This article was originally published in the Kingston Whig-Standard on Wednesday, December 12, 2013.
One thing becomes crystal clear when speaking with legendary pro wrestling trainer Ron Hutchison: the man was born to teach.
In his nearly 30-year career in and around professional wrestling, Hutchison has helped usher in some of the most successful and decorated wrestling superstars in history.
Stars such as Adam Copeland, a.k.a. Edge, Trish Stratus, Jason Reso (Christian), Gail Kim, Traci Brooks, Tiger Ali Singh, Joe E. Legend, Johnny Swinger and Beth Phoenix, to name some, all honed their skills under Hutchison.
On this day, this 15-year veteran wrestling columnist would be the latest in a long line of pupils who’ve had the pleasure of picking Hutchison’s brain.
It’s hard to believe, after spending an hour on the phone with the man, but there was a time when Hutchison himself, was the student.
“(After school) I used to go to my grandfather’s and watch (wrestling) with him,” Hutchison said when asked about his introduction to the business that would consume most of his life.
“I thought ‘woah, this is kind of neat.’ At that time, it would have been guys like Pampero Firpo, definitely The Shiek,” he recalled. “I remember watching it and just totally becoming enthralled with it, with the pageantry … with the athleticism … and I guess they call it storylines now. To me, it was good television and I liked it.”
His like would turn to love after witnessing the spectacle first-hand.
“I remember the first match I actually went to,” in the early or mid-’70s, he said. “The headline match was The Crusader, Dewey Robertson, against The Sheik, at the Maple Leaf Gardens. My father took me and I loved that.”
In those days, wrestling was commonplace at Maple Leaf Gardens , happening, according to Hutchison, every other Sunday. “I started talking (my dad) into taking me every two weeks.”
When he got older, Hutchison would step it up, attending Toronto Marlies games on Sunday afternoons, then stick around for some wrestling later that evening.
“(That’s) is how I met (future WWE referee) Jimmy Korderas actually, way before he entered the business.”
Hutchison’s love affair with wrestling wasn’t limited to watching it on TV or in person, however. His love ran much deeper.
“As I got older, I thought ‘you know, I’d like to do this,’ he said. So, at just the tender age of 16, he set out for the legendary Sully’s Gym in his hometown of Toronto, determined to become a pro wrestler.
“It scared the hell out of me,” Hutchison said of that first time at the famous boxing barn, “When I went, it was above an auto body garage on Ossington Avenue in the west end of Toronto. I went, checked it out, saw the boxers in there, hitting the heavy bags and I met Sully himself,” he said, describing the man, the late Earl “Sully” Sullivan, as “a guy with a heart of gold.”
“But he talked out of the side of his mouth, and had the flat nose from being broken, and kind of a gruff voice,” Hutchison said, admitting Sully “pretty much just scared the hell out of me.
“I talked to him for a little and I thought ‘maybe not, this may not be my cup of tea.’ ”
And so ended Hutchison’s first foray into becoming a pro wrestler.
But that wasn’t the three-count for Hutchison’s wrestling dream. He kicked out after a one-count.
“The dream never left me,” he said. “I kept watching it on TV and I thought ‘you know what, I’m going to try this again.’ ”
He took up amateur wrestling in high school, with one goal in mind: to become a pro wrestler.
“I ended up going back to Sully’s when I was 17,” Hutchison said. But at 17, he was a year shy of the prerequisite age to be trained.
“I went with my mother and we talked to Sully and Johnny Powers and basically, they said ‘well, we generally don’t start until they’re 18,’ but with my parents’ consent, I could train there. So I badgered them when I came home, and I remember my mother saying to me, ‘if this is what you really want to do, as long as you do well in school and get your way through school,’ she was OK with it.
“To make a long story short, I signed up there in 1981.”
From the first time he climbed into the ring, Hutchison, even at 150-odd pounds, commanded attention.
“They (said to) me ‘oh, get in the ring, you’re a little skinny, but get in…’ I actually went into an amateur wrestling tie-up,” he recalled. “They went ‘woah, woah, wait a minute, you’re an amateur wrestler,’ and they backed off.”
It was the beginning of a beautiful — and lasting — relationship.
“They liked me because I was pretty much willing to do anything,” Hutchison said. “I could bump for anybody and it was something that I loved, I definitely had a passion for and continue to have to this day, really.”
His in-ring career, which would see him wrestle under such monikers as Wonderboy, Pretty Boy and Masked Thunderbolt, lasted roughly five years but coincided quickly with his leap into the training side of things.
“I started at Sully’s in 1981, and in 1983, which was the same year I made my wrestling debut for the Bearman (Dave McKigney) up here, I also started training guys,” Hutchison said. “In 1983, Johnny Powers left Sully’s Gym and Sweet Daddy Siki asked me if I would help him train the guys, knowing my amateur wrestling experience. By that time, I (already had) my first match as a pro, and they always thought that I was fairly good. I was training guys while I was wrestling and it’s something that I never stopped doing.”
Hutchison’s in-ring career came to halt for a couple of reasons, he says, the first being the grind of the travelling schedule, the second being family.
“What really transitioned me out of the actual in-ring travelling part, as opposed to the training, is in 1988, I was on the East Coast and I got a phone call that my mother was very ill and they wanted me to come home,” he said. “I had to leave there and come back. My mother was in the hospital when I got home and shortly after that, she passed away,” he said, as the interview took a sombre turn.
Following his mother’s death, Hutchison worried a similar situation might happen with his father, so he made the decision to retire from active wrestling and focus his efforts on training.
His father would live another seven years after his mother’s death, and in that time, Hutchison would get married and start a family, becoming the father to his daughter.
It was around that time that the business that he knew was undergoing an irreversible change. The so-called curtain on pro wrestling had been lifted by future billionaire and WWE chairman Vince McMahon. McMahon confessed before the New Jersey State Senate that pro wrestling matches had pre-determined outcomes, part of an effort to get around taxation at the hands of the state’s athletic commission.
Hutchison, for one, remembers McMahon’s revelation, and its impact.
“Absolute shock,” he said, describing the fallout from McMahon’s confession. “Absolute shock. I could see why he did it and definitely understood. (WWE’s) thinking was, ‘well you know what, everybody knows it anyway.’ And from a financial standpoint, I guess he had a lot to gain by not paying the State Athletic Commission taxes. When (McMahon) came out and said ‘wait a minute, we’re not sport, we’re entertainment,’ I remember that anybody I talked to was competely aghast. “Oh s–t, there goes the death of the business. You know what, I do believe it was the death of the business as we knew it.”
Until that McMahon bombshell, Hutchison says, there was an unspoken bond among wrestlers. Quite literally unspoken, actually.
“It was never brought out to me that it wasn’t real,” he said. “And I trained all my guys the same way … and girls, for that matter, too. They were pretty much trained the exact same way that I was trained.”
Naturally, the unspoken word can produce its share of interesting interpretations.
“There (was one) guy, God rest his soul, one of my first students, named Neil Carr, Mad Dog Rex,” Hutchison said. “I remember getting his first match after he trained for a year, year and a half. (I) got him his first match, a WWF television taping in Brantford, and I was there with him. Up until that point, he (hadn’t wisened) up, even at that time. That was something that we never (discussed). I figured, ‘you know what, if you can figure it out, good, and you should be able to figure it out,’ it was never brought up, straight-out said that this wasn’t on the up-and-up.
“So, we’re at the Brantford Civic Centre and his first guy they put him (in the ring) with was Ted Arcidi, at that time billed as the World’s Strongest Man. (Arcidi was known to be the first man in history to bench press over 700 pounds in competition) “That was his first match. Neil come up to me in the dressing room and he said ‘Ron, what do I do?’ and I looked at him and I said ‘Neil, you do exactly what we did in the gym. Exactly. Nothing more and nothing less, exactly what we do in the gym.’ And pretty much I left it at that. So it was never brought up that what we did wasn’t on the up-and-up. And most people, with half a brain, could figure it out.”
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule.
“I did have one guy,” Hutchison said, trailing off.
“One student in all of my years, ever,” he added.
This particular student, a chef by trade, Hutchison recalled, asked the unspoken question.
“He said to me, ‘you mean, this is not real?’ Hutchison revealed. “And I looked at him, because I had bouncers coming in the gym, football players, great big guys … it was tough training these guys, they want to beat the hell out of you, because we perceived it, and even presented it, that hey, it’s real. I’d tell them, ‘back me into the corner and hit me.’ If it wasn’t hard enough, I’d tell them ‘hit me harder, is that all you’ve got?’
“So this one guy … somehow clued in that ‘oh, wait a minute, this is not all that I thought it was.’ He said to me, ‘well, if I would have known that this wasn’t real, I would have never pursued it.’ To this day, I still can’t believe that because anybody with any intelligence at all knows that it may not be totally on the up-and-up.”
So taboo was the subject of wrestling’s outcomes that even Hutchison’s parents were never privy to the information.
“When I trained, I remember Johnny Powers telling the group of us, definitely me, but I’m sure it was in a group setting, that if we ever admitted to anybody that what we did was quote unquote fake, he would beat the s–t out of us. The business was protected in those days. Even my parents went to their graves (not knowing). They figured that it was scripted, but I never, ever come out and told them that this isn’t real. Never. There’s a big difference between that era and today.”
To this day, the word fake is not one Hutchison keeps handy in his vocabulary.
“During the territorial days, the old-school mentality was, what we do is real. And if you didn’t know how to fight and protect yourself … I’ve often heard stories that wrestlers who got beat by people on the street, they’d be fired right away. You’re supposed to be able too handle yourself. Even to this day, I’m a little uncomfortable when people say that it’s fake. It’s not really fake, it’s choreographed and the outcomes are predetermined.”
Another subject near and dear to Hutchison’s heart is Canada’s place in pro wrestling history.
“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to Stu Hart as far as Canadian wrestling and Stampede Wrestling,” Hutchison said when the subject came up. While admitting nationally, Toronto and Maple Leaf Wrestling caught on bigger, the Hart family’s contribution to the business cannot be overlooked.
Nor, he says, can former WWE Canada president Carl DeMarco. DeMarco headed the Canadian WWE operations for decades, until its closure in 2009, a sad day for Canada, according to Hutchison.
Hutchison credits DeMarco with single-handedly opening the door for many of the Canadian talents Hutchison would help feed the WWE.
“ (Talking to late wrestler) Chris Tolos years ago, (back) when Jack Tunney was promoter here, before my day, they (had a lot of) stars up here working the Gardens … Whipper (Billy) Watson, the Tolos brothers, guys like that. I was talking to Chris one day, and we got around to talking about the Tunneys. And he said that the Tunneys (Jack and Frank) would never push local guys. Never.
“The only time they would bring them in and push them, Chris told me, is when they went elsewhere and established themselves, so Tunney would (almost) be forced to bring them in. Even Watson apparently himself, had to go to England first and get himself established there before he (was able to) come back here and basically run the territory with Tunney. But every other local guy, be it the Tolos brothers, or (the late) Waldo von Erich … you name it, Tunney wouldn’t bring them in, according to Chris, unless he had to. Jack pretty much followed in Frank’s footsteps from what I (saw).”
Then along came DeMarco, says Hutchison.
“The big transition as far as Canadians go is when Carl DeMarco took over, in that Carl would actually take a look at the Canadian (wrestlers), guys like an Edge, and say, ‘you know, these guys are talented, let’s (give them a shot).’ I give all the credit in the world to Carl DeMarco for bringing Canadian wrestlers to the forefront. Under his watch, you had the Edges, the Christians, Trish Stratus, the Tests of the world … Val Venis. That’s, I think, solely to the credit of Carl DeMarco.
Not unlike DeMarco, Hutchison’s contributions to Canada’s pro wrestling talent pool run deep. At the top of the list is Edge, the retired and highly decorated former WWE superstar.
Edge came to be trained by Hutchison and Sweet Daddy Siki via an essay contest asking contestants to explain why they wished to be a pro wrestler. The winner would be trained by the legendary trainers. The rest, as they say, was history.
“There were two finalists,” Hutchison said. “There was (Edge) and there was a girl from London, Ontario. We invited them both into the gym for a one-on-one interview. This would be the first time that we ever laid eyes on them other than their essays. So on the same day that we invited Edge, who came in with his mother and his grandfather, we invited this girl from London.
“The girl from London didn’t make it. I guess her family (wasn’t really) behind her.”
The no-show handed the victory, and the training, to Edge. Hutchison eventually would hear from that young woman, however.
“Several years back, she contacted me,” he revealed. “Of course by that time she knew the story and the winner of the contest. I think she said it was her mother (that) would not allow her to come.”
From the outset, Hutchison felt Edge had potential.
“When he walked in, to me he looked pretty much the same as he does now — tall, skinny kid with long blonde hair. I thought ‘the girls are going to love this guy.’ To me, he had a rock star look, but on the slim side. But at 17 years old, nothing that couldn’t be built up. I thought, ‘this guy has got a good look.’ He looked like somebody that was probably worth investing time in. And that proved to be right.”
Looking back on the Hall of Fame career of his most decorated student stirs up a lot of emotion for Hutchison.
“It was just phenomenal … it would bring, literally, tears to my eyes, to watch. Even now, talking about it, I get choked up, because I’m so proud of him,” Hutchison said, his voice cracking, clearing choking back tears.
“To see it end the way it did,” he said, without finishing his sentence. “He’s fine with it … and thank God that he’s doing well and he’s not in a wheelchair or anything that could have happened had he continued or had they not caught that injury ahead of time.”
Clearly thrilled to have played a role in Edge’s career, Hutchison says he merely helped him get his start.
“He definitely earned (his accolades),” he said. “It wasn’t because of me he got where he (did). I don’t have a magic wand to turn any of these people into what they’ve become. They’ve earned that all on their own, be it (Edge) or Christian or Trish Stratus or whoever. I’d like to think I helped them along the way, and I prepared them for what was to come; usually by beating the hell out of them. I never lied to them, and I told them what to expect. I told them what life would be like on the road and to the best of my abilities, tried to teach them how to work. To say that I was just proud of him would be an understatement.”
No conversation about Edge is complete without discussing his lifelong best friend Christian, whom Hutchison trained after Edge had finished his own training.
It is suggested to Hutchison that Christian has never been fully appreciated or utilized by the WWE, where he has spent the bulk of his career.
“I think there are a lot of guys (WWE) may not use to their full potential, for whatever reason they might have,” he said. “I don’t know this to be true, but it could be something like they went away … he went to TNA, then he came back. Do they use people to their full potential after that? (I) don’t know. Sometimes it would seem that they don’t. Other times it would seem that they do, they let bygones be bygones.”
But he does know one thing about Christian.
“(He) is very, very talented.”
“My earliest memories of Jay were … he used to come to every match that I ever had Edge in. When we (ran) Monarch Park, which was Edge’s first match, an outdoor Canada Day festival, (and) looking at old pictures and who do I see? Jay.
We ran a thing called Food Fight I think it was, at a community centre here in Toronto. Who’s in the crowd? Jay. They’ve always had that bond between them. Jay used to show up at every match that Edge was in.”
Another Toronto talent Hutchison helped guide was the legendary diva Trish Stratus. So meteoric was Stratus’s rise that it caught even Hutchison off guard.
“I remember when Trish was training with me, (WWE) took her long before I wanted them to,” he said. “I remember her coming to me and telling me that … somebody in WWE had contacted her as she was training and wanted her to fly into Connecticut. So she went down, then she came back and said ‘you know what, they want to put me on the road right away.’ I said, ‘oh god, please tell them to let me have you another three months because, quite frankly, you’re not ready yet.”
Hutchison asked his students to follow his two golden rules: “I said, ‘I don’t want you to embarrass yourself, but most importantly, I don’t want you to embarrass me.’ ”
This was his fear with sending Stratus to WWE too soon.
“When Trish came to me and told me that they wanted to take her, in my opinion, she wasn’t ready yet. Definitely, (there was) no doubt in my mind that she could do it, if they let her, but I thought, ‘you know what, I’m thinking I could make you so much better if you give me another three months.’ ”
It wasn’t to be, though. Stratus joined the WWE as part of T & A, along with fellow Canadian, the late Andrew (Test) Martin.
“I said ‘as long as you keep training, and they keep working with you, you’re going to do fine,’ ” Hutchison said.
She sure did. Stratus went on to become a seven-time women’s champion and practically single-handedly reinvented the term diva.
Speaking of successful divas, that brings to mind another former student, Beth Phoenix, one of the current women superstars in the WWE.
She may be strong and tough inside a ring, but it’s Phoenix’s kinder, gentler side that Hutchison remembers most.
“What a sweetheart,” Hutchison says. “What a sweetheart. I’d do anything in the world for Beth.”
Phoenix’s commitment is something that has always stuck out in Hutchison’s mind.
“Beth, she worked most of her early career with me in the AWF here. She lived in Elmira, New York, and I used to run shows Sunday afternoons (in Toronto).
“Oftentimes, she would be rushing to come from Elmira, New York, to make my shows because — and this is what I find makes her real special and will tell you what type of person she is and still is to this day — but at that time she used to rush to make my shows … because, at that time, she used to play the organ in church. She was the church organist. That’s a memory that I look back at and it still brings a smile to my face.”
With so many proverbial home runs to his credit, Hutchison was asked how much more easy or difficult it is for an aspiring wrestler to make it in the business today.
“I think the fact that there are a lot fewer spots now … there’s definitely less of a chance to make any real money, on a national scale, as far as that goes,” he said. “As far as getting into the business goes, at any level, even at the beginning level, it’s probably easier today than it was at any time ever. Like I said, back in the day, if you couldn’t prove yourself as being tough, you wouldn’t have gotten into the business. Now it seems to be anybody who’s ever laced up a pair of boots can open up a school. A lot of times now, there is no athletic commission regulation, which I think is a bad thing. Basically anybody can set up a ring and train their friends to quote unquote enter the business.”
Hutchison is happy to wax nostalgic about training, or any and all of his former students, and his own career, but that doesn’t mean his sitting on his laurels. No, he’s still actively training future superstars and even organizing the odd wrestling show.
But there is one event that has grown near and dear to his heart in the last year.
“I generally don’t go to these wrestling reunions or stuff like that, but for the first time ever, last year I went to the Cauliflower Alley Club,” he said. “It’s an organization that basically celebrates the brotherhood and the bond in our business. They have a convention every year in Vegas in April. And they have seminars — Jim Ross was at the last one, (as well as) Ricky Steamboat. It’s just a phenomenal organization,” he added. And one he hopes to help bring further exposure to in the coming years.
“I went last year and just had a wonderful time. In the future, I’d love to do a lot more with the Cauliflower Alley Club as far as getting them recognized up here and doing stuff with them up here. It’s just a phenomenal organization.”
Asked what he feels his own contributions to the business are, Hutchison displayed a rare hint of uncomfortableness.
“I guess it would just have to be the sheer volume of, I guess they call them quote unquote superstars now, that have actually went through my hands here,” he answered, reluctantly.
“It certainly won’t be my in-ring wrestling stuff,” he said, half jokingly. “It will definitely be as a trainer. (I’ve been) blessed to have just the sheer numbers of trainees who have went on to be stars in this business.”
You can bet there are a large number of those stars out there who feel just as blessed to have encountered Ron Hutchison.
I know I feel blessed.