In late 2018, it could be argued that just about all of A.J. Kirsch's dreams came true.The Berkeley-area actor, model, and host had just finished voice and motion-capture work as the player's central character in 2K's WWE 2K19 video game.
As a fan of video games and wrestling — best-known locally for his role as "Broseph Joe Brody," the uber-bro host of Oakland's Friday night Hoodslam wrestling (and probably the person who poured free shots of whiskey or vodka down your throat if you were standing by the ring between matches) — there was no higher honor.
Kirsch, who fell in love with wrestling as a "doughy" 12-year-old, cites the mid-90s and the "Monday Night Wars" as the time he became aware of the performance art. "As I was becoming a teenager, wrestling was growing with me, which is why I often like to say that wrestling was just a phase I never grew out of," Kirsch said.
He calls Shawn Michaels his favorite wrestler at the time, explaining how Michaels embodied all the things that make a wrestler great. "Shawn Michaels was my favorite and the guy that made me want to become a pro wrestler," Kirsch said. "I had no idea why, but I just thought he was the coolest. As I later got into wrestling, I appreciated him on a completely different level, because he could work with anybody and make them look better than they are."
Kirsch later began training with Pro Championship Wrestling while finishing up a Communications Studies degree at Chico State, splitting his time between classes and training in Yuba City. But within six weeks, he had broken an ankle attempting a move in the ring, and spent several weeks sidelined. While injured, he took notes, watched as much footage as he could, asked questions about technique while healing, and learned how to referee matches to see how the matches were structured.
After two years of training, he debuted as a wrestler in October of 2005, later wrestling more and more and learning what made for a good match.
"As I got more comfortable in the ring, a good match meant the crowd was into it," said Kirsch. "In wrestling jargon, that means was the match over? Were you over with the crowd? Was your character over? Was your opponent over? If they didn't, then you really didn't do your job, because people were there to be entertained."
As time went on, Kirsch learned to become versatile, signing with San Francisco's Models Inc. Talent Agency and going on acting, commercial, and movie auditions with the ultimate goal of becoming part of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). Kirsch applied to be on the WWE's Tough Enough reality show in 2011, where the winner would receive a WWE contract. He made it through eight out of ten episodes on the show before being eliminated, yet still got on the company's radar for future projects.
"I need to show them that I'm doing everything in my power to make myself as valuable a commodity as possible, because they need their talent to be able to do talk shows and TV shows and movies and radio and whatever they can to further the brand of WWE," he said. "If they say 'Hey, Whoever, we want you to be able to do this and are you up for it?' and you've got to be like 'Yep!' And then you have to nail it."
In spite of some amazing career highs, which have included parts on Dating Naked, being interviewed on Larry King Now, and an eight-episode run on Tough Enough, working with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson on three separate occasions, there are rumblings within Kirsch for something more.
"I've done some cool stuff," Kirsch said. "So what? It's like 'What now? What's next? What's the bigger picture?' It's like 'Who am I outside of those things then?' I don't really know yet. And I think that as grateful as I am to be at this point in my career, I just feel like there's growth to be had and some searching to be done to figure out my identity and who I am outside of those cool things. With every failure, though, I remind myself even I'm in the midst of whatever distress I'm in, there's growth to be had."
Even with wrestling as his starting point, Kirsch's future seems to offer him a variety of directions to go in. He continues to dip his toes into acting, event hosting, voiceover work, and modeling without a single, set goal in mind.
"For the longest time, I was so hyper-focused on making it to the WWE, but what started as a pursuit of that one, singular brass ring has opened doors that I otherwise never would have found myself in front of and has led me to experience moments that I literally had to remind myself out loud that I wasn't dreaming," he said. "There's still a part of me that would welcome the validation of being offered a position at WWE, but I'm making a living doing what I love, I'm respected within my field, people seem to enjoy my work, and I enjoy doing it. I'm 'doing it.' And for that, I'll always be grateful."
When asked about his guiding philosophy and what keeps him going, Kirsch's answer is simple and logical: "Why not me?"
"Somebody has to do it. And if you think it should be you, then why not? That's the mentality I had the moment I dropped my application in the mail for Tough Enough back in late 2010," said Kirsch. "I mean, the way I look at it, any time you get paid to use your imagination, you're doing all right."