Contributed by The WCSN
Words By: Spencer Love
There are few names in independent wrestling that carry the weight of Mike Quackenbush. The 25-year veteran has his fingers nearly everywhere in the professional wrestling industry; whether it be his time as the head trainer at The Wrestle Factory, where he worked with names like Drew Gulak and Cesaro, founding the promotion Chikara, hosting his myriad of podcasts or simply delivering some of the finest in-ring work of this generation, Quackenbush has truly seen and done it all as a pro wrestler.
Recently, Quackenbush joined Spencer Love of the Conversations With Love podcast and among other topics to chatted about his brand-new web series ‘Til We Make It, his 25th-anniversary tour that includes his first stop in Winnipeg, and witnessing the Cesaro/Aleister Black match at Extreme Rules live and in-the-flesh. Visit wincolumnsports.ca for the full podcast interview.
Why he was attracted to the training side of professional wrestling:
“When I first broke in to wrestling in 1994, I embarked on this bizarre journey (and pro wrestling can be quite bizarre), I’m getting in at a time that sort of pre-dates the ubiquity of the internet, there’s no Google searches to be done to help you along the way, I really just had to fake it until I made it. I had to just, y’know, invent things or guess at how I thought they were done, and in the first three years that I’m active as a wrestler I have the worst injuries of my career – probably the single worst being the fracturing of my skull that resulted in me having a seizure in the ring, and I was taken away on life support – so, y’know, that’s not great.
“When you don’t have a mentor or a coach to help you learn how to navigate situations where there’s just sort of unspoken etiquette, (where) there’s a lot of unwritten rules; there’s some political stuff you’ve got to be mindful of when you’re in professional wrestling. I made every mistake there is to make, and I just don’t want other people to have to go through that awful process, because if I had gotten out of the gate running, instead of stumbling for my first three years, I know I could have accomplished so much more.”
On preparing for a match:
“Sometimes when I’m sitting down with somebody and we’re knees-to-knees in a locker room, and we’re going to go to the ring together and perform, I would ask them something if we were going to do something very nuanced or unusual.
Here’s a great example: most pro wrestling fans can probably imagine what a snap mare looks like. Then, I would say there are probably fewer that could imagine what a flying mare looks like. There’s going to be even fewer who can identify what ahead mare looks like, and by the time you get to a backhanded mare or a floating mare, I would wager to say that most pro wrestling fans could not identify those. The same is true of most professional wrestlers, and when I say something like that to someone like ‘hey man, that’s a perfect spot for us to put in a backhanded mare, they’re going to go ‘hmm, yeah, okay,’ and then I go back to them and say ‘are you clear on what I mean by that, so that we don’t have a gaffe in the ring?’ We want to go out there and put on a seamless performance; if it says it’s professional wrestling, and that’s what the customers paid for, we better not look like two rank amateurs out there. It’s got to be a polished performance; otherwise, we should go back to practice.”
On his new series, ‘Til We Make It:
“I will come across people who won’t say to me ‘I don’t understand this, will you explain it to me?’ Similarly, there are the kinds of things I talk about on ‘Til We Make It where I know if I’m doing a seminar or I’m having a class and I ask the group ‘do you understand what I mean by this?’ they’ll all nod their heads and go ‘mhmm, yes, we do,’ and I know they don’t! For whatever reason – are they afraid to put their hand up? Do they not want to be singled out as the one person in the room who doesn’t know that thing? – I just want to help them get over that. That’s irrelevant. What’s really, really important is gathering all the knowledge you possibly can so that you have no limiters, or no handicaps, to prevent you from reaching the career goals you set for yourself.”
On his 25th Anniversary Tour:
“There’s so much in professional wrestling which is insincere – wildly insincere. People imagine that they can – and you do, to an extent – you have the freedom to invent any wild persona for yourself. A lot of times wrestlers, especially nascent performers, will choose characters that embody traits or characteristics that they themselves do not have. That way, they get to play a character that’s really not like them, and that can be fun! It’s like putting a Halloween costume on for a bit and being like ‘tonight, I’m going to be Batman. Tonight, I get to be Optimus Prime.’ I understand that. I understand the allure of that escapism.
The problem with that is all performers, myself included, will go through a phase where it’s almost more fun to be the persona and not take it off and return to being a real person. There is something that lacks consequence about that, it lacks a certain maturity, and it lacks a certain grounding in reality. I think we can all think (of) especially pro wrestlers from the ‘80s that began to live their character in day-to-day life; they started to lose their touch with reality. All of this kind of contributes – as well as of course the advent of social media and the way in which we communicate online – this overwhelming insincerity.
“Where I’m at now – and I hate this term, but I feel like it’s kind of the one that fits me now – as like an elder statesman of independent wrestling, the thing I am pushing back against is that insincerity. If there isn’t something sincere at the root of this, if it doesn’t mean something to me to perform with this person, or it doesn’t mean something to them to share the ring with me, then I don’t care. Maybe that seems corny, or cheesy, or outdated or needlessly sentimental, but I will not put on the sparkly pants, work up a sweat, and risk another injury given the cavalcade of injuries I’ve had over 25+ years, unless doing it really and truly means something.”
On coming to Winnipeg, Manitoba for the first time:
“Fortunately, I always do a little background on anywhere I’m going. Not just the person that I’m going to be wrestling with if I haven’t met them before, but the organization. Luckily, everybody I talk to about it (Premier Championship Wrestling) only gave the highest of marks. That gave me a great confidence that everyone was grading these guys very highly, and nobody really had a negative word to say. It alleviated a lot of my personal travel anxiety more than anything. Whenever I’ve got a big trip in front of me, man, I don’t get a restful night’s sleep the night before, I’m obsessing on all of the details, and carrying a lot of that with you sometimes is not the best way to walk to the ring.”
On pre-match rituals:
“Over the years I’ve developed a handful of rituals for myself about what I’m doing on the way to the venue, and what I do right before I walk through the curtain as I begin to hear my music play so that I feel I’m in the best place to perform and to deliver to the people who are most important. For me, those people are one, the person who is trusting me with their body and their safety in the ring, two, the people who entrusted me with the stage time in their ring, and number three, even if there’s just one person who spent a dollar to see me wrestle, I must do right by that customer.”
His thoughts on social media in wrestling:
“I think it’s a necessary evil of this modern era. I don’t doubt that 20 years from now, whenever social media has made it’s complete evolution into its next form – like Pokémon evolving into its next form – when we get out of Pikachu mode into Raichu mode, I think we’re all going to look back and laugh like “can you believe that we once elected a President who was just a twitter troll?’ like, we’re all going to have a good laugh about this.”
“Right now, in terms of visibility and accessibility, the platforms are exceptionally valuable, and it connects us in a way we couldn’t previously be connected. When I see I’ve got a new YouTube channel from Chile, that’s not possible in an era before social media, it just isn’t. I often liken the whole social media experience to something like this: when I grew up, I grew up in West Long, Pensylvania. About four blocks from where I lived, there was a community swimming pool where during summer break, that’s where all the kids would ride their bikes. Every morning you’d grab your towel and your swim trunks and you’d ride your bike down to the local community swimming pool and spend your day eating penny candies from the snack shack and turning your hair green from the chlorine. The community pool in my neighbourhood served a purpose for all of us; it was a place of social interaction, it was a place to have fun. However, you did know tevery time you went there, despite the fact that it served a purpose, you were just swimming in everyone else’s urine. That’s social media.”
On hating the word “Legend”
“I always recoil a little bit when someone calls me a legend, and I’ll tell you why. I think somehow, (legend) became wrestling shorthand for a guy that just stuck around. Here’s a great example: Virgil. When Virgil goes to wrestling conventions, they say ‘that guy is a wrestling legend.’ You know how many legendary matches he’s had? None.”
What you get at a Mike Quackenbush seminar:
“If you come to a seminar of mine, it really depends on whether I’m going to be in the ring or if I’m going to be speaking. A lot of times, especially in the past four years, I’ll get booked sometimes to just talk for three hours, which – I’m happy to have the work. I’m flattered that anyone wants to listen to me talk for three hours, but that gets dull for me. I want to put on my shorts, I want to put on my kneepads and jump in the ring; let’s put some people in knots, let’s do some funky arm drags, I bet you I know a hold or two you haven’t seen before. I like the physical work of it as well, but I’m always at the beck-and-call of whomever hires me. If they say ‘my group needs this,’ then that’s exactly what I want to deliver, so I kind of customize (the seminars) based on the group.”
“I begin every one of my seminars the same way, and if you sit in with us when I come up to Winnipeg, you’re going to hear this exact same schpiel. I always say – and it doesn’t matter if it’s to one or 200 people that I’m teaching – I say ‘look. I used to go to a lot of wrestling seminars, and I know what it’s like to spend your money and your time and to not get what you came for. So, because we have all paid some amount of money to be here, even if it was only just the gas that you put in your car to get here, you took time away from your family or your significant other, maybe your day job, or your friends to be in this room with me. I want you to tell me right now: why are you here? What do you want to learn? And I’m going to do the very best I can to get to it before we’re done so that you leave here knowing ‘I got what I wanted.’
What differentiates him as a trainer:
“One of the very first times I ever went training, I was going to the University of Pittsburgh. I spent two years out there before the University and I decided we should see other people, but during the time the University and I were together, I would float around the Pittsburgh area independent circuit looking for places to train, because prior to that I didn’t realize ‘oh, you go to a school for this?’ So, one night I remember turning up at a place which was an abandoned shopping mall. Somehow, this group, they’d paid rent to somebody, and their ring was set up where the food court would have been had the mall still been in business. That’s where you went to train, and to get in there was a guy at the door that you had to hand $50 bucks to.”
“As a college student in the ‘90s, $50 bucks was like my life savings. That was so many nights of pizza, so many arcade nights of playing Virtua Fighter, I couldn’t believe that I had to spend $50 bucks for a one-hour class somewhere, but I did. I saved up, and I handed that money over to this guy – his name was Randy something-or-other – and what happened for the next hour was he put me in the ring and beat the ever-loving crap out of me.”
“Walking out of there, I’m bruised, my chest is bloody, I’ve got magenta handprints all over my entire body and face, and I thought to myself ‘y’know, as a business model, what’s this guy’s return customer service like? How many people come back for another one of these?’ And, of course, I understand that old-school mentality of that this is only for the people who are the very toughest, we’re going to weed out everybody who doesn’t meet that standard, and here’s one way we can run them off. Let’s give them the harshest beating of their life and see if they come back to the table for a second serving. I think that idea is entirely outdated and obsolete. When I think about what that $50 bucks meant to me, and what I got in exchange for that, my personal mantra is that I will never, ever, do that to someone who respects me enough to hand me the money in the first place.”
On evaluating talent:
“I’ve seen that, I go through it all the time, I’ve got a person or two like that right now at my Wrestle Factory. It’s clear from the onset. Some people say ‘oh, I can tell from day one,’ I don’t think so; I tend to doubt that. I think those are extreme exceptions. It’s like a lottery ticket; yeah, sometimes you’re going to win five bucks on the lottery, but those tickets are rare. For the most part, talent develops over time. It can be cultivated and honed if you drill into the person’s weaknesses and show them those areas in which they can improve and focus on those first and foremost. And yet, every once and again you will come across someone, as I do, where no matter how you try to put it, no matter what approach to the work you take, you can just sense ‘I’m not going to get this person over the finish line,’ and sometimes that’s my failure as a coach. When you go to college or university, or you take any kind of (class); let’s say you take music lessons. When I was a teenager, I really wanted to learn how to play guitar. My first guitar teacher was not a good fit for me. That doesn’t mean he was a bad teacher. It just means that I was a bad fit for him. I just needed to find the right teacher for me. Similarly, in college, I took a class in logic, and I took it three times before I passed it. The trick was, I needed a different professor. I needed someone who spoke to me in a way that I could take that information that was lessoned, input them into my brain, and then be able to incorporate them. The first guy just wasn’t a match for me.”
“When I come across that sort of thing, though, I do have to appreciate this. You don’t know what draws someone to professional wrestling, and it might be the one thing holding their otherwise entirely fragile existence together. I don’t think I’m saying anything here that people somewhat familiar with the course of Chikara and the Wrestle Factory aren’t already in the know about, many years ago one of our most famous graduates took his own life. It was, and is, a great tragedy that casts a long shadow over all of us, and that specter creeps in on us in ways we don’t expect on the most unfortunate of days. I don’t want to be the person who turns to somebody and says ‘hey, this thing that you’ve attached your dreams and your aspirations to, you’re not going to have it, so get out and go home. If that is the glue that keeps somebody together, in my mind, as long as you are willing to come in here, to keep trying and put your best foot forward and you’re willing to pay the tuition, I’m not going to be the person that takes that away from you.”
Wrestling is for Everybody:
“Someone who trained under me, a very smart fellow named Michael Werman had said about his experience; he came to wrestling from Roller Derby. He had shared with me an experience that he’d had at, I guess, the training camp to become somebody who performs for roller derby. It said, ‘there is a job for everyone in Roller Derby, but not every job is for everyone in Roller Derby,’ and I felt that applies very neatly to professional wrestling as well. There might be room for everyone here, but not every job will be suited for you. You might come in imagining ‘one day, that’s going to be me walking that metal rampway on Monday Night RAW,’ maybe, but maybe it’ll be you holding a camera and not in a robe with a championship belt around your waist. I do understand that for many people that can be a bitter pill to swallow.”
“People don’t realize, speaking about a lottery ticket, the odds, just how impossible the odds are. Just over the weekend, I was wrestling in Silver Spring, Maryland, for a great company called Flying V Theatre, and a guy who was leaving said, y’know, he shook my hand and that he liked my match and maybe bought a t-shirt or something and said ‘hey, remember me, I’m going to be the next Rock.’ And, of course, while they’re standing there I want to be like ‘alright, man, go chase that thing, good for you,’ but also, I can’t help but imagine the eye-rolling emoji the moment someone says that to me because I think ‘you don’t realize how infinitesimal the odds are of that being true, and the amount of work ethic and dedication that it takes to be that guy. There’s one of him on the entire planet of seven billion people, and you think you’re the next one? It almost smacks of an arrogance I can’t relate to. I hear something like that every week! Some prospect, some lookie-lou, someday one trainee, like ‘hey man, yeah, I’m the next Shawn Michaels,’ and I just think ‘hold on to that heart!’”
How he continues to improve as a coach:
“When I first started out as the head trainer at the Wrestle Factory – and that comes just eight months after us opening for business – my business partner “Reckless Youth” Tom Carter resigns from the business, and at that point, it all falls on to my lap. The original division of responsibility between us put me more on the creative and character and writing end of things, and I would just kind of watch and imitate what Tom did because I myself was not a good teacher. I had to become a good teacher, and that takes time. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who just happen to be gifted with that exact skillset, and I definitely was not, it was something that I had to work at very hard. I probably got it wrong, long before I ever got it right. But, along the way and like I alluded to earlier, putting myself in positions where I also had to be a good student really informed what I needed to be as a teacher. For example, maybe four or five summers ago, I took a couple hundred hours of improv comedy classes and workshops. My whole journey throughout that lasted about two years. I trained under various coaches, under various teachers, I took different types of classes, workshops, rehearsals, all that kind of stuff. That was an exceptionally illuminating process for me, and I think on the tail end of that, of having to had been coached by so many different styles, it helped really crystalize what my own coaching style would be.”
On comedy in wrestling:
“Like any other form of drama, releasing the dramatic tension is the function of comic relief, and if you cannot release that tension – the flip side of that is do you deliver closure, which professional wrestling most often doesn’t. It’s an open-loop narrative, not a closed-loop narrative. I suppose, to break those terms down a little bit: there’s always the next episode of Monday Night RAW. There will always be something that the Undertaker moves on to next. Unless he is retiring permanently, unlike a wrestling retirement, a permanent retirement, the narrative always continues, it always goes on, so it’s open loop, it’s not finite. So, you only have a few ways within that narrative structure to release the dramatic tension and if closure’s not one of them, comedic relief is essential.”
“The problem is, if you don’t develop people’s comedic timing, or if they don’t have that talent, or you don’t have people that can write that – they might be very good at writing drama, but they can’t write comedy – you end up with sometimes these exceptionally painful sketches that you see put out there in the middle of a two-or-three wrestling program that are meant to be comic relief, but actually play like a bad dad joke. They’re met more with a ‘whomp, whomp,’ than an ‘LOL,’ and that’s problematic. You can have people that are good at writing one and they’re not good at writing the other. You can have people that are good at performing one that are no good at performing the other. It’s rare to find performers who are good at both skillsets. When it’s done well, people love it. When it’s done badly, of course, people resent it.”
His thoughts on Cesaro vs. Aleister Black at Extreme Rules:
“Luckily for me, I was there in person to see that on (July 12), and that was thanks directly to Cesaro, who arranged this wonderful club/box thing; I don’t know what those things cost, but it’s the kind of thing that I never would have bought for myself if not for the fact that my most famous trainee gifted that to me so that I could be there to see him and Aleister. Just to be clear, Cesaro is a graduate of my Wrestle Factory, he trained under me, he moved to the United States to train with me back in 2003. I was the guy who picked him up at the airport. Aleister Black was not someone who came to my Wrestle Factory, but I trained him during camps that I would put on in the Netherlands, where he is from. Slightly different experiences, and yet. you know, you will see my fingerprints on their work. You’ll see the influence of my style in both.”
“I don’t know if I have ever been present to see such a high-profile match of two of my kids, and when it went to the ring, I just felt like I was glowing. I just felt such a deep swell of pride, and whether we were in an arena of, I don’t know, were there 20,000 people there, I have no idea what the attendance figure was, (but) it felt like 20,000 people, it was a surreal thing to realize that other than my other students, many of whom were surrounding me in that moment, there isn’t a single soul in this entire arena who realizes the role I played in that match walking out to the ring. Even 45-minutes prior to that, when Drew Gulak, the current Cruiserweight Champion – another guy who graduated from my Wrestle Factory, became a trainer at my Wrestle Factory, just like Cesaro did – when he was out there in front of the audience defending the Cruiserweight title, I’m sure less that 1% of that 20,000 had any idea what role I played in getting that match to the ring, and that did nothing to diminish how proud I felt in that moment of all my students.”
On if he’s ever felt “I made it”:
“Not really, because I always vacillate between two points of view. I’ll allow myself a moment where I take pride in my body of work, and then I like to puncture that moment by reminding myself that I’ve really not done anything at all. In the eyes of many people, the things that might pass for the most important milestones in my career, to them, are comparatively insignificant. If you held up what I’ve done against – put it up against the career of Bret “the Hitman” Hart, well, everything I’ve done is obscure. So, I really only allow myself to have those moments very, very briefly, where I just kind of enjoy what’s happening and what it means to me, and I try not to let that override what needs to be done in the moment. At the end of the performance, what really needs to be done in that moment is to serve the audience. It’s not ‘well, here’s another victory lap for Mike on his 25th-anniversary tour,’ or however you want to see it. I think those moments are fleeting.”