Canadian pro wrestlers celebrate homecoming as All Elite Wrestling descends on Toronto
AEW: Dynamite and Rampage shows to air live from the Coca-Cola Coliseum this week
Ethan Page "vividly" remembers the time the CBC attended his local wrestling show in Hamilton in 2012.
"It was the first time anyone ever gave me any local exposure, and my wrestling promotion any local exposure. So it was like a big victory for me," he said.
Page's shows for Alpha-1 Wrestling in the Germania Club regularly drew about 250 fans.
This week, more than 10 years later, Page (real name Julian Micevski) is gearing up for a special kind of homecoming — in front of a much bigger audience.
He'll be part of a duo of wrestling shows for All Elite Wrestling — Dynamite on Wednesday, Rampage on Thursday — in Toronto's Coca-Cola Coliseum, in front of thousands of fans live, and many more on television.
Page is part of a cadre of new generation wrestlers who grew up idolizing stars like Bret Hart and Iron Mike Sharpe. As he and others have never wrestled regularly for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), these AEW shows are arguably their first big spotlight on Canadian soil.
"It's a dream come true. But this was always the goal," he said.
"It's cool that I get to come back to Canada and kind of show everybody like, 'Hey, I said I was going to do something, and I kind of pulled it off.' "
All Elite Wrestling was founded in 2019. Owned by Shahid Khan and his son, Tony Khan — the billionaire owners of the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars — it's gained momentum as the first major North American competitor to WWE in 20 years.
Its roster includes several longtime and recent former WWE performers — including Winnipegger Chris Jericho, who's set to headline Dynamite against Bryan Danielson.
Conspicuous in his absence is fellow Winnipegger Kenny Omega, who is also one of the company's co-founders and executive vice-presidents. He and a handful of other wrestlers and employees, including CM Punk and the Young Bucks, were reportedly suspended following a backstage altercation in September.
<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/AEWDynamite?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#AEWDynamite</a> THIS WEDNESDAY LIVE at 8/7c on TBS<br>-<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ROH?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ROH</a> World Title <a href="https://twitter.com/IAmJericho?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@IAmJericho</a> (c) v <a href="https://twitter.com/bryandanielson?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@bryandanielson</a><br>-<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/AEW?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#AEW</a> All-Atlantic Title <a href="https://twitter.com/BASTARDPAC?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@BASTARDPAC</a> (c) v <a href="https://twitter.com/orangecassidy?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@orangecassidy</a><br>-Toni Storm+<a href="https://twitter.com/shidahikaru?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@shidahikaru</a> v Dr <a href="https://twitter.com/RealBrittBaker?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@RealBrittBaker</a>+<a href="https://twitter.com/jmehytr?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@jmehytr</a><br>-<a href="https://twitter.com/boy_myth_legend?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@boy_myth_legend</a> v <a href="https://twitter.com/luchasaurus?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@luchasaurus</a><br>-<a href="https://twitter.com/RealBillyGunn?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@RealBillyGunn</a> v <a href="https://twitter.com/swerveconfident?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@swerveconfident</a> <a href="https://t.co/o02PSAe7Sx">pic.twitter.com/o02PSAe7Sx</a>—@AEW
Pandemic delayed Canadian debut
"It's absolutely amazing … to wrestle in Toronto, which is one of the biggest wrestling markets in the world, and where I cut my teeth as an independent wrestler for the last nearly 20 years," says Ottawa-based wrestler Nicolas Dansereau.
Dansereau is better known as Evil Uno, a masked wrestler and co-founder of AEW's Dark Order faction.
Uno says AEW was planning to hold a show in Toronto much earlier, until the COVID-19 pandemic shut down international travel. He says it will be his first time in at least four years performing in Toronto, a city he used to visit at least three times every month while working the independent circuit.
Laura Dennis-Guilmette, who wrestles under the monikers Allie and The Bunny and grew up in Toronto's Downsview neighbourhood, says it's "mind blowing" to be part of the shows.
She attributes her initial love for pro wrestling to her father, who used to watch matches in Maple Leaf Gardens, a northern wrestling mecca for many decades.
While All Elite Wrestling is likely the most notable breakout story in recent years, the pro wrestling landscape as a whole has changed significantly in the last decade or so.
Certainly, the most dramatic development came in July when Vince McMahon retired from his role as World Wrestling Entertainment's (WWE) chairman and CEO, following allegations of sexual misconduct and hush-money payments.
But beyond that, a handful of independent wrestling companies have grown their profiles in North America. Streaming subscription services have introduced new audiences to international promotions, particularly in Japan.
It's led to something of a golden age for novice and veteran performers looking to ply their trade.
"When I was breaking in, in '94, '95, you know, it was pretty much impossible to earn a living just being an independent wrestler," said Kitchener, Ont., native Christian Cage (real name Jay Reso).
"Whereas now, you can earn a very, very good living wrestling independently. And that's kind of a testament to where we're at, as far as the industry as a whole goes."
Cage isn't a stranger to big-time wrestling shows in Canada. In 2002 he wrestled at WWE's WrestleMania 18 in front of tens of thousands of fans in the Rogers Centre (then the SkyDome).
Now 48, he's taken a locker-room veteran's role, often wrestling against and alongside younger talent like Jack (Jungle Boy) Perry — son of the late actor Luke Perry.
Today's wrestling stars build online brands
Before joining AEW, Evil Uno paid the bills working for the federal government as a web designer.
"I've wrestled for almost 20 years, but I would also have two to three jobs at all times. There's this view that everyone in pro wrestling is rich, which is not the case. The select few at the top are," he said.
"When AEW employed me, it was the first time I was able to fully commit to pro wrestling."
Uno, Page and Dennis-Guilmette are also part of a new generation of wrestlers with a greater online presence, posting video blogs documenting their travels around the continent, but also connecting with fans over their other hobbies, such as video games, snack reviews and action figure collecting.
"I can kind of build my brand how I want, present it to the audiences that I want, and AEW has allowed us to do it," said Page.
That creative freedom made AEW an attractive option for some wrestlers. In 2020 the WWE came under fire for insisting on taking a cut of any outside appearances their talent made, including donations received while livestreaming on gaming platform Twitch.
Toronto's 'notorious' wrestling crowds
Cage says the entire AEW locker-room is "pretty pumped" for Dynamite and Rampage to take place at the Coca-Cola Coliseum.
He says Toronto in particular has always been a "notorious" crowd known to cheer on villains and boo heroes depending on their moods.
"I've always been of the opinion that … if they're reacting, whether they're cheering or they're booing, if they're making noise, that means they care. If they're quiet, that means you're in trouble," he said.
Dennis-Guilmette is looking forward to reconnecting with her hometown outside the ring as well.
She's planning to pick up some all-dressed chips for her snack blog, stroll down Queen and Yonge streets — and even drive the much-maligned Gardiner Expressway.
"You've got to go at midnight. I'm not talking about going during rush hour," she said.