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Pro wrestlers share their stories

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It's fair season, and the Jefferson County Fair is in full swing. The ferris wheel is lighting up the night sky in Watertown, the fried dough is sizzling, and the cotton candy is pink and irresistible.

Tonight a pro wrestling show takes the grandstand.Joanna Richards went to the wrestlers' practice and, behind all the beefcake, she found wrestlers are storytellers.

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Joanna Richards
Watertown Correspondent

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Most of the wrestlers at Friday's show have trained at the Institute of Professional Wrestling in Syracuse. Sounds official, right? The school looks like a scene out of the movie Fight Club. It's in a warehouse in an industrial park. On Tuesday before the big show, the owner has to shove a stack of pallets out of the way to open the door.

Inside, the ring just barely fits into the cinderblock room. Flourescent lights flicker overhead. Half a dozen musclebound men in their twenties wearing scant tank tops, deep tans and a smattering of grim tattoos start to glisten as they stretch out on the ring.

"My name is Kevin Graham and I wrestle under the name Kevin “The Man' Graham. I'm a bad guy; I love it," Graham said. "I go out to the ring all the time and I just do awesome things and that's why I'm the man."

"My name is Mike VanSlyke and I wrestle under the ring name “Punisher” VanSlyke. I also go into the ring and do very awesome things, except mine hurt way more than Kevin's. Most people seem to think that I am a bad guy." VanSlyke said. "I think it has to do with how I hurt people so badly."

The guys hop up to the ring and start warming up, then take turns slamming each other with perfectly orchestrated cruelty – making a sound like bones cracking, only louder. 

The ring leader of all this is Derek Potocki, but that's not his wrestling name: "I'm Zaquary Springate. I own and am head trainer of the school."

That's Zaquary with a QU instead of a CH. It's actually Zaquary Springate III. I learn later, via the internet, that when Potocki performs, his shorts feature the British flag. He's a bad guy. Someone who posted a video of one of his matches on YouTube describes him as a "British snob".  

Potocki tells me how a pro wrestler comes up with his ring persona. "If you're trying to create a character that isn't based on your actual personality, it's never gonna work. If you don't believe in your character, the people aren't gonna believe your character," Potocki said. "So what we try to do is figure out that personality while they're here in class and give them a you know, and give them a character, a persona, that matches – just amped up ten times."

I glance again at 'Punisher' VanSlyke, who sports a jawless skull not only on his T-shirt, but also on each of his forearms, the image amplified by his gleaming head and pointy beard. He and Kevin 'The Man' Graham will both flaunt their evil sides in Friday's show in Watertown. But there's a good guy, too. And he's a Watertown native.

"My name is Joel Frederick and I portray the character – it's not really a character, it's me – but it's a nickname I had in high school. I go by J. Freddie."

Frederick said his ring persona is inspired by Rocky and Rudy, "two very classic sports movies. Now Rocky, which everybody knows, is the underdog story. A guy who came from Philadelphia who had nothin', who was in the minor leagues, that, you know, basically fighting in churches and you know, old broken down buildings and finally one day got an opportunity and took that opportunity and made the best of it."

The film Rudy is about the real life story of Rudy Ruettiger, a small guy with big dreams of playing Notre Dame football. Through hard work and determination, he made his dream come true.

"So I think a lot of people can relate to me, as far as, which is a true thing, is the underdog story," Frederick said. "I mean, I'm not the biggest dog in the fight, but I'm gonna go in there and basically give everything I have from bell to bell."

It's the underdog story that drew Frederick into pro wrestling to begin with. He recalls as a kid watching pro wrestling legend Ric Flair, "who was, like, the big, flashy rich man in town and Dusty Rhodes was like the common man. You felt like you were one of him. Like, I grew up not just watching 'cause oh, this is cool, like, I was infatuated with the story being told in the ring, of like the good guy underdog versus the big villain, you know – the good versus evil battle. I mean, and it's – pro wrestling is something people can relate to, you know what I mean?"

So pro wrestling actually has something in common with say, radio reporting: storytelling. And in fact, it's the storylines that draw us into any sport as loyal fans. The only difference is that wrestling foregrounds the story. And gives a bit of a leg up, on occasion, to the common man.

There's still a lot of work to be done before showtime, and the guys are perfecting their technique.

"So move around, lockup, sweep, quick pin – as soon as the guy goes down, get on him –  so as soon as you take that bump, get these arms in," the trainer says.

Find out tonight if Watertown's hometown good guy will triumph over evil at the grandstand at Jefferson County's Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds. Showtime is 7 p.m.

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