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‘Make it big. Make it huge’: Mark ‘King Naja’ Kernell hits the mat for theatrical combat class in Vancouver

Art of pro-wrestling combat requires pushing emotion while pulling punches, Vancouver trainer demonstrates

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 6, 2024, 6:13am
10 Photos
Assistant Tom Holtslander, left, demonstrates an impressive but fake knee kick with instructor Mark Kernell during an introduction to &ldquo;safe&rdquo; pro-wrestling combat at Metropolitan Performing Arts.
Assistant Tom Holtslander, left, demonstrates an impressive but fake knee kick with instructor Mark Kernell during an introduction to “safe” pro-wrestling combat at Metropolitan Performing Arts. (Mick Hangland-Skill for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Whatever you do, do it big. So big, even the folks up in the nosebleed seats can’t miss it.

“It’s exhausting. It’s physical. It’s as over-the-top as you want to be,” said Mark Kernell of Vancouver, who’s better known in local professional wrestling rings as implacable assassin King Naja.

Kernell led an introductory session on theatrical combat that appears bigger, badder and scarier-than-life — but actually stays as safe and predictable as ballroom dancing — on a recent Saturday at Metropolitan Performing Arts in Vancouver.

“You don’t want to hurt your friend,” Kernell said. “He might just hurt you back.”

To throw a safe but impressive pro-wrestling punch, he demonstrated, rear back and gather your fist in dramatic slow-mo. Come in with a huge swing and follow all the way through as your opponent’s head snaps painfully back. You might even stalk away with a triumphal grin, revving up the crowd even more.

Best of all, single out one adoring face to share your glory.

“Focus on one individual. Make a moment for that fan,” Kernell said. “In pro wrestling, if fans don’t react, what’s the point of doing it?”

Here’s what those fans didn’t catch: Your intentionally loose fist never touched your opponent’s face. The loud, startling smack that punctuated the punch was just you slyly slapping your own chest with your other hand — the hand nobody was watching.

Play that game of exaggeration and misdirection right, Kernell said, and your audience will be hooked.

“What the heck just happened? What’s going to happen now? You’re going to take the audience on a journey,” he said.

TV family

Semi-friendly family combat was a feature of Kernell’s upbringing in Pasadena, Calif., where he and his many brothers caught the rise of professional wrestling on television.

“My oldest brother is 18 years older than me,” Kernell said. “He’d beat me up and toss me around. When I had the opportunity to do the same to my younger brother, of course I did that. We beat the stuffing out of each other.”

When he was in middle school, Kernell said, celebrities from Muhammad Ali to Cyndi Lauper to Liberace all loaned their glamour to TV’s “Wrestlemania.”

“It became insanely popular with families like mine in the mid-1980s,” he said. “We were a TV family.”

In addition to the drama of wrestling, Kernell recalled, TV melodramas like “Dynasty” and “Dallas” also made a formative impression on him. Their intense passions and good-versus-evil story lines fired his imagination and his taste for theater.

“I didn’t have any specific theater training,” he said. “I think it just came naturally, based on those old shows.”

Kernell tried college but quickly gave up. Twenty years later, as a married father of three, he gave it another go.

“I wanted to show my kids you can go back and make it happen,” he said. “I wanted to prove that I could do it.”

But almost as soon as he enrolled in a business management program at Warner Pacific University in Portland, he said, he realized that he cared less about business than about people. If you understand people, he figured, business will take care of itself. So he shifted to psychology and human development.

Not only did he earn a bachelor’s degree, he also earned straight As and delivered the commencement speech for adult-degree program graduates.

“My psychology degree was essentially a self-improvement project,” he said. “I was learning how to be myself in every facet. I was learning to understand my own psychology and how I fit in.”

Making a mask

Fitting in can be a challenge for a Black man in the Portland area, which exists in its own bubble of self-regard, Kernell said.

Portland is proud of being progressive and tolerant, he noted. It’s also very white. Working as a Black sales representative for Perdue Foods and its Draper Valley Chicken line “has been an adventure,” he said.

“I learned to improvise,” he said. “I learned to do what’s affectionately known as ‘code switching’ — which means putting on the mask to achieve your desired result, and taking off the mask again. You learn to adapt without losing your sense of core identity.”

Back in high school, Kernell excelled more in athletics than in academics. Now, as a working adult and resident of east Vancouver, he put his athletic prowess to work at East-West Martial Arts, where he teaches Krav Maga, a self-defense system that blends techniques of boxing, judo, wrestling and more.

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“Martial arts has always been part of my repertoire,” he said.

In 2021, as COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were eased, Kernell discovered the new Oregon Professional Wrestling School in Hillsboro. He was one of just five students who enrolled when the school opened. Now, he said, there are around 40 students actively training there.

“People enjoy it because it lets you … become anything you want to be,” he said. “You can be a superhero. You can be a rock star. You build your own character.”

To build a pro wrestling character for himself, Kernell said, he turned to the sport’s hallowed history.

“There are a lot of wrestlers who came before us and created this awe-inspiring thing,” he said. “We have to honor that.”

When Kernell was a kid, his favorite wrestler was Jake “The Snake” Roberts, because, unlike many others, Roberts wasn’t ridiculously over-the-top.

“He was quiet. He commanded attention without demanding it,” Kernell said. “He was cerebral. That was the psychology piece, and it really appealed to me.”

In tribute, Kernell cooked up the persona of professional hit man King Naja — “Naja” being the scientific species name for cobra.

“‘King Cobra,’ I thought that was pretty dope,” he said.

King Naja always enters the wrestling ring looking understated and classy, wearing a black leather jacket and vest, black gloves and withering sneer. The leather and gloves get peeled off as part of preparation for combat. The angry sneer stays fixed, Kernell said.

“You have to decide, are you going to be a bad guy or a good guy?” Kernell said. “Playing the bad guy turned out to be fun and easy.”

OK, Kernell allowed, maybe his King Naja character also has a little good guy mixed in — in the form of Lando Calrissian, the suave Black con artist with a heart of gold in the original “Star Wars” films.

“He’s my all-time favorite character,” Kernell said. “He gets the ladies.”

Dance partners

Kernell said the eternal question about professional wrestling — is it choreographed and make-believe, or “real”? — just isn’t meaningful to him. As someone who’s been injured many times in the ring — including more concussions than he wants to count, he said — it’s plenty real to him.

“Because I’m 50, I only do so much flying through the air anymore,” he said. “The pain and anguish you go through, the separated shoulders and broken noses and busted fingers and blown-out knees — none of that is predetermined or scripted. It can be a very dangerous sport.”

Kernell never lets himself forget that Perro Aguayo Jr., a Mexican professional wrestler, severed his spine and died in the ring in 2015.

“We carry each others’ lives in our hands,” he said. “Picking someone up and dropping him — in all honestly that can be life-changing for the guy who hits the floor. Being a good dance partner means you can execute every move without hurting somebody.”

There’s no special health insurance plan for professional wrestlers, he said.

“We are all independent contractors,” he said. “Promoters don’t provide health insurance. They provide water and a chair. They provide a stage for us to present our craft, which we love to do.”

To introduce his craft to students at Metropolitan Performing Arts, Kernell borrowed a simple Acting 101 exercise: Stride across the floor in character. Whoever you are, project that all the way out to those nosebleed seats.

“Make it big. Make it huge,” he said.

Quinn Vogt, 16, stalked around the room with fists clenched and a grim expression, like he was looking for trouble.

“You better pay attention to this guy,” Kernell read Vogt’s body language. “This guy is dangerous. What’s he going to do next?”

Vogt isn’t an actor, he said — he’s a wrestler at Camas High School. But he loves watching WWE on TV, he said, and he’s intrigued by the idea of developing a persona and a backstory.

Other students couldn’t restrain different attitudes. Giggling their way through an exchange of pretend knee jabs were student Connor Esteb and Metropolitan Performing Arts Board President Brett Allred.

Kernell advised them to use the laughter. What’s more disturbing, he said, than fighters who love pain and keep going back for more?

“Show us that it hurts,” he said. “Whatever you’re doing, commit to it.”