The Boston Phoenix
August 3 - 10, 2000


Grad school of hard knocks

In Malden, pro-wrestling hopefuls compete to build a Killer résumé

by Andrew Weiner

KILLER INSTINCT: Walter "Killer" Kowalski corrects the Boston Brawler's handling of Alex Bagwell in his Malden school.

MALDEN, MA -- "Stop! Stop! Stop! Where was the life?!"

Two sweaty students break off their rehearsal and wait for instructions from their teacher, who continues: "Now with me and him, there was emotion. That's what this business is all about: emotion. We weren't talking, but we were selling and telling a story. So be full of life, and make those paying customers live through you."

This sounds like an outtake from Fame, except for one thing: instead of leg warmers and ballet slippers, these men are wearing tights and shiny leather boots. And as soon as their teacher, "Mean" Mike Hollow, finishes his pep talk, he proceeds to sink his elbow into the shoulder of his partner, bellowing "Take that, you SOB!" The students applaud in appreciation of his technique, then pair off to practice elbow drops of their own. Before long the gym sounds like a primal-scream session.

All this is music to the cauliflower ears of Walter "Killer" Kowalski. One of the most famous pro-wrestling villains of the 1950s and '60s, Kowalski is the founder and unofficial dean of the Institute for Professional Wrestling. What began in 1979 as a makeshift enterprise at the Salem YMCA is now a little less makeshift and a lot more well-known, thanks to the explosion of wrestling and the success of its alumni.

The IPW isn't the biggest wrestling school in the country, but it's one of the oldest and best-respected. And since the secrets of the sport are basically an oral tradition, there's really no other option for aspiring wrestlers. There is no Wrestling for Dummies. In case you've ever wondered, the road to the big time starts here, in a walk-up gym leased from a karate studio in Malden.

The He-Manly ogres and dandified faux-pimps of professional wrestling are such overblown characters that it's hard to imagine them ever having been wanna-bes, but every pro wrestler starts somewhere.

James DiFalco is a typical hopeful: he's young, male, and a lifelong wrestling fan. Though he made the dean's list at Marist College, he dropped out and moved to Boston to study under Kowalski. In high school he was an actor and a three-sport athlete, but the World Wrestling Federation was never far from his mind: "It was something I always knew in my heart," he says. DiFalco describes his ring persona, Jimmy Cash, as "basically me, my alter ego." He speaks with the intensity of an Army recruit as he tells me that "everything can be related back to wrestling." At his side is a journal filled with catch phrases, patter, and story lines: what he calls his "business secrets."

The one-time membership fee at the IPW is $2200. This entitles a student to a lifetime's worth of open sessions, held four times weekly. The first thing you learn is how to pratfall, or "splash," safely and with maximum noise. You also learn how to throw and take punches with the exaggeration of a slapstick comedian. But protecting yourself and your partner is the top priority. As Hollow informs me, "He's giving me his body and I'm giving him mine, so we have to have mutual respect for each other."

Equal emphasis is given to show biz: class time is often spent practicing mock interviews or promos. Hollow's lectures sound like a screenwriting workshop, with talk of story lines and character development. "Wrestling," he repeats to the class, "is a soap opera." Ample emphasis is placed on acting out the villain and hero roles -- the "Heel" and the "Face" -- that make any given match a morality play. Hollow, who wrestles as both a Heel and a Face, tells me his favorite way to turn the crowd against him is to rip up a young fan's autograph book.

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Andrew Weiner still has a Hacksaw Jim Duggan foam two-by-four somewhere in his basement. His e-mail address is