"When did you realize you wanted to become a professional wrestler?" That's the question I get asked the most. In passing. At the gym. Online. During interviews. It seems like I always give a different answer. Not because I mean to, but because I just really don't know the right answer. That is, until I was reminded on a trip I just took.
It was sometime in 1995 in beautiful southern California. I lived in a small house in an even smaller city (which has since exploded) called Rancho Cucamonga. I was a 12 year old boy who loved all things sports, mainly basketball and of course professional wrestling. Wrestling had actually taken kind of a step back at the time. My main interest was the Chicago Bulls where my favorite player Michael Jordan played at the time. Almost my entire childhood, WWF was the only thing I watched but for a short period of time I swore I would become the next John Stockton. One day, me, my brothers and a few of our friends begged my parents to take us to the local comic book shop where we collected NBA trading cards. We were regular visitors of the store. However, this trip turned out to be a little different than the others. I remember running up to the glass door of the shop and seeing the WWF logo and a bunch of familiar faces on a colorful poster. Wide-eyed and with my jaw nearly on the floor, I started to mentally name off each persons picture that I saw. "Razor Ramon! Sid Vicious! Diesel! Shawn Michaels! 123 Kid!" I was losing my mind. "And they're coming to my town!?" Of course I was going to be there no matter what, even though the poster read that the show was months away from happening. My dad (who actually was the original person to introduce me to professional wrestling when I was a baby) had to be one of the first people to grab tickets for the entire family after I made my plea. It didn't take much though, as my dad has always been a fan. I remember counting down the days and minutes to the event. Every day I'd tell my mom, "only so and so more days until WWF!"
Finally, time came to go to my very first live wrestling event. I remember it being a really hot day, but that didn't bother me one bit. The show was going to be held out-doors at a small stadium where the local minor league baseball team the Quakes played. My family and I were all under the impression that we were attending a taping of Monday Night Raw. After all, that’s what it said on the ticket stub. I wouldn't find out until later that it was just the name they gave their house show tour at the time. We got to the outside of the small stadium with posters in our hands (that we made days earlier) and saw a bunch of other wrestling fans. Some dressed up in Bret Hart costumes, some holding championship belts and many with hand made signs just like us. I remember my dad looking around this strange environment and saying, "Wow. I didn't realize this many people actually watched wrestling." We made our way into the building and right away I started recognizing faces even then. I smiled as I saw Dave and Earl Hebner pass by. "What are they doing out here with us fans? I remember thinking. (Earl has now refereed several of my matches). We made our way to our seats by walking up the steps. I took one step and looked up. Still more steps to go. I took a few more steps and looked up. Still more steps. Finally, I made it to the top and peaked out to a beautiful scene. I was astonished. It was a World Wrestling Federation ring and it was unreal. I wanted to run down and get into that thing so bad. "I wonder what it feels like?" I thought. I kept envisioning myself jumping off the top rope like Shawn, or entering the ring through the middle rope like Bret. We took to our seats which were luckily right by the entrance.
The small building would finally fill up, but looking back, there couldn't have been more than 2,500 people there. At the time, it looked like a million. When the bell rang, I popped and stood to my feet - the very place I'd be unfortunately for the people behind me, the entire course of the night. The show was underway! I couldn't tell you the exact line-up by memory but I do remember 123 Kid wrestling Nikolai Volkoff first. My eyes followed absolutely every movement 123 Kid made from the time he walked through the curtain, to the time he walked back. I remember him spitting on the wall after the match on his way back and seeing a web of blood. "There is proof! I knew this was real!" I thought to myself.
The show continued and so did my excitement. One after another, my favorite wrestlers would come through the curtain. I remember the highlight of the entire show was when Shawn Michaels ACTUALLY gave me a high-five! I bragged about this for sometime. (years later, I'd sit in WWE catering with him and share a 20 minute conversation). I remember someone accidentally leaving the curtain half open and spotting the biggest villain at the time, Yokozuna smiling and playing with a child backstage. "What was that all about!?" I remembered thinking. I quickly forced myself to erase it out of my mind. Any thought of pro-wrestling being fake at the time had to be dismissed immediately no matter how much my uncles would tease me about it. "Ya know that stuffs phony though right Baby-Matt?" I'd roll my eyes and walk away. (I was called “Baby Matt” for multiple years by various family members in order to differentiate myself from my father. Even well into my teens).
Another highlight was seeing Diesel wrestle Razor Ramon. Diesel was the biggest guy I'd ever seen, and Razor looked like an absolute rock star with all of that gold dripping from his tanned body. He even happened to have the Intercontinental belt with him! It was so surreal. For some reason, I remember having to convince my sister DJ the whole night that these were the ACTUAL wrestlers. Throughout the night, she kept saying into my ear, "Oh, by the way, that's not really so and so. The real so and so wouldn't be here." I think she was finally convinced after her and my dad accidentally ran into Adam Bomb on the way to the restroom and had a short conversation with him.
The show would end eventually, but a special meet and greet with the wrestlers was announced over the loud speaker. I begged my parents, and they obliged. We soon made it over to the area that this was taking place and it was packed. I saw a bunch of the superstars shaking hands and signing autographs with the fans. My dad muttered something about traffic and we were soon on our way back to the parking lot. I was heart broken. I still have heat over that, dad.
I remember laying in bed that night unable to sleep because of all the excitement. I couldn't get the images of everything I saw that day out of my head. At 12 years old, I knew what I was going to do when I grew up.
Me and my brother are currently on board a plane headed back home from a three day house show loop. We wrestled in Lincoln, Sioux City and Brookings for TNA Wrestling. Three different cities from three different states in three days. Oddly enough, one of the guys we wrestled all three nights was Kevin Nash (Diesel). Wrestling Kevin was something that I personally never imagined ever happening. It was just... freaken awesome. After the second night of the loop, Kevin asked us where we were from. "We're from a city in southern California called Rancho Cucamonga," I answered. "Oh yeah. We did a show or two at the baseball stadium out there." I couldn't believe he remembered. He shared a couple of stories about it being so hot out that day that 123 Kid came backstage and told the rest of the boys that he may have suffered a third degree burn from the heat of the mat. For him, wrestling in Rancho Cucamonga at the Quakes Stadium was probably just another town on a never ending tour of shows. But for me, it was the day I found out that I was going to be a professional wrestler.
So now any time I'm asked, "When did you realize you wanted to become a professional wrestler?" My answer will be, "I was 12 years old and saw my first wrestling show at a minor league baseball stadium in the same town I was raised."
I now stand from the ring using my hand as a visor, looking out into the crowd from the opposite side and wonder if there are any kids out there that are going to be just like me?