“I didn’t have weights at home or access to a gym at the time, so I started loading up a duffle bag and doing exercises with it.”
It is with great pleasure that I introduce our very first guest in our Interview series- Brandon Thurston. Brandon’s interview went extremely well and came out better than I could have ever hoped for. What started off as your typical run-off-the mill Q&A, ended up becoming a conversation. Brandon was willing to share his expertise and advice on what it takes to make it in professional wrestling. He was very detailed in his responses and took the time to share his thoughts on the wrestling industry.
Brandon Thurston is also a writer and the head trainer of the Grapplers Anonymous school in Lackawanna, New York. If you’re an up-and-coming independent wrestler, I strongly suggest that you take the time to read Brandon’s thoughts and advice. Ladies and gentleman, I give to you the transcript of this insightful conversation.
Thanks for taking the time to do this interview Brandon. Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself? Outside of wrestling, who is Brandon Thurston?
Really most of what I do is related to wrestling. I’m a wrestling writer, trainer and wrestler.
Were you a fan of pro wrestling growing up? If so, what was your earliest memory of watching pro wrestling?
I’ve been a fan of wrestling more or less as long as I can remember. I have some vague memories of WrestleMania 6 in 1990. My big first memory though is Summerslam 1991, which I must’ve watched live and rewatched many times on Betamax.
Wow. I’ve never ever seen a Betamax! When did you decide to become a wrestler? Who or what was your inspiration?
I started training to become a wrestler when I was 18. I’m not sure when I decided to become a wrestler. I remember hearing an interview with Tommy Dreamer when I was 16 or 17 where he recommended kids who want to be wrestlers should start working out now. I didn’t have weights at home or access to a gym at the time, so I started loading up a duffle bag and doing exercises with it.
Very resourceful. Where did you receive your training and who were you trained by? Describe your training. Was it anything like you expected? Were you prepared for what awaited you?
I sort of think independent wrestling as we know it today started around 2002. I started in 2003. These were primitive days for indie wrestling compared to today. My training was okay. The group of wrestlers I went to train with already had some training from someone who taught them incorrectly. They were doing things like applying right-sided headlocks and arm wringers to the right arm. Just before I started training, those trainers left and a new trainer came in who was properly trained and provided better training. Later on I got some training from the All Knighters, a Canadian tag team: Joey Knight, Kevin Grace and “Sexy Monkey” Robin Knightwing. Beth Phoenix also came with them occasionally to train us. This would be before she went to OVW. Training wasn’t overly shocking or surprising. Like I said I see it as primitive days of indie wrestling at least around here and everyone had started around the same time. There wasn’t a lot of traveling or much of a hierarchy, so it’s not like there was a lot of access to people who had different levels of experience, besides the people who were training us.
Very insightful response. It sounds a lot similar to my training situation, so I definitely can relate. You’ve wrestled primarily for Empire State Wrestling, how instrumental were they in your development as a worker?
I don’t know, pretty central I guess. “ESW” is where I started training too. It was like a big friend group when I started and much less about becoming a successful pro wrestler. Nobody thought much about traveling and wrestling in other places and getting around as an indie wrestler. Before social media we were pretty insulated and unaware of other indie promotions.
Over the years, ESW has booked some pretty big names- some of which you got to work with. In 2015, you wrestled Chris Hero. How awesome was that?
I’m not sure how to feel about it. He was great of course. I wanted to give a better performance than the one I gave.
I think you’re being hard on yourself. I saw the match and I enjoyed it. Just out of curiosity, how much of his elbows and kicks connect? They look quite deadly sometimes.
He was very safe with me. I have no memory of anything being stiff. When he elbows Mikey though at the end, Mikey says he leaned into it too much and he took it hard.
Ouch! So now, I guess, at this point in your career your focus is more on giving back to wrestling. In 2014 (if my memory is right) you founded the Grapplers Anonymous wrestling school. What made you decide to open up your own school?
I didn’t actually start it. It was started by two guys named Andy and CJ who own a successful business who are big supporters of indie wrestling and were directly involved in indie wrestling at times. They knew there was no decent place to train in the Buffalo area so they got a ring and leased the building we’re in now, basically giving it to Mikey and his brother Kris to manage. A few months after it opened, I started going and I ended up becoming the trainer by default. But anyway, I’m really motivated to do this because I want to give people quality training that they haven’t had access to in this area in over 10 years, if ever. I believe most of the best wrestlers from Buffalo, within a few years, are going to be those who got their training at our school, if that’s not the case already.
Thanks for clearing that up. Who are some of the names that have trained or passed through Grapplers Anonymous? Any names we should be on the lookout for in the near future?
Kevin Blackwood got his training from scratch at our school. He’s become good quickly and has a unique look and a good mind and is in shape. Another Kevin, Kevin Bennett has been wrestling for several years but I like to take credit for his training too.Andy Williams got some of his training at our school. He’s had matches for Smash and is advertised for AIW. He’s in the band Everytime I Die and is very well connected.Pepper Parks/Braxton Sutter is helping with some of the training now too.We had seminars with Chris Hero, Ethan Page, Bill Collier as well. Lex Luger stopped by once and talked to everyone and gave feedback on matches. Another one of our students, Daniel Garcia is starting to get good. He needs to put on some weight though.
I recently reviewed a SMASH Wrestling event and Kevin Blackwood really stood out in the opening match. Bennett is a very talented wrestler as well. Very charismatic. Andy Williams also had an impressive showing at Wrestlemania weekend this year for Joey Janela’s Springbreak. So that pretty much speaks to the quality of your training and the Grapplers Anonymous school. What separates Grapplers Anonymous from the other schools in the area, or even across the U.S.?
We have a tryout that you have to pass, for one. Most schools are businesses first. They take anyone, regardless of how much hope the new student has to become a pro wrestler. They just want to acquire and maintain as many students as possible to make as much money as possible. I think that usually makes for a worse training environment. Our school is now breaking even, despite our approach. I try to build each wrestler up with fundamentals. There’s a list of fundamentals on the wall and I go through it and try to make sure the student is taught each fundamental move on the list. They need to demonstrate competent fundamentals before starting to have practice matches. I think that’s one thing our school has excelled at and we’ve gotten some compliments on is that our students have good fundamentals.
I firmly believe that many schools only exist to provide a source of revenue for the promotion itself or the trainer. Give us the details about the school. How much does it cost and often are classes?
Right now tryout is $30. Monthly training is $80. We’re open 4 days a week. Sundays at 2pm. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at 6pm.Single sessions are $20. Anyone who’s starting their training should be coming in 3-4 times a week for at least the first few months
Now you mentioned fundamentals. Just how important is mastering the fundamentals before you move on to moves and spots? A lot of guys come into wrestling school with a move set and a character in mind, before even taking their first fall. Why are the basics so important?
Actually I would say fundamentals and moves and spots are one-in-the-same. What I mean by that is… good fundamentals doesn’t just mean knowing how to do a move correctly. Good fundamentals are a holistic thing. Having good fundamentals means being able to execute a spot (probably a simple one) in a way that looks believable, athletic and exciting — while also being safe. So when I teach, yeah, I will say “Okay, let’s learn a bodyslam” but I also have students integrate the moves they’ve learned into a spot or sequence. And eventually I have them come up with the sequence themselves so they start exercising the creativity that’s necessary for putting together matches. The basics are important because, I don’t know, first, practically speaking WWE cares a lot about them. And if that’s your ultimate goal, you need to have good fundamentals. But objectively I think they’re important because a pro wrestling performance is ultimately built on an audience’s suspension of disbelief. Good fundamentals are the foundation of securing that suspension of disbelief. An audience usually needs to see action that’s believable within some context or set of rules. And of course above all, safety. If you have bad fundamentals, if you don’t know how to execute, you don’t know how to feed, you don’t know how to have good footwork, you’re more at risk of injury your opponent and yourself.
I think another thing that makes us different is I think differently than a lot of people in wrestling who hand out advice and training. I think there’s a lazy habit within wrestling culture of too-readily accepting the culture and knowledge handed to us by previous generations. I think, with anything, we need to look at wrestling anew. Yes we need to listen to the advice of those who came before; they have valuable advice. But I also believe wrestling is constantly changing with every event. Being a successful wrestler depends on understanding a given wrestling audience. A given wrestling audience is different in every time and place. Because that I think we need to, yes listen to advice, but also think for ourselves. What worked 20 years ago is not necessarily what will work today. Large parts of wrestling culture are build on a loutish custom, in my opinion, of deference to elders rather than using critical thought. We teach wrestlers what to think rather than teaching them how to think. We deal in aphoristic rules rather than tentative strategies. I believe this goes deep and the industry has suffered at every level due to this mentality: economically, aesthetically and morally. I think this is manifested in how students sometimes ask questions. Not that they shouldn’t ask questions, of course. You always need to learn and ask questions. But some students are too deferential. We have overcorrected in my opinion for a lot of the old worker problems. We have students asking questions without assuming there’s any way to use logic on their own to determine the answer. Wrestling wisdom is not exclusively locked up in the minds of veteran wrestlers; it can be revealed simply by thinking critically as well. On the other hand, everything I just said is super dangerous advice if you’re not smart. If you don’t have the brains or maturity to think intelligently on your own, you can use the advice I just said as a recommendation to do whatever you want and do bad wrestling. There’s a subtlety and moderation in what I’m saying that’s hopefully coming across.
I couldn’t have said it any better myself. With such a holistic approach to training, and such sound advice, The Grapplers Anonymous school sounds like the best value around right now. For those who are interested, what can they expect from a tryout?
Basically it’s a lot of calisthenics and cardio. Push-ups, squats, squat thrusts, wall sits, stair climbing, stair climbing with a heavy bag over your shoulder, a lot more calisthenics. An entire deck of cards if you know what that means.
Is it like the deck of cards workout app on your phone?
Probably. For each card you do a number of reps. Red suits are squats. Black suits are push-ups. Jacks are 15 squat thrusts. Face cards are 10. Aces, 15. To pass you basically just need to complete the tryout in a reasonable amount of time without quitting
Yep. That’s exactly it. The tryout sounds tough, so it has to take a lot of determination to survive at Grapplers Anonymous. Who can interested persons contact?
They can message our Facebook page Tryouts can be scheduled or you can just walk-in. Or you can visit before doing a tryout
Sounds good. Well Brandon, that pretty much brings us to the end of this interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add? Anything you’d like to plug? Closing comments?
Sure. I also do a great deal of research and writing, mostly related to wrestling business. That can be read at Fightful.com or you can see a list of my articles in reverse chronological order athttp://www.fightful.com/authors/brandon-howard. I also have started doing a podcast called Wrestlenomics Radio with Chris Harrington, who’s another well-respected wrestling writer with a focus on business. Link to that is https://audioboom.com/channel/wrestlenomics-radio or just search for it on iTunes or whatever you use to download podcasts.
Alright Brandon, I will definitely be checking those out. Once again, thanks for taking the time to do this. I wish you and the rest of the team at Grapplers Anonymous all the best.
You can follow Brandon Thurston on Twitter @BrandonThurston
Be sure to check out the Grapplers Anonymous wrestling school