The streets are hard-worn. This West Side neighborhood, never fancy, has been on a downward spiral since the 1970s. Machine shops, boarded windows, chain-link fences and graffiti stamp the desolation. Continually body-slammed by a soulless global marketplace, it’s a rough place to survive.
But the parking lot is filled at Turners Hall at 7325 Guthrie Ave., just south of Madison Avenue and West 73rd Street. Something’s thriving. Not far from the building’s faded red cinder block walls, a rooster crows. An actual rooster. Welcome to the home of Cleveland All Pro Wrestling.
“Shut up!” screams a commanding bull of a man to the boos and heckles as he steps into the wrestling ring. Clean-cut, 5-foot-10, packed with 242 pounds of muscle, he possesses an arrogant superiority that could be drill sergeant, dock foreman or CEO. He’s J.T. Lightning, the card’s bad guy, a real creep — or, in wrestling jargon, the “heel.” His opponent for today’s match is baby-faced, bleached-blond T.J. Dynamite.
“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” Lightning squawks at the crowd as he paces the ring like a caged, maniacal, adrenaline-pumped parrot. His brutal anger is so infectious and so annoying, I’m beginning to hate J.T. Lightning — so much that he actually becomes my favorite.
James Haase is a big man, J.T. Lightning big. He’s 37 years old and lives in North Olmsted with his wife and kids. He makes a good living working as a bread salesman for Schwebel’s Bakery. He loves his job, proud to mention he’s a two-time salesman of the year. He seems like the typical guy next door. One would never think for an instant that, deep down inside, he’s an addict.
But Haase has a lifelong passion that’s always itching. He’s in love with professional wrestling. He’s a bona fide junkie of choke holds, ankle locks, half nelsons, full nelsons, death grips, spinning toe holds, body slams and double chicken-wing suplexes. A few times a week, this twitchy, bear-hugging obsession leads Haase to strip like Clark Kent out of his role as husband, dad and salesman to become — SLAM! BAM! — J.T. Lightning, professional wrestler.
And that’s just the opening bell. Haase not only wrestles, he studies, teaches, books, markets, promotes and becomes the heart, soul and CEO of an indie tribe of 50-some regional wrestlers known as Cleveland All Pro Wrestling.
“I want to be the Vince McMahon of indie wrestling,” he says. “I want to tie it together and make it strong.
“And I just love bossing people around.”
The doors to Turner Hall open at 2 p.m. for the 3 o’clock show. A steady, eclectic stream of heavy metal T-shirts, bowling jackets, eyebrow rings, hoodies, gray pompadours, doo-rags, biker black, leather studs, beer caps, shaved heads, college geeks, high school boys, dates, fathers with sons — even families — file in to find a seat.
“Wrestling’s just testosterone-drenched soap opera,” explains Phil Angelo, a wispy-haired 60-year-old fan from Akron. “Straight-faced, politically incorrect battles between good and evil.” Local wrestlers may be a bit smaller or younger than the pros on TV, Angelo says, “but they got the game.”
The history of pro wrestling was written in an intricate web of regional promoters and bookers. For a half-century, there was an unwritten law among promoters not to expand outside of their home territories. In the 1970s, Cleveland was part of a very popular territory, the International Wrestling Association.
Then, in 1984, Vince McMahon and his World Wrestling Federation promotion (now known as WWE, for World Wrestling Entertainment) broke ranks and went national, syndicating and televising the WWF brand across the country, forever breaking the trust of the territory system. Absorbing and bankrupting smaller promotions, McMahon turned his professional wrestling promotion into a billion-dollar entertainment industry.
But some independents survived. Haase caught the wrestling bug from one of them at age 10. “Georgia Championship Wrestling was the big thing on cable,” he recalls. “I learned to wrestle watching those videos.”
At 20, Haase moved to Cleveland, where he met another wrestler, Tommy Thompson, and started performing professionally. It was 1991, and while WWF was all the rage nationally, hundreds of ham-and-egg independents still operated throughout the country. As Haase and Thompson wrestled in many small area shows, Haase decided he could do a better job than the promoters he was working for.
“[I] lost three grand promoting my first show,” he laughs. “Still, [I] kept going — learning on the job. That was 14 years ago.”
Cleveland All Pro Wrestling is not the only indie wrestling promotion in Northeast Ohio, but it’s the longest-running. One Sunday a month at Turners Hall, there’s a main event. The hall can seat about 250 to 400 people, and tickets are priced from $9 to $15. The wrestlers are subcontracted and are paid $25 to $150 per event, depending on experience. A few of the performers are older national stars from the past, but most on the card are local.
Two nights a week, Haase and protégé Johnny Gargano use Turners as a training facility. Here the wrestlers practice the violent spins, moves and fighting styles they’ll use in an almost jazzlike improvisation in their matches.
“I’m a disc jockey and an actor, and I’ve also been doing this for over 10 years. Here in Cleveland, West Virginia, Pittsburgh — all over. Yeah, it hurts. Getting hurt is real.” — pro wrestler John Cathelini, aka The Bouncer
It’s a gray Lake Erie day in February. There’s a wind chill of 5-below outside, but it’s warm and bright inside Turners Hall, where today’s show is quickly being pieced together. In the middle of the gritty old gym is a 16-foot-square ring where some of the wrestlers and their girlfriends bounce and stretch and joke. To the left of the ring, a scissors-lift scaffold stretches 10 feet off the ground, holding the lights and cable TV cameras. To one side stand two folding tables full of T-shirts, hats, videos and magazines to be sold by Haase’s 16-year-old son, Mike. Daughter Hannah, 15, quietly moves about the gym, placing fliers for the coming month’s show on all the chairs, then heads to the concession stand, where she’ll sell pop, pizza and candy for the next three or four hours.
“OK, people, gather in,” Haase calls out to the wrestlers from the base of the ring. They pull in before him, and he quickly reviews their “parts and roles” in the event. Warm, confident and efficient, Haase reminds them to make all the fans feel welcome and to spread the word in the coming weeks about Cleveland All Pro Wrestling. Lastly, he asks that before leaving, all of his wrestlers donate a few bucks to a Turners Hall spaghetti dinner fund-raiser benefiting two Guthrie Avenue neighborhood kids with cystic fibrosis.
Meanwhile, one of the wrestlers is already attracting the crowd’s attention. “He’s a legend!” a 12-year-old boy beams to his buddy, pointing at the large, solemn-looking man with a mane of shaggy blond hair. He’s WWE Hall of Famer Greg “The Hammer” Valentine. He’s at the show to do a tag-team match and an autograph and picture session. His face eventually lights up, too, as he schmoozes with the fans.
“There’s three major leagues of wrestling right now,” explains Joe Dombrowsky, play-by-play announcer for SportsTime Ohio, which broadcasts Cleveland All Pro Wrestling twice a week in various time slots. “There’s Vince McMahon’s WWE, Jeff Jared’s TNA, and a new independent, Ring of Honor. If you’re not with one of these groups, you’re not making a living.”
Most Cleveland All Pro wrestlers are moonlighters. John Gargano, a former junior heavyweight wrestling champ, teaches wrestling and works for his father’s catering business during the week. Beefcake bruiser Chris Cronus of Lorain is a business major at Case Western Reserve University. TV champ Jason Bane, a brutal behemoth of a man from Parma, works at General Motors.
“Some of these wrestlers are here for a fun hobby,” Dombrowsky says. “Some are here hoping to get discovered. And some are just happy to be here in this hall.”
“Ladies and gentlemen!” screams Hank Hudson, the dapper, tuxedoed ring announcer. He pauses, then rolls into an intense litany of the bouts to come, slowly building into a crescendo: “Are you ready?” Hudson’s next five words answer his own question: “For some hard-core, kick-ass wrestling?!”
“My main goal when I first started was to wrestle a thousand matches and quit healthy,” Haase tells me as the interview winds down. “I’m at 969 right now. In real life I have a good job and I can have a good pension, and I want to be able to move my body when I’m 55.”
But when the frustrations and monotony of his everyday routine grind Haase down, he says, he finds relief and balance by stepping into the scripted control of his wrestling world, a home-crafted security blanket that ends up making the everyday more enjoyable.
“It’s my drug. If I were in it for the money, I would have quit the first year,” he says, a new resolve edging into his voice. “I’m gonna get my thousand matches and then I’m gonna keep wrestling going in Cleveland as a promoter. I’m gonna take it as far as it goes.
“It’s a pain in the ass, putting up with the booking and the big egos,” he says. “But I love it. It’s given me a bigger confidence I take into the real world.
“Whether it’s for five people or five hundred people,” he promises, “I’m gonna put on a show.”
It’s been a good day of seven performances. Hobo Joe, Chris Cronus, The Bouncer, Da Munchies, Faith In Nothing, Zach Gowan and Johnny Gargano have all turned in acrobatic, entertaining performances that rival anything the Vince McMahon federation could offer. But there’s still the match that fans have been waiting for: The tag-team battle with J.T. Lightning and Tracey Smothers taking on Jason Bane and WWE’s Greg “The Hammer” Valentine.
The bout starts with Smothers and Bane mixing it up. Smothers takes some big slaps and punishing drops from Bane before he’s able to break loose and tag.
J.T. enters the ring to the loudest boos of the day and laughs. He’s quickly able to body-slam Bane to the mat. Bane, momentarily prostrate, is a dazed dog-shiver of confusion, oblivious to the outstretched tag of Greg Valentine. As Bane searches for mental clarity, J.T. cockily performs jumping jacks, as though this championship bout is merely a simple workout for him.
“Shut up! Look at your boy!” he taunts the crowd. He’s so arrogant and confident, it’s almost as though J.T. Lightning owns Cleveland All Pro Wrestling.