David Arquette enjoys unlikely return to the world of pro wrestling

Eighteen years after his brief but memorable run with WCW, David Arquette returned to the world of pro wrestling in July at an event for Championship Wrestling from Hollywood, a promotion based out of California. Jonathan King

The first time David Arquette learned how to wrestle, he was paid well to do it. The fourth-generation actor from the famous acting family was sent to learn basic wrestling skills while filming "Ready to Rumble," a 2000 movie centered on two crazed wrestling fans who go on a road trip to help their favorite wrestler return to glory.

The then-29-year-old Arquette was fresh off his starring role in "Scream 3," a movie trilogy (at the time) that had grossed more than $290 million. As he prepared to shoot "Ready to Rumble," Arquette learned a "CliffsNotes version of training" from film stunt coordinator and WCW wrestler Chris Kanyon, as well as WCW star Diamond Dallas Page. Still, any serious bumps Arquette's character took in the film were performed by WCW's Shane "Hurricane" Helms, who filled in as Arquette's stunt double.

Arquette famously (or perhaps infamously) was weaved into WCW's storylines as part of the promotion for "Ready to Rumble," and even found himself crowned as world champion. That brief stint with WCW lasted all of four matches and two weeks, but even as he returned to the world of acting, his passion for the world of wrestling never really left him.

Now, 18 years later, Arquette -- a 29-year acting vet with over 100 movie credits and a long list of memorable roles to his name -- has decided to pursue a career in professional wrestling in earnest.

"This time it's far more intense, far more grueling," said Arquette in a recent interview with ESPN. "I'm 47 now. The body doesn't react the same way as when you were younger."

Arquette was living proof of those difficulties on this day as he recovers from right elbow surgery following an in-ring injury. Outside of a one-off appearance on Monday Night Raw in 2010, when Randy Orton powerbombed him through a table, Arquette was almost entirely on the outside looking in with the wrestling business until he decided to dive back in head first.

In the four months since he returned to action, Arquette has performed for Championship Wrestling From Hollywood in Los Angeles, Warrior Wrestling in Chicago, Northeast Wrestling in the Connecticut-New York area, Border City Wrestling in Canada, and even appeared as a masked luchador in Tijuana, Mexico.

No matter how much he's enjoyed his return to the ring thus far, wrestling is a lot more painful than Arquette remembered.

"My first match with [RJ City] was just brutal," said Arquette, who after taking a knee to the face in the match showed up on a movie set with a swollen face. "You get a whole new respect when you start participating in it and you really find out how real, honest, and complicated it is."

Arquette is well aware of the questions his naysayers are asking. Why would a well-established actor in his mid-40s risk his reputation and well-being to wrestle in front of hundreds, and sometimes even fewer, fans at high-school-sized gyms?

Despite what it may look like on the surface, this isn't some mid-life crisis or desperate ploy to draw attention.

"It's not a publicity stunt, that's for sure. It's too painful for that," Arquette said. "It's something that's been gnawing at me for years."

"If this is a publicity stunt, this is Andy Kaufman level because it's been going on for 18 years that I know of," said Shane Helms, who's maintained a friendship with Arquette since their work on "Ready to Rumble."

So what is it all about, then? We have to go all the way back to April 25, 2000 -- the day Arquette won the WCW World Heavyweight Championship and took his place in wrestling infamy.

"It's all kind of foggy," Arquette said as he tried to piece together how he first found out he was going to win the WCW World Heavyweight Championship at a Thunder taping in Syracuse, New York.

The red-hot actor made his WCW television debut a couple weeks prior to help promote "Ready to Rumble," a WCW-based movie distributed by Warner Brothers (which was also a subsidiary of WCW's parent-company Time Warner). The filming of the movie, which centered on an alternate version of WCW but featured many of their current stars in prominent roles, was a childhood dream come to life for Arquette, who was a big wrestling fan growing up as the youngest of his four actor siblings.

Arquette can remember watching wrestling with his father, actor Lewis Arquette, who was studying to prepare for his role as the voice of Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka in 1985's cartoon "Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling." Arquette fell in love with Elizabeth and "Macho Man" Randy Savage (he has a tattoo honoring one of wrestling's most legendary couples on his right shoulder) and loved to hate "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and Bobby "the Brain" Heenan.

He'd wrestle with his friends for hours on old mattresses, using Ric Flair's Figure Four Leglock as his signature maneuver (Arquette also has a tattoo of the "Nature Boy" inked on his right arm). Still in Arquette's possession is a picture from when he was younger of him in the stands cheering on Andre the Giant. "Ready to Rumble" brought back those memories as Arquette had the chance to work alongside WCW's top performers.

"It was a really amazing experience," Arquette said. "I got to work with heroes of mine that I'd seen growing up. I loved baseball growing up, I really liked the Dodgers. It was very comparable to that. I was allowed to be a kid again and be that fan I was when I was a kid."

Of course, Arquette would become much more than a fan. If we're sticking with the baseball parallel, he was about to be thrown onto the mound at Chavez Ravine.

In an attempt to boost ratings during a time in which the WWF (now WWE) was distancing itself from WCW in the Monday Night War, head writer Vince Russo came up with the idea of shocking the wrestling world by making Arquette, at the peak of his mainstream popularity, the WCW world heavyweight champion. Russo viewed putting the strap on Arquette as an opportunity to cross over into a new demographic and, in the process, attract major media outlets to cover WCW for the first time.

Before Arquette was filled in on the night's plans, Russo laid everything out for then-WCW champion Diamond Dallas Page, who won the title the previous evening on their "Monday Nitro" TV show. Page would team with Arquette on Thunder, against former president of WCW and non-wrestler Eric Bischoff and Jeff Jarrett with the stipulation being that whoever comes away with the pinfall leaves as champion. The finish called for Arquette pinning Bischoff for the win.

"When they told me, I started laughing," Page said in the book "Nitro: The Incredible Rise and Inevitable Collapse of Ted Turner's WCW." "I said, 'Yeah right, what's the finish?' They go, 'That's what we're gonna do.'"

Page eventually swallowed his pride and relayed the news to Arquette, who had a similar first take.

"It was a really amazing experience. I got to work with heroes of mine that I'd seen growing up. I loved baseball growing up, I really liked the Dodgers. It was very comparable to that. I was allowed to be a kid again and be that fan I was when I was a kid." David Arquette, on the experience of working in WCW.

"I thought it was a bit of a joke and he was like, 'No, I'm serious,'" Arquette recalled. "I think [my] response was, 'That's a terrible idea. No, we can't do that,' but then they explained the storyline that I wasn't pinning a wrestler, I was pinning Eric Bischoff."

Pro wrestling purists were outraged at a non-wrestler taking home a title with the history and prestige of the "Big Gold Belt," which dates back to the NWA days. Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Sting, and Goldberg were among those to hold the title -- and now David Arquette joined that company.

"I understood them trying to do something for shock value and the ratings, I get that, but there's a lot of respect that goes into what we do too," said Helms, a WCW newcomer at the time. "Championships are like our Emmy's, our Oscars. You can't just give them out to anybody. It was shocking. It was chaotic. Wrestling fans in general didn't take to it too well. You can't be so interested in bringing in new customers that you alienate the ones you do have."

Many have blamed Arquette for accepting the title win, but rejecting it would have been easier said than done for a lifelong fan presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"To be honest, the reason I wanted to do it was so I could be part of it," Arquette said. "The fact of the matter was, yeah, I get to be the champion. Who ever gets that opportunity? Part of that was that I would get to travel with all of them and see behind the curtain and walk through the airport with Hulk Hogan and be on the same show as Ric Flair. For a fan of wrestling if I hadn't done that, I never would have had that experience -- and to me, life is about experiences."

As Arquette puts it, the WCW locker room had a shared feeling of "I can't believe this" after he won the title. Arquette remembers running into one wrestler in particular who was livid, muttering to himself, "This damn business. I can't believe this stupid business." Arquette bought drinks at the bar and pizzas for the boys to try to ease tensions, but no one was more effective at settling down the locker room than the first man to ever hold the "Big Gold Belt" -- the "Nature Boy" Ric Flair.

"Ric Flair at one point put his arms around me and said, 'Hey guys, he's one of us,'" Arquette remembers fondly. "That made me feel really great."

Arquette's championship reign lasted just 12 days, but the backlash he's received from fans has spanned nearly two decades. Social media has made it even easier for fans to voice their frustrations at Arquette.

"Wrestling fans don't forget s---," Helms said. "Some of them hold a bit of a grudge."

"When I won the belt 18 years ago there wasn't internet, there weren't as vocal of trolls," Arquette said. "People started attacking me. I just became the low bar for everything. 'That's the worst decision, making David Arquette a champion' was a running joke. I don't enjoy being a joke."

In his second life as a professional wrestler, Arquette is out to prove he's anything but a joke.

The tattooed and fit Arquette is in the best shape of his life in his late 40s. He dropped 40 pounds over the summer as he started training under LA-based professional wrestler Peter Avalon. Arquette has also trained in boxing and jiu-jitsu to learn different holds he can apply in the ring. He studies the best wrestling he can find on the WWE Network and NJPW on AXS TV.

More importantly, he's willing to put his ego aside and work for smaller promotions to gain reps.

"There's a secret-society element to [wrestling] that's really interesting and a way of learning about it that you could only do if you lace boots up and get in the ring," Arquette said. "[You have to] condition your body to be able to take certain bumps and study all these different greats that came before and pick up little pointers from them. All those things are really fascinating to me. There's no other world of entertainment that exists that combines performance and athletics the way wrestling does. I can't think of anything".

Everything came full circle for Arquette when he had the chance to reunite with Helms, his "Ready to Rumble" stunt double, in a tag-team match at Northeast Wrestling in September. Arquette looked the part with slick black and red tights, an element to his in-ring presentation he didn't have the first time around; he didn't even wear wrestling attire in his WCW championship win.

Rather than a half-hearted approach that leaned too heavily on a negative fan reaction, or appealed more to the entertainment side of wrestling, Arquette backed it all up inside the ring with outside dives, hurricanranas, and, at one point, he even took a powerslam off the top rope. Arquette didn't need a stunt double to take any bumps for him this time around.

"I thought going into this it was going to be me doing 100 percent of the work or at least 95 percent of the work, [but] he wanted to go out there and show out. He did really good," Helms said. "No one expected him to get in and be this good. He's ahead of all expectations, as far as I'm concerned."

Arquette knows some people still won't believe his intentions are coming from the right place, but he's used to that feeling by now. Arquette calls himself "a bit of an outsider in Hollywood" as he's received fewer roles in major motion pictures in recent years, but he's found himself right at home in the world of professional wrestling.

Arquette has become addicted to the rush of performing in the ring, that feeling "when everything clicks." He likens the adrenaline rush of wrestling to theater or performing a well-choreographed fight scene, but even he admits "nothing compares to wrestling."

As much as he loves that feeling, Arquette's priority is still acting. He recently cancelled a run of shows in November to finish filming a project while healing his surgically repaired elbow.

As far as where this journey will lead him, Arquette doesn't have any illusions of being a world champion again. After suffering through decades of ridicule over his first stint in wrestling, all he wants is to feel like he's no longer an outsider.

"You know it's kind of already happened after my first match at Championship Wrestling From Hollywood," Arquette said. "Although Ric Flair had said, 'Hey guys, he's one of us,' I didn't really feel it until I went back to the locker room after that match and they were like, 'That was a great match'. It really did feel like I was one of the guys."