"Now," the instructor said, "pick him up by his ear."
Just after 5 PM on a hazy summer Monday, inside a loading dock in an office park in southeastern Las Vegas, four students nodded in agreement. Nothing about the request sounded unreasonable. Two others—a teenage brunette and a wiry bro nicknamed Brandizzle—grappled in the middle of a 20-by-20-foot ring. Already Brandizzle had been punched, flipped, dragged, and had his hand stomped on the ropes. The ear lift looked unpleasant. There was one more strike coming: a cross-kick to the sternum.
For months, Brandizzle had been voluntarily walking through the office's storefront door, adjacent to the types of local businesses that install parquet wood floors or fix garage-door openers, and getting whupped. The office park—surrounded by dusty, vacant, desert lots owned by nearby McCarron Airport—was miles away from the Strip. The sign on the tinted-glass door read: "FSW. Future Stars of Wrestling." The "F" in "Future" had rubbed off.
FSW is happy to keep things relatively discreet. Knowing the nature of Las Vegas and its patrons—who look to do things that can only be done here, and that will stay here—the owners fear getting flooded by tourists who want to plunk down a few bucks and live out a childhood fantasy, or pile-drive the groom-to-be at a bachelor party, that sort of thing. Such a place might do well in Vegas, but FSW has a more serious vision. There is nothing fake about their passion for teaching, training, and showcasing pro wrestlers—men and women that truly, desperately want to become stars in WWE, or at least in a provincial version of it, with weekend gigs in an off-strip casino theatre, at $15 a ticket.
With nightly classes at FSW, aspirant folks like Brandizzle can learn the proper techniques of pro-quality fake wrestling, from the choke-slams to the rehearsed promos, where a flat-head screwdriver substitutes for a microphone. Then, on weekends, once or twice a month, they go live, performing in front of small crowds as part of FSW's own unique wrestling promotion. Well hey, even the Rock had to start somewhere.
In fact, the indie circuit of pro wrestling in this country is a rich panoply of dreamers and drifters. They traffic in store-bought makeup, ripped shirts, mean mugs, and crazy eyes. Like barnstormers, many travel around various regions, striving to attract a local, hopefully paying audience and maybe catch somebody's eye, build a following, and ride that popularity into a tryout for the big leagues, WWE.
There are thousands of these wrestlers, and most of them go nowhere. Occasionally, though, it happens. Kevin Kross made an appearance on WWE Raw last February, not long after he wandered into FSW with his wife, Brittney, a professional aerialist. Kross, who stands about 6-foot-2 with buzzed hair and the appropriate amount of beefiness, had been doing mixed-martial arts and, before that, bareknuckle boxing. He now teaches classes at FSW.
"Fans want to be engaged," Kross said. "They're not coming in to see a move. They're coming in to see stories. I'm trying to teach them how to tell those stories."
He often wakes up in the middle of the night with ideas for characters he wants to test, or moves he wants to teach, and will jot them down, only to forget the next morning that he had even been awake.
The six students attending Kross's class one evening late this summer didn't look like pro wrestlers at all. The three men and three women were devoid of the bulging muscles normally associated with WWE. But they paid close attention to Kross's instructions. He stood just outside the ring, wearing light blue jeans and a black T-shirt from La Mort, a London company that produces "funereal art and fashion." He sipped from a can of diet Pepsi.
"No one's paying to see muscles," he said. "It may compliment the character you're portraying. But nobody gives a fuck about that."
The mat rumbled like thunder when students danced across it, then clapped like lightning when a body got hurled onto the canvas. "Slam the bottom of the heel," Kross said when explaining how to perform the proper heel stomp. "Pick it up real high. Do it twice if you have to."
Josh Sardinha, a goateed 29-year-old, eagerly adopted the persona of a psychotic character who believed he was a bunny rabbit. He hopped around pretending to eat a carrot, while his eyes darted radically. He made his opponent, named Soccer Mom, incredibly uneasy. It was pretty good theatre.
"I actually found this place because I got lost," Sardinha said later. "I was out driving around, familiarizing myself with the neighborhood, and I left my GPS in my house. I got lost and pulled in here and sure enough, I saw FSW."
It was like divine intervention, he said. This was two days after Sardinha had left Fort Carson, Colorado, after four years in the military and one peacekeeping tour in Kuwait. Looking for a fresh start, and with a passion for professional wrestling dating back to when he was five, Sardinha said the day he ambled into Future Stars changed his life.
"I parked my van and walked inside and saw one of the guys getting choke-slammed," Sardinha said. "I was like, 'You've got to be kidding me.'"
A year and a half later, the soldier was wearing a stained and baggy white T-shirt and hopping around the ring like a crazed rabbit.
"I'm used to going very quick, very stiff, very intentional — if I lock somebody in a clinch, there's a reason," said Sardinha, who had amateur boxing and mixed-martial arts experience, as well as a high-school wrestling background. "Here, you have to learn to…play."
FSW began in earnest in late May 2009, in the back of an old furniture store at the Rancho Swap Meet, a Vegas flea market whose vendors and customers skew Latino. About 230 people showed up for the first show, which featured mainly local wrestlers and a few obscure ex-WWE characters. The air conditioning was broken, making for sauna-like conditions.
"But," co-owner Joe DeFalco said, "we realized we had something."
DeFalco does have a knack for promotion. When zoning restrictions prevented FSW from returning to Rancho, DeFalco pushed it into the Silver Nugget Casino, site of a memorable wrestling card in the mid-90s. In one of the matches on that card, Mick Foley pile-drove Sabu through a blackjack table during a game in progress, injuring a security guard.
For years, DeFalco, who also deejays at strip clubs, hosted a weekly radio show on KLAV in Las Vegas dedicated to analyzing the week's pro wrestling news, so the Silver Nugget held sentimental appeal for him. FSW began hosting regular events there, and later moved into a new spot across town, Sam's Town Hotel & Gambling Hall.
FSW's roster of entertainers grew, too. Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, The Godfather, Disco Inferno, Chris Masters, and Matt Hardy began making appearances. In April 2010, DeFalco constructed a ring in his backyard to serve as a training center. Within months, FSW moved into a headquarters on Boulder Avenue, where they could begin schooling novice wrestlers (when rent eventually became untenable, DeFalco moved FSW to its current location in the office park).
FSW had officially joined the minor leagues of pro wrestling, which has been around for decades. Today, there are dozens of circuits running concurrently across the country, just under the surface of the mainstream, recognized by most diehard fans purely by acronym: ROH, WXW, PLW, ECWA, WWWA, MPWDT, CFWMAW, CHIKARA. There's one in Brooklyn, run by Johnny Rodz. There's one in Hawaii. There are at least 16 in Texas. There are several for women only. Many were founded in the early 2000s and don't have functioning websites. They host shows in restaurants, high schools, fire houses, and used car auction lots, and they've largely run out of ideas for what to name events other than "Aftermath," "Armageddon," or "Overdrive".
Las Vegas, which has historically been a mainstay for WWE, did not have much of a local scene until 2007, when the Nevada State Athletic Commission deregulated pro wrestling, comparing its utility to choreographed live entertainment shows like Cirque du Soleil or the Harlem Globetrotters, rather than legitimate combat. In the past few years, three other companies have emerged to compete with FSW.
"We were the only wrestling company in this town from 2009 up until about eight months ago," DeFalco said. "Now all of a sudden, everyone's trying to run here."
DeFalco is an opinionated guy who's not afraid to speak his mind. He has thinning hair and a salt-and-pepper beard. His office contained two whiteboards, a black leather couch, a folding table (naturally), and a framed Goldberg autograph.
"You have to care about the character," he said. "That's all wrestling is. That's the problem with the WWE. People loved The Shield. What'd they do? They broke it up. Now you need to love Roman Reigns, but we want to love Dean Ambrose. No, you need to love Roman Reigns. But they can't tell you who you're going to love and who you're going not to love."
With that in mind, he has tried to build the identity of his company and the school (which charges new members $150 per month) around the things that he loved about WWE growing up: diverse characters, tag-teams and managers, faces and heels. Kross, in particular, likes springing last-minute roles on students, forcing them to play characters well out of their comfort zones. He coaches them on elocution, poise, and acting as much as anything physical. He tells them where the cameras are located, ways to preen after a big hit, and how to deliver the promos.
A young woman nicknamed Disco Charysma peppered her speech with a quick, sharp "yeah" four times, which sounded more like "yeh." Kross loved it, seeing it as an instant trademark.
"It's so simple," Kross said. "But it's something for the audience to identify with."
None of the students in the class were particularly big. The most intimidating was probably CJ, Christopher Jepsen, a 28-year-old Tijuana native in a black tank top and camo shorts who played the role of a cop. "I hate cops," he said.
Jepsen isn't really a dreamer or a drifter. He has little desire to join WWE, knowing realistically how far it is out of his reach. He thinks he might like Japan, where they do the "crazier, bloodier stuff" in the ring. While he lives in Vegas, he plans to keep returning to classes at FSW, part of a community of wrestling superfans just trying to have some fun.
"I enjoy this," Jepsen said. "I enjoy the euphoria you get from being here. Right now I suck, but I'm getting a little bit better. That's the atmosphere—you suck but you still enjoy it."