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Superstars' Training Grounds
What does it take to become a WWE Superstar? Our performers are highly skilled individuals who know what they're doing when they step into a WWE ring. And while there are many different paths to WWE, the answer is simple: you go to school. ( PHOTOS: WRESTLING SCHOOLS & TRAINERS)
But these are no normal schools. Mats replace chalkboards, armbars take the place of loose leaf paper and The Wild Samoans might be taking attendance.
Where are these grappling academies? And who are these exalted professors of sports-entertainment?
WWE Classics set out to investigate the little known world of pro wrestling schools. During this back to school season, we spoke with current WWE Superstars and staff to hear their stories about some of the world's most highly regarded wrestling training centers and their teachers.
Natalya and Tyson Kidd, trained by the Hart family
NAME OF SCHOOL: The Hart Dungeon
LOCATION: Calgary, Alberta
TRAINERS: Bruce Hart, Ross Hart
OTHER CLASSMATES & ALUMNI: David Hart Smith, Lance Storm, Chris Jericho, Bret Hart, "The British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith, Jim Neidhart, Owen Hart, The Dynamite Kid, Brian Pillman, "Superstar" Billy Graham, Greg Valentine, Bad News Allen, Jushin Liger
Perhaps wrestling's most famous breeding ground, The Hart Dungeon was a legendary training school for 60 years. The dingy and confined quarters were the stomping grounds for a host of sports-entertainment legends, including most of the Hart family and countless others passing through Calgary. Eventually, the school was taken over by two of family patriarch Stu Hart's sons — Bruce and Ross, brothers of Bret and Owen — who operated Hart Brothers Wrestling and trained Tyson Kidd and Natalya.
Located in the basement of Stu's family home, Kidd described The Dungeon as having a "a very thick, musky air down there," and recalled that "when guys would hit the mat you'd see the dust popping up and start floating in the air. It was real hard to breathe." The tiny room was home to very thin padding whose unforgiving canvas would scrape the pupils while training. "There were these huge pipes that would hang from the ceiling," Kidd explained. "It was almost guaranteed that in their first week students would run head first into those pipes." Kidd also recounted the decrepit nature of The Dungeon. "There were a lot of holes in the ceiling from people's feet and heads going through it. Actually, in the Owen Hart vs. Ken Shamrock match [from Fully Loaded 1998], Owen put Shamrock's head through the ceiling." ( WATCH)
Natalya, as one of The Dungeon's only female graduates, explained it was often said that "If you can survive in The Dungeon, you can survive anything." She reminisced, "There was one other girl there that came after me, and her name was Belle Lovitz. We had a heated rivalry, mostly because she was the only other girl, but I was really happy when another girl came. It was an amazing experience."
"I was there the day we ripped The Dungeon apart," Kidd recalled. “We took the canvas out, we took the padding out. We disabled the whole thing.” "I was there until the very end. It was an experience from all ends of the spectrum, physically and mentally." Natalya also remembered the bittersweet closing, "When The Dungeon finally closed down it was very historic. It was really, really fun to train there."
Sheamus, trained by Robbie Brookside
NAME OF SCHOOL: All Star Wrestling
LOCATION: United Kingdom
TRAINER: Robbie Brookside
OTHER CLASSMATES & ALUMNI: Drew McIntyre, Wade Barrett
The World Heavyweight Champion's path to WWE was an unconventional one. After starting at a school in Ireland called The Irish Whip Wrestling School, Sheamus' true education in wrestling began when he travelled to the United Kingdom. As The Great White explained, "We didn't really have a head trainer [at Irish Whip], so we kind of learned on the fly." But England was different. "I started getting in the ring a lot with guy called Robbie Brookside," Sheamus told WWE Classics. "He's an absolute legend in British wrestling." Indeed he is. Brookside, a longtime friend and tag team partner of William Regal, was once called England's greatest wrestler on an edition of Raw in 2007. In 1997, he defeated Chris Jericho in Japan and competed against Dean Malenko in a WCW Cruiserweight Championship Match on Nitro ( WATCH). At a WWE Live Event in 2011, Regal credited Brookside with launching the careers of Sheamus, Wade Barrett and himself.
"My training really came from studying and having matches with Robbie Brookside," Sheamus explained. "That's really where my skill in the ring just got better and better and better. To me, he's one of the best in the world, one of the best ever." The praise didn't end there. "If I was to give credit to anybody for where I am today, it's being in the ring with that guy, because he helped me out leaps and bounds." Sheamus detailed Brookside's teaching style as tough, fun-loving and respectful. "He teaches the fine art of wrestling," Sheamus said. "Psychology, storytelling and everything there is to know. He doesn't settle for second best or anything less than 100 percent. He drills in the mentality that everything has to be perfect. If you're in the UK and Ireland, and want to be trained by the best, Robbie Brookside is the man."
Zack Ryder, trained by Mikey Whipwreck
NAME OF SCHOOL: New York Wrestling Connection
LOCATION: Deer Park, Long Island, N.Y.
TRAINER: Mikey Whipwreck
OTHER CLASSMATES & ALUMNI: Curt Hawkins, Trent Barreta, Spirit Squad member Mikey, The Big O (of "Z! True Long Island Story")
Zack Ryder, along with former tag team partner Curt Hawkins, trained at one of the New York area's most highly regarded training grounds — New York Wrestling Connection, more commonly referred to as NYWC. "I started there in 2003, right after high school," Ryder told WWE Classics. "It was like my second family when I went there. Everyone loved wrestling. It was such a cool atmosphere. I always wanted to go back."
NYWC's head trainer was ECW Triple Crown Champion Mikey Whipwreck, one of the most popular competitors from the original ECW. Always assuming the role of an underdog, Mikey constantly scored huge upset victories, including a memorable bout against Steve Austin at November to Remember 1995 ( WATCH). Whipwreck, part of the ECW ring crew was discovered by Paul Heyman and Joey Styles while he was bouncing around the ring before an event. He was later taken under the wing of Mick Foley ( WATCH), which likely contributed to his desire to find the future stars of sports-entertainment. Fourteen years later, Ryder became one of the biggest Superstars of WWE's incarnation of ECW and achieved upset victories of his own, including a win over Tommy Dreamer in which Dreamer was forced to leave ECW in 2009. ( WATCH)
"It was such a great learning experience. A great environment to learn in," Ryder recalled. But it wasn't all fun and games. "It was hard. It was to weed out people who didn't really wanna be there," Ryder explained. "Mikey was a very old school trainer. He didn't want to just train any old kid. He wanted to make sure if you were gonna get in this, you really wanted it, you wanted to be passionate. He taught everyone about dedication and respect and discipline, all things you need to survive in the world of pro wrestling."
Ryder also learned some important lessons the hard way. "One time I missed a 450 Splash in a match where Hawkins and I won the tag team titles, and I don't remember anything," Ryder told WWE Classics, reminding the WWE Universe that Superstars are trained individuals who encounter genuine injury in the ring. "We had to go to the hospital. I woke up and didn't know where I was. I was in so much pain. My mom was there, and as they were taking me out in an ambulance I kept shouting, 'Gimme my title! Gimme my title!'"
Tensai, Damien Sandow and Kofi Kingston, trained by Killer Kowalski and Mike Hollow
NAME OF SCHOOL: Killer Kowalski's Pro Wrestling School; Chaotic Training Center
LOCATION: Malden, Mass.; North Andover, Mass.
TRAINERS: Killer Kowalski, Tim McNeany, Mike Hollow
OTHER CLASSMATES & ALUMNI: Triple H, Big John Studd, Perry Saturn, John Kronus, Kenny Dykstra, Chyna
When discussing the greatest wrestling trainers in history, it would be difficult not to mention the legendary, if not mythical, Walter "Killer" Kowalski, who earned his nickname by shearing off Yukon Eric's ear in a Steel Cage Match. A WWE Hall of Famer, Kowalski was Bruno Sammartino's primary foe during the 1960s and '70s ( WATCH), partnered with Gorilla Monsoon and held the World Tag Team Championships with Big John Studd as The Executioners.
After retirement from the ring, Kowalski gained a reputation as one of the world's finest trainers. With a roll call that includes Triple H, The Eliminators and current Superstars like Tensai and Damien Sandow, it's easy to see why. "It was awesome," Tensai told WWE Classics. "I've been around the world and have seen a lot of different wrestling schools, and he's put out some of the best. His record shows it. It was very well done. I have a lot of respect for him. He was also a great guy and a great friend."
The former Japanese star remembered some early antics with his teacher. "Kowalski had a toupee, and he and I had a really nice kinship together," Tensai recalled. "He used to always come to me before the shows and ask, 'Is my toupee on straight?' And it was, but I would tell him, 'No, Walter, move it over a little bit to the left.' By the end of the night, that thing was sideways and all over the place."
But Tensai insisted his training was far from a goof around session. "It was 'come to work.' You put your boots on, it was time to work. [Kowalski] put you through a routine that you had to do, and it was hard," Tensai explained. "He sorted you out. A lot of people would go in there during [The Monday Night War] when everyone wanted to be a wrestler, but not for the right reasons. They might have liked watching it, but putting in the hard work was a different story, and Kowalski sorted that out real quick."
Another of Kowalski's students, Damien Sandow, echoed Tensai's sentiments. "I started very young. I was 16," Sandow told us. "At the time, I was the youngest guy there. You had to be 18 to train, but Killer made an exception in my case. I remember being a boy in a man's world, and it was a real wake-up call." Sandow continued, "Looking back on it, it made me tough-skinned by withstanding a lot physically and mentally. And obviously the training there was going to be the best you're going to get anywhere."
As tough as he was, Kowalski's students heap nothing but praise on their master. "I have so many memories of that school and the instruction he gave me," Sandow said. "I still use a lot of his stuff to this day."
Tensai agreed. "It was one of the best memories that I've had in the world of wrestling," he said.
As Kowalski got older, his school was passed along to younger trainers like Mike Hollow, who trained Kofi Kingston. "I was fortunate to have a coach like Mike Hollow who taught me about the importance of the basics," Kofi told us. "When you build a house, you want to have a good foundation, and he definitely gave me that good foundation."
Kofi recalled the grueling schedule that he endured to gain those basics. "I was training there five days a week while I was also working a full-time job," Kofi explained. "I'd drive for an hour after an eight-hour work day, have a three-hour class, then another hour drive home. You talk about paying dues, I feel like I definitely did, but it was all worth it. If I didn't do that, I'd probably still be wondering what it would be like to be a WWE Superstar."
Matt Striker, trained by Johnny Rodz
NAME OF SCHOOL: World of Unpredictable Wrestling
LOCATION: Brooklyn, N.Y.
TRAINER: Johnny Rodz
OTHER CLASSMATES & ALUMNI: Tommy Dreamer, Tazz, The Dudley Boyz, Vito, Damien Demento, S.D. Jones, Bill DeMott
Located at the world-famous Gleason's Boxing Gym in Brooklyn, N.Y., WWE Hall of Famer Johnny Rodz has trained some of sports-entertainment's greatest grapplers deep underneath the Manhattan Bridge in his decades-long career as a wrestling trainer. With a pedigree that boasts some of the finest boxers of all time including Jake LaMotta, Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) and fellow WWE Hall of Famer Mike Tyson, Gleason's became the perfect spot for Rodz to teach after a career as one of the most reliable WWE grapplers in history. ( WATCH)
While Rodz has gotten older, he hasn't become any less active. "Johnny Rodz gets in the ring and actually teaches," Matt Striker told WWE Classics. "Occasionally we had some special guest instructors, famous names that have graduated from the school," Striker recalled. "Names such as Bill DeMott, who wrestled as Hugh Morrus, D-Von Dudley, Tommy Dreamer, Big Vito." Striker explained, "The reason that was so impactful is because those names had gone on to earn a living and to really make a mark in our industry. They were able to come back and teach the students the things they really needed to know."
"My father introduced to me to wrestling when I was 7 years old," Striker said. "He always told me stories about his father and how his father would take his shoe off and throw it at the television every time Johnny Rodz would come on TV," Striker explained about his teacher. "Now Johnny Rodz was never a World Champion and he lost quite a bit, but he was what we called a carpenter." Striker continued, "That meant he helped build the careers of some of the greats that we all know. So to walk in and see that Johnny Rodz name was on the banner, it was almost like a cosmic sign to me that it was meant to be. That it was destiny."
Striker remembered his time training very fondly. "To go there and get in the ring and be part of something that I really loved was, to this day, a very humbling experience."
"That’s the beauty of Johnny Rodz," Striker concluded. "You are there for life."
Michael McGillicutty and Ted DiBiase, trained by Harley Race
NAME OF SCHOOL: The Harley Race Wrestling Academy, WLW (World League Wrestling)
LOCATION: Eldon, Mo.
TRAINER: Harley Race
OTHER CLASSMATES & ALUMNI: Trevor Murdoch
Few Legends in sports-entertainment are as highly regarded as eight-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion and the first-ever United States Champion, WWE Hall of Famer Harley Race ( WATCH). After the original "King's" retirement from the ring, Race founded his own organization, World League Wrestling, and later his own training academy. His students have included former World Tag Team Champion Trevor Murdoch ( WATCH), who later became one of Harley's trusted trainers.
Michael McGillicutty and Ted DiBiase, both third-generation Superstars, began their training with Harley. Each of their families had tremendous history with their teacher. "My grandpa, [Larry 'The Axe' Henning], and Harley Race were tag team partners back in the '60s," McGillicutty told WWE Classics. "They're best friends to this day." The duo of "Handsome" Harley and "Pretty Boy" Larry held the AWA Tag Team Championships on three occasions.
"Harley wrestled my grandfather, 'Iron' Mike DiBiase,' " DiBiase told us. "And also broke my dad in the business, 'The Million Dollar Man' Ted DiBiase." DiBiase explained, "It was really special to be trained by the man who had such close relationships with my family."
But as close as the bonds were, Harley's training wasn't easy. "We'd wrestle in this very small area with a 16-by-16–foot ring in 100 degree weather," McGillicutty recounted. "It was pretty rough. We'd train for two hours outside the ring doing drills like chain wrestling, 500 squats a day, 500 push-ups, 500 sit-ups, running around the streets of Eldon in hot weather. Then we spent the next hour doing matches and drills in the ring."
DiBiase didn't mind the hard work. "I wouldn't trade that experience for anything. I had really sound teaching, all the guys there were really solid."
Perhaps all those championship victories made Harley a bit eccentric. "Occasionally while doing squats, Harley thought it would be funny to take an electroshock stun gun like a Taser and shock students in the middle of our squats," McGillicutty said. "So that was a nice surprise."
DiBiase experienced the shocks as well. "Harley was a little bit crazy," DiBiase said. "He did Taser me the first day I was there." DiBiase didn't think much of the town, and told us he referred to the school's locale of Eldon, Mo., as "Hell-don, Misery."
But for all the hard work and the shocks, the teaching was second to none. "It was awesome," DiBiase said. "He really took care of me and treated me like family."
The Miz, trained by The Ballard Brothers
NAME OF SCHOOL: Ultimate University
LOCATION: Los Angeles
TRAINER: The Ballard Brothers, Shane & Shannon, Tom Howard
OTHER CLASSMATES & ALUMNI: John Cena, Chris Masters
One of the west coast's preeminent wrestling schools was Ultimate University, operated by Rick Bassman and Tom Howard's Ultimate Pro Wrestling in Los Angeles. The original training grounds of John Cena and former WWE Superstar Chris Masters, WWE Classics spoke with The Miz about his experience training with The Ballard Brothers.
"They were incredible," The Miz told us. "They taught me the basics on how to become a professional wrestler. Exactly what I needed to know to get me where I am."
But The Miz's training didn't end there. "When I got my WWE developmental contract, I went to Deep South Wrestling and worked under Bill DeMott, who really reamed us," the former WWE Champion said. "What Deep South prepared me for was they could throw anything at me and I wouldn't quit, no matter what."
The Miz's training continued as he travelled to Louisville, Ky., to study at Ohio Valley Wrestling. "At OVW, I trained under Al Snow," The Miz explained. "He started teaching me more about stories, how to put butts in seats, if you will, and how to sell tickets." The Miz continued, "[Al] taught me what would make people want to pay to see me."
Between The Miz's three schools, including his beginnings learning the fundamentals from The Ballard Brothers, The Miz attained the necessary skills to become a five-tool Superstar capable of accomplishing anything in the ring.
Billy Kidman, trained by The Wild Samoans
NAME OF SCHOOL: The Wild Samoan Training Center
LOCATION: Allentown, Pa. (now located in Minneola, Fla.)
TRAINER: Afa Anoa'i, Lloyd Anoa'i
OTHER CLASSMATES & ALUMNI: Kanyon, Gene Snitsky, Batista, Yokozuna, Rikishi, Tamina Snuka
No wrestling family can boast a star-studded family tree quite like the Anoa'i family, which includes such luminaries as The Rock, Rikishi, Umaga, Rosey and The Usos and WWE Hall of Famers High Chief Peter Maivia, Yokozuna and The Wild Samoans. For decades, family patriarch Afa operated a world-renowned wrestling training facility in Allentown, Pa., where he trained many of sports-entertainment's elite.
Former three-time Cruiserweight Champion Billy Kidman, who now works in the WWE locker room, told WWE Classics about finding Afa's school. "I went to a bowling alley and realized there was a pro wrestling school right underneath the bowling alley. I had been to the bowling alley so many times and I had no idea it was there."
"At the time, Afa was on the on the road with WWE as the manager of The Headshrinkers, and Lloyd [aka L.A. Smooth] was mostly running the school," Kidman explained. "I was only 16, but I started going back as much as I could. Afa would let me just sit and watch. When I was 18 or 19 was when I finally did train."
Afa, with his long history in sports-entertainment, had advantages over other wrestling schools by bringing along friends he had met during his years around WWE rings. "The best part of training there was that when WWE was in town, people would stop by," Kidman told us. "Savio Vega came in, Rikishi came in, Yokozuna came in, Doink the Clown came in. People would show up here and there. You never knew who would walk through the door." And they wouldn't just stop by. "A lot of times they would get in the ring and just show you a couple things," Kidman said.
Sometimes, these visits turned into formative experiences. "One of the best things ever was being on the receiving end of a Yokozuna leg drop," Kidman recalled. "Man, was that scary. It still actually might be the scariest thing in my entire career. Just watching that come down on me." Kidman made sure we knew how intense that feeling was. "And yes, it hurt."
Daniel Bryan, trained by Shawn Michaels
NAME OF SCHOOL: The Shawn Michaels Wrestling Academy (now called The Texas Wrestling Academy)
LOCATION: San Antonio, Texas
TRAINER: Shawn Michaels, Rudy Boy Gonzalez
OTHER CLASSMATES & ALUMNI: Paul London, Brian Kendrick, Lance Cade
After Shawn Michaels temporarily retired from active competition in 1998, HBK opened a training facility in his hometown of San Antonio. Among his students was former World Heavyweight Champion Daniel Bryan. WWE Classics spoke to Bryan about his experience there. "We trained six days a week," Bryan said. "Only three days were mandatory, but Brian Kendrick and I would go in there to train six days a week. We set up rings, we did all kinds of stuff."
To learn from the legendary Shawn Michaels was a thrill for the dedicated upstart and Bryan took advantage as much as he could. "It started at 9 and would go until 12, but Brian and I would stay until 2 or 3, learning new stuff," Bryan recalled. "Then we'd go downstairs to a place called Dona Juanita's, which had $1.25 tacos. And when you're poor, that's awesome."
"Shawn Michaels was a huge part of it, and Rudy Boy Gonzalez would spend all kinds of extra hours there with us," Bryan said. "He'd open the gym whenever Brian and I wanted to train. If we wanted to learn something crazy or strange, German suplexes, for example, Rudy would go in there and he'd show how to do it and let us try."
Bryan also told us about his most terrifying moment at wrestling school. "One night I nearly killed Shawn Michaels," he said. "This was before his return from his back injury. I was trying to do a thing where I'd spring off the second rope onto the top rope, spin and do a hurricanrana," Bryan intricately described. "Keep in mind, at the time I was 175 pounds, and that's a lot of weight to land on somebody's shoulders. I was trying to do it on Brian Kendrick, and it wasn't working. We thought Brian was too small. He was probably 150 pounds at the time," Bryan continued. "Shawn watched us do it a couple of times, and he got in the ring and wanted to do it with me. I go to do the hurricanrana, land on him and he ends up landing right on his head and rolls right out of the ring. We all freaked out. That was the night I nearly killed Shawn Michaels."