Mike Kinney
1,460,960 views • 13:27

Picture it: a big, sweaty, tattooed man in a cowboy hat and chaps, is in the ring as the arena full of fans cheer him on. Their hero: "Cowboy" Gator Magraw. Gator bounces off the ropes and is quickly body-slammed to the mat. His wild opponent leaps into the air, crashing down onto Gator's rib cage. Gator struggles to breathe, wondering: "Is this really what my father wanted for me?"

(Laughter)

That wild man in the chaps ... was me.

(Laughter)

(Applause)

(Cheers)

And the answer to the question, surprisingly, is yes.

(Laughter)

I grew up watching professional wrestling with my dad. And like him, I loved everything about it: the showmanship, the athletic skill, the drama. I'd be this little boy, bouncing all over our living room, pretending to be my favorite wrestlers from TV. My dad actually reminded me a little bit of Hulk Hogan, but I was Hulk Hogan and he was Andre the Giant. I'd get all serious on him and say things like, "Dad ... someday I am going to be world heavyweight champion." And he would usually smile and very calmly say, "OK, then I guess I can count on you to be my retirement fund."

(Laughter)

When I was 16, a small wrestling show came to my little town in Minnesota. I couldn't believe it. Nothing like that had ever come to my town before. So I got to the arena early in the morning the day of the show, waiting out in the parking lot to see if I could spot some wrestlers pulling up in their cars. It wasn't as creepy as it sounds. But I could definitely tell who the wrestlers were, just the way they walked. They were tall and confident and intimidating, with their tank tops and Zubaz and fanny packs. Why wouldn't I want to be them?

(Laughter)

All I could think about was who are these people, and what are they like? How did they become wrestlers? So before the show started, I walked into this tiny arena — more like a gymnasium — and I asked them if I could help set up the wrestling ring. "Sure, kid. No problem." And then I pleaded with them to show me some wrestling moves. "Sure, kid. No problem." Man, they would just punch and kick me — hard! But I never complained. They would come to my town for one night every couple of months that year, and then — poof! — next day, they were gone.

By the next year, they finally told me about an actual wrestling training camp that one of the wrestlers was running, and I begged my parents to sign me up. Next thing I knew, I was a high school senior by day and wrestling in front of live audiences by night. I had this giant poster of an alligator hanging on my bedroom wall. So when I needed to come up with a wrestling name at the last minute and Jesse "The Body" Ventura was already taken —

(Laughter)

I went with "Gator." I also wrestled in a t-shirt and camouflage pants because that's what I had in my closet. I hadn't quite figured out how to develop my own persona yet, but I was learning. It was sort of like an apprenticeship. But I was a wrestler. And my dad would come to all my matches wearing a t-shirt that said, "Papa Gator" across the front.

(Laughter)

And he'd brag to his friends about how his son was going to pay for his retirement someday.

(Laughter)

And I would've.

Not long after I started wrestling, my dad unexpectedly passed away. And as you can imagine, especially as a teenage boy, it destroyed me. If you've ever lost someone, you know what a difficult time that can be. Your mind — it's not working right. The whole thing is just so surreal. I wanted to feel normal again, even if it was for just a second, so I went back to wrestling almost immediately. Wrestling belonged to me and my dad, you know? So there I was, sitting in the locker room, getting ready for a match within days of my dad passing away. He was gone. And sitting there alone — it felt like I was hiding. But it also felt like I needed to be there.

One of the wrestlers who'd been on the scene a long time knew what I was going through, and he came over to see how I was holding up. I couldn't get the words out. I just said, "I don't know what I'm doing." And then we just sat there in silence — just ... silence. Before he got up to get ready for his own match, he gave me this piece of advice that would change the entire direction of my life. He told me the best wrestlers are just themselves, but "turned up." He said successful wrestlers find the traits within themselves they're the strongest at and make those the focus of who they become in the ring.

So there I sat — a scared teenager who didn't know who he was or why he was even wrestling anymore. I looked around the locker room at some of the other wrestlers, and I thought, "I look so different. How can I ever be like them?" And then it hit me. That's the moment I realized I didn't have to be like them. What I did have to do was find out: What did it mean to be me? What made me unique, and how could I use it to my advantage? I knew I wasn't a chiseled athlete like some of these guys, but I really didn't care. So the first thing I thought was, "How can I amplify something as simple as: comfortable with my own body?" I didn't know. And then I thought: Speedo.

(Laughter)

(Applause)

Or "trunks," as we call them in wrestling. Yeah, trunks. I could be this big guy who was comfortable wearing these little trunks in front of a bunch of strangers. So I ditched the t-shirt and camouflage pants, and Gator's new wardrobe was born.

(Laughter)

I was also pretty good at drawing cartoons, so I wondered if I could turn that up. I could design my own wrestling costumes, so each pair of trunks would have its own unique design and color, all of them completely different — and extremely comfortable, by the way.

(Laughter)

And I was also the funny kid in school, believe it or not. So I thought maybe I could turn that up. Maybe I could go from the boy who made his buddies laugh to the man who could rally hundreds or thousands. So I committed to the idea that my character wasn't going to be as scary as some of the others. I'd be hilarious from the moment I walked into the arena. With every wrestling match, I dug deeper. I found out that I could laugh at myself. So this guy would dance and sing his entrance music all the way to the ring. That was dancing, by the way.

(Laughter)

I found out that I was an OK wrestler, but I was an even better entertainer. And turning myself up made me unforgettable to the fans. I was trying to find those things about me — the simple things that were special, and then ask, "How can I turn them up?"

Now, I knew I wanted my character to be a man's man like my dad was. I thought, "What's more of a man's man than a cowboy?" And that's when Gator became "Cowboy" ... Gator ... Yeah, I needed a last name. I thought about it until my head hurt. I couldn't come up with anything. I'm sitting there watching TV one night, flipping through the channels, and this commercial comes on about a country singer who had just won an Entertainer of the Year award. Tim McGraw. He's a cool cowboy with a great last name. And I liked his music. It was just all part of my process. But I just kept turning myself up until I became Cowboy Gator Magraw!

(Laughter)

(Applause)

And I knew that if I kept turning myself up and pushing myself harder, the opportunities would come. And then it finally happened. In the middle of the night, I got a phone call. It was the call I wish my dad was around to hear. The WWE, the biggest wrestling organization in the world, wanted me to come and be a part of Monday Night Raw. Yes — all of my hard work and miles on the road were finally paying off. I got to walk down the WWE Raw entrance ramp on live television —

(Laughter)

dressed up as a fake security guard —

(Laughter)

to escort another wrestler to the ring.

(Laughter)

Sure, I was disappointed I didn't get to wrestle, but very few wrestlers get any kind of call from the WWE. Maybe one in a few hundred. And becoming Cowboy Gator Magraw is what got me there. So instead of walking away that day, I decided to turn myself up again and become the best security guard I could. In fact, I did it so well, I was the only guard to get a close-up on TV that night. That's a big deal, you know?

(Laughter)

And I got to sit backstage that entire day with some of the most famous pro wrestlers in the world, some of which were heroes of mine as a kid. And I got to listen to them and learn from them, and for that day, I was accepted as one of them.

Maybe my experience with the WWE wasn't ideal. I mean, I didn't get to wrestle. But it made me work harder, turning myself up louder year after year. I was becoming the biggest version of myself in the ring, and other people took notice. Before I knew it, I'd gone from wrestling maybe once a month in Minnesota to as often as four times a week all over the United States on the independent wrestling circuit. I was literally living my dream.

While wrestling over the next few years, I suffered a pretty bad shoulder injury right around the same time my wife and I found out that we were expecting our first child. I know what you're thinking, but believe me when I say those two events are completely unrelated.

(Laughter)

But I needed shoulder surgery, and I wanted to be home with my family. It was my turn to be a dad.

So on July 27, 2007, I wrestled my final match, and walked away from professional wrestling to pursue the next chapter of my life. And as time passed, the strangest thing started to happen. I found out that once someone has been turned up, it's pretty hard to turn them down. I left the ring but Gator stayed with me, and I use the turned-up version of myself every day. My beautiful wife has been with me through this entire journey. And by the way — she does not like pro wrestling.

(Laughter)

Like, at all.

But she was always my biggest fan. She still is. She knows there's always going to be some part of Gator Magraw in here, and she wants our daughter and twin sons to discover themselves the way that I did, but probably with fewer body slams and steel chair shots to the head. I mean, do you know how many times she's had to remind me not to clothesline the referees at my kid's soccer games?

(Laughter)

I mean, it was just the one time, and my daughter was clearly fouled!

(Laughter)

As a parent now, I've begun to realize that my dad wanted something much more valuable than a retirement fund. Like most parents, he just wanted his kids to reach their fullest potential. I'm trying to teach my children that turning yourself up is just not some perfect idea of how to be great, it's a way of living — constantly looking for what makes you different and how you can amplify it for the world to see. And by the way, my kids don't like wrestling, either.

(Laughter)

But that's OK with me, because they each have their own unique talents that can be turned up just like the rest of us. My one son — he's a whiz at electronics. So maybe helping him turn up makes him become the next Steve Jobs. My other son and my daughter — they're great at art, so maybe helping them turn up their gifts helps them become the next Pablo Picasso.

You never know what you have the ability to do until you dig. And don't be afraid to put yourself out there. I mean, look around. They say that if you get nervous in front of an audience, just imagine them in their underwear. But then I think, "Hey, I've wrestled in less."

(Laughter)

(Applause)

Look, the wrestling circus doesn't need to come to your town before you get an invitation to be the real you — the bigger, more stunning version of yourself. It doesn't even necessarily come from our parents. Turning yourself up means looking inward toward our true selves and harnessing the voice that says, "Maybe, just maybe, I am more than I thought I was."

Thank you.

(Applause)