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My Side Hustle

Juan Fourneau

WHEN I BEGAN MY journey to becoming a professional wrestler in 1994, I didn’t give much thought to the money aspect of the business. Wrestling was a secret organization similar to magicians or, frankly, the Mafia. Information wasn’t readily available on the industry’s economics. I simply had a burning desire to be a part of this crazy circus that I’d always loved as a fan.

As I began training to be a wrestler under Skandor Akbar in Dallas, information came in trickles. In my class, there was a huge wrestler who got booked before me, even though I’d trained for longer. It didn’t bother me. He was a legit six foot 10 inches tall and weighed a solid 400-plus pounds. He was a nice guy and I was happy for him.

At the time, even World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) was losing money and struggling to draw crowds. When my fellow newbie debuted, he said the crowd was fewer than 100 people, and full of former Texas wrestling stars and veterans. He shared that he didn’t get paid for his first match.

After several delays and setbacks, I had my first match in 1996. There were some veteran wrestlers on the card. The business was becoming hot again, the start of a boom that peaked in 1999. I debuted at the Sportatorium in Dallas in front of a healthy crowd of more than 800 fans.

My first match was one of my worst. I sucked up my disappointment and headed back to thank promoter Grizzly Smith and the rest of the office crew for the opportunity. I wasn’t sure if I’d get paid. As I walked in, they handed me an envelope and asked me to sign my name to confirm I’d received my earnings for the night. It was $40.

I was happy to be paid, and thought it was a fair amount, given my experience—or lack thereof. It wasn’t their fault that I chose to live in Iowa, so the fee didn’t even cover my travel expenses. Right after me, the tag team in the semi-main event came in. They signed their papers and counted their money. I thought I overheard the number was $150 each.

They were happy with it, as they had a booking for the next night as well. I talked a bit with the wrestler in that evening’s main event, and I overheard him tell another guy that he’d flown in from Tulsa, with his ticket paid for by the promotion company. My best guess is he was getting $200 that evening, but I’m speculating.

Sad to say, the realities of being an independent wrestler haven’t changed much since then, and certainly haven’t kept up with inflation. Forty dollars is still a typical payday for my efforts in the ring if it’s a local match near my home. What has changed is that merchandise sales have become a bigger part, or even the majority, of many independent wrestlers’ pay.

When I began wrestling, the industry had transitioned away from an earlier era of territory wrestling, where the regional stars were able to make a good living. By 1996, the only athletes making serious money in the U.S. were under contract with the two national organizations: WWE and the now-defunct World Championship Wrestling.

Today, landing a wrestling contract is no longer the only route to financial success. In the last 10 years, a new type of professional wrestler has emerged—the true independent. They can make a living on the independent scene, or at least enough that they only require a part-time job to supplement their pay. This affords them the opportunity to make their craft their sole focus. They can take as many quality bookings as they want, and aren’t limited to weekend matches. They can devote the hours needed to eat well, train at the gym, improve their in-ring work, develop a strong social media presence and sell their merchandise online.

As you develop a name for yourself, your fee begins to increase. Today, it’s not uncommon for an independent star to make $300 or more per appearance. Throw in T-shirt sales and other merchandise, and young wrestlers can make an okay living as they try to reach the bigtime.

The journey gets fun as you reach out to promotors, or they seek you out. Making $100 can be the first milestone. Having a promotor fly you in is another step up. If you keep your calendar full, have a healthy social media presence and negotiate your value well, you can be off to the races.

As the years went by, the guys who started with me—and who made it to the big show—were the ones who made wrestling their primary job. For some, it was by taking a vow of poverty and cutting expenses to the bone. Others began to make enough cash with wrestling that, as long as they kept their cost of living low, they survived.

Recently, WWE superstar Sami Zayn visited the Black & Brave Wrestling Academy in Davenport, Iowa, where I train, and took questions from students. He shared that he’d lived with his parents in Montreal until he was age 27. Even after developing a name for himself on the independent wrestling scene, he stayed with his parents until signing with the WWE. Living with his parents allowed him the luxury of focusing on his career.

For me, I’ve been fortunate to work with a local Iowa promotion company, SCW Pro. That’s meant regular bookings and a 30-minute drive to most shows. The crowds are healthy, often 200-plus, and the fans support their wrestlers. I typically come home from a show with $150 to $225.

SCW Pro’s promotions have grown in recent years, along with the crowds. I’ve had some great payoffs at some of its bigger events. Many a Sunday morning, I’ve used the previous evening’s wrestling money to buy groceries for the week and take my family out to dinner.

For whatever reason, my wrestling earnings are more satisfying than the exact same amount garnered through overtime at the local chemical plant where I work fulltime. On the days when I don’t sell much merchandise and have a small payday, I just chalk it up to being part of the deal.

As a Hispanic bilingual luchador—one who’s been doing this a long time—I’m in demand at Hispanic festivals, Cinco de Mayo events and county fairs. At these shows, I can command more of a guarantee, making $100 to $150 sometimes. Combine that with my merchandise sales and I’ve had some great payoffs in the past 10 years.

My wife and I took our first trip to Los Angeles in 2014, all paid for by wrestling, thanks to a generous promoter based in Des Moines. This summer, my son and I drove to Kansas City and took in a weekend of Major League Baseball, had an overnight stay and fantastic barbecue. Again, it was all paid for by my professional wrestling. I’ve had six shows in the last two years where I grossed $700, plus many more in the $300 range.

In your salad years, you take the bookings for the work—and the experience. In my early 20s, I met wrestler Lenny Lane, who was working part-time in Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling organization. He was on national television every week and was better than me at every single aspect of the game. He wrestled better. His ring gear, his physique, his ability on the microphone, even his tan was better than mine—and I’m Hispanic.

I asked Lenny how he had made it and progressed so much faster than me, despite being the same age. He shared with me the story of a promoter in Cleveland who gave him a lot of work. “The pay was terrible, Juan,” he said. “But he would let me wrestle three times on every card. I’d work an opening match, wrestle again under a mask, and then come back and do a tag.”

At the same stage in my wrestling career, I’d been prideful about my pay and refused to wrestle for less than $75. I sat at home a lot. I was lucky to be wrestling once a month, while Lenny was finishing a year with more than 200 matches and valuable experience. After that conversation with Lenny, I started looking at the pay as just one factor to consider when deciding whether to seek or take a booking.

No matter how much I’m paid, if my opponent or I get injured, it’s a bad night. What counts as a successful booking? No one is hurt, the pay is good and I have a solid match—in that order of importance.

For two decades, I’ve looked at my wrestling pay as beer money, a side hustle. Not all art pays bills. Playing softball with your buddies doesn’t make you money. Wrestling does, and I’m grateful that I was lucky enough to be paid for something I love. But more than the money, wrestling has helped me escape the mundane of my day job at the chemical plant. It’s full of showmanship, athleticism and colorful characters.

One of those characters is my childhood hero, Tommy “Wildfire” Rich. It was a thrill to meet him backstage at a show. I tried to describe it to my son, Alex, who’s inherited my love of science fiction, superheroes, bigfoot and Star Wars. I told him to imagine meeting Luke Skywalker—not the actor who portrayed him, but the actual Luke Skywalker, lightsaber and all.

Meeting “Wildfire” was kind of like that for me. That memory alone is worth all those $40 paydays. But such paydays are drawing to a close. At age 49, these are feeling like my last years as an independent wrestler. I have a little money to show for it all—and a lot of great memories.

Juan Fourneau’s goal is to retire at age 55. When he isn’t at his manufacturing job, he enjoys reading about personal finance and investing. Juan, who is married with two children, can still be seen in the ring on the independent professional wrestling circuit. He wrestles as a Mexican Luchador under the name Latin Thunder. Follow him on Twitter @LatinThunder1. Check out Juan’s previous articles.

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