Life on the ropes

March 12, 2006|By Julie E. Greene

By day Brad Jones is a friendly father of four who drives a United Propane truck.

But two nights a week, he turns into the "House of Pain's Original Big New Yorker Jerkface," half of a tandem that holds the National Wrestling League tag-team title.

"I beat people up," the Big Pool resident says of the hobby he began eight years ago.

Jones, 31, is one of up to 30 wrestlers who participate in Tuesday or Saturday night matches at Superior Pro Wrestling Training Center, aka the House of Pain, in downtown Hagerstown.

They range in age, height, weight and ambition to become a professional, but they all love this over-the-top form of wrestling that has been a popular form of entertainment for decades. Many of them grew up on it, watching Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan and Jake "The Snake" Roberts.


Anything can happen

John Stevenson, a rookie in training, decided to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler on Oct. 30, 2004. That was the day his grandfather Walter Marshall, with whom he used to watch pro wrestling on television, died.

"When he passed away, it was kind of a realization that life is short and if I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it," says Stevenson, 25, of Hagerstown.

Stevenson is not flirting with a dream, but dedicating himself to the point his meals often are a high-protein peanut butter or tuna sandwich.

A construction worker, he spends the off-season training and helps at the House of Pain by editing and producing wrestling-show DVDs and helping with road shows.

"Everything is really tight. A lot of the times I'll be the one to drive the U-Haul for the road show, so I don't have to use my gas or my car," he says.

The only money he makes during the off-season is from selling T-shirts or promotional pictures of his character, "Johnny Lawless."

"If there's one thing to learn about this industry, you never know what's going to happen, who will see a DVD or be in a crowd. At any given time, something could happen," Stevenson says.

Trying to hit the big time

"John Rambo" is booker and instructor for the National Wrestling League, which is owned by Dick Caricofe. Rambo, whose real name is John Kreczman Jr., adopted his wrestling persona from the Sylvester Stallone character.

Rambo says the odds of a local wrestler making it to World Wrestling Entertainment, more commonly known as WWE, are not great. It's not for lack of passion or proper technique, which Rambo takes pride in teaching.

One problem, he says, is that local wrestlers often don't have the right physical features to make it to the nationally televised WWE. Rambo says they don't have the "chiseled Greek God statue look," la "The Rock" or Hunter Hearst Helmsley aka "Triple H."

Another barrier to reaching the WWE is that some local wrestlers are cautious. Rambo says the ring can be a dangerous place for someone with a family and who relies on a regular job to pay the bills. The WWE likes wrestlers who are willing to do just about anything in the ring, Rambo says.

Plus, a career in wrestling can require a lot of travel and time away from the family.

For many of the local wrestlers this is a hobby. Instead of bowling, they wrestle.

Hagerstown resident Donnie Wilt, Jones' tag-team partner "Gutterboy," used to want to wrestle for a living, but at age 30 he wrestles at the House of Pain for fun, stress release and exercise.

Like many hobbies, wrestling has its expenses.

Wrestling schools' training costs average $1,500 to $10,000, though Rambo has offered a $500 tuition special recently.

Jones' expenses consist of ring dues. Occasionally, he gets paid from a road show, depending on ticket sales. But pro wrestling is not about the money, he says. It's about the interaction with the fans.

"Whether it's cheers or boos, it's still a rush," he says.

Wrestling for fun

With a lean 150 pounds on a 5-foot-9-inch frame, Gary Moats, 22, of Fairplay, has no plans to pursue a career with the WWE or Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA) on Spike TV, but he wouldn't turn down a deal either. He said making a living wrestling on the independent circuit is more realistic.

The independent circuit is made up of thousands of smaller wrestling leagues like the National Wrestling League and House of Pain Wrestling Federation. Such leagues sponsor matches at home and away in which any certified wrestler can compete to gain experience.

Rambo doesn't just let the wrestlers get in the ring and go at it. They train and have to perform to his standards - he has a reputation to protect - before he awards them a certificate from the National Wrestling League. That means he's satisfied that wrestler could step in the ring with any star and have a good match.

Wrestlers compete at the House of Pain as well as at road shows.

The Tuesday and Saturday night matches are open to seasoned pros like Jones and to students like Stevenson and Moats, for whom the matches are advanced training, Rambo says. Student wrestlers train at least one other night a week to improve their moves.

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