It's stone cold certain they earn their pay
By THANE BURNETT -- Toronto Sun
Thane Burnett wants to be Hans the Terrible Hun but after Camp Martell wrestling coach William Knowlton gives him a headlock, he feels more like Hans the Timid. -- Photo by Greg Henkenhaf, SUN
HAMILTON -- 6 p.m. -- I have no tights in my closet. I have no big, black, scary boots.
My wife is digging through the rag bin at home, trying to find material for a mask, but she only comes up with torn baby pajamas.
"Just try this," she says, exasperated, holding out something green and pink with small bears all over it.
Less than an hour from the start of Camp Martell, a Hamilton pro wrestling school, and I can't find a thing to wear. Jeez, the other wrestlers are gonna make fun of me, I just know it.
6:55 p.m. -- I arrive outside the Regency Boxing Club, a community workout centre in a south section of the city -- just past the steel mills and off a tough street that's taken a few hard knocks of its own.
Knowlton hits Burnett with a clothesline. -- Photo by Greg Henkenhaf, SUN
I wait in the car -- nervous about getting out. I figure that may be the wrong attitude, given the circumstances.
Finally I run down a long flight of stairs, past a water fountain that doesn't work and a group of children beating on one another, and follow the sound of grown men hitting the ground.
I have arrived. I am no longer a father to be ignored. No longer a husband to be denied. I will be a wrestler to be feared.
I will become ... Hans the Terrible Hun. The persona is perfect. As I will be, once in the ring. I mean, how hard could it be?
Camp Martell runs an 18-month -- four times a week -- no-holds-barred course in grappling. For just over $1,000, they'll teach you all the tricks of the trade -- everything your mother told you not to do while horsing around with your brother.
It's where entertainment and hype collide with blood and sport -- sold for $10 a ticket at community halls and gyms across North America.
Why, just last week, William Knowlton and Dave Barry were slamming tables, ladders and chairs (in the business, it's called a T.L.C. match) over the heads of wrestlers in the Maritimes.
Over the years, the tag-team partners have sprained, broken, bruised, cut and rattled just about every part of their bodies, with Knowlton -- at just 24 -- suffering so many concussions his doctor warned him his days in the ring were numbered.
The pair -- both bad guys on the circuit -- run Camp Martell as a training ground for others who daydream of pile-drivers and clothes-lines and choke holds.
Yes, they're tough. But obviously they have never seen the cat-like moves of Hans the Terrible Hun.
7:20 p.m. -- Hans is tired now. Hans would like some water.
I, along with the other students -- pushed by conditioning coach J.J. Confalone -- am racing up and down the steps of the boxing club. The loser of each race has to continue running. I think this is mean, but I let it go.
"We've wrestled guys who are tired after two minutes. They just don't have the conditioning to go on," says Knowlton. "That's not what people pay for."
7:25 p.m. -- Still running. I'm up against 16-year-old student James Hass. The little punk is beating me.
He's smaller than I am, and half my age, so for a moment I wonder if it would be okay if I simply pushed him down the stairs. Hans -- who hasn't been in a gym for a year because of the kids and new dog and house repairs -- is ready to throw up.
7:30 p.m. -- We've stopped running, and are being drilled on the four laws of wrestling.
No. 1 -- Tuck your chin in before you hit the mat.
No. 2 -- Breathe out on impact.
No. 3 -- Attack your opponent's left side.
No. 4 -- Expect the unexpected.
Barry -- who's called Quinton Valentino in the ring -- is walking up the line like an angry drill sergeant, demanding the rules be screamed back at him. Sweat is pouring off us all. Damn, I think, where did he get those big, black, scary boots?
7:35 p.m. -- I'm bounding into the ring now, and suddenly I'm not tired. Wait. Scratch that. I have a bit of a cramp in my side -- but Barry doesn't seem to care.
"For these guys, this will make them money. This will be a job," he's berating me. "We're not going to say, 'It's okay, you'll eventually get it.' People will pay money to see them do it right.
"We're not here to make it easy. We're here to teach them to do it safely and do it well."
Oh. Mr. Big Wrestler. Mr. Tough Guy. Mr. Attitude.
7:45 p.m. -- I think I may be disrupting the class. Barry and Knowlton are teaching me how to slam onto the mat, to make it look like you've been hit hard by your opponent. It's an illusion -- but it can really hurt.
"Stand there. Kick both feet into the air, don't forget to tuck your chin in, and land on your shoulders. Bang your arms down at the same time," says Knowlton -- known as Jerry Martell on the circuit -- as he does it on bare concrete outside the ring.
But I am Hans the Hun. Why do I need to know how to hit the ground? Explain it to the other guy.
????? p.m. -- I can't tell you what time it is. All I know is I'm Hank the Hermit. And that last fall really rattled me.
I see two of everyone. And who the hell is ringing that bell?
"Didn't tuck your chin in, did you?" Knowlton says.
I'm asking for time to make notes. I'm asking for my mother.
The other students are given a three-minute break.
The most promising one is 24-year-old Tedd Pottruff, who works in the pharmaceutical industry. Married with two kids, he's been in Camp Martell since July. It's getting him in shape, and he gets to live out a fantasy of battling bad guys in the ring.
"Most of my friends don't know. Those who do joke about it," he says, wiping sweat from his brow.
8:10 p.m. -- It's time to work the ropes. Time to shine. Time to show them the magic of Hans. Only, the ropes aren't ropes. They're aircraft cable, covered in hose, wrapped with tape. When I hit, Barry tells me the right way to hang on, in case the ropes snap. I understand this when he -- a mild-mannered radio engineer by day -- hurls me across the ring.
We're around the same size -- over 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds -- but he's tossed me like a pillow against a wall.
"You'll be bruised tomorrow," he winces.
Student Tedd Pottruff is the victim of and armbar from James Hass. -- Photo by Greg Henkenhaf, SUN
Hans is terribly afraid now. Hans wants to leave please. But, over and over, I slam to the mat and against the ropes.
9 p.m. -- Finally, the lesson ends -- while the pain goes on. Tomorrow I will awake, black and purple up my entire right side. My legs will be cramped. It'll hurt to get out of bed. It'll hurt to hold a cereal spoon. But for tonight, I'm told the only thing left to learn is the wrestler's handshake.
Barry holds out his large, outstretched palm, and I prepare to be kicked in the groin, or pounded over the head. Instead, his grip is weak. The handshake is a code among wrestlers -- a show of the mirage and care behind the knocks they inflict.
Limping back up the concrete steps, I'm still not sure what in wrestling is very real and what's fake. I'm just sure they earn the $10 a head in ticket money, and those fans will never get to see Hans the Terrible Hun. Unless, of course, I can get some tights. Maybe that mask. And borrow Barry's black boots.