West Carrolton, OH – In a strip mall on Central Avenue, in the very rear of a very large indoor flea market, is the Morningstar Arena, a brightly lit and colorful space where, on this Saturday afternoon, dozens of locals have paid $5 for an afternoon of indie wrestling.
I arrive about 90 minutes before showtime and catch up with MC Pauli, co-owner of 1CW (1st Class Wrestling), one of several regional wrestling federations in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. He shows me around the arena, which was built in 18 months for around $6,000, then leads me to the dressing room where several wrestlers, including his 17-year-old son, are getting into costume.
“To be a wrestler,” MC Pauli explains, “you gotta have heart. Lots of it. A lot of guys come here wanting to wrestle, but they don’t have it. The ones who make it are the ones who are jumping on beds as kids, then they move on to wrestling in their backyards. Maybe they build a ring. It’s in their blood.”
This was the case with Aaron Xtreme, 22, and Doug Charlz, 32, a tag-team duo that, for today’s match, will wrestle each other. Aaron Xtreme began wrestling on mattresses around age 13, then at 15, built a ring in his backyard. Soon after, Doug Charlz, 10 years his senior, moved in next door. Already wrestling on the indie circuit, Charlz brought Aaron Xtreme into the fold.
“I saw he had what it takes,” recalls Charlz. “We’ve been wrestling together ever since.”
Aaron Xtreme is a diminuative chap, not the sort of hulking meathead I expected to find here. In fact, all of the wrestlers I meet defy the stereotypes. They are all hardworking, committed and possessed by the masochistic tolerance for pain their craft requires.
After their match this afternoon, Charlz and Xtreme are off to Columbus for another bout with another federation. They wrestle as often as they can. “Training is the most important part, physically and mentally,” Charlz says. “It takes a long time to get comfortable in the ring. At first you have lots of adrenaline, but then you’re tired by the time you go up.”
As a kid, MC Pauli’s son, PS3, idolized guys like Hulk Hogan and The Rock. His father initially discouraged him from entering wrestling, but ultimately relented. However, being the promoter’s son has its drawbacks. “Sometimes I get a lack of respect,” says PS3. “Some guys think I’m only here because of my dad.”
“That’s just part of paying your dues,” chimes Loco, 26, PS3′s tag-team partner.
1CF, and other wrestling federations, offers opportunity to young men from hard-scrabble places that are short on hope. Here, they become somebody and are looked up to by the young boys and girls who come to watch them battle each other, much the same way they idolized wrestlers in their own youth. But for all of the grandstanding in the ring, there’s a genuine sense of camaraderie in the dressing room.
“It’s really a brotherhood, like running off to join the carnival, which is where wrestling really began,” says MC Pauli. “These are good bunch of guys. There are definitely ones that fans like more than others, but they all have a lot of heart.”
Most seem to revel in the fan adoration while dreaming of rising through the ranks toward bigger stardom. “I like making the fans go crazy,” says Aaron Extreme. “And there’s always the chance that some bigger organization will pick you up.”
So what does it take to be a good wrestler? Some say it’s a having a good story or having a costume that sets you apart from the rest. “Some guys come here in sweat pants and think they’re gonna make it,” says Aaron Xtreme. “Hulk Hogan wasn’t the greatest wrestler, but he had the look. No one wants to watch someone who looks like they should be in the audience.”
Tommy T-Dog Foreman, Sr., 22, 1CW’s resident psychologist, takes a decidedly old-school approach to wrestling. “There’s a lot of thinking that goes into wrestling that people don’t realize,” he says. “Your costume, your story, your moves… a lot of guys just don’t want to put any thought into it. They just want to get in the ring and do whatever.”
Out in the arena, the fans are growing restless. Almost 15 minutes after the scheduled start time, MC Pauli takes the mic and amps them up further. Finally, the show begins with the introduction of The Empire, composed of the 1CW’s bad guys, who enter the ring to thundering hip-hop and boos. The enduring storyline in most of wrestling is the struggle between good and evil, and The Empire, dressed all in black, play the part well.
A young boy, who obviously is rooting for the good guys, approaches the ring. “You suck Empire! Why don’t you all get the heck outta here! Go home!” he shouts. The Empire’s hype men, standing outside the ring, shout the kid down, and the show goes on.
In the dressing room, roughly 20 wrestlers wait for their moment of glory, watching the show on closed circuit television until their names are called. It isn’t a full house, but it’s close. “It’s a work in progress,” says MC Pauli, referring to his fledgling organization. “But the fans love it, the guys love doing it; we’re like a big family here. It’s only going to get better. Like I said, it takes a lot of heart.”