Kiwi wrestler tells all about the blood, sweat and tears of professional wrestling
It's been 30 years since a New Zealand pro wrestler last stepped into a WWE ring, but Bulls man Travis Banks will enter the squared circle on the grandest stage of all, WrestleMania. Sam Kilmister reports.
You don't have to be a wrestling fan to appreciate the gruelling punishment wrestlers put their bodies through.
Travis Banks has torn his rotator cuff, broken his wrist, split his ear and cut his eye. Many sportsmen would need months on the sideline to recover but, through it all, the man from Bulls wrestled on.
"As they say, the show must go on."
Wrestling is Banks' livelihood, income and motivation, but more than that, it's an addiction. No job in the world can provide the adrenaline rush the way thousands of people chanting your name can, he says.
On the independent circuit, if you're not wrestling, you're not making money.
Indie wrestlers deal with the stress and mental pain of being away from home and family, and the backstage politics is rife.
Banks, now based in the United Kingdom, says there is a lot of backstabbing as the wrestlers jostle and turn against each other to move up the rungs of the professional ladder.
Above this physical and mental distress is an everlasting cloud of job uncertainty, knowing that wrestlers are recycled and forced to work through injuries without health insurance or proper job stability.
That's why Wednesday, March 22 was an extra special day for Banks – when it was announced he would fight at WWE Axxess, a fan convention during WrestleMania week.
WrestleMania is the flagship event for the sport entertainment company. It is the most successful and longest-running professional wrestling show in history, and last year played out in front of a 100,000-strong crowd.
"To be able to wrestle in a WWE ring is pretty bloody scary and awesome, to be honest. I was pretty chuffed when I heard I'd be at WrestleMania – it's a little foot in the door.
"In 2014 I had a WWE trial and I was unsuccessful. I was quite disheartened about it, but I said I was going to get back on the horse and try to crack it again.
"That's why I decided to come over to the UK. I just packed up, took the risk and came over – I had no bookings or matches waiting."
The move has paid off, with Banks winning the World Fight Club Pro championship belt last week. He describes it as the best moment of his life and the point he persuaded himself wrestling was a career, not a hobby.
What has kept Banks going in such a demanding industry is an unyielding, longstanding love for wrestling that started when he was a child, and grew once he experienced the thrill of putting on a match in front of passionate fans.
He now feels indebted to those fans.
As a young boy at Bulls School, Banks knew he wanted to wrestle but, in New Zealand, he just didn't know how to.
"My sister had a boyfriend when I was 7 or 8 and he was watching WCW. I remember watching a match between Glacier and Mortis and I thought 'what the hell's going on here?'.
"That's when I was hooked, but I just didn't know how to pursue it in New Zealand."
After leaving Rangitikei College, he started wrestling around New Zealand but was always striving for something more, something bigger.
He went to Japan to wrestle in 2012 before heading to the United States to train under Impact Wrestling stars Davey Richards and Kyle O'Reilly.
He won the IPW New Zealand Heavyweight Championship in 2013 and then again in 2014. He says it was the moment he realised he wouldn't follow a conventional job path.
Four years later, he's never been able to shake his almost-childlike love for the sport.
"That was the realisation of a dream. Leaving New Zealand was the best thing I could have done for my career.
"Now here I am, a guy from a small town in New Zealand with a population of about 1000 who has wrestled in nine different countries."
One thing that bothered him when he started was people slamming professional wrestling as fake.
"There's so much more than what people think. You've got to be tough – I played rugby for 15 years and that was easier than wrestling. If people knew what went on they'd know how much sacrifice goes into it and what you put your body through.
"A lot of people think it's like a choreographed dance. But, in the ring it's very team-based – you're always listening and talking to your opponent and you're feeding off the crowd. A lot of people think we're actors, but I like to think we're reactors – we react to what the crowd likes or what they don't.
"You can't fake some of the moves or jumping from the top rope. It's gruelling on your body. It doesn't bother me so much any more because I know what it takes and how hard it is. When I first started, and still now, I saw it as my role to change people's opinions on it."
At 175-centimetres tall and weighing 90 kilograms, Banks admits he's not the biggest guy on the circuit.
That's why he invented the motto 'New Zealand Strong Style' and markets it as his brand.
"I'm known for quite fast-paced, hard-hitting matches. People sort of associate the New Zealand Strong saying with someone who strikes hard, but can take a beating and get up from it.
"I'm at that middle weight where I can fly off the ropes and do all that stuff, but also tough it out through the pain."
He loves the thrill of essentially becoming a real-life superhero or supervillain.
He fights alongside former WWE superstar Rey Mysterio and last week was in the ring with former WWE bad guy Alberto Del Rio. He says the opportunity to learn from guys who have been among the elite is invaluable.
At 30 years old he is aware he needs to be fit and injury-free to give the WWE a crack.
Banks says wrestlers undoubtedly accrue injuries, and knowing that they won't get paid if they're not wrestling, they stay wrestling.
Injuries go untreated, and addictions sometimes form. That's always been the case in wrestling, and things haven't changed.
One of the main differences today is that wrestlers are aware of the risks of brain injuries. Until a light was shone upon that, Banks says concussions were treated as if they were bruises.
"I know when it comes to WWE they're strict on head injuries and it does concern me. This is my job, my income – I don't do anything else, I do this day in, day out."
Throughout his career in the UK, Banks has always been an ambassador for New Zealand. He struts to the ring clothed in the New Zealand flag. His ring gear also represent the Kiwi colours.
"I wanted everyone to know I'm from New Zealand. When I first came to the UK it was hard to get people to know what I'm about and what I could do, but I think I've got there now. I'm the current champion and I'm at the top."
But he's not settling yet. He's committed to keep chipping away, keep bettering himself and one day, hopefully, crack the WWE.
Wrestlemania 33 will take place in Orlando, Florida, on April 2.