INTERVIEW: Wrestling legend Al Snow discusses the art of wrestling, Collar and Elbow & keeping Louisville weird!

Al Snow is one of a kind. As he puts it, he’s the most famous person from Lima, Ohio after Hugh Downs and Phyllis Diller died. His professional wrestling personas in the 90’s are still world famous. Irreverent humor and underrated in-ring skill took him to the top of ECW, and made him a staple in both WWE and TNA. His ability to teach wrestling and the business behind wrestling led to him running a developmental program for WWE.

At that time, OVW here in Louisville was WWE’s training grounds. At the age of 55 and in the twilight of his 36 year in-ring career (yes he’s still hitting the ropes all over the country), Snow is now beginning the transition into his second act.  He is searching for an outlet for his energy and passion, which has led him back to Kentucky to kickstart a budding clothing company and multiple international wrestling schools.

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I met with Al Snow at Taco Luchador on Baxter Ave. It was an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon and as a result, both of us were in great spirits. He was quick to say that he hated winter, “I walk outside all the time, this is true, and just put my middle fingers in the air.” This was just a taste of the dry, but over-the-top sense of humor that catapulted Snow to success in every organization he’s been with.

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Who is Head?

I first discovered Al on a wrestling VHS tape a family friend loaned me in 1998. In scribbled permanent marker on the side it said, “ECW: Wrestlepalooza.” Snow was in the main event and he was the last wrestler to come out. Prodigy’s “Breathe” started pulsing, everyone in the crowd started swinging styrofoam heads, the camera flipped upside down and out came Al Snow.

He had “Help Me!” written backwards on his head and he was carrying a female mannequin head with the same. They were both whipping their hair to Prodigy as the strobe lights flickered. This wasn’t mainstream wrestling, it was punk rock and dangerous, and I couldn’t get enough of it. It spoke to me, so much so that I dressed up as Al Snow for Halloween that year. Check me out:

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That mannequin head that Al Snow lovingly referred to as simply “Head,” was, and still is the single most important creation of his career. He describes its genesis:

“Head was at a time when I was super frustrated professionally, and I think that’s why it connected. It was really me. When I would communicate with Head, I would say what I really felt in a smartass or sarcastic way, but it was the Head saying it and I would argue with it.”

Head was crucial to the popularity and rise of Al Snow as a professional wrestler. He was a schizophrenic weirdo who thought the mannequin head he carried around was talking to him. In reality, Head was just an opportunity for him to work out his frustrations and ultimately be himself.

His frustrations grew out of years of struggle. For 14 years Al Snow was referred to as professional wrestling’s ‘Best Kept Secret.’ “Let’s start telling the secret guys,”he joked, “I don’t mind.” However, that hype did catch the eye of Louisville’s own Jim Cornette, who Al credits with much of his success. “If it wasn’t for Jimmy, I wouldn’t have had an opportunity at Smoky Mountain Wrestling. If it wasn’t for Smoky Mountain, I wouldn’t have made it to the WWE.” The reality is however, just making it to a promotion doesn’t guarantee success.

Even with the push from Cornette and the opportunities at Smoky Mountain, Al was not an overnight success.  Just like he has his entire life, Snow had to work his ass off and make his own way.

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Getting into the wrestling business was no easy task.

“I came from nothing. I came from an area where wrestling wasn’t even prominent anymore. I came up in a time when it was harder to get into wrestling than it was to get in the mafia. I’m not exaggerating.”

In those days, trainers didn’t even let the athletes know wrestling was predetermined before their first match. It was a sink or swim mentality and only the toughest of the tough guys survived the rigorous training, road life, and empty pockets that the wrestling business guaranteed. On top of that, Ed Farhatt (The Original Sheik) had buried the territory that Al lived in. What is a buried territory? How does it happen? Here’s how it was explained to me:

Al’s Toaster Analogy

“If I do a commercial for a beautiful toaster, 8 slices, all chrome and has 32 settings. One slot gives you Darth Vader’s face on the toast, another slot Mickey Mouse, you can even make it have a penis on there. You want that toaster, maybe your in-laws are coming over. You go to the store and find the toaster and on the box it has all those gimmicks. You take it home and open it up and it’s all black, has 12 settings, and won’t make a penis. Are you happy? No. You didn’t get what you paid for. Will you buy another one? No. We’re done. If I’m The Original Sheik and I sell you that I’m this mad man, if I’m ever not that guy you’re not gonna be happy.”

The Art of Selling

Inside the wrestling business he had to sell himself and create Head to get over. Outside of wrestling he’s started a clothing company, multiple wrestling schools across the world, and has a supplement company; as he likes to put it, “I just do stuff.” But he doesn’t just ‘do stuff’, he does stuff well.

Last year he decided that wrestling fans were missing an element to their fandom — their own version of Under Armour, Nike, or Tapout. It was from this realization that he built Collar and Elbow. The real problem they identified with wrestling merchandise brands throughout wrestling’s history is that they just weren’t mainstream ‘cool’. Outside of Austin 3:16 and NWO, wrestling brands just didn’t transcend wrestling. “Nobody wants some guys face on their shirt, but they buy them because they are fans of wrestling,” he lamented. He’s right.

The name ‘Collar and Elbow’ is a term that is used in all forms of grappling including amateur wrestling, pro-wrestling, MMA etc. “If you’re a wrestling fan you know that term,” he explained “but if you’re not a wrestling fan it could just be a brand name for all you know.” The brand has been marketed primarily to professional wrestling fans because that is where Snow’s fame lies, but his plans include marketing to amateur wrestling and MMA, as well as being sold in brick and mortar shops.

Keeping Louisville Weird

This second phase of his life, his wife, and his business ventures have led him back to Louisville. For somebody that has consistently traveled the world for nearly four decades, Al has a true love for this city. The ability to try new restaurants (Taco Luchador is now a favorite spot for both of us), visit the walking bridge, or walk the highlands without ever sitting in traffic that feels like an eight lane parking lot are things he cherishes. He also appreciates Louisville’s character, and it makes sense that a ‘weird’ city like our own would connect with such a unique human.

Al doesn’t do anything the ‘normal’ way, including his work outs. 36 years into his career, he is in the best shape of his life. His wife is a professional bodybuilder, but he didn’t really follow her lead. He explained how he looked up an old-time wrestler named George Hackenschmidt.”He looked amazing, and this was before they knew calories or carbs,” And it was in that moment that Al decided he wanted to look like George Hackenschmidt. “I looked up how they trained and started training like that,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone “but people at the gym watch me and it’s like watching a circus act. I’ve got 10 pound Indian Clubs that I made out of galvanized gas pipe.” It seems to be working.

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The Art of Wrestling

Though Al seems to be happy with his growing business ventures, easy to navigate hometown, and turn of the 20th century workouts, it’s obvious that Snow’s biggest passion in life is still working a crowd inside the squared circle. After 36 years inside the ring, he continues to learn, and is only recently realizing what life will be like without it.

“I genuinely still enjoy what I do…I’m coming to grips with the mortality of my career, which is probably a far greater challenge than coming to grips with my own mortality.”

This is something that Al and I genuinely bonded over. He is an artist in the ring, and while wrestling is my second favorite artform, music has my heart.

We began to compare music and wrestling in many ways including the performances, the business side, and what art is truly about. At this point it became evident why Al has multiple successful wrestling schools, he’s a great teacher.

“Your real job is to create art that motivates people to want to experience it… the most important thing is to identify why people want something. Find that button and push it and you can drive the car anywhere you want it to go.”

In the end, all of this stuff is simple for Al Snow because he already has what everybody wants. As he put it, shrugging and with a mouth full of torta, “they want head.”