The last time Shawn Daivari, aka Sheik Abdul Bashir, performed at Mill City Nights, he tossed his walking stick into the ring. Then with great effort, he heaved himself after. Leaning shakily on the ropes, the wounded wrestling star introduced his younger brother, Ariya Daivari, as the new standard bearer of the Daivari name.
Ariya, clearly billed as the bad guy, turned up his chin and told Shawn to get out. The spotlight’s no place for a cripple.
As the crowd booed, Shawn began to climb down, his face a mask of anguish. The rope quaked under his grip as he lowered himself onto one knee and rolled out of the ring with the help of a nearby cameraman.
That little back and forth made for great crowd-boosting entertainment, but the pain had been real, Shawn Daivari confirms. He has a herniated disk in his lower back from some 10 years of wrestling wear and tear. It calls for surgery, but constant touring always prevented him from taking off the nine months required for rehab.
But now that Daivari and another big-time local wrestler, Ken Anderson, aka. Mr. Kennedy, are starting up a school for professional wrestling, he might finally have the opportunity to look after himself – as well as up-and-coming local talent.
For starters, wrestlers never used to care about their health. Daivari and Anderson hope to change that.
When professional wrestling really came to life in the 1940s, a lot of the big stars were just beefed-up carnies. Minneapolis legend Eddie Sharkey, Daivari’s former coach, began his career fighting big guys at the fair for 50 bucks a pop. But before they even climbed fully into the ring, he’d stomp them in the face, take their money, and go do it again in the next town. Injuries were taken lightly.
“The old guys really tried to protect the image of pro wrestling as ‘real,’” Anderson says. “If you’re in a bar and somebody challenged you, like, ‘Hey, what you do is fake!’ you were expected to kick the shit out of that guy.”
Well, now the cat’s out of the bag. People know that pro wrestling is a mixture of sport, stunt, and theater, every storyline a retelling of the archetypical hero’s journey in the endless battle between good and evil.
To be a star, you have to be good on the microphone, telling that story, building the crowd. You have to know how to promote yourself. You have to have connections if you're going to get signed. You have to have the moves, but you also have to know how to preserve your body.
No one was around to teach Daivari and Anderson how to do that. They had to figure it out themselves. It took them a lot of time, a bunch of mistakes, and plenty of luck.
For as big a wrestling town as Minneapolis was — the WWE gives it an "A" rating, and the electorate chose a pro wrestler for governor — there wasn't much respect for wrestlers as athletes.
“The industry when me and Ken came up, they treated us like fucking circus animals,” Daivari says. “I don’t know why it was like that. And it was around 2010 they said, ‘Hey, these guys aren’t circus animals we can just fucking replace. They’re investments.’ If a guy takes 10 years to become a box office draw and then he’s crippled, they only had one year of reaping in the benefits of him being successful.”
Their school, which opens November 1 in St. Paul, includes in-ring training, personal strength conditioning, custom meal planning, physical therapy, and lessons in speech, promo, and networking with industry honchos worldwide.
They’ll have ventriloquists coach trainees on how to communicate without tipping off the crowd and the cameras. They’ll invite dancers to teach grace – after all, even Arnold Schwarzenegger took ballet lessons as a bodybuilder. Past and present WWE wrestlers will guest train. One night a week, trainees will watch videos of the pros and themselves.
To prevent injury, Daivari and Anderson ordered mouth guards and headgear – an unprecedented thing in the pro wrestling industry.
“All this shit, they’re no-brainers in every other sport, but we pretend that we’re tough guys or something,” Daivari says. “It’s bullshit. We bought crash pads. Once they get it right, then we put them in the ring.”
“What people getting into it must know is that this business works the hardest, hurts the most,” Anderson says. “Besides maybe the Harlem Globetrotters, you know. We work really, really hard and it hurts more than people think.”
There are about 30 students currently signed up. They're young and old, boys and girls. Among them are 30-year-old Griffen Gau, a Pizza Luce server who loved watching wrestling as a young kid, and 36-year-old Tom Hoogenboom, who recently started watching a lot of WWE in the hospital when his newborn girls were being treated for congenital complications.
They’ve both trained a bit through other wrestling schools, but found they were only learning enough to barely hold on in the indie ring.
“I don’t really know what I want to do the rest of my life, but if I’m borrowing money to go to my second wrestling school, I want to not suck at it,” Gau says. “When I’m at work and I’m dealing with customers, or when I’m walking around, nobody knows who the hell I am. No one knows that when I get home I’m going to get back in the ring and I’m going to try to drop kick this guy.”
“It’s been a huge boost of confidence.”