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How Mike Quackenbush Built CHIKARA, an Indie Wrestling Empire

ONE37pm speaks with the underground legend about his come-up, his famous students and his future

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Mike Quackenbush inside The Wrestling Factory / Sarah Jacobs/ONE37pm

What does it mean to be a master? And how does a master of his craft go about transmitting the lessons of a secretive world to eager students? 

 

When it comes to indie wrestling, there's no one better to ask than 43-year-old wrestling legend Mike Quackenbush.

 

Known as “The Master of 1,000 Holds”—a nickname worthy of a Quentin Tarantino protagonist—Quackenbush is now celebrating his 25th anniversary as an in-ring performer. A former NWA champion who was at one point ranked one of the top 101 wrestlers of all time, Quackenbush is a legendary being within the industry. Apocryphal stories about Quackenbush’s idiosyncrasies and the tightly held secrets he keeps have buzzed around the subculture for more than two decades.

Quackenbush has both fought and trained the highest-level stars of pro wrestling’s current pantheon, including current WWE talent like Cesaro, Ruby Riott, Kassius Ohno, Johnny Gargano and Drew Gulak along with a plethora of beloved indie icons. His mythic brawls with international legends like Colt Cabana, Madison Eagles, Zack Sabre Jr. and Manami Toyota will forever remain some of the most technically sound matches in pro wrestling’s history.

 

Meanwhile, Quackenbush continues to helm his own indie federation, CHIKARA, which has amassed a devout cult following over the course of almost 20 years. Through its attached school, The Wrestle Factory, Quackenbush continues to raise new talents who will carry forward his boundary-pushing ideology. Now, as he takes a look back at his prolific career, I couldn’t help but detect nostalgia, even as he looks towards an increasing role with wrestling's most well-known association, the WWE. 

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Quackenbush outside of the Wrestle Factory / Sarah Jacobs/ONE37pm

I was a classic comic book nerd, long before that took over pop culture.

- Mike Quackenbush

Quackenbush—called “Quack” by his students—was not particularly a fan of pro wrestling as a kid. On the afternoon of May 11, just before a one-time-only, semi-secretive, spoken-word show with recently signed AEW referee Bryce Remsburg, Quackenbush spoke about his upbringing in his distinctively hyper-articulate narrative style. Drawn far more to the world of comic books and sci-fi than to the ostentatious glitz of the squared circle, Quackenbush only came to embrace the world of costumed pugilism in his teens.

 

“I grew up in Reading, Pennsylvania,” Quackenbush began. “I think I was a classic comic book nerd, long before that took over pop culture. Liking that stuff made you a bit of a pariah. I read all the wrong books. I listened to all the wrong bands.”

 

“When I first saw wrestling, Hulk Hogan was the main character,” Quackenbush explained. “In that era, when I would see glimpses of it, I thought, ‘That’s dumb. Why do people like this?’ But in the era of Hulkamania, [wrestling] was somewhat ubiquitous. It’s really not until late 1991 when I glimpsed Jushin Liger—a Japanese wrestler who comes out wearing a cape and a shoulder harness and a colorful mask with horns, who does these very elegant and artful movements closer to Spider-Man or Daredevil—that was my entry point.”

With the arrogance of any hotheaded young boy, Quackenbush worked entirely untrained for three years before an underground wrestler named Ace Darling took him under his wing and mentored him. Darling took a shine to Quackenbush, noting his immense passion paired with an utter lack of technical prowess.

 

“There’s a deep irony to the part of my story where I am now a coach. Because I got into wrestling with no training,” Quackenbush said. “I have these three ill-formed, misshapen years in which I had the worst injuries of my career. I fractured the back of my skull. I had a seizure in the ring. I had a traumatic brain injury from that. It took months and months to recover. I was 19 at the time. So training doesn’t really become part of my story until I’ve already had between 100 and 150 matches.”

 

“Ace Darling [trained me] out of the kindness of his heart,” said Quackenbush, who could recall several incidents in which he was rescued from trouble by his senpai. “He didn’t ask for any money. If I was in a situation where I was in some kind of trouble, he would pull me out. He just watched out for me and set an example. Thank God that he did, because I was such a pigheaded young man. That’s what a wrestle dad is for! You need a wrestle dad.”

 

The tribulations of fatherhood would become a recurring theme for the weekend. The next day at CHIKARA, the colorful independent wrestling league founded by Quackenbush in 2002 after decades of global tours on the indies, was the Infinite Gauntlet. In it, plucky pro wrestler Boomer Hatfield would valiantly battle his father, Dasher Hatfield, amidst a massive 33-person battle royale. Although neither would emerge from the scramble victorious, the diminutive Boomer would go on to challenge his brutish patriarch for an upcoming mask vs. mask brawl in Chicago.

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Boomer Hatfield and his father Dasher Hatfield / Sarah Jacobs/ONE37pm

This kind of in-depth long-term storytelling has become CHIKARA’s trademark. Essentially a world inspired by the escapist fantasies that once provided solace for a younger Quackenbush, the whimsical universe of CHIKARA is entirely unique amongst an endless sea of indie federations featuring rosters filled with hyper-masculine muscle men in black spandex.

 

“[CHIKARA] was sort of born out of a monotony at the independent level,” said Quackenbush. “I wanted to write a live-action comic book. If I’d had my druthers, I’d probably have written X-Factor or the West Coast Avengers, but no one at Marvel would return my letters. So I made this instead. I got to put in all the weird things I wanted.”

 

Quackenbush’s fingerprints can be seen on every aspect of CHIKARA. In some cases the touch is subtle—as in the league’s eccentric naming conventions: One season, for example, is named after Talking Heads albums. In other cases, as with CHIKARA’s actual combat, it’s more overt: CHIKARA’s in-ring mechanics take Quackenbush’s favorite parts of Lucha Libre, American pro wrestling, Japanese puroresu from the ’90s, and ’70s British wrestling for its own unique hybrid style.

CHIKARA’s long-form serial narrative has exploded the very concept of what wrestling can be, rewarding viewers with story lines that have spanned more than 15 years. Part of this came about by abandoning the pretense of actual athletic competition: “Legitimate sport is passé!” Quackenbush said before laughing uproariously at his own joke.

 

Quackenbush’s immense grasp of narratological complexities within the medium of wrestling draws artistic inspiration not only from the world of caped crusaders but also from post-punk music and “weird conspiracy stuff like the show RubiconThe X-Files and ’70s paranoia thrillers ... I’d drop in and look at untapped storytelling mediums and I’d just steal.” This might explain some of the more complex, postmodern turns that CHIKARA plots have taken, ranging from time travel to classified subplots sometimes revealed years after the fact.

 

“If you only want to look at the art form [of pro wrestling] through the lens of a legitimate sport, you are stuck—you’re left with only realism,” said Quackenbush. “But that’s also like showing up to a white canvas and only bringing black paint. We can paint with all these other colors too, so why not?”

Another element that makes CHIKARA distinct from mainstream wrestling is its emphasis on gender parity: CHIKARA has featured female performers fighting men since Season 1. They’ve also had several female champions — long before intergender wrestling had become somewhat of a fad on the indies.

 

“Between bells there is no gender, there are just wrestlers,” Quackenbush asserted. “Because I grew up reading comic books, where it’s perfectly acceptable for Storm to fight Magneto or for Batgirl to fight the Riddler, in my mind that’s not any different than what I make here. Why do I need to be concerned with whether or not Sara Del Rey can fight Claudio Castagnoli? I’m not! If anything, what was shocking to me was that anybody would take umbrage with that.”

 

CHIKARA continues its heartwarming motto of “equal rights, equal fights” to this day: A delightfully bizarre pro wrestler named Still Life With Apricots And Pears is its current Young Lions Cup holder and the first nonbinary champion of the league, if not in pro wrestling writ large.

 

Also like superheroes, Quackenbush strongly emphasized the importance of maintaining the secret identities of his performers to our photographer. Part of a greater ethos of clandestineness comparable to that of stage magicians, Quackenbush clearly values both the showmanship and subterfuge of pro wrestling. As per one unsubstantiated story told to me by a student, when Quackenbush is vaguely recognized by a young fan outside the context of wrestling, he reassures the civilian that he’s actually just your friendly neighborhood weatherman.

But perhaps the most striking aspect of CHIKARA—either because of or despite its kid-friendly aesthetic—is how many superstars and world champions the company has fostered or produced. Quackenbush doesn’t just curate his performers and students—he collects underappreciated icons from around the world for excellent exhibitions the likes of which can be seen nowhere else.

 

While Quackenbush’s time as an in-ring performer may or may not be limited, he continues to pass his wisdom on to a new generation of students through the Wrestle Factory.

 

“In conversation, I call them my kids. I do see them that way,” said Quackenbush, clearly having become the wrestle dad he at one point needed.

 

His unique tutelage has most recently been commissioned by the higher-ups at WWE. He’s lately been brought in as a guest coach at the WWE Performance Center, where he’s given lessons to stars like Alexa Bliss and the current class of NXT. But encountering the massive scale of WWE has presented Quackenbush with a new set of challenges.

 

“The great experience that I’ve had being able to go down and consult and produce for the WWE has really illuminated the differences between pro wrestling and sports entertainment,” said Quackenbush. “That’s exciting to me because I like the challenge of it. I like the things that remind me that I still have so much to learn. I’ve just mastered this one little corner of it, but here’s a whole part of the pool I’ve never swam in, so I’m getting out there and finding what those waters are like. That excites my imagination.”

 

Although the hyper-corporate ethos of WWE may not seem even remotely compatible with what Quackenbush described as the “boutique shop” feel of something like CHIKARA, he’s been pleasantly surprised by the response.

“We’ve been out now on six or seven dates, and we don’t seem to be sick of each other yet. On the surface, we don’t seem like a match—and yet I know I get a benefit out of being there,” said Quackenbush. “It shouldn’t work.”

 

Reflecting on his career, Quackenbush knows that he may not have reached the stardom of some of his colleagues, but his legacy lives on in the careers of his students. With that in mind, his cheery optimism feels tinged with the tiniest traces of heartache.

“I’m past the point where I wonder if my name will be in a magazine or if I can master some complicated move. Those things are no longer important to me. But seeing this thing that I love and have given my whole adult life to evolve and push out even in weird fits and spurts: that’s the real reward now,”  Quackenbush said. “There are days where I feel really confident about my body of work, and there are days where I feel like I haven’t done anything.  I will get to the end of this journey and some kid can ask, ‘Hey, which WrestleMania were you on?’ ‘None of them’ is the answer. ‘Which Royal Rumble were you a participant in?’ ‘None of them’ is the answer.”

 

On WrestleMania of this year, Quackenbush reached out to many of the men and women he had trained who went on to perform in front of a packed stadium in New Jersey—perhaps the biggest wrestling audience in the genre’s history. And although he wouldn’t be among them, he knows his legacy will be carried on through their successes.

 

“We’re still connected,” he told them. “Even though I’ll be at home watching on TV and you’re going to be in this arena in front of 80,000 people—and there’s a lot of miles between us—we are intertwined.”

But along with that, Quackenbush also remembers the bitter failures he’s witnessed.

 

“I also think about the flip side of it: the students who have really failed. The ones that quit before they should have quit or the ones that walked away for all the wrong reasons. I take each of those really personally, when I feel like I lose a kid.”

 

If, as Quackenbush says, pro wrestling is much closer to art than sport, perhaps Dasher’s oedipal quest to dethrone his bullying progenitor represents the younger generation of wrestlers bucking the traditions of yesteryear, the next crop of wrestling’s ill-begotten progeny rebelling against his paternal authority. And that’s precisely what Quackenbush himself can’t wait to see.

 

“I want to see who is willing to step up a level and reinvent some weird cobwebby corner of the art form in a way that we never thought of before. There aren’t enough of those kinds of moments where it feels like an alien from another planet has dropped into the ring. I’m excited that we could be on the cusp of one of those moments arriving,” Quackenbush said.

 

“We’ve already seen weird hybridizations of, let’s say, wrestling and burlesque. That’s out there! But what is the next weird permutation? The next mutant wrestling company? I can’t wait to see,” Quackenbush said.

 

“To some people they look like ugly monsters, but they’re also these beautiful jewels.”

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