To hear John Kobal tell it, Canada used to be a Mecca for professional wrestlers, but those days are long over.
“Well 10, 15, 20 years ago it was much bigger because people like us had talent.”
From the 1950’s through the 1980’s, Canadian wrestling companies like Toronto’s Maple Leaf Wrestling and Calgary’s Stampede Wrestling, packed in the crowds with “talent” that included Bret and Owen Hart, Davey Boy Smith and Ric Flair. All the regional companies in North America worked together; they had territories that allowed them to keep their stars and their fans coming back.
Then, in 1982, Vince McMahon, Jr. bought his father’s company, then known as the World Wrestling Federation, and expanded. As McMahon built his company into a billion-dollar behemoth, the small, regional companies fell on hard times and began to die out. “Vince kept coming in every time we had somebody that was good, he’d yank him out,” says Kobal. “That’s what happened to all of the other guys all over North America.”
Today, Kobal is the commissioner of a young, upstart company based in Lethbridge, Alberta, called Pure Power Wrestling. But it’s a tough go.
In October, 16×9 hit the road with Pure Power Wrestling for three shows in three nights.
The first stop was Brandon, Manitoba. After working their day jobs in their home town of Lethbridge, the wrestlers drove ten hours overnight to compete the following evening. They arrived in Brandon in the wee hours of the morning after their rental vehicle broke down. They got it fixed just a few hours before they had to prepare for the show.
There were no roadies or helpers on this tour. They planned and promoted the shows, assembled the massive wrestling ring and set up the sound system themselves. They even put all the chairs out. They do it all.
By showtime, and after all that work, no more than a couple dozen fans showed up. But the company’s founder was unfazed.
“It doesn’t matter who didn’t come,” says Ed Gatzky, who competes under the name “Gothic Knight.”
“We’re professionals, it’s about entertaining those who did come out to support [us].”
The business can take a painful physical toll. Gatzky has suffered concussions, a torn bicep, and a blood clot in his leg that frequently flares up.
“It’s like a throbbing, pulsating. It’s not a sharp pain it’s just a very continuous pulsating pain that’s just very aggravating.”
We watched as several wrestlers returned from the ring hobbling or grimacing in pain. While this style of wrestling is pre-determined, when something goes wrong real injuries happen. We find Jan-Scott Armstrong, aka “J.S. McStrongarm” in pain backstage after being slammed awkwardly onto a chair.
“My ribs,” he groans through clenched teeth. “Wrestling’s not fake, it’s just painful.”
Over three days, the wrestlers go without sleep, bruised and bloodied, only to perform for small crowds and a few dollars’ pay.
But nobody complains.
“It’s a passion you can’t express,” says Armstrong. “We did that five-hour drive [Brandon to Moose Jaw], my back hurts from getting beat up… but you do it for that jolt of adrenaline when you come through the curtain and get that jolt of adrenaline when 20 people cheer your name.”