Reflecting on his younger years, Vern May recalls a decision he had to make while in high school.
The yearbook editor wanted to know what May wanted to do with his life.
“I knew that just saying I wanted to be a professional wrestler wasn’t going to be palatable for my parents,” he said.
At that time, it was what the Souris product wanted to do. It was his dream to perform in a wrestling ring in front of screaming fans. Now at the age of 38 years old, May is no longer performing pile drivers, DDTs and other wrestling maneuvers.
How he got his start in wrestling is something he remembers quite vividly.
“When I was 16 years old, I was working for the community newspaper here in Souris and mostly it was because a friend of mine had said that if you work for the media, you get a press card, so you get free passes to everything,” he explained.
May used the press card to his advantage one night and was able to secure a backstage interview with Canadian wrestling icon Bret Hart in Winnipeg. Little did May know that night, that years later, he booked Hart to headline a wrestling event he was helping promote.
“My career really launched with this interview with Bret and then a year later, I was wrestling and then it [career] ended with Bret working for me. That was one of those experiences that you think, ‘geez, how did this happen?’”
May’s love for wrestling grew after that interview and soon afterwards, an independent wrestling card came to Souris. May and a friend of his helped set up the ring prior to the event and that night, May was introduced to the promoter of the wrestling tour. Approximately a year later, May contacted the promoter and ended up getting connected with a trainer who helped him prepare for the rigors of wrestling professionally.
“He had this quonset out in the backyard and there was a wrestling ring in it,” May explained. “It was like right out of Rocky 4. You don’t picture that this is going to be there. It just looks like someone’s garage in their yard and then when you go in, there’s this full-sized wrestling ring.”
May, along with a few others from the Souris area, trained for approximately eight weeks, learning the ins and outs of what it takes to become a wrestler.
“Then they pretty much just threw us to the wolves and said, ‘OK, you know enough’,” he explained.
May wrestled out of Winnipeg in his early days and eventually caught on with a wrestling tour in the Maritimes. For the next four years, May was focused on “chasing wrestling pay cheques,” he says. He worked in small venues as part of independent wrestling tours and had difficulty scraping by financially.
“It’s a tough road to make a living, that’s for sure. When you start out, it’s horrible. I remember the first six months that I wrestled, back in 1993, I wasn’t getting paid. They just said, ‘Well, it’s part of paying your dues.’”
May remembers his first pay day in the industry like it was yesterday.
“The promoter dropped four loonies in my hand and said thanks for coming out.”
“I thought geez, six months and four bucks? I don’t think I’m going to be in this for very long,” he added.
It wasn’t until after several years of working in the industry that May - after making a name for himself as ‘Vance Nevada’ in the wrestling ring - was able to generate an adequate income. For several years during his time as a wrestler, May had to work other jobs in order to pay the bills.
“One challenge in independent wrestling is that we don’t have contracts,” he said. “If you’re on contract and you get hurt, well, then you go home and you still are getting paid. But not at this level.”
May spoke about a night in Edmonton where he wound up breaking a rib in the ring. He was notified by a doctor soon afterwards that he had to take four weeks off.
“I was scheduled to fly out that Monday morning for a six night tour in Newfoundland. You’ve already advertised and the promoter has already paid for your flight. So if you don’t show, you’re cutting your own throat for future business.
“You find ways to work around it,” he added.
He says life got a bit easier financially, reaching a point where he was making money off of appearances, travel fees and concessions. Eventually, he was negotiating salary on a per-week basis, he says.
May wrestled for 20 years, spending time in Brandon, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Alberta. During his time in the ring, he’s gone toe-to-toe with former WWE superstars Honky Tonk Man, Jim Neidhart, a member of the popular tag team ‘The Bushwhackers”, Gangrel, Brutus Beefcake, Tito Santana and Tatanka to name a few. In 2004, May received his one and only stint in the WWE - however it didn’t last long.
“I was booked as an extra basically,” May remembers. “You get called up, so you might get a match, you might not. They might have you backstage during some kind of skit. But that’s as close as I ever got.”
Despite never really getting his chance to perform under the bright lights of WWE, May says he was able to form relationships with some of the biggest stars in the business and it’s something he’ll take with him for the rest of his life.
“There were a lot of guys that I had a chance to wrestle and that’s exciting in terms of your record book when you look back and say I wrestled all of these guys that people know about,” he said with a smile.
In 2011, May spent three weeks with Roddy Piper doing a reality TV documentary series out of Calgary called, “World of Hurt.” The premise of the show was about wrestlers aspiring to reach the top levels of wrestling. The wrestlers took part in an advanced training camp with guidance from Piper.
“It’s really funny because Piper is a true performer in all senses of the word. When the cameras were on, you knew that everything he said was for the benefit of the cameras. When the cameras were off, then you got a real good glimpse of who Rod was,” May said.
“There was a lot of things that Rod did for me through the process of that show, just with the way that he spoke to me and spoke about me when he was on camera that made it impossible for the TV producers to make me look like an idiot,” he said with a laugh. “He didn’t do that for everybody.”
May’s wrestling career came to a close in September 2012 after a match in Red Deer, Alta. He wound up injuring his neck after being dropped on his head.
“At that time, I had some lingering trouble with my neck, but when that match ended, I felt really fuzzy,” he noted. “The next morning I woke up and my head just fell like an eggshell. I couldn’t figure out what was different.”
An MRI months later confirmed that it was indeed a severe neck injury. Doctors informed him that he could continue to wrestle, but that it was only a matter of time before he ended up in a wheelchair.
“I felt, well, I have a young boy at home and a wife that needs me. The decision was pretty easy for me from that point.”
After briefly staying in the industry working in other areas – whether it was ring announcer, promoter, trainer, etc. - May opted to quit the business for good soon afterwards. He would eventually receive a lifetime achievement award from the Edmonton Combative Sports Commission and has since been honoured for his work as a promoter and author. He wrote a book in 2009 entitled, “Wrestling in the Canadian West.”
He moved back to his hometown in 2013 and is enjoying life away from the ‘squared circle’. Married for 17 years, May is no longer jumping off the top rope. The father of two is working as an economic development officer in his hometown.
He also has returned to the Souris community newspaper he once worked at as a columnist.
“I’ve always had an interest in writing, so go back to 1993 and my career goal was to either be a professional wrestler or a writer. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do both,” he concluded.