Conrad Thompson is, and always will be, a mortgage broker.
That he somehow has become a power broker in the world of professional wrestling is incidental and accidental.
The notion that someone would call the 37-year-old Alabama native such a thing makes him laugh. But it's true. His podcast "Something to Wrestle with Bruce Prichard" does more than 3 million downloads per month. He also co-hosts two other successful wrestling podcasts, "83 Weeks with Eric Bischoff" and "What Happened When with Tony Schiavone." His contacts list would piledrive anyone else's into the canvas. In October, Thompson is marrying Megan, who just so happens to be Ric Flair's daughter, for crying out loud. What screams wrestling more than the "Nature Boy" calling him son?
With the drive and passion that Thompson clearly has for wrestling, who else could be better suited to pull off an event like Starrcast, a four-day wrestling podcast convention wrapping around the Cody Rhodes/Young Bucks "All In" independent supershow happening on Saturday at the Sears Centre outside Chicago? Thompson is calling it Disneyland for wrestling fans. Rhodes says it's wrestling's Woodstock.
The lineup for Starrcast, which will be held at the Hyatt Regency in Schaumburg, Illinois, features podcasts and events with everyone who is anyone in the professional wrestling world outside of WWE. There will also be a variety of musicians, actors and comedians in the mix, with live shows and events throughout the weekend. The entire lineup is available at Starrcast.com, but with everything set to kick off on Thursday, tickets for the main convention and its shows are all sold out.
Fans will have many chances to meet their favorite stars, with one type of event -- the "Eat and Greets" with nearly every living non-WWE contracted wrestler or former wrestler a fan can think of -- inspired by other events Thompson has put together.
"Bruce and I have been doing what we call a dirty dozen for over a year," Thompson said from his mortgage office in Huntsville, Alabama. "When we go on the road for a podcast, we'll have 12 people come and have dinner with us, and it's $100 for dinner.
"Everybody wants an intimate experience, not just a picture and autograph or piece of swag. They really want something unique. They want to have a real conversation, not just smile for a picture. That is better, and people will pay for it."
Just like "All In" sold out 10,000 seats in 29 minutes, Starrcast sold out, too. Thompson said he went from hoping to put together some podcasts with a goal of selling 800 tickets to selling "about 10 times that."
For fans not familiar with Thompson, he looks like what Santa would have looked like in his mid-30s. He's jovial and has a gift for gab, which comes in handy when he's podcasting or being a mortgage broker.
How Thompson came to be the godfather of Starrcast requires a fair bit of exposition. He was never really all in on professional wrestling, admitting it has drifted in and out of his life. WrestleMania 4 was his first real foray into it, but he was just a boy. Later, Hulk Hogan's WCW heel turn drew him back in 1996, and ECW in its heyday proved to be a real hook for Thompson.
He says he put it away again in 2006, but CM Punk's "pipe bomb" promo and the buzz surrounding it pulled Thompson back in once more in June 2011. Thompson, by then, was enjoying success in the mortgage business, and also had a nice collection of sports memorabilia -- a pair of Muhammad Ali's trunks, a pair of Mike Tyson's trunks, a pair of Roy Jones Jr.'s boxing gloves.
His renewed love of wrestling led him to search for some Ric Flair collectibles -- and he knew what he wanted to find.
"If Ric Flair calls you to go drinking, you go." Conrad Thompson
"The ultimate collectible in wrestling is a Ric Flair robe," Thompson said. "This was the end of 2012. I was looking on eBay and I thought, 'This can't be real.' Turns out it was real.
"I negotiated with the guy, tracked down the buyer. Next thing I know I had a handful of Ric Flair robes. People figure Ric sold them to me. He never did. I don't think he has a robe. He's not romantic about it like fans are. He wore one of mine in the ESPN '30 for 30.' I FedExed it to him and he FedExed it back."
When he started his collection of robes, Thompson hadn't yet met Flair. That wouldn't happen for another year-plus.
Thompson's first time sitting down with a professional wrestler for more than just a picture and an autograph was with longtime ECW wrestler Shane Douglas. Thompson and some of his friends put up some money to fund an ECW documentary on Kickstarter in 2012, and by pooling their donations together they pledged at a level that rewarded them a visit from an ECW star at their home and a screening of the movie.
As it turned out, Douglas stayed well after the movie was over, drinking beer and telling stories. He apparently enjoyed himself, and Thompson and his friends had a ball.
Thompson realized he was onto something. He knew an author and wrestling historian by the name of Mark James, and James was working on a book with Jim Cornette. So they pitched Cornette: $1,500 and you come to my house and spin yarns for a couple of hours.
"Look, man, for them it was no bumps, take no pictures, do no autographs," Thompson said. "It was like a real, live shoot interview in your own living room. We [Thompson and his friends] were each putting up like $100-$150 and in return got a pretty cool experience picking the brains of some of the most influential people in wrestling. Then we started to figure out who was coming near us and checking their schedules.
"I know the idea sounds farfetched: come to this stranger's basement and tell stories. But word got out and Shane, JJ Dillon and Cornette vouched for me."
"I wasn't interested in the standard rules of podcasting: Be under an hour, don't curse, don't play music, don't play all your ads up front. I think the show has been successful ... I'm just a fan. But I also am the target demographic. If it's not something I'd listen to or be into, I don't do it. I'm the barometer. If I think it will be good, other wrestling fans will think it's good." Conrad Thompson
In 2013, Flair was making an appearance in Rome, Georgia. Sure enough, Thompson and his pals got the Nature Boy on the schedule, too.
Flair and Thompson hit it off. They exchanged cell phone numbers, and Thompson started getting calls from the 16-time world champion to hang out.
"If Ric Flair calls you to go drinking, you go," Thompson said.
Thompson began traveling with Flair on occasion, including some trips to WWE shows, and naturally began to make some acquaintances backstage -- one of whom was Cody Rhodes. They met a few times, and though Cody left the company shortly thereafter, a bond was forged.
Thompson also occasionally sat for meals in catering with Michelle Rhodes, the matriarch of the legendary Rhodes family. He became friendly with the entire clan, and even ended up doing Goldust's mortgage.
Thompson's move into podcasting happened when CBS approached Flair about doing a show. The former champ had little idea about the medium, and neither did Thompson. But Flair asked his buddy to come on the first show with him and just ask fan questions. CBS liked their dynamic, and Thompson was on his way.
"The only podcast I'd ever even heard to that point was Steve Austin's," Thompson said. "I think JR [Jim Ross] had launched his. I just didn't know much about it. I was an accidental podcaster. I thought I'd sit in for one week. Ric wasn't scared to talk, obviously he can do that. He just needed a foil.
"As a wrestling fan, the opportunity to ride shotgun with Ric Flair and have a permanent record of it was too good to be true."
Through Flair's show, a guest-driven podcast, Thompson met pretty much everyone else in the business. He got acquainted with Bruce Prichard, a partnership that would again change his life, and reconnected with Cody Rhodes.
Flair tired of podcasting, but by that point Thompson had talked Prichard into launching a pilot.
"The concept was to do something different," Thompson said. "Instead of the typical format -- every wrestling podcast was a guest-driven show -- I wanted to take a moment in time; a pay per view, an angle, a dive into someone's entire run in one promotion. Really go deep.
"And I wasn't interested in the standard rules of podcasting: Be under an hour, don't curse, don't play music, don't play all your ads up front. I think the show has been successful ... I'm just a fan. But I also am the target demographic. If it's not something I'd listen to or be into, I don't do it. I'm the barometer. If I think it will be good, other wrestling fans will think it's good."
Thompson proved he was right with the wild success of the podcast with Prichard. A version of the show was even picked up by the WWE Network for a lucrative sum, which Thompson politely passed on discussing. But he did say Season 2 looked like a strong possibility.
In this sneak peek of "Something Else To Wrestle With Bruce Prichard," available tonight at 8pm ET on-demand, @bruceprichard & @HeyHeyItsConrad analyze the historic #WrestleMania XIV match between @ShawnMichaels & @steveaustinBSR. pic.twitter.com/oTg4m9ibKG
- WWE Network (@WWENetwork) April 18, 2018
With all of that work and those experiences as a backdrop, fast-forward to January 2018. Thompson and Rhodes saw each other at international baggage claim at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. But neither approached. Thompson said Rhodes was incognito, a hoodie pulled down low.
According to Thompson, Rhodes direct-messaged him on Twitter a few weeks later. That's when Thompson went ahead and said he had an idea to build a showcase for podcasts around All In.
"He told me he knew people would be piggybacking off the event -- mind you, this is before the sellout -- and he wanted our blessing," Rhodes said via text message. "That he wanted to name it Starrcast after Starrcade, an event created by my father in 1983 ... I told him we'd give him more than our blessing. We'd partner with him and work as a team."
They did partner together, but Rhodes and the Young Bucks actually have no financial stake in Starrcast.
"This is the biggest indie event ever attempted," Rhodes said. "If we started playing overlord and charging folks, we'd lose the spirit of 'independent.' And we pooled our resources. Conrad is kind of the spiritual talent relations representative of the event."
Thompson said he and Rhodes chatted about 10 times a day every day in the lead-up to Starrcast and All In.
One big question remains: How has Thompson ingratiated himself with so many of the movers and shakers in professional wrestling?
"That's a great question," Rhodes said. "I don't know the answer. I instantly liked him because he approached me as a business person. He didn't say, 'I worked with your dad or your brother.' Which instantly means my grumpy self will not be calling you back.
"He approached me as an adult, and he seemed to understand how significant this could be if we execute it correctly."
The truth is neither of them has executed anything. Each is a first-time promoter. But they sure have sold a lot of tickets, generated a lot of buzz and dominated social media.
Just don't look for Thompson to give up his day job.
"I'm a mortgage guy. I'm here five days a week," Thompson said. "This has always been my passion. I've been doing it for 17 years. I can't imagine a scenario where I'm not doing it. It has suited me well.
"Podcasting was not a big deal 10 years ago and who knows about 10 years from now? It's a little more fluid than the mortgage business. I don't want to roll the dice [on doing podcasts full time]. Podcasting will be the side gig and part-time hustle."