Back in the ring

Legend City Wrestling and the history of professional wrestling in the province.

By Sarah Smellie. Photo by John Pike.

Dan Bjorkdahl’s arms are approximately the size of refrigerators. When he walks towards me, they swing casually, stuck out just a bit to make way for his lats. I’m not looking forward to his handshake.

Bjorkdahl, 27, is more widely known as the professional wrestler JX Phlexx, a tanned, blond and goateed hero-type. In his wrestling photos, he’s often shown with a huge smile on his face. In reality, when he’s not giving someone an affectionately hard time (which, admittedly, is often), he’s a serious guy who thinks hard before he speaks.

He and I are inside the CLB Armory, waiting for Steve Clarke, who wrestles professionally as the smooth talkin’ ladies man Lance Romance. JX Phlexx and Lance Romance once formed the Newf World Order, Republic Pro Wrestling’s Tag Team Heavyweight Champions. These days, their partnership is of the business variety—they’ve just started Legend City Wrestling, a pro wrestling promotions company, or “promotion” in the parlance of their trade. They’ve also just bought the 16 by 16 wrestling ring that once belonged to now-defunct RPW. This morning, they’re going to set it up for the first time.

Clarke strolls in with coffees and a cellphone to his ear, tall, lean, and in baggy jeans—a lot younger-looking than his low, gruff voice lets on. He’s followed by Nick Byrne, who used to wrestle with RPW; Tim Kendell, a Legend City recruit; and Andrew Roil, who wrestles as Lance Romance’s tag-team-partner-turned-nemesis Too Damn Hype. Their rowdy greetings bounce around the empty hall and they start hauling massive steel bars from the armory’s closet, laughing, half-yelling, and getting digs into one another at a dizzying rate.

★★★★

The mid 80s was a bit of a golden age for pro wrestling. The World Wrestling Federation (WWF) was taken over by the notorious Vince McMahon, who shoved aside the sport aspect of pro wrestling in favour of the entertainment aspect. Pushing over-the-top theatrics and unlikely characters, he dreamed up the Wrestlemania events, and he found Hulk Hogan.

Hulk Hogan, and his legion of Hulkamaniacs, was a flat-out phenomenon. His virtuous dude persona, heroic athleticism, clean wrestling style and maniacal shirt-ripping made him one of the most famous pro wrestlers of all time. Many wrestling buffs attribute a huge chunk of the WWF’s success to him. He somehow made pro wrestling, which McMahon had publicly revealed to be scripted, larger than life and entirely real for millions and millions of fans.

These days, fans and viewers have grown a lot more cynical. The WWF became World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), characters and plots got more outlandish, and journalists and academic types started questioning where professional wrestling lay on the sport-farce continuum. In 1993, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) hit Pay-per-View and, with its emphasis on real, unscripted, and unchoreographed fighting, began sucking viewers away from pro wrestling. In 2006, its pay-per-viewership surpassed that of professional wrestling’s and continues to do so today. Local sports bars are packed on UFC nights. Most don’t have pro wrestling nights.

In Newfoundland, the problems are even more pronounced. Despite the fact that St. John’s was the birthplace of Sailor White, one of the most colorful big-time Canadian wrestling characters to date, this province has laid waste to all of its pro wrestling promotions. When White retired, he started training wrestlers here, including a young Steve Clarke. He formed All-Star Wrestling and, when it went bankrupt, he joined Cutting Edge Wrestling. He also inspired various other promotions, like Newfoundland Championship Wrestling, the Provincial Wrestling Alliance and RPW. Those, too, have folded. Small audiences, large travel distances and not many resources – the same old story.

So exactly what are Clarke and Bjorkdahl thinking?

Well, for starters, they’re thinking. A lot. And they’re feeling. Legend City Wrestling isn’t just some business venture for these two—they’re not even looking to quit their jobs about it. They’re taking this potentially ruinous financial risk to try and restore that mid-80s glory to pro wrestling and reestablish it as the meaningful art form—and brotherhood—they believe it to be. And they think that the history of pro wrestling being a no-go in this province is actually going to help them do it.

And here I thought pro wrestling was all about sweaty meatheads in tights stroking their egos.

★★★★

Nine years ago, Clarke, then 22, got a concussion within ten minutes of his first match. “I had only had a few weeks of training. They just threw me in the ring,” he laughs. “After that, I decided I was actually going to get legit training.”

Pro wrestling school is an intensely huge deal. Students usually attend at least three days a week for six solid months. Their teachers, or trainers, are expected to have been in the business for at least fifteen years. Neither Clarke, a nine year veteran, nor Bjorkdahl, ten years in, qualify. “If I were to set up shop and do some training here,” says Clarke, “I would probably get flak from guys across Canada. Even though I’ve been in it nine years, I’m not seasoned enough.”

On the athletic side of things students learn how all the moves—piledrivers, suplexes, body slams, rope climbs—are executed. They learn how to fall when they’re victim to these moves and how to keep their own victims safe. This is not uncomplicated. Consider your run-of-the-mill piledriver: You pick someone up, invert them, and then make it look as if you’re slamming them into the mat headfirst. One slip is either going to put the guy in intensive care or get you booed by an audience for faking, both of which are going to kill your career. On the other hand, you’re the upside-down participant, praying you’re not about to eat mat which, for medical reasons, would also bring your career to a grinding halt.

You’ve also got to learn to work the crowd, or “sell” your match. Grunts, yells, and looks of agony need to appear at exactly the right times, or you’ll lose the audience’s belief—or, rather, their suspended disbelief. Students learn to develop and perfect their character, they learn about acting, and they learn about marketing themselves.

At the end, they walk away with a portfolio and maybe a few broken bones.

“It’s really not for everyone,” says Bjorkdahl, who went to wrestling school in Vancouver, where he was born. “You get the absolute shit knocked out of you.”

Both Clarke and Bjorkdahl were both taught in the classical style of mid-eighties good guy types, like Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper: quick, well-executed old-fashioned moves and holds, and very little gimmicky stuff. “Those guys didn’t rely on huge, complicated flips or stunts to draw in their fans,” explains Bjorkdahl. “They could tell a story well enough with their personalities and their demeanor.”

“A series of classical moves, like they used to use, tells a better story than one big flashy move,” echoes Clarke. “It becomes like an art form. You rely on your charisma and perfect execution and you master your craft. That does more for the crowd, in the end.”

This is the style they’re hoping that Legend City Wrestling will be known for.

★★★★

Of the group of twelve pro wrestlers that Legend City has taken on, just over half are experienced. The others need more training. For that, Clarke explains, he’s going to have to import. “There’s Gary Williams, in the Maritimes, who trained with the Harts (as in, Brett the Hitman and family), there’s Mike Hughes, who’s about to tour Puerto Rico. We’re going to fly these gentleman in to give seminars for the boys every few months. And while they’re in town, I can use them for a show.”

One of the Legend City future wrestlers, Tim Kendell, has never even been in the ring before. He, like all who came before him, is paying his dues.

21-year-old Kendell is stocky, and has a chest like a barrel. He’s been hauling out the ring with the rest of the guys and tends to be the subject of a few more jibes.

“Tim’s got a long road ahead of him,” Clarke says, sitting back and chuckling, but looking pretty proud of young Kendell. “He’s got 6 to 8 months before he even puts on a pair of boots to get in. Until then, he’s gonna have to do what he’s doing today—set up, tear down, drive people around, put up posters, sell tickets, ring the bell. Whatever it takes to learn his craft. Then, once he gets in there, we’re gonna beat him up pretty bad, to see if he’s got a bit of respect for it. If he wants to stick with it after that, we’ll work on getting him ring ready.”

I ask Kendell if he’s sure he’s okay with all this. He gives me a confident nod. “It’s all part of it,” he says, all nonchalant. “You gotta pay your dues.”

Respect, says Clarke, is one of the main things he has to look for in any recruits. Respect and commitment. “It’s an investment,” says Clarke. “And most times, there aren’t many returns.”

Watching all these guys interact, it’s clear that those traits form the backbone of their relationship not just with each other, but with pro wrestling itself. Clarke routinely refers to trainers and seasoned pros as “gentlemen.” All the guys are well-versed in wrestling’s history. They speak reverently about the athleticism and entertaining skills of their favorite wrestlers. And though Kendell takes the odd ribbing, it’s in a brotherly way – it’s instantly clear that if someone gave him a legitimately hard time, that someone would be promptly and thoroughly regretful. Accordingly, Kendell, who is incredibly self-assured for someone so young, isn’t afraid to give it right back.

Within reason.

★★★★

The frame of the ring now stands mighty and assembled in the middle of the room. The thick metal poles gape inwards after years of supporting the weight of wrestlers launching themselves from the top ropes. The guys smack big wooden planks down on the frame, and pile in on top of them. Headlocks and drop kicks ensue. Bjorkdahl tosses Byrne down and farts on him. Roil gives Clarke’s arm a nasty twist and a flawless look of unbearable torture rips across Clarke’s boyish face. Guys are flipped and whacked onto the planks back-first.

The sound of them slamming into the wood is almost deafening. I have to yell at Nick to ask him if there’s supposed to be padding or on top of the board. He laughs. “Well, we’ll toss on those mats,” he says, prepping for a flying elbow and nodding to a stack of interlocking rubber mats. “We jump off the top ropes, we need them!”

He jumps and plants the elbow into Bjorkdahl.

The rubber mats Nick pointed to are only about an inch thick, and I realize that those thwacking noises you hear when a wrestler lands hard on the mat are the result of high-velocity flesh meeting some very real wooden boards.

No wonder Clarke’s mother can’t bring herself to watch any of his matches.

I’d been pretty worried about asking these guys about the whole pro-wrestling-is-a-sham issue and how they feel about UFC fighters and fans trashing their trade for being “fake.” I couldn’t imagine it does anything but suck for them.

I also wasn’t too keen on the idea of pissing off a group of pro wrestlers.

But they were surprisingly open about the whole issue. It’s the reality of the business, and they can’t really avoid it.

“The rivalry [between UFC fighters and pro wrestlers] is really on the Pay Per View level, not on this level,” Clarke says, dismissively. “I don’t think we need to worry about it right now.”

I ask him if he thinks a UFC fighter would say that what he did was fake, and whether he or she would be justified. “That would depend entirely on their perspective,” he shrugs. “This is real, but it’s choreographed realism. You’re still in there, flipping off ropes, landing from fifteen feet high on your back, and once in a while you’re going to get a punch in the face or a kick by mistake.”

“There’s this one move,” he adds, laughing, “a diving head butt from the top rope. That hurts.”

“Any gymnastics routine you see in the Olympics is choreographed and rehearsed,” Bjorkdahl points out. “They go out there, they’re athletes, it’s a sport. Well, I go out there, I beat the crap out of someone, I get thrown to the floor, I get real martial arts submission holds put on me that I’m going to try and break and then do it to my opponent. But to everyone, that’s fake.” He holds out his hands, palms-up, and shrugs.

“It’s been kinda shitty with all these reality shows, and every Tom, Dick and Harry that wants to be a pro wrestler or ultimate fighter is wrestling in his backyard,” he continues. “It really took away from that mysterious aspect of pro wrestling, when everyone thought it was a real competition.”

The actual amount of choreography involved has to be kept to a minimum. A successful match incorporates a good amount of improvisation. The wrestlers are constantly communicating with one another, and always need to be aware of the crowd’s responses. “New guys will plan steps and they’ll try and pull off almost a dance in the ring,” he says. “I try and get them out of that. With Andrew and I, if the fans aren’t reacting, he’ll flip me over and put me in a headlock and say ‘let’s change this up.’ We’ll cater to the fans instead of having the fans cater to us, but it takes a lot of time and skill to get that comfortable.”

★★★★

Clarke, a downtown bartender, is not looking to Legend City Wrestling to replace his job any time soon. “That’s a long ways down the road yet,” he says.

In the short term, he wants to set up a permanent practice spot and regular seminars for him and the guys. He’s happy to put the time in and produce some quality wrestlers for Legend City. Then, when they’re ready, they’ll start touring the island.

“There is a future for this here in Newfoundland,” he says. “There are a few shows that come by once in a while, but there might only be twenty shows a year in the whole province.”

As a result, he says, the audiences here haven’t been exposed to much live pro wrestling. “The fans here are not as wise,” he says. “Some towns you go to, the fans actually believe its real. It’s crazy. Even in some of the bigger towns. You’ll run into someone in the store and they’ll be all like “I can’t believe it, are you okay?”

Bjorkdahl has experienced the same thing. According to him, since Sailor White passed away, there haven’t been any pro wrestling schools in the province. That’s kept the newer, spectacle-laden styles, and the accompanying disillusionment of the fans, from seeping in. “Newfoundland is different from the rest of Canada in that it’s still 1984, 1983 in terms of pro wrestling,” he explains. “That’s not an insult, it’s a comment about how people here love their professional wrestling. There’s not a lot of that cynicism about it. People start crying if you get attacked with a chair. They’ll come up to you on the street and say ‘Hey, you’re so and so!’ St. John’s is cool in that we could still turn it back to what it was before, the opportunity really is there.”

They’re focused on maintaining that mid-80s golden age attitude, and encouraging that appreciation for classic wrestling, clean moves, good characters and graceful athleticism—essentially, wrestling as an art. Both worked briefly with RPW and toured the island. The crowds, they say, were extremely responsive to their style. “We got those kind of ‘Wow, did you SEE that?’ reactions,” says Bjorkdahl. “That’s what we want.”

So on one hand, pro wrestling’s spotty history in this province does look discouraging, what with the small audiences, the logistical hurdles posed by the region’s geography, and the trail of failed promotional outfits. But on the other hand, Clarke and Bjorkdahl see it as a way to reinstate wrestling’s good name, and good sport, and to bring it back to the respectable, good guy era of Hulk Hogan.

“You get to go out there and entertain people,” says Bjorkdahl with a big grin. “When kids see you, you’re larger than life to them, you’re a role model. So I say the right things, I don’t get in trouble with the law, and I behave appropriately when I go downtown.”

When the guys are done goofing around in the ring, they all climb out and stand around it, giving it one last look over. The first Legend City match is on the 26th and the ring needs to stand up to it.

“There’s not a thing wrong with it boys,” says Clarke, arms crossed and all smiles.

★★★★

Legend City Wrestling, April 26th, Junction’s, McMurdo’s Lane 9:30 pm bell time, tickets $10, IDs for 19 required. Hosted by K-Rock’s Big Tom. Main event—Legend City Street Fight: Lance Romance vs. Too Damn Hype / JX Phlexx vs. “Nsty” Nick / Sheik Aziz vs. Matt Burns / DC Money vs. Peter Walley / Loco vs. Mike Burry / Kris Krimzon vs. Blake Maxwell and a 10 man BATTLE ROYAL, with the winner earning a spot in the upcoming Legend City Wrestling Championsip Tournament, which will take place throughout the summer.

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