First published in The Record, July 23, 2017
Meet 'Soul Train' Shin, wrestling's nicest bad guy
Here is a partial list of low-down, dirty, no-good tricks that Nick “Soul Train” Shinholster recently pulled on his fellow wrestlers.
He poked Izzy “The Aztec Warrior” Reyes in the eyes.
He rubbed his Lycra-clad bottom in Barry Delaney’s face.
He sneaked up behind Gabe “The Weasel” Weisel, tripped him, and pinned him to the mat.
He grabbed Tony “Southside Slugger” Graves in a headlock, scanned the audience for Graves’ mother, locked eyes with her and shouted “I am the greatest!” while slapping Graves roughly on the back.
About 25 people sat on folding chairs in a former warehouse in Nutley. They booed and booed. Eventually the wrestler Justin Adams ended the match by yanking Shinholster to the mat by his face. Everyone cheered.
“I hate Soul Train!” said Charlie Capela, 19, a Ramsey resident and wrestling fan. “He talks all big, but then he comes out every time and gets his butt kicked. I think he’s really annoying.”
Informed later of Capela’s opinion, Shinholster giggled.
“Wrestling is like 'Star Wars.' You don’t want the dark side to win,” said Shinholster, 25, of Teaneck. “I’m the dark side. You want to see me get beat up.”
Shinholster is not a natural wrestler. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, he is big enough to command the ring at the International Wrestling Federation, the school in Nutley where he has practiced almost every day for the last two years. But he is too slow and uncoordinated to land flashy moves like back flips and roundhouse kicks.
“Physically I’m the worst athlete here,” he said.
His mom agrees.
“He loves to wrestle,” Michelle Shinholster said. “But he is not good at wrestling!”
Nevertheless, Shinholster hopes someday to perform in the same ring as John Cena, Brock Lesnar and other behemoth stars of World Wrestling Entertainment. The company, known as WWE, regularly attracts 3 million viewers to "RAW," its weekly television show. Last year WWE earned revenues of $729 million, according to its 2016 financial report, making it the top destination for would-be wrestlers.
“I never cared about anything until I had wrestling in my life,” Shinholster said. “Now, getting into WWE is my main goal.”
Shinholster’s opponents highly doubt his ability to reach wrestling’s highest echelon.
“I love the guy. I see how much he loves the sport,” said Reyes, 27, of Kearny. “But can he make it in the WWE? As a wrestler? No.”
Not everybody in the WWE wears tights, however. Every episode of "RAW" features a supporting cast of referees, team managers and announcers to embellish plot lines and magnify the brutality of blows.
Shinholster’s physical gifts are modest. But he is a natural and flamboyant talker of trash. His favorite move comes early, before he even climbs into the ring, when he stands in front of the audience and screams: “I! Am! Better! Than! All! Of! Youuuuuu!”
If Shinholster can’t join the WWE as a wrestler, perhaps he can talk his way in.
“You never know,” he said. “Maybe somebody at WWE calls me up and says, ‘You know what? We need somebody that can talk like that.' ”
A lifelong obsession
For as long as Shinholster can remember, wrestling has held him transfixed. At age 4 he would sit on a couch and watch wrestling on television beside his grandfather, both of them struck mute by the parade of pile-driving, body-slamming super-humans.
Later, in middle school, he weighed 230 pounds and stood a few inches shy of 5 feet. He was nerdy, and other kids picked on him. Shinholster was a fan of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, portrayed in professional wrestling as a beer-drinking redneck who avoided throwing the first punch, but instead taunted others into starting fights.
He stole Austin’s strategy. When someone teased him, Shinholster repeated every word the other boy said. The tormentor often found this so annoying he’d lash out, giving Shinholster an excuse to punch back.
“I’m just a little fat black kid, but I decided I would be Stone Cold,” Shinholster said. “It worked. People started to say, ‘OK, don’t mess with Nick.’ ”
Shinholster remained an avid fan, but he never considered becoming a wrestler until May 2015, when he attended a match hosted by the IWF wrestling school.
Three days later, he enrolled.
“I was amazed. They have a whole building dedicated to wrestling?” he said. “I’m there.”
Shinholster started wrestling five days a week. He loved it. But he was awful. The fights and moves of professional wrestling are intricately choreographed, requiring the combatants to work together like a pair of figure skaters. But not only was he clumsy, he also was bored by the mechanics of proper footwork and hand placement.
By punching too hard, kicking in the wrong places and placing his feet at sloppy angles, Shinholster often injured the wrestlers who were becoming his friends.
“I just wanted to wrestle so bad. But I knew I sucked,” he said. “I didn’t know how to punch or kick lightly. I was causing a lot of pain and I felt bad about it.”
This April, everything changed. Somebody grabbed him in a headlock take-down, and Shinholster’s head hit the mat hard. The slam broke bones in his inner ear and gave him vertigo. Soon he realized that the only way to avoid passing out in the ring was to move carefully, plotting out every punch and kick.
“Vertigo was a blessing, because it calmed him down,” said Reyes, the Aztec Warrior. “He started paying attention to the details.”
Shinholster lives with his grandmother, whose Teaneck home is decorated with hundreds of fragile ceramic and glass figurines, and whose living room walls are covered with mirrors. He couldn't afford a full-size wrestling practice dummy, which can weigh more than 150 pounds and cost $400, so he improvised with a beige Valentine's Day teddy bear that stands 3 feet tall and wears a red chiffon bow tie.
The bear is Shinholster's practice partner. To perfect his power bombs and suplexes, he loops one of the bear's fluffy paws around his neck, supports its waist with one hand, and falls backward onto his grandmother's sofa cushions, which are helpfully covered in plastic. As he lands, he uses the mirrors to check his sparring partner's position, making sure the bear's back is flat and its neck untwisted.
"OK, little bear. You have an issue? You wanna fight?" Shinholster said one recent afternoon as he punched the bear in the belly. "Mr. Bear, you're crazy!"
Shinholster also has refined his character. At first Soul Train was a stereotypical bad guy, taunting other wrestlers and cursing the audience.
It didn’t work, partly because Sheinholster is a deeply religious evangelical Christian. The harshest curse he can bring himself to utter in the ring is “doggone,” as in his common retort: “If you don’t like me, that’s just too doggone bad!”
“He’s nothing but a goof,” his mother said.
Concocting a bad-guy persona
Shinholster watches pro wrestling on an electronic tablet in his bed as he falls asleep. When he wakes up, he presses “play” and keeps watching. He spends an hour and a half watching pro matches from the 1970s and ’80s, lifts weights for an hour and a half every day, and practices for four and a half hours at the wrestling gym. (The IWF school closed in late June, so Shinholster plans to begin training at a different gym in Rahway.)
Shinholster was a student at Bergen Community College. He took a break to earn money as a clerk for a shipping company, which laid him off this spring. He plans to return to school this fall.
In the meantime, wrestling is his unpaid, full-time job.
“At least half of my day is dedicated to wrestling,” he said, “and that doesn’t include me just lying in bed thinking about wrestling.”
He drew on this deep wrestling knowledge to develop his Soul Train character from a classic bad guy like the Undertaker into a persona that more closely resembles the doomed slapstick of Wile E. Coyote. His costume includes a yellow vest and yellow tights, a get-up that earned him the nickname “banana.”
Audience members sometimes taunt him by combining “banana” with certain curse words, which Shinholster quickly disarms.
“I am not a banana!” he screams. “That hurts my feelings!”
The vest is studded with metal spikes along the collar. Before a match recently, Shinholster was asked if the spikes ever stab him in the face.
“You know, it’s happened a couple of times, because I forgot to take the jacket off,” he said. “I gave a guy a shoulder tackle, and I stabbed him and stabbed myself. Now I take it off before I wrestle. I learned.”