ANNAPOLIS – “Lightning” Mike Quackenbush crouches on the top rope in the corner of the ring holding Dino Divine’s shoulders. Suddenly, he somersaults over Divine’s head to take him down, but he lacks the momentum to budge Divine’s 6-foot-1-inch, 240-pound body. Quackenbush pauses, gathers his strength and hurls Divine into the center of the ring. Quackenbush jumps and pins Divine…
“One! – Two! – Three!”
The crowd cheers Quackenbush as he throws his arms in the air victoriously and leaves Divine lying alone in the ring, chest heaving beneath his black leather vest. Divine, dazed, gets to his feet and leaves as the crowd jeers.
Divine, 25, is really John Luckado, a swim instructor, and Quackenbush, 23, is really Mike Spillane. They are two of the growing number of Marylanders pursuing their dream to become the next Stone Cold Steve Austin or “Macho Man” Randy Savage at Bone Breakers Pro-Wrestling Training Center in Arbutus and schools like it.
The increasing popularity and acceptance for professional wrestling has given rise to a number of professional wrestling schools and promotions in Maryland. Fans come to local shows because they can be closer to the action than they can at big-time events, and they often can meet local and big-name wrestlers like Jerry “The King” Lawler or Headshrinker Samu.
“You think it’s the minor leagues until you see it in person,” said Leslie Leatherman, 28, who wrestles at the Superior Pro-Wrestling Training Center in Hagerstown. He travels from Cumberland to train and wrestle with other students twice a week.
For many wrestlers, going into the business fulfills a life-long dream. R.J. Meyer, known as The Bruiser, is a 23-year-old electrician from Cub Hill. He loved wrestling as a child because it was different from other forms of entertainment, he said.
“You could see not everybody could do it,” he said. He thought he could.
His character, The Bruiser, is a heel, a character the crowd is supposed to hate. But it doesn’t matter if the attention is all negative, as long as the audience shows him some feeling.
“You want people to think your match was the best one of the night,” he said.
Wrestling shows are attracting bigger crowds. When Mark Shrader started Maryland Championship Wrestling with Danny McDevitt in July 1998 about 300 people attended their monthly shows, like the Quackenbush-Divine match. Now they often bring in 500. In January, MCW will tape its monthly show as a pilot for local cable.
The State Athletic Commission licenses six promoters in Maryland: World Wrestling Federation, World Championship Wrestling, Maryland Championship Wrestling, Mid-Eastern Wrestling Federation, Baltimore Championship Federation and the National Wrestling League.
Revenue from the Boxing and Wrestling Tax, 10 percent of admissions, has doubled from 1996 to more than $800,000 in 1999, according to the comptroller’s office.
At least part of the increase is attributed to an increase in shows held in Maryland, according to Patrick Pannella, commission executive director. There were 51 events this year with three more planned in December, while in 1996 there were just 31 shows, he said.
But, with the growth in fans comes growing demands, fueled by the greater exposure wrestling has received through television and cable, Shrader said.
“The crowd expects more than they did a few years ago,” Shrader said. But they don’t want anything he isn’t willing to give them. “They want good hard- hitting matches with quality guys who know what they’re doing.”
More contemporary story lines and greater cable penetration have generated more acceptance for the profession and its fans, according to Jim Byrne, senior vice president for marketing for the World Wrestling Federation, one of the top two wrestling leagues in the nation. He likened the story lines to those in soap operas, keeping fans tuned in from show to show.
That acceptance has trickled down to local wrestling.
“A lot of (fans) used to have to hide,” said Brian Graybow, 19, a sophomore health care management major at Towson University at a recent Owings Mills MCW show. He likes wrestling because the story lines combine action, drama and comedy, he said.
But the changes in wrestling hasn’t pleased everyone. Complaints from the Parents Television Council prompted Coca-Cola, AT&T and others to withdraw their advertising from some or all of the WWF’s programming. WWF has promised to tone down the content of its shows.
Shrader defended wrestling’s content saying that it’s not any worse than any other form of entertainment.
Some local promoters, like John Rambo, president of House of Pain Wrestling Federation and NWL instructor, want to create more family-friendly wrestling entertainment.
Rambo also is trying a different approach to attract fans. His league’s website offers fans play-by-play of the free Tuesday night shows at the Hagerstown school.
Like Rambo, Barney Wilson, president and owner of the Baltimore Championship Wrestling Federation in Owings Millss, said he wants to return to old-fashioned wrestling with a focus on quality and safety, not profanity.
Wrestling is not that different, John Luckado said. People are just open to a broader range of wrestling now. When MCW does shows at high schools they do tone down the content, he said, but that’s risky. Promoters want to keep audiences coming, and controversial content pulls them in.
“It’s funny,” Luckado said, “That’s what it’s coming down to … that’s why the crowd has gotten bigger.”