Although Real Pro Wrestling took place ten years ago, the timing seems perfect to take a look back at this early venture which provided amateur wrestlers with an opportunity to continue to compete in their sport, and earn some money doing it. In the past week, one of Real Pro Wrestling’s champs, Daniel Cormier, participated in a much-hyped mixed-martial arts title match at UFC 182 vs. Jon Jones… while one of the newer pro wrestling ventures, Agon Wrestling Championships, announced its Agon V event at University of Iowa in April, with a top-of-the-card match featuring former Hawkeye champ Brent Metcalf taking on 18-year-old Aaron Pico.
And, while most wrestling fans were following the action from the Midlands, Southern Scuffle and the first-ever Aloha Open, a popular MMA website took an in-depth look back at Real Pro Wrestling. In an end-of-December 2014 article titled “The League of Supermen”, MMAFighting.com’s Shaun Al-Shatti served up a 7,000-word exploration of Real Pro Wrestling, the pro wrestling venture from 2005 that is the granddaddy of today’s similar products such as Agon, Global Wrestling Championships, Flo Premier League, and Tour ACW (Association of Career Wrestlers).
The subhead set the stage for the direction of the article: “For eight surreal weeks a decade ago, amateur wrestling became must-see TV. And for its breakout stars, men like Cormier, (Mo) Lawal, and (Pat) Cummins, it became the start of something more.” And while the story focuses on these three former college wrestlers and RPW finalists who now compete in MMA, Al-Shatti provides a fascinating, detailed, inside perspective on Real Pro Wrestling that will help fans of amateur wrestling, RPW, and more recent pro ventures gain new insights into the sport and its athletes.
“Over a decade after its inception, Real Pro Wrestling (or RPW) still stands today as amateur wrestling’s most successful crack at gaining traction in the United States with a professional league,” Al-Shatti wrote in the first paragraphs of his MMAFighting.com piece. “The work of Northwestern wrestlers Toby Willis and Matt Case, RPW is admittedly dated by modern standards. But those squealing guitar riffs, gladiatorial digs, and late-‘90s visual flairs, son, those were defiant in their day.” (Italics theirs.)
For those unfamiliar with Real Pro Wrestling, forget your notions of today’s WWE, with roped-off rings, soap-opera storylines, pre-determined outcomes, and action that bears no resemblance to what you see at a collegiate dual meet. The action in Real Pro Wrestling resembled a supercharged version of amateur wrestling, drawing from various styles (including a then-revolutionary sumo-style push-out rule), where the participants wore fight shorts instead of singlets (all except the heavyweights, who stayed with the singlets, much to the consternation of Pat Cummins, the former Penn State big man, among others), and got paid for doing it.
Kenny Johnson, a former Olympic wrestling hopeful who is now a stockbroker, joined Willis and Case in making Real Pro Wrestling a reality. “We wanted to make this production out of wrestling that had never been done,” Johnson told MMAFighting.com. “We wanted to showcase the athletes and we wanted to get them paid. I believed in it 100 percent. I still do. If they wanted to restart it right now, I’d give up exactly what I’m doing and go back to it. [RPW] wasn’t something we looked at as, ‘we’re going to build this business and be millionaires.’ It was a business we built to give back to wrestling. To make wrestling rich again.”
“We thought it was the start of something huge,” Cormier, an NCAA finalist for Oklahoma State who was a two-time U.S. Olympic team member, said of his experience on Real Pro Wrestling. “We thought this was something massive. We’d never seen anything like this before. We’d never been on TV for eight weeks in a row. It was everywhere, man. When I tell you that guys would go across the country — they had tryouts for it where guys would actually leave home, go to these tryouts because they wanted to be involved. It was crazy. We all knew: this was an opportunity to make serious money.”
Even for fans who religiously watched Real Pro Wrestling every week on cable TV for eight straight weeks in the spring of 2005, the MMAFighting.com story serves up incredible new details. For instance, Al-Shatti takes readers inside a meeting of the 56 wrestlers and RPW creators to pin down the rules for the series, with arguments that went beyond what the wrestlers would wear – a contentious issue of its own – to discuss the idea of allowing submissions. (Realize that RPW came about during a time when Ultimate Fighting Championships and other MMA ventures were struggling with a reputation as being bloody and violent; in fact, MMA was outlawed in a number of states.)
For this RPW fan, one of the most fascinating elements Al-Shatti explores is the WWE-ish pro rasslin’ “heel” factor injected into the pre- and post-match interviews – and sometimes, the matches themselves — by some of the contestants, including Lawal and Cormier, who both competed for the Oklahoma Slam, one of the eight teams competing on Real Pro Wrestling. “No stone was left unturned as the Slam borrowed from their love of professional wrestling, playing up larger-than-life caricatures of themselves,” Al-Shatti wrote. “Every opponent they faced, that wrestler heard it. Every interview they conducted, that sound byte was golden. It broke every unwritten rule of wrestling, but as the show went on and the victories piled up, everything about the Slam grew more ostentatious.”
One prime example covered in fascinating detail was the 96 kilogram/211-pound RPW finals match between Cormier and Tommy Rowlands, two-time NCAA heavyweight champ for Ohio State, and, to use pro rasslin’ parlance, a “face.” “He was one of the best college kids coming out,” Cormier, a member of the 2004 Olympic team, told MMAFighting.com. “He was the guy who was supposed to be one of the guys that could actually compete against me, which probably put him in a weird space. Because now he’s not only having to wrestle the No. 1 guy in the country, but because people have built him up so much as my rival… I want to smash him even more.”
Here’s how Al-Shatti described the Cormier-Rowlands finale: “It was as one-sided as they come. In a result that could only be compared to a lion playing with its food, Cormier hunkered down and slowly, physically dominated Rowlands for two full periods until Rowlands became a passive and reactive shell, a vessel simply for the Olympian to whoop on. At one point the announcers dismissed a desperate Rowlands takedown as a ‘baby shot.’ And then came the embarrassment. With less than a minute on the clock and Rowlands being shut out 0-3, the youngster shot deep on a last-gasp double, only to end up flat on the mat, Cormier gleefully riding his back like a child might ride a pony… Enter: corporal punishment… Six times Cormier spanked Rowlands. Hard on the ass like he’d talked back instead of finishing his supper. Unheard of in wrestling.” (See the photo above, snapped at the moment just before the spanking.)
The MMAFighting.com article provides a larger-than-life look back at Real Pro Wrestling that’s worth reading for fans who fondly remember watching RPW in 2005… or are fans of today’s offspring of RPW such as Agon and Flo Premier League. Together with an October 2014 look back at RPW from amateur wrestling website InterMat that includes the reminiscences of wrestler (now American University head coach) Teague Moore and wrestling photographer Danielle Hobeika – both who hint at the pro rasslin’ heel flavoring injected by some of the participants — the two articles serve up a detailed perspective on the pro wrestling venture from ten years ago that indeed spawned a new league of superheroes, to quote an RPW advertising slogan. And, from this advertising copywriter’s perspective… perhaps one of the new pro wrestling ventures could differentiate itself from the other similar products by encouraging the heel/face tension in some of its matches.