Anthony Bowens Is The Breakout Superstar We've Been Waiting For

The "5-Tool Player" is everything you want a wrestler to be. We talk to the rising star about what's next.

On Sept. 28, pro wrestler Anthony Bowens successfully defended his Battle Club Pro Franchise Championship. Twice.

The first fight, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, was against the widely beloved Blanchard scion Tessa in an intergender bout—a brawl filled with stiff punches to the neck and a handful of daring pin attempts. How an athlete could have taken such a vicious beating and not collapsed afterward remains a mystery, but Bowens endured. 

The second match was over an hour away in Wayne, New Jersey. This time, Bowens was up against bratty up-and-comer MV Young. This bout was far less brutal but way more technical—filled with sequences of complex counters and a handful of spiteful slaps to the face. Between matches, Bowens told me that his body was sore, but he was ready to keep going and flashed an excited smile. His cheerfulness through the pain was stunning.

The 5-Tool Player fights on.

Bowens, 28, is reaching new heights in the seventh year of his pro wrestling career, having honed both his all-around and adaptable wrestling style to a precise crispness and his camera-ready personality to perfection. Bowens is a hyper-mediagenic star ready for a bigger stage. He’s already a model represented by BMG. He’s appeared on magazine covers, acted, advocated for equality and has a YouTube channel that’s nearing 100,000 followers. For someone unsigned to a major company, Bowens’s potential as a breakout talent in the pro wrestling industry—at a time when wrestling isn’t exactly a part of the cultural zeitgeist—seems unprecedented. The amount of exposure he’s earned outside of the wrestling world, all without corporate backing, is unparalleled in the contemporary scene.

Bowens’s emergence is well-timed. The ethos of pro wrestling has changed within the past decade. What once had been a subculture inhospitable to anyone other than straight men is slowly transforming into an art form welcoming of all creeds and backgrounds. LGBTQ people in wrestling specifically had been the subject of derision and the victims of bigoted violence (both in and out of kayfabe), but now are starting to be welcomed as potential new stars. And yet, there’s still only a handful of actual openly queer people representing the community wrestling on TV. 

If Bowens, who identifies as openly gay, succeeds in reaching the mainstream success he’s aiming for, he could become a symbol of hope for a new generation. He could go much further than outer-borough indie mats. But just how far?

Bowens was destined for combat from an early age.

“My dad tells me I was sitting on his lap in the early ‘90s and we were watching WWF. Hogan was hulking up and I turned to my dad. Suddenly he felt something go across his face,” Bowens said. “It was my little fist! I threw my first punch when I was two or three.”

Bowens grew up in Newark, a tough part of New Jersey, where the sound of gunshots could be heard echoing through the streets after a significant economic downturn in the region. 

“I remember being outside playing baseball with my friends and we found a vial of crack,” he said. His family eventually relocated to Nutley, New Jersey, in search of a safer environment. He describes himself as a quiet and shy kid. He did well in school and excelled in athletics. Although he seemed headed for a career in baseball, Bowens fell out of love with the sport in college.

The idea of pro wrestling wasn’t a serious one for Bowens. He had watched World Championship Wrestling with his dad religiously from 1997. At first, Bowens was entranced by Sting and Hogan’s feud. When his baseball dreams came to an end while he studied at school, he found himself with lots of free time and excess energy. 

Along with friends, he began filming a series of goofy, no-budget vignettes in backyards that developed a local cult following: “I was the Black Mamba, for some reason,” Bowens said. “My opponent was my friend, the Bulge—he would stuff his underwear with socks and would talk like Macho Man. We created this weird feud where we would just beat the shit out of each other in peoples' houses.”

The videos of the improvisational Nutley Wrestling Federation caught on, with several fans saying Bowens had the physique of a wrestler, despite his smaller stature. How he could capitalize on this wasn’t clear at first.

Opportunity struck in 2012. Bowens had kept track of WWE’s touring schedule and popped into a local gym where he knew the biggest superstars would be training before a show. What started as a fan experience got serious when an unlikely advocate, Santino Marella, offered Bowens the number of Pat Buck, a well-known coach.

“I asked Pat if I could come down to [WrestlePro, Buck’s school] and check it out,” Bowens said. “It was right after Hurricane Sandy; the rec center was destroyed. They had a little side room where they were working on chain wrestling on the mat. I was there for five minutes and I was like, 'Yup, I need to do this forever,’” Bowens said.

Although the backstage politics of pro wrestling are filled with heavily protected secrets, it’s well known that training can be tough, occasionally bordering on abusive. A combination of good teachers (including All Elite Wrestling’s Joey Janela), and a compliant attitude kept Bowens from becoming the target of others’ sadism.

“Because I played sports my entire life, I was always taught to be super professional. Mouth shut, ears open. Work as hard as you can, earn respect,” Bowens said. “I was never one to be the center of attention, because usually when people come in and do stuff like that, it doesn't end up going well.”

I couldn’t help but wonder how different his experience would have been had he been out at the time. With many queer wrestlers now discussing the ways they were treated poorly—and sometimes physically attacked—because of their sexualities, would Bowens have received such kindness had his trainers and classmates known he is gay?

Bowens had established himself as a respectable fighter on the indies before his sexuality had even been a factor. He’d been open about his identity with close friends and family, who had been unequivocally supportive. But broaching the matter publicly or with fellow fighters didn’t seem like an option. Bowens wondered if the whole thing had the potential to destroy whatever progress he had made.

“I would just sit at my desk and cry because I thought if I did come out or say something that perhaps I wouldn't have a career in this, or anything public, really. So that was a very fearful and frustrating, scary time,” he said.

Gentle pressure from Bowens’ partner Michael Pavano eased his mind. The two had talked about starting a YouTube series about their relationship, but anxieties about the fallout from the potential negative publicity had held them back. Eventually, seeing how saying no had hurt his partner, Bowens relented, figuring few people would watch the videos anyway. When wrestling friends eventually found the clips, they were stunned but accepting.

“That was the most relieving thing,” Bowens said. “I've been treated great. It's made my friendships and relationships in wrestling a lot stronger because I didn't have to hide anything. I didn't have to tailor conversations to make it sound like I was talking about girls anymore.”

“I don't know what is said behind closed doors, but as far as how I'm treated, I haven't seen any kind of a difference,” he continued. “Everyone's respectful. And it's helped me in the ring, too. Because once that wall was broken down I felt more free as a performer to just be myself.”

Bowens publicly came out in 2017 (at first as bisexual, but earlier this year he said he now identifies as gay) in a heartfelt post on OutSports

“I can’t even begin to tell you how many people I’ve spoken to over the years who are hiding and suppressing themselves out of fear of being judged,” Bowens wrote. “If I can help inspire at least one person to fight past their struggles through my journey or inspire at least one person to live their dreams, it’s all worth it for me. The journey and the fight is just beginning!”

The post’s popularity led to a couple of his YouTube videos to go viral within the LGBTQ community. Suddenly, Bowens had a new fan base, many of whom couldn’t care less about what he did in the ring. They were more charmed by the couple’s earnest nature.

Pro wrestling insiders have consistently underplayed the potential of LGBTQ audiences and their spending power, considering wrestling fans’ statistically proven liberal leanings. This is reflected in how few sexual minorities become stars on screen. Of the major companies on television, WWE has one out athlete on its main roster. AEW has two but has been hailed as progressive for featuring Sonny Kiss and Nyla Rose predominantly in their marketing. Impact and Evolve, meanwhile, both have one out gay fighter. Ring of Honor, New Japan Pro-Wrestling and Major League have signed none. 

With the downturn in the popularity of pro wrestling in the mid- to late 2000s, it seems increasingly foolish of these companies to not be working harder to reach out to potential new demographics—not just because it’s the right thing to do but because it can also be profitable. Bowens’s success with LGBTQ audiences is proof that being inclusive can be good for business. And it’s not like Bowens is particularly risky or risque: He’s a prefabricated media star. His YouTube channel and in-ring persona are family-friendly, unlike many of the more lascivious or flirtatious openly gay rising stars like Dave Marshall or Jamie Senegal.

“I think that's the cool thing, to be able to represent people who don't have someone to look up to and aspire to be,” Bowens said. “There's only a few [gay men] out there on the independents right now that people can look towards for inspiration: Myself, Jake Atlas, Parrow, Sonny Kiss and Effy

“I call it the Fab Five,” Bowens said.” But I think it's cool that we're able to go out there and represent an underrepresented demographic.”

Bowens doesn’t resent other stars for playing up gay culture’s more bawdy reputation.

“The LGBTQ community comes in all different shapes and sizes,” Bowens said. “There is this stereotype that we're super sexual. And that's OK, but there's all different kinds of people and personalities … I think [all the openly LGBTQ wrestlers] are competitive with each other, but we also have love for each other. Social media can get very rough sometimes, especially if you dig deep enough. And you need as much support as you can.”

With a devoted following, you’d think big wrestling brands would be chasing Bowens down. Bowens isn’t so sure if systematic discrimination against LGBTQ people within the industry plays a factor. 

“My schedule isn't as packed as it used to be or want it to be,” Bowens said. ”I think maybe it's because of my sexuality. But then at the same time, I look at Jake Atlas, and he's flying all over the country. So I can't pinpoint it to be that exactly. I don't have an answer. It can be confusing and frustrating at times, but if I sat and dwelled on that, I wouldn't have a fun or successful career.”

As far as the future goes, Bowens has his sights set on even bigger platforms. He wants to be on AEW or WWE as soon as possible. 

“I'm not one of these guys who pretends they want to be an independent wrestler forever,” he says. “I have a lot to offer any TV company. You need me to go out and have a Dave Meltzer five-star match, I can do that. You need me to go and do media, I've been doing that for the last four or five years.”

“I can do anything you ask me to do,” Bowens said.

Bowens feels that without the pressure of keeping secrets about himself, he’s been able to unlock his hidden potential, his newest form. 

“Now, finally, I have a character, the 5-Tool Player, that I can sink my teeth into,” he said. “When I first started, I didn't have a character. I was just myself: a clean-cut babyface — a really good wrestler, Anthony Bowens. And 5-Tool Player is me, too. He’s everything I do in the ring and outside of the ring. Even though he's a babyface for now, he could be a heel too. Nobody is doing what I'm doing—and I'm not getting the recognition for it.”

Bowens has now worked with over 40 companies in his career and has received at least two tryouts from WWE. What opponent he faces for his Battle Club Championship remains to be seen, but gothic femme fatale Harlow O’Hara is already nipping at his heels. 

If the wrestling industry bigwigs want to be left in the dust, they can repeat the mistakes of the past and continue to push talent that appeals only to fans they already have in their grasp. Or they could find new audiences by courting people from outside their niche.

Bowens is prepared for bigger things. And that’s part of what makes the current situation so aggravating: he’s yet another example of LGBTQ people needing be so much better than their straight competitors to receive even a fraction of the attention. At a time when wrestling brands struggle with creating stars that appeal to non-wrestling audiences, Bowens is a perfect solution. What he brings to the table in terms of a pre-established following and utilizable skillset is already guaranteed, and his potential heights have no limits if he’s given the proper platform.

Although the industry  is changing its attitude with regard to LGBTQ people, it’s hard to think of other reasons why Bowens isn’t receiving the attention he deserves. And it’s so clear that once he’s given bigger roles to play, he’ll succeed—and inspire other people to do the same.

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