Storytelling, WrestleMania, and Me

Above all other professional endeavors, I’m a storyteller. As a writer and a social media head, my day-to-day life consists of trying to hook an audience from the first word to the last, in an attempt to get said audience to think, act, or feel a certain way.

Some stories are longer than others, but whether it’s a 140-character tweet or a 1,000-word post on this site, that above philosophy is generally the rule. Whether you realize it or not, 90% of the people that work in my field (not just horse racing communications, but communications as a whole) are, at their cores, telling stories designed to inform or inspire an audience.

Recently, the 33rd installment of WrestleMania coming and going made me think. As I drove home from the viewing party I went to, I realized that an alarming number of people I’ve associated myself with over the years are wrestling fans. This wasn’t a conscious decision on my part, but rather, part of something bigger. I hope the people mentioned below don’t mind me expounding on it. If they mind…well, tough, it’s my site.

I went to college with Mick Rouse, and if his job isn’t the coolest one in the world, it’s at least in the discussion. He’s the wrestling writer for GQ, and his assignments have included working out with the Bella Twins (paging John Cena: Mick fended off your girl with a whip and a chair!) and interviewing WrestleMania hosts The New Day. Peter Fornatale, the main tournament writer for the Daily Racing Form, doubles as the co-writer of several autobiographical books penned by wrestler extraordinaire Chris Jericho. Gulfstream Park track announcer Pete Aiello spent part of WrestleMania watching it next to former WWE wrestler Gangrel at a south Florida restaurant. TVG’s Nick Hines routinely cut wrestling promos on his way to the winner’s circle during his training days…and if you didn’t think I was going to present video proof of this, you’re crazy.

I could keep expounding on this list for a long time, but I think I’ve made my point. An alarming number of people who consider themselves storytellers, from professional writers to announcers to hosts, are drawn to stories told in the ring by world-class athletes working off of scripts. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Wisdom says that as we grow up, we leave certain things in the past. Children of the 1980’s flocked to Hulk Hogan, and those who grew up in the 1990’s idolized “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock. Generally, though, the perceived thought process is that sports entertainment is something you’re supposed to enjoy for a few years, grow out of, and only come back to if you’re lucky enough to have children who discover it the same way you did.

Certainly, this thought process took a hit with the launch of the WWE Network, which is probably the gold standard for over-the-top (non-cable) video presentation. Decades of wrestling from pretty much any promotion you can imagine are available on computers and gaming devices with just a few clicks, making it as easy as ever for someone who grew up idolizing any larger-than-life figure who stepped in the squared circle to relive their childhood (at the low price of $9.99 a month, of course).

That said, that doesn’t quite explain everything. My theory is that, as storytellers, we’re attracted to outlets that do what we do. Whether you see wrestling as phony or not, the ample amount of storylines on a given show generally means that there’s something for everyone. In fact, Mick’s New Day interview I mentioned earlier hit on that very topic. You don’t have to be into EVERYTHING to be drawn in, and even if you’re watching for one character, match, or segment, chances are something else will pop up that piques your interest.

Take, for instance, the WrestleMania card. If you wanted former best friends fighting, you had Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho. If you wanted to see two powerhouses hitting each other hard, there were Goldberg and Brock Lesnar. If you wanted a romantic happy ending, you could see John Cena proposing to Nikki Bella (though whether it was a storyline proposal or a real one remains to be seen).

The most monumental moment of the show, though, came at its conclusion. The Undertaker, owner of one of wrestling’s greatest gimmicks for the better part of three decades, may have wrestled his last match. To expound on the incredible talent, longevity, and star power possessed by this man, The Undertaker has now wrestled at 25 WrestleMania events, easily a record. Heading into Sunday’s show, his record in those matches, as decided by a business relying on the biggest extravaganza of the year to deliver in spades, was 23-1.

His engagement with Roman Reigns Sunday night in Orlando was not pretty, nor was that the intention of the encounter. This was a Kung Fu movie condensed to 20 minutes, with the master having nothing left to give and going out on his back at the hands of a man the company sees as a long-term star. Reigns got the extended fireworks display as he exited victorious, but all eyes were on the fallen legend in the ring, who eventually left his trademark gloves, jacket, and black hat behind while an announced crowd of more than 75,000 fans stood and applauded in appreciation of his extensive body of work.

I can’t speak for my friends and colleagues, but moments like that are why I do not hesitate in supporting something seen by many as a childish diversion. Every time I sit down at a computer to write, whether it’s a social media post or a longer article, I search for a way to hook an audience, to give them something they can digest and enjoy. World Wrestling Entertainment does the same thing at every show. WWE doing so with its employees wrestling upwards of 200 matches per year, plus making charity and media appearances and traveling all around the world, makes this pursuit even more remarkable. By comparison, I consider myself a reasonably competent writer, with a few awards to my credit, and there are days where I can’t put a coherent sentence together to save my life. These men and women tell stories for thousands of paying customers almost every day, and the bumps they take, staged or otherwise, are a HELL of a lot more painful than writer’s block!

I’ve been lucky enough to have several moments where my life and career intersected with my wrestling fandom. As a kid, I met WWE Hall of Famer Sgt. Slaughter at a department store, and the autographed picture he gave me is still hanging up at my dad’s house. A vacation to the Jersey Shore around that time included a stop at a small arena in Wildwood, where I was choked out by the legendary King Kong Bundy before an independent show later that night. As you can see, I sold the choke better than a good 80% of the roster. I’m still waiting on my paycheck.

Bundy

Many years later, while a sportswriter at The Saratogian, I interviewed Ron “R-Truth” Killings by phone from my car following a high school lacrosse game I covered just north of New York City. This was in preparation for a house show (an untelevised event) at the Glens Falls Civic Center a few nights later, which was headlined by the same John Cena who proposed to his girlfriend Sunday night. Many people at my paper rolled their eyes at the reporter covering a pro wrestling event on company time, but none of that mattered. I got to go to a WWE show for free and write about it for an audience.

I got to tell a story. And much like many of the athletes I covered that night, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.

The Best Advice I Could Give Anyone

A good portion of this blog will revolve around horse racing, with content ranging from analysis and selections to lists, columns, and other fun stuff. However, I don’t want this website to be solely racing-related, as I’ve done a lot of other things that I’m very proud of.

From time to time, I’ll post retrospectives or thoughts on certain things for various reasons. Sometimes, it’ll solely be because I enjoy telling stories. Other times, it’ll be because I have experiences that could possibly benefit someone who’s reading and going through something similar. There may be other motivations behind this stuff that I’m not even aware of yet, but at any rate, this is one of those times where racing takes a back seat.

Every once in a while, I get asked for career advice from people looking to enter horse racing, or broadcasting, or the professional world in general. I think it’s the duty of people being asked to provide the best answer possible in this situation, and that’s not a responsibility I take lightly.

My responses have varied over the years. Now that I’m a little bit older, a little bit wiser (or so I’d like to think), and a little bit more familiar with the way the world works, I’ve finally settled on a two-pronged response to the question, “What advice can you give me?” I’ll analyze both in detail.

1) Bet on yourself.

This sounds really simple, but it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you put faith into your skillset. This goes for pretty much any discipline you can think of. I’m a believer that, if you’re willing to take chances for the opportunities you want, sooner or later, someone WILL take notice.

I gambled on myself in 2013, when, with the help of my parents (Dad and I took turns driving, Mom helped with a necessary car repair before making the trip), I moved cross-country. I knew nobody in Southern California except my boss, I knew nothing about any places to live, and it was downright strange getting accustomed to living 3,000 miles away from where I was born and raised. Well, except the whole “football games start at 10 a.m.” thing, which took zero time to get used to, but I digress.

I won’t go into the myriad of personal or professional reasons why I moved, but doing that opened up as many doors for me as anything I’ve ever done. Personally, my quality of life shot through the roof, due in no small part to one particular person I met shortly after moving west. Professionally, I went from being a local turf writer in a small city to becoming a respected handicapper on a national stage. If I hadn’t been willing to move cross-country and hit the “reset” button on my way of life, none of that would’ve ever happened.

Mind you, I’m not saying it’s wise to pack up and go somewhere on a whim. What I AM saying, though, is to be confident enough in who you are and how you live your life to take chances and do things that advance you to where you want to go. If you’re not satisfied doing what you’re doing, look at what you can control and do something about it.

2) Don’t ever let ANYONE tell you that you’re incapable of doing something.

Okay, gather around, it’s story time.

Back in 2010, after returning from my internship at the 2010 Winter Olympics, I sat down and plotted a course of action into how I was going to get my first-ever real job. My idea was to blast my resume to the athletic departments of every college or university with a Division I program, thinking that, sooner or later, a door was going to open.

We’ll get to the results of that in a bit. I got a myriad of responses to these inquiries, including several very nice messages of, “no thanks,” and a few interviews with some very nice people. By and large, the people who work in college athletics recognize the struggles of breaking into the business, and I was able to learn a lot by doing what I did.

I only got one response that made me question the wisdom of what I was doing. I won’t name the school in question, but I will say it was a major athletic department. I still have the email in my mailbox, in a separate folder off to the side, just in case there are days where I need some encouragement.

“I will be honest with you and tell you that, from my perspective in the radio broadcasting part of the business, your chances of getting your first job out of college on the air broadcasting for a Division 1 level network are nil.”

That hit me pretty hard when I read it seven years ago, and even now, the impact isn’t lost on me. I firmly understand that the writer of those words probably didn’t intend to come off in a negative light, and was probably trying to give a young kid some idea of how the business worked. For better or for worse, though, the words you see italicized have been a driving force in a lot of what I’ve done to this point in my career.

Fast-forward seven months. After searching for the better part of a year (as most 2010 college graduates were, given the economy), I finally landed an opportunity to show someone what I could do in a broadcasting/multimedia environment in exchange for a paycheck.

The place? Siena College. A school with a Division I athletic department, where I had a big hand in broadcasts for soccer, basketball, baseball, and lacrosse.

The writer of that email probably has no idea what I’ve been up to all these years, or how much what he said motivated me (inadvertently or otherwise). If he’s somehow out there reading this: Thanks for what you did for me…even if you didn’t mean to do it.

That concludes the first-ever full-on blog post here on AndrewChampagne.com. It’s a big racing weekend, with two Kentucky Derby preps on tap for Saturday and a mandatory payout in Gulfstream Park’s Rainbow Six set for Sunday. I’ll have a few posts up looking at those cards in the near future.

Until then: If you’ve got a comment, or a suggestion, or a gripe, buzz me by way of this site’s ‘contact’ section, which you can go to by clicking here.