Do you remember the first time you saw Hulk Hogan on TV? I do. I wore pajamas and ate chocolate donuts and watched the tanned, ripped man with no shirt and a giant belt bounce himself back and forth across a roped ring until landing in a thundering crash, on top of another man. Somehow, no one died.
I don’t think I understood what, exactly, I was looking at—not really. I don’t even think I knew that they were acting, or that I liked it that much. But it was on TV, and it was a part of being a kid in America in the 80s. It was synonymous with Saturday mornings; what better association is there in life, especially when you’re a kid, than that?
Hogan was, of course, the reigning champion of the WWF, now called WWE (due to a legal dispute with the World Wide Fund For Nature), the world’s largest professional wrestling entertainment company. In the business, these companies (of which there are many of varying size around the world) are called promotions. More recently, Japanese promotions have gained popularity. But WWE, by far, remains the most-recognized, and the most prestigious, for professional wrestling fans, and wrestlers everywhere.
Only, hold up: Did you know this was still true? What was the last time you were aware of professional wrestling? For me, it was when Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was around. My little brother owned a black T-shirt featuring The Rock and his raised eyebrow that I hated. Who was that bogus cartoon of a man? Did he genuinely excite people? I could not wrap my head around that concept but, clearly, this went against the feeling of millions. In the aughts, it is hard to deny that The Rock was a fairly huge part of American culture.
But I was more shocked to learn this: Across the world—including right here in Brooklyn, and Ridgewood, and especially across the river in New Jersey—there are many wrestling schools where future WWE stars are being born. Students train multiple times a week, obsessively, in the hopes of becoming the next Stone Cold Steve Austin (remember him???), or (I just learned about these dudes) the hot pro-wrestling stars of right now, Seth Rollins (injured just this month) and Roman Reigns (formerly a professional Canadian football player), both signed to WWE.
“All of the WWE talent is based in the [independent promotions], and you’re prepping to be a big superstar,” says Jonathan “Red” Figueroa, 33, co-founder of House of Glory wrestling school in Ridgewood, whose current enrollment is about 50. “Every couple of years, there is that one Hulk Hogan super star, and three or four years later they drop.” Figueroa grew up in Bushwick with Brian Baez, 32; they opened HOG wrestling school together in December, 2010.
In wrestling circles, and even more widely, Red is better known by his professional persona, Amazing Red. Two video games have made characters of his likeness, even though Red himself is an unlikely star. “I was 111 pounds soaking wet,” says Red—who is indeed red-headed and in the mid five-foot region—recalling his size when he played his first professional promotion more than a decade ago.
Early in February at HOG, on a freezing Tuesday night, Red’s co-founder Brian Baez gathered the troops—a big opportunity awaited them. The following Friday, a Japanese promotion called Marvelous, based in Nagoya, would come to the school in search of new talent.
“Make sure you’re prepared, because if they do pick you, you’re going to Japan,” said Baez, standing in front of some very excited students. “You know what I mean? They’re doing it for a reason. They have an opening over there. I don’t care who it is: If you try, it’s a good opportunity. You just never know.”
When Baez and Figueroa began wrestling at 14, they had no idea what could come of their obsession. Like everyone else, they discovered wrestling on TV. Red spent summers in Puerto Rico with his grandfather, who was a big fan of the sport. “He would put old school VHS tapes on; I couldn’t watch it in my house, it was banned from me,” said Red. “I would jump over the bed and break things and my mom didn’t like it.” But in Puerto Rico, grandpa spoiled him, showing him old Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant footage. “Everybody seemed so larger than life, with the makeup and the paint, and their muscles—they looked like such super heroes. I was so drawn to them.”
Back then—we’re talking mid-90s—Red didn’t know that there were wrestling schools where he could practice actually becoming a wrestler. But then he got lucky. “A couple of friends of mine found this abandoned church in Bed-Stuy, and there was a wrestling ring on the second floor. It was called Arena Puerto Rico.” Sounded better than the mattress he was using in his backyard. “I was excited because I was like, now I can see if I can do this.”
It was not, however, the same model of school he eventually opened. You had to pay fifteen dollars a day to use the ring and practice, on your own, all the moves you saw on TV for two hours. Then they spotted a flyer at Arena Puerto Rico that advertised a local promotion called Hardcore Wrestling Alliance (HWA). A pro-wrestler named Mikey Whipwreck, who Red and his friends knew from TV, was going to be there. They went and asked Mikey Whipwreck, the man himself, to train them. He consented.
Red started training two days a week for two hours; he found that real wrestling was harder than he imagined. He had trouble hitting the ropes right, and his feet were all messed up. “I thought you just fall and punch people, but he showed us how to do everthing correct—cutting, and placement, and paying your dues, and stuff like that,” said Red.
A year or two later, a promoter saw and liked his tapes. Red got paid to be in his first show at a place called Elks Lodge in Queens. “Everyone started chanting ‘where’s your mommy!’” said Red. Nobody took him seriously, he was tiny. But the match was with a friend of his, and they did well. “After eight or nine minutes, everybody who was laughing was standing on their feet and clapping,” Red recalled.
Word of Red spread. Promoter to promoter wondered, who was this kid? He got sent around the States and to Japan and Puerto Rico, where it all began. There a wrestling legend called Savio Vega told him “Red” was too plain—he needed something more. So the Heavyweight Champion of the World Wrestling Council christened him “Amazing Red,” and it stuck.
Eventually, Red went on multiple weeks-long tours in Japan, and even wrestled a famous WWE wrestler named Eddie Guerrero, who died in 2005 of a heart attack at age 38. WWE held a televised tribute to him. Tears poured out of fans, and out of massive wrestlers standing shirtless on the sideline in tiny briefs. Red wrestled Guerrero in 2002. But eventually, a meniscus injury caught up with him. It was time to call it quits, but it had been a good run. Wrestling brought him fame around the world, which was not so bad for an extremely polite and small redhead from Bushwick. “I’m blessed,” said Red.
On Friday, February 12, Japanese promoters arrived at House of Glory. The students were dressed in their full ring-side personas. There was a lot of spandex, masks, and capes. One guy dressed as a caveman; another as a tax accountant (called “The Abominable CPA,” a 29-year-old clerical worker, who worked for a construction company in the city). He matched against a guy in a tuxedo, “Ben Cromwell,” 30, who lives in jersey and works as an SEO specialist. The caveman was matched against a man in teensy gold shorts that said Killionair; he was called Ken Broadway. His gimmick was that he was really wealthy and threw wads of dollar bills at his opponents, like it was dirt.
Baez’s cousin stood next to me, watching watching the nervous students warm up, while the Japanese promoters settled into their perches. “The ultimate goal is to make yourself so marketable that everyone wants you at their particular show,” said Baez’s cousin. I ask what he thought the promoters from the company, Marvelous, were looking for. “They want to see something they haven’t seen before; it’s more like a spirit, like they wanna see a resiliency in you—they wanna see that brought to life in the gym.” This is a world made up of a bunch of independent companies, he explained, and their primary goal is to hunt down new characters who will draw more attendance to their shows.
Big Ben Cromwell and the Abominable CPA put on a good show. I looked at the Japanese promoter, a woman wearing a ball cap that fell low over her eyes, while they fought in the ring. She was normally stone-faced, like a mob-boss, but their antics made her laugh. After their match, I asked if they wanted to go to Japan. “I don’t think my girlfriend would be crazy about it, but yeah, that would be really cool,” said the CPA, called Nick Silverstein outside the ring. I ask Ben Cromwell (AKA Chris Keuling) the same. “I cry during the day because I have a real job,” he says. “The ultimate goal is to make a living doing this. It’s next to impossible, but it’s like, ok, you to go Japan, and come back, and people say, ‘Oh, he wrestled for Marvelous! He must be somewhat good.” Ideally, things would roll form there.
Both Cromwell and the CPA got into wrestling early. Cromwell remembers feeling drawn, undeniably, to the larger than life characters he saw. He was introverted; he liked that they were charismatic and strong. The CPA’s first wrestling memories are stronger. “I used to stay at my dad’s place on weekends, because my parents split. I would stay up late and I finally figured out how to actually turn on the TV. I came across this big black dude in skull makeup, and a skull necklace, and I was like, ‘What the fuck.’ This is the most terrifying thing ever, and I have to keep watching.””
Then, there was Hulk Hogan. “I couldn’t wrap my head around it,” said the CPA. “He’s like this big orange guy, and I was like, this is America. The American Spirit was Hulk Hogan. Like, that was it–the American Dream was to be Hulk Hogan.”
After everyone wrestled, the promoters walked onto the ring. You could hear a pin drop. The owner spoke through a translator. “Even if I don’t select you, there was a lot of good fights today, so there is gonna be more chances in the future.” All the students clapped wildly and hollered. The star of Marvelous, another female, stood next to her; they wanted to find a her a wrestling partner, a “tag” partner, who could wrestle well with her. “So I’d like to see you all again,” she finished, a woman of few words. Everyone clapped for a long time, electrified by the thrill of performing for Marvelous, a promotion that could make dreams come true.
I check in with Red a couple weeks later. In the end, Marvelous picked three HOG students, including Ken Broadway, who, after throwing a pile of money in Caveman’s face, defeated the performer who only spoke in grunts. They would perform in the Marvelous show in the city the following day. Red said the promotion will likely bring a couple of guys with them to Japan, but the decision hadn’t been finalized yet.
And what is the future for this enigmatic, basically incomprehensible, but completely alluring sport? Red said that, while he was bitter near the end of his own run, professional wrestling has begun to change for the better, and there’s more interest in it than ever. Still, in the immediate area, House of Glory’s only competition is the famous Gleason’s Gym in DUMBO, which also includes a traditional boxing gym; but the wrestling program is run by the famous Johnny Rodz–whose school of training is very different than the House of Glory’s. A lot of students think Rodz style is too old school, and obsolete, says Red, and HOG gets defected students from Gleason’s. “There are so many things in wrestling that have changed, everyone is stronger and faster and crazier,” says Red. “I go out and soak up what I see and teach everybody about it.”
Plus, WWE culture is also changing for the better, says Red. They’re allowing smaller guys to enter the ring, instead of the 300-pound, 8-foot tall-only beasts. “That has opened a lot of doors for a lot of people—even guys from our gym.”
All photos by Renee Choi.