The Highgate Sports Arena smells like hockey. The padded lobby floors have clearly seen decades of slushy skates, but tonight the rink is nothing but hardwood. From April to September, a ring occupies the arena. Its apron reads: Slam All-Star Wrestling.
At tonight’s Spring Time Super Show, a mix of families with small children and groups of young men fills more than 50 seats at $10 each. They boo loudly when the Northern Studd, billed as hailing from Bangor, Maine, appears in the ring. The spectators recognize him as a heel — that’s “bad guy” in the parlance of pro wrestling, as much theater as sport. (Good guys are “baby faces.”)
Like all good heels, the Northern Studd promptly gets on the mic and attacks his audience’s intelligence. “I’m smarter than all you people,” he proclaims. “I’m better than you, I’m stronger than you…” As his tirade continues, a figure emerges from behind the blue tarp that demarcates backstage. Clad in camouflage from his hat to his John Deere T-shirt to his socks, his face masked in black, this spindly figure is Earl, the Green Mountain Grappler.
The audience knows him and voices its approval. Earl is their surrogate. He will make the Northern Studd pay. He mounts the Studd like a pony and slaps the villain as he crawls across the ring. “He’s riding him like a John Deere!” exclaims one audience member.
Despite an untimely meeting between Earl’s feet and the Northern Studd’s crotch, the latter eventually prevails, ending the match with a move called a Split-Legged Gourd Buster. The endings may be choreographed, but, as in life, good guys don’t always win.
The next morning, the Northern Studd will return to work as a computer engineer at a Vermont health-care company. He asks to be identified only as Mark, saying he’d rather his coworkers not learn about his weekend activities because of “misconceptions about the business.” Given his line of work, Mark also fears his hobby could exponentially raise his own health-care costs.
Mark began grappling in 2000, at the height of a craze. Back then, major wrestling promotions WWE (at the time WWF) and Ted Turner’s WCW battled for the top spot in the Monday cable ratings. A year later, Vince McMahon of WWE would purchase WCW, ring star The Rock would shift his focus to acting, and the national passion for wrestling would diminish. However, for Mark and the rest of SAW, the fire continues to burn.
In 2003, Mark, who books (scripts and choreographs) all matches and storylines for Slam All-Star Wrestling (SAW) , teamed up with two other performers and bought the SAW promotion from its former owners. His partners are Tommy Tuttle, who plays a manager character called The Candy Man, handing out treats to kids; and Leon Kempton, known as The Bull, a wrestler and sometime emcee who spends intermission pushing snacks and a 50-50 raffle. The three of them established a wrestling school, Divine Academy, and hired an instructor to get newbies in shape.
Most independent wrestling promotions set up anywhere they can, raising their ring before each show. The dedicated space of Highgate Sports Arena gives SAW more stability. During hockey season, fledgling wrestlers congregate in Mark’s basement for Divine Academy instruction from him and head trainer Justin Lussier. Besides chain wrestling (holds and other “real wrestling” moves), they learn how to “cut a promo” (make a speech) and study “ring psychology” (acting).
Lussier, a small man with a tuft of blond hair, is known to audiences as “Michael Monroe of Malibu.” A high school junior and already a gymnast and weight lifter when he began training, he says, “I was juggling the idea of college, but didn’t get very good grades ... I decided my chances would be better wrestling full-time.” Lussier spotted an ad in the St. Albans Messenger advertising training in mat basics. He ended up at a ring in Stanstead, Québec, that a local organization had set up in a sheep barn. “It was the middle of winter and ... it wasn’t heated,” Lussier recalls, “but I drove up a couple of times a week with two other guys.” It paid off. Within a year, Lussier was touring the country on the indie circuit.
Now 27, the cruiserweight ends his match tonight against the diminutive Viper the Ninja with a 450° Splash from the top rope. This acrobatic move is so tricky that major wrestling company WWE has banned it, but Lussier pulls it off with grace and power.
He didn’t learn that one in Stanstead, Lussier says, but “from studying tapes of luchadores [Mexican wrestlers] and cruiserweights on WCW Nitro. “I would repetitively watch them, and when I saw a maneuver I thought was cool, I would rewind and play it on slo-mo and decipher every footstep and every maneuver that would make it work,” he explains. When he started his own St. Albans school, Main Event Wrestling, in 1999, “I would use the guys I was training as guinea pigs,” Lussier continues. “I studied it like a science.”
Of course, not all aspiring wrestlers are ready for high-flying acrobatics. Some students start in their fifties, Lussier says: “I’ve had to train some really, really big, out-of-shape people or really, really skinny people. I’ve had to turn away people who were in danger of hurting themselves or others.”
This prudence may surprise moviegoers who can’t forget the image of a broken Mickey Rourke putting a staple gun to his head in last year’s The Wrestler. But it is very much in keeping with the goals of SAW.
The Highgate ring has a gentler tone than most. The average wrestling crowd greets “blown spots” (mistakes) with chants of “You fucked up!” At SAW, the cry is more likely to be “You messed up!” Mark corroborates that “Swearing happens very occasionally. People know that there are kids here.”
Most independent wrestling shows these days consist primarily of bloody, barbed-wire-heavy battles. Here, tonight’s sole “hardcore” match involves little more than a wrestler getting his head caught in a toilet seat. “This is the best match!” one kid exclaims, inching closer to the barricade keeping spectators out of harm’s way. A woman across the aisle chides him back to safety.
When asked about the exceedingly common practice of “blading” — using a secreted razor blade to extract blood for show — Mark shakes his head. “We try to keep that stuff to a minimum. We don’t want that mother who brought her two little kids having to pull them out.”
That means something of an adjustment for SAW’s current heavyweight champion, Pierre “The Beast” Vachon, who’s wrestled in many a hardcore match in his decade as a full-time pro. The Colchester resident — who takes his name from one of his mentors, Québecois legend Paul “Butcher” Vachon — battles from coast to coast every weekend, but says he’s particularly fond of the fans at his home arena.
“I say all the time that the Highgate crowd reminds me of a 1972 Memphis wrestling crowd,” Vachon says. “Nowadays wrestling has become so over the top that people don’t buy into it. It’s the same kind of people who want to tell how a magician does their tricks. These fans just want to see someone pull a rabbit out of their hats.”
The 390-pound tough guy’s usual slogan is “If at first I don’t succeed … I’ll make you bleed!” but he tones it down for family-friendly shows. Tonight Vachon gifts a child to whom he refers as “My biggest fan” with one of his T-shirts, telling him, “I’m giving you that shirt, but you have to promise me this — you have to yell real loud, because the louder you yell, the harder I punch and the easier I win.” Call it the pugilist’s version of reviving Tink in Peter Pan.
Though folks may call it “pro wrestling,” SAW’s shows don’t make much of a profit, if any. “We never see money in our pockets, because we all look at it as a hobby,” Lussier says. SAW runs most of its shows as fundraisers, whether for a fan’s cancer treatment or an uninsured wrestler’s medical bills following an injury. According to Lussier, “The profits from a benefit show are 50/50 — half for the charity and half to pay wrestlers back who have traveled, rent for the building and supplies, from duct tape to new canvas for the ring.”
When he’s not performing death-defying moves, Lussier is a full-time exterior remodeler. “Just because I was a good wrestler didn’t mean I was going to get noticed,” he says of his years trying to make a living in the ring. “I was becoming tired of the travel. I was spending more money than I made at the shows.”
Vachon, by contrast, has big career aspirations. In recent years, “The Beast” — who has also acted at the Edinburgh Festival — has discovered his funny bone. “Wherever I’m performing, I try to do a comedy show the same night I do wrestling,” he says. Vachon showcased both skills with an appearance last year on MTV’s “A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila,” in which he forced contestants through 15 hours of pro-wrestling boot camp in their quest to win the love of the MySpace phenom.
MTV was so enchanted with the wrestling funnyman’s Kinison-like chops that Vachon was in talks last fall for a reality show of his own shot in Vermont. For now, when he’s not on the road, he supports himself working security at Two Brothers in Middlebury and running Vachon Leather Works, but says he’s convinced God’s plan for him involves performing. He’s actively seeking a space for his own wrestling school in the Middlebury area.
“My body has taken a toll over 10 years,” says Lussier, retracing the path that brought him to SAW. “Wrestling in rings that might not be so legit can hurt.” Fittingly, in a business that’s all about larger-than-life heroes and villains, he gives his own story a triumphant dramatic arc. “When I was younger, I was in it for myself ... but I found that that was going to be a hard road to take.”
In SAW’s “gem” of an arena, Lussier says, he’s discovered the selfless pleasures of “working hard to better our product and putting on a good show for our fans.” And one day soon, he hopes to “build our organization into a local empire.”