At no point has he entered the ring and locked up with his opponent. He’s never pinned another wrestler and had the referee raise his hand in victory. He’s never once done an arm bar. Or a dive. At no point has he taken a chair shot. He doesn’t even have a finishing move. Yet on any given weekend, Kenny Johnson can walk into the locker room at EVOLVE or Combat Zone Wrestling and have the respect of every single worker there.
Because he’s earned it.
Over the last nine years or so, Johnson has developed a reputation in the wrestling world of being a fantastic storyteller and documentary filmmaker. That journey started in 2008, not long after Johnson graduated from film school, when a couple of friends invited him to an indie wrestling show in southern Pennsylvania.
“It was run by Greg Excellent, over at (CZW). He had this small promotion outside of Maryland. It was called Ground Breaking Wrestling, a very small independent promotion and it’s actually where Adam Cole was doing a lot of wrestling,” said Johnson. “I met (Cole), I met Greg, I met all these guys and I was like, ‘Hey, this is kind of an interesting story’.”
Not long after that, Johnson and Excellent began talking about ways to work together. Johnson wanted to do something, he just didn’t know what. While he had the film school background, making documentaries wasn’t something he’d really considered, but after Excellent suggested the idea of making one about the world of indie wrestling, Johnson was willing to give it a shot.
“I spent a year-plus hanging out with him and Adam Cole, a bunch of other guys. I made this documentary called Pro Wrestler, and that’s what got my foot in the door,” said Johnson. “I filmed it, edited it and traveled with these guys and then I learned how to put the story together and how to tell an audience a message. It was all through professional wrestling.”
Pro Wrestler, released in 2011, is a 76-minute documentary built around five wrestlers from GBW; Excellent, Cole, Ryan McBride, CORE and Justin Roberts. There are cameos from other wrestlers who were working the independent scene at the time, but the film details the different places each of the five were at in their career. It’s not all positive, but does certainly celebrate the culture that exists in indie wrestling.
Being a complete outsider in the world of professional wrestling presented Johnson with a real challenge when he first started out: getting the talent to trust him enough to give him the material he needed to make an authentic product.
“Somebody said once, it was like some type of a nature documentary when they’re going and filming lions. (The director) had these men actually hanging out with lions and after a while the lions are, ‘Oh I guess they’re okay. It’s not food. We shouldn’t kill. They’re fine’. That’s how they kind of saw me. They’re like, ‘He’s okay. He’s not doing anything. We won’t destroy him or kill him or anything’,” said Johnson.
A big reason for that was having Excellent welcome him in and effectively vouch for him, not just at his promotion but others, including Combat Zone Wrestling.
“When I first came in, Greg was like, ‘He’s cool’. Greg’s word carries a lot. It got me into a lot of places. Got me even in the backstage of CZW. But it was about building friendships and relationships,” said Johnson. The more the pair worked together, the more doors Excellent opened for Johnson. “After a while, everyone was like, ‘Okay. Kenny is cool. We’ll hang out with him’.”
Once he was backstage and just part of the scenery, the real trick became getting some relatively inexperienced guys talking on camera about their craft and some of the sacrifices they’d made in their lives to even get this far. It wasn’t easy, but Johnson knew if he could find similar interests to talk about as ice-breakers, he’d have a better chance of getting them to open up.
“We would just simply talk about whatever. I like sports. We’d talk about football, we’d talk about basketball, we’d talk about movies. Everyone loves movies and comic books in the wrestling world now. I’m a huge movie and comic book fan so I can talk about those things. I would just do these icebreaker conversations and just talk to them, and then we would talk about wrestling.”
The more Johnson talked to wrestlers, on camera and off, he learned that it usually took him about 20 minutes of ice breaker conversation before he got into the really good stuff. Johnson was then presented with another dilemma. Even with seemingly unfettered access and the trust of the workers, he still had to figure out if he was talking to the character or the performer. Eventually he discovered that he was actually somewhere in the middle, and that’s fine by him.
“I like to peek behind the curtain, I don’t like to whip it completely wide open and show the audience like ‘Look! This is how it’s done.’ That’s not fun, that’s not cool. No one cares about that,” said Johnson. “I like to have one foot in, one foot out. I want to make it so the audience doesn’t know where Zach Sabre Jr. the character begins and where it ends. I want to blur the lines a lot with that.”
That mentality also gives the wrestlers he’s working with another tool to help them tell their story and build their character.
“I think they see what I do as a good asset or an important asset. I can help tell their story in a way that maybe they can’t always do,” said Johnson. “They can tell stories in the ring with promos and various other things, and they kind of see me as an important asset. So they can tell me something and then I can turn that into a mini-documentary. I can turn into a promo. I can turn that into other things.”
After Pro Wrestler was released, Johnson continued to work on other short documentaries for his YouTube channel. Not all were about pro wrestling, though. He took a short break from that world while he focused on other Baltimore-centric content. He kept an eye on the world of indie wrestling though and it continued to present him with a seemingly unlimited number of story ideas.
“I saw this story online about Johnny Gargano and this fan of his named Kayden and they’d formed this really cool relationship. Kayden was really sick,” said Johnson, who knew he wanted to get that story out to the world. “I’m like ‘Oh man, that’d be a really cool story, not even in terms of wrestling, but just a really cool story just to share with other people.”
After connecting with Gargano, Johnson made his way to Cleveland, Ohio for an Absolute Intense Wrestling show. He released A Johnny Gargano Documentary: Volume 1 in August 2014. The story, which pulls at the heartstrings a bit and properly portrays Gargano as a the everyman’s super hero, earned Johnson a bit of buzz in the internet wrestling community.
One of the people who saw it was Gabe Sapolsky, co-founder of EVOLVE.
“Gabe Sapolsky reached out to me probably around 2015 or so, I want to say. He was like, ‘Hey. I love this thing that you did on Johnny, would you like to come to EVOLVE and make some more shorts on our roster?’,” said Johnson, who quickly answered in the affirmative.
Without knowing anybody in the locker room, other than having had conversations in passing with Ethan Page and Drew Gulak, Johnson took off for New York city in October 2015 for a pair of EVOLVE shows.
“It’s very intimidating. You go in the locker room, you don’t know anybody but they just welcomed me with open arms,” said Johnson, who was asked to make shorts on Gulak and Timothy Thatcher at the first show. “Once everybody kind of saw me hanging out with them and they saw that I was cool, I made the shorts, I put them on line and everybody loved them, they’re like, ‘This is awesome. Definitely come back and make some more shorts.’ It’s been full throttle ever since.”
While the EVOLVE roster has continued to expand and change over the time that Johnson has been working there, the one constant has been Sapolsky, who Johnson says has given him the freedom that most filmmakers would die for.
“He kind of gives me a really loose idea of what he wants, which is awesome because I may go and do whatever and hand it to him, he’s like, ‘This is amazing. I absolutely love it.’ It would be pretty rare if he ever needs me to tweak anything,” said Johnson. “I’ve made some really weird stuff at times and I would think he’d absolutely hate it but then I show it him and he’s like, “That was really cool, really different, really awesome’. That’s what it’s like working with him.”
Just like the wrestlers who have found themselves under Sapolsky’s tutelage over the years, Johnson has found himself learning at a breakneck pace while at EVOLVE shows. He’s also managed to make Johnson know that he’s welcome and wanted at every show.
“I’m always saying like, ‘Do you want me to come to this show or do you want me?’ He’s like, ‘100% we want you at this show, we want you to come here.’ I’m always just like nervous. I’m like, ‘Did they really like everything? Do they want me to cover the next thing?’ and they do,” said Johnson. “They’ve really welcomed me in. It’s definitely grown into a really cool kind of family situation with everybody; the roster, the crew, there are so many just cool people there.”
Kenny Johnson has worked with many of the indie wrestling scene’s fastest rising stars, including Lio Rush.
He’s also managed to work with performers outside of the EVOLVE wrestler, and that’s opened up other stories and opportunities for him. Before Lio Rush signed with EVOLVE, Johnson and Rush shot an 11-minute short in Maryland. During that time, Rush started talking about one the guy he was feuding with in CZW, Joey Janela, and Johnson was intrigued by what he heard. After seeing him work a match in CZW, Johnson set his sights on finding a way to work with Janela.
“I reached out to him on social media. He followed me back and I said, ‘It would be really cool if we can do something’,” said Johnson. “Months went by and we finally figured it out. I was going to go and film his match with Zandig, the infamous roof bump thing.”
Janela was set to face Zandiq on June 5, 2016 in what would become one of the most talked about matches of the year. Johnson didn’t know this going in, but made his way to Howell, New Jersey with the intent to film the match, do interviews before and after and build another documentary out of all of that.
“I get there and I forget who was filming but they were like, ‘No. We can’t have you film here today.’ I was like, ‘Really? I’ve never really had that problem before.’,” said Johnson, who sensed that Janela was a little bit nervous about everything. “I was like, ‘Okay.’, and he’s like, ‘No, don’t worry man. I’ll get you and we’ll film. Screw these guys, we’ll do it. I’m like, ‘I don’t want to get you in trouble, I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes. No big deal. We’ll work it out. We’ll work another time’.”
After driving three hours to get to the show, and facing another three hours to get home, Johnson said goodbye to Janela before the show began and jumped in his car.
“I’m driving back home, I see all these things on social media about Janela has to go to hospital, his thumb is almost falling off. I’m like, ‘Oh man, I just missed something big, didn’t I? I totally missed something big’,” said Johnson.
He wasn’t wrong. The match included the now infamous spot where Zandig delivers a Mother F’n Bomb on Janela from the roof of the building through some plywood covered in light tubes into the back of a truck.
“I was so upset about and by that point, I was like 100% I’m going to do something with Joey because I was kicking myself that I missed that opportunity to film that. It was horrible for Joey without a doubt, but it would have been a really cool to be there,” said Johnson.
Over the next few months Janela worked on rehabbing his injuries and the pair kept in touch. Janela returned to action in September and Johnson looked for an opportunity to tell the story of Janela, the match and his return to wrestling.
“Almost didn’t happen and I was like, ‘No. We’re going to make this work, we’re going to make this work,’ and he really wanted to make it work,” said Johnson, who released Please Don’t Die Joey Janela in January. “So with just through sheer will and determination, we got together and turned out something really cool. I’m really proud of it.”
That’s all Johnson’s ever wanted out of his filmmaking career. He wasn’t necessarily looking to direct the next big budget blockbuster out of Hollywood. He just wanted to be able to produce stuff that people watched and enjoyed that he could be proud of. Stumbling into the world of pro wrestling almost nine years ago has allowed him to do just that.
“I like to keep having fun and making something creative. When it becomes like work and maybe I’m not having as much fun or I’m not doing as many creative things, then maybe it’s time to step away,” said Johnson. “Just keep doing it until it’s not fun anymore. Hopefully it doesn’t get that way.”