whack, though, was only acting as a middleman; the ring was ultimately destined for Resistance Pro, which was cofounded by Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan in 2011. Following a number of articles on Resistance Pro (most to the effect of “Smashing Pumpkins?! Wrestling?! What?!?!?!”), Corgan is now reportedly in talks with AMC to develop a reality TV show about professional wrestling.
“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.”
Wrestling 101: The Finisher
Any professional wrestler worth rooting for has their own signature finishing move, which will frequently knock out their opponents long enough to pin them to the mat for a three count or put them in enough pain to make them give up (“tap out”). Although some finishing moves are very elaborate, requiring great amounts of strength or dexterity, others are quite simple, even routine. Hulk Hogan’s finishing move, for example, was a running leg drop, in which he struck a supine opponent on the chest with the bottom of his thigh. Other wrestlers might perform the same move multiple times in a match, but Hogan would need to be charged up by the audience’s cheers before he could do his leg drop. This may accentuate wrestling’s “fake,” choreographed nature, but it also highlights the symbiosis between performer and audience, which is more dynamic in professional wrestling than any other form of popular entertainment.
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 professional wrestling, succumbing 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.”
Originally published on The Airship.