The middle-grade fanbase for pro wrestling is off the charts, and BUMP takes readers on a thrilling and heartfelt tour of the sport—in and out of the ring. This MG novel tells the tale of 12-year-old MJ, a girl who finds meaning, healing, family, and joy in learning the craft of a “luchadora,” including the all-important BUMP.
And there can be no more qualified guide than Matt Wallace, a former pro wrestler who also happens to be a screenwriter, podcaster, and Hugo-winning author. (You can check out his website here.) Thanks for joining MUF, Matt!
My pro wrestling fandom dates WAY back to Mad Dog Vachon, Baron von Raschke (the Claw!), The Crusher, et al. How has pro wrestling evolved, and what makes the luchadores tradition unique?
American wrestling has evolved in a lot of ways, but one of the most important, in my opinion, is how it has and is becoming a much more inclusive industry and hobby, for wrestlers and fans. When I was coming up, it was still very much a thing for and performed by straight, largely white guys of a certain physical type. Now we have women wrestling who are as famous as the men at the highest levels, and we’re seeing it open up in a lot of other ways.
There is still a lot of work to do when it comes to that inclusivity, and the problems wrestling has had with that in the past it definitely still has, but it is lightyears ahead of where it was even ten years ago. A lot of that is down to the work of those women and wrestlers of color and LGBT+ wrestlers, often putting on their own shows to be able to showcase their talent and passion.
Lucha is unique in many ways, but one of the most central is how it has been embraced and elevated by and integral to the culture and society to which it belongs. Whereas American pro-wrestling has often been seen as a niche thing, lucha libre is a part of Mexican identity. Luchadores became heroes and celebrities outside of the ring, starring in movies (in their masks, as their wrestling personas) and appearing on TV and in comic books. They became influential in politics. It’s a much more nationally revered form than wrestling is in America.
A reader doesn’t have to know a lot about wrestling to love this book, I’m thinking. It’s so well written with the wrestling scenes clearly described, and the themes are way bigger than the sport. Still, young people especially gravitate to pro wrestling, it seems. Why does it have such a powerful appeal to young fans?
Speaking for me, when I was a kid I viewed wrestlers as real-life superheroes. They weren’t products of a comic book panel or movie special effects, they were really performing these incredible, even godlike feats of strength and endurance and athleticism, telling these fantastical stories.
When you look at how dominant the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become in entertainment, I think you can draw a straight line between the appeal of that and the appeal of professional wrestling and lucha libre. It’s something in which kids can believe and escape and on which they can project their own desires and dreams of taking charge of their fate and being in control. That’s all powerful stuff when you’re young.
Tell us about your own wrestling career! Were you a hero or a heel? Did you have a signature look and move?
I was almost always a heel, being a very large guy who looked kind of scary. When I started I wore ripped jeans and cut-up t-shirts and called myself The One Man Riot, and then later I was in a tag team called The Legion Knights with a very good friend of mine. We did kind of a holy roller gimmick. He was the evangelist, and I was his enforcer, Deacon Riot. I had a lot of finishes (finishing moves) during my career, but my favorite was the flying head butt off the top rope I stole from one my favorite wrestlers growing up, Bam Bam Bigelow.
The main character, twelve-year-old MJ, learns so much about life by joining the wrestling school. What did being a pro wrestler teach you?
So much. I spent most of my teens in pro-wrestling school, and my twenties in the business, so wrestling really formed the core of who I am. It taught me self-confidence and self-discipline and about belonging to something. That wasn’t always perfect, though. There was plenty of bad behavior and toxic lessons I had to unlearn later in life, too. But that was also part of what wrest
ling taught me. All communities and professions and cultures have dysfunction and toxic thinking, and overcoming that and establishing boundaries and being a positive force in your community is a huge lesson in itself. I take the good with the bad, and I’m grateful for the time I spent in the business.
In my experience, every story has a seed—that moment when an idea comes forward and says, “Write me!” Was there a seed for Bump?
My agent, DongWon Song, was really the person who encouraged me to write a middle-grade novel. I’d never considered trying to write a book for kids before. But I’d written some sample chapters in an effort to get hired for this contract gig writing a middle-grade book based on someone else’s concept/IP, and found I had a good voice for it. At the same time, my agent had also been encouraging me to write more personal fiction, wanting to see more of “me” in my stories. Those two elements really collided to inspire BUMP. If I was going to write a personal story for kids, making it about a kid in wrestling school just made the most sense to me.
Did you need to do a lot of extra research for this book? Or do you just know the history, the moves, and terminology in your bones?
I’d say 99.9% of it came straight from the hip, and was just me pulling from my own experiences in wrestling school and my knowledge of the business. I did have to think a little bit about how the industry has changed since I was a wrestler, which is creeping up on twenty years ago at this point. Which is where references to things like Lucha Underground came from, which is a type of wrestling show that didn’t exist when I was wrestling. It’s also a big reason I chose to make the protagonist a young girl. I wanted to reinforce, especially for young kids, that women have a prominent place in this business and should pursue it if wrestling is their passion.
MJ is such a great character, complex and admirable with a super arc. Is she based on anyone in particular? Or is she an amalgamation of people you’ve known?
She’s really an amalgamation of my nieces. I have four, all my cousins’ kids, all around MJ’s age or younger. And I think some of me and my wife, Nikki, is mixed in there too.
The experience and working through grief is a main theme in the book. And I’ve come to think of grief as coming in many forms and not just related to the death of loved ones. MJ seems to get a handle on processing her heavy feelings when she starts pursuing her passion. Could you share a bit about that?
I think it’s very much about coping. When you go through something like that, losing someone or something central to who you are, it’s very easy for your everyday life to lose its flavor, and even its meaning. You stopped feeling like the things you do matter. You start to lose the joy you felt before. So when you find something, like MJ does in BUMP, that reignites that spark in you, it helps you reconnect with the life you had before that loss, and helps you get to the other side of your grief. Wrestling helped me deal with a rough period of my childhood and figure out who I am and how to be happy.
One of my fave aspects of the book was the sense of family MJ developed with Papí, Tika, Zina, et al. Was that your experience with the people you performed with during your time as a wrestler? Can you give a specific example from your own life or career?
Oh, absolutely, my wrestling crew became my family, and I still keep up with many of them today through social media, even though most of them live on the east coast and I’m all the way across the country in southern California. One of the other students who started at my pro-wrestling school, the Doghouse, at the same time I did is still wrestling and going strong to this day, and whenever he is (or was, before the pandemic) booked on a show near my town, we reconnect and it’s like no time has passed. Those are the kind of connections you form in the wrestling business.
Thanks SO much, Matt (aka One Man Riot) for taking the time to share your story, and the story behind the story. MG readers are going to love BUMP! To keep up with Matt Wallace, check him out on Twitter and Instagram, as well as his website .