November 7, 2012
Pepper Parks brings spice to the ring
By BLAINE VAN DER GRIEND - SLAM! Wrestling
He is a former male cheerleader, but could he be a future WWE Champion? No, it's not Dolph Ziggler; it's Pepper Parks.
"My first original character was a male cheerleader, which was way before Spirit Squad came around. Around this time, I was smaller, and this is when all the cruiserweights were still around too," Parks said. "I was more of a cruiserweight, and I had really long, thick hair, so I used to tie it in pigtails. I was in a faction of male cheerleaders, so the name Pepper Parks kind of goes with the male cheerleader gimmick."
So who exactly is Pepper Parks? His closest friends and family members know him as Jesse Guilmette, a 6-foot, 225-pound man from Buffalo, NY.
The WWE probably knows Parks just as well by now. After all, he had been knocking at their door for the longest time, hoping to earn a full-time contract. Although he has yet to accomplish that goal, Parks was able to open the proverbial door wide enough to get his foot through it.
"A while back, WWE was going through this thing, where they were saying that they didn't want to hire 'rookies.' But a lot of things have changed with Triple H taking over and everything," Parks said. "I know guys personally who have gotten signed and are close to 30. I don't listen to any of that stuff, because I don't think age or height or look really matter, as long as you have what it takes, and you have what they're looking for."
It's been quite a journey for Parks just to get to that point. Like most young wrestling fans, it all started as a dream, which he quickly turned into a reality.
"As far back as I can remember, I was totally into WWF. I was a kid back then, so of course, I was into Hulk Hogan and 'Macho Man' Randy Savage," Parks said. "When you're a teenager, it gets to a point where you're trying to figure out what you want to do with your life. And if you're watching wrestling every single day and that's all you ever talk about, then one thing leads to another. I was talking with some of my friends and decided that we could probably do this. I mean if it's what you want to do with your life, do it."
After choosing a career, Parks' next big challenge was finding a place to train for that career. This led him to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he met a man named Les Thatcher. Thatcher was a successful wrestler in the 1960s and 1970s, but is perhaps better known as an announcer for Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling and Georgia Championship Wrestling. He has also trained some of the most gifted performers of this century such as Shannon Moore, Charlie Haas, Jimmy Yang, Elix Skipper, and Nigel McGuinness.
"Les was always really nice. We (Parks and his friends) checked out a lot of different schools, but we went with Les' school, because he just seemed like he was the best trainer and he had the best facility; and he had the reputation to back it up. He wanted us to start off with weight training and diet and stuff like that. He helped us find an apartment when I moved from Buffalo to Cincinnati for the school; he helped us with everything. When we first walked into the school, I would say I felt really comfortable and it was exciting," Parks said.
"Pepper came to me right after he graduated from high school and was a very good trainee," said Thatcher. "He struggled a bit at the beginning but his work ethic, drive, and focus took him to be one of the most talented wrestlers I have every turned out."
Parks described the training. "We would always start off with stretching. We'd do tons and tons of stretching before we start with anything. You also do callisthenics first, before you actually do any wrestling training. Once you start getting into actual wrestling training, we'd usually start off with rolls. That just helps you out a lot with your timing and everything. We'd also do what they call 'blow-up drills,' which is basically running the ropes, just trying to wear yourself out. We'd go two at a time. It's basically cardio for a wrestler."
Parks must have believed that practice makes perfect, because after spending several years at Thatcher's gym, he was then off to Japan, where he underwent more vigorous training. But he still never forgot where he came from.
"Les taught me everything I know, so I would definitely say that Les Thatcher is one of the most influential people in my career. There's another guy who works as Karl 'Machine Gun' Anderson in New Japan, who was a good friend of mine. He just sacrificed so much and worked so hard and it finally paid off. It's good to see that he's over 30 years old and is making good money; that really inspires me," Parks said. "Japanese style is basically everything I had learned times 20. It's like balls-to-the-wall with everything. In Cincinnati, we would warm up with about 25 Hindu squats, but in Japan, it was at least 300. I think in Japan, they train properly, because they train for discipline. You always hear people saying that they want to be wrestlers, but in Japan, if you don't want to be a wrestler, you're going to find out really quick. If you don't have the heart and the desire, you're not going to make it."
Parks soon realized that he couldn't be a cheerleader forever, so it was time for a new look.
"Once the Spirit Squad came around, I dropped the male cheerleader gimmick, because I just figured that people were going to think that I was a rip-off of them. Plus I was getting older, so I wanted to kind of evolve a little bit. But I've always used the name Pepper Parks, because that's what people have known me as for several years," he said. "I just always stuck with the name, because a name is just a name. I cut my hair a little shorter, because it was still kind of semi-long. And literally on a daily basis, I'd have a woman over the age of 40 years old come and tell me that I look like Patrick Swayze. I just got it all the time, so I just wanted to see if I could incorporate it into wrestling somehow."
Parks eventually did use that comparison to his benefit, as he is often referred to as "The Patrick Swayze of Wrestling."
"That was around the time that WCW closed, so you had all the young WCW guys there and WWE had all their own developmental guys there too. Our trainers were guys like Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Val Venis, and Dean Malenko. You had all these different guys there while we were in training, which was awesome," Parks said.
"Pepper is one of the most committed and consistent wrestlers I've seen on the independent circuit," said Dan Murphy of Pro Wrestling Illustrated, who also lives in Buffalo. "He keeps himself in tremendous shape, and conducts himself with class both inside and outside of the ring. His career has had its ups and downs, but he stays level-headed and continuously works to improve his game. He's a total pro."
Parks' first experience with the WWE wasn't really a pleasurable one. He says it got really ugly at times with all these guys there and nobody was really getting along. But Parks would not let this stop him from chasing his dream.
Parks made a reputation for himself as one of the most persistent guys to ever land on the front porch of World Wrestling Entertainment. They must have appreciated that, as the WWE kept calling Parks back for more.
"I've worked numerous amounts of squash matches in the WWE. I wasn't really sure that they knew who I was, but they basically liked to use me, to make their bigger guys look good. My first matches were with guys like Boogeyman, Vladimir Kozlov and Shad Gaspard, so there were a bunch of squash matches," Parks said.
"He's not a real outspoken guy, but he gives his all every time out. It makes sense for WWE to keep him on its radar," said Murphy. "Pepper is adaptable; he can but in a strong effort as an enhancement talent or he can go out and steal the show. He'll do what he's asked to do, without ego, and he'll do it well."
Parks also made sure to keep an open mind when it came to opinions or advice; he was always eager to learn more.
"The best advice I've received is just to be out of sight and out of mind. Unless you're Brock Lesnar or if you're seven-foot tall or something, you always have to save face and can't act annoyed or anything. You can't be getting in people's faces," Parks said. "But nobody really gave me advice as far as what I needed to do, or what I needed to work on. That's why I was always in limbo and I wasn't sure if I was doing well or not. But they always kept booking me, so I figured I was doing okay."
Now at 32, Parks is back to working indie shows, his primary income. He still hopes to be considered for a full-time opportunity in the WWE, but is also open to other major promotions as well. He's actually learned so much in the business already that guys are now approaching him for advice, and he's always happy to give it; especially to those youngsters who are chasing the dream.
"Any young person hoping to get into this business needs to know that they shouldn't listen to anybody's advice but their own. You should do what you want to do, because you want to do it, without worrying about what other people think," Parks said. "My ultimate goal is that if I ever do retire, I want it to be my own decision, and not because of some injury. I would also like to land a full-time contract with one of the major companies; not just WWE or TNA, but New Japan or something like that."
Blaine van der Griend hopes to see Pepper Parks in a WWE ring someday...