In the second part of our exposé on Richmond’s independent wrestling federation, we look at what it takes to become a wrestler, the role women play, and how wrestling is shaping a would-be wrestler.
If you were to show up at the GXW facilities tomorrow, knock on the door, and request Cullen’s time so that you may ask–plead–that he take you in, you must be prepared to kiss instant gratification goodbye. Even the most sincere, passionate, and athletic individual will not enter the ring in a professional performance until they have completed at least one full year of training. If this sounds all a bit like an overbearing Yoda being fastidiously patient with a promising Jedi trainee, then perhaps there is a kernel of truth in the analogy. Cullen is a sort of Yoda, albeit a Yoda that doesn’t need the supernatural powers of the Force to break doors and limbs.
However, he is no brute. He is bright, humble, sincere, and very much cares about his wrestlers–like all excellent teachers should care about their pupils. “I teach a lot of safety,” he says. He really does; it takes about a year before a new wrestler under his wing gets into the ring. Unlike MMA fighters, who train to abuse the body of another, “We train to abuse our bodies.”
Wrestlers get the most hurt when things go the most wrong, like being hit at the wrong angle, or in the wrong spot. That is perhaps the principal concern that professional wrestlers have with amateur or “back yard” wrestlers, the zealous fans who mimic the moves they’ve seen on TV. Cullens’s wrestlers train hard and long so that they may deftly take and inflict pain, whereas neophytes remain utterly daft–wanting only to see flesh and bone do incredible and unnatural things. “Our guys are smart,” says Aaron, interjecting into the conversation to drive the point home.
While we talk, a young man who is quite tall and has close-cropped hair walks in. His name is Kevin, and his first professional match was in December of 2007 against the Reverend J Boogie. “My dream is to make it,” he says, meaning wrestling, “into my profession.” I ask him his thoughts about being at Ground Xero Wrestling. “I love being here.”
“Being here” means more than just wrestling. GXW works with a local fire department in conjunction with their “Fill the Boot” fundraiser which supports the Muscular Dystrophy Association. GXW also partners with Building the Fire Within, a non-profit charity that offers housing and programs to non-violent, recently-released female prisoners. The organization formed in the same month and year that Kevin faced off against (and beat) the Reverend J. Boogie.
Kevin also picks up on something that Cullen talked about earlier: the mentoring that GXW offers to alienated people, typically teenagers. There’s one person named Kyle who, according to Kevin, has made a “night and day” transformation. Kevin’s key to life is you “have to learn to respect yourself,” it’s something that they’ve done their best to impart to Kyle. Cullen’s philosophy is also simple:
“I’ll take you in and I’ll make something out of you.”
How to Make Something
About an hour has past in Cullen’s office, and now it’s time to pack up and ship out. We head to the rear of the facility where I see over a dozen men in shorts, sweat pants, t-shirts of past wrestling events, and baseball hats. Each man, some working in tandem with another, lifts something that is either heavy or cumbersome and puts it into the back of a truck. I can’t see it now, but most of what they are lifting are the materials needed to construct the wrestling stage for tonight’s show–one of the few that’s actually held within Richmond’s city limits.
When grouped together, each piece of the ring totals $6,000. GXW owns two rings, the one currently in a state of disaggregation–the one that they take with them to performances–and the other is their practice ring. Later, I will ask Cullen where one can buy a wrestling ring, being that the Targets and Home Depots of the world typically don’t carry them. He tells me the a few of the more popular sources for rings and other wrestling paraphernalia are Monster and High Spots. All very purchasable in the Internet Age.
As the equipment is now loaded, Cullen asks me if I know how to get to the club. I tell him I do, despite that I do not. I get into my car and makes sure to follow close behind his vehicle. This is for two reasons: 1) I have no idea where the hell I’m going and 2) I want to follow Cullen because he is the general–the foreman. Cullen commands resepect, and I know why his wrestlers choose to follow him in both literal and figurative ways.
Even if we don’t know precisely where we are going.
Once We Get There
I don’t know what I imagined a venue that hosts an independent wrestling event would look like, but this is not it.
There are a handful of very large men loitering throughout the club, they each have ‘bouncer’ written all over them. There’s a large open space up front, immediately through the club’s doors, undoubtedly where the ring will be. The floor of the club is an acid-wash tile, and at the far end of the club is a large bar that’s virtually solid white in an Art-Deco style. At night, and with the interior lights dim, it probably looks modern, if not a bit space-agey. But now it looks as though the bar itself is hungover, droopy, and colorless.
The wrestlers start bringing in pieces of the ring. They first erect four supporting beams, its points making a square. Cullen counts the space between each beam by taking fifteen back-to-back steps between them (if someone where to emerge with a tape measure to question Cullen’s unscientific method of measuring, I imagine Cullen would be vindicated).
“Alright, it’s time for me to sit down and you guys to set up,” says Cullen to the nine wrestlers that scurry around the Aurora. He comes and sits next to me on a bench. This is my favorite part,” he says with an infectious smile: him getting to sit while the younger guys get to work. What I watch for the next hour or so, he tells me, is “paying your dues.” What he means, precisely, is having the wrestlers learn the ropes by setting up the device that supports their weight and movement and represents the career that several of them are trying to make for themselves. The current crop of wrestlers in Cullen’s fold have set up the ring from start to finish four times without his help. But that might not be entirely accurate, as several times Cullen notices something happening not to his liking and promptly corrects one wrestler or another for doing something that they shouldn’t be doing, or not doing something that they should be doing.
“Promoters like my guys,” he says, “because they’re dedicated.”
Cullen teaches his wrestlers that when they are in the presence of someone that they do not know, they are to approach that person, shake their hand, and introduce themselves. True to form, while Cullen and I chat on the bench, wrestlers show up that were not at the training facility and shake my hand. The devotion to manners that these wrestlers have is definitely unexpected. To them, and to Cullen, their teacher, it is the norm in a world that would find this behavior most decidedly unnormal.
Cullen once again sees something not to his liking and so gets up to confer with the parties involved. Sitting down at the other end of the bench is a young woman, wearing a short skirt and a white tank top, exposing tan skin. She has platinum blonde hair. Feeling a bit inspired by the manners I’ve encountered, I shift down a little bit closer to her and introduce myself; her name is Tori. She’s not a girlfriend of one of the wrestlers, as I had assumed, but a wrestler herself–one of the five women wrestlers of GXW. She tells me that she’s “been off for a while now,” but was referred to Cullen and GXW by TNA performer Mickie James. “It’s more tasteful and family oriented,” she says of GXW performances.
One of the most common conceptions that people have about wrestling is that performances are gratuitously filled with well endowed, attractive women. But at GXW it’s different. “We don’t exploit women as sex objects,” Cullen told me earlier while sitting in his office. “We want them to be known for what they can do, not what they look like”.
Tori’s skin is flawless, lacking the scrapes or marks that are typically inflicted while in the ring. I ask her about this, and her response is to turn an arm and show me a “mat burn” on the underside of her forearm. It’s a faint mark, but a mark nonetheless. “Injuries happen usually when someone does something they’re not supposed to,” she tells me, echoing Cullen’s point from earlier in the day.
While we chat, a tall, thin man with an Abraham Lincoln beard politely interrupts us to say hello to Tori and to introduce himself to me. His name is Patrick. That’s it. That’s all he wanted to do–say hello and introduce himself.
I’m curious if Tori she has a spouse or partner and, more specifically, what they think of her involvement in the wrestling world. She doesn’t have a boyfriend currently, but she does have a man in her life that is supportive of her career: her four-year-old son, Christopher. It seems that the apple did not fall far from the tree.
Tori tells me that he once employed a wrestling move (a clothesline) on an unsuspecting child during a birthday party at Chuck-E-Cheese. It was a bit of a teaching moment, wherein his mom could impart when and where clotheslines are appropriate, and that a party at Chuck-E-Cheese is neither the proper time nor the appropriate venue for such a thing.
As with every other wrestler I’ve either met or have had a chance to observe, Tori seems so genteel compared to the stereotypical vixens that I see when I happen to catch a match put on by WWE. And, like most of the people with whom I’ve talked today, she watched wrestling when she was young. “I’d like to turn it into a career,” she says.
Just then, a young man, rather I should say a kid, approaches Cullen. He seems awkward and nervous as Cullen reminds him to introduce himself to me. He shakes my hand and tells me his name is Kyle–the same Kyle that I heard about earlier that morning.
Cullen gets up and Kyle takes his place on the bench. He tells me about how, at fifteen-years-old, he was “about to get kicked-out of my foster home.” He says that there’s something about “being in the ring and being able to wrestle” that motivates him to stay away from drugs. Kyle is twenty-years-old now. He no longer does drugs, and he’s working to get that shot in the ring, which he hopes will be a month from when we chat. Early on Cullen told him: train hard and stay clean and you’ll get into the ring.
I’m curious to know what exactly goes into “training hard.” Regiments are typically three hours, says Kyle. Beginning first with 10 laps around the building complex that houses the GXW facility, about the distance of a high-school track. After that Kyle does 200 squats, 50 push ups, 50 crunches, and 100 jumping jacks. “I’ve thrown up,” as a result of the regiment, he says.
Next come drills in the ring. This includes practicing the correct way to fall, to clothesline, and to run the ropes. He’s typically in the ring between 7:30pm – 10pm. I state the obvious by saying that the schedule seems grueling.
“Everybody will get blown-up in any sport,” he says, acknowledging my observation. Before I can ask Kyle why anyone would subject themselves to such consistently laborious training, he tells me, “It can make you a better person.”
I can’t help but think that that statement alone summarizes why Kyle, and perhaps everyone else who wrestles at GXW, does what they do. Their work and dedication is not meant to justify a compulsion to violence, but a compulsion to be the person that they want to be. Yes, that sounds like a US Army slogan, but this incredibly strenuous and utterly difficult work, appeals to a higher self within each of them.
I get that sense from Beth, who drives from Emporia to volunteer as the GXW ticket cashier. “Their heart and soul is in it,” she says. “They enjoy it. You can tell they enjoy it.”
Although not a wrestler herself, Beth, middle-aged, started watching wrestling matches on television when she was five-years-old. She tells me that tickets to a recent WWE match at the Richmond Coliseum cost $65; for front-row seats the cost was $300. We talk about the sometimes crude language and women’s outfits that are nothing less than skin exposes, methods that GXW do not employ. “I can bring my nieces and nephews to this, and I know we’ll all have a blast.” I ask her, a life-long wrestling fan, which she prefers: the grandiose performance of WWE, or the group that continues to set up the ring behind us. “I like this better,” she says.
“There’s a lot of dedication in this group.”