In every genre of entertainment there are the journeymen that might not receive all the limelight, but are pivotal to the success of those within the main stream. The iconic Ray Charles had his traveling band, a group that he credited with making each live performance unique, for years. Longtime actor Bud Jamison enjoyed a 30 year career on film and a recurring character on television. The underrated John Cazale worked alongside De Niro, Pacino, and Brando, appearing in a series of films that are considered among the greatest of all time.
Professional wrestling also has its share of workhorses that had all the skills necessary to be successful and contributed much to the sport, even if they aren't known on a global level. Weather it be timing, injuries, or simply the climate of the business, they are several talented athletes that are a credit to the industry. Some of the names that comes to mind immediately are Dave Taylor and Dr. Tom Prichard, two skilled veterans that helped train several names in the business.
There are skilled wrestlers such as that at every level of the sport and as a commentator locally in Pittsburgh, I've had the chance to call the action during matches of upstarts with potential, as well as veterans that help teach the next generation. The top example of that in the steel city is Brandon Kaplack, an 19-year veteran of the squared circle that is known to fans as Brandon K. After nearly two decades in the ring and several years as the head trainer of the Pro Wrestling Express academy, he is now launching his own project. This month Brandon is set to open The Stronghold, a venue where he will continue his training duties and feature live events.
However, his journey to this new venture was a unique path, including when he shared a ring with an Olympic gold medalist.
As a youth, like most iron city fans, Brandon grew up on the WWF and was fascinated with the larger than life personas that were projected onto his TV screen. Hulk Hogan, Ultimate Warrior, and Bret Hart all held a prominent spot during his formative years. After graduating high school, he heard about live shows in his area and ironically, a friend that attended the same school was already wrestling. Quinn Magnum, an accomplished semi-retired grappler that now runs the Pro Wrestling Express promotion, invited Brandon to a show as an introduction to the local scene.
"I immediately went to a show to watch him and fell in love with indy wrestling. Afterwards, I asked Quinn how he got into this and he informed me that the promotion had a school, and he could get me in if I wanted. I didn't plan on it lasting so long," he said.
With a 22-year history, PWX is one of the longest running independent groups in the country, but when Brandon walked into his first training session in 1997, the business was at a completely different place, Cruiser weights weren't nearly as common as they are now. At the time, Paul Atlas and Brian Anthony, two proteges of Dominic DeNucci, were the trainers at the school. After his debut in 1998, fans of the blue collar league identified with Brandon's risk-taking style and the effort he displayed during bouts. Later, Sterling James Keenan, who eventually debuted on national TV as Corey Graves, trained at the same school and had several matches with Brandon prior to signing a WWE deal.
"My early career was great and brutal at the same time. I was a small guy in the land of giants. Everyone at that time was much bigger then me. So, my style had to be completely different, A lot of flying and technical work. But, it won over the fans.Thankfully, the guys took a liking to me and helped guide me in the right direction. Paul and Brian trained me and did an awesome job in preparing me for everything. I hit the road all the time back then. I'd wrestle anywhere that would have me. I traveled a lot with Dirk Ciglar and we got to work some awesome talent in a lot of different areas," Brandon recalls.
He began to turn heads with his technical ability early on and had the chance to do some WWF extra work within six months of his start. He stayed on the WWF radar in the years that followed and did a series of dark matches, including a competitive contest with Essa Rios in 2001. Having made a name for himself as one of the most solid performers in Pittsburgh, a variety of groups in the area and surrounding states wanted to add him to their cards.
One of the highlights of Brandon's early years in the sport was the chance to train with another Pittsburgh native Kurt Angle, who began training with the WWF in 1998 and was looking to stay sharp until he started on television so he attended local practice sessions. The late "Shocker" Sean Evans, who had been on WCW's radar in the late 90s after auditioning at the Power Plant, often offered advice to them. Being in the ring was Angle, Brandon knew that it was a matter of time before the Olympic gold medalist achieved fame in the pro ranks.
"He lived in the area of the PWX promotion and stopped up one day to check out if he could get some ring time. I was always up there so on his first day there we talked a lot and after chaining around a bit we decided to plan to train together as much as we could before he would be on TV full time. It worked out real well for both of us. He was super new to pro wrestling at the time so we started out with the basics and worked up from there. Sean Evans was in the sessions with us and did a lot of coaching. Kurt was intense as you get when it came to training. He was always on full throttle. He was eager to learn, that was his best quality," he said.
As the years went on, Brandon continued to build a body of work and in the process became one of the most respected wrestlers in the Pittsburgh area, primarily competing for the organization where he started.
"I've really enjoyed my time at PWX. It's been running a consistent show for 22 years and there has been so much talent to come in and out of its doors. So much history there. I'm just proud to have been a part of it all. But, honestly the things I remember, or maybe a better word is value, more is when someone compliments me on my work. All I ever wanted to do was put on great matches," he commented.
Still, the grind of professional wrestling has taken its toll on the veteran and during the course of his career, he sustained his fair share of injuries, including when he broke his ankle in a match in 2013. After his ankle bent in an awkward angle, he finished the match and then went to the hospital to get an x-ray to confirm the injury.
"My style has changed over the years. I've definitely slowed down on the big bumps and fast paced matches and concentrated more on being a technician. I try to avoid getting into the same rhythm with my matches, always trying to think of ways to change it up so not to become to stale."
Aside from always having solid matches and always being willing to help the younger generation of wrestlers, Brandon is extremely generous outside of the ring as well, doing humanitarian work in underdeveloped countries.
"My wife and I put teams together and visit areas where we find that there is a desperate need and do what we can to help the people in that area cope with the bad hands they've been dealt. In Peru we helped build a facility that took in local children who previously lived in the city dumps. At that facility they are taught a trade so they when the time came they would be able to find work. They are given food and a warm bed. Recently however we've been going to the Dominican Republic and working on the water problem they have in that area. The water there is so contaminated that the people spend a majority of their time fighting off water born illness. We've partnered with Wine to Water and Mission 2535 to get filters out to those people. We go every year and always are looking for people who want to go and get to work," Brandon explained.
After nearly twenty years, but still regarded as one of the top talents in the region, Brandon knows that eventually his career will come to a conclusion, but that's what prompted him to launch the Stronghold project.
"I'm understanding that my wrestling career is in its twilight but I'm not ready to walk away from something that I've done passionately for 19 years now. Promoting would be the next natural step. I want to create a place that's fun for the fans and the wrestlers alike. Hopefully a place that stays out of the mud that has engulfed indy wrestling around here and keeps its focus on moving forward creating a wonderful product."
Without a doubt, Brandon K has worked extremely hard to create a notable career among Pittsburgh fans. Perhaps if he started wrestling at a time when lightweights were given more opportunities or if injuries didn't occur, he could've made it nationally? That question is pure speculation, but there's no doubt that his contributions as a wrestler and trainer are a credit to the wrestling business. He didn't need a major contract to continue performing inside the ring ropes, he did it simply because of his passion for the sport. His contributions to the industry might not have landed him on pay-per-view, but they certainly made the sport better for the next generation.
The Stronghold project debuts this Friday, December 9th in Connellsville, PA and for more information on the show or upcoming events in 2017 visit https://www.facebook.com/BrandonKprowrestler or e mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Until next week
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