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Exclusive interview: How indie icon Mike Quackenbush ended up at the WWE Performance Center
Hardcore fans of the independent wrestling scene are no doubt familiar with “Lightning” Mike Quackenbush. The Pennsylvania native first made a name for himself in the early 1990s, when cruiserweight wrestling was revolutionizing the industry, before going on to become a contemporary of future WWE Superstars like Daniel Bryan and Cesaro.
Quackenbush’s dedication and passion for the craft were fully realized in the early 2000s, when he co-founded CHIKARA, an independent promotion that’s equal part lucha libre supershow and mat wrestling exhibition, as well as his own Philadelphia training school, The Wrestle Factory.
But, odds are, “Lightning” Mike Quackenbush is a name that will be unfamiliar to many in the WWE Universe. It was probably foreign to a few of the trainees at the WWE Performance Center until recently, when Quackenbush visited the facility as a guest trainer. While no one was sure what to expect of Quackenbush’s trip, both he and the Superstars of Tomorrow came away from the week with a new outlook on the mat game.
WWE.COM: How did the opportunity for you to visit the WWE Performance Center as a guest trainer come about?
MIKE QUACKENBUSH: Two WWE talents who spent some time at The Wrestle Factory had gone to bat for me and sung my praises to Head Coach Matt Bloom, those people being [Assistant Head Coach] Sara Amato and Cesaro. They were kind enough to stick their necks out a little bit for me. It came together very quickly through Coach Bloom and I was able to come down to the Performance Center and do my thing.
WWE.COM: Were you surprised by the invitation? Some might think you and WWE are at complete opposite ends of the wrestling spectrum.
QUACKENBUSH: I might have said that as well two weeks ago. I was really pleasantly surprised that they brought me down and gave me the measure of trust that they did in instructing this type of class and that type of class. I feel like I really got to put all of my skills to work in a variety of different ways and settings. They showed me such respect and trust in giving me the reigns. That was surprising and very flattering.
WWE.COM: What were your first impressions of the PC?
QUACKENBUSH: I remarked upon walking in that it was like a scene out of a futuristic movie about wrestling. What a gorgeous facility they have. What a great place to go to work. It’s like a slice of wrestling heaven.
WWE.COM: Can you walk us through what you did there?
QUACKENBUSH: I got to do a bit of observing, and then I got to do some coaching and training with beginners, intermediates and the advanced players —those that are getting ready to depart NXT and go to the main roster. I got to do in-ring technique, one of my favorites. I got to oversee presentation class. I got to oversee the sessions where the guys and girls review their past performance and we give constructive criticisms and feedback.
WWE.COM: Who are some of the NXT competitors you worked with?
QUACKENBUSH: One of the best things I got to do was spend some one-on-one time with specific talent that wanted to develop certain areas of their game. There was nothing I enjoyed more than having an hour in the ring with Chad Gable, who is simply one of the most outstanding performers I’ve ever been able to share a ring with. To trade holds and moves, to teach him and learn from him was such a pleasure.
WWE.COM: Was there anyone or anything else that stood out?
QUACKENBUSH: What makes that hard to answer is that WWE has done a great job of recruiting exceptional people. There’s nobody that doesn’t stick out. Maybe, what the world has figured out a little before I did, is how hard they’re working at reinventing people’s impressions of women’s wrestling. It’s more than just a hashtag, the idea of the Divas Revolution to them. It comes out in the work they put in the ring, how attentive they are to the coaches, how hard they work and how relentless they are at improving their game. They were very kind and grateful to me, but I feel inspired seeing the work ethic that those ladies brought to the ring.
WWE.COM: You also got to take part in the NXT Live Events that weekend. How did that go?
QUACKENBUSH: Working backstage as a producer was a great experience for me. It was very, very different from my experience prior to that. I feel very fortunate that I was able to add to my skillset while contributing. It was a delight to be a part of the Live Event experience.
WWE.COM: What do you hope the Performance Center trainees took away from your time there?
The true net yield of wrestling is always joy.
QUACKENBUSH: I wanted to leave everyone at the PC with a sense of my passion for the craft, and to renew their belief in this simple thing, which I think goes overlooked when you spend hours in the ring, gym and on the road: The true net yield of wrestling is always joy. It is our responsibility to give that to our audience, time and time again. Sometimes, you need to hear a different voice, a different perspective on it to remind you of the value of it. That’s what we’re trying to give the audience. You have people down there from all over the world, from all kinds of disciplines, different age groups, they speak different languages. If I was able to remind them of that in a way that really resonated, then I think I did my job.
WWE.COM: What did you take away?
QUACKENBUSH: That’s a very good question. I really did not know what awaited me when I accepted this opportunity to come to Orlando and work at the Performance Center. I speculated, but I didn’t know. I think what I took away was what a surprise it was seeing how incredibly passionate these coaches are and how incredibly dedicated the performers are. I really felt like I got to spend my week surrounded by people who were just as passionate about the craft as I was. Taking that away from the experience was restorative and inspiring, even for me, now in my 23rd year of doing this.
WWE.COM: After the week came to an end, you tweeted that you felt a sense of validation after going to the PC. What did you mean by that?
QUACKENBUSH: I recall a study that was done a couple years ago where wrestling fans were asked to name any organization other than WWE. Less than two percent of them could do that. Less than two percent! If that’s true, then I’ve spent my entire adult life laboring in relative obscurity. The things that I do, the things that I make, the theories I espouse, everything I’ve created, by and large, based on that study, has been in complete obscurity. Oftentimes, especially when it’s something you’re passionate about , you wonder, “What am I doing? Does it really have value? Does it have any influence?” You want to impact people and make a difference.
To be down at the Performance Center and see how openly everything I believed about the art form was not just received, but embraced and celebrated, by people I knew, people I don’t know or just met, even people I idolized, like Terry Taylor or Matt Bloom, it gave me a tremendous sense of validation.