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The New Road to ‘WrestleMania’

At New York Wrestling Connection, a crew of independent pro wrestlers brawl for their big-time dreams

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Last Saturday’s NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn 4 was, for good reason, almost universally praised as one of the best shows of the year under the WWE umbrella. The latest in a string of unequivocal successes for the fledgling development brand and critical crown jewel of the company’s entire multibillion-dollar enterprise, the only thing less surprising than the praise it received was the makeup of the card.

With five of the six matches featuring performers that made their way to Orlando via the independent or international circuit, the card represents not just the future aesthetic of the WWE as a product but a paradigm shift in the paths taken to reach the main stages of the world’s most powerful wrestling company.

For some, that journey starts in the proverbial bingo halls of places like Reseda, California, or the joshi puro dojos of Japan. For others, it begins in the tiny, tinny Deer Park Sportatorium on Long Island.

It’s there, just a bit after 1 p.m. in June, on as hot a Saturday as anyone in the building can remember, where the people of the New York Wrestling Connection training academy begin to prepare the warehouse for that evening’s show, Going the Distance. One hundred fifty or so folding chairs are collectively zip-tied together into proper rows by the students as a skeleton crew of part-time technicians test the audio equipment, video screens, and cameras.

Amid the mid-afternoon chaos, Jaden Való and “Manbun Jesus” Johnny Radke, two members of the troupe just past voting age, are in the ring, fine-tuning the ending to that evening’s match. Watching ringside is Bull James, the head trainer of the NYWC wrestling academy. Despite being just 30 years old, James carries himself with the gravitas of a world-traveled adventurer. He’s better known to the wrestling world as “former NXT star Bull Dempsey,” after all. He has the résumé all the NYWCers dream of and a commanding aura to go with it, one that pulls his students toward him after every run-through for critique and constructive advice.

Even from across the room this presence is palpable. It’s tempting to say it’s the “It”—the indescribable thing all superstar wrestlers share—but divining that in a venue this size compared with the arenas WWE runs can be difficult.

Bull talks with the cadence of a high school coach, with the precision and high expectations of someone who had spent his life in athletics. “From the minute I first watched wrestling, I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do with my life,’ and that was it,” Bull said. He made it as far as NXT, had a good run there, but never sniffed Monday Night Raw, let alone WrestleMania. “The dream isn’t to go to developmental, it’s to headline WrestleMania and be a top guy. At no point did I ever feel like, ‘I achieved my dream.’”

His tenure in NXT coincided with the popular rise of the promotion, alongside current main roster standouts Elias, Baron Corbin, and Finn Bálor. He described it as spending his days “around the best minds in the business.” Even without reaching the WrestleMania dream, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. And he isn’t: “You are getting a paycheck every week from World Wrestling Entertainment, which is awesome.”

That paycheck appealed to almost every wrestler I spoke to at the show, from the aforementioned Való and Manbun Jesus to NYWC Fusion champion Michael “Mouse” Karmiche to perhaps the brightest of NYWC’s congregation of young stars, Leonardo Blackstone (known to his mother as Alex Coughlin), along with every barnstorming Joey Conway (née Blanchard) in between. The odds of making it to WrestleMania without buying a ticket may be increasingly low, and these wrestlers know it. But each of them sees this as a viable career worth pursuing. In 2018, the possibility seems more real than ever.

Just like Bull, they caught the wrestling bug and never shook it. “I remember I went over to my friend’s house, and he watched wrestling. Of course, he got to pick what was on TV, so I sat there and watched it,” Coughlin said. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was Mankind, the first guy I really saw in the ring, and, ever since then, he’s been my favorite. He’s the guy who got me into it and, of course, he’s a fellow Long Island guy, so that’s just icing on top of the cake.”

But while Mick Foley jumped off houses and lost half an ear in a foreign country in a roundabout journey to working the biggest shows in the industry, the backstage door to the WWE now has a flashing neon sign pointing to it. Young performers no longer have to work their way through the quagmire of collegiate sports and exploding barbed wire deathmatches or, worst of all, being subject to the whims of a promoter (and their often pliable relationship with the truth, especially when it comes to payout). Young performers can find what might be their big break by simply responding to online ad.

There have been online ads for wrestling schools as long as there have been, well, ads online. It’s a virtual pyramid of talent development: Click here to apply to your local rasslin’ school. Then the select few who make it through look for the next place to click, all with the same one or two destinations in mind. What’s changed is that those destinations have now embraced the click as a meaningful recruiting tool themselves.

“I saw on New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s website that they were doing a camp and I had to sign up immediately. I knew it was too good of an opportunity to pass up,” Blackstone said as a change in inflection emphasized the almost ethereal nature of the experience for him. “I went out there for a week. It was five straight days of training under Katsuyori Shibata-san. I can’t even put into words exactly how that went. It was awesome, absolutely awesome.”

That Blackstone’s invite to the camp was subject to him being over 18 and in good health was beside the point, as it affords performers the opportunity to audition for their organizations of choice and learn from their sanctioned instructors to gain insight into what exactly they are looking for. For those lucky few who make an impression, it’s not impossible for it to lead to a more honest shot with the company.

Nearly every promotion—including NYWC, which has developed nearly every significant post-Foley Long Island performer, including Curt Hawkins, Zack Ryder, Trent Barreta, and Tony Nese, at their academy—now has an online component of its talent-procurement process. For some, the world of Shin Nihon Puroresu is the goal. For others, it’s the home of the wrestling they grew up with.

For them, there’s good news: Even WWE recently began touting a flashy recruitment site as the primary point of entry for its Performance Center, which seems to be working as intended for both sides. Thousands of applications have come in after only two months, according to WWE, and the site looks to play an important role in the organization’s recruitment for tryouts, particularly for international performers.

The days of strict shibboleth are long gone, and innovations in recruitment on the biggest stages are breaking down the gates that were built around wrestling rosters nearly a century prior. For years, the biggest hurdle to getting into the business was getting on the inside—and finding a trainer willing to “smarten you up” about the inner workings of the pseudo-sport.

Today, the veil of unreality has been lifted, but the barriers are just starting to wither away. As Conway, a custom car builder when he’s not flexing for the crowds around the country, said, “Wrestling is really into itself. There are a lot of guys who hold stuff back, are holding ideas back. I’m not saying this company does it or any people specifically do it, but sometimes they don’t tell you this is how you do this.”

The rise of independent wrestling as a road to the WWE—which started back when the idea of getting meaningful traction by applying online was about as ridiculous as the thought of Daniel Bryan, Kevin Owens, and Sami Zayn appearing in marquee matches at WrestleMania—was what first left the door ajar. Then came an increased spotlight on performers from nontraditional backgrounds and of nontraditional shapes and sizes, along with a shift from pure Grecian spectacle to a kind of sublimely athletic interpretative dance. Though not everyone is quite ready to call themselves Isadora Duncan just yet.

“People like throwing the word ‘art’ around when it comes to wrestling, and, while I agree with it, without psychology, you’re not going to get that emotional investment from the audience. So, to me, wrestling is a science,” Bull said. “But also, in this building,” he gestured toward the ring beside us, “King Mega grabbed mine and Joey Ryan’s dongs, so I’m on both sides of the fence.”

That dong-grabbing highlights, in its own weird way, Bull’s creativity. Or at least his openness to new experiences that often come with the job. One night you’re getting your dong grabbed, the next you’re simulating “waterboarding” with a beer growler in a match against a deathmatch specialist. (It was at a recent beer festival event in Brooklyn, so you could say it was a festive waterboarding.)

But James has no fear that such content will prevent him from making it back to the WWE promised land, nor does he believe anyone applying online should worry about it either. To him, spots like that are just part of the show.

It’s not that nothing’s off limits, though, especially as NYWC’s YouTube channel’s recent relaunch will mean that everything it does going forward will recorded for posterity. And in an age when you can apply online, your résumé—the playlist of YouTube videos of your matches—isn’t as easy to fudge as, say, your graduation date. Just like those drunk Facebook photos you posted in college that you hope your future employer will never see, a wrestling prospect has to maintain a certain commercial viability if they want to make it to the Show.

“Look, there’s certain things you just can’t do,” Bull said. “Yeah, I ‘waterboarded’ Casanova Valentine, but that was at a beer festival. They weren’t really wrestling fans. It’s knowing your audience. There are still very strict things that I won’t do, because I know it’s not the WWE way. I won’t choke anyone. If I’m in a mixed tag match, I will not put my hands on a woman. I won’t even advance towards her, because it’s a very strict WWE thing that I adhere to.”

Breaking taboos is less of a concern for Mouse as his aspirations are elsewhere, or, more accurately, everywhere. “For me, actually, my goal isn’t really a specific destination. One of the things that always appealed to me with wrestling was always traveling. Whether it be the WWE or I get to the level where I can do that on the independents, seeing the world, that’s my end game.”

Samantha Cohen, who works under the name Terra Calaway, believes success outside the ring matters just as much as what happens inside the ropes. A focus on community is fairly prevalent among female performers on the independent scene, she said. Or at least it is for half of them. “There’s a very thick line: one-half that want to get to the top, and the other half who want to use their status and platform to do things.”

The manner in which the 5-foot-10 Cohen—who runs Dropkick Depression, a group she founded that books and promotes wrestling shows to raise money for mental health awareness—made her observation seemed to indicate that such choices are necessary for success in a business unable to move past preconceived notions of what a female star is “supposed” to look like.

The WWE has made strides to embrace body positivity and diversity on the men’s side without dwelling on it for every single performer who doesn’t conform to expectations. But most of what has happened on the women’s end of things has felt like lip service at its best and an exploitative monetization scheme at worst. Until the female version of a Samoa Joe or Kevin Owens—normal-looking people whose looks in no way jibe with the aspirational attractiveness that the WWE has long traded in—makes it without “not fitting into preconceived notions of attractiveness” becoming a core part of their character’s identity, it’s hard to take anything the WWE says regarding the subject seriously.

Cohen’s tag partner later that evening, the aforementioned Joey Conway, said there is one way in which men still have to deal with the similar kind of cookie-cutter expectations in wrestling that women face: their height.

He sees the ease of applying online to major wrestling companies as a way for performers to follow in the footsteps of smaller superstars like Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles without the decade of bingo hall hopping or TNA booking that they had to sludge through. “They might be looking for a guy who is 5-foot-9, just a jacked-out-of-his-mind dude. Sometimes those guys are like, ‘I can’t make it to the WWE.’ It’s a nice way to get people who wouldn’t normally get to that point in there.”

Conway, who at 6-foot-2 has likely never had to personally deal with height as an impediment, aspires to the top of the WWE. But it doesn’t appear as though he would be heartbroken if he never gets to that point and is, at the very least, fine taking his time getting there. “I would love to be main-eventing WrestleMania, holding one of their titles, whichever one. But there’s levels of independent wrestling, and I’m at the bottom. I’m at the point where I just want to be good, to be considered to a good worker. I want to be the guy who climbs the ladder.”

This big-picture attitude that permeates the locker appears to be a function of solidarity among the performers, which doesn’t exist in most other creative pursuits despite also existing in a world of constant, nearly instantaneous feedback. That the feedback comes first from excited crowds probably helps, as does the ever-present notion that what they do requires constant teamwork to make the dream work—and prevent anyone from getting hurt.

I don’t want to speak for other locker rooms,” said Mouse, “but one of the things I love about the NYWC locker is that when people come through the curtain, one of the first questions that just about everyone asks is, ‘Do you have any critiques?’”

Bull remembers a similar mentality among his NXT peers on the road and at the Performance Center. “You’re trying to outdo each other every night as far as reactions go in the ring. But it doesn’t mean, ‘You got a better reaction than me, I hate you’. It’s like, ‘No, awesome, I’m going to do better tomorrow.’”

The night of the NYWC event, after the crowd had filed in, the concession stand had opened and the besuited ring announcer had begun his slow descent into heat exhaustion, the quiet and well-mannered people I had met earlier completely transformed into their most performative selves. In the first marquee match of the night, Calaway, in dinosaur-themed gear she makes herself, and Conway, whose gear is unsurprisingly but still charmingly mechanic-inspired (and, according to him, almost comically sweat-inducing), work an intergender tag match against current Lucha Underground announcer–former WWE superstar–NYWC legend Matt Striker and his teammate, NYWC performer Tinder Tom.

With Calaway’s gear and accompanying tyrannical mannerisms, the appearance of beloved NYWC extended family member Striker, and the comedic stylings of Conway, the quartet were able to get an overheated crowd rolling for the rest of the show, one that was almost stolen by Manbun and Való’s work that left the crowd hungry for more from the wise-beyond-their-years performers.

Mouse retained his title after coming out dressed like a Dickensian orphan with a mean streak in a match that felt good to know came from somewhere outside of his darkest thoughts. Or as good as you’d feel watching someone literally bite people while running around in between monkey flips. Bull was less lucky in his NYWC Championship defense that closed the show, losing to the King Mega in a match with little to no dong-grabbing despite Mega’s history. There was, however, a considerable amount of action after the final bell, as it became clear that a confluence of story lines were being established to ratchet up the tension for a blowoff likely to happen later this year.

It was Coughlin, though, who encountered the highest stakes. For what was his final company match for the time being, he worked a “Cuffed-and-Caged Loser Leaves Town” match, a bout wherein you can be declared victorious only after cuffing both of your opponents to the cage itself. He did so alongside tag partner Michael Mistretta against his rivals, Iri$h and J-Redd, in a match as ridiculous to watch as it likely will be to read (and definitely was to write) about.

The opening salvo saw Alex, as Leo Blackstone, attempt to simultaneously drown and electrocute one of his opponents in a storage bin filled with water and a toaster. But the highlight of the match was a remarkable feat of strength that explained why Coughlin seems to be on his way to such a bright future: Despite being roughly 15 minutes into the contest, he bent over and grabbed his split-legged, face-down opponent around the waist and somehow deadlifted him until they were both perpendicular to the canvas while facing the kennel cage set up just outside the ring’s southwest corner.

Then he carried his opponent across the ring and slammed him face-first into a table set up in the corner. The table didn’t break, as is its wont. It was a bittersweet moment for Coughlin’s last major spot in the company (outside of being hit with kendo sticks while cuffed to a cage). Although he got his start working in the Sportatorium, his path will not be through Deer Park but Los Angeles, where he has won the right to train at the NJPW dojo full time. Or it will be through someplace else, another click for another submission online.

Even in the face of competition more fierce than the industry has ever seen as worldwide recruitment ramps up, it’s a journey he said he looks forward to. “It validates the people the people who actually make it there even more, because it’s a wider pool of talent they are selecting from—to get picked out of a thousand faces instead of a hundred and not have it be based on who you know.”

He’s ready to expect the unexpected. “You know that you’re not going to be comfortable in your house every night. As long as you are prepared for that and you get used to it, I think if it’s your dream and it really is your passion, it’ll be worth it.”

Nick Bond (@TheN1ckster) hosts the How Wrestling Explains and Let’s Not Talk About Work podcasts.