Fight Factory: Inside Ireland's pro-wrestling school
As Irish WWE champion Becky Lynch puts wrestling in the spotlight, John Meagher discovers a little-known world where athleticism meets theatre
There is a warehouse at the end of a narrow residential street near the North Strand in Dublin and there are crazy goings-on inside.
On Tuesday and Thursday nights, a large group of men and women in their 20s and 30s meet here to knock the living daylights out of each other. Anyone who accidentally finds themselves wandering into this place will be keen to escape quickly. But those who pause will likely be transfixed by the sight of a burly, hirsute man charging at a diminutive woman and getting unceremoniously upended by said female, or by the line of men - and women - queuing up to be kicked in the face.
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Welcome to Fight Factory, one of only a handful of academies for aspiring wrestlers of the WWE variety. Anyone who might have — literally — grappled with the Olympic discipline of Greco-Roman wrestling and who hasn’t seen the hugely popular TV version popularised by such figures as Hulk Hogan and, more recently Stone Cold Steve Austin, will find it both oddly familiar and bizarrely different.
But it's difficult to imagine anyone - certainly those under the age of 40 - who haven't seen the WWE variety, or World Wrestling Entertainment to give it its full title. And don't underestimate its remarkable pulling power.
Last weekend, there was an 82,000 sell-out for WrestleMania 35 at the MetLife stadium in New Jersey and millions more around the world were watching on pay-per-view TV. The star of the show was a 32-year-old Irish woman, Rebecca Quin - known by her stage name as Becky Lynch. The Limerick-born, Dublin-raised former Aer Lingus flight attendant has become one of the biggest box office draws of WWE.
Before her fight against the former UFC champion Ronda Rousey, she was on a rumoured WWE contract of $250,000 per annum, although it's thought that that figure will have swelled enormously as a result of the pay-per-view figures. Rousey is still the highest paid female in WWE, earning an estimated $1.5m a year.
Lynch began her road to the top of WWE in the early 2000s at an Irish wrestling school much like this one. In fact, it was run from the same building in Bray where Fight Factory used to train and was operated by pro-wrestler Paul Tracey and Irish WWE superstar Finn Balor, aka Fergal Devitt.
As one of Lynch’s original coaches, Tracey was a proud man this week — and, today, he is working at developing future champions at his School of Irish Wrestling in Ballymount, Dublin.
But back to Dublin 3 — and Fight Factory. It’s run by Phil Boyd, a professional wrestler — who was also trained by Tracey and Balor — and who performs both in Ireland and overseas. His love of WWE has even taken him to Japan, a country revered for its wrestling heritage.
Boyd is about as far from the eye-bulging, overly muscled, loud and sweary coach as you can get. He has a beatific smile for most of the night and his style is to encourage rather than put-down. He loves wrestling and he bears the sort of boyish delight that he has been able to make a living out of his passion.
"I used to watch it on television as a kid," the 33-year-old Dubliner says. "And I loved it. All I ever wanted to do was be a wrestler, too." And he has been wrestling for half his adult life.
"It wouldn't make you rich," he says, with a laugh. "But if you get to do a job that you love, it's not that important. And helping to train a new generation of wrestlers means an awful lot."
He has known some of the trainees for several years and he has seen how they have developed. Some have gone on to wrestle at events in Ireland and abroad; others are happy to simply continue training, getting fit and savouring the rapport that exists between other WWE fans who are happy to get in the ring.
If there's a 'type' who might want to give this unusual mix of entertainment and sport a go, you wouldn't know it from the trainees gathered this Tuesday night. Some of them have bodies that have clearly been put through a weight-training regimen. Others, however, look slight and if you were to meet them on the street, you would think they would be the least likely people imaginable to sign up to be thrown hard on to the canvass of a fighting ring.
Aoife Cusack is a diminutive, softly spoken 22-year-old journalism and Irish graduate by day and a scowling, menacing wrestler called Valkyrie by night. She has been training for four years and has already become something of a star in the largely underground world of Irish WWE. She is the reigning Irish junior heavyweight champion.
"You come away with bruises sometimes but your body gets used to it," she says. "I loved watching WWE when I was growing up and to get to wrestle in front of an audience is such fun."
Now that she is finished college, she is attempting to give wrestling a go full-time. "It's difficult because it doesn't get much exposure and there's no funding, even though this country is producing some very good wrestlers."
Cusack, from Dublin, spends 12 hours a week training at Fight Factory. She says it's a commitment that has tried some friendships. "My friends think it's bizarre," she says. "You end up missing things - birthday parties, and so on. But if you set your mind to something and you're serious about it, you've got to put the work in."
It's a sentiment echoed by Kaydee McKeon Joyce, a 30-year-old from Salthill, Galway. She is now Dublin based, but when she first started training, she would leave her home in the west, drive to the capital and then get the Dart to Fight Factory in Bray - before taking the same, lengthy journey home at night.
McKeon Joyce - whose stage name is Debbie Keitel - came to WWE via the world of powerlifting. She's seriously strong. When Review's photographer Gerry Mooney seeks a striking image, she lifts Aoife Cusack above her head and holds the pose for what seems like an eternity.
She got exciting by WWE during the so-called Attitude Era - personality driven wrestling of the early 2000s. "Characters are important," she says. "And the ones that do best tend to be larger than life and have a connection with the crowd."
Like Cusack, she has her stage wardrobe specially made. Female wrestlers are expected to wear elaborate make-up and let their long hair flow. The men tend to be bare chested and they're also required to look like exotic cartoon characters. "It's all part of the show," McKeon Joyce says.
While there's little doubt that WWE is big business - and its US overlord Vince McMahon is estimated to be worth $3.5bn - it is seen by most as entertainment, rather than sport.
Phil Boyd says it's a mix of the two. "There's obviously a major athletic component to it," he says. "And you can see how much energy is here tonight, but the entertainment value is crucial. You've got to put on a good show."
Few who catch a Fight Factory training session would doubt the effort involved - it's extremely physical and by the end the trainees look visibly wasted. But what initially seems like a very violent activity, is much more controlled once you have acclimatised yourself to what's going on. The 'head shots' are noticeably restrained - although one newcomer is seen to check on his phone camera if he has sustained any damage to his teeth - and the canvass is built on springs which means the hard falls are cushioned somewhat.
Still, one can imagine chiropractors watching the action through their fingers such is the gusto with which trainees are flung down on their backs. Cusack says she was sore for days after first learning to do it, and points out that it's important that the chin is tucked in on impact in order to avoid whiplash.
But injuries do happen. Boyd's partner Katey Harvey, broke both her elbows during a performance and had to undergo significant surgery. A coach at Fight Factory, it will be some time before the Wicklow woman is able to compete again.
While Becky Lynch and another Irish Fight Factory alumnus Fergal Devitt - aka Finn Bálor - enjoy a high-rolling life in WWE in the US, Ireland's budding wrestlers have to toil in the shadows. Boyd says attempts to secure funding from both the Sports Council and the Arts Council have been unsuccessful and admits that as the discipline falls between the sports and arts stools, it's possibly not a surprise that neither state body wants to know.
The winner is predetermined
Unlike regular combat sports, WWE does not feature in the sports pages of the newspapers - a legacy, surely, of the fact that bouts are staged and the results are fixed.
"The winner is predetermined by the booker," Boyd says, without a moment's hesitation. "Even 10 years ago, you would have found it hard to get anyone to admit that, but I think all the fans know by now that that's what happens - whether it's at a small event in the middle of Ireland or a huge televised WWE match with household names."
He says the 'winner' is sometimes decided weeks in advance, but occasionally a matter of minutes before the fight begins. The most successful contests are those featuring larger-than-life wrestlers whom the crowd can root for - or be actively against. It's not, he adds, an environment where the shy and retiring will prosper.
Boyd insists that wrestling fans love the pomp and theatrics as well as the athleticism and skill levels of the performers. "It's not easy to convince someone who looks at WWE and decides it's not for them," he says. "One of the really great things about these sessions is that everyone gets it - and they've been fans for as long as they remember."
And, it seems, it's never too late to live out those WWE fantasies. David O'Brien is a 38-year-old who has been training at Fight Factory since the start of the year. He says his wife is supportive, although she hasn't seen him train yet.
"I've been a wrestling fan since the late 80s, the Hulk Hogan era, but then it went into decline in the 1990s. Everything changed when people like Steve Austin came along and wrestling was transformed. I couldn't get enough of it. My friends would be in the pub on a Friday night and I'd be at home watching it. At the time, if there was a school like this, I would definitely have done it."
Twelve weeks ago, he decided to scratch that itch and put his own body on the line. Unlike others who gave it a go and immediately decide it's too rough for them, he loved it.
"The difference it makes to your body is incredible," he says. "Your fitness goes up to a different level. You find yourself doing things you thought you'd never have been capable of."
And there's another reason why he subjects himself to the hard knocks on a Tuesday night in April. "It's such fun," he says, with a smile. "Just pure escapism."
The Irish connection
WWE - World Wresting Entertainment Inc - can trace its roots to 1952 when, as Capitol Wrestling Corporation, it ushered in the idea of entertainment-based wrestling. The organisation was founded by boxing and wrestling promoter Jess McMahon, the son of Galway immigrants.
Originally, it was largely confined to local TV networks, but it enjoyed a boom in the 1980s thanks to the efforts of Jess's grandson, Vince McMahon, who had taken over the business. It managed to attract huge global audiences thanks to a generation of charismatic wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan and The A-Team's Mr T. The first Wrestlemania event, in 1985, was seen as a high-water mark for what's now described as a golden age.
McMahon is still CEO and has faced up to the challenge of UFC for the hearts and minds of a new generation worldwide. Efforts have been made to make WWE a more conservative, family-centred viewing experience.
Irish wrestlers have played their part, too and none more so than Stephen Farrelly from Cabra, Dublin. Known as Sheamus (above) and famed for his mane of red hair, the 41-year-old remains one of WWE's biggest draws. He is said to have a net worth of $8m.FAI