PINELLAS PARK — There was no sign. Just a roll-up garage door outside a nondescript warehouse in a long row of nondescript warehouses on a back street.
Inside it was very gray. The chairs were the metal folding kind, dormant but dangerous-looking given the context.
Nothing shined except the gold on the four championship belts hanging opposite the wrestling ring. The ring nearly touched three of the walls inside Tampa Bay Pro Wrestling’s Lethal Academy. The school’s namesake trainer, Jay Lethal, watched 10 students, ages 17 to 37, clean the soles of their shoes with Clorox Wipes before they climbed inside.
WrestleMania, the biggest spectacle in the spectacle business, was a month away at the time. This wasn’t the WWE, not even close, but it could in a way be considered the opposite end of the same galaxy.
Lethal, born Jamar Shipman in New Jersey, spoke like an encouraging football coach. The students listened closely. It was only their second class in the four-month program. On the first day, they did nothing physical, just talked. “They have to be able to trust each other with their lives,” Lethal said. Eventually they’d learn to lift their classmates over their heads and slam them to the apron. But you start at the beginning. On that day in early March (before the term “social distancing” was a thing), they learned how to properly get up off the ground.
It sounds simple, but every movement inside a wrestling ring must be deliberate, explained Lethal, 34, who is muscular, but not jacked in the way you picture a pro wrestler. He has had multiple championship runs in major promotions like Ring of Honor and headlined the first non-WWE wrestling event at Madison Square Garden in six decades last April.
“I make this look easy, because I’ve been doing it for 18 years,” he said after executing a forward roll, landing flat on his back and popping up in a fluid motion. It involved bringing a knee toward an elbow, swinging a leg and driving a fist into the mat to push off. “In wrestling, you never get up with a flat hand. It’s an unspoken rule, because it will get stepped on.”
Lethal stopped the class and asked me to step inside the ring to try, too. Someone quickly produced a liability waiver to sign. Had he planned this all along? I hadn’t.
If you’ve watched wrestling on TV, but never been near a ring, climbing inside one is the most familiar yet completely foreign thing in the world. The mat feels surprisingly plush, like a velvety stress ball, especially if you’re in socks. I stood in line watching the students take turns laying down and getting up. When it was my turn I executed the motions perfectly, partly because I did them with the speed of a glacier. “Good, but can you do it a little faster,” said Lethal, chuckling.
As I exited the ring, trainer David Mercury, another veteran pro, whose wrestling persona is a mad scientist who talks like the “In a world...” movie trailer guy, opened the ropes, lifting one up with his hand, and pushing one down with his leg.
“That was cool right? After seeing managers do that for wrestlers on TV?” he asked. How did he know I was thinking that? It was so cool.
The class continued. Lethal led the students through other basics. They rolled forward and landed on their backs, arms spread wide, making a sound like metal shelves crashing down each time.
You have to lift your shoulders.
Your need a wider stance.
Again. Again. Again. Good. I’m not going to tell you what you were doing wrong before, but you stopped doing it.
One guy wearing a T-shirt featuring the character Newman from Seinfeld, was struggling with his form, so Lethal hit him with a thundering punch to the face in that way you’ve seen wrestlers do. They both laughed.
At some point down the road, a green screen and a camera will be set up in the warehouse, and the beginners will take turns learning to “cut a promo," a crucial piece of storytelling and character building that must have a “who, what, where, when and why,” Lethal said. But not yet. Thinking about character before you have the technique down is how you get distracted. It’s how you get hurt.
As the beginner’s class wound down, people started arriving for the advanced class that immediately follows. A guy in a pastel, button-down shirt and khakis strolled in followed by a guy with full sleeve tattoos and a heavily scissored tank top. Mercury took the lead on the later class, so Lethal grabbed a seat on a folding chair.
The academy, he said, is a place where lifelong dreams are finally nurtured. If students make it through the four months, they’ll have a chance to wrestle on at least one of Tampa Bay Pro Wrestling’s live shows, maybe at a local rec center in front of a handful of people for a few bucks of gas money.
“At that point, you can say you’re a professional wrestler,” he said. “You’ve got to be kind of sick in the head to do this to your body, to make pennies, just to say that. But they’re all willing to do it, and there’s a glimmer of hope in the back of our head that you’ll make it to a wrestling company on television. The sick thing is, everybody here is willing to do this for free."
The advanced class was more practice than class, made up of people who had already finished the beginner’s course and started wrestling on shows. About 15 guys lined the ropes in a sort of dance circle, where the guys in the middle ran full speed and dropped each other with clotheslines. Little Joe, literally half the size of his opponent, twisted a big guy by the wrist until he dropped to the floor.
They shouted weird non sequiturs, fragments of stories they were improvising.
He’s only a boyyy!
Oh no, not again!
Joe Heard, 26, is a student in the advanced class who wrestles on shows under the name Ronnie Bass Jr., an homage to his late father “The Outlaw” Ron Bass, who wrestled at WrestleMania 3, 4 and 5. At 6-foot-4, 315 pounds, he always kind of knew he’d start wrestling, but it took him longer than he’d expected.
“I was in a really bad place” after his father died," Heard said. “One day I woke up, took a shower and looked in the mirror and said, ‘Hey, get your crap together.' That morning I emailed the school and got the information. The way this place made me feel, it’s like, for the first time in a long time I couldn’t wait to see what else would be in store for me.”
Lethal would not allow his beginner students to be interviewed. It was a protective thing. “What if you ask them why they’re here, and they say something like, ‘I want to wrestle John Cena!,' and they get labeled forever in the business as a mark,” said Lethal, referring to the derogatory term for overzealous fans that wrestling adopted from carnie jargon. “In wrestling, sometimes all you have is your reputation.”
Lethal thinks of his own rise as similar to Charlie in the Chocolate Factory. As a 16-year-old wrestling superfan, he won a contest at a local wrestling school. The prize was free training. “I got the golden ticket." He finished his training at a second school, where he did have to pay, but sometimes he thinks how unlikely it is that he’d have followed that path without the early break.
“The thought terrifies me.”
The cost of tuition at Lethal Academy is advertised as $1999, or $300 up front with $400 monthly payments. Asked how people can afford that, he smiled and shook his head.
“I don’t make any money from this. It’s enough to pay the lease for the building and the lights," he said. “It’s for them. I think back to when I was training. I had no money, and if my trainer at the time didn’t agree to accept very little, and do this wacky payment plan system that benefited him zero, I wouldn’t be here. So there is not a single thing that I can’t work out with these guys.
"I don’t think anybody should be penalized because they don’t have the money to live their dream.”
Lethal walked into the dark parking lot to his pickup truck, ready to head home. He looked down at this phone. One of his beginner students was standing at a nearby gas station. “He’s feeling kind of deflated,” Lethal said. “His family’s not being supportive. I’m going to go talk to him."
He drove off. Through the garage door of the warehouse, you could hear people screaming. It sounded like someone was being murdered. It sounded like pure joy.