Louis Long was bullied growing up on Buffalo’s West Side. He had 11 bicycles stolen from him by his 21st birthday, though Grandpa kept buying them.
By that point, Long was fed up. So when three men came up behind him, grabbed his backpack, punched him in the face, and tried to steal his wallet – an ordinary occurrence – Long decided to take a stand.
He let out a yell and put the leader into a sleeper hold. The other two ran away, terrified, and the assailant followed suit once Long let him go.
“I held him like an anaconda snake,” Long said. “I fought back. I could feel his voice on my arm as he tried to scream.”
He could feel it, but he couldn’t hear it.
Now 37 and better known by his wrestling name, Silent Warrior, Long has been fighting back ever since. The Buffalo resident battles stereotypes and doubters as he strives to become the first-ever deaf World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) wrestler.
In 2012, Pro Wrestling Illustrated ranked Long No. 495 in the world. The St. Mary’s School for the Deaf alumnus knows there is a long way to go until he tangles with the likes of Triple H and John Cena.
“Growing up, I always wanted to become a wrestler,” said Long, who was captain of his school’s varsity soccer, basketball, and track and field teams. “I want to show the world deaf people can roll up their sleeves and do these kinds of things. My goal is to educate others that deaf people can compete. There’s a huge lineup of people waiting to get into the WWE, but I want to show we can do this.”
There is no exact route to making the WWE. Some wrestlers have a connection in the industry and just about all WWE athletes reach that level because of how they look (the ideal appearance is 6-foot-8, ripped, and roughly 270 pounds) and what they can do in the ring.
Correspondence with the WWE communications department reveals a list of criteria for making the company, but nothing too specific. Some of the expectations are “3-5 years of professional wrestling experience or the athleticism, size and charisma to become a star” and “1-3 years training at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Fla.”
Perhaps the two most detrimental to Long are “strong communication skills” and “the ability to listen and learn.” Long communicates through sign language, email and hand-written letters, and he does not read lips.
Unable to communicate verbally but a beacon of joy nonetheless, he often ends his emails with “High Five, Louis.”
Long, ever the optimist, holds tight to his goal. For now, he is just looking to move up the rankings and gain exposure. There are several ways to win a match, and the most famous is pin fall, which involves holding an opponent’s shoulders down against the wrestling mat. Unlike professional wrestling, which requires a three-count, amateur wrestling requires just a one-count to win a match.
He sports a constant, warm smile that counters his tightly shaved head, the finest black grains just poking out from his scalp, and imposing 6-2, 220-pound frame.
“When hearing people say, ‘you can’t do this or that,’ I want to demonstrate I can,” Long said. “I want to prove to deaf people we can do it.”
Long traveled to Japan and won the MATA Wrestling Championship in November 2011. He successfully defended that title for 12 months. Though he is not yet sure when he’ll have his next match, Long will compete in Tokyo, Manila and London in 2014.
Long rides his bike to Pride Martial Arts Academy in Williamsville once a week and lifts weights and swims at LA Fitness four times a week. He still lives on the West Side with his grandmother, Anna Cook, who has raised him since he was 14.
“He’s so proud of being a wrestler,” Cook, 80 years old and 4-foot-10, said on the front porch with her excitable cockapoo, Poodles, on her lap. “He’s very independent and wants to do things on his own.”
The house’s walls are covered with photos of Long wrestling and interacting with fans, the frames barely hanging on nails, waiting to fall any minute and begging to be adjusted.
Long’s grandfather, Raymond Cook, was his inspiration. Raymond, who died in 2004, was an avid fan of the sport and took his grandson to see the World Wrestling Federation at Memorial Auditorium. He taught Long what he viewed as some of the most important things in life – to overcome what others think, to buckle down and focus on schoolwork and to love wrestling.
“I was lucky to have him,” Long said. “If I didn’t have grandparents, I could have wound up in juvenile detention and not St. Mary’s.”
On Long’s right triceps is a tattoo with his grandfather’s initials, RMC. The ink is orange and black; Raymond was born on Halloween. Six inches below, on his forearm, is another of Long’s 11 tattoos – this one an image of his wrestling mask, of which he beams with pride, drawn by deaf artist Ariel Bauza.
Long has never taken his mask off in the ring and refuses to take pictures without it. That black-and-white mask represents his alternate identity, his shift from gentle and gregarious Louis Long to the intense and intimidating Silent Warrior.
He loses his wide-toothed smile immediately if you bring up the notion that professional wrestling is in some ways fake.
“I get irritated with that,” Long grimaced. “I tell people I can show them how real it is.”
Last year, when he was wrestling at the MATA Expo in California, two viewers approached him after a match and teased him, asking in sign language if the sport was fake. After taking an elbow to the nose in a particularly grueling match, he took some of the blood tissue loosely hanging out of his nose and flicked it at them. He has no patience for people who disrespect the sport he loves.
He learned his edge from fending off bullies and becoming a man largely on his own.
Long’s mother died in 2008 and his father, Cook’s son, has been absent from his life since birth.
“He don’t come around for nothing,” Cook said. “He’s that kind of a guy.”
Long turned to his grandfather for a role model. Raymond taught him that after enough torment, it was time to learn how to defend himself.
After the backpack incident, Long had newfound vigor. He had shown signs of fight as a kid – when one bully threw a rock at his head, Long bit the boy’s ear, Mike Tyson style – but decided he wouldn’t back down from anyone ever again after he handled the robbers.
Long loves wrestling so much that he pours his time into the sport though he doesn’t get paid. The former ECC culinary student, who finished his education at the Culinary Training Institute at St. Mary’s, cooks at the First Niagara Center during the Sabres’ season.
“I’m very passionate about wrestling and I don’t care if I make money or not,” Long said.
He says sign language, not English, is his first language, and he implores you to fix his grammar. Long won’t let language or money barriers stop him from chasing his dream.
“I love showing people what my abilities are and that I have no limits,” he grins, stepping back to admire his writing.
In 2010, the year he made his debut, Long created the Deaf Wrestling Alliance for the deaf and hard of hearing who love professional wrestling. The Alliance travels to events and expos aiming to “inspire deaf people all around the world and USA to learn about wrestling,” he said.
He sees himself as a leader aiming to prove to the world that a deaf wrestler can make the WWE.
It’s not entirely unheard of. Bodybuilder Shelley Beattie, boxer James Burke and former major league outfielder Curtis Pride are among the most well-known deaf pro athletes of all-time, though Long’s favorite is mixed martial arts fighter and Rochester Institute of Technology alum Matt Hamill.
The movie “The Hammer” details Hamill’s struggle to become a national champion wrestler in college (a title he attained three times) while growing up deaf.
In his living room, standing next to the loosely hanging photos, Long shows off a movie poster inscribed with a message from Hamill: “To Silent Warrior, Awesome job in fighting!!! Keep up training!”
Long dreams of inspiring deaf children like Hamill has inspired him.
Cook, his grandmother, walks in through the front door and asks how much it will cost to have this article published. Informed it is free, she smiles and signs to Long: “You are now famous. You’ll be a movie star soon.”
He lights up, signs back and points to his triceps. Cook translates:
“He knows he’s making his grandfather proud.”