Photos by David Tunis-Garcia.
Photos by David Tunis-Garcia.
Photos by David Tunis-Garcia.
Photos by David Tunis-Garcia.
Photos by David Tunis-Garcia.
Photos by David Tunis-Garcia.

Grapplers Anonymous

by / May. 10, 2018 8am EST

Graig Knowlton works for a corporate apparel company. By day, he delivers sturdy work pants to businesses. He drops off and removes 20-foot black rubber mats that collect dirt and salt from the bottom of people’s shoes when they enter the Dudley Branch Library in South Buffalo. He is 24 years old, coming up on one year of marriage and teaches the youth group at his church in North Tonawanda.

He’s also a professional wrestler and competed for the Empire State Wrestling Tag Team Championship at ESW’s “Fairground Fallout” in front of a crowd of 350 people last Saturday.

“Who wants to see me fight the Red Death?” Knowlton asked the crowd as he eyed his competitor, Daniel Garcia.

Knowlton’s ring name is James Sayga, a reference to the video game developer Sega. Garcia slapped Knowlton across the face before fleeing from the 6-foot-3-inch Knowlton. When he got his hands on Garcia, he scooped him onto his shoulder like one of the mats he hauls at work, whirling him around like a violent swing dance before driving Garcia back-flat to the ring.

During intermission, Knowlton posed with young children and stopped to chat with a Roddy Piper fan, who wore a kilt, a sleeveless duster and a T-shirt with the late legend’s logo. Knowlton wore a shirt with the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. He sees wrestling as an extension of his church work. It’s a chance, he says, to preach the Gospel to people who wouldn’t normally hear it.

Knowlton and Garcia are two of 11 professional wrestlers to come out of Grapplers Anonymous, a wrestling gym in Lackawanna. Local wrestlers go to the gym Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings to learn to run the ropes, take bumps and trash talk like WWE Superstars. There is also an advanced class on Wednesday nights where they focus on what makes for a good match and how to connect with an audience. The wrestlers go on to perform matches in dingy fire halls across Western New York, getting dropped on their heads for a $20 payday. Some performers have spread out to larger shows in Canada and as far as Maine.

Michael Caldarelli said he opened the gym – in a nondescript building on Ridge Road about a block from the Our Lady of Victory Basilica – to fix a problem: there was nowhere for local wrestlers to train to be ring-ready. Four years later, Caldarelli added, he has higher ambitions.

“There are going to be so many talented wrestlers in the area and not enough places to wrestle,” Caldarelli said. “I’m not a betting man. I only take sure bets, and I would put my own f——-g money on that.”

‘The grandest stage’

ESW is the premier wrestling promotion in Buffalo. “Fallout” took place in a barn at the Orleans County 4-H Fairgrounds in Albion, but most of ESW’s events are in the St. Johnsburg Fire Hall in North Tonawanda. Current WWE Superstars Daniel Bryan and Finn Bálor fought in that building in July 2007 for the now-defunct promotion: the National Wrestling Alliance. Over 300 wrestling fans regularly pack into the venue. The air is always hot and thick and vaguely smells of weed. Beer and pizza override the more illicit scents.

The average resting heart rate of the audience is probably somewhere in the mid-100s, based on the appearance of the crowd members who sit in padded folding chairs arranged around the ring. There was a time when the wrestlers didn’t look much better, but that has started to change since Grapplers opened in 2014.

ESW’s promoter Brett Stymus, 31, said there was no wrestling school in Buffalo before Grapplers. Before the gym opened, wrestlers arrived the morning of a show to get in a few hours of training before they went on. Stymus wrestled for ESW under the name Brett Mednik, but stopped after the birth of his son, Chase, in 2008. He also works as a custodian in a Lockport high school.

“Guys can get in the gym most days of the week to train and work out,” Stymus said. “When people ask how they can get into wrestling or where they can train, we always refer them to Grapplers. They’re producing great talent.”

The product is evident. Of the eight matches on Stymus’ card for “Fallout,” seven of them contained a wrestler from Grapplers.

‘To be the man…’

Caldarelli is 34 years old and has been wrestling for 10 years. He’ll call you “bubba” or “daddy” in conversation and wrestles under the name Mikey Everynight. He works at a pallet exchange in South Buffalo during the day and runs the gym with his brother, Kris, in his off time. He turned down a full ride at UB as a football kicker after high school to pursue a career in music. He remembers his friends wrestled in their backyard when they were kids. Caldarelli watched, but never took part. It wasn’t until his brother started training that Caldarelli decided to try it, he said, because there isn’t anything Kris can do that he can’t. He was 24 and working as a line cook at the Apollo diner on South Park Avenue.

Caldarelli said he did maybe 50 pushups and some basic calisthenics before his trainers put him in a ring where other untrained guys body-slammed him on his first day.

“I didn’t know much at that point, but I knew it wasn’t right,” Caldarelli said. “I didn’t want people to be trained shittily like I was trained. There’s a cycle of violence in pro wrestling that I want to break.”

Brandon Thurston is the head trainer at the gym. Born in Buffalo, he served in the Air Force Reserve from 2008 to 2014 and graduated from UB in 2012 with a degree in philosophy. Now 32, he works in the mailroom of the Air Force base in Niagara Falls where he spends most of his time writing about WWE finances for Wrestling Inc. He said he considers it “a federal government grant to be a writer.”

Thurston began wrestling in July 2003, as soon as he turned 18—the minimum age most people are allowed to start training. Thurston drove to the house of a local wrestler where people trained in a ring set up in the driveway. He can provide a complete oral history of ESW and is more than happy to do so. He gets excited when talking about wrestling; it changes his typically calm demeanor. When he goes to bed at night, he watches old wrestling matches.

The gym is a fluorescent-lit concrete room: a repurposed loading dock fitted with a bare-bones, black ring, an American flag and a poster board sign reading “HARD WORK DADDY YEAH!” – Caldarelli’s catchphrase. In the back is some old workout equipment and a painting of wrestling legend Lou Thesz.

Every training session begins with an “opening prayer,” consisting of burpees, pushups and squats.

Then the ring work begins. Thurston watches as trainees bounce back and forth on the ropes and tumble across the ring. He tells a student to fall forward on his face. The landing needs to be safe, but look real to a crowd at a match. It doesn’t look convincing, so Thurston tells him to do it again. And again. And again.

After a practice match last Tuesday, Thurston noted a student was throwing particularly good chops. He slapped his opponent’s chest so hard through a shirt that it sounded like a bare chest slap and left a handprint. The rest of the students went back to work in the ring, while Caldarelli took the student aside. He worked with him for 20 minutes to find inventive ways to throw chops in a match—bounce his opponent off the rope. Chop. Kick out his legs. Chop. Twist his arm and pull him in. Chop.

The one-on-one session ended when Caldarelli put the student in a wrist-lock and dragged him around the gym forcing high-fives on the rest of the people in the room with the student’s hand as Thurston continued to run drills.

Thurston takes the craft seriously. He grew up studying Japanese wrestling. In Japan, he said, pro wrestling is treated like any other sport, and the wrestlers strive to replicate reality.

Caldarelli said he is about creating moments the audience won’t forget. He is a natural showman, calling back to pro wrestling’s carnival roots.

Thurston admitted he can come across as “unfriendly,” while Caldarelli considers himself the “people person.” The two present the dichotomy of wrestling: the sport and the show. But together, they are uniquely qualified to train a new generation of talent.

“Everybody has something to offer,” Caldarelli said. “It’s about what you can offer, and if you are willing to put in the work to participate.”

‘You just made the list!’

A trainee at Grapplers must pass a tryout before he can enter the ring. The trial lasts over two hours and involves squats, pushups, wall-sits and stair-runs carrying an 80-pound heavy bag, among other grueling exercises. Caldarelli said he’s seen NFL prospects and marathon runners quit, cry and puke during the tryout. He said it weeds out the people who think they can be there from the people who want to be there.

Nolan Puleo, 26, has trained with Grapplers for six months. He hasn’t passed the tryout and said he can’t wrestle in the ring yet because his neck isn’t strong enough. But he does participate. He’s the referee.

“Just being involved with wrestling is great,” said Puleo on his role.

Puleo lost 80 pounds since coming to Grapplers. He, like others at the school, said he’s struggled with anxiety and depression his whole life and wrestling has allowed him to overcome some of his issues. But, he is aware of the toll wrestling can take on a person and said anyone looking to wrestle should be serious about the sport.

“You start wrestling matches for 10 or 20 bucks, and you’re destroying yourself,” Puleo said. “You don’t destroy your body for a hobby. Nobody should come into the gym if they don’t want to be a world champion.”

Vincent Piazza said he attempted the trial three times before completing it.

“It’s mentally demanding as much as physically,” Piazza said. “It measures how much you want [to be a wrestler].”

Before Grapplers opened, the 20-year-old Piazza attended training seminars at local wrestling shows. He wrestles under the name Vinnie Moon, studies animal management at Niagara County Community College and interns at the Niagara Falls aquarium. He has to be there at 7:30 a.m. but is at the gym until 11 p.m. the night before. Piazza looks like a mop with his thin frame and head of long, blonde hair, held back in the ring by a bandana.

After a recent training session, Piazza was excited because he’d just ordered rubber bracelets emblazoned with his name and signature move, the Moon Landing—“you can’t fake it.” He plans to sell them at shows with bandanas like he wears in the ring. When you’re a wrestler, he said, “fans want to be you.”

Both Thurston and Caldarelli independently suggested Piazza start wearing Moon Boots to the ring. Caldarelli said he is already looking out for a pair at the thrift store.

Piazza’s current goal is to “get bigger.” This involves lifting weights and eating a pound of turkey cold cuts from a plastic baggie with his hands after training.

‘Being the elite’

Jesse Guilmette, 37, looks like a wrestler. He even gets to be one on television. Standing at 6 feet tall with arms thicker than Piazza’s legs, Guilmette wrestles with Impact Wrestling under the name Braxton Sutter, but announced the end of his contract with the promotion on April 26. Impact tapes at Universal Studios in Florida and airs weekly on the Fight Network. Guilmette said he doesn’t remember a time in his life he wasn’t watching wrestling –– a common thread with the guys in the gym. Born in Buffalo, he moved to Cincinnati in 1999 to train under Les Thatcher, a famous wrestler and trainer. He said he never had a backup plan if wrestling didn’t work out– he never wanted to do anything else.

He is one of the only people in Buffalo making a living at wrestling, though he does a bit of personal training on the side. He’s hesitant to tell people he’s a wrestler, especially the officers at the Canadian border when he is travelling for a show.

Guilmette said wrestling is an “illusion business” where looks are “more than half of it.”

“It doesn’t matter how tough you are,” Guilmette said while eating a meal-prep container of plain chicken and rice. He adds his own hot sauce. “Most of the time I’ve gotten booked from pictures. Look is the first thing people see. I’ll send tapes [of my wrestling], but I doubt they usually watch them.”

Guilmette still stresses ability. He teaches the advanced class on Wednesday nights at Grapplers. On April 18, he began class by screening a 2003 match between Triple H and Shawn Michaels from “WWE Raw.” The group of seven huddled around a laptop as Guilmette broke down the match, explaining the reasons behind each move the wrestlers made.

Michaels, the “baby face” or good guy, inadvertently knocked out the referee before attempting to pin H, the “heel” or villain. Michaels had H down for more than three seconds, proving he deserved to win the match if not for the downed referee. This makes H’s eventual victory over Michaels even harder on the crowd, Guilmette explained.

The class transitioned to warmups: pushups, squats and arm circles to the tune of Pantera’s “Cowboys from Hell.” Next, they arched their bodies, balancing on their heads and feet without arm support to strengthen their necks, followed by tumbles around the ring. They finished the night by breaking into two groups of four to plan out a tag-team match with an objective: 10-minute time limit, faces against heels; heels win. Guilmette critiques the match while judging the physical performance and the storytelling.

“He has a good way of explaining things in a positive way. Even if he says something negative, it’s constructive,” Caldarelli said about Guilmette. “He knows how to give a compliment through criticism.”

Caldarelli also mentions the contacts Guilmette brings. Like any business, networking is critical to success in wrestling. He said Guilmette adds “credibility” to the gym. Guilmette tells students when he will be traveling for shows and offers space in the car for them to join and connect with promoters outside of the local scene.

Guilmette said “getting out of [his] comfort zone” was key to his success in the business, and he wants to offer the next generation that opportunity.

‘Who’s next?’

Kevin Lockwood said knowing Guilmette has been a “major factor” in getting booked.

“We’re going places and doing things [older wrestlers] never did,” Lockwood said. “Knowing someone is a good foot in the door, but you have to work hard to prove you belong.”

The 27-year-old tattoo artist from Albion is covered in ink, including a Pikachu on his shin and a molar on the side of his face. Lockwood began wrestling in October 2015 after overhearing a client at the tattoo parlor mention Grapplers to his artist. Using the name Kevin Blackwood, he regularly performs for Smash Wrestling, a Canadian promotion.

Everyone at the gym says Lockwood is a natural talent. He had his first match almost a full year after he started training, but Thurston said he was ready for a debut six months before.

Lockwood attributes his initial reluctance to his anxiety, but said wrestling has helped him get over it. He counts wrestling as the “coolest thing I’ve ever done with my life.”

Caldarelli said Lockwood signing with a major wrestling promotion is an inevitability.

“He’ll have a contract,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when.”

Lockwood won’t be satisfied with a contract, though. He said his goal is to be one of the greats.

“I want my name to come up in conversations around the world whenever people discuss who the best wrestlers of all-time are,” Lockwood said.

One look at Lockwood and it’s easy to see him accomplishing his dream. He has the looks, the build and talent a successful wrestler needs.

And then there’s Puf.

Nick Pufpaff, a 21-year-old Lyft driver, wasn’t wanted at Grapplers by anyone, according to Caldarelli.

“Absolutely nobody wanted him here,” Caldarelli said. “They saw no value, no potential. I saw it from the moment I talked to this fat kid.”

Caldarelli met Pufpaff as a child while Caldarelli worked at the diner. He remembers Pufpaff coming in with his grandfather on numerous occasions and said Pufpaff’s grandfather originally encouraged Caldarelli to follow his wrestling dream. He reconnected with Pufpaff at a wrestling show years later at Buffalo Riverworks.

Billed at 420 pounds, Pufpaff fills his Instagram page with shirtless pictures of himself. Pufpaff came to the gym out of shape, Caldarelli said, but had “a smile and charisma you can’t teach.”

Thurston politely calls Pufpaff “unorthodox.” He said he barred Pufpaff from the ring when he first showed up at the gym, insisting he workout extensively to get in fighting shape. Caldarelli worked with Pufpaff, cancelling plans with family and coming to the gym on off-days to train him. He said Pufpaff dropped 50 pounds in three months.

When it came time for his tryout, Thurston still had his doubts.

“I thought he was going to die in his trial,” Thurston said. “I told Mikey to make him stop. I was really worried we were going to have a death on our hands.”

It wasn’t until a seminar with the wrestler Ethan Page that Pufpaff proved himself. He paid money to attend the workshop held at the gym, though he still wasn’t ring-approved. He impressed the visiting trainer with his skills on the microphone—“cutting promos”—and when it came time for the practice match at the end, Page teamed Pufpaff up with Lockwood.

Caldarelli said Thurston came to the locker room to warn him Pufpaff was about to get into the ring, but Caldarelli insisted Pufpaff paid his money and deserved the chance.

Caldarelli said he could hear the match from the back of the gym: feet running and bodies hitting the mat, and then cheers. Garcia burst into the room and said, “Puf and Kevin just had the best match I’ve ever seen,” Caldarelli recalls.

“If Puf never trained here, wrestling would be hurting,” Lockwood said. “As soon as he gets out there, he’s thriving on the applause and attention.”

Pufpaff wears a powder blue and pink bodysuit in the ring. A doughnut takes the place of his belt buckle on the gear. He shakes and gyrates his hips, and for his signature move, he punches his opponent with the “Whip” dance move. The crowd at “Fallout” ate it up. Pufpaff got some of the biggest reactions of the night. The ESW crowd is familiar with his work, but Guilmette said Pufpaff gets this response everywhere he goes.

“The glorious thing about Puf is no matter where you take him, or anytime we put him in front of people … he’s just instantly over,” Guilmette said.

Pufpaff said he always wanted to be a standup comedian, but never pursued it. He said wrestling “came into [his] life” and he’s doing well. Last weekend, he travelled with Guilmette and Andy Williams—a wrestler and the guitarist from Buffalo band Every Time I Die—to Brooklyn for a wrestling show.

Pufpaff said he hopes to pay his bills with wrestling someday. In the meantime, he is a licensed security guard and is seeking employment as a bouncer at a strip club to supplement his Lyft income.

‘Time is a squared circle’

Caldarelli said he’s accomplished everything he could have wanted in his wrestling career. The only thing he ever wanted was to get paid to wrestle in front of his friends and family, something he did in his first year. He’s wrestled in 253 matches and said he knows his purpose in any show: “to be the most entertaining motherf——r I can be.”

He considers himself a “mechanic,” a guy who can get in the ring and fix any problem. He said he can wrestle a broomstick if he had to.

Caldarelli has no delusions of wrestling for the WWE. He said he doesn’t need to step foot in one of Vince McMahon’s rings to have made it. But he tells his students that if they get the chance to wrestle for the WWE, say his name when they take their first roll.

“Then I made it, too,” Caldarelli said.

Thurston said at this point in his life, he has more to give to the wrestling community as a trainer than as a performer. He instilled the fundamentals in what he considers the third generation of Western New York wrestlers, watching them from their first bump to fighting in their first match. He built Grapplers’ online presence, running its Facebook and Instagram pages by himself, exposing the work going on at the gym to people around the world.

He considers himself a “futurist” when it comes to wrestling. Thurston wants to teach his students how to succeed in today’s market and said social media is vital for this generation of wrestlers. He broke down the differences between traditional and modern independent wrestling on a whiteboard in the gym—the same board on which he diagrammed a male reproductive organ to explain how a vasectomy works to some inquiring students. On the back of the board is a list of upcoming shows guys at the gym want to perform at. Most of the dates are checked off.

Still, Thurston said, he can’t help but feel jealous when he sees guys load up in cars and drive to shows he couldn’t book. He admitted his introverted personality and pride prevent him from making the connections a wrestler needs to ingratiate himself with promoters.

Wrestling is no longer his go-to late-night viewing. These days, he falls asleep watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He recently subscribed to PBS Kids online just to watch.

“It calms me down. Mister Rogers is my hero. It’s the kindness, the calmness,” Thurston said. “A lot of the lessons in there are directed at children, but adults need them, too.”

David Tunis-Garcia is managing editor of UB’s Spectrum newspaper.