I love professional wrestling.
I started watching WWE two years ago, and while it began as a guilty pleasure, I developed an interest in its history and both its international and local independent promotions.
Eventually, I began to appreciate how demanding it was to create engaging stories through the medium.
The appeal of pro wrestling is obviously not in its “reality”. Wrestling weaves effective storytelling while constantly maintaining a suspension of disbelief. Performers can achieve this without any dialogue or detailed plot, it is first and foremost, physical storytelling.
I’m satisfied with my explanation for why I enjoy it, but it’s still a lonely hobby. You’re not going to find a lot of people, especially on a university campus, who openly discuss their love for wrestling.
Then I learned about Battle Arts Academy in Mississauga, a gym and wrestling academy founded by a former WWE Intercontinental Champion, US Champion, Tag Team Champion Santino Marella aka Anthony Carelli.
Just as I was beginning to realize my love for the craft, I learned that one of the Silhouette’s frequent contributors, Hess Sahlollbey, was training to be a wrestler at Marella’s school. After almost a year, I finally took him up on his offer to see the school for myself, just days before its biggest show of the year: Summer Sizzle.
Learning the ropes
Sahlollbey is a PhD candidate student and Ancaster resident who has trained with Battle Arts since 2014. Like many others, he began as a fan of Anthony Carelli,
“I remember them saying on TV that he had a school to learn how to wrestle. Eventually the thought of not doing the thing drove me crazy so I signed up,” said Sahlollbey.
If you’re an up-and-coming wrestling student… you want to prepare for the type of wrestling that’s going to be popular by the time you make it.
Making the leap into actually learning MMA, boxing and judo in order to build a foundation for pro wrestling gave Sahlollbey a unique athletic challenged to compliment the challenges in his academic work.
“Learning all the little steps and moves, storytelling — all that hard-work slowly ‘clicks’ into place with time and practice. That gave me a greater appreciation for the art. [It] drives me to want to keep learning and growing,” said Sahlollbey.
While he is most famous for his comedic WWE character, Carelli is a black belt in judo, and trained under the founder of the Japanese BattlARTS school, Yuki Ishikawa. Carelli helped Ishikawa move to Canada in order to work at a new Battle Arts school.
“Immediately the lightbulb went off and I [said] ‘God man, there are so many young talented Canadian athletes that can benefit from his expertise and knowledge.’ He is literally a walking encyclopedia and, to be honest, a dying breed,” said Carelli.
An MMA and wrestling master, Ishikawa trained under “the God of Wrestling” Karl Gotch.
Carelli believes that a MMA-oriented style of wrestling will be one of the directions that the WWE product will go draw from in the next few years.
“If you’re an up-and-coming wrestling student… you want to prepare for the type of wrestling that’s going to be popular by the time you make it. We just put all our money on this style and we love it,” he explained.
The prestige of the school’s instructors eventually attracted former McMaster football player James Singleton. Singleton is now known in the ring by his more pompous persona “James Runyan”, after he chose to pursue wrestling following his four years with the Marauders.
“When you’re an athlete and competitor you always have that inside you when I stopped playing football I needed another outlet,” said Singleton.
After making his way to Battle Arts following his initial training with famed Canadian wrestling instructor Lance Storm in Calgary, Singleton eventually was rewarded the Battle Arts Heavyweight championship.
“It’s no secret that the matches are predetermined, so when the promoter puts their heavyweight title on me they are basically saying that I am the face of the promotion,” Singleton explained.
“It’s a big responsibility but it’s also a professional achievement… it’s a huge accomplishment as a professional and very humbling that people that have accomplished more things in this business than I have put that designation on me.
Singelton made it apparent from the beginning that his craft and his fellow students should convey a level of respect and dignity while maintaining the kind of enthusiasm that you would expect from dedicated fans.
After I was introduced to him, Singleton insisted that I introduce myself and shake the hand of every wrestler, a tradition maintained in wrestling locker rooms throughout history.
Before demonstrating some basic movements in the ring, he made a point to explain the ritual of wiping one’s feet before they enter the ring as a sign of respect for the place where you and your colleagues make their living.
Ultimately, the end goal for Singleton and many of the students of Battle Arts is to turn their passion and love for competition into a financially sustainable career.
Battle Arts is one of the few schools that get to perform in their own shows, giving students much needed performance experience before they even begin wrestling their careers in smaller independent promotions.
The students of Battle Arts put on a tremendous and stacked performance during their culminating pay-off show, but it was observing all the little tweaks and corrections that took place during Carelli’s class that reinforced how difficult it was for young, athletic talents to maintain a certain logic and drama in the match.
A tag match can easily devolve into a glorified singles match if the wrestlers forget to implement classic tag match psychology: bad guys cheat, create a 2 on 1 situation andtease the good guys’ inevitable reversal. They eventually overcome the odds and tag in their fresh, and ready partner.
Learning all the little steps and moves, storytelling — all that hard-work slowly ‘clicks’ into place with time and practice. That gave me a greater appreciation for the art.
If the referee is out of sync with the hectic action in the ring, the authenticity of the match can fall apart. The interest and engagement of the crowd is another important consideration.
Following their practice session, almost every student continued to go over spots in their matches, rethought the organization of their matches, practiced moonsaults, dropkicks and running knee strikes on punching bags and crash mats.
Sahlollbey recalled several occasions where he has been at the gym until midnight with his classmates. It was just two days before Summer Sizzle. This was probably another one of those nights.
The Pay Off
Despite some frustrations with their rehearsal, each one of those wrestlers delivered incredible performances when the bell rang that Saturday.
The crowd had its share of Battle Arts’ loyal fans, cheering on the characters and booing the villains that they had followed throughout the year.
Yet, each of the performers managed to connect with a crowd of many non-wrestling fans too: their loved ones who came out to see the result of their late hours of training
Battle Arts is a rare school that gives students the opportunity to perform in front of an audience. Despite all the complexities and technicalities of what makes a good match, wrestling is still all about its audience.
It’s demanding on one’s body and mind. It requires an increasing amount of real fighting experience and technical ability, but ultimately it is all about the audience.
These young wrestlers are working to give their audiences their best performance every time they enter the ring. Battle Arts and Carelli’s training ensures they will ensure that future audiences will want to see their ensuing work.