Why wrestling? What is it about this entertainment, this mixture of athletic prowess and campy performance, that lights up the audience’s eyes? It can’t be simple bloodlust, because the pain on stage isn’t real, nor is the malice; the whole crowd knows that, even the children. It’s no different from going to the theatre, except that wrestling is drama made flesh, each punch and kick studding with sudden gravity the time-worn narratives of envy and revenge.
If for the audience, wrestling provides transport, for the wrestlers themselves, the sport provides transcendence. Take for instance the wrestler Matt Travis, who trains at The House of Glory wrestling school in Queens, which hosts regular shows. At nine on the morning of a recent match, he was sitting hunched over in his cramped apartment in the South Bronx. His mother, whom he lives with, was braiding his waist-length hair.
“Wrestling is my lifeline,” Travis, who is 24, told VICE. “Every night I come home and hear how someone got shot… like, what if I’m next? But with wrestling I feel like, finally, I have a shot.”
On the other side of New York City, 12 hours later, Travis mounted the top rope of a wrestling ring as 2,000 people drew an intake of breath. Clad in spandex briefs and thigh-high boots, his braids dripping with sweat, he loomed over his opponent. Around him, the crowd fairly ululated—they were in the presence of a star.
House of Glory is one of numerous “indie” wrestling companies in the New York area—low-budget outfits that make money by hosting shows featuring a mix of in-house talent and legacy wrestlers. But unlike other circuits, House of Glory also runs a “school” for young people who want to learn how to wrestle. The school has granted Travis and other young people access to a double life: they arrive nearly every afternoon from all over the city and pile into a tiny gym to learn a craft that consists in equal measure of sport and spectacle.
The school is the brainchild of two former professional wrestlers, Jonathan "Amazing Red" Figueroa and Brian XL, who both grew up in Brooklyn and wrestled together as teens in empty churches. Brian never had much success, but Figueroa spent years wrestling for TNA Impact, which for decades was the second most-watched wrestling network after the WWE.
After a leg injury threatened to derail his career, Figueroa reconnected with Brian, who had long entertained the idea of giving city kids a chance to learn wrestling from professionals. The school, now almost ten years old, is less a training camp than a summer camp—a way-station for wrestling-obsessed young people. It sits on a quiet block of the Ridgewood neighborhood in Queens, and even from outside you can smell rubber and sweat.
Once they get good enough, students can start competing in House of Glory shows, joining the cast of colorful characters the gym keeps on retainer. For students who do make the cut, their moments on stage become the focal points of their lives—the eight minutes per month when they get to be who they are, even as they pretend to be who they’re not. After the shows they sign autographs, sell merchandise, and record menacing videos in character for thousands of followers.
It’s the promise of ring time that keeps students coming back even as the responsibilities of adulthood wear on them. One wrestler, Evander James, is in his early twenties, and also lives with his mother in the Bronx, which means he has it easy. On the morning of a match he can wake up at dawn, call out sick from the middle school where he works, fill four Tupperware containers with rice and beans, and spend the day training at his neighborhood gym.
Manuel, a longtime student who wrestles under the sobriquet 'Mantequilla' (Spanish for "butter stick") is a more established talent at House of Glory. He wrestles in a cape and luchador mask and backflips off the top rope, with fans tossing streamers to celebrate his entrance. He’s had some success on independent circuits, but he’s 25 to James' 22, and life has started to wear on him. He lives in Astoria and works for a city school, and often he travels out of state for weekend shows after working an entire week.
Even for the gym’s biggest stars, a full slate of matches can be hard to sustain. Sonya Strong, one of the gym’s leading female wrestlers, has been wrestling seriously for five years. She watched WWE as a child but had never considered doing it herself, until she dreamt she was stepping into a wrestling ring while a crowd exploded with applause. Now she lives alone in the Bronx neighborhood where she grew up and raises a five-year-old daughter on her own. By day she works in retail, but none of her coworkers know she wrestles.
To complicate matters, each student’s advancement through the ranks is not only based on their talent as a wrestler, but also on their character’s place in House of Glory’s ongoing narrative. Brian designs the storylines for every show and picks the winners of each match, elevating performers he thinks will sell more tickets. But his decision-making process is a closely guarded secret.
“It’s like soap opera,” he says. “It’s like telenovela. People want a story. They want something they can follow, that’s going to mean something to them.”
If Brian can’t find a place for a student’s character, they may come to practice two days a week, then three, then four, running drills for hours, and never wrestle. For many students, effort in the gym bears little relationship to the showcard for each event. “I should be wrestling tonight,” is a familiar refrain, heard muttered backstage. The unspoken question is at what point they will give up, toss out the trunks, and return to the “other” life that lies in wait. The joy they get from those minutes in the ring is transformative, even life-changing. But given the cruelty of the economics—given that almost none of the students will ever make it big—the “shot” young Travis has is only provisionally real. Like wrestling itself, it’s inescapable, totalizing as a trance, but alive only as long as everyone agrees to keep disbelief at bay.