In a 2016 interview with WWE.com, Mike Quackenbush reflected on a study in which fewer than 2% of self-identified wrestling fans could name a promotion other than WWE, suggesting that, if this figure were true, it meant that he had spent his adult life “labouring in obscurity”, doubting whether his passions had any real value, if they impacted on people, if they made a difference.
In 2019, as Quackenbush celebrates his 25th anniversary in the wrestling business, he has taken on a role as an occasional trainer/producer for WWE’s Performance Center and NXT brand, and wrestlers who have trained under him or shared the ring with him can be found on the rosters of WWE, AEW, NJPW, Impact Wrestling, ROH and everywhere in-between, while the likes of Sasha Banks have endorsed his work as a teacher through his podcast Kayfabe 2.0, and book 7 Keys to Becoming a Better Performer – A Book For Fellow Pro-Wrestlers, you’d be hard pressed to argue that the man hasn’t made his mark on the landscape of professional wrestling.
On a personal note, I have been lucky to spend a short amount of time learning from Mike Quackenbush at a seminar some years ago in Wolverhampton, and it was Quackenbush’s work with CHIKARA that reinvigorated my love of professional wrestling – and opened my eyes to its diversity as a medium – at a time when I was beginning to fall out love with what Quack has termed “live combat theatre”, and questioning whether it still had anything to offer me. It is Quackenbush’s interpretation of professional wrestling, and CHIKARA’s presentation of those ideas, that has most overtly, and most consistently, informed my own.
Ah, CHIKARA. For many, Mike Quackenbush and the promotion he formed back in 2002 are synonymous. As well as a world-renowned independent wrestling promotion, and a platform on which trainees of the Wrestle Factory can earn their stripes, CHIKARA often feels like Quack’s personal playground, a backdrop on which he can project his most ambitious ideas as to what is possible in professional wrestling. Sometimes this takes the form of ambitious storylines spanning several years, multiple promotions, and a litany of supplementary material in the form of blogs, “secret” YouTube channels and websites with no immediate connection to CHIKARA, or to pro-wrestling at all, or stories of time travel, ancient Norse artefacts and supervillainy that owe more to the tradition of comic books than to any antecedent in the world of wrestling. Sometimes, though, CHIKARA has felt like Quack’s own personal wrestling history lesson – a way to educate his audience as to what came before, and the impact it has had on CHIKARA, and on wrestling as a whole; it’s under these auspices that CHIKARA were able to book the legendary Manami Toyota for her first ever US appearances, to bring World of Sport veteran Johnny Saint to new shores and a whole new generation of fans, and to put the spotlight on pioneers of modern wrestling perhaps underappreciated in the annals of wrestling criticism – with the likes of the 123 Kid and 2 Cold Scorpio being featured alongside modern high flyers in the Rey De Voladores tournament, drawing a line of ascension from the past masters to the stars of today in the imagination of the audience.
It’s for their storytelling, though, that CHIKARA stand alone among wrestling promotions. I could talk at length about the intricacies of storylines spanning years, with clues planted in innocuous promos, video packages or some lines of commentary years before their significance would come to light. Of stories of corporate takeovers, shutdowns by evil organisations that may or may not have been meddling in human experimentation and time travel, all presaged by an innocuous press release announcing a corporate acquisition some two years previously, to say nothing of the complete shutdown of the company that followed in the service of the narrative.
It’s this side of Mike Quackenbush that I think will provide his longest lasting legacy in the world of pro-wrestling. At Ignite Philly, Quackenbush’s speech “The Art of Pro Wrestling” asked what wrestling could achieve if it dared to move beyond the insistence on being viewed through the lens of sport, and asked what pro-wrestling might look like through the lens of, for example, science fiction, murder mystery, or ballet.
It’s a path that Quack has continued to tread, through projects like Takako vs. 9 Lives, a ballet interpretation of a typical pro-wrestling match, or his upcoming show, Shakespeare In The Square(d) Circle, a presentation of Shakespeare’s fight scenes through the medium of professional wrestling, and it’s a path that CHIKARA takes with every twist and turn of its narrative, and every subversion or innovation of conventional wrestling booking.
My interpretation of Mike Quackenbush’s adage that wrestling should be viewed through another lens, rather than the lens of sport, goes beyond the question of whether denying wrestling’s theatrical nature could be construed as insulting the audience’s intelligence. It is about putting the lie to the notion that, in order to be successful, and to garner an emotional response, wrestling needs to reflect reality. It does not – it needs to present truth.
Wrestling fans have long pointed to wrestlers’ athletic ability and credentials, and the litany of injuries they suffer, as evidence that what they do is far from “fake”, but this is a narrow view – in contrast to the old soundbite “this ain’t ballet”, as I’m sure Mike Quackenbush could now attest, ballet dancers attain supreme physical fitness and athletic ability, and withstand excruciating pain and physical injury in the pursuit of their art, and none of this is alleviated by the choreographed nature of their performance. The martial arts prowess of Bruce Lee was not diminished by him utilising it on the silver screen rather than in the dojo. To acknowledge the performative nature of an art form is in no way to downplay or demean the physical ability, and the physical risks, involved in its presentation.
The unique storytelling of CHIKARA has elicited genuine moments of emotion from its audience – tears and stunned silence when a beloved character is “killed off” by a dastardly heel, never to be seen again. That we know for a fact that the wrestler in question was, in reality, no more “killed” than Leonardo Di Caprio really drowned on the Titanic, the emotional truth of that moment is still valid. Because while stories may be fiction; stories, like wrestling, may not be “real” – but that doesn’t make them any less true.
So here’s to 25 years, and hopefully many more, of Mike Quackenbush – wrestler, entertainer, author, podcaster, teacher, mentor, but above all, storyteller.