Updated: Tuesday, 2nd June 2020 @ 1:57pm

'Only the strong survive': Grand Pro Wrestling's Johnnie Brannigan discusses what it takes to become a professional wrestler

'Only the strong survive': Grand Pro Wrestling's Johnnie Brannigan discusses what it takes to become a professional wrestler

By Ian Silvera

As hysteria over tomorrow’s Wrestlemania 28 hits fever pitch, MM’s Ian Silvera visits Manchester’s most prestigious wrestling school to find out from those trying to break into the business what it takes to be a high flyer.   

I’ve always enjoyed professional wrestling. The dangerous moves, flying bodies and showbiz speeches are great entertainment.

The punches, of course, are pulled and the feuds are manufactured, but I prefer not to call professional wrestling fake. Fake is a lazy characterisation. Fake doesn’t justify the dangers competitors must endure, the ad lib choreographic spectacle, and the tiring schedule those at the heights of industry must follow. Wrestling isn’t fake, it’s booked.

The product I’ve been exposed to most is WWF and the now defunct WCW. At their peak in the late ‘90s, these promotions were mammoth merchandise machines. Stars like Stone Cold Steven Austin, The Rock and Sting galvanised audiences. The intensity and furious nature of the matches led fans to endearingly dub this period the ‘Attitude Era’.

HOPING TO MAKE A NAME: Grand Pro Wrestling's trainees in action

Since the heights of the Attitude Era, professional wrestling has slumped. Vince McMahon, Chairman and CEO of WWE (formerly WWF), acquired WCW in 2001 and purchased the assets of bankrupt ECW in 2003.

Today WWE maintains a monopoly over the industry.  The lack of competition, however, has arguably turned WWE’s creative team’s imagination down.      

Wrestling aficionados scoff at WWE’s current product. They cite the lack of blood, the absence of hardcore matches (events where inanimate objects are joyfully smacked against performers) and claim that McMahon has positioned the company too much toward a younger demographic.

Even the job title ‘professional wrestler’ has been spun into a more socially acceptable ‘sports entertainer’. In short, for veteran fans, the current WWE is a diluted version of yesteryear.

Throughout the unanticipated changes professional wrestling has experienced, independent wrestling promotions have remained. These promotions are the training grounds for the well-known wrestlers we’re exposed to on TV .Many run on micro budgets compared to the WWE’s. 

I thought it time to visit the North West’s own indie company, Grand Pro Wrestling (GPW), and find out what it takes to become a pro wrestler.

About two miles outside Manchester City Centre, and in-between a dilapidated pub and tucked away newsagents, is GPW’s training centre. There I met with Johnnie Brannigan, 29, the owner of GPW, on a sunny Sunday afternoon to discuss his promotion and watch his trainee wrestlers hone their skills and abilities.

DEDICATED: Grand Pro Wrestling's owner Johnnie Brannigan

For the 29-year-old, professional wrestling is something that should be taken seriously. Although most people wouldn’t associate wrestling with Wigan, where GPW hold their shows, Brannigan insists that more people should be informed about Wigan’s wrestling heritage. After all, that’s where modern wrestling originated.

Brannigan instils his mantra into GPW’s training school. Before trainees can even get their spandex inside the ring they are required to go through a three-part selection process.

First, a prospective trainee must email Brannigan notifying him that they are interested in becoming a professional wrestler and outlining their motivations. Next, Brannigan conducts a phone interview with candidates. He informed me that he looks to filter those who aren’t cut out for wrestling at this stage. Finally, candidates have a one-on-one interview with Brannigan.

This gives him the opportunity to explain to prospective trainees how hard the course of training really is and dispel any beliefs that becoming a professional wrestler is easy. If wrestling hopefuls pass all three stages, they are allowed to train at GPW.

The most recent batch started three weeks ago. Initially this training group started off with 32 wannabes, but the dedication and motivation needed to train to become as a professional wrestler whittled that number down to 15.

The council fraud investigator explained that it would take two years on average to train to become a professional wrestler. Trainees pay a reasonable £10 per training session for their tuition and taking into account insurance, boots and protective pads, it costs trainees £1,475 over two years to reach their goal.

Once trainees have graduated they work on the North West wrestling circuit, fighting in social clubs and community centres with around 100 spectators per match in locations such as Morecombe and Stockport.

Here wrestlers can expect an average of £40 per match and travelling expenses. Not a lot of money, but there is a rare opportunity, for those good enough when WWE comes to the area, on their world tour, they can have a try-out and hopefully secure a development contract.

While the trainees practiced their bumps (where a wrestler lands on his back with high impact) in GPW’s training ring, I got a chance to sit down with two of the trainees, Bobby Cash and Darren O’Sullivan.

IN ACTION: Bobby Cash delivers an elbow in 'the squared circle'

Bobby Cash started to train as a wrestler simply because he wanted to know if he could hack it in the squared circle.

The 20-year-old is a part-time waiter at the moment, but is aiming to be as diverse a wrestler as legend Shawn Michaels.

Commenting on the intensity of GPW’s training, Cash said: “My body hurts the day after I train.

“In particular, my neck and back become very stiff, but it’s part of what we do.”
Commenting on what his family thought of his wrestling aspirations, he said: “At first they were a bit sceptical, but I told them ‘look I’m doing this’ and they got behind me.  

Similarly to Cash, Darren O’Sullivan had watched wrestling as kid and was really into wrestling favourites like The Rock and Stone Cold.  

O’Sullivan forgot about wrestling and enjoyed other hobbies until 2010 when he became engrossed with watching the spectacle once again.

The young Mancunian searched the internet in order to find the best wrestling schools in the North West and that’s when he found GPW. He sent an email to Johnnie Brannigan and two weeks later he was in the ring starting his training.

Describing what urged him to train at GPW, the 19-year-old said: “It’s a long shot, but I wanted to do it [wrestling] – I wanted to be like them [Stone Cold and The Rock].”

Explaining how his friends and family reacted to the news that he was practicing to become a wrestler, O’Sullivan said: “At First nobody thought it was serious – not a lot of people take wrestling seriously. Now they’re fully backing me. “

When O’Sullivan isn’t throwing his face into turnbuckles, he is a drama student. If the wrestling career doesn’t work out, O’Sullivan wants to become an actor – a trade many of the industry’s most prolific performers have attempted to break into.

GPW are holding an event called ‘Only the Strong Survive’ in Wigan on May 4th 2012.

For more details visit: http://www.grandprowrestling.co.uk/