Inside The Minor Leagues Of Pro Wrestling
A professional wrestling circuit thrives in New York City — and features everyone from young wrestlers just starting out to former star WWE stars.
Most of the buildings on a dead-end industrial Staten Island street are garages for garbage trucks. But the last warehouse on the block is home to the clubhouse/gym for Warriors of Wrestling, an independent pro wrestling league and school that's one of dozens of similar outfits across the country, an informal network of schools that make up the minor leagues of pro wrestling. WoW was founded in 2007 by wrestling trainer Joe Bellini and currently has close to 40 wrestlers from around the tri-state area on its roster. Bellini and a small staff train wrestlers and put on shows in small venues and fairs.
This is the world that can best be described by the unfortunate description of amateur professional wrestling. Amateur because they’re not full time professionals, but “pro” in the sense that this is Hulk Hogan wrestling, not Olympics wrestling. On a recent Saturday night on a Staten Island football field, around 1,000 fans — mostly families — have paid $20 each to watch a show featuring local wrestlers, with former WWE star Matt Hardy as the main event of the evening. First there are several matches between local wrestlers, including a 10-man “royal rumble” match, where each wrestler is eliminated when he gets pushed or thrown out of the ring. (The wrestlers from WoW are paid $20 each, standard payment for every match. Bellini: "If they want more than that, they can go somewhere else.")
After a few more matches, there's a women’s tag team match featuring a former WWE wrestler, Shelley Martinez, an extremely buxom fan favorite, who wins. One of the big name wrestlers on the bill, Shane Douglas, doesn't show up, and none of the wrestlers or Bellini can quite give a reason why other than rolled eyes and grumbles that Douglas is known for flaking last minute.
After a mid-show break for the evening's second rendition of the national anthem, Matt Hardy is announced and his signature theme song blares on the P.A. system. He makes the long walk from the makeshift backstage area near the front ticket table across the football field to the ring. With no barriers on the long walkway, a crowd of kids gather around him, chanting his name and walking him to the ring. Hardy wears a black t-shirt with his personal motto, “Stronger than death," and bedazzled blue parachute pants. He removes his shirt at the ring, revealing a slightly softer stomach than he used to have. Tonight he's taking on Jay Lethal, a wrestler from Total Nonstop Action (TNA) wrestling league, which was formed in 2005. Although it has a weekly show on the Spike channel, it’s not as prestigious or popular as the WWE.
Hardy is a “face” – a good guy character – and the face role in a match is always the same: get tossed around the ring until turning it around at the last minute for a win. Hardy, who has back and knee injuries, doesn't perform any of his famous high-flying moves from back in the day. This match is certainly a huge step down from the packed stadiums he used to perform in, but he takes hits and rolls around theatrically on the mat, and when he pins Jay Lethal for the win, the crowd goes wild. Hardy rips off his T-shirt and tosses it to them as they cheer.
A few days later, I meet James Riley, a.k.a. Rude Boy Riley, 21, and Joe “Nero” Morello, 20, students of Joe Bellini’s, at the Warriors of Wrestling gym. Riley and Morello became friends in high school on Staten Island. “I was just a kid in high school who loved wrestling,” says Nero. “I saw James wearing a DX shirt [DX is the name of a clique of Attitude Era WWE wrestlers] in class, and so we started talking. He was trained already, so he introduced me to Warriors of Wrestling.” They both work day jobs and attend college while living with their parents. Morello’s handsome looks make him a classic “face," and other wrestlers tell me his natural talent has made him one of the standout guys in WoW. Riley has a diagonal shock of bleached hair and a pop-punk style that suits his “Rude Boy” wrestling persona. At wrestling practice in the WoW gym, he wears a Red Hot Chili Peppers tee and tall socks with skulls.
Riley got involved right at the start of WoW, starting as a referee and helping assemble and break down the ring for practice. He missed his first match in high school because he was the lead in his high school musical. In return Bellini and head trainer Jake Gomez taught him mat skills and basic moves.
Gomez, who is 25, describes his wrestling character Logan Black as “the last guy you’d ever want to see at the end of a bar.” He’s a heel (a bad guy), and bases his brawling wrestling style on ‘80s legend Terry Funk, who was known for his “hardcore” style and being able to take incredible amounts of physical punishment. Gomez indeed looks the part of a barroom brawler with his shaved head and goatee, and brass knuckle tattoos on each shoulder. But wrestling is just a side job for Gomez, who is a special ed teacher in the NYC public schools. “We go to the library everyday, and when they’re not looking up rap videos on YouTube, they’re looking up videos of my matches to make fun of me for getting beat up," he says. "They’re well aware of what I do. Some of my more artistically inclined kids will draw pictures of me. I’d say about 80 percent of the school are wrestling fans.”
At Saturday's match, Rude Boy Riley and Nero sell signed 8x10” photos of themselves for $5 a piece. “Hey, gotta earn money,” explains Riley, after turning away a kid who asks if the photos were free. They sign kids’ notebooks and arms without charge.
Back in, say, 2000, the idea that someone like Matt Hardy would have agreed to wrestle on a football field in Staten Island would've been laughable. That was when Matt and his brother Jeff made up the tag team The Hardy Boyz, one of the top tag teams of the WWE “Attitude Era” — the period approximately 1998-2001 when pro wrestling, buoyed the broad appeal of performers like The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin, got as close to mainstream as it ever would be. The Hardy Boyz were young and had a Hot Topic kind of style that earned them a rabid fan base among younger fans and women. Their wrestling style incorporated some of the high-flying moves of Mexican luchadore wrestlers, and they became popular after a series of “ladder matches” where the title belt would be suspended from the ring at a height where you’d need to use a ladder to reach it.
Although wrestling is staged in the sense that matches’ winners are predetermined, and certain moves are exaggerated, a lot of the pain and physical maneuvering is very real. During the Attitude Era of WWE, there were two televised shows a week, in a new city each show, and top performers would appear in both shows, plus a monthly Pay-Per-View event where wrestlers are expected to do longer, more extreme matches. “We did a tables, ladders, and chairs match one Monday, and we had just done a cage match the night before for a Pay-Per-View. We could all barely walk, and while they said it didn’t really have to be a crazy match, I knew we couldn’t go out there and let people down,” says Hardy, now 37, who was 25 at the time of that Pay-Per-View match.
Televised shows for the WWE tape year-round, giving wrestlers almost no time off for vacation or rest. “I’m a big advocate of a mandatory off-season, and I think it’s very feasible. I think it would be very different overall for wrestlers’ health,” says Hardy, a North Carolina native, in his thick drawl.
Like many pro wrestlers, Hardy fell into painkiller dependency to treat the myriad injuries he sustained while wrestling. This led to DUIs and multiple stints in rehab, one of which was paid for by WWE as part of their new commitment to help any former wrestler with addiction and mental health issues. A string of former wrestlers dying young of ailments associated with steroid abuse or addiction forced the WWE to institute a wellness program with drug screening. One of the most public of these deaths was WWE star Eddie Guerrero, who died in 2005 of heart failure at age 38. “After Eddie Guerrero died, that was the first time that it made them look at things and realize they have to change things, and then of course, the Chris Benoit situation,” says Hardy. Benoit was a WWE wrestler who killed his wife and children and then himself in 2007, and though the connection with painkiller and steroid abuse is unclear, an autopsy of his brain revealed severe trauma from years of blows, comparable to the brain of an 85-year-old with Alzheimer’s.
In 2010, Hardy was released from his contract with the WWE and joined TNA, which has a reputation of having a lot of aging former stars on its roster. After less than a year in TNA, he was fired in August 2011 after a DUI arrest.
I'd expected the Staten Island event to be like a depressing scene from the movie The Wrestler, but it wasn’t at all. It was a warm summer evening with an ice cream and hot dog truck, and the crowd was almost all families with kids, who were so excited to see wrestling up close. It was wrestling at its sweet and positive essence – family entertainment with good guys to cheer for and bad guys to boo at.
“It’s funny, you’re not on the big scene of being on TV or Pay-Per-View, but it reminds you of why you fell in love with the business in the first place,” says Hardy. “You strip all that stuff and get back to the basics: just two people in a ring entertaining people, using your body to tell a story.”
Photos by Katie Notopoulos and Chris Ritter for BuzzFeed.