Who wouldn’t want to get guys jumping on them from above, being slammed onto your back or even getting a folding steel chair slammed over their back?
Probably only guys who someday want to be professional wrestlers, the kind of entertainers that almost 6,000 fans paid to see in action in April at the Rio Rancho Events Center.
Only these guys aren’t in WWE, though that’s the dream of some of them.
On a recent spring evening on Albuquerque’s West Side, 11 aspiring – and perspiring – wrestling wannabes were in Gino Rivera’s back yard. Rivera has a ring there, the training ground for his Off the Ropes wrestling school since July 2019. (https://ginorivera.wixsite.com/offtheropes)
Three of the guys there that day — Joey Schoff, Alejandro Naranjo and Jeshiah Morris of Rio Rancho — say they’re at Off the Ropes regularly, hoping to someday climb between the ropes for a match in front of thousands of fans.
Rivera, 35, knows that feeling, having some WWE experience – “Drew McIntyre beat me up at the Royal Rumble in 2019 in Phoenix” — and said, “They’re here to learn wrestling. This is something that takes years.”
He should know; he’s been at it for 15 years.
Oddly, it may seem, none wrestled in high school, opting for sports like football, soccer or basketball.
That’s OK, says Rivera: “We’ve had a lot of athletes come and go here; wrestling training is different, a one-stop ride. There are no timeouts or water breaks.”
It comes down to this, he says: How bad do you want it?
This Rio Rancho trio want it pretty bad.
They got the fever early.
“I’ve been a wrestling fan since I was 2,” Schoff recalled. “My parents would always tell me that I would beat up my dad and pin him to win, and still have titles and VHS tapes of wrestling.”
Steve “Stone Cold” Austin is his favorite wrestler: “I even said in my preschool graduation that I wanted to be him.”
“I’ve been a wrestling fan since I was around 8 or 9 years old,” said Naranjo. “I remember being drawn to Kane and the Undertaker when I first started watching. My absolute favorite WWE wrestler would have to be the Undertaker. He was a great example of how to be a true sports entertainer, always keeping his gimmick fresh and remaining relevant.”
And Morris – JKM in the ring — also admitted to being a young fan: “I’ve been a fan all of my life –I’ve always loved pro wrestling.”
“I started wrestling when I was 21,” Schoff said. “I went to Tennessee for family and I found TWE and was training there for about a year. … I never really cared for high school wrestling; I wasn’t a big fan.”
As for Naranjo, “I started wrestling back in 2021, and wrestled for around a year before injuring my shoulder and returning last December. I didn’t wrestle in high school — most of my grappling came from just wrestling with friends.”
“I started wrestling right after I graduated,” said Morris, who received his diploma from Rio Rancho High School in May 2022.
Morris learned right away, “You gotta always be putting in work, no matter how hard it may be. It’s exactly like how I expected to be. I kind of caught on pretty quick.”
Their ring experience varies
“I had a pre-match before but I never made my debut yet,” said Schoff, whom you may someday see as “Joe Scott, The PoiSon JesTer.”
“I’ve had a quite a few matches from Texas, Arizona, Las Vegas and Colorado,” Naranjo said. “And I’ll be making my return match in Lubbock June. My ring name is Ocean Avery.”
“I have had quite a few matches in my year of doing pro wrestling; they’ve been great,” added Morris. “It feels extremely great to finally be achieving my dream.”
Their goals are different, too
Schoff could be considered a realist.
“My goal is just to have a match — that’s my goal right now,” he said. “I can’t tell you what my future goal is because I don’t have one yet.”
Naranjo – “Ocean Avery” in the ring — is a dreamer: “I’ve learned a good deal about the sport of pro wrestling,” he said. “I’ve learned how to develop a style that I love, consisting mostly of ‘Catch’ wrestling and Japanese ‘strong’ style. I’ve also figured out how to properly tell a story in the ring and keep the audience engaged with the matching going on.”
Naranjo, who was on the Rams’ 2014 championship football team, has learned, “Some say I have a very punchable face.”
Morris’s dreams are bigger.
“My goal is to win a championship and then get signed to a major promotion,” he said. “My real dream is to always be wrestling. Ever since I laid eyes on it, I’ve loved it — and now that I’m doing it, it just makes me want to keep going.”
Schoff doesn’t have a story and he may not need one.
“I’m still growing and learning. My real dream is to have a family. I couldn’t care about anything else. That’s what I want.”
Still, he rationalized, “At the end of the day, this is a business. If you think of it like that, then you know how to get further into the wrestling business.”
Meet Gino Rivera
Happily recalling watching wrestling with his adopted mother in Hawaii.
“My original mom gave me up for adoption,” he said, and the mother who took on that role loved wrestling, and was a big fan of the legendary Undertaker.
“We’d go to the VHS stores and rent all the videos – like you could rent six at a time,” he said. “And we’d watch these things.”
Rivera’s love affair with pro wrestling only grew.
His mother met Andre the Giant, “and she was just obsessed – they’re awesome people,” he said. “Ever since then, she was a fan and she fell in love with the Undertaker. I don’t know why, but that was her guy. And I’m an Undertaker fan myself – he’s the greatest wrestler in the world.”
Rivera has met a few of the sport’s stars and seems to be more of a teacher than coach with his students.
“We kind of study our history. I have my students call out five wrestlers every day – Five wrestlers with a mask. Name five Japanese wrestlers – none from today.”
The game has changed and sometimes his students have questions for him: “Sometimes, doing certain wrestling moves in the ring. ‘What if we do this and this works?’ And I’m, ‘OK.’”
Sports fans like to question athletes’ prowess from one era to another, like, “Could Babe Ruth out-hit and out-pitch Shohei Ohtani?”
“A guy like (in the 60s) Dick the Bruiser would definitely knock out 90 percent of the wrestlers today,” Rivera said. “Ninety percent of the wrestlers aren’t tough anymore: entitled or ‘woke.’” So I definitely think a guy like Dick the Bruiser would demolish a lot of the wrestlers today, but today’s entertainers would blow (the old guys) out of the water.”
Today’s most feared wrestlers, hands down, Rivera said, is Brock “The Devil Incarnate” Lesner.
“In 2017, I had to hold him back backstage – that was tremendous,” Rivera said, and that’s one of his top memories. So was training Otis, half of Alpha Academy with former Olympic wrestler Chad Gable.
But no doubt, one of his best memories came in 2019: “I was at a meet & greet. (Undertaker) was sitting down and he’s still taller than me.”
Rivera sat next to the legend for a photo, literally shaking.
“He’s like, ‘How are you doing?’ Good. They take a picture and I walk away; I forgot my phone, I was so start-struck; I had met my hero, my idol, and did not tell him what I wanted to tell him: You are the reason I am here, you are the reason me and my mother share this dream.”
It’s easy to understand how his best all-time memory overshadows the missed opportunity with the Undertaker. He remembers the date: February 20, 2008, in Phoenix, Arizona. I wrestled on ‘205 Live.’ … I had a tryout before the show and they liked me so much that they immediately said, ‘That’s the guy.’
“We get invited to these shows before they start. It starts at 5; we get there at 11. We wait hours to get to know what we’re going to do. If there’s time, they’ll say, ‘Hey, are there any wrestlers in here?’ because some of them are actors, some are there as models.
“So I raised my hand and they said, ‘Go ahead and plan a match.’”
He and another did that, but they were switched up the show’s matches; we didn’t have time to ‘call it,’ which is why calling things in the ring is so important,” he said. “I went in there with a guy that was very big and I was the guy with the baby face as a good guy. The guy was about 200, 300 pounds; I was about 100 pounds soaking wet.
“He beat the tar out of me and they liked the way I ‘sold it,’ the way I ‘sold’ pain to the crowd,” he recalled. “This kid looks like he is really getting hurt; he is a great actor and we can use him for our show.”
“They loved it. I loved it. They pulled me aside, and said, ‘How long have you been wrestling? Can you speak Spanish?’ And they picked me and we went in there – we had a great match for 10 minutes.
“It was the greatest day of my life – I got to be in the ring for the first time. A kid from Hawaii, dreaming, watching wrestling – I was in the ring I had always dreamed of.”
He eventually began training wrestlers and moved to and opened Off the Ropes five years ago.
Rivera compares pro wrestling to “Star Wars.”
“We provide a show; they provide a show. We know this is scripted … fall in love with the characters, fall in love with the story, Andre vs. Hulk Hogan …Same with Star Wars: Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker. Suspend your disbelief.
“There are guys that want the bad guys to win, and those who want the good guys to win. So you can choose in wrestling: Whoever you like, you like.”
By the way, having guys leap on your back and whack you with a chair does hurt.
Unlike the movies, where directors can have scenes shot repeatedly, pro wrestling is “one take, Jake.”
Rivera’s upstairs office/man cave is plain, but he has more than enough wrestling memorabilia – including boxes of action figures – to make it come alive someday.
“I’m a strong believer: If you want something, you’ll make time. I am allowed to live my life to the fullest,” Rivera said.