Ready to rumble: Inside the world of regional wrestling
Barefoot and bedecked in his trademark leopard-skin, a sweaty Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka head butts Gen. Bobby Lee Walker.
Walker collapses on the mat with a thud. His tag-team partner, the 500-pound hirsute Justin Blackwell screams at the referee.
About 100 spectators hanging on the gates surrounding the ring at St. Mary’s Church gym in Perth Amboy, N.J., yell, “shut up” at Blackwell. He’s unfazed.
The legendary Snuka leaps into the air and lands his trademark “Superfly Splash” that finishes off Walker.
Walker will take home $50-$100 for his 20 minutes of grappling at the East Coast Pro Wrestling (ECPW) match last month. Snuka will walk away with considerably more. No one will reveal how much.
The fans — everyone from businessmen to housewives to 12-year-olds — leave pumped after another evening of minor league professional wrestling.
While the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) grabs the big-time bucks, glory and TV ratings, hundreds of wrestlers work small rings in church basements and school gyms nationwide. The door hauls are small, $4,000 to $13,000, as are the crowds, but the passions run just as high.
“I like the smaller venue because you’re right up where the wrestlers are,” says Glenn Gallignano, 51, of Maspeth. “If you go to the Garden, you’re so far away. It’s good for the kids; it gets them to see what’s going on.”
Robert Lotti, 33, of Queens, who attends New York Wrestling Connection matches, agrees. “It certainly beats going to the WWE — or rather, I should say, sitting at home watching the WWE.”
While Snuka and other veteran wrestlers – such as Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart and Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake – appear in ECPW matches, smaller leagues feature talent looking to be discovered.
Louie Ayala, 33, of Queens, who grapples for the NYWC under the name “Boogalou,” wrestled in high school and college.
These days, when the 12-year wrestling veteran is not beating down his opponents, he’s with his wife and six-month-old son or driving a bus for the MTA.
“I would like to go more international, but at this point, I’m happy to be here working with NYWC,” Ayala says. “It’s close to home. They’re good with my family and I respect them.”
Nick Strasheim, 26, of Queens, juggles his job at Costco with wrestling for ECPW under the name “Genocide Junkie” Daemon Crowley.
While he knew he wanted to be a wrestler since he was three years old, he didn’t start training until last year.
These days, he practices his moves twice a week for a couple of hours in addition to working out. Most wrestlers train for a year or so at schools offered by the New York Wrestling Connection (NYWC) and the ECPW.
In addition to knowing the moves, these men need to be fit. Strasheim, who wrestles a few times a month, says he’s broken his thumb and feet, cracked his ribs, compressed his neck and broken his clavicle.
“You know you’re going to get hurt, but you don’t quit,” he says.
His family has unsuccessfully tried to talk him out of the ring, but now “they come to the shows and cheer me on … they’re just worried I’m going to get hurt.”At a recent NYWC event in Queens the wrestlers are prepping in a dimly lit back room. Typically, there are nine matches that last about 15-20 minutes each.
Some of the wrestlers are painting their faces or getting in a last minute work out. Most of them are buddies.
Yes, wrestling is fake. The outcomes of the matches are predetermined. These grapplers can be in the ring throwing punches and body slams one minute, and chit-chatting later.
But while the outcome is fake, the action isn’t. When a wrestler is lying on a mat and a 300-pound grappler jumps off the top rope and hits him with a flying elbow — that’s real.
So, don’t diss them.
“Get in the ring with me,” Ayala says. “I don’t care who it is, how big you are. Come tell me I’m fake. I’ll show you fake.”
Nick Klopsis contributed to this story.