Thursday 18 December 2014

'There was too much underhandedness for me in the WWE, I wanted to get by on talent alone'

Eoghan McNeill and Joseph Conroy

Published 21/07/2014 | 11:52

Joe Cabray, 30, is back in his hometown of Dublin, having been released from his WWE contract in September of last year.

On the night Conor McGregor fought Diego Brandao in a capacity O2 arena, he’s wrestling in the "Brawl at Liberty Hall" in the city centre.

Backstage, wrestlers move from room to room, drinking bottles of Budweiser and discussing the choreography of their matchups.

The night’s running order is posted on the wall. Cabray is wrestling Englishman "El Ligero" in the evening’s main event, an Extreme Rules Match.

El Ligero’s name is underlined, indicating he is the predetermined winner of the bout.

"It’s not a legitimate sport. It’s not like MMA where if you keep on knocking guys out, you can’t be denied," says Cabray, about three hours before McGregor stopped Brandao in the first round at UFC Dublin.

Cabray wrestles as Luther Ward, a character he devised during his time in WWE NXT, the developmental branch of World Wrestling Entertainment.

In WWE NXT, wrestlers are contracted to train and tour with the biggest professional wrestling promotion in the world, in the hope of reaching the company’s main roster. Cabray spent a year with the company fine-tuning Luther Ward.

"That’s why you go to developmental," he says.

"There are Guys that are probably some of the greatest wrestlers in the world but they still don’t know how to work in front of a camera," he explains.

He signed with WWE in October 2012, and began testing different characters or "gimmicks" during weekly promo classes. One week he could be a good guy or "face"; the next a bad guy or "heel."

The seventy hour, six day weeks spent on a tour bus with sixty other wrestlers trying to make it to the WWE’s main roster soon grew tiresome, however:

"It was like a shark tank," he says.

"It just wasn’t for me. I’m not really good at politicking. There was a lot underhandedness; it was kind of wearing thin on me. I’d rather get by on just my talent alone," he says, more with honesty than bitterness.

His candour doesn’t extend to the exact incident that led to his leaving the company however:

"Well I kind of put my hand out to be slapped. Let’s just say that," he says with an awkward laugh.

Luther Ward is an Irish traveller bare knuckle boxer – “the King of Ireland" – based on Brad Pitt’s "One Punch Mickey O’Neill" character from British gangster movie, Snatch.

Ward wears a waistcoat on his otherwise bare torso, a leather Trilby on his shorn head, and black leather wrestling boots and shorts.

He speaks with a harsh "Wesht" of Ireland accent; a convincing imitation of Irish bare knuckle boxers.

He gets a mixed reaction from the crowd. Young children sitting beside their fathers cheer and point foam fingers as Ward enters the ring to the Rocky Road to Dublin.

Teenagers laugh at Ward’s warning that his opponent will be "shittin’ in a bucket for two weeks" when he’s finished with him.

A middle-aged man in a Leinster rugby jersey – who had earlier shouted at female wrestlers to get their "tits out for their lads," – hurls ethnic slurs at Cabray’s Irish traveller character.

During the bout, a young man stands up from his seat to shout abuse at Ward with seemingly intense hatred on his face.

"Obviously hearing the crowd is addictive, even if they are just booing you," says Cabray.

He’s happy with any crowd reaction, be it positive or negative:

"You have a job to do and if your job is to be the bad guy, you can’t let your ego get in the way. It’s unprofessional. My job today was to be the bad guy," he says.

Cabray has been lifting weights since the age of sixteen. His muscles have muscles. He explains that promoters tend to pitch Luther Ward as the bad guy because of his size:

"Psychology­wise, it’s easier for a little guy to get sympathy for me beating him up, rather than me trying to get sympathy for him beating the shit out of me. It doesn’t work," he says.

The match between Luther Ward and El Ligero – a well-established pro on the UK circuit – stands out on a night comprising mainly bouts between enthusiastic amateurs.

While professional wrestling may have more in common with pantomime than sport, Ward takes twenty minutes worth of believable punishment from El Ligero.

At one point, El Ligero somersaults from the stage, landing on top of Ward. Later, the two men leave the ring, El Ligero throwing Ward into a door in the Liberty Hall lobby. The 250 people in the venue follow the pair, chanting "this is awesome." 

Although the character of Luther Ward may be considered offensive to Irish travellers, Cabray is convincing in his portrayal of his creation.

He gives the strongest performance of the night. He’s more than comfortable with the theatrics of pro wrestling. He enters the ring with a cigarette dangling from his mouth: "I don’t even smoke," he says.

Backstage, he is quick to break character, eschewing the mock indignation of other wrestlers on the card who lost their matchups.

"If you’re worried about wins and losses in wrestling you’re probably not going to stick around. You should try your hand at MMA if you’re so concerned about winning and losing. See how you fare," he says.

Out of breath and covered in sweat, he knows he doesn’t have long left in the ring.

"I’ve had post­concussion syndrome and my back is pretty bad," he says having been kicked through a table during the match.

"Right now, there are some mornings I can’t even tie my laces. In a few years I want to able to play with my kids and stuff like that," he says.

He is currently single, having had to break up with his girlfriend of eight years when he joined the WWE. He had trained her to wrestle and she was offered a contract with WWE at the same time he was.

Unfortunately, she suffered two cruciate tears, and her contract offer was rescinded. Cabray had to make the journey alone: "Just an all round tough situation," he says.

Now, back in Dublin and away from the "shark tank" of seventy hour WWE work weeks, wrestling is still the dominant presence in his life.

He coaches Monday to Wednesday, and is typically on the road each weekend, travelling to events similar to the "Brawl in the Hall" around Ireland. He’s touring Europe in September.

He now wants to help develop young pro wrestlers in Ireland, hoping to help the next Sheamus – Dublin wrestler and current WWE United States Champion – make it to the big leagues.

"I think that would pretty much cap me off because I’ve pretty much done everything I’ve wanted to do. I never thought I’d get to WWE, I never thought I’d wrestle in Japan. I’ve kind of achieved everything I wanted to," he says.

A small child is leaving Liberty Hall, his hand in a foam finger. He’s leaving with Philip Boyd, one of the event’s promoters who had earlier wrestled as "Phil the Thrill." 

Phil is still wearing his leather wrestling pants, a Manchester City jersey covering the chest bare during his match, and is listening to the boy talk animatedly about the Luther Ward­El Ligero match.

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