Laid Off, Maybe, but Wannabe Wrestlers Still Ready to Rumble

While the recession has left many laid off workers desperate, others -- like some of the hopefuls at Boogie's Wrestling Camp in Shawsville, Va. -- feel freed to pursue their dreams.
By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 16, 2009

UNION, W.Va. -- Grown men with potbellies squeezed into spandex crowded inside the boys' locker room, ready to wrestle. The fact that most of the men in this middle school gym in a small West Virginia town would spend more on gas than they'd make this night seemed beside the point.

This is the stuff of dreams -- at least the dreams of Troy Long.

For nine years, Long worked at Volvo's New River Valley plant, helping to build the 18-wheelers that are made there largely by hand. Then, a year ago, he was laid off. The plant, one of the largest employers in southwest Virginia, has lost about 2,400 people, or two-thirds of its workforce, since 2006, when production was at its peak.

With no job, dwindling savings and a son to take care of, Long did what might seem counterintuitive: He walked into Boogie's Wrestling Camp in Shawsville, Va., and signed up. He figured that if the real world no longer had a leash on him, why not run wildly toward what he'd always enjoyed?

If most people, spectators and wrestlers alike, were in that school gym last Saturday night despite the economy, Long was there because of it. He is among those victims of the recession who are succeeding mostly because they've changed their definition of success. He remains a long shot to make it in a wrestling world, with its tiny celebrity stratosphere and a wide mat full of wannabes, but he is a satisfied man.

"In reality, the economy tanking really turned my whole life around," Long said. "It got me living my dream full time. It cost me some things, but it's given me more."

For the past eight months, the 36-year-old has trained at the camp, polishing his moves and perfecting his stage persona, Sgt. Long -- a name derived from his time in the Army Reserve, a moniker now written in camouflage on his spandex shorts and tattooed on his washboard abs. The camp is where he spends many weekends with his 3-year-old son; it's where he met the woman he plans to marry, a mother of three whose teenage son also wrestles.

Shortly after leaving Volvo, Long found work through a temp agency, working the line at a fish food factory, but he made sure the bosses understood that he needed a flexible schedule that would allow him Fridays and weekends to wrestle. Long is making just one-third of what he made at Volvo -- $8.25 an hour compared with $24 before the layoff -- but if the truckmaker called and offered his old job back, he doesn't know what he'd do. "That would be a tough decision, because I am living my dream right now," he said. "When I'm in a show and come out of a curtain, I'm not Troy Long anymore. I'm Sgt. Long."

One has just to walk into Boogie's camp, up a hill on a quiet road, to see working men turn into heroes. Frank the Tank used to work at a carwash. Loose Cannon is a Roanoke police officer. Tommy Justice, whose real name is John Ayers, was a busboy at a local Japanese restaurant and now does landscaping.

When Ayers joined the camp 18 months ago, he couldn't afford the training -- $250 down and $20 a month -- so his mother lent him the money. The 27-year-old believes it was God's plan for him to become a wrestler and said it is now his goal to make it to the big leagues of WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). Right now, like most of the camp's graduates, he wrestles in an independent circuit that seeks out big fans in small towns, turning school gyms into arenas.

A few of the men have established themselves enough to earn a decent night's wage, but most take home $20 or less a night. For his second match, Ayers took home $10, an increase from his first, for which he earned nothing.

"People can call this a sport; people can call this entertainment," said Willie Maxey, a.k.a. Big Willie Blackheart, who has wrestled on the independent circuit for 16 years and is now a booker. "This is what we do 'cause we have a passion for it. We do it 'cause we love it."

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