School of Hard Knocks

The Baltimore Sun

Teddy Stigma is smiling, which is a peculiar thing to do after a sunset flip powerbomb. He is flat on his back; his legs, encased in cherry red Spandex, are spread wide. Most of his body rests on a thin but ostensibly protective floor mat; his head, however, is on the rock-hard tile. He must have misjudged the height of the wrestling ring, or the strength of his own legs as they launched the airborne backward somersault that landed him here moments ago with a resounding smack.

The mistake doesn't matter - in fact, Teddy thinks, it sweetens the performance. "Teddy! Stigma!" the crowd of a couple hundred is screaming, some of them out of their folding chairs and on their feet. They've hated him passionately for the past 10 minutes or so, since he first rolled in under the bottom rope. But in professional wrestling, hate is a kind of worship, a form of love.

And no matter what, for guys like Teddy, it's better than being ignored.

His debut match had gone beautifully, from the monkey flip to the running shooting star. He'd slapped and headlocked his opponent beneath the hot lights, both of them so sweaty that their skin looked laminated. For those few minutes, he didn't feel like some two-bit boat boy. He felt immortal, and that feeling was worth the six months of late, late nights, the long commute, and every penny of the tuition he paid The Pain Factory pro wrestling school, which is affiliated with the Eastern Wrestling Alliance.

"Teddy! Stigma!" Is that just an echo in his aching head, or are they still yelling for him? They are. Everything hurts, but somehow it feels like heaven. He's trying to look dead, or at least seriously maimed, but the corners of his mouth keep twisting upward.

Teddy smiles.

On ordinary nights, when there's no match on, no spotlights, heavy metal music or promotional hype about The Bruiser beating on DJ Hyde, the Pain Factory looks like what it really is: a battered wrestling ring in an abandoned supermarket in Essex. The floor of the Baltimore area's only pro wrestling school is filthy, and some of the tiles are shattered. There is a lumpy mattress, a collapsed folding chair that may or may not have been smashed over somebody's head, and a pervasive fungal smell from the gym that the wrestling academy shares space with. Always the sound of weight-lifting spills over from the other side of the room, where weights crash and bodybuilders groan like the damned.

Not the wrestlers, though. They are cheerful and twitching with energy even after an acrobatic two-hour practice. It doesn't matter if they just got off the 7-to-7 shift. They leapfrog, flip and land on the spring-enforced mat with a sound like a thunderclap.

But athleticism isn't really the issue here. Successful wrestling is about harnessing a performer's personality, says Jim Hardwick, a former wrestler who owns the school. It's about amplifying a mean streak or a sweet demeanor to sell the choreography of the match, which is almost always based around a clash of dispositions, a bad guy and a good guy, the "heel" and the "babyface." That holds true not only in the farm leagues of the local tournaments where most of Hardwick's pupils land after a year or so of instruction, but also in the big time, the WWE. The psychological drama keeps the fans buying tickets, even though they know the violence is usually fake.

"Professional wrestling is a soap opera for men," Hardwick says.

And the need for self-expression is what motivates many of the young men, and several women, who flock to the Pain Factory night after night, where they not only perfect various ridiculous-sounding moves (the German suplex; the frog splash), but also cultivate a stage presence. They come to vent, to showboat.

The dozen or so who attend relish this chance. Most of the wannabees and rookies are in their early 20s, stuck in soul-crushing jobs where they are not so much mistreated as completely overlooked. They labor in steel plants and spice factories, where they mix the coating for Cheetos. They are grocery clerks, and the guys who slap stickers on windshields at car auction lots. No one asks their opinions. They are cogs in the machine.

Except from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Pain Factory, when they have the opportunity to emote - to shriek, stomp and debate what sort of stage makeup and theme music they'll pick for their debut match.

In this sense at least, the Pain Factory is less like Fight Club than community theater.

And, in the end, a lot of the fledgling wrestlers don't care if they ever make Hulk Hogan-sized salaries - so long as they can pay off their training and licensing, which comes to about $2,500, in $100 monthly installments. They just want an audience, any audience, even if it's only their peers.

"Hey, for somebody who's a night stocker in a grocery store, you get to be larger than life," says 21-year-old Shawn Webber, a pro who wrestles under the name Bruce Chan and trains at the Pain Factory. "And that's pretty cool."

Teddy Stigma certainly thinks so.

Becoming a natural

Of course, he wasn't always Teddy Stigma. Last winter, he was Teddy Venables, 19 years old and employed at a Kent Island boat yard where he spent his days power-washing barnacles off the bottoms of yachts, among other tasks.

"I see these rich white guys walk by me and my hands are cramped from polishing their boats, and they can't even crack a smile," he says.

Often, he felt bossed around and unappreciated. He was a college dropout who lived with his big brother and ate Hamburger Helper for dinner.

But he was also more than that. He read books. He had ideas, about himself and the world he lived in. And there was one thing that he felt sure about, and had ever since that day when he was 13, grappling with a buddy in the basement.

"It just dawned on me," he recalls. "I was meant to be an entertainer. I was born to be a wrestler."

For a long time, though, it seemed like that dream was down and out for the count. Nuisances like high school intervened. But last winter, working at the boat yard, Teddy decided to take a crack at it. He began his Pain Factory apprenticeship, driving an hour to Essex after work, practicing hard, then driving an hour and a half home. Even though he'd never needed it more, he canceled his health insurance, because he wanted the extra $63 every two weeks for gas money.

He was a natural heel. Hardwick sensed this almost immediately after meeting the muscular redhead with the wicked smile. Together, they fine-tuned his persona, helping Teddy tap into his darker side. He'd play it cooler his first few matches, but ultimately planned to style himself as an irascible communist who wore a hammer and sickle on his shorts, wrestled shirtless, and was an evil-tempered but a loyal advocate for the working man, including, perhaps, the proletariat of Eastern shore marinas.

His name would be Teddy Stigma.

For half a year Teddy practiced most nights and thought about wrestling many days more or less constantly.

Then came that magical Saturday night last month, the night of the sunset flip powerbomb and the sparkly red Spandex. His first professional match. The Pain Factory was all gussied up, and pretty girls - one of them named Kitten, who would later want to hold his hand - waltzed to and fro. A doctor checked him out, and he got the piece of paper that lets him compete not just in small-time Maryland tournaments, but any match in the country.

All of a sudden he was a licensed professional wrestler.

Heart of a champion

And yet, the change occurred more gradually than that. In the months leading up to the match, Teddy felt something peculiar happening inside of him, like a sea change of the soul.

Working at the boat yard, Teddy Venables started hearing Teddy Stigma's theme song - "Working Class," by Mad Max - in his head. He began to "cut promos," bragging about himself into an imaginary mike while painting the undersides of boats.

Then one scorching day during the summer, he felt the sudden urge to tear off his shirt. No matter how hot it was, having a bare chest was a clear violation of boat yard policy; management considered it "offensive." Teddy did it anyway, and waited there, naked to the waist, daring a boss to say something.

When one did, Teddy charged inside to have a chat with the big boss, and before long started shouting.

"Who's offended? Who's offended?" he remembers yelling.

Teddy Venables couldn't quite believe any of this was actually happening. But Teddy Stigma was in full control.

"Who's offended?" he cried again. And then (because Teddy Stigma is not a modest man) he screamed: "I'm built like a stallion!"

In the end, maybe the mastery of moments like this, rather than perfect moonsault or superkick technique, is what pro wrestling school gives a guy. It allows him the courage to perform outside the ring, against opponents who really matter. Maybe that's what all those late, late nights are for. To Teddy, the outburst felt wonderful, so wonderful in fact that it didn't matter later that day when the secretary giggled at him in the lunch room and said, "Hey, stallion."

Teddy stared down into his dish of leftover Hamburger Helper. And grinned.

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