Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Wrestling Ritual of the Handshake

The Wrestling Ritual of the Handshake

A friend of mine Kevin Marshall just started a blog for the Albany Times Union newspaper called Kevin Marshall: In the Present Tense. And while I have some philosophical difficulties with old media trying to hitch a ride on the internet and doing so by convincing bloggers to write for them gratis, I do hope that the exposure helps Kevin succeed in other ways, if only by getting him more readers for his new Mixed Martial Arts blog: Mixed Marshall Arts.

Any and hoo, one of Kevin's first posts was a discussion an essay about hand-shaking: Give Us a Hand, Not an Injury.

I started to reply to Kevin's blog but within ten minutes I was up to a thousand words and it felt more like a blog post than a reply. Or at least I felt like it would be poor form to write a longer reply than the original post.

Two things occurred to me while reading Kevin's post.

First and very quickly, Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy of ESPN, has written about a baseball player. The name escapes me but he has a different hand-shake for every member of his team! The mind boggles...

Right found it, it's Nick Swisher (now of the Yankees) who has 24 different home-run hand-shakes - one for each player on his team. Keep in mind that if say 12 players on your team hit a home run in the year, you are having a very good year. Dude is ridiculously over-prepared.

I also wonder if he retires handshakes when a teammate gets traded. Or does the new replacement player inherit the handshake?

A more interesting and lengthy topic is handshakes in wrestling...

Handshakes in Wrestling

Just as background, because of my writing I have been made welcome in some wrestling backstage areas since 2001. From 2003 onwards, both as a wrestling publicist for the International Wrestling Syndicate and later as a colour commentator and ring announcer for IWS and Inter-Species Wrestling, I have been welcome in a lot more backstage areas.

There is no class for how you are supposed to handle the handshake ritual backstage. You are supposed to be smart enough to figure it out for yourself. But there are definitely rules and rituals.

First, and perhaps surprisingly, there are no handshake crushers backstage. (I am now guaranteeing that Kevin Steen will break two bones in my hand the next time that I see him.) Crushing handshakes are all about establishing dominance. There is no need of that in a wrestling dressing room. Dominance is established by the handshake but in a different way. The hierarchy of respect is built on who waits for their handshake.

The first rule is that you shake everyone's hand. The hierarchy is built on which guys you have to go up to and which guys you can wait to come to you.

The hierarchy can get quite complicated and there are a lot of inter-related and complicated relationships.

In a really rough order, here are some key factors:

1) Trainer or Gate-Keeper
No matter what other factors intrude, the guy who trained you or got you your first big break is always worthy of respect. No matter that his career completely eclipsed his mentor, Mick Foley always goes to see Dominic DeNucci. I don't wrestle so I don't have a trainer, but PCP Crazy F'N Manny is the guy who gave me my first job in wrestling as a publicist and writer for the IWS, so no matter what else happens, I am always going to find him and shake his hand.

2) Booker
Whoever holds the book, commands temporary respect, for as long as they are booker. This can be modified by the booker's ego. Some bookers welcome boot-lickers, while other bookers hold the book in secret - foregoing the respect due to them. One way to tell that a booker has lost control of the locker room is when the entire locker room starts paying respect to someone else that they would prefer was booker.

3) Age, Experience and Success
These matter in competing ways. A 25 year old who just started training is lower on the totem-pole than a 24 year old who has been wrestling since he was 15. The other key factor is how far up the wrestling ladder you have reached. If you wrestled for the WWE for five years and won some titles that is going to trump someone who has wrestled exclusively in church basements for twenty years.

All other things being equal, the more recently you were at the top of the mountain the more important it is.

4) Place on the Card
This is a variant of success, but more related to the local promotion and territory. All other things being equal, perennial champions rank higher than mid-carders who rank higher than jobbers.

5) Job as Status
Wrestlers are more important than referees who are more important than managers who are more important than ring announcers and commentators who are more important than wrestling valets who are more important than ring crew.

Female wrestlers who are not valets would rank equal to or just below referees, unless of course the promotion is all women like SHIMMER or NCW Femme Fatales.

Technicians like cameramen, photographers, DJs and lighting guys tend to be on par with ring announcers and commentators although if they are former or current wrestlers they get more respect then if they were just a technician or just a wrestler. Technicians who were never wrestlers sometimes get a free pass on handshakes, on the basis of them not knowing any better. This is not a compliment.

6) Skill as Status
If you are a hall-of-fame caliber talent it commands respect. Bakais is universally considered to be the best referee in Quebec over the last decade. He gets tons of respect. Jim Ross receives and Gordon Solie received more respect than Michael Cole ever will. (In case you were wondering. Michael Cole is waaaaaaaay better than me.)

7) When You Get to the Locker Room
The earlier that you get there, the more likely that people will come to you than you go to them.

8) Personal Relationships
This works both ways. Friends are more likely to greet each other as equals. Enemies are more likely to expect their rival to come to them and seethe when it doesn't happen. When someone owes you a favour they are more likely to come find you.

9) Guests
When someone is being brought in to a promotion for the first time and they are being advertised on the poster to sell more tickets, the guest has more status and even wrestlers who aren't in the match with him will come and thank the guest for coming.

10) Certainty or Doubt as Status
If you are not certain that you should go up to someone and shake their hands, than you should be doing it. When in doubt, it is your responsibility to go to them.

For me personally:

Given how low on the totem pole I am, when I get backstage, I generally go around and shake everyone's hands. I try to hit everyone, but most Quebec locker-rooms are pretty loose, so if I miss one or two people, it's not usually a big deal. I usually make one pass when I arrive and after that if I am going around for other reasons and I run into someone that I haven't greeted, I take care of it then. There are certain people that I would never miss though and I will make an effort to go out of my way to greet. Without naming names, the higher they are on the list above, the more likely I am to seek them out.

At the end of the show the ritual tends to be repeated. Usually in my case, accompanied by a quick word about the wrestler's match.

And yes, it does sometimes happen that I end up shaking the same wrestler's hand four or five times in one night. Usually at a certain point, we start giving each other quizzical looks - like haven't we done this already?

The other thing of interest is the hand-shake variants backstage.

Your regular handshake.

The handshake with the the third hand pat on top of the shake. (This isn't universal, but the guy doing the patting tends to be lower on the totem pole.) The variant to this is the handshake with a pat to the shoulder. The other variant is the handshake with a pat or squeeze of the upper arm.

The handshake with a bow. (For Japanese wrestlers.)

The handshake with the pull-in to a shoulder bump. (This tends to be restricted to wrestlers.)

The fist-bump. (Usually, when you have to reach to shake or there are people in the way.)

The shoulder pat when someone is too busy and you just want to acknowledge that you would have shaken hands if the other guy wasn't busy.

High-fives tend to be reserved for celebrations as opposed to greetings.

In Montreal, when greeting a female wrestler, valet or wrestler's girlfriend, the two cheek kiss is customary - as the saying goes, "As Montreal as a two cheek kiss!"

And the final and most important (and valued) handshake of them all is the one where you are slipping a wrestler his pay. This usually happens when you forgot to pick up envelopes before the show. It can also happen because you are giving the wrestler his merch money (especially in public) or for a variety of reasons you are giving the wrestler a bit more than he was expecting. (That last one is very rare though!)


  1. PCP Crazy F'n Manny promotes wrestling as a professional sport
    encourages the public,spectator sports fan

  2. what the hell are you talking about??