Monday, August 17, 2015

Training: Grappling with Heritage

Correspondent, Charlotte Observer
July 9, 2015

In a warehouse off Wendover Road, veteran professional wrestler George South is firing off instructions like an auctioneer: “Tackle, drop down, leap frog, reverse hip toss.”

A young woman and man run through a series of moves surrounded by nine other students. The sequence ends with her throwing him to the mat. The man lands with a thunderous thud as the ring flexes. South fires off another string of moves as the pair jump to their feet. The woman strikes a toothy smile as she places the man in a headlock.

Although 19-year-old Tessa Blanchard has performed that hip toss 12 times in a row and has been thrown to the mat herself, she is still smiling when she retreats to the corner minutes later.

Watching Blanchard in the ring, one might conclude that wrestling is in her blood. They’d be right.

Her grandfather Joe Blanchard, who died in 2012 at age 83, is a former wrestler who owned Southwest Wrestling in San Antonio and trained Dusty Rhodes. Her father, Tully Blanchard, 61, is one of the legendary Four Horsemen and her stepfather Terry Allen wrestled as Magnum TA. He was one of the most promising stars of the era before a 1986 car accident on Sardis Road forced him into early retirement.

“I wish my guys were as tough as she is,” praises South, who says Blanchard can hang with pros like Ring of Honor wrestler Cedric Alexander. “I get her and Cedric in the ring and it’s like reliving my childhood – almost like a mad scientist who’s trying to create.”

In less than a year and a half, Blanchard has toured Canada and performed in several U.S. cities. She’ll spend Saturday wrestling in Philly and Sunday fighting off two women during her match at PWX’s Super Kick event at Cabarrus Arena. Then she heads to China for two weeks.

Pro-wrestling is a family business: WWE’s current roster is made up of many second- and third-generation wrestlers like The Rock, his cousin Roman Reigns, Randy Orton, Bray Wyatt and Dusty Rhodes’ sons Dustin and Cody. It wasn’t a business Blanchard saw herself pursuing until her father was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012.

“Ric (Flair) and (his daughter) Ashley were seated in front of us talking about Ashley getting into wrestling (she now wrestles as Charlotte for WWE NXT). After tagging along on her dad’s interviews, Blanchard thought she might try her hand at it too despite “crying my eyes out” the one time she saw her father wrestle.

“He was bleeding and I started freaking out and tried to follow him back to the locker room,” she recalls of the independent match at a high school gym in Lenoir.

Blanchard is still figuring out who she is in the ring, although she leans toward a technical, feet-on-the-mat style with focus on telling a story. Meeting fans, she’s America’s sweetheart. But she can antagonize them from the ring as well.

She also realizes the weight of her lineage.

“Watching promos of my dad and stepdad... it’s a lot to live up to. I don’t want to make them look stupid,” she says. She brushes off any backstage cattiness. “That’s the go-to promo for me. I use it as motivation. It makes me want to be the best.”

Adds South, who trained Flair’s sons and Ricky Steamboat, Jr., “I think it’s 10 times harder when your dad is famous. The pressure is unbelievable. Everybody expects you to be as good. I saw that with Ric’s sons.”

Blanchard may be late to the party as a wrestling fan, but it’s obvious she breathes it. She beams describing old black-and-white matches, her favorite wrestler Johnny Valentine, and her two dads.

“They’ve helped me out so much. Dad from a business aspect and my stepdad on following my heart,” she says. “They’re both so different but so much alike. I get to pick both of their brains.”

In and out of the ring Blanchard looks like a natural. It’s hard to believe “no one thought I’d stick with it,” she adds.

“To be where she’s at now a year and a month in,” adds South. “It’s amazing.”

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