Thunder Bay pro wrestler shows squared circle skills in front of hometown crowd
Pro wrestling a tough, but rewarding, business, Thunder Bay-born grappler says
The recent resurgence of live professional wrestling in Thunder Bay, Ont. has been extra-special for one grappler.
For Rob Hickman — who wrestles under the ring name Robb Mass — it's been an opportunity to showcase his squared-circle skills in front of his home town.
"The first show I did here in February, I was really almost overwhelmed at the response from the crowd," the soft-spoken, Thunder Bay-born Hickman said before a recent Canadian Wrestling's Elite (CWE) show at the West Thunder Community Centre.
One of the loudest pops I think I've ever gotten-Rob Hickman on the reception he received wrestling in his hometown of Thunder Bay
"Normally, I'm a heel, I'm a bad guy — I just look like one, I suppose," he said, laughing. "But I came out in February, and I was really taken aback by the hometown fans getting behind me.
"One of the loudest pops I think I've ever gotten, and it's obviously very, very much appreciated."
He got another 'pop' at CWE's last show earlier this month. He was no heel that night as the crowd was behind him, cheering Hickman all the way through to his win over "The Rebel" Bobby Collins.
We did it AGAIN! Standing room, sold out crowd for the last <a href="https://twitter.com/CWECanada">@CWECanada</a> show on DFG Tour in <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ThunderBay?src=hash">#ThunderBay</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Ontario?src=hash">#Ontario</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/cwe?src=hash">#cwe</a> <a href="https://t.co/pSzthubVzo">pic.twitter.com/pSzthubVzo</a>—@HotshotDannyD
"I love it," Hickman said. "About 10 years ago was when wrestling really died in this city in terms of live shows, and it was because we had a run of bad promoters run through and really burn the city."
"The city is ready again to get behind it and support it, and the fans are showing that."
The Winnipeg-based CWE was formed in 2009 by Danny Warren, who wrestles under the name "Hotshot" Danny Duggan.
"I was wrestling in front of the same crowds, in front of the same wrestlers," Warren said. "I thought there was a lot more potential [for Winnipeg] based on what I was doing in other parts of the continent."
"Bringing in outside talent was a big one," he said. "Winnipeg is geographically in the middle of nowhere, so if you're a wrestler in Winnipeg, or Saskatchewan, or even in Thunder Bay ... you're really limited in who you know and who you get to work with, because we're so far away from all the major wrestling markets."
So Warren started booking bigger, established names for CWE shows, giving the up-and-coming CWE wrestlers a chance to work with them.
The shows in Thunder Bay, for example, have included Ring of Honor's Silas Young, Frankie Kazarian and Lio Rush, as well as Chase Owens, a veteran of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Steep learning curve
The chance to learn from established pros is valuable for younger wrestlers, Hickman said, as the business has a steep learning curve.
"People watch it and they think 'oh, you just go out there and you jump around for a little bit,'" he said. "Try to think about it like this — anybody can go out there and hurt someone. It takes real skill, and real training and patience to go out there and make it look like you're beating somebody up, but you're protecting them at the same time from being seriously hurt."
Warren called wrestlers the entertainment world's jacks of all trades.
"We get one take, it's live," he continued. "If you screw it up, you better be able to cover it up or that crowd's going to eat you alive, and you better be able to roll with the punches. So it's a real cool art form."
And while Hickman put on a show in the ring, lately he's been starting to direct his attention elsewhere.
"I've just branched off into promoting with my own company [Union of Wrestling]," Hickman said. "I'm looking at more of building a successful promotion, not for myself, but for younger guys that want ring time."
'Jump in with both feet'
For those who do want to make a run at becoming successful in the squared circle, Hickman has some advice: do your research on wrestling schools.
"I looked for a place that after I was done training, they started using me in their shows," he said. "I'm a strong believer, especially in the indies, [that] ring time is more valuable than your payout at the end of the night."
"To not get ring time from a promotion that trains you just doesn't make any sense," Hickman said. "Who's going to book somebody who's never had a match?"
It's a hard, hard business- Rob Hickman
Another piece of advice: realize that the pro wrestling road can be a tough one, Hickman said.
"You have to jump in with both feet," he said. "There's no dancing around it, there's no one foot in, one foot out."
"It's a hard, hard business," Hickman added. "Your body's going to go through just a beating, all the time."
"But it's worth it in the end."
CWE returns to Thunder Bay on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017.