No Holds Barred

It’s a long, tough road to the WWE, but for Virginia’s pro wrestlers, the promise of glory isn’t the only thing that keeps them in the ring training and competing night after night, year after year.They just love the sport.

Ryan Zane is in trouble. Flat on his back, his black hair splayed on the canvas mat, Zane is pinned yet again by his opponent, “The Underground” Jael Rose. The crowd hoots and hollers. Bright lights illuminate the ring. If the referee counts to three, Zane is finished.

Never mind that his real name is Ryan Zawadzki … that he spent most of this particular Saturday fretting over mechanical problems with his ’93 Honda Accord …. or that, come Monday, he’ll head back to work as an associate at the warehouse in Chester. Tonight he is “The Zaniac”—an ambitious member of Virginia’s close-knit professional wrestling community. He needs to get up off the mat. He has to win.

It’s not just a matter of pride. And it’s certainly not a matter of money (more on that later). Zane, 23, is an underdog—a “babyface” in wrestling parlance. He rarely beats the “heels,” or bad guys who taunt, posture and even cheat to win. Tonight could be different. Tonight, in front of dozens of fans gathered inside the cavernous King William Fire and Rescue station in rural Aylett, The Zaniac could surprise everyone with a victory.

Zane struggles to get up. His father, Scott Zawadzki, watches intently from a ringside seat. Over the whistling and the clapping and the shouting comes a little girl’s plea: “Let’s go, Ryan! Let’s go!”

High drama has always been central to professional wrestling. Mention wrestling and most people picture chair-wielding, smack-talking superstars from the heyday of the World Wrestling Federation (now the WWE). Colorful characters like Hulk Hogan, André the Giant and Jesse “The Body” Ventura ruled the ring in the mid-1980s and early ’90s.

Over time, the big question—is wrestling fake?—has lost its meaning. For countless fans, it’s real enough. Indeed, pro wrestlers participate in a highly physical, artful and risky activity. Although a match’s outcome is pre-determined, the path wrestlers take to its finish is not always choreographed in detail. Experienced wrestlers often improvise during a match by reading their opponents’ body language and exchanging murmured instructions in the clutch.

And just like their fans, performers are drawn to the drama. Wrestling has heroes and villains, rivalries and story arcs. It’s often referred to as a soap opera for guys—a living comic book.

“Wrestlers are like superheroes,” says Larry Horsley, whose Shacklefords-based Fusion Wrestling promoted the fire station event and features its own stable of wrestlers. “They have alter egos and colorful costumes they get into to do evil or to vanquish evil.”

And the story lines that stretch from match to match keep fans hooked, says Mark Myers, who wrestled as “The Dustman” Mark Anthony before founding the Southside School of Professional Wrestling six years ago in Virginia Beach. “They want to see the good guy win.”

Virginia has a tight-knit community of wrestlers. There are 528 professional wrestlers licensed by the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation as of last December. (The state requires a $40 fee and a statement certifying, among other things, that the applicant has the training or the “necessary experience to safely participate in the activity.”)

Though large WWE events, often held in arenas and coliseums, can generate millions of dollars in revenue for host cities, the economic impact of independent wrestling promotions is much less. Several events are staged monthly statewide, but each typically draws fewer than 200 attendees, and tickets generally cost less than $15.

But the small scale of the Virginia wrestling industry encourages an intimacy between performers and fans like retiree Helen Manning, who previously worked for Dollar General and who routinely catches wrestling matches in and around her home county of King and Queen.

“I’ve loved wrestling ever since I was little,” she says. “You follow the wrestlers’ stories. To me, they’re like a family.”

To join the family, many new wrestlers train for months or years at one of a handful of schools in Virginia, including Boogie’s Pro Wrestling Camp in Shawsville, which was founded in 1992 by WWE Hall of Famer Jimmy “The Boogie Woogie Man” Valiant. Wrestlers also choose their stage name, develop a public persona and perform live and on TV whenever possible.

TV is where it all started for Zane, who vividly recalls watching wrestling as a child in Quincy, Massachusetts after Saturday morning cartoons (his family moved to Virginia when he was 14). These days, at 5 feet 10 inches and 190 pounds, he accepts that he’s not WWE heavyweight material. But like so many young wrestlers, Zane still craves the national stage.

He just might make it. After all, Virginians who have made it to the WWE include Waynesboro’s David Cash, who wrestled as Kid Kash; Fairfax native Adam Birch, a.k.a. Joey Mercury; Burke native Bryan Kelly, who was a TV journalist before wrestling as Byron Saxton; Augusta County’s Maven Huffman, known by his first name in wrestling circles; and Richmond’s Orlando Jordan, who wrestles under his own name. On the women’s side, Hanover County native Mickie James won the WWE Women’s Championship five times before being released from her contract in 2010. She’s now focusing on her country music career and touring all over the country, and has served as a guest instructor at the WWE Performance Center in Florida.

Despite these precedents, Zane knows the road to the WWE is a steep climb. He’s competing with wrestlers across the country for a small number of WWE contracts. If they’re lucky, they’ll get to try out at the WWE’s training facility in Florida. Even luckier? They’ll land short-term contract work, wrestling or acting as security at a WWE event. Establishing a long-term relationship with the WWE is harder—but the chance to wrestle full-time is appealing.

“WWE is the pinnacle of our business,” says Fusion’s Horsley. “Guys love it or hate it, depending on whether they like the style of wrestling on TV nowadays. But that’s the only place you’re going to make your living wrestling and put bread on your table.”

And that’s the thing about professional wrestling at the independent regional level—the professional part is largely a misnomer. For most wrestlers in Virginia, the sport isn’t a career, but a passion they indulge outside of work. They spend their weekends performing in far-off venues for little or no cash, footing the bill for everything, including their costumes. And it takes a toll. As they readily admit, devoting so much time and money to wrestling can inflict wear and tear not just on their cars, but on their bodies, too—and on their relationships.

Chris Parkhurst started training as a wrestler at age 15. Now 30, he runs a painting and drywall company in Newport News and wrestles under the name Chris Escobar, most often for Yorktown-based Vanguard Championship Wrestling, which—like Fusion and other independent wrestling promotions—organizes wrestling events and later sells DVDs of the matches or posts them on YouTube.

For years, Parkhurst was like Zane—striving toward the WWE. He wrestled in Virginia, New Jersey, West Virginia, Tennessee, “anywhere that would have me.” His earnings just barely covered gas, hotels and food. But he landed a coveted WWE audition and was booked by Ring of Honor Wrestling Entertainment to perform in Barcelona. Then, while wrestling in 2009, he broke the tibia and fibula bones in his right leg—twice.

The first break occurred during a match in North Carolina. Parkhurst back-flipped off the middle rope toward the crowd and slammed his right shin against a metal guard rail. “The bone snapped in half,” he recalls. “It was disgusting.”

The second time, Parkhurst had just lifted his left foot onto the bottom rope so he could jump backward into the ring with his opponent in his grasp. Then he lost his balance. “My other leg never even left the mat,” he says. “It just shattered.”

Worst of all, Parkhurst was supposed to fake a leg injury during the performance. So at first, nobody believed that he had actually hurt himself. “I wrestled several more minutes in that match with a broken leg,” he says.

Parkhurst’s priorities have since shifted to his 4-year-old son, Chris Jr.,but he still enjoys wrestling—sometimes as a babyface, other times as a heel—even with a dozen screws and a metal plate in his leg.

“I’m in love with the art form,” he says. “When you’re able to tell a good story, there’s nothing else like it in the world.”

A similar passion kept Wayne Kostyal wrestling through hard times. Kostyal, who works for Parkhurst’s company by day, wrestles as Damien Wayne for the Southside School of Pro Wrestling.

A Hampton native, Kostyal started watching wrestling on TV when he was seven years old and would practice takedown moves with friends in his backyard. That spark of interest was still glowing when, at age 30, he stumbled upon the website of Virginia Championship Wrestling (the precursor to Vanguard).

Kostyal happily began training, but he quickly learned that wrestling is glamorous only inside the ring. It can mean performing three times a weekend in three different states. Kostyal has wrestled in Nashville on a Friday night, driven to a match in Ohio on Saturday, and then wrestled in West Virginia on Sunday before returning home to Hampton that night. Unsurprisingly, between matches, he sometimes sleeps in his car. Early in his career, it wasn’t uncommon for Kostyal to receive $50 for an event that he spent $200 to reach.

At 42, Kostyal says both of his knees are “pretty much shot.” But the biggest casualty from wrestling has been his personal life.

“I lost my first two wives over this business,” he says. “I wanted to make a name and travel, and they didn’t want me doing that.”

His current wife, Janie, is a wrestling fan and supportive, Kostyal says. “The only hell she’ll give me is if I miss too much real work time that pays the bills.”

Perhaps she understands that, to Kostyal, the wrestling ring is “where I’m the happiest.” As an example, he describes a memorable match in front of 250 people at King and Queen Elementary School. The crowd was rooting for Kostyal; his opponent was a heel.

“When I beat him, the place erupted,” Kostyal recalls. “The reaction—it sounded like Hulk Hogan just won a match. When you know you’ve got the crowd in the palm of your hand, there’s no better feeling than that.”

Ground Xero Wrestling Training Academy occupies a low brick building near the Richmond International Airport. Trophies, medals and photos fill its foyer. On a rainy Thursday evening in January, all the action is happening within an 18-foot by 18-foot practice ring at the back of the building, where two of the school’s pros—“Respect Champion” Kevin Daniels and heavyweight champ “The Big Easy” Martin Stanley Fuqua—are coaching four students through a bevy of cringe-worthy maneuvers.

The students huff and grunt as they somersault across the black canvas mat, do handstands and bounce off the ropes. They’re learning how to interact in the ring without injuring themselves or their opponents. They’re learning how to put on a show.

One move, called a back drop, is something no sane person would ever do outside of a wrestling ring. It looks like it hurts.

“It can hurt,” agrees longtime wrestling referee Glenn Ballos, 61, watching the practice session with a wry smile. Ballos, a retired deputy with the Hanover County Sheriff’s Department, has refereed matches for 33 years.

He looks on as Stephanie Myers attempts a back drop. Myers, a 46-year-old registered nurse, makes the four-hour round trip from Amherst County twice a week to train at Ground Xero. Tonight—dressed in black, her blond hair secured by a pink ponytail holder—she jumps straight up, tips backward and lands smack on her back and head. THAWACK! goes the mat. “Ugh!” Myers groans. She gets back up and does it again.

“Sure it’s painful,” she acknowledges later. “They always say wrestling is fake, but you get the bumps and bruises for real.”

When Myers first fell for wrestling, she was in middle school, and she and her father, Roy, would watch pro wrestling matches together at Amherst County High School. As a high-schooler, she helped her parents at their Amherst convenience store, where larger-than-life wrestlers would stop in for drinks and snacks after performing. Myers hopes to follow in their footsteps, although she’s open to being a ring announcer or overseeing music at events. She has yet to choose a wrestling name or persona.

If she continues as a wrestler, Myers would join only a handful of female pro wrestlers in Virginia. But that’s fine by her. She figures there’s plenty of room for women in a male-dominated sport, and history is on her side. Women have been wrestling professionally since at least the 1930s. The WWE now heavily promotes its female performers as WWE Divas. For home-grown inspiration, Myers can look not only to former WWE star Mickie James, but also to “The Dark Princess” Brittany Cole of Toano, who wrestles for the Southside School and for Coastal Real Extreme Wrestling in North Carolina.

Like her fellow students, Myers (no relation to the Southside School’s Mark Myers) will get two years of training at Ground Xero, founded eight years ago by Dave Cullen and Ron Cromartie, both former independent wrestlers in Virginia. Then the students will owe the school a year of live Ground Xero performances, during which they’ll continue to build their skills and persona. Ground Xero promoted about 50 events throughout the state in 2013.

“If you want to make it in wrestling, you’ve got to have a lot of heart, a lot of fortitude,” says co-founder Cullen. “I always tell new students, ‘If you want to do this, family comes second.’ This …”—he motions toward the training facility—“… this is your mistress.”

Under the lights at the Aylett fire station, Zane is mounting a comeback. He escapes from a leg hold by kicking his opponent in the head.

“Woooo!” screams the little girl who has been urging Zane on.

“Shut up!” Zane’s opponent responds, baiting the crowd. But it’s too late. Zane pins him.

One, two, three—Zane wins! And no one looks more surprised than him, the babyface underdog who caught a ride to the event with his dad.

Afterward, still shirtless, Zane mingles with the crowd and signs autographs. He holds a beaded orange “ZANIAC” bracelet that a young fan made him for Christmas.

Asked about the appeal of pro wrestling, Zane says it offers an escape for fans and wrestlers alike.

“I worry that if I was ever making my living doing this, it might become a job,” he says. “But my hope is that it would be a complete escape all of the time. That might sound kind of Nirvanic and overly hopeful, but we all need to dream.”

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