|LIMA -story by Jim Painter
Al Sarven's look back at his early career was mostly captured on film, but sitting in a conference room, signing posters with his former mentor away from the cameras, he couldn't help but laugh at the memories.
Sarven, better known to the world as WWE professional wrestler Al Snow, is being featured on a WWE-produced show on his career before becoming a star. A film crew followed him around Lima last week to his former haunts and to the office of his first trainer, Jim Painter. "They did something like this loosely in a magazine once," Sarven said. Before the cameras started rolling, Painter, a former wrestling promoter and now a reporter for The Lima News, brought out a stack of posters bearing Sarven's various nicknames for him to sign. One by one, Sarven glanced at them, then started laughing over the different matches and opponents.
While he claimed a lagging memory - "One too many hits to the head," he joked - he remembered every one of the old matches. "Remember the one where you and I faced Bobo (Brazil) and Bobo Jr.?" Painter asked, and both men laughed. Neither really remembers who won, but as Sarven pointed out, the game's not really about winning, anyway. "If I was worried about winning, I'd have quit a long time ago," he said.
Sarven, a Lima native and resident, got his start in wrestling as a teenager, when he started trying to convince Painter, a Jackson Center native best known in the wrestling world as Big Jim Lancaster, to train him. Painter turned him down several times, but Sarven wouldn't be denied.
"It was more than just a hobby. It was more than just trying to live out a fantasy with this kid," Painter said. Painter finally agreed and started training Sarven at the Bradfield Center in a small room now used for weights off the gymnasium. Sarven and the WWE crew also went to Lima Senior High School, where Sarven graduated in 1981. The pair visited the Bradfield room again last week, WWE camera in tow, for the first time in more than a decade. He pointed out the two poles that used to support a rope, to simulate the top rope in a wrestling ring, and talked about body-slam practice on the quarter-inch-thick mats the center used to have. "I remember body-slam practice. You slammed me so hard, I had a headache for three days," Sarven reminded Painter. "And you know what? When I teach people, I do the same thing."
It wasn't easy, at first. Sarven said the first lesson Painter passed along wasn't a wrestling move, but a lesson in how the game works. "It's very competitive. It's just backstage," he said. "In the ring, it's not competitive. You're working together." That lesson was driven home with subtlety at first, as Painter would have to convince Sarven to not go all-out every time he went into the ring.
"You couldn't learn the holds if you went all-out," Painter joked. That's what the early recruits were told to keep them from going all-out, rather than explain to them that they never went all-out. "He wanted the death matches."
Sarven, 39, said the lesson sank home eventually, though it was hard at times. "You have this image you hold onto," he said. "Actually, it made things easier. It made it a lot more fun."
He routinely wrestled the stars of the day, including then-titleholder Painter. Painter, now 48, won more of those matches, Sarven said. "He was the boss. He had to win," Sarven said. Painter was quick to point out that Sarven took his title, though. Painter said Sarven was a natural who just needed to learn the basics, but Sarven said he owes his career to Painter. "He's the one who got me in the business. At that time, getting in the business was nearly impossible," Sarven said. "It was like an apprenticeship. You had to have somebody that was responsible for you." It's no longer that way, with the WWE holding tryouts for new talent all the time, he said. He doesn't begrudge the younger generation for being able to get in a bit easier, though.
Sarven also learned all about playing a character to a crowd while in the area leagues, something Painter said Sarven nailed from the beginning. Sarven never stopped learning from the other wrestlers and was always willing to try new things to get noticed, Painter said. It was that persistence and passion that got Sarven where he is today, Painter said.
Sarven spent 13 years in the minor leagues of wrestling before making it big. For example, Sarven made several brief appearances at the top level of wrestling, but at first they didn't work out. Finally, the Al Snow character, complete with the trademark (and now retired) mannequin head, caught on. "That's the same persistence that he had when he was trying to talk me into training him," Painter said. "Al has always found a way to succeed in and out of the ring."
Now, Sarven's horizons are expanding in so many directions he can hardly keep them straight. Besides the WWE work, he's also working with the company's Tough Enough show on MTV. He's spent some time being a commentator, as well. He once ran a wrestling school in Lima, although he closed it when his wrestling work kept him away too often. Sarven doesn't carry "Head" around any more, saying it was retired by the WWE, although many people still ask about it. He also isn't sure where his career will go after wrestling, though more commentary may be in his future. "I have no idea what else I'll do," he said. "I'm sure I'll be able to do something, but I don't know what I'll be able to do with the same passion."
AT A GLANCE
The WWE documentary on Al "Al Snow" Sarven's early career will likely air early in 2003, WWE producer Steve Cooney said. The video, featuring scenes from around Lima and interviews with his former trainer, was shot last week