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Making a Monster: Danny Cage’s Pro Wrestling School Enters the Spotlight

Meet the man behind the New Jersey–based pro wrestling school that is the subject of a new Apple TV+ docuseries on the journey to (hopefully) becoming a wrestling superstar

Apple TV+/Ringer illustration

“It takes time. It takes fucking time.” Danny Cage doesn’t believe you can air-fry success. The Apple TV+ six-episode reality show on his Monster Factory wrestling school is about to debut, but the foundation for the project was laid almost a decade ago. In 2015, a team of photographers he’d met, completely unfamiliar with pro wrestling, came out to the school to shoot a two-to-three-minute sizzle reel. One day of shooting became two, and two became three; by the time they got to day five, they knew the project would be longer than some cut-rate car insurance commercial. The result was a 16-minute mini-documentary covering Cage’s students, his philosophy, and what is being built: confidence and work ethic. “Yeah, you’re not seeing the epic scene of Reservoir Dogs when they’re all walking slow motion in their suits. You’re not getting that feel and that vibe from any documentary nowadays or any reality show. And like, this was it. It had its own soundtrack. It had feeling. It didn’t paint wrestling as trash. It was like what wrestling needed and should get. But a lot of people [were] like, ‘We’ll just go for the click,’ so they have to make it surreal and salacious and all that shit. And this wasn’t like that.”

The mini-doc immediately introduces viewers to Lucas “Twitch” DiSangro, a student who started training in 2014. What starts as your usual “I came from nothing” promo soon morphs into so much more. Twitch talks about not having the physique of former Monster Factory students turned AEW wrestlers Preston Vance and Nick Comoroto, but he says his confidence can’t be shaken. He also describes how he was on the verge of suicide until CM Punk dropped his infamous pipe bomb.

What follows is an intertwining of people of all genders, ethnicities, and sizes collectively pushing themselves to be more in this converted warehouse in Paulsboro, New Jersey, all under the tutelage of someone who’s seen their slow burns turn into wildfires. There’s a practicality in Cage’s methods. Vance, then using the first name Cody instead of Preston, planned on graduating college the same weekend the Factory’s next camp was beginning. He let Cage know he’d likely attend the ceremony. Without arguing, without yelling, Cage simply asked, “Is this what you always wanted to do?” to which Vance replied, “Yes.” Cage then asked, “If someone offered you tickets to the Super Bowl, would you turn those down for the graduation?” Vance was at the camp Friday, and according to Cage, he became one of their best students within a month.

Inclusion is a practice, not a parade. Very rarely is it done perfectly. Many people stop at the bare minimum, but true inclusion goes beyond that. After purchasing the school in 2011, Danny Cage took a while to embrace variance, to emphasize individuality, but it’s been rewarding for him in a way that he feels has improved his life. “I remember [when I started training], I was like one of those gatekeepers, where I was like, ‘No, you have to look like this. You have to be like that. You have to do this. And if you don’t, you don’t want it, and you’re a piece of shit.’ And then I was just like, ‘I got to meet all these different people that were interested in wrestling and trying out and doing all these things.’ And I was like, ‘Man, could you imagine missing out on meeting these people and these people missing out on their dream just because they weren’t lucky enough to be born over 6 foot and 200 pounds?’”

The talks of turning the Monster Factory short into a full series went back and forth, but Cage thinks the turning point was when the producers’ surprise turned into support. “This guy, Jeremiah Zagar, ... he’s on the project, and he just wants to meet you. He actually doesn’t think you exist, honestly, because these guys had such a preconceived notion of pro wrestling that they were surprised to see me and my company so open to transgender, gay, white, Black, Latino, every mix, everything, every shape, every size, every age. And they were just surprised to see that. So Jeremiah comes out, and I have no idea who he is. Whenever I meet somebody, I never want to know anything about [them] because I don’t want to ever try to treat anybody more special than the next person.” Zagar’s most recent project, the feature film Hustle, was executive-produced by LeBron James and earned Adam Sandler a Screen Actors Guild nomination for best actor. After meeting Cage’s family, Zagar told Cage how excited he’d be to make a larger project. While they were all out at a bar, Zagar stepped away to the bathroom, and the crew let Cage know that Zagar’s desires were more than just small talk and spitballing. “They’re like, ... if Jeremiah is this excited about it, ... you pretty much have a show, and it’s just a matter of time.”

Coach Cage’s focus on patience, execution, and not taking shortcuts was put to the test when the pandemic brought shooting to a halt. “Once everybody started getting sick, everything was in a holding pattern. Probably a year into the pandemic, Apple is still like, ‘We’d love [the] show.’ … I’m telling you all this because I think this is the most interesting part of this whole fucking thing is how it came to be. So they are like, ‘We’re going to fly people out to your school. I know you’re in shutdown, but we’re going to test everybody. Only three people can be on set at times. And everybody has to be in the mask other than the people being shot.’ … They made the seven-minute unbelievable sizzle reel with just the most amazing cuts and concepts and shit. And Apple loved it. And they kept on just saying, ‘We’re going to see, we’re going to see, we’re going to see.’ It wasn’t until July 31, 2021, and I got a call from my buddy Will [Crouse], who’s one of the producers. And he’s just like, ‘Hey, man, they want you to call this number.’ So I call up, and all these Apple executives are on the phone, apparently. And they’re just like, ‘Dan, we just want you to know that, congratulations, you have yourself a TV show.’”

“Betting on yourself” is often presented as something like taking a one-year deal to secure a five-year deal or signing with a team after you’ve made your money to add a championship to your résumé. In wrestling, it can mean giving up the stability you’ve built to make good on your desires. It’s Mercedes Moné deciding to step away from WWE and her Sasha Banks moniker and expand her wrestling résumé by signing with New Japan Pro-Wrestling. It’s Cody Rhodes helping establish All Elite Wrestling, then returning to WWE to push for his family’s first world championship under that imprint.

Cage quite literally risked his home and happiness to see this project come to fruition. He had to choose between keeping up with the rent at the Monster Factory or paying his mortgage. He fell behind nearly $30,000 on his house but finally recouped that once the most recent TV contracts were signed. He got a text during filming from his now-deceased mother on her cancer diagnosis. He didn’t intend for the show to be so personal, but those moments would also occur, in a more joyous light, for the students on the show. He really appreciated the respect with which the show handled those moments, stressing their delicacy and authenticity. “So here I am, 20 months without paying a mortgage. It’s over $30,000 I’m owing, and I’m just terrified. But I was like, ‘This is what I have to do.’ I have to gamble it all, because if I go ahead and I just pay my mortgage and I take care of what everyone says—I got to do what’s in my best interest—then we don’t have a TV show, and we don’t have these life-changing things that are about to happen, like, in the next couple of months. And that’s the surreal thing about this. Because we signed July 31, we didn’t have a contract [until] the day before my birthday, December 18. I cried. … My mom was in [the series], and she passed away with cancer. So as soon as I found out that she had cancer during filming, we found out, like, the diagnosis live. I was on the phone with [AEW/ROH announcer] Ian Riccaboni. I hung up, and the text message comes through about my mom. So you see that on film. They capture me just, like, starting to cry, and I walk away, and I’m getting emotional now. … And they did it tastefully. It wasn’t like horrible music. You know what I mean? It wasn’t exploitative. It was tasteful, and it was good.”

The faces have changed, but what makes the students stand out has not. Vance and Comoroto are involved in story lines on Dynamite and Rampage. Former student Damian Priest has held multiple championships in WWE and is part of one of their most popular factions, the Judgment Day. Along with Twitch, Monster Factory follows standout acts like Notorious Mimi, who was briefly signed to WWE’s NXT imprint under the name Sloane Jacobs. You see the moment she learns she’s signed to WWE, as well as her initial trip to begin training in Florida. You’re introduced to the always-smiling Bobby Buffet, the Monster Factory’s longest reigning champion, and his “Happy Meals and sex appeal” approach to his craft. David Goldschmidt, a.k.a. Goldy, is one of the most technically sound wrestlers the school has produced, and he talks enough trash mid-match to make sure you know it. Gabby Ortiz, the former Monster Factory Pro Wrestling women’s champion who has competed all over the country against some of the best male and female talent out there, rounds out the principal cast. While they’re all talented, it’s their commitment and focus that made them stand out during filming. It’s something not only Coach Cage recognized, but the crew as well. “It was awesome, but it was also exhausting. … I told all the students this was coming, and I said, ‘Prepare. Sacrifice yourself for the next six months so at least when it’s over, you can say that you gave it your best. Put off everything that you can, because if it was worth it now, it’ll be worth it in six months. But this is only here right now, and come on, step up.’ The only people that stepped up were my usual five people that were stepping up even before the show [was] here. The directors and producers told me, ‘Well, these guys quit. Do you want us to take them out?’ I was like, ‘No, put them in.’ I want them to see the opportunity they missed. I want people to be like, ‘How come you’re not there anymore?’ And [they’ll] have to say why they’re not there anymore, because they don’t get it. I’ll never understand that.”

There are two big takeaways from Cage’s training style, his encouragement, and his example: There isn’t one endgame in professional wrestling, and whatever the endgame is, it takes time. He’s had students sign with and/or compete for every major American promotion, like the previously mentioned Priest and Matt Riddle for WWE, Vance and Comoroto for AEW, and Steve Maclin for Impact Wrestling. He’s training champions, WrestleMania match winners, top merchandise sellers. But what you can be and, more importantly, what can be gained are not limited to advertisements or acronyms. He looks at Twitch, a kid whose life was quite literally saved by pro wrestling, and knows that his story, his path that plays out on the show, might do the same for someone else. “[Twitch] hopes this gives somebody hope because he wished that he saw somebody like himself coming up. That would give him hope because he has persevered, and he’s very good.” For all of his students, Cage says, “They’re at the Monster Factory because it’s like a sanctuary form. It’s a place to feel safe and to train and all this.” Cage’s emphasis on practice and growth, not as an endgame, but as an ongoing process, has made the Monster Factory a destination for the next generation of professional wrestlers, embedding in them that time is one of the most valuable assets we have.

Cameron Hawkins writes about pro wrestling, Blade II, and obscure ’90s sitcoms for Pro Wrestling Torch, Pro Wrestling Illustrated, and FanSided DDT. You can follow him on Twitter at @CeeHawk.