By Carter Hammett
Special to The Toronto Sun
Kelly Hoar has gone back to school -- and he's got the lumps to prove it. It's the 20-year old Oshawa native's very first day of training at Toronto's Squared Circle School of Professional Wrestling, and he's spent the afternoon learning the fine art of arm bars, hammerlocks and body slams.
He sits, nursing a sore shin, after being thrown around by fellow students, and says, "It wasn't too bad, actually, but I'm sure I'm gonna be real sore tomorrow."
Student Mike Magnolia (left), and Squared Circle owner/trainer El Fuego pin student Kris Chambers in a leg hold.
Professional wrestling is a world full of archetypal images. There's the hero, the whore, the crone, the shadow. Here, all the characters converge in a carefully scripted and choreographed theatre of the absurd. Or, as Squared Circle administrator Steve Cvjetkovich asserts, "every kid reads comic books and loves the idea of being a hero. This is the last area where you can actually learn to be a hero."
But achieving success in the field is harder than it looks. Once the domain of meaty thugs with limited repertoires who traipsed from one smoky arena to another, wrestling has exploded into a multimedia juggernaut complete with story lines more complex than executing a shooting star press. And the rude reality is that while dozens of wannabe Rocks dream of making it to wrestling's nirvana, the WWE, only a lucky few ever achieve the status of a Hulk Hogan or a Triple H.
Most wrestlers train for nine months to a year before ever stepping into the ring as a performer. Depending on their story lines, wrestlers are cast either as a "face" (good guy) or "heel" (bad guy).
Most promoters are small entities that establish themselves in bars and small gymnasiums. Some mid-sized promoters such as Toronto's Apocalypse Wrestling Federation, where WWE superstars Edge and Trish Stratus began their careers, perform in corporate or special events like the annual CHIN picnic.
Wrestlers also have to obtain a license and follow the criteria of the Canadian Athletic Commission in order to perform.
Above left to right: El Fuego, Mike Magnolia, Angel WIlliams, Gail Kim (Felina), Tracy Brooks, Ash, Nick Cvjetkovich (The Original Sin) and Chris Chambers at Squared Circle School of Professional Wrestling.
Then there's the pay. An entry-level wrestler can expect to make $30 to $60 per show, while a mid-sized promoter will normally offer $100 to $150, plus travelling expenses. While there are some who are able to make a living, packing up their gear and driving from gig to gig on a nightly basis, most wrestlers retain full time jobs, performing only on weekends or holidays.
Even the wrestling schools themselves are part-time affairs, many offering their training schedules on a weekend basis while operating out of rented gymnasiums. All who train dream of receiving that phone call from the WWE.
For Squared Circle lead trainer Rob Fuego, 34, that call came several years ago when he was invited to substitute for an ailing 123 Kid (now known as Xpac) before a crowd of 10,000 in Sydney, N.S. It was a golden moment for him, for which he received $250 and travelling expenses.
A 10-year veteran of mat wars, Fuego trained under the legendary Sweet Daddy Siki before moving on to wrestle in a variety of independent, mid-sized promotions with occasional stints in the WWE. Like his own students, he still harbours dreams of superstardom with the WWE.
"It's frustrating but encouraging," Fuego says. "I still wanna get another shot."
He continues to retain a full time career as a Registered Massage Therapist, but recently began carving a new niche for himself as a trainer and mentor to younger wrestlers.
One of these students, 25-year-old Gail Kim, has been pegged as "one to watch" by industry voices. A two-year veteran of the ring, she wrestles under the stage name of Felina, a masked heel with a dazzling array of spectacular moves that have put her rising star on the map.
"Every crowd is different, whether you're performing in front of 20 people or 2000," Kim says. "I love to entertain and just get the audience reaction."
Sometimes crowds are so involved, they actually attack wrestlers, she says, recalling an occasion when security guards had to pry an overzealous audience member off the diminutive performer.
"You've gotta be able to find a unique wrestling style," El Fuego says.
Kim says she feels lucky having received lots of offers, especially after wrestling for Windsor's Border City Wrestling. "Lots of promoters are looking for girls. It got to a point where I was so busy, I actually had to turn down offers."
Despite these achievements, she continues to train constantly. "At this level, it's important to get as much experience as possible."
Fuego agrees. Good workers, as they are known in the trade, maintain strict carbohydrate-heavy diets, and work out constantly out of respect for their "art."
"When you step into the ring with someone, they are lending you their body," he says. "Anyone can jump off a top rope, but it's a lot more difficult to make it look like you are hurting someone."
Gone are the days when size mattered and wrestling alone was simply enough. Today's top stars come in all shapes and sizes, and the ones who make it to the upper echelons all have something a little extra.
"You've gotta be able to find a catch phrase, a move, a shuffle or a unique wrestling style -- something that appeals to people," he says.
Even with the moves down pat and the gimmicks perfected, that still might not be enough to make it, he says. "When I started out, Sweet Daddy Siki said, 'I can teach you everything, but I can't guarantee you anything.' You need commitment. You have to go to a proper school, and you have to be willing to put everything else aside."
It appears to be a sacrifice Kelly Hoar is willing to make. He rattles off more catch phrases, and describes characters he's conceived, preparing for that day, a year or more away, when he's finally ready to perform before a crowd. "Even if I don't make it, I'll have had fun getting there," he says.
For now, though, his aspirations are clear: "I wanna be the biggest heel of all time."
(Toronto writer Carter Hammett
is a Toronto-based
writer, trainer and employment information officer.)
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