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Matt Case – Wresting with Success

By Gery Woelfel

For Matt Case, there are few things as pleasurable as being part of a symphony.

It gives him an adrenaline rush. It sends his senses soaring. It's a moment unlike any other for the Racine native.

"I love the sound of music in an orchestra, "Case said. "There's nothing like it. When you are sitting in the middle of a good orchestra, the sounds that come from that ... nothing can describe it."

Case frequently experienced those indescribable moments while attending Park High School and then Northwestern University in the mid- to late '80s.

Music was such an integral part of Case's life, he pursued a degree in it at Northwestern.

"It was something I always did; it was something I always loved, "Case said. "My goal was to play in a symphony orchestra, to play the bass, the big orchestra string bass."

But music wasn't the only love of his life. So was wrestling. It was a sport Case had enjoyed since he used to tag with his father, Steve, a former wrestler who ran a wrestling program in Racine.

The younger Case immersed himself in wrestling. At Park, he qualified for the WIAA Division 1 state tournament as a junior and senior. In his final season with the Panthers, he finished second in the WIAA state meet.

At Northwestern, despite being an unheralded walk-on without a scholarship, Case earned a spot on the varsity as a freshman. His relentless passion and commitment helped him finish fourth at the NCAA Tournament in his junior and senior seasons.

But Case harbored even bigger aspirations. He wanted to make the U.S. Olympic team. For about two years, he put his heart and soul into achieving his goal.

"But I had three jobs at the time and I just couldn't take the demands of trying to work and compete at the same time, "Case said.

While his Olympic dream didn't materialize, it may have been a blessing in disguise. He returned to the Chicago area, landed a full-time job as a benefits consultant for Hewitt Associates and was reunited with his good friend and former Northwestern wrestling teammate Toby Willis.

Case and Willis frequently talked about wrestling. They discussed at length the past, present and future of the sport. Especially the future. Case and Willis tossed around ideas on how the sport could be more appealing to the masses and how they could possibly assist wrestlers compete beyond college, beyond the Olympics.

When Willis inherited a large sum of money, he and Case decided to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. Willis and Case decided to do was something hundreds of sports fanatics only fantasize about - starting up a professional sports league.

"Toby and I said to each other, `This can be done,' '' Case said.

Case and Willis wanted to form a legitimate wrestling league. They didn't want to create another pseudo wrestling league that mirrored the ones where competitors were adorned in body paint and took on zany, made-for-television names like `The Rock' or `Undertaker.' Case and Willis spent countless hours researching how other professional sports leagues operated. They specifically analyzed the mechanisms of the NFL, which is generally recognized as one of the most stable and successful professional sports leagues in the world.

Case and Willis had discussions with members of the wrestling community, soliciting their likes and dislikes. They met with some people who formed a wrestling league in the '80s and explored the reasons it didn't succeed.

Case and Willis recruited others to join their cause, those who were as driven as they were to see wrestling's status elevated. Individuals like legendary wrestling coach Dan Gable and Olympic champion Rulon Gardner.

And they recruited Kenny Johnson, a teammate of Case's at Park and who, like Case, had his share of success with the Panthers and then at the University of Iowa.

Johnson also served as an assistant coach at Northwestern before having his hopes of making the U.S. Olympic team ended during the 2000 Trials.

Johnson was ecstatic when Case told him of his plans for RealPro Wrestling, which would consist of eight teams.

Johnson gave up the security of being involved in the finance and business side of a major record company in Los Angeles to blaze a trail with Case and Willis.

"When Matt called and told me about the idea, I told him, `I love it,' " Johnson said. "I told him I'd do whatever I could. For wrestling, this is revolutionary.

"Everybody has great ideas, but executing them is another thing. But with Toby and Matt, I knew we were going to get it done. With those two guys, I didn't have to worry about what they were doing. I knew they would be working just as hard as I was."

Johnson, Case and Willis soon discovered everyone wasn't as sold on RPW as they were. They banged on the doors of several television networks and never saw them open. Their attempts to secure advertising dollars from major corporations met with similar results.

"It was discouraging, especially when you know you got a product that is unique and different, "said Case, who is RPW's executive vice president. "It's got Olympic-type stories, Olympic and college wrestlers. It's real competition. It's exciting. It's taking wrestling to another level.

"It was discouraging, but like a wrestler, we kept at it."

Johnson traveled from one prominent wrestling venue to another. He even attended some high school state tournaments, including those in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma.

"I probably spoke or shook hands with 30,000 to 40,000 people a month, easily, "said Johnson, who is RPW's vice president. "At the Pennsylvania state tournament alone, there were about 60,000 people there. I'd talk to as many people as I could about RealPro Wrestling and hand everybody a card with our TV schedule on it.

"This has been at the forefront of my life for the last three years. I've given it everything."

The persistence Johnson, Case and Willis exhibited paid off. PAX television, along with Fox Sports Net, decided to give RPW a try. They signed two one-year contracts, agreeing to air all eight RPW shows that were produced last October in a Los Angeles studio.

The first installment was aired two weeks ago.

"It was exciting for me, but at the same time, I was a little nervous, "said Johnson, who viewed the show in his hometown of Manhattan Beach, Calif. "I had made a very large sacrifice for this show, and now I was seeing it on TV.

"It's still a work in progress. But I liked what I saw."

So did Case. He viewed the debut at his brother Jason's house in Chicago with his parents, Steve and Nancy, and some friends.

"I had just got done filming an athlete on the southside of Chicago and I was so tired at the time, "Case said. "But it was a thrill, a real thrill.

"To finally see it on TV and knowing it was going to be seen in 95 million homes was pretty cool."

The Real Pro Wrestling entrepreneurs have plans of taking their product to venues around the country and having live TV coverage of their matches. They also want to expand their sponsorship and eventually place teams overseas.

"We wanted to have this league for so long and now we've got it, "Case said. "The response has been good. The feedback from the wrestling community has been great."

And that has to be music to Case's ears.

Posted April 17th, 2005. Filed under Amateur Wrestling

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