Wrestler Kelly Klein Is Playing From Her Own Rulebook

For this female athlete, making it big meant working the ropes for more than a decade.

Women’s professional wrestling is reaching new heights, both in the United States and internationally. This might be why, at Ring of Honor’s 16th anniversary pay-per-view, which takes place at Sam’s Town Live on Friday, March 9, the company is concluding a tournament that will crown the first Women of Honor champion, giving women’s wrestling a higher profile than it has ever had in the acclaimed promotion.

Vegas Seven spoke with tournament participant Kelly “The Gatekeeper” Klein, who some have argued is the favorite to win the title, about her background, the challenges facing wrestlers today and when the rules just don’t apply.

Can you explain why you’re the gatekeeper?

I am the gatekeeper because I am the person that everyone has to go through to show that they can handle themselves and be successful in Ring of Honor. If someone hasn’t faced me, they haven’t really been tested or proven. I’m the one person who has never been pinned [or] submitted in nearly three years in Ring of Honor.

If you weren’t a wrestler, what would you be doing?

I [went] to school for musical theater and music education. If I wasn’t wrestling, I’d be teaching music and performing. I still do performance and composition, even though I’m not doing it full time.

Really? What instrument?

I’m primarily a vocalist, though I’ve also trained in clarinet, guitar and piano.

Some people might say that music and wrestling are pretty far apart. What attracted you to wrestling?

Wrestling has a side to it that it is very physical, but music can be physical as well. Wrestling is also something that gives you the opportunity to be creative. One of the things I love is working with different people. You can create a [unique] dynamic in the ring with different combinations of people.

What are your influences as a wrestler, both in the ring and as a character?

I grew up not watching professional wrestling, but I did grow up around high school wrestlers. That’s probably why I found wrestlers who had a more technical, amateur, Olympic, Greco-Roman style more interesting. Dean Malenko, the Guerreros, Chris Benoit, William Regal and of course Kurt Angle—those are some people who have that technical style. I really like to infuse elements from mixed martial arts, boxing and all kinds of different physical and athletic endeavors into my wrestling. I think you can draw from literally everywhere. As far as character goes, I do draw from my personal experience growing up as a competitive athlete. I focus and draw from that feeling of competition and determination to inform how I present myself in the wrestling ring.

Sometimes I’ll draw from pop culture, history, literature, politics—all kinds of genres and sources to round out the total package of what I’m presenting.

We’re in the middle of a resurgence of women’s wrestling. What makes WOH different?

There are a lot of different aspects to wrestling, and all of these different parts come together at different levels.

WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment] has phenomenal women wrestlers. Even their coaches at their performance center have come through ROH, so they understand style. But there is more focus, in my opinion, on the entertainment aspect as far as the visuals and the aesthetics go. So it’s a different standard that they are trying to present. On the other hand, we are more about in-ring action.

Where WWE may take someone and have the focus be more about their character—and this is just my opinion—Ring of Honor takes the opposite approach. They’ll focus on the wrestling skills first, that would more be the focal point, and then they develop everything else.

In a way we’re all doing the same thing but from different angles.

What is the hardest thing about being a wrestler in 2018?

There are a few things that make it hard. One is that there are still a lot of people who will come up to us and challenge the reality of what we do. That comes from 70 years ago when wrestling was presented in a different way—as reality—and they would do whatever they could to perpetuate that.

Now we are creating an illusion, using physical performance as part of an art, but people still have [another] idea. 

When people say, “Isn’t that fake?” I always say I can’t fake picking people up and throwing them. It’s like football where you know you’re going to get hit, and you learn how to be ready, how to hit the ground, how to protect yourself the best you can. There’s a lot that is very real about what we present.

Nobody says to John Travolta, “You didn’t really steal a nuclear warhead.” People know that they can sit down and suspend reality and enjoy themselves. Wrestling should be the same way: Come in, sit down or turn on your TV, take a few hours to enjoy the illusion.

Social media and TV and things like that create opportunities and different challenges—now people see everything. So if you have a match that’s not very good, which often happens, particularly when you’re still learning, we can’t just go through that growing pain and move on. It gets thrown up on the internet where everyone sees it and says, “This is so bad.” Nobody’s perfect, with very few exceptions, the minute you start something. Things like that can be difficult, to know every move you make will be seen, shared and commented on. Everyone is a critic.

We’re always working on training, always getting opinions from different people. It’s also why companies present a variety of styles. There’s something for everybody, but everything’s not going to be to everyone’s liking. And that’s OK. If everything’s the same, it’s not special, not exciting.

If you hate something, spend the time with something you love.

Before I talked about Dean Malenko. Some people might have said, “Why would you want to model yourself on him? He’s boring.” But when you see the technical things he does, you can really appreciate. You need Ultimate Warriors, Dean Malenkos and everyone in between.

In your match with Jessie Brooks [a first-round qualifier for the WOH tournament], I saw you do what looked like a pretty technically accurate arm-bar escape.

That’s exactly it. People are exposed to more fighting styles these days. If you show them an arm bar but not a realistic-looking arm bar, people know. But 50 or 60 years ago, you could do anything and the commentary team would tell people why it was effective, and they’d have no frame of reference. You can’t get away with that anymore. When I bring in elements from mixed martial arts or another discipline, I want it to look correct. I want them to say that’s a real submission, you’re doing it right. That’s the difference.

One of the things I was teaching in my seminar [Klein regularly teaches wrestling seminars] is that if you don’t train in chain wrestling, if you haven’t learned every single block and counter, you can still be successful. If you know how to solve the puzzle, you can find the way out. I don’t teach people how to get out of a particular position or hold, I challenge them to think how to get out. As an educator and coach, I try to stress that if someone puts you in a hold you’ve never seen, you need to be able to find where to relieve the pressure, how to transition to an escape or even reverse it. You can find a way. That’s more of how I think of things. Maybe because of growing up with a brother who was a wrestler, I’ve always [been put in holds] I wasn’t familiar with.

Science … that’s why I bring in so many different genres, like science, physics, math or music. I was explaining a technique at the seminar the other day and I used examples from music, baseball and an illusionist’s magic, so that I could explain it three ways that would give everyone there something they could grab onto. And I bring in all those things when I’m working.

Why do you deserve the belt?

I am one of the women who has been with WOH since the beginning of the relaunch. You’ve also got Deonna Purrazzo and Mandy Leon who were in first match, and of course there’s Sumie Sakai, who was the OG—she was in the first-ever women’s match in Ring of Honor, but really there’s a handful of us who have been there from the beginning. I know that I have been there, I’ve been consistent, working not only on what I can do in the ring, but outside of it as well. The WOH champion is someone who represents all of us. Because of who I am as a person and a competitor, that’s something I’m very capable of. To me there’s no reason why I shouldn’t and wouldn’t be successful at the end of this tournament.

I’ve been wrestling for 12 years and it took almost a decade before I was able to make a living. Most people who know who I am now only know me from the last couple of years when I was able to break through.

In any aspect of life, in any field, if you look at a lot of overnight sensations, they worked for 10 years to get to that point. Actors, musicians, when you see them just show up on the scene, they’ve been working a long time. They might think themselves or have other people tell them maybe it’s time to go a different route. For me, I worked more than 10 years, sometimes working harder than others, sometimes getting better guidance, before I found my way to Les Thatcher, where I trained full time and focused on what I wanted.

I also learned to get out of my own way rather than telling myself I missed my window. If I’m physically capable, working hard, it doesn’t matter how old I am. I also am part of what many women are part of now, where we are shattering that age barrier. It used to be widely accepted that if you hadn’t already made it by the time you were 30, you had missed your shot. Now we have women wrestling at the top of their game at 30 and beyond. Women like myself who finally made my big break right before I turned 30, we’re just getting started. Everyone who’s seeing me now is seeing me at a point where everyone, including myself, once told me it would be over for me. And my career really got started at that point. For young women—and older women—it’s important to be reminded that we don’t have to be constrained by whatever limitations other people try to put on us. The only way they can is if we buy in and believe them ourselves.

There are all kinds of women blowing that out of the water, doing incredible athletic feats, being incredibly successful today. Women who are younger and older have to realize—and this isn’t just speaking about women’s wrestling but pretty much in everything—that the rules only work if we let them.

Ring of Honor’s 16th anniversary PPV is live from Sam’s Town Live on Friday, March 9. Bell time is 6 p.m.. If you can’t make it down to Boulder Highway, it’s also available on pay-per-view.