Kneeling down in the ring, covered with droplets of sweat, I feel sure this is going to hurt.

AJ Gallant’s hulking frame looms behind me. He’s smiling – laughing almost – as his beefy arm locks around my throat.

“Where’s your expression?” Gallant chides. “This is supposed to hurt.”

“Then make it hurt,” I say.

He contracts his elbow and my neck feels like it’s being crushed. The blood drains from my face.

“Nice work,” he says, releasing his hold, then slapping my back. The color returns to my face as the dizziness fades.

Florida and wrestling go together like beer and cigarettes. Wrestling matches here draw capacity crowds, wrestling organizations are headquartered here, wrestlers live and work here. Best of all, there are wrestling schools located here. In theory, spending a week training to be a professional wrestler sounded exciting. And what better place to do it? Maybe I’d even have a cape and unitard by the end of it all.

Then reality intruded. Professional wrestling isn’t just smack talk, silly costumes and overly melodramatic plot lines. In fact, it requires discipline and dedication, and more than a little athleticism. It requires training. There are injuries involved. There is real blood. Love or hate the sport, wrestlers deserve your admiration, if not your respect.

The Federation X Wrestling studio is housed in a dingy warehouse space with a roll-up door near the intersection of Orange Avenue and Michigan Street. Inside, the lockers and a table are covered with the personal effects of the people who are here to learn the trade. “This isn’t LA Fitness,” Gallant says.

Most of the space is taken up by a large ring, which only appears to be swathed in soft red velvet. It’s actually made of unforgiving wood planks covered with a thin pad.

In the ring on a recent weeknight, some of the advanced wrestlers are lifting fellow wrestlers high in the air, then slamming them on the mat. Despite the staged violence, everyone at the school is friendly, taking turns introducing themselves and shaking hands. (This was lesson No. 1: Skipping the welcome handshake insinuates poor sportsmanship or cockiness.)

When it’s my turn to get in the ring, I’m sure my heart is beating outside my chest. Happily, the first step doesn’t involve being pummeled into the mat. Instead, my fellow students and I follow Egberto “Louis” Padilla, a soft-
spoken, mean-looking fellow student who gets us going on toe touches and twisting stretches. Then Gallant leads us outside to run a long lap around the warehouse complex. I end up walking the last part, wishing I’d stayed home. Padilla jogs slowly beside me. The group leaves no one behind.

One of the new students – a heavyset man with a wild brown mop of curls – heads to the bushes to barf. “Just don’t puke on the air conditioning unit,” says Gallant.

The heavyset dude wipes his mouth and the warm-up continues: 50 squats, 25 push-ups and 50 jumping jacks. I’m dizzy and sweating and not excited to learn that we’ll be repeating all the exercises twice before heading inside. By the end I’m doubled over, panting, dripping sweat and wondering what compelled me to think I had even a slight chance of surviving a week as a wrestler.

Back inside, it’s finally time to learn something about how to wrestle. Lesson No. 2: entering the ring. The right way to do it, Gallant explains, is to wipe your feet, then push the middle rope down with both hands while leaning over and pulling your right leg in. Then you look toward the opponent’s corner to make sure no one is coming and toss your left leg between the ropes. You’re in.

It’s ring time. Each student does a series of five “bumps,” a core wrestling maneuver upon which many others are built. To bump, you fall flat on your back from a standing position, landing with the weight distributed across your back, feet in the air and head lifted.

The puker goes first. Outside the ring, he mentioned that learning to wrestle has been a lifelong dream. Inside the ring, he looks nervous and sick.

Newbie wrestlers are asked to grab and hold their shirts before attempting a bump to help support their heads when they fall backward. The puker tries this method, but only manages to land on his tailbone and slam his head into the mat. It looks brutal. The next few tries are better, though getting up proves more and more difficult for him. “Get up! Get up!” the other students yell.

When the puker says he doesn’t have another bump in him, Gallant gets in his face. “Do you want to be a wrestler?” he yells.

“Yes, sir! I want to be a wrestler!” the puker answers, then gets to his feet for another try.

I’m still out of breath from the calisthenics when Gallant motions me to the ring, an amused smile on his face. Being last meant I had the benefit of watching the others. I take a deep breath, grip my shirt and throw myself backward. The next sensation is one of searing pain as my head hits the floor and bounces.

“That was awesome!” Gallant says.

The next three bumps don’t go as well, and by the last one I have a headache, a sore back and a queasy stomach. Gallant lets me climb out of the ring to splash water on my face.

There are lots of fake reactions to the tosses, bumps, kicks and hits as practice continues. It looks real. The beginner’s falls definitely hurt. But veterans claim they don’t feel the pain, only a lingering soreness after class.

Later we take another shot at the bumps and I manage not to hit my head on the final try. Then there are a few mock matches for the more experienced beginners, punctuated by colorful anecdotes from Gallant. He talks about peeing in a bottle in a speeding car to save time on the way to a match. He talks about wrestling a guy who wore his pants low, “gangster style.” As Gallant lifted his opponent overhead, his shorts fell down. “All that was left was to have fun with him,” Gallant says. He gave the man a super-wedgie and spun him in a circle by the waist of his briefs. Moral of the story: Tie your shorts.

Finally it’s 10 p.m. and the beginner’s wrestling course is over. As I hobble out to my car, a couple of students tell me I’d done really well. But I won’t be quitting my day job.

Gallant is sizable and muscled, and wears a dark ponytail. In the ring he projects an air of confidence. In a past life he was a guitarist who toured with several hair metal bands; you’d recognize the names, but he isn’t allowed to use them to promote his school.

Fourteen years ago, the 37-year-old California native tired of the rock lifestyle and moved to Central Florida to pursue his dream of becoming a professional wrestler.

“I was 135 pounds soaking wet,” he says. “I definitely was not the healthiest person in the world after years being a rock star. A lot of people think you can just become a wrestler – that you can just step in the ring and do it. You have to re-create yourself where you fall and don’t catch yourself, plus there’s the art of storytelling.”

He spent two years training in a backyard ring, an experience that motivated him to open his own school. He never learned some basics of the business in the back yard, things like marketing, sportsmanship, ring etiquette and the proper way to pull off essential maneuvers.

Eventually he left Central Florida for San Antonio and a chance to train with professional wrestler Shawn Michaels. Three months later the offers were coming in, so Gallant headed out on the road, wrestling at indie shows under the stage name “Viper” for more than a year.

He began doing “dark matches,” the warm-up bouts intended to fire up the crowd before the live televised portion, for World Championship Wrestling, a professional wrestling promoter. WCW came forward with a development contract, but a serious ankle injury squashed that notion. Gallant was out for 18 months.

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While touring, Gallant spent much of his free time instructing other wrestlers. “I wanted to train guys how to do it right the first time,” he says. He opened FXE five years ago because he says the area lacked a serious training facility. For the last three consecutive years Pro Wrestling Illustrated, the industry’s largest magazine, has ranked FXE the No. 1 school in the nation.

Most wrestlers train in the school’s 15-month program before actively looking for work. Students typically train three nights per week for at least three hours; some train five days a week. Advanced students and trainers also perform in monthly Crush Live! shows that FXE hosts. (The next show will be held 8 p.m. Saturday, April 19, at the Ferncreek National Guard Armory, 2809 S. Ferncreek Ave.) The cost to train at FXE varies, but most students pay a $100 down payment and $100 every other week to cover training.

After learning the trade, students can pick up work with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, headquartered at Universal Studios, or World Wrestling Entertainment, which has its main talent training facility in Tampa. WWE, a publicly traded sports entertainment company focused on wrestling, brings in the bulk of its revenue from live touring shows, weekly televised events, pay-per-views, DVD sales and product licensing. WWE is the primary U.S. wrestling promoter. Smaller pro wrestling promoter TNA does not feature touring shows, instead promoting live Orlando shows and televised matches on Spike TV.

While Gallant can’t guarantee trainees a job, several of his former students have signed with WWE or TNA. Former FXE student Michael Jarvi signed a contract with WWE in October. Several current and former students have worked for TNA, including personalities Jhon “Simon Sez” Builes, Hector “Don Kiko” Augusto and Jonathon “Grover” Orsoreo. Trainers Ricky Vega and J.P. Ace also work for TNA.

“There’s a lot to it. It’s not as easy as people think,” says Gallant. He sometimes turns away students he thinks don’t have the drive, determination or “heart” to make it in the business. “This isn’t a boys’ camp.”

By the second lesson, two days later, I’m still so sore that I almost skipped work because getting to the office involves climbing a flight of stairs. My legs ache. My back is sore and I feel beat up.

But Gallant welcomes me back. The other two newbies don’t make it in, but there is a larger crowd here, maybe a dozen or so. I had tried to psych myself up but my confidence is fleeting, seeping out on the walk into the studio.

This time I finished the run, but it was followed by 150 squats, 90 crunches and 75 push-ups. Once inside I actually feel OK, just out of breath.

Padilla says I’m doing better than most women who have trained here. (Gallant says he only trains women who are serious about wrestling because he’s had issues with controlling boyfriends and other drama.)

There’s no first-timer treatment on the bumps this time; they have to be done the right way, with arms extended. The first one goes fine and I don’t hit my head. And the next few are better still.

“Yeah!” Gallant yells from ringside. “That’s it! I told you you’d get it!”

I finally have it down. And it doesn’t hurt. Much.

Next we work on running the ropes, a technique used to help fling yourself from one side of the ring to the other. It felt like taking a break.

As the advanced beginners begin throwing each other around on the mat, another trainer, Dylan Knight, rounds up a small group of students and demonstrates a hold commonly seen at the beginning of a match, in which two wrestlers grasp each other by the neck and scowl. The trick is to grab lightly but make it look fierce. After a few tries, I was feeling it.

After another round of bumps, we scatter into the corners of the rings, just outside the ropes. (There’s a decent chance of getting knocked down when standing outside the corners, since wrestlers often bounce against the ropes.) Practice matches are beginning, and an older man who goes by the name Sammy J and regularly referees when the school does its Crush Live! performances climbs into the ring to administer the match. He watches the pair inside the ring intently for illegal holds. And of course he sees them; wrestlers often purposely perform moves they know will make the matches more exciting.

A couple minutes later Sammy J leans up against the corner of the ring, acting bored and pretending not to see illegal moves. He’d rather chat about his long history in the business.

He’s been in this game since 1974, he says, working for WCW and the National Wrestling Association. He was initially attracted to the sport after befriending a wrestler and later working shows, but stayed because wrestlers are like a second family to him.

He lets me in on a little trade secret: Part of his job over the years was training wrestlers to cut themselves, or “juice,” to make the matches bloody. He stashed a blade in his boots to slice open wrestlers too squeamish to do it themselves.

“We would have some wrestlers who were afraid to hurt themselves, so I would take a razor blade and go in and rub their forehead,” he says.

As you probably suspected, it was all planned out in advance. In fact, wrestlers would often take a handful of aspirin and drink coffee or beer before juicing to thin their blood, the idea being to increase the blood flow and “show a lot of color.” There’s an art to this as well. “The whole idea was that you don’t want to cut in the wrong spot because the blood will just gush out,” Sammy J tells me.

Usually Wednesdays are character development nights – time for wrestlers to work on in-ring personas and practice with a mic in front of video cameras. But this Wednesday, the last half-hour of practice is taken up with photos of Vega, the Puerto Rican International Wrestling Association champion, also a trainer with FXE. Vega, who previously wrestled as “Machete” for WWE and TNA and jokingly calls himself “an international man of mystery,” brought in his oversized title belt for shots with trainers and students. It’s something for aspiring students to shoot for.

The origins of wrestling as scripted theater date to the late 1800s, when staged displays of athletic strength became popular at carnival sideshows. Beyond sideshows, wrestling was still viewed as a legitimate sport – not entertainment – until the 1920s.

Over the years theatrics and “kayfabe,” or fakery, were added to the matches. By the 1940s and ’50s, some wrestlers began to enjoy local popularity by ratcheting up the antics.

By the 1960s independent circuits had begun to spring up. Promoters held weekly matches. Successful wrestlers could work with different promoters and find matches at several events each week. It became a paying job.

By the 1970s, a number of wrestling champions began to emerge in Florida – notably Dusty Rhodes, wrestler and promoter Eddie Graham, the Brisco Brothers, Kevin Sullivan, Barry Windham, Lex Luger and Rocky Johnson, father of former WWE wrestler the Rock.

“In the old days it was a territory concept,” says Gerald Brisco, who began wrestling professionally in Florida in 1968, including weekly matches at the old University of Central Florida arena. Brisco, half of the Brisco Brothers with his brother, Jack, became a dominant force with Championship Wrestling from Florida in the 1970s. The duo won more than two dozen tag-team titles, including three as the National Wrestling Association world tag-team champions in 1983 and 1984.

Back then there was no marketing machine or national network ratings to determine if a wrestler had developed a following.

“In the beginning we didn’t even have contracts,” says Brisco. “The promoter took you in for a trial of about six months. They would wait and see if the public responded by watching ticket sales. If you did not sell tickets, you had to pack your bags. It was a rough life.”

In 1984, the Briscos sold their majority stake in Georgia Championship Wrestling to WWE (known as WWF then), which is generally seen as the first move toward a near monopoly for the WWE. Brisco still works with WWE as a talent producer, occasionally stepping into the ring and winning titles such as the pair of Hardcore Championships he won in 2000. On March 29, he was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame, an honorary designation given to prestigious wrestlers, during a packed Orlando WrestleMania show.

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It wasn’t until the 1980s, with the rise of cable television, that professional wrestlers became stars. Modern professional wrestling has become specialized, highly physical entertainment. While it features simulated punches, strikes and grappling, and a winner predetermined by the promoters (though star wrestlers sometimes have input), wrestlers still risk real injuries.

“A lot of the moves have changed,” says Brisco. “There are more pure wrestlers who are doing more high-risk moves from the tops of the ropes. It may be scripted but the risk factors of these moves are so great that the injury rate is almost catastrophic.”

WWE airs two nationally televised weekly events, Raw and SmackDown. Both earn top ratings. DVDs, pay-per-view matches, video games featuring big-name wrestlers and an explosion of merchandising has only helped wrestlers become a part of pop culture. The Rock is a legit actor, and female wrestler Torrie Wilson is in Playboy.

Wrestling is popular everywhere. But it’s crazy popular in Florida.

“Florida wrestling has pockets of generational fans that are very knowledgeable about the sport and the industry,” Brisco says. “On the West Coast and in other parts, the fans are not as knowledgeable, but they enjoy what they see. In Florida, it’s set so deep in tradition. It’s considered the Mecca of professional wrestling.”

Brisco says Orlando specifically holds a special place for many wrestlers because “it was one of the ones where we did the best. The city has always been very kind.”

With the sale of a failed reincarnation of Championship Wrestling from Florida in the 1990s, WWE had bought out all of the major circuits. Wrestling became more popular than ever. No other league is able to compete with WWE, though TNA has gained some traction. For wrestling, the ’90s was a boom period.

“It became cool to be a wrestling fan,” says Vito DeNucci, an FXE trainer and co-host of local wrestling and mixed martial arts radio show Between the Ropes on ESPN’s 1080-AM. “You saw athletes hanging out ringside. That was the period where people didn’t have to hide it.”

These days, says DeNucci, there is almost too much info available about wrestling. “The mystique was gone,” DeNucci says. “Everyone knows guys are working together on moves and that there was a scripted ending. Back then there was still a mystique. The Internet damaged everything. Back in the day it was a mystery – everyone thought that was Hulk Hogan’s real name.”

As the final day of training rolls around I’m feeling more confident and only moderately sore. The warm-up exercises are tolerable; the winded feeling is gone. But after 15 bumps I’m exhausted and repeatedly banging my head on the floor again.

I step out of the ring to catch my breath. Freddie Blankenship, known around FXE as the guy who is always eating, is gobbling a sandwich he’d set on top of dusty shelves. He simply grins as Gallant walks by shaking his head, murmuring, “He’s always eating.”

It’s match time. Paul “Jalapeño” Reyes, a lanky wrestler whose in-ring persona radiates sarcasm, starts out in what ultimately becomes a big tag-team match.

“What should I do with him?” Reyes asks, still in character as his opponent pretends to writhe around on the floor in pain.

“Take him down,” I demand.

He slowly bobs his head, giving his opponent the chance to milk his performance with a sneak-up-from-behind attack. Then they’re back at it again, smacking each other with slaps and punches across the chest, tossing each other in the air, grappling and nabbing with leg and headlocks.

“What are ya looking at, huh?” antagonizes Simon Sez, who never wrestles without his trademark knee-high green striped socks
and his lime-green jacket, taunting from the corner.

Sammy J joins in as ref. Gallant reminds Carlos Alvarez, at 17 one of the youngest wrestlers, about reacting naturally and letting his own personality come through. Alvarez is playing a “babyface,” or good guy. Padilla is playing a heel. “It’s not trying to be someone you’re not,” Gallant reminds him.

Alvarez and Padilla are throwing each other around like rag dolls, emerging from the ring 15 minutes later drenched with sweat.

Outside the ring, Alvarez says he grew up with wrestling and was always intrigued
with it.

“It’s what I thought it would be,” he says, “tough and hard.”

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