Rob Schamberger didn't know much about pro wrestling when he caught his first televised mat show nearly 16 years ago.
He was 18 years old, doing laundry at his parents' house, and his stepfather was flipping through channels.
When he stumbled upon a station where "Nature Boy" Ric Flair was cutting a promo, Schamberger immediately ceased what he was doing.
"My stepfather had been a fan back in the '60s and '70s here in Kansas City. He would go to Memorial Hall every Thursday night and watch guys like Bob Geigel, Bulldog Bob Brown, Harley Race and Sonny Myers," Schamberger explains.
But watching the flamboyant Flair (who won his first world title in Kansas City in 1981) do his thing was all it took for Schamberger.
"I was hooked from that point on. I was all about this," he laughs.
Schamberger was a newbie, though, and admits he didn't know the difference between WCW and WWE (then WWF). The following week, he tuned in to an episode of Monday Night Raw.
"What happened to this awesome guy that I saw last week?" Schamberger asked, not realizing Flair was a member of a rival organization and that he had been watching an episode of WCW's Monday Nitro that previous week.
Still, he says, it was wrestling and he loved it.
"I've watched ever since."
And, fortunately for Schamberger, he was tuning in at the peak of the Monday Night Wars, one of the hottest periods in the history of the wrestling business.
"In '98 they (WWF) were killing it. Since WCW started a little bit earlier, I would flip over and watch some of that too and catch a cool cruiserweight match here and there. Otherwise I didn't care as much for that product. But when Flair came into WWF and I got to see how that group (Evolution) grew, that was a lot of fun."
Canvas on canvas
The 33-year-old Schamberger has been a fan ever since, but he didn't stop at simply following the sport.
He took his passion to the next level, putting his lifelong love of art to use, and now his work is displayed in galleries and homes of wrestling stars, and even at the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in Waterloo, Iowa.
He'll have more than 100 paintings on display at WWE Axxess during Wrestlemania 30 weekend in New Orleans.
Although Schamberger began his wrestling-related artwork only three years ago, he already has more than a thousand mat portraits to his credit.
His most ambitious project to date has been a goal to create paintings of every professional heavyweight world champion from all the major American wrestling promotions - even the defunct ones.
"It started with wanting to do the fine art collection of the portraits of every world champion going back to George Hackenschmidt. I realized that no fine artist had ever taken that kind of task on."
Schamberger, though, wanted to present his work in a respectful fashion.
"A lot of stuff you see is either gimmicky or kind of making fun of wrestling,"he says. "As a wrestling fan, that was just uncool to me. I wanted to celebrate it instead. And the wrestling community across the board just embraced what I was doing. It's just grown exponentially."
To date Schamberger has completed 105 portraits out of his current list of 250 champions. In another three years or so, he figures he might reach his goal.
"It (Champions Collection) is more of a passion project for me. I do other things on top of that which take up more of my time. But I want to make sure that I'm showing the best of each of those guys, so I'm putting the proper time into each one."
Schamberger estimates he has done about a thousand portraits of different wrestlers.
He has even garnered attention from WWE, which will include some of the original portraits he painted of WWE superstars at its Axxess events leading up to Wrestlemania. He'll be stationed just inside the door with more than a hundred pieces of artwork on display.
"Fans can come in as soon as the doors open," says Schamberger.
Schamberger was 8 years old when an older step-brother bought him his first comic book.
"It was 'Incredible Hulk,' and we spent the weekend redrawing everything from it. I just knew right then that this was what I wanted to do," he says.
Despite drawing being his passion, Schamberger did not attend a formal art school. It was a natural talent that he says he cultivated through countless behind the canvas.
He draws most of his influence from comic books and illustrations, but says his style is flexible.
"I will adjust my style depending on the subjects to make the portrait as meaningful as possible. But most of my influence comes from the more illustrated style of comic books and early American illustrations. I'm also really big into street art, like those big awesome murals. A lot of that influences my approach as well."
The popularity of his artwork has led to Schamberger doing it full-time.
"It's taken me coast to coast."
One of the perks out of his passion for painting portraits of wrestlers has been the friendships with the grapplers themselves.
His subjects have taken notice of his appreciation for their own art form, and many have Schamberger's paintings displayed in their homes.
"The wrestlers themselves have been awesome. They really appreciate what I'm doing and the spirit behind why I'm doing it. I've become good friends with several of them. They have so many interests outside of wrestling.
"Adam Pearce has been an amazing proponent from day one and a good friend. Guys like Jerry Brisco and Jim Ross have been amazing. Several of the guys have original art of mine. All three of them do, but also 'Stone Cold' (Steve Austin) and C.M. Punk. It's been incredible."
It was through friendships he forged with Ross and Brisco that led him to his involvement with WWE.
"In the middle of last year, I was looking to put on a charity fundraiser with a gallery show featuring my art to raise money for Make-A-Wish. I reached out to Jim to see if he could pass along the information to WWE and possibly get their involvement in it. It just snowballed really fast, and it turned out there were a lot of fans of mine in Stamford as well."
His art has raised thousands of dollars for charities, notably with Make-A-Wish.
"Last year alone I raised $10,000. It's something I want to do more of as time goes on. I just recently finished helping Mick Foley with his RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) raffle. The winner gets a painting from me."
Original portraits he has painted of WWE superstars are being auctioned by WWE.
"They're selling my originals on their options site on WWE.com. We're going to start doing posters and other kinds of reproductions pretty shortly."
His favorite is the Champions Collection portrait of Edge.
"I was just firing on all cylinders with that one. Edge saw it and really liked it. We started talking about art and struck up a friendship out of that."
His passion has become a full-time endeavor for Schamberger. His old day job is a thing of the past.
"If I end up spending the rest of my life as the guy that paints wrestlers, I will consider that a successful life."
Schamberger can be followed through his Twitter page @robschamberger), or visit his homepage at www.robschamberger.com.
Reach Mike Mooneyham at 843-937-5517 or email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.
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