April 26, 2008
Taking falls in the New Hart Dungeon
Sun reporter takes a lickin' but keeps on tickin'
By SHAWN LOGAN - Calgary Sun

Ravenous Randy. Photo by Jason Clevett

Learning to fall may be harder than learning to fly.

This was my first and most painful lesson when I decided to fulfil a childhood dream and step between the ropes in the New Hart Dungeon to train with the next generation of Calgary wrestling stars.

Tucked away in a corner on the second floor of the storied B.J.'s Gym in the East Village, the new dungeon doesn't quite have the same ghosts that haunted the original in the Hart Mansion in Patterson Heights.

But the well-worn and taped canvas, complete with black scuff marks from errant boots that scraped the ceiling and an armada of posters of wrestling legends surrounding it, is the nexus of a school that is trying to build a new legacy of hard knocks teaching that would make the late Hart family patriarch, Stu, crack a satisfied and likely evil grin.

There are no fancy pastel-hued tights or pyrotechnic ring entrances at this level -- although I've already considered making REM's Everybody Hurts my personal anthem.

The new dungeon is about conditioning, learning the mechanics of the art of wrestling and, most importantly, taking "bumps."


ART OF THE FALL

Any wrestler worth his or her salt -- and that narrow list will not include this woeful scribe -- knows not only how to fall but how to sell it as a traumatic experience.

It didn't turn out to be all that difficult to feign pain -- actual pain is, as it happens, the best motivator.

The finer points of theatrical tumbling tends to be the last thing to go through your mind when you are being flipped over a muscular shoulder on the way to the canvas.

In this case, 18-year-old high-flying prodigy Chucky Blaze, one of the iconic Stampede Wrestling's new stable of eager up-and-comers, is the one chosen to ensure I get used to being horizontally aligned with the canvas.

In the nanoseconds in which one is suspended in the air -- for me, this was through a series of gravity-straining moves called snapmares, arm drags and suplexes by the affable Blaze -- a mental checklist readying for the perfect bump has to go through one's head.

Stare straight ahead without looking down -- check.

Palms down to break fall with a loud, satisfying smack -- check.

Arms out at side -- check.

Knees up -- check.

Chin tucked into chest -- oops.

Missing the full equation means my head bounces off the not-so-forgiving canvas and earns me a sharp rebuke from Ted Hart, one of the next generation of local stars who helps run the school and the oldest grandson of Stu Hart.

RING MAGICIANS

Wrestling, at its best, seamlessly combines athleticism and showmanship, suspending the disbelief of savvy fans who have critical eyes and little patience for performers unwilling to make the show as real as possible.

Ted, the son of Georgia Hart and B.J. Annis and nephew of Bret, not surprisingly given his pedigree, is a student of the game and pushes his young proteges to give the fans crowded into aging arenas and community centres a sense of reality.

"It's like a good magician, if you can't tell how he's doing it, you're gonna watch it because you're amazed at the fact he's basically doing an optical illusion right in front of your face," he said.

"It takes a certain kind of person with a certain kind of work ethic to be successful in this business."

Stampede Wrestling was a big part of my Saturday afternoons as a youngster, with announcer Ed Whelan's nasal-toned voice, always on the edge of panic, frantically narrating what I believed at the time to be real-life conflicts that were just a hair's breadth away from becoming truly dangerous.

While much of the veil has now been lifted from the industry, along with whatever innocence it had, the sport still evokes a certain degree of awe watching athletes putting their bodies on the line with death-defying leaps and high-impact manoeuvres.

The 27-year-old Hart has bumped his way through World Wrestling Entertainment, Total Nonstop Action Wrestling, Wrestling Society X on MTV and currently in the Mexico-based Asistencia Asesoria y Administracion.

But he said one of the things that drives him is teaching young wrestlers to become men.

"I used to think the main reason I ran my school was to develop superstars but after awhile I realized it gets people off the streets and it gives them something to do," he said.

"This is an outlet for them to express their aggressive side and their creative side, too."

Sure, but do they have to take their aggression out on me?

THE HARD PART

"If you don't know how to fall right, you're going to get hurt," warns Ravenous Randy, the current holder of the Stampede North American Heavyweight belt, who helps train the young athletes keeping the Calgary promotion alive.

Turns out the apparently famished Randy (I was constantly wondering if I should offer him a sandwich) is correct.

Throw a hand out at the wrong time to break your fall and the only thing that may wind up broken is your wrist.

Hit the turnbuckle at the wrong angle and there's going to be an angry purple bruise to remind you there's a right way and wrong way to take a bump.

"Wrestling uses every muscle in your body -- it takes a lot of conditioning for the beating your body's going to take," the Ravenous one says.

Sounds painful -- I'd rather eat.

The aforementioned conditioning, as it turns out, can leave your body hurting far more than any ring lumps.

Heavy weights to tone and build muscle is the first thing on the agenda for students, followed by 100 or so quad-burning free squats and standing jumps to a platform well over 3 ft. in the air.

Ted Hart cranks the wooden platform to around 4 ft., effortlessly hopping up and landing on his feet with a grace I can only gape at as I struggle to launch myself to a level embarrassingly lower than the pros.

It's well known fact journalists maintain their fitness with a steady, fibre-rich diet of wheat beer and pizza while keeping cardio up by occasionally sprinting after a source.

I get the impression Randy doesn't like my chances of lacing up wrestling boots and strutting down to the ring.

Most come to the school with visions of becoming a high-flying superstar, but the reality, Randy says, is much more stark.

"Maybe one in five has what it takes -- a lot of times they're too small or think they know it all to begin with," said the 222-pounder, who weighed in a 140 lbs. when he started wrestling with Bruce and Ross Hart in the original Dungeon.

"We do have people who come in and don't have what it takes and it's hard to tell them that, but sometimes you get surprised."


Brandon Van Danielson. Photo by Jason Clevett
THE DREAM

Brandon Van Danielson at 18, is one of the young lions moving up the ranks of Stampede Wrestling.

Despite being billed as one of the promotion's rising stars thanks to an inhuman mix of strength, speed and smarts, he still makes the twice-weekly trip to Calgary from High River for four plus hours of gruelling training.

After a lengthy feud with Chucky Blaze (who may be my new nemesis -- just kidding Chucky, please don't hurt me anymore), the duo have paired up as a tag team dubbed Team RAGE (which stands for Rise Against Good and Evil).

The pair is gunning for those big gold, and ultimately impractical, belts that are the object of every wrestler's desire, currently held by some guys named the Funky Bunch.

Van Danielson has been training in the New Dungeon since he was 15.

"I love everything about it -- I walk away hurting but it has never crossed my mind to do anything else," he said.

"This is my plan, to try and make it."

Making it, of course, refers to making the jump to the WWE, or the few other major promotions that can allow a young wrestler to actually make a living getting tossed over ropes or smashed in the head with a folding chair.

I suppose there could be worse ambitions.

The top guns in the New Dungeon sing the praises of Van Danielson, who can bench press 280 lbs., launch himself off the top ropes with the agility of a cat and sell a bump with the best of them.

But unlike many before him, he's realistic.

"Wrestling is unpredictable -- sometimes you've just got to be in the right place at the right time," he said.

"It's just an honour to be in Stampede Wrestling."

THE PAYOFF

The Stampede Wrestling torch has been passed to Bill Bell, who acquired the promotion three years ago, and it's up to him now to keep the once proud institution alive.

Bell stepped up in 2005 when it was on the verge of folding (something that was threatened often even during Stu's tenure) and retains a passion for developing talent and putting on a good show.

"These kids would walk over a mile of broken glass just to get in the ring," he said.

"I guarantee they're not staying around because of the pay, so there's got to be something else."

For the record, there's a show every two weeks or so and that will earn a performer between $40 to $100.

So it once again begs the question: Why the heck do they do it?

Putting your body on the line for a handful of dollars, often in front of crowds that are more likely to jeer and toss fountain pop at you, doesn't exactly seem that appealing, I humbly venture to Bell.

It's actually quite simple, says the Stampede boss.

"It's just the same as playing hockey: They're living the dream and the opportunity to advance," he says with not one ounce of cynicism. "When the house starts booing, that's their cheering."

RING THE BELL

Ted Hart. Photo by Mike Lano, WReaLano@aol.com

So after one evening of getting slammed about, tossed into ropes, falling on my back, face and butt, is there any hope of a future?

Ted Hart is oddly optimistic about anyone's chances if they've got the right attitude.

"That's one of the cool things about wrestling is there is a lot of potential for anyone to get in," he insisted.

"Some of the guys I thought were going to quit after a week are the hardest-working sons of guns out there and there's other guys who have all the potential in the world but it comes almost too easy for them and they don't end up developing the work ethic."

Thanks, Ted, but I know my limits.

While I may not have mastered the art of appearing to take a beating (mostly because I feel like I've actually taken a beating), at the very least, I think I can craft an appropriate nom de guerre.

Perhaps the 'Vainglorious Victim,' 'Not in the Face' Logan, or the 'Mighty Stumbler?'

Or maybe I'll just leave it to the experts.

* * *

Stampede Wrestling's next Calgary show, dubbed Carnage in Acadia, starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 26th, at the Acadia Recreation Complex at 240 90 Ave. S.E..

Editor's note: This story originally ran April 20, 2008 in the Calgary Sun.

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