How would you say that your initial interest and labor of love in wrestling came about and how has it evolved?
I am going to assume for 98% of us, there was a certain point in our childhood where we fell in love with wrestling, and that was what it was initially like. You will hear a story about someone who as an adult had a friend in wrestling or got an opportunity, but for the most part, fans were that crazy obsessed wrestling fan kid, and that was no different for me. I was three years old and I watched with my uncle, and Roddy Piper was just memorizing. He talked loud and was just obnoxious, it was awesome. Whether you are a fan or a wrestler, you go to a show and you see that crazy fan in the front row with his own custom-made belt and he won’t buy anything, but a front row seat that was me. I would go to the WWE shows and I would save up all my allowance just to get the best, taken off a scalper. I would buy all the shirts and had a wrestling faction at school with my friends. At some point in life, whether it was just right time, right place, or luck, or just having the balls to sign up for a wrestling school, I just had the chance to do it. I remember hearing about an indy show in Toronto. Like any fan, first you hear about the WWE, then WCW, and then ECW or Ring of Honor. So, I heard about this indy show in Toronto and I checked them out. I was told I’d never become a wrestler, and that I was too small. Well, here is my chance, am I going to take it or leave it? As soon as I turned 19 or 20, I was all in and I was ready to go.
Can you discuss the training at the school that you attended, who the trainers were and how you developed those early fundamentals?
Absolutely. In Toronto, at the time there was a very prestigious school known as Squared Circle Training, run by Rob Fuego and Kobra Kai, Rob Fuego being the head trainer who was trained by Ron Hutchison, and Sweet Daddy Siki. Those are names in the Toronto scene that are well known and well respected. Rob himself has been behind training a lot of successful wrestlers, whether they made it to WWE, WCW or Impact, many of the girls such as Gail Kim, Taylor Wilde, and Angelina Love. Ron had his success with guys like Edge and Christian and all that. It was kinda cool because over the last year I had a chance to get to know Ron. I had always heard of Ron and maybe crossed paths with him once or twice, but got a chance to talk to him at the Cauliflower Alley Club reunion. It was cool that in one day this guy was treating me like one of his close friends, and we’re having beers, and this is my trainer’s trainer. That was the ‘it school,’ and it was either that or you would go to Can-Am with Scott D’Amore, in Windsor. The cool thing is I’m on good terms and close with both. I struck a bit of a win-win.
|Fuego’s teachings helped shape the wrestler Suave is today.
The school was great; it had two rings, which was something most schools at the time wouldn’t provide. We had the ability to split classes between more experienced and less experienced people. It was more time consuming than most schools nowadays. It was four days a week, and classes were about 3-4 hours. Having a job, going to University, going to training four days a week, going to shows to help set up and pay your dues and network, and hitting the gym and learning learn how to lift weights full-time, combine all of that. You have about 30 hours, plus all of the school, 25 hours of work, plus the 16 hours of training, plus the travel between all of that, and the gym that goes with upwards of an hour (at least) a day, and you are young and new at it and you are sore. You don’t have free time. It was a very tough balance to pull it all off. That was the foundations of how I went from a fan to a trainee.
In the earlier stages of my career, I was known as a technical guy, but I wanted guys to survive my class and the classes after mine. The one thing that I was telling other young trainees was, even though we were smaller, it isn’t size, style, it is, Brent Banks and I were the only ones that showed up four days a week. Some would show up three and some would show up four on occasion. I missed one training day, which would have amounted to nothing, but I didn’t want to miss any training classes as it was initially under Paul Martin. The commitment wasn’t second or third, but first, and it was certainly proven for two guys like us.
From then I was lucky to have been mentored by someone who is one of my closest friends, Tyson Dux. Johnny Devine, who trained a couple of my friends in Josh Alexander and Carter Mason, he took me under his wing at the time, too, and I was lucky and privileged to be surrounded by so many helping hands. They were contracted at one time, they were very talented, and my attitude, my determination, was to be mentored by these people. That made me very savvy on the wrestling front and on the business front. The more promotions you are around, the more veteran wrestlers you are around, the more shows and locker rooms and shop talking backstage, and different settings, successes, and failures, from that the more you know about the business.
Some promotions have had good experiences and some have not with its talent and fans. What is it about Smash that makes them stand out, for you to remain committed. How do they provide the best possible product regardless of circumstances?
There are so many layers to your question, and it isn’t that it’s bad, it’s just that for us to be where we are, there have been as many layers of success. There have been so many good and bad situations, there have been so many lessons in growth. Part of our success has been my humility early on and knowing not to do everything myself and not micro manage. I built a team around me. If I have a staff member that does the video editing, and this person proves to be loyal and hardworking–a lot of the staff are friends and hang out, we know each others’ families–if someone can do it better, then why hold back the company? We put the brand first. It’s very much, the team comes first that is what it comes down to.
|Sutter’s belief in the company is has also helped to spread the word about Smash Wrestling’s place on the independent scene.
On Smash, we all benefit. We do have a team, and that’s where Braxton Sutter and others come into play. Nobody has a harder working team. It was just refreshing that that, they mean well even if they aren’t as skilled as others. I don’t mean that in any bad way either. Anyone helping at a wrestling show, backstage, at the end of the day you need to have a skill set. You either come in with a skill set or develop one and grow one. Look at the holes, and where do we need improvement and where do we have flaws? Where have we done well, and what do we need to do to land on the next level, like TV? Then, someone is willing to mold a skill set themselves. So that is one thing we have done well.
The big thing that we have, from a booking standpoint, and it’s very cliché to say, but you are building a culture and a quality locker room. I’ve had a couple of guys come in that are well known, and some that are lesser known, and I don’t think they fit the culture of our locker room. They caused headaches or created little surprises, and it’s no knock on them, but it happens in any industry. They may not necessarily be bad people, but they don’t mesh with your people, and culture, your business or your way of thinking. We have a locker room that we are very proud of. Some will come up to us afterward and say ‘Wow, you have one of the best locker rooms and everyone here gets along.’ Did you know that Braxton Sutter said about us that he was part of the best independent promotion he has ever been with, in 17 years? We didn’t ask him to boast that. He doesn’t do it for politics. I love that guy! He does it because he believes that and he loves it here. Even Bullet Club, in its early stages, people from that stable were hitting us up for work, ‘Hey, my boys say great things about you. I’d really love to work for you.’
It really woke us up on several fronts. We have created a culture here, we’ve stayed professional here, and we haven’t tried to take shortcuts with how we try to book flights or other stuff. At times, we have done things privately, maybe acknowledged amongst the scene or publicly acknowledged, but we have been praised for it. We have built a culture and a staff with depth. It is like any business, like Microsoft or Apple, they can have a great structural organization, but there are so many different layers that have to be done right. If we look at just an in-ring standpoint, our second ever show we had Johnny Gargano, Kevin Steen, and suddenly our name is blowing up and people are talking about us out there. In two shows we were a bit on the map, and that was a wake-up call. A year or so later, Lance Storm, who was pretty much retired, agreed to work for us against Chris Hero, who had just been released by WWE. Then we announced Chris Hero versus AJ Styles, who had just been released by TNA for the next month. That even further helped solidify us moving forward.
We realized on opportunities, you can’t just go month to month. Having those true buzz worthy matches or marketing opportunities were important. The next time we have something on TV, we may not get that same buzz. When there is a window there, ‘Hey, this guy just got released. It may cost too much, but guess what it is one of your moments where you can truly get your brand out there’ to a larger audience, you take the chance. The question is just, how do you do it? Do you just book AJ Styles versus a local guy, as much as you’d like to put one of your guys on the map, is it best for the brand? When we had AJ Styles versus Chris Hero, we had more attention paid to that match. One of our staff members said they saw AJ Styles’ schedule for the whole summer, and one match stood out because it was against Chris Hero. We were very strategic on a lot of fronts, but you can see that over the four and a half years of Smash’s existence it has been so many things on so many fronts.
|Progress vs. Smash Wrestling was an incredible sequence of events for both promotions.
One last thing: when our market was doing kinda the same thing, with the same buzz guys, and it was hard to stand out and be fresh, the idea was to do a cross-promotional show with CZW, and we brought them into town. And then we did one with Chikara, we did one with Progress, which really put us out there, and we hosted Whatculture for their World Cup as their Canadian hosts, and a lot of our guys were represented. These are opportunities that don’t come along every day. A lot of it is the right time, right place, and luck, and you have to capitalize on those opportunities, seize those opportunities. Keep your finger on the pulse of the scene. It isn’t a bad thing that some wrestling fans are fickle, but they are evolving and you have to go out there and see what is being talked about. Keeping your finger on the pulse and capitalize when you’re able to get peoples attention for better.
Are there any plans to expand outside Ontario towards the Maritimes, the West Coast of Canada, and towards the border to draw in fans from the United States?
All of the above, selfishly speaking. We made it obvious to people that we don’t just stick to Toronto, we have expanded and we have moved around. Not a lot of companies move around, as they stick to their one or two areas, and stick to that comfort zone. For us, we don’t mind landing on our asses and starting with humble beginnings. An example of this is, we were just in Sarnia and London, Ontario. London isn’t a secondary market, as we have made it into a 1A, 1B with Toronto. It is a good venue that is good enough for our TV tapings, and it is a loud and packed venue that is just as busy as the Toronto audience. We don’t foresee having competition there as we have firmly planted our feet properly. We have Sarnia, where we had a show of 140 people. It isn’t big, but I keep reminding myself what was the first ever attendance for a Smash show? What are most promotions’ first attendance number?
For us, we can promote in Toronto and London and some of our other markets, but we need to create partnerships beyond that. I guarantee that other promotions want to expand as well, and are ambitious, but it is out of their reach because they can’t do all the work for a show that is three, four, five, six hours away, they have to partner up with people. The problem is some people find poor partners or partners that meant well, but don’t come through because promoting is hard, and when you promote an indy market sometimes you must be willing to grow that or take a step back. Some took Sarnia as a very strong positive, as all 140 of those people weren’t casual fans that just happened to walk by, all of those people had wrestling shirts and all of them knew the wrestlers. Sarnia is another market that we think we can grow, to between two and three hundred, and it can become what London and Toronto are. We are always looking to expand.
People know that we have gone up North, gone out east, and even to cottage country for fun non-TV tapings. We have gone as far as Nunavut! We have other things in the works. We announced a short-term partnership with a company in the Maritimes, and we’ll do a friendly little us versus them show, and we have a partnership with another big city in the works that we hope to get TV tapings out of. This is just part of our ambition for getting the brand out. When we did digital downloads and the on-demand network, we were one of the first companies to do it. WWE did it, New Japan did it, and I think ICW did it as well. We realized very early on that we had a very large US audience, and a large international audience. There may be five people watching in China, but that is five people willing to watch our product and go and pay for it monthly. There are people in Egypt, Italy, Spain, Mexico, and we know our reach with these countries. The same thing goes for our social media. We keep things simple, with our eye on everything, and we understand that we aren’t just a Canadian company. The Fight Network TV deal is not just a Canadian or a North American deal, it’s an international deal. It is an international deal from an international company for an international audience.
How did the deal all come about with The Fight Network? When were the seeds planted for the show that debuted on Thursday, July 20th at 10 pm eastern?
I think the one person who truly knows about it is me because it has been a bit of a long process. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I don’t want that to seem cliché, but things worked out better than I had envisioned. About two years ago, I was in contact with The Fight Network and fortunately had a rapport with some people that worked there. I was always curious, how come my wrestling school or brand was short-lived? How come they didn’t stay on? What does it take for me to get a wrestling program on there? It really came down to production, which is why you don’t see a lot of independents on there, and no knock on Fight Network, but pro wrestling wasn’t in the forefront of their priorities. Not to say that it wasn’t a priority, but compared to how it is being presented now, it is night and day, it’s incredible.
It is a premier company, and the reality is that I am the small guy, we never started with a lot of money, we weren’t started by a famous wrestler who was successful, or by someone whose dad was successful. We’re truly the embodiment of the underdog, scratching and clawing, taking the long road, but if you look at the journey of a promoter or someone who has started with next to no money, no history, and no connection or network, it will take 10, 15, 20 years even, if they are lucky. For us to make it in four in and a half years, to make it to where we are today, or even the success we achieved in three or three years, is unbelievable.
It took some wrestlers to remind me ‘Wow, you guys are doing so well. How long have you been doing this for, seven years, eight years?’ At that time, I’m like, no it’s been two and a half or three years. The reason I am trying to make that point is that because fans want to get behind an underdog, I don’t care what anybody says, it has to be authentic or something that people respect. We may be on top of the Ontario scene or the Canadian scene, but that doesn’t mean people know we did it without money or connections or having a name. I think that is why fans are passionately behind us and like seeing our success. It is hard work. It is the little guy making it. We don’t even present ourselves as the little guy, we go out and present as the real deal with some confidence.
To get back to it, two and a half years ago when I was told that it was a case of production, I thought, okay, Impact Wrestling has a deal with Fight Network, and damn it, I want to get my wrestling program on there, and they have money, they have big name. And then you see Ring of Honor do it, and then you are like, ‘Okay. How was it that these guys were able to do it?’ You don’t have all that money and the platform to do it, you are scratching and clawing and scratching and clawing. For these past couple of years, it has been at the forefront of our priorities that we would be TV ready for them. At the same time, you improve this and that, and you improve production and you improve your reach, but eventually, you always hit a wall because what you need cameras, lighting that is five figures, and as the average blue collar Joe you don’t have five figures to just dispense. For us, we had so many other priorities, like the Progress show, and it wasn’t that we gave up on the Fight Network thing, but we just needed to be able to grow the company as a television product. We had to put that on hold and focus on this stuff. It was always there, and it was a long-traveled road.
We worked it out in Toronto with The Phoenix Concert Hall and in London with The London Music Hall, we upgraded our venues and brought in Michael Elgin and Zack Sabre Jr, Jeff Cobb, and the guys from New Japan and the UK and Mexico. The head of Fight Network said, ‘Everyone is vouching for you guys. You put on incredible shows. You know what kind of shows you are going to deliver and you put on a great product.’ We have made stars, and starting from the bottom we had one or two more things that we needed to work on in our production. The payoff has been that we are now in a position that we can foresee something. Anthem Sports owns and Fight Network and Impact Wrestling, something that everyone listening would know. We are now in a position that not only has Fight Network has been pushing this deal and pushing pro wrestling, but they now own the product as well and are going to invest in it. Now we get to air after Impact and are going to be one of their top billings. We will be in the unique position to use the talent of Impact Wrestlers on our television programs which aren’t common practice.
Even one of our replays, Tuesdays at 8 pm, is at the heart of the night, we have two very strong spots. A lot of people were suggesting other local cable outlets, and I am not knocking them, but it has been done by many and that isn’t a wrestling audience. I wanted to be a Canadian promotion on a Canadian network that is pro wrestling and fight relevant. This is our right audience, right network, right timeslot and right partners. This is the right opportunity, and waiting has paid off, this long struggle has been worth it. There is no better place, timeslot or audience than where we are at right now, in my opinion. That in itself should put us in a position to grow over the next few years, whether from a ratings, industry or financial perspective. If things on the business side should flourish from that will be a wait-and-see approach, but that is the lay out and the story of how this whole thing has come about. I don’t think we could be in a better position. If you were looking at another Canadian network, there are only a few that are as big, but are they wrestling and combat sports relevant? I would say no, and that this is the place to be for us.
Are you at liberty to give us additional specifics on the deal? The length of term?
Yes and no, some things I wouldn’t be at liberty to say because I don’t think it would be all that shocking or all that great a scoop. We have their trust and they have our trust, and the coolest thing I don’t mind sharing with you is they love our production. Our guys are picky, and the way we lay out our programming, we already pre-recorded a few events and we already booked our summer. We don’t, right now, want to have a live TV taping format because it may take away from the live event experience which we are very well known for, and what the people love are our live events.
Fight Network is going to be patient with us. They said ‘Listen, don’t worry, don’t stress out, we believe in you, we know what you have and we want to see this grow.’ If we have a live event that didn’t work out for us, and we have a little less content, rather than have to fill an entire episode they are willing to work with us, they want to see this work. They see the potential and how we are new to TV and realize the unique situation of us being a Canadian promotion on this network. We are either the only one, or one of only two Canadian promotions on Fight Network, and we are the marquee Canadian promotion. So, the one thing we can tell you is that we have a partner that wants to see us succeed, and are going to help us on some fronts, and are willing to be patient. And that was something I didn’t anticipate, but each and every time I have dealt with someone from Fight Network it becomes more and more apparent that we are with the right partners. I don’t see this being a short-term deal, and I don’t see this being a situation where, if we have one hiccup we are off the network. They are invested in us and we are invested in them, and I hope to some degree that answers your question about them.
Part of it is, they know who we are and they know we aren’t going to be klutzy, unprofessional, take shortcuts. However, if we do have a hiccup, this isn’t their first rodeo. They have worked with a ton of programming and a ton of promotions, and know how this works out with people. I think they have an idea of what types of people they are dealing with, and the production value of those they are working with, and our reputation. They have an idea of which groups to shy away from, and which to work with. The same thing with me, I can read people, if they want to work with me or anyone else, and if they want to be part of our staff. I have an idea of which people I can work with, which people I can partner up with or run an event with. I have said no before because I know which people to not give a chance, and which people not to proceed with. They are confident with us, and we don’t plan on faltering.
What do you have planned for both yourself and the promotion for the balance of 2017?
For myself, I am getting back to being busier than ever in the Ontario scene, and fortunately had some opportunities to work outside the area. My heart and soul have been with Smash, but not because I don’t want to be in other places. I can confidently say that it is hard to find someone, at least in my area that puts more hours in, week to week, then me. I have a two-year-old, and I work 70 hours a week, but I’ll still find time to be a good dad. I love this company, and the work is fun for me, the work is challenging for me, even stressful. However, even when it’s hard I still do work at the gym, and at the show.
We at Smash are expanding and growing, and for sure you can catch us on Fight Network or our on demand service, and we are giving people zero excuses not to see us. We aren’t just running shows in Toronto, we are running shows all over the province, and you better catch us on Fight Network which isn’t just Canada or the US, but International. And you can catch us in Bosnia and Algeria for crying out loud! Our on-demand service is $7.49 a month and it has everything on it that we have ever done, and if you don’t want to buy a ticket to a show or a DVD, then the on-demand service has everything. It wasn’t just live events, we have partnered up with some great promotions to share content. Included in the $7.49, people can see Progress, Bar Wrestling, Pacific Coast Wrestling, and there may be more coming up. We are offering people as many ways as possible to see us. Hopefully, people will give us a shot, and we are confident that we have a passion that can be conveyed through one of these experiences.