When is a sport not a sport? When it’s sports entertainment.
World Wrestling Entertainment is the biggest pro wrestling organisation in the world, and when its stars came to the UAE in February, thousands of fans turned out to cheer on champions including John Cena and Seth Rollins. Unlike classic Olympic wrestling, pro wrestling occupies that middle-ground where an appreciation of athleticism crosses with modern commercialism. No-one gets hurt, the punches don’t land and the outcome is usually already decided, but it does require skill. People will pay to watch it and it’s a whole lot of fun whether you’re cheering from the sidelines or slugging it out in the ring.
At HM Fitness, The Dubai Pro Wrestling Academy – the only one of its kind in the city – students are taught how to perform in the ring like their heroes. Lead by founder and co-trainer Caleb Hall, the academy has put on two live shows and has another scheduled for Friday July 31. Hall started wrestling aged 16 and trained with the Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart, the ’90s WWF champion. We asked him what the key to this sport is. ‘The number one thing is learning how to do something where you look like you’re just killing the guy but he’s going to be able to get up and go to work the next day,’ says Hall. ‘You have to be able to go out there and make it look real without actually punching someone in the face and breaking their jaw, that’s the skill that you have to master.’
One of the students, Gheeda Chamsaddine, who goes by the stage name ‘Joelle’, is certainly on her way to mastering the art of faking it in the ring. At just 17 she, like many in the class, dreams of becoming a big name pro wrestler. As we sit on the edge of the ring she talks excitedly about the buzz she got from her first match in April. ‘It was awesome! With wrestling you put weeks and months of work into just five minutes and then you get out there and give it your best shot.’ Joelle is a sporty girl who likes to run, weightlift and play basketball when she’s not throwing guys around the ring. ‘I grew up in Saudi Arabia, so wrestling isn’t introduced to girls there. When I moved here, one of my friends introduced me to it and I was like: “Wow, I’ve been missing out, I have to do this!” When I found the classes I picked it up and I got hooked.’
Being the only female pro wrestler in the class isn’t a problem for Joelle, or her male counterparts, and the group are comfortable throwing each other down. The other students in the training session are in their late teens, though Hall says they have students ranging from 16 to 26. Hall tells us that pro wrestling can be learned by any physical ability but there is a need for athleticism in order to perform the moves.
Joelle shows us how to perform some of the throw-downs, locks and sequences such as the ‘lock in’, the grappling start position where both fighters have a hand on the back of their opponent’s head, and ‘The Schoolboy’, a dummy move that sees the fighter move out of the corner, drop to the floor and pull their opponent down for the pin. We lacked the required amount of menace to pull the moves off convincingly but Joelle looked like she meant business every time she hurtled across the square ring toward us.
Hall explains that wrestling is also about having the right mentality in order to develop your character. ‘We are not just going in there as brutes beating each other up,’ he says. ‘We are trying to tell a story because that’s what people engage with. They want to see the big guy fighting the little guy. The little guy almost beats him, but then the big guy cuts him off. It’s psychology,’ he adds. ‘You have to learn what’s going to get the crowd engaged. What’s going to make them think that it is over when really it’s not? It’s more than just punching and falling.’ Joelle seems to have the moves and mind-set to realise her dreams of being a star pro wrestler and as she prepares for her next match she tells us, ‘I’m going to go out with my best shot and definitely come out a winner, because that’s what Joelle does!’
Dhs60 per class, Dhs400 per month. Sun and Tue 6.30pm-8pm, 9pm-10.30pm during Ramadan. The next live show will be held on Friday July 31, Dhs50 per person, 6.30pm. HM Fitness, Al Meydan Road, Al Quoz, www.facebook.com/dubaiprowrestling (056 680 4846).