Ring of fire

New England’s minor-league grapplers wrestle their demons — in vinyl boots and a blaze of glory
By SEAN BARTLETT  |  May 23, 2007


VIDEO: A montage of highlights from Chaotic Wrestling

A fight has just broken out in the Polish American Veterans Club (PAV), in Lowell. Before a frenzied crowd of locals, the two combatants trade openhanded blows that send sheets of sweat into the air as their muscle-rippling, 300-pound frames turn a distinct shade of pink under the harsh fluorescent lighting. Each man struggles to gain the advantage with various holds and classic techniques that imply a method to this madness.

One of them, dressed in a purple and black singlet, finally knocks his foe to the ground with a ruthless boot to the face. He turns toward the crowd with a primal ferocity, exhibiting a triumphant snarl. They respond by chanting “asshole” in almost Gregorian unison. His name is Todd Smith, and he is a professional wrestler.

Smith, who goes by the name Handsome Johnny, is just one of several aspirant grapplers involved with Chaotic Wrestling. Founded and owned by long-time pro-wrestling fan Jamie Jamitkowski, 35, the promotion has put on small-venue shows throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire every two or three weeks since 2000. It also has its own training facility in North Andover that is home to Killer Kowalski’s School of Professional Wrestling, a veritable breeding ground for would-be superstars hoping to make it to the national stage one day. The school has worked with nearly 300 students, from their late teens through their 20s, and has sent seven on to developmental contracts with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), operating like a double-A farm affiliate in the larger framework of minor-league wrestling.

Many wrestling buffs grew up watching titans such as Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage play out epic narratives through headlocks and elbow drops. But for all the nostalgia surrounding this enigmatic sport, most fans remain ignorant of the emotional intangibles that serve to deify its thunderous body slams, gilded title belts, and gravity-defying spandex. Chaotic’s stable of wrestlers features a group of diehards whose curiosity about the sport never waned; who feel at home in a world of baroque characters and cliché story lines; and who discovered just how comfortable they could be in a pair of vinyl boots and fluorescent hot pants.

“You see it on TV and you’re like, ‘Oh that’s something I could do,’ ” Smith recalls, echoing a common first impression of the sport. “And then you get into the ring and everything hurts. After the first month, I could never look at wrestling the same way again.”

With the intimacy granted ringside at the PAV, it’s easy to see what he’s talking about. Bodies mercilessly bounce off the mat (an amalgamation of wood and steel covered with a thin layer of canvas) with an intensity television can’t fully convey. Each unforgiving thud reverberates through your chest with an emotive clarity, rivaling the effect of the kick drum at a Kiss concert. And while the wrestlers’ reactions are exaggerated, at the heart of all this overblown theatricality lies a foundation of truth that would make even Konstantin Stanislavsky proud.

“That stuff’s all fake, right?” asks Chaotic heavyweight champion Brian Milonas, doing his best impersonation of the rubes who perpetuate the sport’s most despised stereotype. “What I really feel like saying,” he adds, “is, ‘If you’re going to insult both of our intelligences by even asking that question, I don’t even want to entertain it with a response.’ ”

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