The off-ramp just south of Exit 317 looks much like any other. Towering columns of cement and mortar bend and twist, forming bridge and road, median and walkway, all adjacent to the bastion of airport commerce ambitiously dubbed the Gateway to Milwaukee. Oftentimes, in the winter months, it rains. Light showers at first, precursors to the snows that dance through the fog and drown out cold nights on the I-94.
It's the kind of place which hardly catches a second glance, no more or less distinguished than the thousands that link the Midwest to the Great Lakes, with no relation to that darkened studio in the Hollywood Hills where the best wrestlers in the country once cast each other into vast plaster moats for vast sums of cash, and for a brief moment the word ‘amateur' ceased to matter. Though maybe it has every relation to it, because life doesn't work in straight lines, and sometimes the end can be a beginning, even if the end is excruciatingly tragic, and even if the beginning is a bit goofy to watch.
Over a decade after its inception, Real Pro Wrestling (or RPW) still stands today as amateur wrestling's most successful crack at gaining traction in the United States with a professional league. The work of Northwestern wrestlers Toby Willis and Matt Case, RPW is admittedly dated by modern standards. But those squealing guitar riffs, gladiatorial digs, and late-‘90s visual flairs, son, those were defiant in their day.
"We thought it was the start of something huge," says Daniel Cormier, a future U.S. Olympic wrestling captain who emerged as a breakout star of the series. "We thought this was something massive. We'd never seen anything like this before. We'd never been on TV for eight weeks in a row. It was everywhere, man. When I tell you that guys would go across the country -- they had tryouts for it where guys would actually leave home, go to these tryouts because they wanted to be involved. It was crazy. We all knew: this was an opportunity to make serious money."
RPW is now mostly an oddity; a curious and obscure one-off relic of the pre-DVR era that showcased Olympians, collegiate coaches, and future mixed martial arts stars alike. But for eight weeks in the spring of 2005, every Sunday afternoon from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m., the nation's finest and most underappreciated athletes discarded their singlets and collided within a studio built for the ancient Romans, competing on national television for renown and prize money equating to a living wage, both unheard of in an otherwise niche sport.
"I just remember that feeling, the feeling that I finally wanted in wrestling," says Greco Roman world champion Joe Warren. "That was the first time I got that feeling where I walked down to the mat and everybody started screaming. A lot of lights. A lot of cameras. It felt big. That's really what I think we all got: our first glimpse of the star life. We felt like what we did mattered."
The list of predecessors to RPW is short, steered most infamously by Wayne Gerenstein's disastrous and ill-fated 1989 National Wrestling League. It's telling that the list of successors is appreciably longer. Yet from VWC to AGON to GWC, no venture has reached as high as Willis and Case's darling, no venture has done more to exact its change upon the sport, and no venture has drawn such prodigious talent.
"That's what I think we all got: our first glimpse of the star life. We felt like what we did mattered."
There was Chael Sonnen, the loquacious wordsmith years away from his dazzling rise and fall. Matt Lindand, silver medalist turned fighter, veteran among veterans. Patrick Cummins, fresh-faced, gap-toothed, an undersized underdog sporting the cobalt and silver. Muhammed Lawal, flamboyant as all hell, nipple rings taped to his chest, rocking low into his double leg. Aaron Simpson, freestyle stalwart, mentor to the hungriest loons in the entire Southwest. Warren, exasperation incarnate, the gritty Greco envoy slowly learning the ways of a slick tongue. And Cormier, iron-willed, stiff-necked, and mean; the Olympian who would grow to become the greatest threat to rewrite light heavyweight history, but first had to establish his place among the monsters of the mat.
Before they were fighters, all seven were wrestlers. And wrestling needed help. It just took a nightmare to do it.
"People say Real Pro is a great story because it was an attempt to get a pro league out," Case says. "But going back to the genesis of it is where the real story is. Toby Willis and his family. His passion for his brothers and sisters. Their loss. And of course the sport of wrestling. When you get out of college, you think you can conquer the world. And after the accident, he wanted to help, all he could, what he saw was a dying sport."
* * *
Sometime around 10:30 a.m., on a frigid Milwaukee morning in November 1994, an 18-inch, 42-pound metal bracket tumbled off the back of the truck driven by Ricardo Guzman, screamed down the highway asphalt, and lodged itself into the gas tank of Reverend Scott Willis' Plymouth Grand Voyager.
Toby Willis, the oldest of Scott's nine children, was across state lines at Northwestern University when it happened, oblivious. It was only later he learned how the impaled bracket acted like a matchstick, dragging against the road at high speeds, sending sparks ricocheting into a seeping fuel tank. How, within seconds, the Plymouth Grand Voyager burst into flames, instantaneously killing Toby's five youngest siblings.
Peter Willis, 6 weeks old. Elizabeth Willis, 3 years old. Hank Willis, 7. Sam Willis, 9. Joe Willis, 11.
Emergency workers dragged Ben Willis, 13, from the inferno and admitted him into nearby Children's Hospital of Milwaukee. Ben was in critical condition, 90-percent of his body ravaged by first and second-degree burns. A hospital attendant later told reporters that Ben asked her to hold his hand, a small comfort, but the burns wouldn't allow it. It rained throughout the night, and Ben, too, died the next day.
Toby Willis' parents, Scott and Janet, miraculously escaped with minor injuries. They had been driving to a family birthday party. Now their six youngest children were memories.
In the movies, there's always some sense of an overarching point to tragedy. Some purpose behind the pain. In life there is only the next day.
Investigators eventually discovered Guzman was a Mexican immigrant with seven documented driving infractions marring his record over a 12-month span. They discovered that he couldn't understand the words of his fellow truckers who'd warned about his busted rig hours before the accident, and that he was just one of hundreds of non-English-speaking drivers illegitimately granted licenses through bribes to Illinois Governor George Ryan's office.
Half a decade after that cold Milwaukee morning, while newspapermen waxed poetic about the six snowmen erected in silent remembrance outside the Willis family gravesite, Ryan began a six-and-a-half year prison sentence on federal corruption charges. As penance, the state awarded the Willises a reported $100 million settlement -- one of the largest wrongful-death settlements in Illinois history.
Speaking to the Chicago Tribune, law professor Marshall Shapo explained the enormity of the amount by stating simply: "There is a special horror to a whole clan being wiped out."
* * *
Toby Willis and Matt Case always bled wrestling. The son of a mat coach who grew up on the north side of Chicago, Willis wrestled for a decade, became a national qualifier at Northwestern, and had high hopes of winning a 158-pound national championship his junior year. A spinal injury cut that dream short, but while on the team Willis befriended Case, a music major from Wisconsin and walk-on late-bloomer who shot from 167 pounds as a freshman to a robust 190-pound All-American by his senior campaign. The two kept in touch after graduation, and after the accident rocked his family, Willis knew he had been given an opportunity to assist his athletic brethren.
"I lost one set of brothers, and in a sense the wrestlers were another set of brothers."
"I lost one set of brothers, and in a sense the wrestlers were another set of brothers," Willis says. "They needed help. I was in a position where I could help them."
Wrestling had reached a strange place stateside by the time the calendar hit the mid-aughts. An explosion of American talent throughout the ‘80s, guided by the Schultz brothers, Dave and Mark, crested into a decade-long tour of excellence across the ‘90s, bringing unprecedented success to the United States' national freestyle program. Eleven American wrestlers captured medals in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, highlighted by six golds, two first-place team finishes in Worlds, and an overall first-place team finish on home soil in the 1996 Games.
But the golden years had begun to fade by the turn of the century. Aside from Cael Sanderson, who became known as one of the greatest American wrestlers of all-time, the national program sunk into a decline, unable to churn out new international talent as major names either aged or left for greener pastures. A surge of weight cutting fatalities coupled with Dave Schultz's tragic murder at Foxcatcher to bring an even thicker haze down upon the sport. Once the tide turned, universities across the country gradually began funneling money elsewhere, either downsizing or wiping out their collegiate programs entirely.
Many in wrestling began to see the signs -- the rigidity and conservatism the sport prided itself on had become its Achilles heel.
"I go to a wrestling match and I love it," says Chael Sonnen, a one-time All-American whose alma mater, the University of Oregon, cut its wrestling program in the 2000's. "But at a wrestling match, on every level, that includes Division I, you go into an empty and cold gym, you roll out a mat, and you set 10 chairs up on each side. That's a dual meet, and it's very hard to act like it's a big event.
"The people at the top need to understand: you're putting on a show. You're in a gymnasium. You've got seats. You've got cold drinks and hot popcorn. You're charging people. They're coming in, they're buying tickets. This is a show. Your level of production was to roll out a mat and set up 10 chairs on both sides of it? The crowds are going to reflect your effort."
By 2002, the realization had become obvious: wrestling was a sport on welfare. Aside from scattered sponsorships to the top one-percent who claimed Olympic glory, there existed no way to earn a living wage through competition. National tournaments were uncommon and pay-your-own-way. A first-place finish occasionally resulted in a meager few thousand dollars to cover expenses, but a majority of wrestlers actually forfeited money just to compete. Part-time jobs at Home Depot were an everyday sight.
And Willis and Case were disgusted.
Determined to change things, the duo recruited to their cause former Northwestern coach Kenny Johnson, a one-time Olympic hopeful turned stockbroker. Together the three traveled for nearly two years to meets of all levels and sizes, high school to college, Sunkist to Nationals, studying what worked, what didn't, what could be tweaked, and ultimately what the wrestlers would enjoy most. The end result aimed to be a bombastic and action-oriented product that "basically looked like a video game without the blood," says Case.
"We wanted to make this production out of wrestling that had never been done."
They ditched the stigma of the singlet. They blended together a ruleset that encouraged aggressiveness and combined elements of freestyle, Greco Roman, and even Sumo. They elevated the canvas six-feet into the air like an "upside-down pie tin," as Case says, surrounded it by a moat, and altered stalling calls into a health bar that gauged a wrestler's activity, which they called a Power Meter. Altogether RPW looked like something ripped straight out of Street Fighter.
"We wanted to make this production out of wrestling that had never been done," says Johnson. "We wanted to showcase the athletes and we wanted to get them paid. I believed in it 100 percent. I still do. If they wanted to restart it right now, I'd give up exactly what I'm doing and go back to it. [RPW] wasn't something we looked at as, ‘we're going to build this business and be millionaires.' It was a business we built to give back to wrestling. To make wrestling rich again."
Initial bites from major networks or sponsors were few, so the trio flew a handful of the country's best wrestlers to Los Angeles, slapped together a quick dual meet and set their misfit toys loose, filming a pilot in their arena of a studio.
"We were excited about it because it was different," says Sonnen, who competed, and lost badly, during the experiment alongside Team Quest stablemate Matt Lindland. "But we had no idea what we were doing. It's a product called Real Pro Wrestling, and we're left to guess what to do. And I think you would agree, as soon as you hear the term ‘Pro Wrestling,' you start guessing you're supposed to do, you know, some gimmicky things to bring attention. And we weren't trained in anything like this. So we're just sitting there guessing, ‘well I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that.' And all our ideas were bad, frankly."
Early confusion aside, RPW's myriad changes led to its intended outcome. Bruised bodies sprayed down the moat, the pushout rule -- a one-point ringout borrowed from Sumo -- led to dramatically increased scoring, and Willis' payout structure, which rewarded lopsided wins with lavish bonuses, coaxed action even when wrestlers were comfortably ahead.
The finished product with its spiffy graphics and chugging guitars looked like something never before seen in the sport.
"We knew we were on to something," says Case. "We saw bowling on ESPN, or World's Strongest Man on ESPN. We thought for sure if we had a good enough story we could bring this to them and say, hey, look, we can compete with these guys ratings-wise."
Even the name, while at first glance cheesy, was born of Willis' revulsion against amateur wrestling's slow, resigned decline into irrelevance.
"What sport calls themselves amateur? I was preaching that so loud. You need to ban the word ‘amateur' from what we do. Can you imagine? ‘What do you do?' I do amateur fighting. Amateur mixed martial arts. Amateur football. I played amateur baseball. It makes no sense what we've done. It's a reaction to the WWE side of things.
"You grow up as a kid, I'm 12 years old, people say what do you do? ‘I wrestle.' The first thing that comes to mind is WWE, and that is not a good image in most girls' minds. They're like, ‘oh... you do that.' No. No, no, no. I'm not one of those fake WWE guys. I do real wrestling."
No one was more Captain America than these anonymous Olympians. So it seemed natural. ‘Real Pro Wrestling: A New League of Superheroes.'
* * *
When it came to the ruleset, RPW specifics were still hazy the day before season one filming began. So when all 56 wrestlers convened in Los Angeles, the introductory rules meeting quickly became a sight to see.
Case later compared the experience to watching the brawniest meeting of parliament imaginable. Voices raised in contentious back-and-forth, various ideas getting thrown against the wall to see what sticks. The only thing the wrestlers could agree on, it seemed, was Willis’ proposal to ban wrestling’s uniform of choice -- the snug, form-fitting onesie that left little to the imagination called the singlet.
But even that wasn’t unanimous.
"Only the heavyweights had to wear them!" remembers Cummins. "Apparently a couple of the heavyweights, I’m not exactly sure who they were, but they did not want to be shirtless on TV. They hounded and hounded for so long, until finally [RPW officials] were like, ‘alright, alright, heavyweights are going to wear singlets.’ And I’m sitting here like, are you serious?! Wait, can’t we make this optional? Don’t you have a pair of shorts I can wear?’"
Cummins grudgingly adhered to the dress code. But of all the pitches heard that day, none drew more ire from the wrestlers than Willis’ last-second curve ball: the addition of submissions.
"I really wanted submissions. Even if it was just limited submissions, even if it was just one submission," says Willis. "A rear-naked choke. It would make all the difference in the world in our product."
Willis always viewed RPW as a family-friendly alternative to mixed martial arts, so submissions made perfect sense as a way to "add a little more element of danger," says Case.
As it turns out, RPW’s wrestlers didn’t share the same enthusiasm of its owners.
"Hell naw. We thought it was stupid," says Lawal. "I knew no one knew [submissions]. So I was like, you know what, I don’t care, but if everybody else is against it, I’m against it too. Because people in here are gonna get hurt and I’m not trying to be one of them.
"So literally the day before, people were like, man, take this shit out."
Willis accepted the room’s judgment, albeit reluctantly. Though as soon as RPW began its early planning stages for season two, submissions shot right back to the top of his wish list. In retrospect, Willis’ logic seems ahead of its time. USA Wrestling now embraces submissions to the point that it hosts annual no-gi grappling events. The guys back in that rules meeting were just tougher nuts to crack.
"Once you bring those submissions back in… man, you get on top of a guy and go for a rear-naked choke, all the boring elements wrestlers complain about disappear," Willis says. "It’s a whole new ballgame."
By 2004, the reality show boom was in full effect. With ESPN investing heavily and successfully into niche sports and amped-up reality series, a slew of cable companies began to follow suit, aggressively parsing through projects in search of their own X-Games.
The wrestling mats taught stubbornness aplenty, but they did little to prepare Willis, Case, and Johnson for the political machinations of the boardroom. So soon RPW found itself pitching its pilot against a pair of provocative and flashy Station Casinos executives, Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, who'd recently purchased the UFC and were aggressively shopping their reality show concept ‘The Ultimate Fighter' to networks looking to fill out a spring schedule.
"Spike actually chose the UFC over RPW," says Willis. "We were right there. They were looking at the two options on the table, and they chose the UFC. And given Spike's image, what they were going for, the UFC was a better move for them. But it was [frustrating].
"Here am I sitting with the President of USA Network, and I'm like, you guys have no idea about the tidal wave you're about to be hit with. You think you know television, but you know nothing about martial arts. You think WWE is really wrestling? You think you've got your bases covered? You're going to get hit with mixed martial arts. And it's going to be big."
It took some time. Willis resisted the urge to a slap a few scoffing bigwigs upside the head. But eventually RPW landed a bartered deal for a delayed weekly airing on FOX Sports Net, along with a time-buy on PAX -- a family friendly, rerun heavy, little known channel that reached 90 million homes. It wasn't ESPN, but the guys were ecstatic. For one hour every Sunday, sandwiched between old episodes of ‘Touched by an Angel' and ‘Dr. Quinn, Medicine Women,' amateur wrestling could be seen across the nation.
"[Which] network didn't matter to us really, because we were bringing our audience to that network," Case says. "Our plan, which I think we were pretty successful with, was to just market the crap out of it to the wrestling community. We knew we could reach the wrestling community with those dates. We had a schedule, we handed out the schedule all over the place. I mean, it was crazy. We about killed ourselves just talking to anybody we could about Real Pro Wrestling."
From the outset Willis vowed to spare no expense making his fellow wrestlers feel like actual, legitimate star athletes, offering payouts that exceeded up to 20 times a standard tournament win.
Handfuls of salty coaches with salty memories of the National Wrestling League opposed it, but for the most part, the best wrestlers in the nation swarmed to join the upstart RPW. "No one offers that much money just for us to wrestle," says Muhammed Lawal, a one-time NCAA All-American at Oklahoma State. "Just for weighing-in was like winning Sunkist. We were like yeah right, we ain't going to get paid that much. And then all of a sudden... it went through."
"It was kind of unheard of at the time," adds Aaron Simpson, a then-assistant coach at Arizona State. "You don't make money in wrestling. They had just recently started paying athletes at tournaments maybe a grand to win the tournament, and then $500 if you get second, $250 if you get third. So man, that was big. It was a means of making an actual living. We were hoping it was something that could take off and we could do it four times a year. Have fun wrestling and get paid doing it."
Limo service. Fine dining. Four-star service in downtown Los Angeles. All of it was new for these nameless few.
"When we would compete, man, we would stay at Comfort Suites and stuff like that," says Cormier. "We're all Midwest guys, guys from little towns who had never really experienced Los Angeles. That was the first time we'd ever seen something like that. It was the first time that I actually went to LA, and I remember I went to dinner, the bill was like 95 bucks and I was like ‘you've gotta be kidding me!' It was an experience, man.
"I mean, I got fourth in the Olympic games, and the money I made from Real Pro Wrestling was one of my bigger paydays, if not the biggest payday I've ever made in one chunk."
* * *
"As soon as those matches started happening, people started getting fuckin' serious."
It all culminated over a rowdy October weekend in 2004.
Willis, Case, and Johnson split 56 wrestlers across seven weight classes into eight teams, dressing each with gaudy, create-a-team style motifs: the California Claw, Chicago Groove, Iowa Stalkers, Minnesota Freeze, New York Outrage, Oklahoma Slam, Pennsylvania Hammer, and Texas Shooters. Each weight class was seeded one through eight, then bracketed up into a tournament format. Quarterfinals and semis took place on Friday. Finals on Saturday.
And it didn't take long for things to get real.
"Honestly, no one was in shape besides a few guys," says Lawal. "We just kinda took it like, hey, we're getting money, this is a [chance to] wrestle. But man, as soon as those matches started happening, people started getting fuckin' serious. It went from being light hearted, ‘all of us are getting money,' to all of a sudden, damn... fuck what I said earlier... I'm trying to win this thing and get paid."
The competition was fierce, and Aaron Simpson, a 184-pounder who had eyes set on a vengeance match against Lawal, and would eventually fight 11 times in the UFC, became one of its earliest casualties, bowing out with a loss and aggravated MCL strain in the quarterfinals.
However the same could not be said for one of Simpson's future partners in Octagon grandeur -- a goofy, undersized heavyweight from Penn State named Patrick Cummins. Standing a pale 230 pounds among 264-pound leviathans, with a high widow's peak, bushy beard, and head of coifed but thinning brown hair, Cummins' woodsman appearance belied his relative inexperience on the national scene. Having just polished off his collegiate career with a second-place finish in the previous year's NCAA tournament, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.
"The whole time they were trying to explain the rules to you, and nobody really knew what was going on when they were going out there," Cummins recalls, laughing. "It just sounded like the weirdest thing ever. You're set up in these towers and you have to run down a ramp onto the mat. It was just like something out of ‘The Running Man.' Like, what are we doing right now?"
Regardless no wrestler more benefitted from the league's modified ruleset than Cummins, a swift-footed but small heavyweight who'd get overpowered in international competition by the division's giants, but could use the RPW's pushout rule to set traps on the outside, which often led to show-stopping throws and his foes plummeting headlong into the moat.
Cummins baited and hip-tossed his way past wrestlers far more accomplished than himself throughout the show, steamrolling Angelo Borzio and Wes Hand to set up a longshot match-up against the division's No. 1 seed -- a beast of a man with strength born on the Iowa farmlands, Tolly Thompson.
"I remember everybody just thinking like, dude, you're going to get killed by Tolly," Cummins says. "He's just so big, and I think that year he took third in the world championships, so he was legit. He'd been around forever, he was a really good guy. And the whole time I'm thinking... no. Man, I can win. These rules are great for me."
Thompson dwarfed Cummins by the weight of a baby Grizzly bear, but his bullrush proved feeble against Cummins' slip-and-rip. In the biggest upset of the tournament, Cummins won going away, twice hurling Thompson into the moat to steal a 10-3 win and become the inaugural RPW heavyweight champion. All while being chided by Thompson's good friend, RPW color commentator Rulon Garnder.
"All I remember is re-watching the show and just being like, dude, Rulon Gardner hates me. Like, he's talking trash on me the whole time! What is this guy's deal? I mean, I get it. But man, you can't just talk trash on me because you're buddies with this guy. I'm winning the freakin' match."
A decade later Cummins rose to infamy as MMA's barista brawler, getting fired from his job at Starbucks after accepting a last-second fight against fellow Real Pro Wrestler Daniel Cormier. In one of the most bizarre UFC debuts in the promotion's history, Cummins belittled Cormier incessantly, and Cummins lost badly. But the Cormier he met then, the amiable analyst who weathered his verbal storm, was a far different man than the one who made his presence felt back in 2004.
Because every reality show needs a villain.
And for RPW, against a backdrop of humble family men and mundane farm boys, the villains were draped in burgundy and orange.
* * *
The glamor of the cameras added a theatrical element to the weekend, but no team was better equipped to handle RPW's inherent whimsy than the Oklahoma Slam. A brash mix of Stillwater boys and mouthy Midwesterners, the squad was captained by a trio of future MMA champions, Daniel Cormier, Muhammed Lawal, and Joe Warren. All of whom grew to be effusive mic workers, but at the time were stifled by wrestling's strict and suffocating adherence to traditionalism.
RPW, however, was meant to be a spectacle. Willis encouraged all his athletes at last to let their personalities show. And that's exactly what the Slam did.
"We talked, and talked, and talked. We talked big. We made them want to hate us."
"Joe Warren, Daniel, and I, we fucking talked," says Lawal. "We talked, and talked, and talked. We talked big. We made them want to hate us."
No stone was left unturned as the Slam borrowed from their love of professional wrestling, playing up larger than life caricatures of themselves. Every opponent they faced, that wrestler heard it. Every interview they conducted, that sound byte was golden. It broke every unwritten rule of wrestling, but as the show went on and the victories piled up, everything about the Slam grew more ostentatious.
"I showed this to my fiancée a while back and she was like, ‘why in the world were you acting like this? Like, what the hell?'" Cormier laughs. "We started to be perceived as the bad guys, and so we just kinda played it up. It was awesome. Me, Mo, Joe Warren, it was all of us."
"They kept telling us, have fun, be yourselves. So hey, we were doing that," Warren says. "No one else was. The other people who were actually being themselves were just boring. All the Iowa wrestlers and shit, it was boring as hell. This guy goes and sits in his farm and lets all watch him feed a cow? It just sucks. Our team had some personality on it."
Warren spouted off clichés about beatin' ya up and throwin' ya around. Cormier wound up playing NCAA Football '05 throughout half of his video intro. And Lawal... well, Lawal waxed lyrically about the pros of staying crunk en route to a recording session for Oklahoma rap group Meant2B.
RPW's production crew even recorded roundtable interview sessions with every squad. Of course, they all ended up dull and largely unusable. All except the Slam's.
Man, he's like a tractor, spits young Lawal, his favorite black hair pick sticking prominently out of the right side of his head. He just moves straight forward. He can't move to the side. What's the cheapest tractor you can get? He ain't no John Deere. Young Warren and young Cormier snicker in their burgundy warm-ups.
"That wasn't really who Mo was as a person," Cummins says, laughing. "That was just kind of the personality he came up with. And for the longest time after, he was like: ‘Man, I can't book a wrestling camp in the summer time to save my life because of this Real Pro Wrestling! Everybody thinks I'm an asshole! They don't want me to come do their camps!' Like... yeeaaaaa, I could actually see that."
"That hurt me. That hurt me bad," Lawal remembers. "Because people thought I called him a cheap cracker, and they didn't clarify it was tractor. People were arguing on message boards, saying, ‘yeah, Mo's a racist, he called Lee Fullhart a cheap cracker.' I was like, y'all, what kind of a cracker is a John Deere?! That makes no damn sense."
If Lawal was upset, he took his frustrations out on the tourney field.
A born heel clad in the Slam's dark burgundy vale tudo shorts, Lawal strutted out to each match with style to spare, thickly muscled, nipple rings taped to his chest -- lest they get ripped out -- waving his oversized hair pick to the crowd. Confidence wrapped in indifference. Hisses careened down the arena, but once that whistle blew, and once that freight train double ripped those Iowa boys off their feet into that six-foot moat, everyone knew who was the star.
One-time Olympian Quincey Clark became his first victim. Then came the aforementioned Fullhart, a self-professed mountain man and former NCAA national champion who entered the match with a perfect 3-0 record against Lawal but got styled on all the same. And yeah, Lawal let him hear it.
Walked the walk. Talked the talk. I told y'all boys on TV, I'm gonna shake the world up and beat the old tractor. That's what happened. Y'all should change the guard right now. It's my time, boy.
"I was a kid," Lawal recalls. "The match was the first time I beat him, and after that I beat him four or five straight years. I smashed him after that. He never beat me again."
Lawal's jaw-dropping run peaked in the division's finals, where he faced two-time Olympian Brad Vering. The pair engaged in the best match of the season, a gripping give-and-take that ended with Lawal scoring a quick ankle pick just 23 seconds into an overtime period to claim the season's 184-pound title. His final hit list: two Olympians, the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 5 seeds of the tournament, two NCAA champions, three NCAA All-Americans, and a rival he hadn't beaten in three tries.
* * *
Lawal wasn't alone in using RPW as a means to break new ground. Matched up against third-seeded Jim Gruenwald, a wrestler who'd beaten him every single day at practice for years, Joe Warren pulled off the upset of his life, demolishing Gruenwald with a lopsided 16-6 victory and -- of course -- talking Gruenwald's ear off the entire time before falling short in the semis.
But no one left a more memorable impression than the Slam's leader.
A bowling ball of brawn, belligerence and hyper-competitive fire, Daniel Cormier rolled into the RPW fresh off his breakout year on the international scene, one which ended with an Olympic fourth-place finish. At 25 years old, having finally surpassed the legends of the previous era, Cormier knew his success was the beginning of a sea change away from the division's old guard. And his aim was absolute.
"I was going to make these guys understand that this weight division was going to belong to me," Cormier says. "I wasn't going to relent.
He may not have been a world-class MMA fighter at the time, but Cormier sure acted like one.
"It wasn't like none of the best guys came. These were the best guys we had at 96 kilograms in the United States. These guys were going to have to beat me if they even wanted an opportunity to ever wrestle in the world championships. Guys don't forget stuff like that."
Indeed they don't.
He may not have been a world-class MMA fighter at the time, but Cormier sure acted like one. Bloodying his foes' with grinding elbows and short sneaky open-palmed uppercuts. Raking their faces hard across his forearms. Mashing their O2 cavities into a sweat-drenched canvas. Flat out being the meanest sonuvabitch in the entire state of California.
Nick Preston, smashed. 16-5.
Chad Lamer, smashed. 14-4.
(Lamer's beating, made much worse because the broadcast booth refused to shut up about how he'd beaten Cormier twice before.)
The violence came and went with impossible ease. A man amongst boys. A self-assured force of nature who'd flash a Bernard Hopkins ‘X' over every vanquished foe, then cut a humblebrag promo with Lawal grinning behind him. "DC tap-danced on everybody," Lawal remembers. "I was actually getting tired, but he was out there just playing around."
"Guys don't forget getting beat bad like that, knowing that even when a guy's winning the match, he's still trying to put a beating on you and just smash you," says Cormier. "And that was my thing. I wanted to smash them. I didn't want to just beat them. I wanted to smash him and let them know -- this was it. Those days of them actually beating me, and not even them just beating me, them competing with me on the same level... those days were gone. That competition for me was not all in fun. I was asserting dominance over that weight division."
In what ultimately became the season's finale, Cormier's run crested into a finals match against the 211-pound division's No. 2 seed: a mountainous recently-graduated two-time NCAA heavyweight champ who'd been wrestling since he was six years old, Tommy Rowlands.
"He was one of the best college kids coming out," says Cormier. "He was the guy who was supposed to be one of the guys that could actually compete against me, which probably put him in a weird space. Because now he's not only having to wrestle the No. 1 guy in the country, but because people have built him up so much as my rival... I want to smash him even more."
It was as one-sided as they come.
In a result that could only be compared to a lion playing with its food, Cormier hunkered down and slowly, physically dominated Rowlands for two full periods until Rowlands became a passive and reactive shell, a vessel simply for the Olympian to whoop on. At one point the announcers dismissed a desperate Rowlands takedown as a "baby shot." And then came the embarrassment.
With less than a minute on the clock and Rowlands being shut out 0-3, the youngster shot deep on a last-gasp double, only to ended up flat on the mat, Cormier gleefully riding his back like a child might ride a pony. Enter: shit-eating grin. Enter: corporal punishment.
Whap. One time.
Whap. Two times.
Whap. No way...
Whap. Whap. WHAP.
Six times Cormier spanked Rowlands. Hard on the ass like he'd talked back instead of finishing his supper. Unheard of in wrestling.
"It was a perfect ending," Lawal says. "Like, damn... you're just going to sit there, Tommy? At least do something. Get up or try to throw an elbow. Something. I mean, this is on TV. He broke Tommy that day."
Cormier was issued a warning, but it didn't matter. The announcers lost it. The replays replayed. The match ended. Rowlands, incredulous, blew up in Cormier's face. But true to his word, the Olympian had come too far to let his point slip away in the furious face of a rookie.
"I told Tommy: ‘You'll never get a takedown. You won't ever score on me,'" Cormier recalls. "We were the bad guys, sure. But once we start wrestling, now it's real. Because I know this is a kid who I'm going to have to compete against for the Olympic team for the next three years. This isn't for TV. This kid is good. This kid is going to be here every step of the way. Tommy Rowlands... he's the guy every step of the way as I try to make my second Olympic team. So now it's different. Now you need to know: as good as you are, you're not going to beat me."
Ever the soothsayer, Cormier met Rowlands later that year in the U.S. National tournament. That was in 2004, and he dominated the poor kid. The same thing happened in 2005. And again in 2006. In 2007, Rowlands fled to the heavyweight division. In 2008, after winning his sixth straight National title, Cormier shifted into a different sport entirely: mixed martial arts. Six years after his first fight, Cormier remains undefeated across two weight classes, has yet to unanimously lose a single round, and is slated to dance against the sport's top pound-for-pound fighter Jon Jones this January.
And he foretold it all above that moat.
* * *
As soon as RPW began, it was over. Toby Willis' family home burned down halfway through the airing of season one, not only destroying all of his family's possessions, but also destroying a crippling amount of RPW material. It's a miracle the show even got finished. But it did, and in a nice surprise it pulled decent ratings on both PAX and FOX Sports Net, despite an erratic time slot on the latter.
The trio of Willis, Case, and Johnson organized and held four tournament tryouts across the country to fill season two's roster. They even funded a comic book where cartoonish caricatures of team mascots, the Claw, the Stalker, the Freeze, etc., met in childlike adventures. But funds were bleeding, and Willis, still reeling from the destruction of family's house, discovered that the group's business partners were secretly plotting to sink the company and steal it out from underneath them. So he quietly put RPW on ice for a year.
Once again, amateur wrestling had failed to stick in the United States.
One year turned into two. Two turned into three.
Cormier, Lawal, Cummins -- none of the champions ever heard back about a second season. Cormier held out hope the longest, but eventually he too acknowledged what everyone else knew to be true. Once again, amateur wrestling had failed to stick in the United States. RPW became an eccentric conversation starter, and Willis, in total, sunk north of $5 million into the project before all was said and done.
"It was like we disappeared off the map," Cummins says. "The website got pulled. It was all very odd. And I was like, man, what was I a part of?"
"Whenever an industry gets started, there's two sides to it: you've got the bleeding edge, which is usually the guy who goes first, and the cutting edge," says Sonnen. "The cutting edge is the guy who looks at the guy who went first and goes okay, I really liked this idea, but let me modify it. They were on bleeding edge. They had to learn from their own mistakes, and [that's] tough."
Cormier, Lawal, and Cummins all pocketed anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 for their championship runs, depending on their margins of victory throughout the tournament. Even Joe Warren and Aaron Simpson, despite failing to advance very far in their respective brackets, pocketed purses ranging from $8,000 to $12,000.
The Sunday after filming wrapped, Willis threw together an extravagant afterparty in downtown Los Angeles on the roof of The Standard. The bubbly flowed, the smiles came easy, and the bonus checks were plentiful. For the first time in a while, a lifetime of accomplishment seemed to actually mean something. At least for one inexplicable weekend.
"When you grow up wrestling, everything is a Saturday kids' wrestling tournament," Simpson says. "You go to the NCAAs, and as big as it is -- it's an amazing tournament, it's one of the greatest tournaments on Earth -- but it's still a Saturday tournament. You're still just kids out on the mats just wrestling. And you're not treated any differently when you step off the mats. We're not like these guys who go play in the Rose Bowl or some of these football players, let alone professional athletes and the way they're treated. So it was a little taste of what that life might be like.
"The fact that we could use every skill we'd gained up to that point to make money and provide for our families and become famous, or whatever it was, to snatch a little bit of fame, I think that clicked for a lot of guys. I mean, obviously with DC and Mo, Joe and Pat, I think we all wanted to kind of continue that a little bit. It gave us a taste and we weren't ready to be done with it."
Look around today and remnants of Willis' dream are everywhere. Johnson went on to become head wrestling coach at California's Black House, teaching all-time greats like Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida. RPW's pushout rule, once Willis' pet experiment, is now a significant player in Olympic matches, adopted by the international wrestling federation prior to the 2008 Games. Attempts to foster a pro league have increased substantially throughout the last decade, in part because of RPW's relative success, but also because the rise of mixed martial arts brought an unprecedented level of star power to athletes who cross over.
Still, the IOC's slap-in-the-face decision to briefly drop wrestling from the 2020 Games only further inflamed the sport's discontent with its leadership, and it's clear even now that wrestling faces a uphill battle.
"We need to change all the vocabulary in the world of wrestling to martial arts terms. Preach to every coach out there that this is what we need to rebrand ourselves," Willis says. "Coaches should never use the word ‘sport.' They should use the word ‘fight.' They should use the word ‘self-defense.' When you say you're a sport, why should somebody choose wrestling over tennis or basketball? They're sports too. Wrestling is not, by nature, a sport. Wrestling, by nature, is a fight. It's self-defense, and it establishes who is the biggest dude on the block.
"I know how hard these guys work, and I know they deserve more than we can give them. I know how embarrassing it is to be 16 years old and a girl says, ‘you're a wrestler?' And they laugh at you, not having any clue what you're doing. That's just wrong. These guys should be among most respected athletes on the planet. Instead, everybody knows the name of the basketball player and the baseball player. But nobody knows the name of the world Olympian. It doesn't make sense to me that the hardest working guys in the world get [nothing]. It just doesn't make any sense."
In the decade since RPW, wrestling has become one of the most dominant martial arts showcased in professional fighting, if not the single most dominant. And it shows. Overall 17 of the 56 wrestlers who vied for prestige in RPW went on to fight professionally in some respect, including the seven of whom who reached the highest level in both sports.
Strange roads, the lot of them. From one circus act to another. Never in straight lines, but always to high places.
A year after RPW aired, Warren astonished the Greco Roman community by capturing the 2006 world title out of nowhere. He went on to upset the legendary Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto in his second professional fight. Now he's the only two-division champion in Bellator's history.
Lawal, too, is now a draw in Bellator. He became a Strikeforce champion in his seventh professional fight.
Sonnen, Lindland, Simpson, Cummins, and Cormier have combined to rack up 30 UFC wins and counting.
Sonnen, Lindland, Simpson, Cummins, and Cormier have combined to rack up 30 UFC wins and counting. They will have fought for five UFC titles by the end of January.
And who knows, there may even be a world champion among their ranks.
"That mindset, it all started with RPW," says Cormier. "That's how much confidence I took away from it."
"They caught a glimpse of what wrestling could be, and what they could be," says Willis. "I'm sure they were disappointed when we shut down. It's touching to talk to these guys now. We know there was something special there. I feel bad I couldn't pull it off for them.
"Wrestling still has this mindset that we're beat. And man, even after going through RPW and going through all of that, I don't feel that at all. As a matter of fact, I feel the exact opposite. Wrestling can still be champ. We may have lost one bout, but we are not out of this fight. If anything, it showed me the exact opposite. We are very much in this fight, because there's one thing wrestling has now that we didn't have 10 years ago. That is the respect of a lot of people on television and around the world. We now have wrestlers that are household names, and that's because of MMA. It has done more to educate people what the real world of wrestling is than anything else."
Strange roads to high places. Willis can only smile at the thought.