Grapple MAX Dojo is a local wrestling school which not only grooms budding professional wrestlers but also tailors its specialised programme to promote an alternate form of fitness workout.
The company recently held its first-anniversary showcase at its gym in Victory Centre on November 10, which saw a crowd of close to a hundred people. The line-up of brawlers hailed from both Singapore and Japan, including locals Greg “Glorious” Ho and Dennis “The Ladykiller” Hui — co-founders of Grapple MAX — and Japanese pros Emi Sakura and Dick Togo, the head advisor of the school.
The unique aspect of a Grapple MAX show is its Japanese style pro wrestling coupled with a “no ring, no ropes, no barriers” concept, in which fighters contest on a wrestling mat devoid of the stuff that constitutes the conventional ring: ring posts, ropes and turnbuckles. The arena is also established at ground level with the audiences to deliver an ‘in-your-face’ experience of spectatorship.
Mass Forces catches up with Dennis along with Grapple MAX trainees Natalie Cheung and Shawnrick Hu just before a rambunctious Friday night of body slams, dropkicks and one hair-raising aerial assault.
What is the appeal of pro wrestling that draws you into the sport?
Dennis: I was a wrestling fan when I was growing up. And then when I saw SPW (Singapore Professional Wrestling), I jumped into it to live out a fantasy.
Wrestling’s definitely good for physical fitness. I can swear by the results: IPPT gold, looking lean, body fat less than 10%. I know I’m achieving my fitness goals and, at the same time, achieving my childhood fantasy.
Shawnrick: I remember that both my grandfathers watched it. My dad used to watch it when I was younger. When I was 16 or 17, I started to get interested in what these wrestlers are doing as they are entertainers and yet they are athletes doing big power moves.
The very first match I remember watching is the fight between Yokozuna and Hulk Hogan. That was the first time I came across wrestling. I went back to it about years later and I was like, “Oh, whoa… you guys got The Rock, Stone Cold, Triple H, (Chris) Jericho, the ‘Attitude’ era.” It caught my attention; the more I learn about it, the more I’m drawn into it, and realised I was really digging this wrestling thing.
I have always been an entertainer all my life and I thought like: if I could pursue pro wrestling in the same light, then not only am I bringing a smile to people’s faces; I’m enjoying what I’m doing. You should enjoy what you do.
Natalie: I actually stumbled upon pro wrestling by chance. I was at Chara Expo in 2015 and saw that there’s this Japan pro wrestling promotion. I went to take a look and was quite amazed by the moves done by all the wrestlers in the ring. I thought it was pretty cool.
I didn’t think much about it until 2016 when Chara Expo had NJPW (New Japan Pro-Wrestling) coming down to perform again. And that’s when I realised I actually want to do pro wrestling because it looks fun and makes me feel I’m doing something I like.
I join Grapple MAX in December 2016 and started training there. Eventually, around March this year, I was offered a chance to perform. What really drives me to perform is the athleticism and the way a story is told. The reaction from the audience is also what I enjoy seeing so that drives me to perform for the crowd and myself as well.
What are the challenges you face as a wrestler?
Dennis: Compare pro wrestling to another martial art like MMA or boxing; your intention in the latter is to land hits that would knock out the person. But for us, we are trying to do it in a safe way.
So the challenge is making the moves look very convincing but at the same time, you must protect your opponent. You want to make it look like it really hurts but, in actual life, you are going to shake hands with your opponent and have beer after the show.
I know that people from other fighting sports train in very controlled environments; they train with experienced referees to keep the sparing safe. For us, the intention is never to injure the opponent. So the philosophy is very different; it is based on cooperation.
It’s not “me-versus-you”; it’s us showing something to the audience. The audience is who we want to target. We are not trying to ‘one-up’ each other. It is a cooperative effort to put out the best stage performance.
Shawnrick: I train at Grapple MAX this year but it’s not my first time training as a pro wrestler. I used to train with SPW and was one of the first few people having a trial session with SPW five years ago. I just never got the time to focus on it because of my work. The schedule just doesn’t tally.
The difference with Grapple MAX is that the scheduling is easier for me and that’s why I continue to train with them for months.
Natalie: When I first started out in Grapple MAX, I looked around and found out it’s all guys so I’m the only girl. I was quite insecure at that time because all the guys are pretty fit and muscular, and here I was looking chubby and slow. I thought I may never catch up.
The challenge was when I had to do flips and it was actually quite scary because I was scared of landing on top of my head and injure myself.
The other challenge was that I was an introvert at first. And pro wrestling requires action and storytelling. I could not express my (determination) and everything when I was doing my moves. Eventually, after much training and encouragements from the guys, I started to become more of an extrovert.
What do you consider yourself to be more of when you step into the ring: a stuntman, a fighter, an actor or a jack of all trades?
Dennis: It differs from person to person. Personally, my style is very much stuntman and actor.
Other people want to make wrestling a very believable, physical contest. So those are the real ‘fighters’. Some of them have martial arts background like judo, Aikido, boxing. It helps to make their moves look convincing; that’s a different class of wrestlers — they are very physical when they wrestle. That’s also very unique to Japanese wrestling and that is essentially Grapple MAX’s style; we are a Japanese style of pro wrestling outfit.
If you ask different people, they will tell you things like stuntman, actor, fighter or athlete. It is a mix of all these. There are some matches like comedy matches for example: you need to play out your emotions, your physical expressions because you are trying to be an actor who makes people laugh and get them absorbed into your match.
Shawnrick: I see myself as a team member. Because, in professional wrestling, you are using your voice, body, everything… the mind, the environment as tools to tell your story.
Now you cannot tell your story alone in this case. It takes two to tango. You got to have your story with your opponent or tag team partner. It’s not so much about you but it is to tell the story to other people who are or are not watching it for the first time and give them the same feeling that you felt when you were younger and watching wrestling.
At the end of the night, I want them to go home thinking: “I have a great time.” And that is because of everyone’s effort. I look at it as: “Let’s do this. Let’s make the show rock.” That’s how it is.
Natalie: I see it as everything: being a fighter or storyteller or performer or actor, everything, because that’s what pro wrestling is all about — to tell a story through fighting actions and many cool moves.
Grapple MAX conducts a different format of wrestling compared to the conventional kind? Please explain the challenges of its unique “no rings, no ropes” philosophy in comparison to the commonly understood form of pro wrestling.
Dennis: Let me talk in the reverse, which is what makes Grapple MAX unique and easy to do business. What we feel is that — because we don’t have a ring — transporting the (wrestling floor) mat is very easy; you just fold it up and move it into the truck, set it up within 10 minutes and you can do a show anywhere in Singapore.
The thing about having a ring is that you will need a lot of manpower to set up the ring post, tension cables, the ropes, the mat, the plywood… There’s a lot of things to be done.
For us to set up is a lot easier and we are mobile because of (our concept).
The challenge, however, is our concept is so fresh as everyone views wrestling as a match in a four-sided ring where you are going to run off the ropes, you are going to climb onto the top rope and jump off. Moonsault, elbow drops, Irish whips… These are what the image of wrestling is to most people.
For us, we are presenting a new format. There’s absolutely no “us-vs-them” feeling against (the conventional format of wrestling). When you are sitting in a ring show, and the wrestlers on stage are elevated and they are in the middle of the ring, you feel like you are watching them from the outside. When we are at ground level with the spectators — eye-level sometimes — it feels more intimate. That’s where we work around the challenges we face.
It takes a little bit of getting used to for people to be convinced that this is the new culture of pro wrestling, that we are trying to present to them. But because of that, it is unique enough to be fresh and people like to watch it.
We draw the inspiration of our concept from one of our guests who is here tonight, Emi Sakura, who runs a Thai wrestling promotion called Gatoh Move. In the region, Gatoh Move is the pioneer of ‘no ring’ wrestling. They just wrestle on mats, with a very intimate setting, about 50, 60 people and that’s as big as the crowd goes. So you don’t see a Wrestlemania, 50,000-people crowd size — a different audience size but for a different product to begin with.
Shawnrick: The difference with Grapple MAX is that it focuses on Japanese pro wrestling. It is more technique-focus whereas in American wrestling, what you see is a more showman-style performance.
With regards to “no rings, no ropes”, it is totally fine. You can still tell a compelling story with ropes or without ropes. The ropes are just there to help you execute moves; it’s just another tool.
Please tell us more about the fitness-focus aspect of Grapple MAX’s training.
Dennis: The physical fitness aspect — compared to other fighting sports- is pretty similar. Wrestling is intensive like other martial arts. Just get any one of our guys and ask them how a three-minute squat feels like; three minute on the mat and you will see people heaving, panting, gassing out very fast.
So to put out a full length 10 to 12 minutes performance, it really takes a lot out of you. It’s your cardio, your gymnastics flexibility, it’s your ability to perform as a character.
You are basically an actor as well. And that is where the fitness aspect of wrestling is unique. We coach people on how to use their body language, their expressions, their eye contact, their vocals, to tell the story, in addition to their physical actions.
Shawnrick: In Grapple MAX, you have the choice between pursuing pro wrestling as a full-focus thing or having it as a method of fitness.
For a lot of people, it’s very hard for them to wanna work out and start getting healthier. One way to have a step forward is to enjoy what you do. As long as you get to do what you like and you get to work out, then why not?
And if there is a chance (to become a pro wrestler), it is two-fold.
We do a lot of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which has proven to be quite a big contribution to fat loss, to be able to burn fats better. There are studies which show that to do a 20-minute HIIT workout is equivalent to a 60-minute cardio run.
The thing about Grapple MAX is that it is able to accommodate people with different circumstances. We have the belief that if you cannot (sustain harder efforts), then it’s OK. We would rather you take your time to get into gear and pace.
Injury is part and parcel of life but, in any way we can, we try to keep that to a very minimal. Safety first.
What is your take on the popularity of pro wrestling in Singapore?
Dennis: Pro wrestling’s been in Singapore for five years or so. The first show started out with 60 people at an SPW event. SPW’s biggest show so far is about 600. And you can see there’s a gradual growth. Over the years, it goes from one wrestling school to two different companies. The biggest show that we did was at the Singapore Night Festival, where there were about a thousand people.
So you can see the audience is growing. The fact that we can hold many shows a year — we hold about one show per month — shows that there is a market for pro wrestling in Singapore. There is a lot of people who came back to watch; those who are coming back are bringing along their friends. Every time we look at our audience, there is a new face there.
You have to convince people this is the new culture of sports. This is how you can plan your physical fitness; this is how you can spend your leisure in the evening.
For Grapple MAX training, we found that those above 35 represent a good market for our customer base. They probably will not do pro wrestling full time but they are at the age where they are like, “I would live to give this a shot before age catches up with me. I owe it to myself to try it once.” They want an outlet where they can try it and have a unique experience to what WWE is like.
Shawnrick: Pro wrestling’s grown from a time when nobody gives a crap about wrestling to today when you put up a product and people will come to watch. For the past five years, pro wrestling has grown to a point that people recognise that we have wrestling in Singapore.
And people start naming SPW wrestlers or those from Grapple MAX, Malaysia, Thailand. Having an avenue to showcase is key, and from there, you can always improve.
You are not always going to be perfect straight up. But you have a start and that’s what’s important.
I have seen in SPW shows where they also have (young spectators) like eight to 12-year olds. In Grapple MAX shows, the range goes from eight, nine to 50, 60-year old, anything really. We pretty much have the product to showcase to people of all ages.
Natalie: When we have our very first show, there was quite a crowd and we were shocked because it was close to a full house. I think, over time, as we have more trainees coming to Grapple MAX, we will increase in audience numbers.
Do you see the current development of local pro wrestling to be conducible for more full-time wrestlers to take the stage?
Dennis: We are really working hard on that because, the more platforms, the more opportunities you get to wrestle, the better you get. That’s where you can start doing international bookings.
When you can start touring, then you know your career is moving on the right step. When you start becoming a regular on the scene, when your name starts popping up in rosters and match cards, that’s when people feel they can give pro wrestling a shot.
Whether someone can do wrestling full time right now, I don’t think that is the case at this point but we are definitely heading in that direction.
Grapple MAX networks extensively with promotions in the region. We want to push our guys to perform with partnering promotions. For example, in Thailand, promotions there are ready to host our guys. You come up to a superstar welcome at their shows so you can definitely see that the things learned in Grapple MAX takes you international. It takes you outside Singapore, it takes you to a bigger stage, and that is our kind of programme for our students to get out there.
Shawnrick: If you wanna do this full time, know that there is a start. How you want to do it is up to you. But you cannot say there’s no chance for you to become a wrestler because there is no avenue. Because, right now, there are two schools (SPW and Grapple MAX) in Singapore to go to.
We will also connect with wrestling organisations in Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines. Today, we have wrestlers from Japan coming over. Who knows, we might get to go to Japan to tour and train as well.
The possibility is there. Whether or not it comes true, it’s up to you.
What is your ultimate dream as a wrestler?
Dennis: If I could run Grapple MAX full-time and draw a full time salary on this, just working on my passion, if I could just do this 100% of the time, I will be very happy.
Shawnrick: My dream is to become one of the best entertainers in the world… best emcee — hosting, singing, acting. Basically, I want to leave my mark in the world; that I have entertained people at some point.
When I die, I want to know that I have made someone happy. Wrestling is one of the few avenues that I have as an entertainer.
Natalie: Originally, my dream was just to perform in Singapore. But, now that I have progressed through many matches, I found that I have a big dream I wanna achieve: Japanese-style pro wrestling is what I’m drawn to and I would love to go to Japan and do a match one day, and hopefully, able to do more matches there.
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