In past generations, those wishing to break into professional wrestling were put through a severe initiation process.
Longtime Maryland promoter, wrestler and trainer Dan McDevitt said it wasn’t unusual for students to hand over a large sum of money only to be run to the point of vomiting or passing out.
Some teachers were so intent on weeding out potential weak links that they would intentionally injure their students. Even the most successful wrestlers were not immune to the punishment to test their dedication.
“When Hulk Hogan first decided to get into wrestling, his trainers wanted to hurt him and broke his leg in the process,” McDevitt said. “When he came back after that, they knew he was for real. That approach just wouldn’t fly today.”
McDevitt said the methods of the past would not work today for many reasons. He added that instructors back then were very protective of the secrets of professional wrestling and only wanted to let a select few into the business.
“Back in the day, those in the wrestling business did all they could to ensure secrecy and to protect their spots in their respective territories,” McDevitt said. “Now, how the industry operates is more well-known and in the open.”
McDevitt said having been involved in professional wrestling for 20 years, he was alarmed by what he is seeing from many of today’s in-ring performers.
McDevitt said with the proliferation of local independent wrestling promotions, he was seeing more and more wrestlers who were ill-prepared to enter the ring, leading to poor matches and injuries that could have been avoided.
“There are people who think that just because they wrestled a few matches and set up a ring in a gym that they are qualified to open a wrestling school,” McDevitt said. “That is not the case and there are people that are just turning over hard-earned money and getting nothing out of it.”
This led McDevitt, owner of Maryland Championship Wrestling, to open the MCW Pro Wrestling Training Center last month. McDevitt has a long track record of training pro wrestlers that have gone on to perform in WWE, including Mickie James and Amy Dumas (aka Lita), the latter of which was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame this year. Dumas thanked McDevitt in her acceptance speech, which was viewed by millions.
Another one of McDevitt’s early students was Pat Brink.
The 33-year-old Howard County native went on to wrestle for MCW before being signed in 2008 to a WWE developmental deal. He would spend much of the next four years on the cusp of making the main roster before injuries and several deaths to members of his family halted his ascension.
Brink was out of wrestling in 2012 when McDevitt approached him about being his lead instructor. Brink jumped at the opportunity to give back to the industry.
“I’ve always respected the industry, especially those that came before me,” Brink said. “I’ve acquired so much knowledge and I feel an obligation to teach others the proper way to break into the business and avoid some of the pitfalls I encountered.”
Brink said while the training today is intense, it is nowhere near as brutal as it was in generations past.
“To me, the ring is the great equalizer,” Brink said. “It is unforgiving and people will get hurt. It’s not for everyone. But, if you come here and pay your hard-earned money to learn, I will do everything to help you succeed. If you fail, I’ve failed as well.”
Devon Hughes is among those that believe Brink will be a successful teacher.
Hughes has wrestled for close to 20 years as Devon Dudley/Brother Devon; gaining worldwide fame in ECW, WWE and TNA. Hughes, along with longtime tag team partner Brother Ray (real life Mark LoMonaco), also run Team 3D Wrestling Academy in Florida where they trained Brink before he signed with WWE.
“Pat was good when he got to us, but knew he needed that extra help to become a finished product and reach the highest levels,” said Hughes, who will also be wrestling at MCW’s Shane Shamrock Cup event set for July 19 in Joppa. “He understands how to get the most out of wrestlers, and I know he will go on to be a great teacher.”
Far from fake
Brink was bestowing that knowledge onto others recently with the training center’s first group of students. The 10 students had a wide range of experience, including some who have been wrestling professionally for several years, to a recent high school graduate and a 30-year-old who decided to finally pursue his dream.
The students, who paid as much as $3,000 for the training, were put through a difficult four-hour workout at the Joppa Market Place. The session included stretching, conditioning drills, teaching and in-ring practice.
Those in the class quickly learned while pro wrestling may have predetermined results, it cannot be called
fake. The ring’s surface is basically cloth and plywood with little give; something the students found out as they repeatedly practiced how to fall, or “take a bump” as it’s called in the industry.
“It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” said Ricky Clark, 18, a recent high school graduate who travels two hours from Washington D.C. to Harford County twice a week for his training. “I wrestled in high school, which helped with some of the basics, but I’ve got a lot to learn, and I wanted to make sure I went somewhere I would get a legitimate shot to succeed.”
While Clark has visions of one day making the big time, John Cochran just hopes to one day perform at the local level. The 30-year-old is originally from Alabama and moved to Baltimore a few years ago. He knows he is smaller than most wrestlers today and is entering the business at an advanced age compared to most, but he is up for the challenge.
“It’s now or never,” he said. “I don’t want to be looking back 20 years from now and wonder what might have been. Right now, I’m just trying to be the best me I can be.”
McDevitt and Brink stressed that they take every precaution to ensure the safety of their students, including requiring new students to wear protective head gear to reduce the chances of a concussion. Concern over head injuries in pro wrestling has been prevalent for much of the past decade with organizations like the WWE instituting concussion protocols similar to those utilized in the NFL and other sports.
The issue came to light in 2007 following the death of WWE wrestler Chris Benoit, who committed suicide after killing his wife and young son.
An examination of Benoit’s brain showed that his brain resembled that of an 85-year-old Alzheimer's patient; similar to the brains of four retired NFL players who had suffered multiple concussions, dealt with depression, and harmed themselves or others.
Pro wrestling has also garnered many headlines in recent years with wrestlers who have died at a young age. Since 1984, there have been reports of at least 60 wrestlers under the age of 50 who have died from everything from suicides and heart disease to drug overdoses.
“Back when I first started training, it was almost encouraged to have students get whacked in the head repeatedly, and those that complained were deemed not tough enough,” Brink said. “We’re much more aware of the consequences of head injuries today.”
Hughes said concussions weren’t even discussed among wrestlers when he first started in the early 1990s.
“If you didn’t work, you didn’t get paid,” Hughes said. “You just dealt with it. Today, no one wants to see another Chris Benoit situation.”
Hughes said he doesn’t utilize headgear at his school, but does utilize personal trainers and a physician on staff.
“Teaching proper technique is the best way to reduce the chance of head injuries,” Hughes said. “I don’t disagree with those that do use it and understand why they are used. We may eventually take that approach too. Right now, that isn’t the case but we do work to ensure our students learn the proper way to protect not only themselves but those who are in the ring with them.”