When I first pull up to Centre Bruxelles, a run-down hockey arena in an industrial area of Montreal's north end, the sun is just dipping below the horizon and there doesn't appear to be a soul anywhere besides the grinning, shirtless man nursing a beer in front of the arena entrance like some kind of unhinged, alcoholic Cerberus. Wondering if I'm in the right place, I wander into the empty arena and am just about to turn around to consult my directions when I hear voices echoing across the rink. Following the sound, I notice a doorway leading into a smaller arena enclave and pass through it, into the Torture Chamber Pro Wrestling Dojo.
I'm greeted by Dru Onyx, owner and head trainer of the Dojo. At 6'2", 350 pounds, he's an imposing, intimidating presence, but he instantly makes me feel welcome, grinning warmly and shaking my hand, welcoming me into his sanctuary. A native of Barbados, but a longtime Quebec resident, former semi-pro football player, hip-hop recording artist, and 17-year international professional wrestling veteran, Dru has been passing down his knowledge to students at the Torture Chamber since 2004. The concrete walls are adorned with dozens of 8x12s of wrestlers across the spectrum of fame and success, many with written inscriptions approaching paragraph length, thanking Dru for his mentorship, friendship and training. Each one is unique, but a common thread seems to be "thank you for helping me achieve my dreams."
The cramped concrete box, barely large enough for the gym mat emblazoned with the Torture Chamber X logo and 20x20 wrestling ring, doesn't appear at first glance to be the kind of place where dreams come true, but it does represent a stark contrast to the run down area outside, meticulously neat with a faint smell of cleaning chemicals. I can see the painstaking care the students take as they set up the ring and prepare for the evening's practice. The mat is almost treated like a sacred, holy space; anyone who steps on or off of it, student or teacher, must bow before doing so. "If you're going to step on the mat, just take your shoes off first," Dru advises me. I make a mental note not to step on the mat.
There's a palpable buzz before tonight's training session begins about Kevin Owens' WWE Universal Title win on Monday Night RAW, which happened a few days prior to my week-long journey at the Torture Chamber in August. Owens, (née Kevin Steen) is the first Quebec native to ever win a major world championship on the highest stage of pro wrestling, and had spent a month at the Torture Chamber preparing for his WWE debut back in 2015. Owens isn't shy about discussing how much his brief time around Onyx helped him, telling Chris Jericho on his podcast Talk is Jericho, "If it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't have gotten through the physical part of the tryout." Dru and his students discuss Owens' shocking win in breathless, where-were-you-when-it-happened terms, the way you'd talk about any other major, world-altering news story.
It's Thursday night, which is the combination beginner and intermediate session, and the students are a fascinating mix of serious athletes and serious non-athletes, which makes sense considering pro wrestling's unique status as both sport and non-sport. As the practice begins, though, it really starts to look like a straight-up sport to me, as rookies and veterans alike clasp their arms around one another and count out 1,000 squats. My knees ache just looking at them.
It turns out the Torture Chamber moniker is not just a cleverly-branded gimmick. Each evening that I'm there, the opening warm-up is slightly different, and it's always brutal. But it's not sadomasochism; Onyx has had tryout matches with every major promotion in the world, he knows what they look for, and he wants his students to be prepared if they ever get the same opportunities.
"In New Japan, you'd start off with a warm-up, then you'd skip rope for 10 minutes, then after 10 minutes, 1,500 pushups, 1,500 free squats and 1,500 crunches," he says to me casually. Later on, Dom Boulanger, the one Torture Chamber member who really looks like what you think a pro wrestler is supposed to look like—basically an action figure blown up to human size—clarifies it even further.
"It's the only sport where even if it's your hobby, you're still a professional. So you have to train like a professional and act like a professional," he says.
As grueling as training sessions at the Chamber can get, Dru is less drill sergeant and more uplifting life coach. At one point, Kaz—a stocky, impressively-bearded veteran student who looks like he could rip a phone book in half—starts to get visibly frustrated with himself after a few clunky chain wrestling transitions. "Am I shitting on you? Why are you shitting on yourself?" Dru calls out, stalking around the ring and playing the role of cameraman so the students learn to constantly shift their bodies naturally to perform for the audience watching at home. "We don't condone that kind of behaviour."
Dru sets the tone for an environment of persistent mutual support and respect, students are continually encouraging each other, breaking into applause for anyone who perseveres after struggling to make it through a drill. Sitting on the ring apron after the first warm up, his students in various stages of discomfort, Dru tells them, "It's OK to be tired. It's not OK to look defeated. This doesn't break you, it makes you."
Once the inaugural punishment is over and the students have taken a few minutes to recover, the actual business of practicing professional wrestling begins. Watching a wrestling match between two seasoned veterans, it's easy to fool yourself into thinking that it's a relatively simple endeavour, but I find myself blown away by the sheer amount of moving parts that go into it. There's the wrestling side: learning the holds, moves, and sequences that can be employed in different combinations and variations to form a match, maintaining an incredibly delicate balance between protecting your opponent and yourself, while simultaneously making everything look as real as possible so the audience can suspend their disbelief. Dru sums this up by telling his students to "wrestle like you're only getting paid if you win."
Then there's the entertainment side: always remaining in character, constantly projecting the emotions your character is experiencing to the farthest reaches of the audience through your facial expressions and mannerisms, and continually improvising and reacting to what your opponent or the crowd is giving off. I'm looking down, taking some notes on my phone and Onyx's booming voice startles me. "Hey! Stop looking at your phone and look at me!" I know it's just a demonstration but I still break out in a cold sweat. A few seconds later, he's having a fear tantrum in the corner as one of his students charges toward him. It's amazing watching how easily he shifts his persona, like stepping into a new pair of tights, depending on the moment.
Over the course of the week I get to know a few of the people training there. Mustapha Jordan took a meandering route to pro wrestling after excelling at soccer, track and basketball, and is now one of Onyx's top students, often leading the class in cool-down stretches after practice. Wendy is a single mom and "singer by preference" from Montreal's South Shore; her son drops by one day wearing an oversized Torture Chamber hoodie. Riley commutes a few times a week from Ottawa where he works at a grocery store, and makes his way through every insane drill without complaint even though it looks like literally everything hurts him. Karen, who looks like a strong wind would blow her into the sky like Mary Poppins, shows up to practice on the night of her 23rd birthday in lieu of a celebration (Dru gets her a vegan cake). Jon is a 33-year-old independent sales representative who's decided to train to become a pro wrestler now that some free time in his schedule has opened up. "It was kind of a split-second decision," he tells me. Rene, a dishwasher at a catering company, is a rookie but gets invited to a veteran practice, seemingly on a mission to out-hustle everyone there and prove he belongs.
Everyone has different individual reasons for walking through the door, but the thing that unifies them all is that they got hooked on pro wrestling at some point (usually as kids), it turned into a dream, and somehow that dream didn't die the way they usually do, dissipating in a haze of adult cynicism. Some are further along the road to making these dreams a reality than others. Since deciding to take the plunge into the world of pro wrestling after his father passed away three years ago, Dom's been coming to the Torture Chamber ever since.
"I told myself at that moment I had to live my dreams, because my father would have wanted that for me," he tells me in the Chamber parking lot after practice one night.
At the time, Dom had held the FCW Heavyweight Championship for nearly a year. He's the proprietor of a supplement shop on the South Shore in his non-wrestling life. Despite his size, he's soft-spoken—almost shy—and it's tough at first to see in him the larger-than-life charisma that usually needs to go along with the chiseled, comic book superhero physique. But when I watch him work a match against Bert, a fellow Chamber veteran, his personality comes alive, every action performed with measured intensity, showing amazing agility as he leaps through the air, his face always etched with the determination or desperation that the moment calls for.
Dawson and Nate are two perfectly normal-looking guys who work perfectly normal office jobs—Dawson as a human resources administrative technician at a school board ("It's a fancy way of saying paper-pusher," he tells me) and Nate, who looks and sounds like the wacky guy you went to college with who spent his summers following Phish around on tour, works in the Vermont Department of Health, commuting the two-plus hours a few times a week to attend practice. But when they walk through the doors of the Torture Chamber, they stop being pleasant local government office jockeys and become the dastardly Paradise Boys, the Chamber's burgeoning bad-guy tag team.
When I arrive one night, Nate is in the process of proudly showing off a photo of a tentative design for their ring tights, obnoxiously loud, adorned with palm trees. It's never made clear exactly what their backstory is supposed to be, or where the titular Paradise actually is. "It's a state of being," Nate explains. Dru is able to sum up their characters more succinctly. "You're the two cheesiest fuckboys imaginable. But you don't know you're the two cheesiest fuckboys imaginable." They may not have the impressive physiques of trainees like Dom or Kaz, but whenever they're in the ring I can't help but laugh at their antics. They seem to have the best grasp of the entertainment side of sports entertainment.
Flo Riley, 22, has only been training at the Torture Chamber for nine months, but has already had several pro matches—a remarkably quick ascent considering some students have been there for years and haven't yet reached that milestone. Watching her at practice, it's not difficult to see why. She works harder than anyone there. A lifelong wrestling fan and video-game tester by day, she's absolutely relentless when it comes to trying to improve her craft. She's there every night I show up, and when Dru posts Instagram videos from the Torture Chamber on off days, I see her in the background working on rolls, or doing cardio, or practicing chain wrestling.
When I make a comment about how quickly she's been able to get her career started, she's matter of fact about it. "I'm here every time there's a practice. And now I've started to train twice a day. So, of course when you train that much you start to see results." At times I can tell she's in pain, but she never quits, and only ever takes a drill off when she's forced to. When she starts limping and needs a few minutes to tape up her ankle before she can continue, it's clear she finds not being out there with the rest of the students more painful than whatever is bothering her physically. I ask her if she ever considers slowing down at all, and she shrugs it off. "It's not broken, you know? It happens, it's wrestling, it's a contact sport."
Like many of the other students, she has aspirations about making it to the big stage eventually. She certainly has the work ethic for it. "I want to be the best," she says simply.
It's clear that Onyx sees something in her as well, often taking time after practice to go through special drills or give her extra instruction. He came as close as you can possibly come to wrestling in the big leagues and played a role in the careers of both Owens and Finn Balor, another relatively-recent WWE signee who quickly ascended to the superstar A-list, though by some combination of bad timing or bad luck, he was never able to reach the same summit. He sees students like Flo as his chance to get there by a different route. "I may never become a world champion, but before I die, I'm gonna train one," he tells me during a brief break in practice one day.
By the end of the week, I'm beginning to realize that the Torture Chamber really is a place where dreams come true. You don't need to become a globally recognized superstar to live out the wildest fantasies of your inner-child, you can do it just by walking in the door and stepping through the ropes. After all, in the real world, superheroes don't exist. In the real world where it's expected we play by the rules, most of us don't act like cheating, conniving villains, because that's not what normal people do. But in the Torture Chamber, you get to be whatever the hell you want to be.
Near the end of practice one day, I notice Onyx and Flo going through a special sequence, she hits the ropes and flips backwards into a wheelbarrow position, he catches and lifts her, she escapes, over and over, committing it to muscle memory. The next day when they're doing a half-speed run-through for tag match against the Paradise Boys, she's suddenly unable to complete the same maneuver. She's overthinking it, getting frustrated. But when it comes time to perform the move in a live match in front of all the other students, they pull it off flawlessly. Onyx lifts her and slams her onto Dawson, Nate flies through the air to help his partner and she nimbly dodges him, then dropkicks them both out of the ring where they take a moment to regroup, furious and frustrated.
Flo poses in the ring, soaking up the cheers of the other students, the elation and pride on her face as real as it gets. It seems to me, in that moment, that feeling is worth all the torture anyone could ever dish out.