Five minutes into the last match of his career, the Gothic Knight is on the ropes. He's just suffered a flying elbow from the Primate Silverback, a 333-pound human projectile. Gothic - as he's known to fans - slumps against the turnbuckles, breathing hard, face red and sweaty.
Silverback props him up and climbs to the second rope, pinning him. A meaty fist rises, pauses, then comes down on Gothic's head, a hammer on an anvil. Silverback lifts his arm again and invites the crowd of nearly 400 to count along with the blows to come. Almost no one does. Why would they? That's their hero taking a beating.
Tonight was supposed to be a celebration of the 20-year career of the Gothic Knight - or, outside the ring, Edward Gatzky (Dietary Technology '88). What's more, the Pure Power Wrestling heavyweight belt is on the line as a potential parting gift for Gothic, now minutes from retirement. But not everything has gone according to plan today.
That afternoon at his house, a tidy, updated bi-level in an established Lethbridge neighbourhood, Gatzky wanted to relax and "get into character" as he has before every match of his career - something between putting on a game face and the morphing of a method actor.
Instead, he was distracted by having to search for a kneepad that, despite having been packed around the world with him for years, has now gone missing. He spent other valuable minutes taking care of his 74-year-old mother, in for the match from Crowsnest Pass, where Gatzky grew up. Then there was a nearly forgotten pickup of popcorn for the concession at tonight's venue, the Lethbridge Boys and Girls Club.
Gatzky may not have been able to focus on the match the way he'd like, but he's kept sight of the bigger picture. Tonight, Oct. 24, 2015, will be one of his life's transition points. When the final bell rings and one wrestler is declared champion, Gothic's story will draw to a close but Gatzky's won't.
His battle will continue from ringside. As an owner of Pure Power Wrestling, he'll fight to keep the operation sustainable, thereby doing his part to reinvigorate the sport in Alberta and develop young wrestlers for the big leagues he competed in during his youth. In the long term, there's more on the line tonight than just a championship belt.
"The Gothic Knight," Gatzky told me that afternoon, "expects a lot of himself."
Of course he'd love to go out a winner. But Silverback, a 28-year-old who'd take a shot at World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) if given the chance, has other plans. His fist continues to rise and fall. In the final fight of the Gothic Knight, the audience watches and worries. How this ends, nobody knows.
Well, almost no one.
Gothic comes to life
Gatzky, in the tradition of great wrestlers, is a storyteller - a 340-pound, six-foot-four storyteller.
Throughout his career - about 750 matches - Gatzky's story has always been about the Gothic Knight. The ring persona was born in the mid-'90s, after Gatzky started training with the Calgary-based Hart family that produced Stampede Wrestling and Brett "The Hitman," a celebrated wrestler who ushered the young NAIT grad into the business after having him as a bodyguard during a Lethbridge visit.
"I wanted to be something with a medieval theme - a knight, a protector," says Gaztky. But he didn't want to be a classic good guy.
"When I developed Gothic he was never something to be easily embraced. He was supposed to be one of these heroes that you look up to but kept at arm's length. He did right; he had very strong moral values. Gothic is close to who I am but he has an edgy, dark side to him that doesn't really exist within me."
As a storyteller, Gatzky cringes when thinking about Gothic's 1995 debut at a Stampede Wrestling reunion in Calgary.
"The match sucked," he recalls, but not just because he lost. "In wrestling, being victorious isn't all it's about." What matters is that "you tell a good story and when you walk away you blew your fans' minds." Generally, a see-saw drama unfolds in the ring but his opponent in that first match, wrestling veteran Makhan Singh, kept the action one sided, says Gatzky. "There was no back and forth. It was back, done, dead and go home. End of story."
It was, however, only the beginning for Gothic. Gatzky keeps his wrestling history in a scrapbook in his dining room. As I flip through, he asks me to be gentle with the pages, which tell of a climb to the top of the wrestling world - a spot in the WWE (then World Wrestling Federation) - but then turning back. Gatzky toured the globe as Gothic in the big leagues and even had a WWF tryout.
"I was quite a physical specimen," he says, looking at old photos of himself that show a He-Man figurine made of flesh and blood. At the time, however, he was also a young father.
Unlike other sports, there's no season in wrestling, he points out. "My wife just got tired. She said, 'I can't raise these kids on my own. One day you're going to come home to an empty house.' That scared me. So I stopped. It was painful." Instead, Gatzky remained a free agent, wrestling when and where he could. "My family came first."
While he's sharing this, Gatzky's mother asks if he'll fix her car headlight today like he promised. "I was expecting you to be here earlier," he says, "but we will do it, yes."
We head to the street to his mother's aging silver Civic. The light, it turns out, needs a bulb Gatzky says he doesn't have time to buy. His match is just hours away. As we go back to the house, his mother asks if there's any Pepsi, her favourite drink. There isn't, she's told, and she goes inside. Gatzky sighs, turns back to the street to his pickup and drives to a corner store for half a dozen small bottles of Pepsi. When he gets back, his mother has left.
To properly tell his story in the ring, Gatzky usually spends half an hour relaxing, "letting Gothic come to life." There's little time for that now. He takes the drinks into the kitchen and sets them on the table.
"She didn't know I was going to get the Pepsi for her," he says.
The future of wrestling
Life's daily challenges aren't the only obstacles Gatzky faces as a wrestling promoter. In addition to running Ultimate Lifestyles, his health and nutrition consultancy, he handles all the business demands of staging Pure Power events monthly, acting as the face of the company and keeping the operation sustainable.
"He brings a real entrepreneurial mindset," says Kevin Farrell, one of Gatzky's two business partners (and who wrestles in the league as Sydney Steele).
Stewy Seunnapha, who has been wrestling throughout Alberta for six years, agrees. "When it comes to the business of wrestling, he's serious," says Seunnapha, who was a NAIT welding student last fall.
Every event requires securing a venue, equipment, marketing, booking wrestlers and, of course, paying them anywhere from $50 to $200 a match - all part of the routine for Gatzky and his team (which includes his fiancée Heather Hunford-Burton, who organizes volunteers, works the door, does the books and more). "There are a lot of people who can't run one show," says Seunnapha.
Alberta may be ready for Gatzky's ambitions.
He's part of a movement that is filling more of a void than a niche. Stampede Wrestling thrived here from the late-1940s to the mid-'80s, when ownership changes (it was briefly owned by the WWE) caused it to fade but for occasional abortive restarts. Mixed martial arts began competing for wrestling fans' attention in 1993, working steadily toward mainstream status in 2011, when Fox sports media picked it up. Yet today the province hosts five pro wrestling leagues, Gatzky's included.
Prairie Wrestling Alliance is another, co-owned and promoted by Kurt Sorochan (Marketing '97). Established in 2001, when the league held events in the NAIT gym, it's currently based at Edmonton's Northgate Lions Seniors Recreation Centre. Sorochan says 20 per cent of his 25 to 30 annual events are sold out; attendance averages 300.
"It's on an incline," he says of pro wrestling. Nostalgia is one reason; people who liked it as kids are now sharing it with their own.
"It's socially acceptable, now that it's toned down." Like Gatzky, Sorochan is rebranding wrestling as family entertainment, leaving attitude and sexism to the big leagues without sacrificing the quality of the action and storytelling.
A wrestler, says Prairie Wrestling Association co-owner Kurt Sorochan, is "one-third entertainer, one-third stuntman, one-third athlete." These days, the scripted nature of wrestling is an open secret in the business. That said, the wordfake isn't tolerated. "The wrestlers are so well-trained and so dedicated to their craft," says Sorochan.
That craft is storytelling. "We're highly skilled athletic entertainers," says Ed Gatzky, owner of Pure Power Wrestling and who once wrestled as Gothic Knight. "Maybe the two guys in the ring know what the outcome [will be], but that's neither here nor there. It's like when you go to a movie. It's already scripted. You just go for the ride, to be entertained and get the wow factor. You go to have fun. And that's what it's about with pro wrestling."
Sorochan sees constant improvement as a priority for his organization, and for others. "Ed is a big fish in a small pond," he says, but he believes Gatzky will soon have to meet big-city expectations.
Sorochan can draw from a larger local talent pool, giving his operation a slickness Pure Power could strive toward and that could one day prove an advantage. Should Alberta wrestling continue to win over fans, Lethbridge, population nearly 95,000, could be big enough to host a rival league, suggests the Edmonton promoter.
Gatzky's stature in the southern city, however, may give him an edge. "He's somebody who's known to be always trying to give back to his community," says Farrell.
Pure Power pays rent at the Boys and Girls Club but it also regularly donates a portion of its proceeds to the organization, just as it has to STARS Air Ambulance and the local food bank and schools.
"Ed is a hulk of a man," says Jennifer Gullage-Payne, Boys and Girls Club executive director for the city and district. "But that's just on the outside. He is considerate and eager to do the best he can for his fans and Boys and Girls Club of Lethbridge."
The great Gatzky
Like fans and his community, wrestlers also depend on Gatzky's efforts, even if not exactly for their livelihood. For Seunnapha, wrestling as Kato the night of Gothic's last match, it's about personal potential. The effort of marketing himself, selling merchandise and working out have a grounding effect for him.
"If I didn't have this," says Seunnapha, who hints at a past involving an unhealthy amount of partying, "I don't know what I'd be doing."
The ring also pushes him physically and creatively. The performance element has helped the 33-year-old overcome shyness. "Wrestling grabs everything you're good at in life," he says. "In a world of no rules, you can do whatever you want - and that can lead to something spectacular. You develop skills you didn't even know you had."
Like Seunnapha, Silverback - a.k.a. Brad Kiss - aspires to go as far as he can in wrestling. Gatzky, his mentor of four years, hopes to see Kiss get a WWE tryout, just as he hopes Pure Power Wrestling will support other young combatants through a formal training program it is establishing. Before the two meet in the ring that night last October, they discuss their match and rehearse moves in the classroom just off the club's gym where the ring is. Gatzky does most of the directing.
"It's humbling," Kiss says of being the last person to wrestle Gatzky. "He's got 20 years in the business; I'm a rookie. He's willing to wrestle me and make me look like a million bucks." But Kiss also notes that it's time for a new generation to get its shot, which Gatzky - after overcoming concussions, a torn bicep, a hernia, a nearly fatal blood clot that led to a serious bout of depression, which he says contributed to the end of his first marriage - concedes without hesitation.
As the match nears, Gatzky is quietly pacing. He's breathing deep and slow, occasionally misting his long hair into tangles, water darkening the collar of his enormous orange T-shirt. A four-foot broadsword leans against the wall in a leather sheath, waiting for him. There's an intensity in his pale blue eyes. He sits down and throws his head back to gather his hair behind his shoulders. He looks mildly perplexed.
"My leg's going numb," he says to no one in particular.
The final bell
Minutes later in the ring, Gatzky's leg seems fine. In fact, he seems suddenly and wholly restored. With Silverback still looming above him and ready to land his fifth blow, Gothic rallies.
He scoops up his opponent and slams him to the canvas, pinning him as the ref dives in for a three-count. The final bell rings. After collecting himself, Gothic takes half a victory lap of the ring before Silverback personally surrenders the championship belt and raises his mentor's hand. Then Gothic takes the mic.
"It's been one heck of a journey but we got 'er done," he tells the crowd, holding up his belt. "Never forget that you are some of the greatest wrestling fans in the world. I mean that. I've been around the world."
After the match, Gatzky sits at a table to sign photos. Some are the same ones as in his scrapbook, taken of him in his prime 20 years ago. His mother sits nearby, silently drinking a Pepsi.
Later that night, Gatzky will join the other wrestlers at a pub for snacks and a drink. He'll congratulate everyone on having told "a good story" but he won't stay long, leaving the younger set to celebrate the evening.
He also doesn't linger longer than necessary at the Boys and Girls Club following that night's matches. After the fans leave and the wrestlers pack up, Gatzky stays back to lock the doors. With clean up and tear down left for the next day, the wrestler turns out the lights on the gym - and on the Gothic Knight - without pause.
On the way out, he talks about Silverback the way he might have once thought of himself. "I could see him having the chance to go up," he says, meaning the big leagues. He's seems comfortable with that time having passed for him, content in his new role.
"I've been blessed having my career the way it was. I didn't make the incredible money other guys have but I left on my terms. The memories and experiences I've had have been priceless - and there are many more to come."
By the time Gatzky gets into his pickup, Gothic seems to have receded into the history from which he came. Gatzky runs a hand through his blonde tangles. "It's time to cut my hair," he says. He talks of dropping 50 pounds. Then he starts the engine and pulls away from the club and the ring inside.
"I don't need to be this big anymore," he says.
Saturdays with Grandpa
"Every Saturday afternoon when Stampede Wrestling came on my grandmother knew to get out of the living room and go to the kitchen, go to the garden, go wherever but get out of the living room when Grandpa's wrestling came on," says Gatzky. "He had this big brass spittoon because he chewed snuff - he was an old coal miner. As kids, we would sneak around to the front of the house and watch him through the living room window. It was priceless."
Between ejecting streams of tobacco juice, Gatzky's grandfather, Robert Tuckwood, would act out moves from the show. He passed away only a couple of years before having a chance to shadow the Gothic Knight.
"If he would have known - well, he knows, looking down - that his grandson was a pro wrestler, he would have been in his glory," says Gatzky.