Photographer goes beyond the ring to reveal reality of pro-wrestling

Candid images with no holds barred: Photographer goes beyond the ring to reveal reality of life and people behind the brutal world of pro-wrestling

  • Photographer Michael Watson left behind his job as a music photographer
  • Now, he is one of the pre-eminent photographers of pro-wrestling, with his gritty, candid photos capturing the brutality of the entertainment

A photographer has revealed his experiences of going beyond the ring, describing what it is like to capture the life and people behind the brutal world of pro-wrestling.

Iowa native Michael Watson left behind an enviable job as a music photographer after becoming ‘burnt out,’ and instead perused another lifelong interest.

He first discovered the scene of pro-wrestling around a decade ago, when he took a five-hour road trip to Chicago to photograph an event there.

Speaking to Huck magazine, he has described how be became instantly hooked. Pro-wrestling, he says, drew parallels of his experience photographing the Midwestern DIY music scene, and he was able to easily adapt to the new setting.

‘It just felt like home,’ Watson tells the magazine. ‘The whole thing just felt like it did when I started going to see live music when I was 17 with how everyone interacted with each other. There was that blurred line between performer and crowd, and that really intimate setting, which is my favorite atmosphere for art in any medium.’       

Iowa native Michael Watson left behind an enviable job as a music photographer after becoming ‘burnt out,’ and instead perused another lifelong interest: pro-wrestling. Pictured: A pro-wrestler launches himself off stage moments before crashing down on a fellow performer in this action-packed photograph from Watson

Pictured: A pro-wrestler poses for photographer Michael Watson against a barbed-wire lined chain-link fence in her costume in this portrait image

Pictured: A costumed pro-wrestler stares down at Michael Watson’s camera 

Pictured: A pro-wrestler stretches in this candid backstage photograph by Michael Watson

Watson’s stunning up-close-and-personal photographs capture a combination of action, posed portraits and candid moments behind the scenes.

Many of the venues look a far-cry from the packed stadiums associated with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) events. Instead, the photos are taken in smaller venues the could be hotels, bars or other such establishments.

But Watson has taken pictures of some of wrestling’s biggest stars – from their time performing in small DIY arenas to fighting live on TV each week.

While the photographer has been hired by All Elite Wrestling to chronicle their major pay-per-view events, he has supplemented his career photographing more intimate events, while also teaching and releasing photography books.

Watson first shot pro-wrestling at the Berwyn Eagles Club in Chicago – a professional wrestling venue based out of Berwyn, Illinois. He has never looked back.

Pictured: A wrestler is launched over the rope of a ring in this action-packed photograph by Michael Watson, who has been snapping pro-wrestling for around a decade

Pictured: Two wrestlers, covered in blood, clash in the ring as the crowd watches on

Pictured: A portrait of a pro-wrester by Michael Watson. The performer is seen with scars on his back and sholdier, and his head covered in what appears to be blood

Pictured: A pro-wrestler is seen mid-air, moments before stomping down on a rival

Pictured: A referee counts down as a pro-wrestler lies prone on the mat in this photograph by Michael Watson

Pictured: A pro-wrestler, covered in blood, flexes his muscles for photographer Michael Watson

Pictured: A close-up photograph shows two pro-wrestlers grappling in the ring

His photos are often captured in black and white and on film, he says, because they have a ‘grainy, raw texture’ that captures the rougher side of the scene.

Watson told the magazine that at first, he was worried that no one would be interested in his black and white photos when other photographers were shooting in high-resolution – making pro-wrestling look ‘even more pro than it was,’ he said.

But he stuck with it, experimenting with his film cameras – borrowing ideas from his days photographing music gigs in small, dingy venues.

‘They’re very raw and show the intimacy of these shows, and it’s not a bad thing that the building is small and the crowd is packed into the ring and stuff like that,’ he said.

‘That really changed my mind about how I was looking at the photos I was taking.’

Many of Watson’s photos show wrestlers before, after or even during breaks in performances. Many are shown covered in blood and sweat amid an intense show.

Others, from the side of the ring, show them in the middle of the action. While many elements of pro-wrestling is stage, the physicality involved is very real.

To take photos of the wrestlers in the scene requires trust, Watson explains. That means knowing when is appropriate to take photos, and when to back off.

Most of it is just being around and being someone that can take social cues, and they know I’m not going to come and punish them when they’re in the middle of something,’ he tells Huck magazine. 

Pictured: Two female professional wrestlers are seen mid-move as they fight in the ring 

Pictured: A pro-wrestler slams a chair down on another as a crowd cheers them on

Pictured: A pro-wrestling match that has spilled out of the ring and into the seats of the audience is captured by photograph by Michael Watson

‘If they’re like, “Not now,” I’m just like, “Yep, no problem!” It’s a weird kind of high-pressure situation. These people are about to go out to, or have just come back from performing for a lot of people in a very physical way. It’s dangerous.’

Watson says that pro-wrestlers make for great subjects of his art because they are a ‘colorful cast of weirdos,’ which he means ‘adoringly,’ he insists.

‘You have all of these really interesting and very diverse people in an area to photograph, and then you’re telling me they’re all going to put on crazy costumes or oil themselves up beforehand or make a bunch of crazy faces at me?

‘Sign me up!’ he says.

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