The rusty roof leaks. There’s no heating. Unpainted drywall crumbles from the water-damaged, patched walls. It’s gritty, it’s dirty, it’s cramped; it kind of looks like a set from an ‘80s horror flick. “Where we are right now, this is our kind-of-secret training facility. We don’t really advertise it too much,” explains John Thorne, co-founder and co-manager of Cleveland’s independent wrestling promotion company, Absolute Intense Wrestling (AIW). Along with his partner Chris Bryan (alias Chandler Biggins), Thorne has been hosting live wrestling events for more than 10 years, attracting top talent and worldwide interest, and starting two years ago, they began holding training courses for those who think they have what it takes.The precise address of the school is kept secret, given out only once a prospective student has proven his or her seriousness and commitment. He explains, “You can imagine, if we were like ‘Hey, come be a pro wrestler,’ everyone would be like, ‘I just want to get in the ring once. See you guys later!'”
The school is no joke. Students pay $1,500 in tuition for a year’s training, which is sort of like wrestling boot camp; many prospective students wash out. “I didn’t make it through the first day, the entrance exam, and a lot of people don’t come back after that,” recalls Kurt Johnston, a student in the beginner class. “I made it through the second day. Another guy who signed up with me, that was his first day, he never came back.”
“It’s definitely grueling training,” relates Ryan Kaplan, another student in the beginner class. “During the winter it gets freezing cold in here, like negative one. We were in here and we had that heat lamp over there, and it only [heats] a little part of this room. So, we would all have to go huddle around it, and then go back in the ring and run around. But it’d make us want to move around more and work harder, to sweat more and stay warm.”
The lead trainer is Johnny Gargano, who wrestles internationally with some of the biggest stars and promotion companies in the business and is widely considered to be one of the sport’s best independent wrestlers. The chance to train under him is a major draw for the school, as student Bryce Schwandt explains, “You don’t really have to dig that deep into his match repertoire to see what he’s capable of and what he can teach you.”
Just check out Gargano’s next five days after this interview: “Tuesday, I’m here training. Wednesday, I have a day off, but I fly to Florida for NXT [sort of like the minor leagues for WWE] on Thursday. I fly back to Cleveland on Friday, and then we drive to Chicago for five hours. I wrestle in Chicago on Friday night, and Saturday morning I fly to Quebec, Canada. I wrestle in Quebec, and then fly back to Cleveland on Sunday.”
Why does he keep coming back to Cleveland just to train wrestlers in a ramshackle garage? He’s a born-and-raised Clevelander, for one. “I take great pride in being from Cleveland,” he proudly declares. “A lot of people make fun of Cleveland and I don’t get why.” He also feels that the distinctly Cleveland atmosphere of AIW’s training facility offers something special to the prospective wrestler. “I think it develops character,” he explains. “I think you can go and you can get the top class amenities, you can get great locker rooms and fantastic equipment, you can get all that stuff, but this shows that you really want it.”
And that level of dedication and hard work is something he feels is a mark of a true Clevelander. “I think hard work is ingrained in a lot of people from Cleveland because people look down on us. We’re the ultimate underdogs in everything that we do, so I think that makes you work extra hard just to prove that you belong somewhere.”
John Thorne, along with a his partner Chris Bryan and a host of other staff members, have been proving AIW belongs for more than a decade. During that time, they’ve watched what started out as a fun activity to do with their friends turn into a thriving, successful business. Their success has put them on the radar of not only fans of the sport, but that of major, televised promotion companies like TNA and WWE. An impressive number of these organizations’ superstars, such as Daniel Bryan (the “Yes!” Man), Dean Ambrose (the Lunatic Fringe), Cesaro (the Swiss Superman), and “KO” Kevin Owens, all got their start performing at AIW events. In fact, the weasley (but incredibly talented) cheater Seth Rollins held the WWE heavyweight championship title for nearly a year until a serious knee injury forced him to be stripped of the title last month. According to Thorne, Rollins “used to drive 10 hours from Iowa to compete in AIW shows. He worked with us for about two straight years, driving back and forth in the same day.”
Most people’s impressions of professional wrestling are based on what they see on TV, but the celebrities on the screen all had to get their start somewhere. “This is where people get noticed, you know what I mean?” says Thorne. “People do these shows to try to get the big contracts, and this is where they put the work in.”
At 15, he and his friends thought it would be fun to put on a wrestling show and rented a ring from JT Lightning, who at the time was the kingpin of the city’s wrestling scene. “For people that knew him, he was this larger-than-life figure,” Thorne recalls of Lightning. “This was his scene, and he was thoughtful enough to let other people have a little piece of it when he could have just been like, ‘Fuck you guys, I’m not renting my ring to you.’” After a pause, Thorne laughs and adds, “Dude, in the year 2015, if some 15-year-old kid wanted to rent a wrestling ring, I’d be like, ‘Absolutely not, man. I’m going to get sued.’”
Sadly, JT Lightning was diagnosed with throat cancer and passed away in 2011. “Since he died, there was almost this void that needed to be filled in Cleveland wrestling,” Thorne laments. “Anybody that ever got involved in wrestling, he would help them out. He’s the whole reason there’s a scene today.” AIW has since done their best to fill that gap, remembering Lightning every step of the way; after his passing, they held the J.T. Lightning Invitational Tournament in his honor, donating the proceeds to his family. They continue hold the tournament each year, honoring Lightning’s dying wish that AIW keep his name alive in Cleveland wrestling.
Thorne and the gang have come along way from staging amateur shows for their friends. “When we started off – I’ll be perfectly honest – we had no idea what we were doing,” explains Thorne. “It wasn’t a business, it was like, ‘I want to do wrestling.’” Since starting the company at 21, Thorne and the promoters at AIW have been more than pleasantly surprised at the degree of success and recognition they’ve attained. Thorne still finds it hard to believe, stating, “Fans have flown from as far as England just to sit in the AIW crowd and experience it live, which is crazy to me.” All of the events are recorded and the DVDs sell globally, their popularity allowing AIW to host international performers. “We import wrestlers from all over the world for our shows,” Thorne (deservedly) brags. “We’ve had talent come from Japan, England, Scotland, Canada, and all over the United States to compete in AIW shows.”
Thorne and his colleagues represent a largely unrecognized tradition that is absolutely integral to keeping the sport alive. Professional wrestling is an older art (yes, art) than most people think, with recorded historical predecessors dating back as early as the 19th century. A form of the spectacle that we would recognize today developed and gained popularity during the first half of the 20th century, with an organizational structure entirely comprised of separate, regional promotional entities much like AIW. Each territory had its own stars, its own fanbase, and its own style.
As time went on, however, increased popularity, profits, and the advent of television allowed new conglomerates like the National Wrestling Alliance and the World Wide Wrestling Federation, which would eventually become today’s WWE, to dominate the scene. Consequently, the individual promotional companies fell to the wayside as the fanbases consolidated and their attention shifted toward a televised version of the sport.
Despite this, Thorne and his partners still see plenty of value in the live, independent version of the spectacle. “There’s something like this in every major city across the United States, it’s just that nobody really knows about it,” he explains. “It’s just like music, comedy, anything like that. Unless you’re in that scene, you don’t really know it exists.” And in a modern world where local concert venues are struggling, live independent wrestling is seeing a resurgence in attendance. “There’s this weird cult following that’s developing all over the country,” Thorne says excitedly. “Everyone’s seeking out what their independent wrestling group is in their city, and people are going and supporting it.”
“You go to a WWE event at the Q, you’re going to sit a mile away from the ring. You’re going to pay $50 for a ticket,” Thorne elaborates, “and just like if you go see some mainstream radio band, it’s going to be this big, overproduced spectacle that really isn’t that good to begin with. But if you go to an independent show or a punk concert, you’re going to see passion. You’re going to see people trying to make it, that gritty, doing-whatever-they-can-to-get-noticed attitude.”
Here’s the thing about professional wrestling: in most people’s minds, it’s not “cool” to be into it. In Cleveland, the so-called “Underdog City,” it’s cool to be a musician, a comedian, a painter, a filmmaker, a poet, an actor, etc., but not a wrestler. Yet these performers and their fans approach their craft with just as much, if not more, passion than any of the aforementioned. Most people can probably recall local rock concerts they’ve attended where they watched a disengaged, pompous, “I’m-too-cool-to-be-into-this” crowd passively stare at the band onstage. Say what you will about professional wrestling, but there’s definitely none of that at an AIW show. Both the performers and the crowd give it their all, despite being dismissed or even downright mocked by the general public. What’s more underdog than that?
“If you think wrestling is stupid, or whatever your thoughts of wrestling are, I highly encourage anybody to just set that aside for one night and come check out an AIW show,” Thorne challenges. “I guarantee that you’ll be entertained by something that happens over that 3 to 4 hour period that you’re in there. And if nothing else, you’re going to enjoy the cheap PBR and get drunk and yell at people.”
Two Cleveland Wrestling Superstars
When people think of professional wrestling, what they know is typically limited to what they see on WWE. But success in wrestling reaches a lot further than what you see on TV. Take these stories, both of homegrown Clevelanders:
Matt Cross began his wrestling career with AIW right around the end of the ‘90s, just before he turned 20. Back then, wrestling was even less accessible to newcomers, and this was especially true for young people. Wrestling was dominated by 30-40 year olds who didn’t want to see their sport invaded by a bunch of kids. “To get in was very difficult,” Cross recalls. “You were going to get beat up and stuff like that.” Cross nevertheless proved himself amongst the grizzled steel workers, despite standing at a mere 5’ 7”.
“There was no opportunity for a guy like me,” Cross explains, regarding his relatively small size for a wrestler. “Now, the wrestling industry, in the past couple of years, has changed so much to where there are guys in WWE, which is obviously the top dog, who are smaller, faster, lighter. The style has changed.” That development has allowed Cross to wrestle in 20 different countries across the world (Japan, Russia, Egypt, France, Mexico, and Madagascar, to name a few) and against the biggest names in the business. He’s been featured by WWE and countless promotional companies throughout the world; he was even on the cover of a video game. Currently, he’s working with director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, Once Upon a Time in Mexico) on Lucha Underground, a new TV series that showcases the iconic Mexican tradition of Luchadores wrestling.
The travel is Cross’ favorite part, and he’s become quite the worldly fellow as a result. He’s also noticed differences in people’s attitudes toward wrestling, relating, “In the US, by and large, it’s hokey and it’s funny. There isn’t that element in a lot of places.” Despite the stylistic differences around the globe, wrestling, like most sports, crosses language barriers. “I’ve flown to Japan, met a Japanese man who doesn’t speak English, and then wrestled him for 15 minutes that same day,” describes Cross. “It’s no different from a drummer meeting a bass player and playing a paid show that night, with new songs that they just wrote.”
He points out, “What I think people don’t understand is that this artform and this performance is unfolding before your very eyes, and it’s not nearly as discussed as people think,” which flies in the face of those who dismiss wrestling for being “scripted.” This aspect is so important to Cross that he believes professional wrestling can only be fully appreciated live, and moreover, it’s best experienced at a local, independent show. “I think this artform is so different to perceive in person,” he explains. “I don’t think it completely translates to a televised audience.”
Greg Iron’s life is a success story on top of a success story on top of a success story. Born with cerebral palsy that has left his right arm severely disabled and growing up in a home of drug addiction and violence, Iron nevertheless found refuge and salvation in the world of professional wrestling. Bullied in school, he never thought he had a chance of becoming a professional wrestler because of his disability. However, after seeing Zach Gowen, a one-legged wrestler perform on WWE, he realized that he, too, could learn the craft in spite of his handicap.
He first started ten years ago under the guidance of JT Lightning, whose tough training helped push him to overcome his disability. “I remember JT would always kind of challenge me,” he recalls. “When we would go to do something basic like a wrist-lock or a tie-up, he would always be like, ‘Now, if you can’t do this, I can’t continue training you.’ I would always take that as a challenge.” Iron overcame each challenge and eventually worked his way into performing regularly in the independent circuit.
A high point in his career came when he was performing in Chicago at a show attended by CM Punk, one of Iron’s WWE heroes. Iron recalls feeling pretty pessimistic about his career at this point, and almost didn’t show up to perform. Luckily, he did, because after the match, to his complete surprise, Punk came into the ring and began championing him to the audience. Being praised by the then WWE champion, and one of his personal heroes, moved Iron to tears. “It didn’t just justify my wrestling career, it justified my whole life,” he says, looking back. “Every time a kid made fun of me, every time someone told me I couldn’t lift weights, the physical therapy I had to go through as a kid: it justified everything I had ever done.”
Since then, other WWE stars have praised him, ESPN has told his story, he’s performed with many of his heroes, and he’s been able to team up with Zach Gowen, who gave him the confidence to wrestle in the first place, as a tag team called the “Handicapped Heroes.” He also tells his story to help inspire others, giving motivational speeches at schools throughout the country. “I love being challenged,” he grins. “I like it when someone tells me I can’t do something.” At this point in his career, however, it’s probably pretty hard to find someone who can honestly tell him that.