How to Make a Living at Pro Wrestling in BC

King of the Yukon appears from behind a curtain, head-banging to CCR’s “Fortunate Son.” He holds up his championship belt, and the standing-room-only crowd jumps to its feet. “Long live the King!” they chant as he makes his way into the ring where his opponent, Bishop, awaits him. The bell sounds. For a few minutes it looks like an easy pin for the King; then Bishop gets an arm around his neck, picks up the King, and drops him to the mat like it’s nothing.

Bishop holds him in place with a knee on his back. Face down, the King taps out a beat with his hand. The audience joins in, shouting, screaming for him to get up. “You’ll never beat the King anyways,” someone shouts. The heckler is right. In January, the King of the Yukon won four Elite Canadian Championship Wrestling Awards, including Wrestler of the Year. He’s not going to lose to Bishop. He bounces to his hands and knees in time with the clapping. He shakes, howls, and a moment later has Bishop pinned. The King’s white fur boots, long hair, and handlebar moustache are slick with sweat. Everyone cheers.

“Right now, King of the Yukon is on fire,” says league co-owner Jeff Duncan a few days after the fight. We’re sitting in a Surrey Tim Hortons on a drizzly Thursday afternoon. “A good wrestler will take what the fan does and react to it. You’re a showman. If you don’t care what the fans are saying, you’re just a guy in a Speedo.”

Duncan, who performs under the stage name The Natural, should know: he’s the manager of Natural Selection-an ECCW crew that includes Bishop and Pete Powers-and he has a lot to say to audiences. “I yell at old people and girls and kids,” he says. “That’s what The Natural does. He’s a dickhead, a coward.”

Outside the ring, Duncan is one-third of the team that runs the league, and he’s in charge of shaping the character arcs and ideas for the shows that sell tickets. Bouts with names like Season’s Beatings and VanCity Showdown happen once a month at the Russian Community Centre at West Fourth and Arbutus. The ECCW also hosts bimonthly events in Surrey and Port Coquitlam, but the most successful by far are at the RCC.

Tonight’s crowd at the centre is diverse: diehard fans, 20-somethings with ironic T-shirts, parents with young children. Virginia Cunningham and her husband, Bill, attend every month and sit right in the front row. The couple, in their late 70s, have been coming to ECCW events since the beginning. They have trouble settling on a favourite character. Virginia says they both like Ravenous Randy Myers, an energetic wrestler with a studded denim vest and a blue-and-purple Mohawk. Bill looks up through Coke bottle glasses. “And the women.”

The matches are a huge undertaking. There are 30 wrestlers on the ECCW roster; as many as 20 are booked for a show. In order to compete, each fighter has to buy an annual $20 licence from the Vancouver Athletic Commission, a five-member city-run committee that regulates boxing, kick-boxing, and wrestling; the league itself pays $100 a year. (New Westminster recently decided that ECCW should be classified as a contact sport and therefore regulated under an athletic commission, despite not having one in the city. Instead, the league could purchase a $600 business licence, which Ness wasn’t prepared to do.)

In 2010, Duncan and his co-owners, wrestler Scotty Mac and de facto business manager Mary Ness, took out a loan to buy the league, which had been struggling to draw a regular crowd since Mark Vellios and John Parlett founded it in 1996. Duncan admits that when he first started attending ECCW events, “There were a couple of good matches per show, but I went for a couple of wrestlers. If they weren’t on the bill or they were against guys who weren’t that good, I knew it wouldn’t be that good of a show.” What the league did have going for it was the popularity of the WWE. “Wrestling was really big” back in the ’90s, he says. “Everywhere. Wrestling isn’t big right now. But we’re doing well despite wrestling not being cool.”

In the last seven months, the organization has seen audiences of over 200. Ness puts her “happy number” at 120 fans per show at the RCC. “Under that and we lose money,” she says. The wrestlers get paid, but not much. “They make enough to have a meal and a couple of beers at the sponsor after the show.”

The company is in the red until the loan is paid off, which Ness hopes will happen sometime this summer. It’s taken a lot of work to get the company this far, and she admits it can be frustrating. “There isn’t much recognition from fans or wrestlers for a lot of the stuff I do,” she says. “It can get me down sometimes…but it’s not in my nature to be a quitter. A lot of the regular fans know I am more than just the ticket lady, and I appreciate that.” Most of the staff, wrestlers, and volunteers refer to her as Mama.

What makes it worth the effort is the show-the fans, the stories, the wrestlers. “They are larger than life,” says Duncan. “They’re comic-book characters. We’re a soap opera. We’re Days of Our Lives with athletic performers.”