March 11, 2012
Kwan Chang hasn't given up on the dream
By JAN MURPHY - Kingston Whig-Standard
Kwan Chang's list of injuries reads like something you might find in a doctor's office.
Two knee operations to repair torn ACLs, compressed C1 and C7 vertebrae, bruised ribs, lower back strains, ruptured bursa sac in one elbow, torn tendon in the inside head of his tricep, bone chips in both elbows, sprained ankles, wrists, jammed toes, broken fingers, a damaged rotator cuff, dislocated jaw, torn hamstring, a bruised tailbone, bottom lip put through top teeth, countless concussions ...
Chang, a superstar of the independent scene if there ever were one, has sustained every single one of them, along with countless others, doing the very thing he has loved since his childhood, and that he still loves today at 39 years old.
The rotator cuff injury, while not the most serious among his battle wounds, put an end to his days of climbing the top rope, a tradition in wrestling that dates back to its very beginnings.
"It was as Wrestlelution 1 for (Thorn Wrestling Academy) three years ago. I came off the top rope with the old (Chris) Benoit diving headbutt and my shoulder jarred," said the six-foot-two, 250 pounder known as The Asian Nightmare.
"I haven't touched the top rope since."
He may not be climbing top ropes these days, but he is fresh off a pro experience with Total Nonstop Action, where he recently spent some time on the ring crew.
"I got to set up and tear down (the ring)," he said, along with "security, and whatever else they needed."
The offshoot was the opportunity to strut his stuff in front of TNA agents.
"I got some good contacts," said Chang, who has performed for Kingston-based Ontario Championship Wrestling on a number of occasions.
While the wrestling big leagues have yet to come calling for the big man, the Hamilton native has enjoyed a ton of success on the indy scene.
Chang's love for the industry began in his youth.
"I've always liked it," he said. "I've watched it since I was 12, going back to 1984. I think the first match I ever saw was -- I think it was the buildup to WrestleMania 1 -- so it was (Barry) Windham and (Mike) Rotunda versus the (Iron) Shiek and (Nikolai) Volkoff for the tag-team titles. I think that was the first match I ever saw and I just got hooked."
Many a fan dreams to be a wrestler. Few follow through. Even fewer succeed.
"I'd always kind of had it in the back of my mind that that was what I wanted to do," Chang said. "I did martial arts and taught martial arts and trained for 10 years. The guy who I trained under (Leighton Morrison) did some dark matches for (World Championship Wrestling).
While his home -- or road home as he calls it by times -- is Hamilton, his craft has taken him from coast to coast and beyond.
"I've been all over Canada," Chang said. "I've been as far east as the Maritimes, as far west as Vancouver, I've been as far north as Northwest Territories and as far south, wrestling, as Tennessee."
As you can imagine, there is little Chang hasn't seen in his career.
"You name it, I've experienced it," he said with a chuckle, adding that he's "lived on the road" and "out of my suitcase in hotels."
A wrestler's life is not for the faint-hearted, or the injury prone, but along the way you encounter some good folks.
"You get a special bond with a lot of people. You don't have too many good friends in this business, but the ones you have are really good friends."
Chang remembers his first match like it was yesterday.
"September 7th, 1997," he shoots back before the reporter can finish the question. "I did a run-in the previous day. And I had my first match on the seventh. It was a two-day shot in Burlington."
"Nerve-wracking, very nerve-wracking," is how he described it when asked what he remember of it. "I just did what the promoter told me to do. I think I still have my first match on tape somewhere. Oh, it's hard to watch now. Two green guys pulling off every spot they know ... the blind leading the blind."
On the phone on this day, Chang is co-operative, polite and at times funny, a far cry from the man indy wrestling fans have come to know over the years.
Far cry, in fact, might be an understatement. When he walks through those curtains and down that ramp toward the ring, Chang is as intense and nasty as they come. In fact, all 15 years of his career have been spent in wrestling's darkside, as a heel. Believe it or not, that wasn't what Chang set out to be in the business.
"You know what, when I was first training, I wanted to be the Ricky Steamboat babyface, but because I did all the martial arts, and because I'm half Asian, I just kind of got thrust into the heel role," Chang revealed.
He's never looked back.
Having spent some time learning the ropes on the independent wrestling scene over the last couple of years, this writer has learned one thing above all else when it comes to this business: every man and woman in this industry is there for the sheer love, not the money. The money, not only in independent wrestling, but across all levels, takes a back seat to the love of the profession.
Kwan Chang is no exception.
"Even in the big time, compared to other pro sports -- I mean you've baseball players making $40 million a season -- really, in relation to other pro sports, we're pretty poorly paid, especially for what we do."
Chang ranked #1 in February among Ontario Wrestling's Indy Elite top 20 singles wrestlers. He also wrestled more matches than any other Ontario wrestler during the month -- not including his U.S. stuff, again showcasing that at 39, he's not slowing down.
Having said that, thanks to a successful indy career, he is able to pick and choose where he works. While he's not getting rich, he is getting by.
"I pull enough to pay my bills. That's it. I'm definitely not rolling in money."
Count Chang among countless wrestlers and fans of independent wrestling who have never been more proud to see the success reached by their peers and successors, none bigger than the current World and WWE champions in WWE Inc., Daniel Bryan and CM Punk.
"I always like to see guys like that come up and be in the spotlight," Chang said. "Not discounting a guy like (John) Cena or (Randy) Orton or any of those guys. I don't think Orton's ever -- he grew up in the business -- but I don't think he's ever wrestled an independent show. Cena started off in Ultimate Pro Wrestling, in California, but really he got called up to (Ohio Valley Wrestling) pretty quick because of his size, his look. He's done phenominally for himself ... I don't think a guy like Batista has ever worked an independent in front of 15 people and made gas money."
Yes, you read that right. Gas money. Chang himself has worked for gas money -- "and less."
So we now know that the injuries are plentiful, the travel gruelling and and the money almost nonexistent. What, then, continues to be the attraction for a man crowding 40 who has been a villain his entire career?
"The rush of the crowd, the reaction," Chang answers quickly. "In my case, people just hating my guts when I walk out -- it's a rush. Ask any entertainer what they do it for ... it's the reaction of the crowd, the rush of the crowd."
Advice he was given by the late -- and controversial -- Chris Benoit, has stuck with Chang his whole career.
"He said just work anywhere and everywhere and just get your name out there and not worry about money," Chang said.
It's something he's done his entire career and it's advice he passes along to this day.
While he's never gotten his big break in the business, Chang has had the opportunity to work with many a wrestler who has.
Those include the likes of Doink the Clown, Marty Jannetty, Al Snow, Sabu, Balls Mahoney, Jimmy Jacobs, Billy Gunn, Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake, Chris Sabin, Tatanka, Robert Gibson, "The Alpha Male" Monty Brown, Pat Tanaka, Mr. Hughes and "The Taskmaster" Kevin Sullivan, to name some.
How then, is it, considering all the talent he has worked with along the way, that Chang has never caught that right eye at the right time?
For his part, Chang believes it's just a numbers thing.
"Back in the day, there used to be (American Wrestling Association), (National Wrestling Alliance), (World Wrestling Federation), and then later it was WWE, WCW, (Extreme Championship Wrestling) ... you had a lot more opportunities to get a full-time career. Really, now, it's either WWE or to some extent, Impact (TNA), and that's pretty much it, unless you want to go overseas. You've got X number of thousands of independent workers and what, between WWE and Impact, maybe 200 spots. It's playing the numbers game."
Despite having never climbed to the top of the business, Chang is very much at peace with his career.
"I'm having fun, and that's the main thing," he said. "As soon as I stop having fun, I'll call it quits."
And despite the laundry list of injuries mentioned earlier, he has no plans of packing it in any time soon.
"Depends on how long my body wants to hold out for," he said when asked how long he has left in his career. "I've been relatively healthy, all things considered. My last major injury was tearing my tricep -- and even that didn't really stop me. I just taped it up and kept going."
And to the young workers out there, following in the footsteps of the CM Punks, Daniel Bryans and Kwan Changs, Chang offers this advice: "Learn your craft, learn psychology, learn to work. Learn that less is more and you don't have to go out there and do 101 spots and kill yourself in front of 20 people. Safety. Be as safe as you can in this business," he said, likening what wrestlers do to being a crash test dummy.
As for whether or not the big time is in his future, Chang says TNA has extended him an open invitation.
"They invited me back any time," he said. "Anytime it's in the northeast, basically when it's within driving distance, they said I can come down and do the ring crew thing and they'll pay me for it. It's an opportunity to play around in front of the agents and stuff."
I'm not a betting man, but if I were, I wouldn't bet against Kwan Chang.
Jan Murphy is the news editor at the Kingston Whig-Standard and has written about wrestling for 15 years.