The Malta Independent 16 July 2020, Thursday

From enthusiastic fan to ‘student of the game’ – wrestler Gianni Valletta

Jeremy Micallef Saturday, 18 August 2018, 11:00 Last update: about 3 years ago

Jeremy Micallef speaks with professional wrestler Gianni Valletta on launching a local wrestling scene, wrestling internationally, and the distinctions between the European and Japanese wrestling circuits.

Why did you decide that wrestling is what you wanted to do?

It started back when I was 8 years old. I had just started watching wrestling on television, and there was always something about it that fascinated me. The larger-than-life characters, the action, the drama! I’d follow it every Sunday on the Italian channels.

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As more time passed, I slowly made the step from enthusiastic fan to “student of the game”, and it quickly became an obsession.

Were there any particular personalities that influenced you at the time?

The first wrestler that really pulled me into the sport was the Undertaker. He was one of those wrestlers that really got you into the show. But my all time favourite was definitely Chris Jericho – he was the whole package you’d expect from a wrestler, and I definitely attribute a lot of my initial passion to these two individuals.

 

What reactions did you get from friends and family when you decided you wanted to pursue wrestling full-time?

In the beginning not many people would take it serious. It didn’t help that I wasn’t the size I am now at the time, “ma kien fini xejn”.

Apart from that, there weren’t any real opportunities for this kind of work in Malta so I was forced to leave the country to start out. I started out from a weaker position than anyone who had the opportunity to do this in their own country. I had to leave without a guarantee of finding work to be able to support myself.

Where did you go for your first experience?

I went to England and lived in Portsmouth for four years. I knew the job demanded a lot from a physical perspective. Our trainer would push us way over the limit, but the will to succeed was there and I kept persisting for over a year. Training would not be once a week, but 4 times a week with 3 hours for every session.

How did the Gianni Valletta persona come to be?

It’s actually quite a funny story! The day of my debut wasn’t even planned!

My trainer came to me at an event, about 10 minutes before the show began, and informed me that I would be taking part in the night’s show. I was changing and he asked me what my stage name would be. I couldn’t think of anything at the time, and I remember him asking me what the capital city of my country was.

“Valletta” had a good ring to it so I later added on the first name “Gianni” as homage to the traditional Maltese name – There are little Maltese international wrestlers so I wanted to carry some of my national heritage with me everywhere I went.

One of your landmark accomplishments has probably been opening the first wrestling gym on the island. What was that like, and how did the public respond?

It was a massive gamble. After four years I had finally settled myself as a practicing wrestler, so this was a big decision to make.

I had asked my fan-base if they would be interested, and there was definitely excitement from their part. The first lesson had good feedback with around 30 individuals showing up for the session. Unfortunately a lot of people believed that wrestling is just a bunch of moves and fancy gimmicks, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

The second lessons had half of the first – which is something I expected from the start because of the misunderstandings people have about the sport. In spite of this the demand was there, and the fact of the matter was that people had not yet heard of us.

Three years later I have a great team of around fifteen individuals including the beginners and advanced classes. I’m happy that I have a dedicated base of athletes who are passionate, and all give their 100% during training.

I’d much rather have a regular-sized class of dedicated people than a large class full of time-wasters.

 

On top of that, you’ve also been organising wrestling events for the past three years, right?

Apart from the stress? It’s very rewarding. Without my team I would never be able to create shows like these. The fact that we are introducing a new sport in the country, essentially starting literally from zero, is a challenge in and of itself.

We have a fan base that comes to every show and supports us – they participate, cheer, and give everything to create the best environment. Our shows attendance has been pretty steady with about 400 people coming to see us do what we do best. Considering the sport hasn’t been around on the island for too long, we are very happy with it, and we are looking to keep growing as we go along.

You’re currently touring Japan, well known in wrestling circles as requiring a much higher level of technique and ability. If you had to point out particular differences between the European and Japanese circuits, what would they be?

First off most of the wrestlers have a vast background in other sports like martial arts – you notice it immediately. The type of training they do is also very different. They wake up, and before even having breakfast, do their 5 minutes of stretching and 500 squats, or they also sometimes do 300 push-ups split into 10 sets of 30. This type of training is done every day.

Discipline is probably the driving force behind all of it. You see the discipline and respect in everything they do in their daily lives.

The fans also treat wrestling like a sport here, which isn’t the same as treating it as sports entertainment. That is to say it’s taken less seriously in America and Europe as it is also seen as a form of entertainment.

For example, in wrestling you usually have the good guys versus the bad guys narrative, basically the good against evil storyline. In the western side of the world, the bad guy, or anyone who breaks any rules, is booed by the crowd. Here in Japan they admire that, because the wrestler is finding the best way to express his character. They believe that it’s how an individual releases his spirit, and fights to the end – a belief that comes from the time of the samurai.

One of most notorious rumours coming out of professional wrestling is about substance abuse, particularly painkillers and performance enhancers. Is this something you’ve encountered in your travels, or even here in Malta?

As per other sports, tests are done, but it all depends on the companies the wrestlers are contracted to. They will have their own policies, most of which include random drug testing.

Just like any other sport, you’re going to find these substances. It’s always important to make the distinction between using, and abusing. At the end of the day, anyone can go to the pharmacy, buy a box of panadols, and swallow the whole thing. As long as everything is controlled and not abused, I have no problem with it. 

Another perception of professional wrestling is that it's ‘fake’ – can you clear that up once and for all?

Would listing all the injuries I’ve sustained throughout my career be enough? We are professionally trained athletes; just like any other sport we cannot do this without practice.

The first thing that is taught in training is how to protect oneself, primarily through off rolls for body control, and to learn to fall in a safe manner whereby your body is as protected as possible. Mainly because in wrestling we have many moves which involve getting slammed into the ground.

You cannot fake someone lifting you and smashing you into the mat. If someone weighing 110kg goes on the top rope and jumps on top of you, you cannot fake that. All you can do learn how to protect yourself from possible injury.

Wrestling is scripted. There is nothing fake about it, and it is extremely offensive to suggest that to us.

That’s why it’s called sports ENTERTAINMENT, because it’s about the characters and the storylines, it’s not about winning or losing. For us it’s about giving a good performance, a good show for the people who spend their hard earned money to be entertained by us.

 

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