“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice booms over a concert hall P.A. with an accompanying graphic on a projection screen in the corner of the room, “Brent Banks!”
Through the curtains on the stage and down the stairs to the ring, professional wrestler Brent Banks walks with the swagger and confidence of a rock star, which is appropriate given that this evening’s Smash Wrestling event is taking place inside a cleverly repurposed concert venue (one that ironically has an after-party for a Metallica show coming in as soon as the grappling ends). With big hair, a small waist, and muscles for days, Banks looks and carries himself in front of a crowd like a superstar. The fans eat it up inside the cool confines of the nightclub that contrast strikingly to the humid July weather on the Toronto streets outside.
“Banks is money!” they chant repeatedly with the fervor of a church choir, enthusiastically supporting one of the key talents that have become synonymous with the steadily rising wrestling promotion. Five year old Smash Wrestling has recently landed an international broadcast deal with Fight Network (airing 10pm on Thursdays following already established and world renowned Impact Wrestling), and while the fans are obliging requests to amp up their intensity for a better television product, those who have attended any number of their shows in the past will likely tell you that the passion for the product has rarely wavered. Throughout the night, the crowd is hot for what they’re witnessing, hanging on every move in every match. Banks might be the first of many athletes and entertainers to step through the curtain, but his reception certainly sets the tone for the night to follow.
The scene inside Toronto’s nearly sold out Phoenix Concert Hall is electrifying, but by no means unique. While plenty of fans – both fervent and casual – stick to getting their “sports entertainment” fix from the likes of the gargantuan WWE, independent wrestling has become more popular than it has been in decades. Thanks to everything becoming more accessible on the internet, smaller wrestling promotions have raised to heights many promoters and bookers dream of but rarely attain. Smash Wrestling is a uniquely Canadian success story, and while they might still be working primarily out of nightclubs, recreational centers, and other mid-sized venues, they’re positioned perfectly to become the next big promotion in a country with a vast, storied professional wrestling history. That’s no small feat, but Smash Wrestling is also in the right place at the right time, and their upcoming card – Super Showdown V, taking place at The Phoenix on Sunday, August 13 – promises to be their most ambitious undertaking to date. Smash Wrestling promoter, booker, founder, owner, and in-ring talent Sebastian Dastranj noted earlier in the day that the company’s July show (#SupportTheScene) is usually one of their slower events of the year and that this evening’s card faces a lot of external competition from a Metallica show and the Honda Indy happening in Toronto on the same day. Ten minutes after the opening bell, Sebastian’s fears for a lighter than usual turnout have been proven false and all the seats have been filled to standing room only.
A well trained eye will notice that fans at a Smash Wrestling show are a smart crowd, well versed in independent wrestling trends, personalities, and terminology. There are no less than a dozen patrons in the cozily packed VIP floor section wearing T-shirts promoting members of Bullet Club, a wrestling faction not expressly affiliated with Smash Wrestling best known for their work in promotions like venerable stalwarts New Japan Pro Wrestling and Ring of Honor. There aren’t any members of Bullet Club working this particular show, but they do pop up in various independent promotions around the world as some of wrestling’s many independent contractors. Some might see the appearance of these T-shirts as trendy, but they also prove more than a passing knowledge of wrestling outside of Vince McMahon’s WWE powerhouse. Plenty of fans also sport or purchase the wearable wares of various Smash and independent talents at this particular show from the now ubiquitous merchandise tables located behind the hard camera that captures all the action for television. Smash Wrestling events aren’t like those held at Madison Square Garden or the Tokyo Dome, but one look at fans lining up to buy shirts or meet their favourite wrestlers should be the only proof needed that demand for alternative wrestling promotions is at a fever pitch.
We might be starting specifically with a look at Smash Wrestling and its DIY Canadian roots, but over the next several weeks, we’ll be taking a look at how independent promotions around the world have helped to make wrestling cool, fun, and culturally relevant in new and exciting ways. We’ll look at the economics of wrestling, how the fan based has changed, the resurgence of female wrestling, a drive towards inclusivity in a once criticized and maligned form of entertainment, and how the internet and social media has redefined the business for better and for worse. Some might see this resurgence of independent wrestling into mainstream culture as a fad, but that’s dismissive and short sighted. Smash and many promotions like it across Canada and the United States are here to stay, redefining what wrestling means to generations both past and present.
An average show day in Toronto for Smash Wrestling founder, owner, booker, and promoter Sebastian Dastranj begins just around 10 am. Dastranj starts assembling his crew of volunteers – which will number roughly two dozen by the time the first bell rings – to pick the ring up from a storage unit in Markham. By just around eleven, Smash’s production mastermind Alan Taylor is hard at work transforming the stage of the Phoenix into an elaborate entranceway for wrestlers to pass through, running cables, and generally making sure that everything goes smoothly on a technical level. Fellow Smash management member James Kee moves swiftly in and out of the club to put out various administrative fires and make sure the set up of the ring is moving along smoothly. While Taylor and Kee handle things in the front of the house, Dastranj sets up his office opposite the stairs leading to the stage.
Sebastian walks me through his day prior to Smash’s July show and gives me the lay of the land. Considering the number of hats that he wears for Smash, he needs all the help he can get running the show. It’s a real testament to his crew that things come together as well as they do. The Phoenix (which was being used until 3am the night before for a massive reggae gathering and will be used again a scant couple of hours after Smash’s final match has ended) doesn’t seem like a potential wrestling hotbed, but the Smash wrestling crew and volunteers work wonders in a small amount of time to make it seem like more than just another concert theatre.
While everyone else sets up the entrance, ring, lighting, cameras, merchandise tables, ticket booth, and chairs, Dastranj works on putting the show together. In the venue’s downstairs dressing room I help him hang up a black backdrop so the production crew can tape promos and motion graphics for their new television show. He puts up a piece of poster board in the same room listing the order of matches, how long each of them take, and a special area where the talent can write down some of their high spots so other matches on the card don’t do anything similar. Dastranj astutely notes that doing the same thing a couple of times in a show sometimes happens, but doing the same dazzling spots in every match can lose the audience. At about 2:30 – 90 minutes before the doors to the venue open for the public – Sebastian will preside over a pair of meetings to go over the details for the evening ahead of them, one with the staff and one with the talent.
Most of Dastranj’s pre-show time is spent in the office going over storylines, making phone calls, sending emails, and planning for the future. Sebastian might joke that their July show is the slowest of the year, but it’s certainly not a slow season by any means. Smash and their talent did major shows in Ontario cities London and Sarnia that were taped for television the previous weekend in addition to the numerous public appearances that the promotion makes throughout the region. Their Super Showdown card in August is generally considered to be their biggest event of the calendar year, but in September Smash will be celebrating their landmark 100th show (from their old stomping grounds of the Franklin Horner Community Centre on September 17th, boasting a card made up entirely of matches that will be kept secret until the show begins). With such big time events looming on the horizon, the pressure is on to make every show leading up to them into the best possible product for ticket buying fans and home viewers.
Did I also mention that Dastranj is also one of Smash’s biggest in-ring villains? On top of everything else, the company’s founder and biggest booster wrestles as “The Endorsement” Sebastian Suave, a constantly smiling and snarky heel with a penchant for product placement, led to the ring by his T.D. Jakes-esque manager Kingdom James. Suave begins most of his matches with James running down a list of products and services that have endorsed his athlete while the audience shouts them down. Suave will chime in with a few overly peppy and chipper words before using any underhanded tactics necessary to take his opponent down. Once Sebastian has wrapped his pre-show meeting with the talent, he begins going over the specific details of a six man tag team match for that evening with his partners and opponents. He moves between these roles enthusiastically and seamlessly. He has achieved a second wind, and one wouldn’t know that he just spent hours of his day trying to put this entire show together in the first place.
Sebastian Suave is a duplicitous glory-hog in the ring, but backstage and during our interactions before and after the most recent Smash event, he’s a lot more thoughtful and soft spoken, making his in-ring character of “The Endorsement” even funnier to anyone that’s spent time around him. Dastranj, who started in the wrestling as a performer and not a booker, admits that it’s tough balancing all of the aspects of his business – in addition to being a family man – and that the past five years have come with a steep learning curve.
“This is the toughest thing I have ever done,” Dastranj says with a chuckle and a sigh about navigating the worlds of event planning, business ownership, and wrestling. “My biggest paranoia used to be people knowing that I was the booker and promoter. Every time I won a match, I would feel that people would think I won because I was the booker, or when I was in a tag team that the team would win because I was the booker. I was always obsessively driven to keep that fact away. Up until a couple of months ago, I tried to keep it hidden. It was hurting my stock when it came to doing interviews. I remember I was getting interviewed as a wrestler, the person interviewing me caught me off guard and said, ‘We noticed Sebastian Suave hasn’t been getting booked as much. Is there is reason why you aren’t wrestling more? Are you on your way to becoming a part timer?’ It was a little offensive, but I know he didn’t mean it that way, but I also couldn’t be honest about it. I wanted to say, ‘Listen, mother**ker, I put seventy hours a week into Smash Wrestling and more than double the hours into this organization than a normal wrestler.’ I couldn’t explain that my returns on this weren’t obvious because I didn’t want people to know I was the promoter-booker for Smash. Suddenly, once Smash started taking off, there were five or so promotions that I used to be on that I wasn’t a part of anymore. I was only on two other promotions after that. I put my company first as a promoter and it hurt my stock as a wrestler. Now if people know I’m the promoter or the booker, I don’t care. I realized that if there’s a media opportunity where it requires me to speak about the company I know better than anyone else in a professional capacity, I’m not going to hide that anymore. I was so obsessive that it caused a lot of stress, but it has been so liberating these past six months to just not hide that.”
While some in the wrestling community still subscribe to the tenets of “kayfaybe” – acting like absolutely everything that happens in the ring is 100% true to life no matter how outlandish – most adult fans of wrestling (of which there might be more today than ever before) tend to take things with a grain of salt and heavy suspension of disbelief. By Sebastian’s estimation, approximately 95% of Smash’s most devoted and faithful fans know he’s the booker. He subscribes to the belief that a tiny peek behind the curtain often doesn’t harm anyone’s enjoyment of wrestling product. He still studies tapes, trains, and stays in shape like most athletes, but he also spends over seventy hours a week making sure that Smash stays at the top of its game. His love for the business is all consuming, honest, and directly from his heart.
It might have taken five years for Sebastian to go public with his behind the scenes role within Smash, but he knew as early as their second show that the company had great potential. That second show in the summer of 2012 was headlined by a match between Canadian wrestler Kevin Steen (now known in-ring as Kevin Owens) and Johnny Gargano, both of whom have gone on to great acclaim in the WWE. From there, Smash has hosted a veritable who’s who of current independent and high profile wrestling royalty in various capacities over the years: Chris Hero, Lance Storm, A.J. Styles, Rich Swann, Rosemary, Jimmy Havoc, Matt Cross, Jay White, Dalton Castle, The Young Bucks, Lio Rush, Colt Cabana, just to name an almost miniscule few. Thanks to the rise of independent wrestling on television and especially via a rabid internet fan base, there are more instantly recognizable performers on the scene than ever before, many of whom are known by casual and hardcore fans alike.
While Smash prides itself on establishing its own stable of in-house talents that are synonymous with the brand, Sebastian notes that appearances from international talents help to elevate the promotion to another level. Just like WWE’s Wrestlemania will bring in celebrities like Floyd Mayweather, Akebono, or Jersey Shore’s Snooki for matches and appearances to boost interest from casual or non-fans, brining in other widely recognizable wrestling talent from around the world ensures better attendance and subscriptions to Smash’s extensive online library of past shows.
Despite the calibre of talent Smash is capable of bringing in for its shows, Dastranj knows that Toronto is one of the most competitive wrestling markets in the world, and that competition in the city for ticket sales is fierce. Many local promotions in the region – which easily numbers close to two dozen at any given time – use a lot of the same local talents, and competition to book independent stars for one-off appearances can be frenzied and nerve wracking. Sebastian, who describes himself as a more conservative booker than most, says that competition has still been healthy in helping Smash achieve their goals.
“It’s insane, and I don’t mean this in a good or bad way, but you gotta know your market,” he says when asked about the current saturation of wrestling product in the Canadian market. “In the Golden Horseshoe, which loops around from the Niagara region to about Oshawa, at any given point there’s anywhere between 19 to 21 promotions, and while there are always variations in styles and approaches, there are about seven or eight of those who work in ways similar to ours. But at the end of the day, you’re always reaching a passionate, die hard crowd. It has always been our goal to present something unique, and early on we saw ourselves sort of at the centre of the melting pot, but now we feel like we’re really rising to the top of it. And if we see someone doing something similar to our style, it’s nothing to get upset or disgruntled over. It’s just the nature of any industry, not only wrestling. You have to continue to evolve, and in any industry that’s hot, there’s always going to be a style or flow that will make the most money, and I think we’ve always been on or ahead of that curve. Even if they go to see other shows in addition to ours, whether we’re number one or number five on their list of promotions to see, we want to make sure we’re giving them something different from what they can find elsewhere. It started out as a personal preference for us, and we hoped that audiences would be able to get that. People caring about more than one company is great for the scene.”
But Smash has something else that most other Canadian and local promotions don’t: a prime time television slot.
“For us to land TV was a major stepping stone for us,” Sebastian says about Smash’s new frontier, something he has been working for years to pull off. “A lot of smaller promotions will use local cable, and I’m not knocking that, but I was always thinking bigger than that. It’s awesome that we can have a major, dedicated time slot after something like Impact Wrestling and built a relationship with Fight Network. It’s not easy to pull off, and for a while it was such a wide gap. It’s like climbing the rungs of a ladder where each progressing rung is substantially higher. It’s a grind, and I don’t think people on the outside, and even from a lot of wrestlers on the inside, know how difficult and time consuming it is to get to this point.”
But for all the literal blood, sweat, and tears that he has shed for Smash Wrestling, Dastranj says it has been totally worth it. The fan response and support has been hard earned, but has left Sebastian with a feeling his in-ring person would never admit to having: gratitude.
“I sometimes still don’t know how to digest it all. Sometimes people come to us from all over the world telling us that one of their friends had a great time working with us and that we should work something out in the future, or fans will say they caught one of our shows in some way or another and that there wasn’t a bad match on the card. That’s humbling.”
“If there’s one thing in Smash that I’ve been proud of more than anything else, it’s been growing our stars,” Dastranj says, and the depth of Smash’s roster of continually returning talents speaks volumes.
There’s Tarik, a cocky, tenured heel that Sebastian says can be basically put into the ring with anyone and have a good match. Kevin Blackwood is an up and coming talent from just over the border in Buffalo with plenty of tattoos and a strong work ethic. Tag teams like the video game themed Super Smash Bros., hard drinking Quebecois tough-guys TDT, and the lively, buff goofballs in Halal Beefcake routinely steal shows from the singles competitors. Hacker Scotty O’Shea is a Mr. Robot styled conspiracy theorist who always bemoans his lack of opportunities. Braxton Sutter and Mike Rollins have existed outside Smash with great success in other companies, but their recent partnership in the company as the Well Oiled Machines in the Toronto based promotion has recently come to an end and led to one of wrestling outfit’s hottest feuds (one sparked with brilliant simplicity by Rollins repeatedly getting rebuffed by Sutter for wanting to give him a bizarrely ambiguous present of sorts).
One of the stars that shine the brightest is Brent “Money” Banks. On the night of the July Smash show, Banks is the first person to take to the ring and the ovation he receives is thunderous from the crowd. Smash has firmly embraced him as one of their own, despite Banks travelling all across Canada and working in other promotions to help further him in his career. The opening bout of the show finds Banks squaring off against the mask wearing Evil Uno (one half of the Super Smash Bros.), showcasing high flying athleticism, technical skills, and even coming back from taking a painful looking piledriver on the floor outside the ring to win his match.
While a lot of attendees cheer for his victory, showmanship, and perseverance, most of the fans probably don’t know that Banks was one of the first people to arrive at the venue. Coming in approximately three and a half hours before Sebastian asked for the talent to arrive, Banks was there conversing with the set-up crew and helping to put the ring together. Not only is a talent of the caliber of Brent Banks essential to the betterment of Smash Wrestling from a fan’s perspective, but he’s also dedicated to his craft. When his opponent for the evening arrives, they start going over the match extensively, and by the time they’re done planning everything, a lot of the other talent and workers start talking about how excited they are to see what Banks and Uno have come up with.
It’s easy to see the growing buzz around Banks among fans and observers. Although it wasn’t a Smash Wrestling event, UK based promotion WCPW came to Toronto as part of a worldwide tournament they were running and Banks put on one of the best matches in any organization this year against fellow Canadian Mike Bailey. It’s also a rarity in the hypercritical world of online wrestling fans: a match that few commenters on YouTube (where it can be watched for free) had any negative feedback or snarky comments towards.
“I really don’t like to go back and watch any of my matches,” Banks says with a laugh when I bring up his bout with Bailey during a phone interview conducted while he was on a break from his day job. “I’m really hyper-critical of myself and online everyone gets shredded these days no matter what you do, but surprisingly I wasn’t seeing any bad comments when I watched it. Then I thought, ‘Yeah, I had better stop here just in case the next few are just the worst. I just had to be content with all the good reactions.”
Banks is one of the many Smash wrestlers that comes with a persona and entrance that’s practically made for television. While the Smash faithful loves Banks and supports them as one of their own, he’s still a cocky heel with a look and swagger that suggests Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Jerry Maguire character with a full head of hair. He looks like an athlete, he knows he’s the best, and that’s all Banks needs to succeed as a character. It’s simple, effective, and backed up by Banks’ energy and athletic prowess.
“Brent Banks was always a baby-face, but early on I could see it in him that he could be a great heel,” Dastranj says of how Banks road to becoming a beloved figure in Smash. “For the longest time, he was our top heel that we organically turned face over time to where he is today. He has always been a face in other places, but here we gave him something organic to work with, and a lot of that was him. He helped us position him to where he is, he’s run with the ball, and the fans have accepted him. They don’t feel like Brent Banks is someone they have to cheer regardless of what he does. They respect him and by extension respect his character. They just look at him and say ‘That’s our guy,’ and that’s our goal.”
Smash has repaid Banks’ dedication by placing him in numerous main events and showcase matches against visiting and notable talents from around the world. He was one of the first Smash stars to get their own custom designed bombastic entrance. He participated in the Smash’s first and only ambulance match, where a wrestler has to physically beat their opponent to a point where they can be placed in the back of a medical vehicle. Much like Tarik (whom Banks has teamed with and wrestled against many times over the years), Brent has become a name closely connected to the Smash brand.
“I work so many different places, and when you do that and you’re trying to make it, you really have to prioritize based on whoever is putting the most stock into you, and it helps that Smash has put the most stock into me,” Banks says humbly about what makes him want to keep returning to the organization. “It’s so easy to keep coming back because they have so much faith in me and give me so much freedom that I want to give everything I can back to them as the company jumps to another level. A lot of times when places start to get bigger, they sometimes tend to go in a different direction and suddenly you aren’t their guy anymore. Smash takes care of their guys who have been around since the beginning, and they never get too far ahead of themselves even with the Fight Network deal. It’s so cool to see where it has gone and where it goes in the future. Your place here doesn’t feel in jeopardy the bigger the company gets, but you still have to give it your all to stick around. You have to bring out the best in yourself and everyone else. That’s Smash’s M.O. from the beginning.”
That level of comfort within the industry hasn’t always been true for Banks, who started performing before the current resurgence of popularity began bringing more eyes to the business. For him as a performer, it was nice to get a chance to expand his set of skills while getting to the level he’s at now.
“Wrestling goes in cycles,” Banks remarks when asked how the current popularity of independent wrestling has shaped his career. “There’s always going to be an up period and there’s always going to be a down period. When I first started, independent wrestling was on a bit of a downswing, so it’s great to see this whole time that I was right to stick with it. Now that it’s in a boom and so many people are watching independent wrestling, it’s easier to get eyes on you and people can see what you’re doing. By that same token, with that kind of popularity, you should be ready at all times to be on television because you never know who might be watching or where it could lead. Independent wrestling is so accessible to people and at the highest point it has been in a while, so it doesn’t matter what promotion you work for, but you had better be prepared to look and perform the best you possibly can. Anyone could be watching at any single time, and that’s such a cool thing to think about.”
Banks has watched over the years and noted how Smash has worked tirelessly to tweak even the smallest and most seemingly inconsequential of details to make a television ready product. He was around back when Sebastian didn’t even own a ring and had to rent one from another promotion. Banks admires how Smash has sharpened its focus and become more daring as the industry continues to climb steadily upward.
“Whether it’s making sure something is just slightly organized in a new way backstage or turning up the production or just making sure that everything is communicated to the staff, they’re always finding ways to become tighter and tighter at what they do. It’s as if since the beginning of Smash they were always focused on getting to this point and bringing in the best of everything they can. They have been gearing up for this, and at every event they want to become a bit sharper and as close to perfect as they can get. Every single time I’m there, it just gets better and better.”
So does Banks, who continues to rack up well earned accolades. When people hear the announcer say “Ladies and gentlemen,” they know exactly who’s coming through the curtain at the top of the stage and that they’re about to see one of the most charismatic and capable performers in Smash’s roster.
“You know, I had someone come to me and say that Brent Banks as the best entrance of anyone currently on the indies, and I said, ‘Woah, woah, woah, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Dastranj jokes when asked about Banks’ cinematic entrance.
“It’s hard for me to register what it’s like when I come out because I’m doing all of that myself,” Banks says about the tone of his trip to the ring.” I have no idea what it looks like when I come out. I just kind of act like there’s a bunch of cameras on me, and I always thought that I should act like a wrestler who loved being on television even before Smash got this deal with Fight Network. Even if I was in a small bar or legion hall, I always acted like I had a million cameras on me. If you take that approach from your entrance to the last bell, it’s going to translate to the crowd ten-fold. As long as you have that mindset, it’s always going to come off… money, so to speak.”
Kevin Bennett is a perfectly nice guy to talk to in real life. He’s incredibly talented and athletic in the ring and has one of the best gimmicks in all of Smash. He’s also without any question or shadow of a doubt the most hated character in the company.
At Smash’s Gold Tournament this past June, Bennett and his entourage – The Kevin Bennett Experience – had a seemingly easy task. Bennett and his posse (which includes the gargantuan Big Tank and the frequently shirtless Muscle) were to cut a promo, addressing the audience to say that a member of their crew – Franky T.M., a lackey working with Bennett against his will – wasn’t going to be there. Immediately a hail of boos rained down so loud one could have mistaken this wrestling show for a convention of unoriginal ghosts. “F**K YOU, BENNETT,” the crowd chanted repeatedly and with growing fervor and volume. Trying to get a word out of his mouth was almost impossible. Kevin Bennett has what’s referred to as “nuclear heat” with the Smash fans: the ability to pretty much get booed mercilessly out of any building he steps into. Later in the night during the main event, Bennett landed a moonsault off the stage and onto several other wrestlers in one of the best spots of the night. It elicited some ‘oohs,’ ‘ahhs,’ and begrudging applause before a new chant started: “YOU STILL SUCK!”
And yet, if one were to catch “The Remix of Pro Wrestling” in action on the other side of the Canadian border, they would discover Bennett is a well liked, baby-faced hero.
“I get a lot of different reactions depending on where I am,” Bennett says with a good natured laugh. “Usually, I would like to think that I come off as a guy who’s likable! I think I’m the kind of guy who people wouldn’t want to boo or throw a middle finger at. But once I cross the border and get to Smash, it is a completely different experience. It’s so weird, man. Once we started this whole persona in Smash with me and my music, I didn’t think at first that people would eat it up in the way that they did. I thought since I went around everywhere as baby-face Kevin Bennett with his flat hair, his charisma, energy, and always ready to go that was who I was as a wrestler. But the second I cross that border I get hit with this just atomic heat, and I don’t know if it’s because of the music or not! It probably is. (laughs) It was weird at first, but I’m used to it now. Everywhere else I go, I’m usually a good guy. I would take pictures and shake hands with people. At Smash, it’s a little bit different.”
“If I had to tell you one thing as a promoter or booker that I have been truly proud of, it’s everything with Kevin Bennett,” Dastranj remarks with a giant grin in his voice when talking about the most lovingly hated gimmick in his company. “I always admired him whenever I wrestled in Buffalo, and we never got to use him here. Eventually we did, and his match stole the show, but there was no room for him. We always had other storylines and commitments, but he always had great matches. Then I caught on through social media that he was also a rapper and a music producer. He puts so much into the production of his stuff, and I realized that he had more followers and comments than most known wrestlers did just from his music, and I didn’t even totally know that about him at first. He’s rapping, writing, producing beats, and I asked him why he didn’t want to incorporate any of this in the ring with him. He said he didn’t want to do it at first because he didn’t want to be seen as a John Cena or an R-Truth wannabe, and I said, ‘Do you think you’re a really good rapper?’ And he said he was, then I told him not to be ashamed of who he was and to embrace what he was the most confident at. I thought we could do it properly. If someone said he was a John Cena wannabe, he should say that John Cena wishes he was half the rapper that Kevin Bennett is. If you think you’re good at something, you should own it.”
“For six months, instead of having Kevin come out and rap about how everyone sucks, we had him come out and do concerts and say that he was out there for the people,” Dastranj continues. “He would say that they weren’t concerts, but experiences: The Kevin Bennett Experience. And no matter how much he got booed, he would always smile, never jaw-jack, never flip them the bird, and he was hated so much. Everyone questioned why anyone would book him. Some of the negative feedback that character got is embedded in my brain. People legitimately thought he sucked just based on how the character handled himself and never in terms of how he actually performed in the ring. Finally at one of our Gold tournament shows, after I realized that he could get comments just based on the video that went along with his entrance, I knew it was time to fully turn him against the crowd. For six months he had been so corny, and finally he lets loose and the people are able to jaw-jack back to him.”
Honestly unsure at first if any of this would work at first, Bennett is now grateful for every ounce of heat he can get. In fact, he’s leaned into it hard, even offering shirts that explicitly say “F**k you Bennett” on them at the merch table. But while he’s supremely talented in the ring, the North Tonawanda, New York native is even more pleased that his persona in Smash matches up with his real life passions. It’s often said that the best wrestling personas are a performer’s personality cranked to eleven, and Bennett – who also raps, produces, engineers, and plays music on the side – has certainly lucked into the perfect gimmick.
“It’s weird how that all came about because I have been making music for almost as long as I’ve been wrestling,” Bennett says over the phone from a recording studio. “It took me a while to incorporate the music with it, but as time went on I thought that I couldn’t really deny the fact that this was who I was outside of wrestling. I make music, I’m decent at it, and a bunch of people when I first started out in wrestling would say that I need to be somebody. ‘Oh, you’re just Kevin Bennett. Who is Kevin Bennett?’ And, well, I was a musical artist, and I didn’t really want to bring that to the table at the time because it has obviously been done before. I didn’t want the John Cena stereotype, but I couldn’t deny that this was what I did for a living outside the ring. I just embraced it, incorporated it, and it’s been working out for me.”
“The reason I came to music in the first place was actually because of wrestling theme songs,” he says when asked about how his two professional loves first aligned. “I loved entrance music. As a kid, I got into wrestling as a fan when I was seven years old, and the entrances really stood out to me for some reason. I loved just the theatre of it and that perspective. I was addicted to that part of it first. I remember my parents bought me a keyboard for Christmas, and there I was trying to replicate all of these theme songs on the keyboard. It got to the point where I thought, ‘How about I make my own theme song?’ Then that turned into just making songs. My older brother was the one who introduced me to hip-hop because that’s what he listened to with his friends, and they had rap songs of their own, and I saw how awesome that was and started making my own songs. Obviously I still wanted to be a wrestler, but by that point I just wanted to be all around an entertainer. I really just wanted to be a part of that and try a bit of everything.”
In Smash, not only does he still perform “concerts” to get the crowd as angry as humanly possible, but a lot of the promos for his matches find him writing, rapping, and filming his own material. Through his specific set of talents that not many other wrestlers can duplicate or match, he has essentially created an untouchable persona. How can an opponent refute Kevin Bennett with words if they can’t rap back at him? He’s also such a formidable in-ring presence that he can back up almost all of his trash talk.
Social media savvy Bennett says that when he first started making music he got plenty of negative, unconstructive feedback that helped strengthen his current in ring persona. Now when people tell him that he sucks as a wrestler, he takes it a lot more in stride and feels grateful that fans react at all.
“I always take pride in that,” Bennett says about how he has been able to steer his character in Smash. “All the songs that I make, whether or it’s for Smash or if I do it on my own, I do it all from scratch. From the beat to the melody to the lyrics to the recording to the editing to putting a video out to promoting it, I do it all. Well, obviously I don’t film the video myself because I can’t actually do that, but you get what I mean. I just pride myself on being original and doing it all myself. That’s why I love everything that I do because I can just do it myself and be myself. That’s why I think my theme song in Smash is so funny. I didn’t actually make my theme in Smash specifically for Smash, but the song is called ‘By Myself’ and that was really how I felt, and that was literally the perfect thing for this character and for how I approached it. I would love for it to stay that way in the future. I just want to be original and to take pride in that.”
The idea of a heel musician wrestler is kind of an old school construct, but Bennett’s style of in-ring work is a lot more fast paced and modern than the Thuganomics era incarnation of John Cena or the guitar swinging Honky Tonk Man. Bennett has taken something that could have been outdated and made into something honest. Watching him in Smash is like watching someone in the exact right place at the perfect time.
“Right place, right time” also sums up Bennett’s career at the moment perfectly. With a home at Smash Wrestling in Canada and several independent promotions in the Eastern U.S., Bennett still has room to explore and experiment in addition to getting some hard earned television exposure (with a recent bit of blink-and-you’ll-miss-him extra work on a recent episode of WWE’s Raw as a faceless security guard getting manhandled by Braun Strowman not withstanding). The excitement for what the future holds for him is instantly identifiable in his voice.
“It’s really crazy right now, but so much fun. I was just saying this to my buddy the other day, but for me, personally, I live in the perfect spot to be a professional wrestler. There’s Smash in Toronto, which has always been great to me, and Empire Wrestling and lot of other promotions down here. I do plenty of travelling, but the East Coast is just booming with wrestling promotions right now, and I’m just so grateful and blessed to me living in this area. Everything is picking up and evolving from what it was like when I started. I’ve been doing this for seven years now, and it just keeps getting better and better. I’ll never stop, and I’ll just keep doing whatever I can. I’m so excited for the future and to see where it takes me.”
Anyone with even a passing knowledge of wrestling knows that every company needs a champion: someone who has reached the top of the company’s card and stands as the benchmark all other talent strives to become. For Smash – at the time of this writing – that man is Tyson Dux. A veteran Canadian wrestler, Dux has held the belt for the better part of a year, beating Brent Banks back in November to win the vacated title after his upcoming August opponent, British wrestler Mark Haskins, went down due to an injury. Dux’s star status wasn’t made specifically within Smash, but fans have given him a lot of respect and gratitude since his debut on the scene around the turn of the century.
On the day of Smash’s July show Dux arrives at the Phoenix purposefully making sure to say hello to everyone he can that’s working on the show. He’s personable and jovial to anyone and everyone around him. At the same time, there’s a clear amount of respect being paid to the New Brunswick native and current Ontario resident. It’s obvious to anyone who sees him backstage that many see his as an example worth following.
It would be easier to list the places that Dux hasn’t wrestled than it would be to name everywhere he’s been. Dux had several stints within the WWE in the mid-2000s, and most recently appeared in the company’s well received Cruiserweight Classic last year. He’s had runs in Impact Wrestling and Ring of Honor. I’d be hard pressed to think of a Canadian city that he hasn’t wrestled in, and despite still going strong today, he almost retired several years ago. It’s a good thing for fans that he didn’t because Dux is now enjoying some of the biggest success in his career thanks to Smash.
“The major factor for me is the level of talent that’s being brought in,” Dux says when asked what keeps him coming back to Smash Wrestling. “You’ll find good talent everywhere, but usually at an independent show you won’t find this many high calibre wrestlers in one event. It’s always a complete package from the opening bell right up until the end, and even just watching a Smash show taking place is a blast for me as a fan. There are solid workers all the way through, both out front and in the back. Management and the production team and the staff are all great people, and they give all of their efforts back to the fans, and I think the fans can feel that. Fans are smart these days, and I think they know if something ever feels wildly off. These are people that you want to hang out with and they make coming to work professional but fun. They don’t ask for things, they appreciate the talent and the fans, and we in turn all appreciate them. It has a big time family atmosphere. I know that some families are dysfunctional, but ours is actually pretty solid!”
Dux has been a mentor and giver of advice to many up and coming talents in and out of Smash. When Dastranj was having a crisis of conscience about coming out and publically making it known he was the booker, Sebastian says it was Dux who told him to just be himself and not hide from who he was or what he did. Not only is Dux a veteran capable of taking Smash to another level, but anyone I talk to says that he’s also a strangely calming force to be around in a normally crazy business with numerous ups and downs. Dux wants to put people at ease and to just be themselves, and that’s a two way street for the veteran wrestler. Dux wants up and coming talent to shine their brightest, and in turn he wants to learn from them as much as they might from him.
“The talent pool here is so deep, and the work rate is so great,” Dux gushes during our conversation when asked about working with a lot of Smash’s younger talent. “These guys are so athletic and so conditioned to go, but I think there are a lot of guys out there who would be afraid to try this sort of thing. My personality and the way I am have always been tied to me going as hard and pushing myself as far as possible. If you can work harder and go further at something, you can do almost anything, and that’s what I like to prove to everyone and myself. I always want to get better at what I do. Pro wrestling, however, is one of those things where you should have that attitude, but not everyone does. The best in this business, and this certainly goes for Smash on every level, always want to be improving. With Smash and these young kids coming up that are getting better, getting more in shape, and working to come up with these great characters, it keeps me on my toes and keeps pushing me beyond my comfort zone. Some guys like to do things in a really specific way, but me, I love all of it. I want to be pushed and I don’t want to feel that sense that I’ve stopped learning how to do anything new. I never want to be a guy who gets stale. I never want folks to see a Tyson Dux match on repeat, and as a performer I never want to have the same exact match twice. I always want to try creating new art.”
The idea of wrestling as art is a common theme across every conversation that I have with wrestlers and fans alike. Any adult fan of wrestling will tell you that wrestling is a form of grand theatre: a mixture of storytelling, physicality, and sport that fans will get as much out of as the performers put into it. Talking to a wrestler is a lot like talking to an actor or a writer, albeit one that’s often forced to be in consistently better physical shape than both of those professions. There’s a love for the process, and while everyone’s process is different, every member of the cast and crew are striving to deliver the best and most balanced product possible.
Dux admits that one’s personal quality in-ring quality is a hard thing to master, particularly in a day and age when independent wrestlers are often working multiple shows a week to try and hone their craft. In Dux’s eyes, the more experience one can get performing, the better, and he notes quite astutely that independent wrestling has become a lot healthier of a pursuit than it was when he first started training in the late 90s.
“The amount of stuff I’ve seen in twenty years is unreal and the change and evolution of the business has been one of the things that’s kept me around, I think,” Dux begins when explaining his journey through the professional and independent wrestling scenes. “This industry has gone from hard hitting bruisers, to a time of gimmicks like undertakers and policemen that was kind of cartoonish, to in-your-face hardcore and technical wrestling, to today where I think a lot of people have found a way to kind of balance all of wrestling history rather nicely. That constant evolution and rebranding of what wrestling means to people and how they receive it has always kept me energized and excited to do what I do.”
“ When I first started, this was a totally different industry. My wife actually started in wrestling and trained for a long time before getting another job, but she never really understood the idea of going out and physically performing in front of people for $10 or $20. I told her, ‘Honey, when I first started in this business, I had to work my first years for FREE!’ I didn’t get anything, and usually you would have to work with old guys who were bitchy and bitter because I started at a time when a lot of young people weren’t coming into the business like they are now. You would always have these old school guys who would look at someone and think they were small or like they didn’t look believable as a wrestler, and they were just looking to stomp some of these eighteen year olds who are just starting right out of the business. I was shelling out a lot of my own money just to get on these shows just to get mauled by some big bald guy three times my size in hopes of just finding a place. There was something sick about that, and I never want people to come up the way that I had to come up. Right now, we’re in a time full of so much innovation and talent. People are coming up and trying to be more professional about it on the independent scene. Everyone has better gear, the move sets are more innovative and well rounded, and people are more eager to learn because the attitude today, particularly among younger wrestlers, is night and day different from how I was brought up. There’s gotta be a line still between people just buying a pair of trunks and thinking they can do this job and someone like me who came up in some of the harshest, most beaten down ways possible, and I think that balance is a lot clearer now. Respect what you do, do it, earn your respect, respect those around you, and everything will go well. Not everything has to be tumultuous, and although there are a lot of options for wrestlers to go out and make a living, in many ways it’s a lot happier and healthier.”
Dux, much like frequent Smash wrestler Braxton Sutter, also functions as a teacher and trainer for younger talents, putting all the hard lessons he has learned from years on the road to great use. Dux isn’t an old man by any definition of the word, but he’s older than a lot of the talent around him. One of the biggest goals for Dux with the time he has left in the ring is to bridge the gap between his generation and the next. He’s someone who always wants to leave a place better than he found it, and that’s certainly evident of his time with Smash.
“There are all these trends that have come and gone over these years, and if you always disagree with them and not like them, you can’t evolve or better yourself. I could have been left in the dust if I didn’t go with the flow of things. I can still teach my style of wrestling to others, and that’s something that I love doing, and I love when people bring something of themselves to whatever I’m teaching. I love to bridge gaps, and Smash has been an awesome place to do that. If you can bring the old generation and new generation together, you can create some real magic. You can either sit back, complain, and not get anywhere or you can just focus on being better at what you do, and Smash has never rested on their laurels.”
By the end of that muggy July night in a comfortably air conditioned concert all, Dux had defeated visiting veteran independent star Colt Cabana in the main event. After cutting an in-ring promo about his August match with Mark Haskins, both men greeted and thanked fans for coming out. Everyone left the building that night with smiles on their faces, and they probably would have stuck around for hours talking with wrestler and each other about the business they’re all so clearly passionate about if not for the fact that a Metallica cover band needed to set up their staging immediately for an 11pm show. Some talent crowd around in one of the dressing rooms eating from foam take-out containers, a few enjoy the gradually cooling early evening air at the club’s loading area, and Sebastian quietly packs up his makeshift office. The ring crew starts disassembling the rings and the folding chairs that encircled the ringside are gone in near record time. Soon it will be hard to tell that a wrestling show even took place that night, but the fans will remember Smash’s efforts for weeks to come, eager to see what the company offers them next.
You can catch Smash Wrestling at 10pm Thursdays on Fight Network following Impact Wrestling, at any number of their live events, or past matches On-Demand via their website.
Next week: How the internet has changed and influenced professional wrestling, for better and for worse.