With a shorter haircut and a longer beard, independent wrestling mainstay Joey Ryan is still one of the most popular acts on the circuit. With a sleazy character that resembles wrestlers of years past, Ryan has captured the adulation of fans by incorporating the characteristics that made an entire generation of wrestlers.
Body hair reminiscent of the late Rick Rude, a lollipop that ends up in the mouth of one lucky fan before a match, and bright colors that hit the eyeball like a clothesline to the chest. But in Ryan's view, the character that he portrays today naturally grew into sleaze without it being his objective.
"When I came up with the character, it wasn't necessarily geared towards sleaze, it was more that I want to be the kind of wrestler that I watched when I grew up, which is an 80s wrestler," said the 35-year-old Ryan. "I feel like a lot of what was cool in the 80s comes off more sleazy today. Just trying a look, grow in the chest hair, the mustache or the facial hair, whatever. It is even the styles of the way I throw punches and stuff like that. The way I walk around the ring, it comes off very sleazy. It's always me trying to mimic the stuff I watched in the 80s."
Fans who attend independent wrestling events generally do so to see something different. In the era that we currently exist, it's hard to find something original, unique, or even entertaining on a professional wrestling show due the changes in society.
In recent years, WWE has taken an initiative to produce more family friendly content and reduce the portrayed violence. A company like TNA is the closest competition, but in the near decade and a half of its existence, it has not been able to solidify itself as an alternative to WWE, often using similar storylines and featuring a litany of former WWE talent.
That is why Ryan is glad to have received a level of exposure by being with TNA but is still seen by the audience primarily as an independent wrestler.
"Independent fans, indy wrestling fans and the independent scene as a whole sometimes looks at itself as the alternative to mainstream wrestling. That's what they buy into and that's what they like," said Ryan. "Of course, you're gonna have independent shows headlined by guys that draw in more of the masses, like WWE guys or TNA guys. But for the most part, independent wrestling fans come to the show to see an alternative and so if you're labeled as a TV guy, TNA guy or WWE guy, you're kind of seen as that rather than being part of the alternative."
While he wrestled with TNA, Ryan received a lot of praise for his stint with the company, which included programs with wrestling veterans Al Snow, Taz, Rob Van Dam, and others. His last major program saw the PWG mainstay form a tag team with the "Blueprint" Matt Morgan.
Ryan states that he appreciated his time in TNA, but he does feel that he and Morgan were put in a situation where they were doomed to fail.
"When I teamed with Matt [Morgan], we didn't get too much direction, they let us do our own thing. I think they didn't really know what to do with us per se," said Ryan. "He was supposed to be the unstoppable monster so he wouldn't be on the defense much but there is only so many times I can lose a match for us and then him not look like an idiot for teaming with me because he is supposed to be unstoppable. Since they didn't really know what they wanted to do with us, or how they wanted to push us or how they wanted to use us, we just got stuck in feuds we weren't gonna win."
He continued, "It was lack of vision and long-term planning for us so it hurt us. On the plus side, I was able to get what I could out of it, I was able to be in TNA long enough to get some good TV exposure without being in there so long that I'm labeled a TNA guy, so I still have a lot of 'indy cred' so that worked."
In recent months, the controversy surrounding TNA is that the company is struggling to pay their wrestlers and several other employees. But for the time Ryan was employed by TNA, the company was never late with payments, according to the "Sleazy" one.
"No, they were never even late with a payment for me," said the former Gut Check contestant. "My deal was I got a monthly guarantee plus I got bonuses for matches and appearances I would make on shows. It wouldn't always be the same week in the month, but always got it within the month. Sometimes it would come the first week, sometimes it would come the third week, but it was never late, it was never past the month. I'm obviously not there so I don't know how it's going now, but for me it was fine."
In addition to the time he spent molding his "Sleazy" character in TNA, Ryan has made several appearances with WWE in the form of dark matches, skits, and various other means. During that time, Ryan encountered trainer and former wrestler Bill DeMott.
Recently, allegations of physical, verbal, and others forms of abuse have been brought up against DeMott by former wrestlers. Never experiencing that type of abuse firsthand, Ryan did feel that he was disrespected by DeMott during his tryout camp, especially considering that Ryan is a veteran in the business himself.
"He fancies himself as a tough guy, a hard-nosed grinder I suppose. To me directly, I felt disrespected by him just because of the years I put into wrestling and the successes I've had. Maybe they weren't successes in WWE and maybe that's all he cares about, but it's fine, I've still put in the time," said Ryan. "I don't look at him as a coach, maybe that was a problem too because he has to be a coach there, I didn't view him as a coach, I looked at him as a peer and I felt disrespected the same as I would if anybody in the locker room disrespected me tonight."
Additionally, Ryan questions DeMott being a trainer as he feels that the former WWE and WCW competitor was not a good wrestler himself. Finally, upon hearing the stories that circulated about DeMott's alleged behavior, Ryan is puzzled by WWE protecting the formerly known "Hugh Morrus" in a situation that is anything but a laughing matter.
"Hearing the stories of some of the more racist and homophobic things he would say during classes, it got puzzling to me why he was being so protected by the WWE. I feel like wrestling has so many negatives going towards it that we need to weed out stuff like that. There's no place for that stuff in the world much less professional wrestling, which is already looked down up by the mainstream."
While Ryan did receive a tryout with WWE, he revealed that in an e-mail with a WWE employee who told Ryan that he was too experienced to be hired and not what the company was looking for. Looking back, Ryan doesn't think that the issue was him being too experienced or too good to be hired, but rather him having his own way of being a professional wrestler that didn't see eye-to-eye with WWE's formula of creating a superstar.
"I don't necessarily think that they thought I was too good but maybe too set in my ways," said Ryan. "It's all based on interpretation I feel like because I had been wrestling at that point 13 years, that, obviously WWE has their way of doing things and to me, one of the problems with their company, obviously they're a successful company and they don't need my advice but I feel too many of their guys are too bland because they are all trained the same way and wrestle the same way and it's because they are set in their ways of how they wanna train people as opposed to letting more guys like myself who are set in our ways, who have our own style and our own uniqueness. I feel like guys that have been wrestling for them too long for them or long enough for them, they feel like they have to un-train to re-train. But I guess it's getting better because since my tryout they've hired guys like Kevin Steen and Fergal Devitt. So I think that mentality has gone down a bit since my tryout."
Currently, Ryan, alongside his tag team partner Candice LeRae, known as the "World's Cutest Tag Team," are traveling the independent circuit and are one of the more popular acts around. As the fans appreciate what the duo of Ryan and LeRae, who have friends for over a decade do, Ryan loves the dichotomy of teaming with a female.
Usually, a tag team is comprised of either two males or two females. But having an inter-gender team forces Ryan to think harder, be more creative, and have the time of his life.
"I really like because it forces me to be more creative, it forces me to look at things a different way, it has reinvigorated my mind for wrestling because I have to think of things in a different light now and I have to make it make sense. The last thing I want to do is insult the audience's intelligence, and obviously with a woman it's a little different than a man. I love it and it's so much fun and you've got to treat it like it is," said the 15-year veteran of the industry. "Some of the harder parts are getting people to understand that since we are a choreography, or we are a show, we can tell anything we want in the ring, we just have to make it make sense. A lot of people like to rely on what they do and what they know and don't want to think outside the box. But if you get creative mind's flowing, you can make anything make sense in the context of a professional wrestling match. But I guess one of the negatives is one of the pluses, thinking outside that box and sometimes it takes a little work and more preparation to do that,but it also makes it a lot more fun because you're not doing the same old thing."
In being a near two-decade veteran in wrestling, Ryan is thinking about his future after he is done sticking lollipops in fans mouth and causing friction with his field of body hair.
Much like the wrestling business is built on characters and performance, Ryan is interested in doing more acting, something he cites as a "second passion." Yet, Ryan is taking things in stride, and if the opportunity arose to cut back his wrestling schedule, more acting would likely be his next step.
But as he sits at his merchandise table in Brooklyn, New York, awaiting a crowd of over 200 fans to attend a show with a match featuring Ryan facing David Starr, Ryan takes the time to reflect on the amazing ride his wrestling career has been and the opportunities that he's been afforded.
"Traveling, getting to travel the world, I've wrestled in eight or nine different countries, I've got more international stuff coming up. I've got Australia coming up in June. The travel aspect is always the mind-blowing thing when you're in a country and you stop to think because wrestling brought you there," said Ryan. "Candice and I did a tour of Europe a couple of months back and we had a week off so we spent three days at Disney Land Paris and wrestling paid for that. It's kinda cool when you realize what you get to do through professional wrestling."
For full audio, you can listen to the interview here.
[Images by Mark Suleymanov]