Almost since its inception, pro wrestling has featured an impressive array of giants — foreign behemoths, huge hillbillies, immobile blimps and numerous other men who were larger than life (and all else). The 1970s, for instance, were headlined by a battle between Bruno Sammartino, an Italian immigrant with a 280-pound powerlifter’s body, and “Superstar” Billy Graham, a man so muscular, so brash and so loud that it made it seem as though he were from outer space — a point he frequently made in his stream-of-consciousness interviews. A decade later, Hulk Hogan, the 6-foot-7, 300-pound face of Vince McMahon Jr.’s reinvented WWE, famously waged war against the 7-foot-4, 520-pound Andre the Giant and a host of other morbidly obese villains (e.g., King Kong Bundy, Earthquake and Kamala).
Today, though, David has gotten Goliath to submit to an ankle lock — at least in terms of the contemporary pro wrestling physique. For every Brock Lesnar, a fighting machine seemingly the size of 100 rhinoceroses, there are many more guys like Seth Rollins, the CrossFit-loving ex-WWE champion, and Austin Aries, a former world champion for Impact Wrestling and a member of the WWE’s light-heavyweight division from 2016 until his departure in October.
The 5-foot-9, 210-pound Aries stopped eating meat in the early 2000s and has been completely vegan since 2011. As such, his body is compact and muscular, stripped of extra weight that might impede his free movement in the ring. It’s a level of conditioning he attributes not only to veganism, but to core-intensive workouts, weighted box jumps, lunges, air squats and other exercises utilized in fitness programming like CrossFit. (The WWE, ever attentive to showcasing the functional fitness of their athletes in CrossFit-type scenarios, has been sure to offer an inside glimpse of his workouts).
“To say that I give careful thought to what I put in my body is an understatement,” the 39-year-old Aries tells me. “My body is how I earn a living. I’m almost 40, and I wrestle in a way that’s extremely taxing. So what I eat and how I exercise — if and when I’m able to exercise when I’m on the road — is front and center in my mind.”
“I know I’m not in my absolute youthful prime, but here’s how it works: I look like an athlete, train like an athlete and wrestle an athletic style,” he continues, referring to the mobility-oriented workouts he undertakes while on the road. “It was always all or nothing with me. Being a vegan, when you’re cutting out eggs and whey protein — that’s an all-or-nothing proposition, too. Some of my old matches, I go back and look at them, and they were certainly all or nothing. I can still feel the aches and pains. But that’s how it goes. It was part of becoming the type of wrestler I wanted to be. I couldn’t get to where I am by just giving big boots to the face or doing choke slams, wrestling an easy sort of big man’s style. I’m not a big guy. I had to study and optimize every aspect of how I perform.”
His recent memoir, Food Fight: My Plant-Powered Journey From the Bingo Halls to the Big Time, recounts how he found himself increasingly concerned with how he trained, how he looked and what he ate. In a world obsessed with biohacks and maxing out the value of the male body, Aries has left no stone unturned. He explains that even steroids can be used to speed the healing process — after, of course, offering the obligatory, “I’m not going to tell you whether or not I’ve done them.” “If a normal person goes to see their doctor because of a persistent hamstring injury, you know what their doctor will probably prescribe? Steroids,” he writes in Food Fight. “Like every choice I’ve made that involves my body, I’ve been open-minded and done plenty of research.”
“A lot of these so-called ‘new bodies of wrestling’ look like CrossFitters,” says Broderick Chow, a professor at Brunel University London who serves as director of the multimedia project Dynamic Tensions: New Masculinities in the Performance of Fitness and is a co-author of Performance and Pro Wrestling. “So we might say that this body trend in the WWE, of which Austin Aries was just one small part, follows trends in wider society for functional training, or Men’s Physique categories in bodybuilding shows and so on. But ‘functional’ CrossFit bodies are obviously just as constructed and built as the biggest freaky bodybuilder, just in a different way.”
“And defining these bodies as functional, in wrestling as in everyday life,” he adds, “is about trying to say they’re unmarked, like their masculinity is natural or atavistic when it totally isn’t: The outcomes of the matches are predetermined so the bodily development of the wrestlers is superfluous from a functional perspective. I’m therefore suspicious of ‘functional bodies’ in wrestling.”
He’s suspicious, in large part, because such “funcional bodies” put smaller wrestlers such as Aries at greater risk in the ring, given the types of higher-impact matches they often have. “Little wrestlers, as a way of getting over with the crowd, often will bump more,” explains Danny Cage, the owner of the Monster Factory wrestling school in New Jersey where legendary big men such as Bam Bam Bigelow and King Kong Bundy learned the ropes. “So you have these incredibly fit but smaller athletes whose careers are much shorter than, say, Hulk Hogan’s, because they do a lot of challenging spots and use up all the punches on their bump card way faster.”
The proof is in the long line of incredibly athletic wrestlers who ultimately found that their fast-paced style was at odds with their health. Five-foot-eight, 210-pound Daniel Bryan is probably the biggest cautionary tale. Over the last few years, he’d become the WWE’s most bankable star, but he was forced to prematurely retire (at least for now) in 2016 because of seizures related to multiple concussions he suffered in the ring.
“It’s brutal, simply brutal,” says Aries of the WWE schedule, which unlike other sports is without an off-season and unlike its competitors is nearly a 365-day endeavor with few off days. “Nothing against the WWE, but their schedule and formula makes it hard for guys like me to wrestle at our absolute best. The Aries you saw in the ring was operating at about 40 percent of my potential, if that. The independent promotions allow you to work as much or as little as you need, so you can have a top-notch match with a great opponent one night, then take time off as needed. But in the WWE, it’s a grind. I had an issue with my neck, I was losing strength in my arm and my physique was suffering. There’s simply no way to do what I knew I could do — both in terms of in-ring performance and character development — when I was working that schedule and dealing with all of those chronic issues.”
In other words, Aries’ lean, well-tuned body provided scant protection against the aches and pains that are certain to follow any wrestling career, particularly when the wrestler is overworked. “You take someone like [5-foot-10, 225-pound former WWE champion] Chris Jericho, who also has a pretty high-impact style but has stayed fresh and relevant for a long time, wrestling into his mid-40s, and look at how much time he takes off from the sport to do other things,” says Aries. “Jericho wrestled continuously for a bunch of years early in his career, but after he reached the peak in the WWE and was working main events, he would take off six months or a year at a time to work on music, television work and the rehabilitative stuff he does, like Diamond Dallas Page’s yoga program, to keep flexible and healthy. While I’m not in the twilight of my career by any means, I am a veteran, and I need to think carefully about how to balance everything I’m trying to do.”
And so, while the look might be considerably different than what we’re accustomed to (lean and mean as opposed to gigantic and unstoppable), the end result isn’t all that different. Or better put, given the demands of the sport and the WWE in particular, Aries and his sleeker ilk are just as fragile as the next guy — no matter how much bigger that guy might be.