On the road to superstardom, the next WrestleMania headliners could be training in Philadelphia

With WrestleMania XL coming to Philly in April, lifelong fans are hoping to make it to the grand stage by training at local wrestling schools.

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Wrestler Christian Darling pins a contender in the ring at the Monster Factory in Paulsboro, N.J. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Wrestler Christian Darling pins a contender in the ring at the Monster Factory in Paulsboro, N.J. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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This weekend, on April 6 and 7, Philadelphia will become a hotbed for wrestling fans as Lincoln Financial Field plays host to WrestleMania XL, where WWE superstars will be immortalized in what’s shaping up to be a huge weekend for the wrestling industry.

The area has a long and rich history with the sport that intertwines athleticism and showmanship. But, years before even making it to the grand stage, wrestlers need to go to wrestling school, where they learn to safely create magical moments in the ring.

“When you go to pro wrestling school, it’s not just about what you’re doing in the ring,” said student Jay McMurtrie. “It’s about how you give an interview, the cameras, the production, the smoke machine.”

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McMurtie is a student at Monster Factory in Paulsboro, New Jersey, which has produced hundreds of pro wrestlers over the years, including former WWE Champion Sheamus and current WWE Tag Team Champion Damien Priest, who will perform at WrestleMania this year. At 53, McMurtie said he realized it was time to take a shot at the commentary table.

“There’s a lot that goes into it. I don’t think that casual fans realize until they actually get there how much of a time commitment it is and how much there is to actually learn,” he said.

“I think we boast as the most successful school for getting people signed to top companies,” said trainer Melissa Sampson as her students warmed up in the next room.

Sampson’s been in the business for nearly 30 years and hopes to instill in her students a strong work ethic, allowing them to thrive regardless of their goals.

“Whatever success [means] to you could be different from someone else,” Sampson said. “I wanted to be a pro wrestler. I was a pro wrestler, so I did that. Whatever success is for you, I want them all to reach that, but the way that you reach that is being able to listen and follow direction and be accountable.”

But along the way, wrestlers need to learn how to take a few bumps because it’s no secret — pro wrestling is pretty dangerous.

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Across the Delaware River at Catchpoint in Kensington, safety is paramount, along with proper physical conditioning in the ring. Wrestlers essentially land on what amounts to plywood sitting on a metal frame. Nate Wallace is one of the trainers at Catchpoint, and with more than a decade of experience, he’s gotten used to what a ring can do to someone.

“Once you hit the mat the first time and then you feel that pain and then you’ll go, ‘Okay, I might still want to do this,’” Wallace said. “Then you go home and after a few more times, you hit those ropes and you felt that mat, you’ll realize it for yourself like, ‘Okay, this is for me,’ or, ‘This is not for me.’”

Catchpoint was created by Philly native and WWE superstar Drew Gulak, who says he got bit by the wrestling bug at an early age.

“My family wasn’t into wrestling, but I had a friend of the family named Wayne Stokes,” Gulak said. “His family would watch every pay-per-view. Wrestling was like a holiday at his house and I was invited over and I got to watch those. Those are memories that stuck with me for a lifetime.”

Those memories led him to start training in Philadelphia, including some sessions at the 2300 Arena. The work paid off, resulting in multiple WWE titles and even his own action figure. Gulak said it’s not the success that continues to motivate him but his love for wrestling, which inspired him to pay it forward by creating the city’s only wrestling school.

“We didn’t wrestle because we wanted to make it somewhere. We wanted to wrestle because we loved it,” he said. “That is where I learned, and it just means so much to me that I can kind of have my little place here in Philly.”

Fan participation is a pillar of professional wrestling. During these promotional bits, or promos, wrestlers are handed a mic, and the crowd gets to cheer or boo them. It’s a tactic used to showcase the individual performer’s personality while intensifying the drama unfolding in the ring by adding a narrative to the violence.

“I would see these big, larger-than-life type people, from Andre the Giant… to The Guerreros or young Roddy Piper,” said David Marquez, who produces multiple wrestling television shows and hosted a promo seminar at Catchpoint. “I’d watch them interact with the cameras. I think that’s what stuck to me when I realized that it was a show.”

During the seminar, Matt Quay learned how to work a crowd, which he said is what makes wrestling so great.

“It’s the entertainment that wears a lot of hats, if not all the hats,” Quay said. “Pro wrestling is the only thing that will give you that athleticism, that physicality, but also that acting, that showmanship and that improbability.”

While everyone may not look like Hulk Hogan or The Rock, that doesn’t mean they won’t eventually capture the hearts of dedicated wrestling fans. Monster Factory student Stevie Brooks believes pro wrestling is for everybody.

“I don’t necessarily fit the mold of what a pro wrestler looks like. I don’t have the bulging muscles,” Brooks said. “There’s so many different facets of wrestling right now… so many different roles that you can fit, and where you don’t see your role for yourself, you can always make your own role, and I think that’s what I’m doing right now. If you believe in yourself, you can find your own path.”

Those paths will converge for Monster Factory students when they host “We Been Here” on April 4 at 3 p.m. Catchpoint will be hosting seminars throughout WrestleMania week, including one with former ECW Champion Jerry Lynn on April 7.

The WWE will also host a series of shows at the Wells Fargo Center, including Friday Night SmackDown, NXT’s Stand and Deliver, and Monday Night Raw on April 5, 6 and 8.

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