School of Hard Knocks

At the Pain Factory, young wrestlers train for the chance to prove they could be contenders

September 28, 2006|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,Sun Reporter

Teddy Stigma is smiling, which is a peculiar thing to do after a sunset flip powerbomb. He is flat on his back; his legs, encased in cherry red Spandex, are spread wide. Most of his body rests on a thin but ostensibly protective floor mat; his head, however, is on the rock-hard tile. He must have misjudged the height of the wrestling ring, or the strength of his own legs as they launched the airborne backward somersault that landed him here moments ago with a resounding smack.

The mistake doesn't matter - in fact, Teddy thinks, it sweetens the performance. "Teddy! Stigma!" the crowd of a couple hundred is screaming, some of them out of their folding chairs and on their feet. They've hated him passionately for the past 10 minutes or so, since he first rolled in under the bottom rope. But in professional wrestling, hate is a kind of worship, a form of love.

And no matter what, for guys like Teddy, it's better than being ignored.

His debut match had gone beautifully, from the monkey flip to the running shooting star. He'd slapped and headlocked his opponent beneath the hot lights, both of them so sweaty that their skin looked laminated. For those few minutes, he didn't feel like some two-bit boat boy. He felt immortal, and that feeling was worth the six months of late, late nights, the long commute, and every penny of the tuition he paid The Pain Factory pro wrestling school, which is affiliated with the Eastern Wrestling Alliance.

"Teddy! Stigma!" Is that just an echo in his aching head, or are they still yelling for him? They are. Everything hurts, but somehow it feels like heaven. He's trying to look dead, or at least seriously maimed, but the corners of his mouth keep twisting upward.

Teddy smiles.

On ordinary nights, when there's no match on, no spotlights, heavy metal music or promotional hype about The Bruiser beating on DJ Hyde, the Pain Factory looks like what it really is: a battered wrestling ring in an abandoned supermarket in Essex. The floor of the Baltimore area's only pro wrestling school is filthy, and some of the tiles are shattered. There is a lumpy mattress, a collapsed folding chair that may or may not have been smashed over somebody's head, and a pervasive fungal smell from the gym that the wrestling academy shares space with. Always the sound of weight-lifting spills over from the other side of the room, where weights crash and bodybuilders groan like the damned.

Not the wrestlers, though. They are cheerful and twitching with energy even after an acrobatic two-hour practice. It doesn't matter if they just got off the 7-to-7 shift. They leapfrog, flip and land on the spring-enforced mat with a sound like a thunderclap.

But athleticism isn't really the issue here. Successful wrestling is about harnessing a performer's personality, says Jim Hardwick, a former wrestler who owns the school. It's about amplifying a mean streak or a sweet demeanor to sell the choreography of the match, which is almost always based around a clash of dispositions, a bad guy and a good guy, the "heel" and the "babyface." That holds true not only in the farm leagues of the local tournaments where most of Hardwick's pupils land after a year or so of instruction, but also in the big time, the WWE. The psychological drama keeps the fans buying tickets, even though they know the violence is usually fake.

"Professional wrestling is a soap opera for men," Hardwick says.

And the need for self-expression is what motivates many of the young men, and several women, who flock to the Pain Factory night after night, where they not only perfect various ridiculous-sounding moves (the German suplex; the frog splash), but also cultivate a stage presence. They come to vent, to showboat.

The dozen or so who attend relish this chance. Most of the wannabees and rookies are in their early 20s, stuck in soul-crushing jobs where they are not so much mistreated as completely overlooked. They labor in steel plants and spice factories, where they mix the coating for Cheetos. They are grocery clerks, and the guys who slap stickers on windshields at car auction lots. No one asks their opinions. They are cogs in the machine.

Except from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Pain Factory, when they have the opportunity to emote - to shriek, stomp and debate what sort of stage makeup and theme music they'll pick for their debut match.

In this sense at least, the Pain Factory is less like Fight Club than community theater.

And, in the end, a lot of the fledgling wrestlers don't care if they ever make Hulk Hogan-sized salaries - so long as they can pay off their training and licensing, which comes to about $2,500, in $100 monthly installments. They just want an audience, any audience, even if it's only their peers.

"Hey, for somebody who's a night stocker in a grocery store, you get to be larger than life," says 21-year-old Shawn Webber, a pro who wrestles under the name Bruce Chan and trains at the Pain Factory. "And that's pretty cool."

Teddy Stigma certainly thinks so.

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