The old London Ice House has a unique place in the Forest City’s history.
It’s the former home of the London Knights, and the current home to the Forest City Velodrome. It’s the site of a disastrous 1965 concert by the Rolling Stones. Johnny Cash proposed to June Carter at the venue. But swing by the place on certain weeknights nowadays and it won’t be wedding proposals or rock n’roll you hear – it will be the occasional bodyslam echoing through the corridors.
That’s because tucked away in the dimly lit back halls lies London’s very own wrestling school – Tyson Dux Wrestling Factory.
Owner and trainer is former World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) wrestler Tyson Dux. A wrestling veteran of 21 years, Dux began operating the school in October. Training lasts for a year, although students have to opportunity to continue their involvement after their initial 12 months.
The end goal is to have the graduates ready and performing in the world of professional wrestling.
“I’m trying to make the best pro wrestlers I can,” Dux stated. “And I want them out there and I want them working. I want them doing shows because my best advertisement is them, it’s not me.”
When there’s talk of wrestling, there’s always that one constant criticism: that it’s fake.
The results may be scripted, and maybe the sucker punches don’t really connect with someone’s face, but anyone experienced with the industry will tell you the training process and pain is anything but fake.
Dux gives his students and free two week trial period, to let them decide if it’s really something they want after all.
“I have a lot of people who come in, see how hard the ring is – it’s not easy to land on it – it’s very hard, it’s like cement,” Dux explained. “They think that because it’s fixed, it’s entertainment, they think that it’s fake. It’s not.
“It’s absolutely the furthest thing from fake.”
Before students can even begin power slamming each other across the ring, they have to go through a grueling warm up session including countless crunches, pushups, and body rolls. The warm up alone is enough to cause aches for days, and it can take several weeks for a newcomer’s body to become conditioned to the physical workload.
James Roberts, a student since October, is no stranger to demanding sports. He’s done football, rugby, and martial arts. But his first month of training under Dux brought a whole new meaning to toughness.
“I couldn’t sleep I was in so much pain,” he recalled. “It was so physical and demanding, it’s the toughest sport I’ve ever done.”
A darker side
An alarming amount of young deaths are one of the industry’s skeletons in the closet. Anyone who devotes their life to the wrestling business has to accept the consequences of doing the thing they love most.
“There’s risk and reward to everything,” Dux stated. “I can live and handcuff myself to the idea of fear and injury, but that would just hurt me in the long run. I’d just rather go out the way I should go out.”
However, the dangers involved in wrestling aren’t just physical – many prominent names have struggled with drug abuse. While some may overcome their demons, long-lasting effects of drugs – combined with the physical abuse their bodies go through – can often lead wrestlers to early graves.
Davey Boy Smith (AKA The British Bulldog) was 39 when he died from a heart attack. Andrew “Test” Martin died at the age of 33 after an overdose. Luna Vachon of Canada’s famous Vachon wrestling family, died in 2010 when she was 48.
Change came when Eddie Guerrero – one of WWE’s most popular and talented stars – died in 2005 after acute heart failure. He was 38.
Following Guerrero’s death, WWE began to implement its Wellness Policy in 2006.
High risk moves
One of wrestling’s most controversial moves is the piledriver.
When performing the move, the wrestler grabs his opponent, turns him upside down, and drops into a sitting position and appears to slam the opponent into the mat head first.
If performed correctly, the wrestler receiving the move will have his head safely tucked between his opponents legs preventing it from hitting the mat. During WWF’s 1997 SummerSlam, future megastar Stone Cold Steve Austin was famously dropped on his head during a botched piledriver by Owen Hart, suffering a broken neck and temporary paralysis.
WWE banned the move in 2000 unless special permission was given.
Dux has every intention on training his students on how to perform – and how to take – the dangerous move.
“I want them to learn everything,” He stated. “There’s a way of doing everything in this business safely, and there’s a way to do it unsafe, and I’d rather be the guy to take charge and show them how to do everything from the get-go as safe as possible.”
Much like traveling carnies have a unique slang when describing their business, wrestlers use select words that may sound confusing to outsiders.
A “face” is the good guy; likewise a “heel” is the villain. “Kayfabe” is the act of portraying staged and scripted events as though they were real. “Heat” refers to crowd reaction, whether it is cheers or boo’s from the audience. “X-Pac heat” is when the audience dislikes the wrestler… not the character.
“Cheap heat” is a term for when a wrestler uses offensive or insulting tactics to get a crowd reaction. It can result in unsavory consequences on the performer’s personal life outside the ring.
During the Gulf War in the early 1990’s, when kayfabe in wrestling was still heavily maintained, Sgt. Slaughter was portraying as an anti-American Iraqi sympathizer and ally of Saddam Hussein.
Due to the controversial nature of the gimmick, Slaughter received death threats in real life and had to wear a bullet proof vest while in public.
Closer to home
During Tigerfest, a Canada Day event organized by father-son duo Tiger Jeet Singh and Tiger Ali Singh, Dux recalled an incident of his own when fans got out of control.
With thousands of fans out to support the Tigers, Dux and fellow Canadian grappler Steve Corino portrayed the heels. After being belted with rocks, batteries, bottles and pop cans, the duo had riled the fans to the point of riot.
While Corino was escorted out with security, Dux had to face the fans pandemonium. Some jumped the guardrails and proceeded to tear the clothes off Dux.
“It was really intense, kind of scary, but then when you come back and you can high five afterwards, it’s a good day, kind of fun.” He explained.
“Blading” is when one intentionally cuts oneself to draw blood, most often on the forehead as it bleeds easily. Frequent use of blading has left several wrestlers with deeply scarred faces. While the tactic has had its heyday in more violent eras of professional wrestling, nowadays several promotions have banned it.
As of now, Dux has no plans on teaching his students on blading.
“It doesn’t really have a place right now in pro wrestling. In a lot of major markets it’s frowned upon,” he explained. “They don’t want to see gore and blood.”
Arguably Canada’s most famous wrestling school was the Hart Dungeon in Calgary. The patriarch of the Hart family, Stu Hart, earned his reputation as a trainer by putting his students through excruciatingly painful (and perhaps maybe sadistic) submission holds.
Submission techniques are not something to be shrugged off as being fake.
“All these holds are primarily real holds, they’re all based on real stuff without pressure added,” Dux described. “So even with a slight amount of pressure you could actually hurt somebody.”
Tragedy and consequence
One of the Hart Dungeon’s alumni, and undeniably one of the best technical wrestlers to exist, was Edmonton’s Chris Benoit.
Wrestling’s greatest tragedy, in 2007 Benoit murdered his wife and child before taking his own life. Fans and wrestlers were devastated by the news, as Benoit was one of the most beloved and respected people in the industry.
Following the murder/suicide, WWE came under fire for the dangers associated with professional wrestling. Steroid abuse, brain damage from multiple concussions, and a deteriorating mental and emotional state had all been considered contributing factors leading to Benoit’s crime.
In response to the criticism, WWE began to ban head shots from its programming and put less emphasis on larger-then-life physiques.
However, even less astonishing maneuvers can cause long term effects on the wrestlers. Dux used to regularly perform elbow drops, although the pressure on his hips now limits how often he will do it.
Substance over style
When Tyson Dux (at 5’8”) began his career 21 years ago, the wrestling business still had a bias for larger size men. But with so many super heavyweights (Yokozuna at 580lbs, Mabel at 500lbs, the McGuire twins both over 700lbs) dying at relatively young ages, combined with the steroid scandal surrounding Benoit, there’s more emphasis on skill and talent then size.
It easier now for smaller men and women to have an opportunity to succeed in the industry.
“This day and age is the best day and age to be part of wrestling because you can be at any size,” Dux claimed. “There’s no advantage or disadvantage to the size you are, you just have to work extremely hard and get yourself out there and be good at what you do.”
Women gaining ground
While the late 90’s women’s wrestling was predominately eye candy, and quite frequently misogynist (during one WWF event, a 77 year old woman was power-bombed off the entrance stage through tables), nowadays the women’s division is considered by many to outstage their male competitors.
As the only female student in Tyson Dux Wrestling Factory, Vanessa Armstrong is expected to take the same bumps, do the same grueling warm up, and learn how to perform the same maneuvers as the guys.
A fan since the Hulkamania days, she immediately signed up for training as soon as she heard about the school. While she admits her first week of training was more than a little unpleasant, Armstrong has continued week after week to improve her skills.
While safety is the number one priority, Dux also monitors his student psychology in the ring.
During a match between Armstrong and James Roberts, Armstrong made the mistake of turning her back on her opponent after a counter. Afterwards, Dux made sure to remind her of the importance of never turning your back on your opponent.
He recalled a match with Terry Taylor in which Dux turned away while Taylor was in the corner. After being struck from behind (and hard enough to see white), Dux groggily turned around to face his competitor, who said plainly, “don’t ever do that again.”
Some of wrestling’s greatest heels are found outside the ring.
For Tyson Dux, his run in with unsavory promoters came early in his career. After working his first match of the night, Dux was later involved in a 30 man match when he noticed something less than comforting.
“As we were doing the Battle Royal, I watched the promoter walk by the ring and then go out the exit with a briefcase,” Dux recalled. “It’s a classic case of just take the money and run.”
None of the wrestlers were paid that night, and Dux has never seen the promoter since.
Other more prominent promoters are not averse to scandal either.
Vince McMahon, arguably the most important person in wrestling history, is a constant source of drama and scandals. Most famously, McMahon was accused of distributing illegal steroids to his wrestlers.
Rob Black, founder of porn company Extreme Associates, began his own wrestling promotion in 1999 called Xtreme Pro Wrestling (XPW).
He was the primary suspect in an unsolved 2002 attack on XPW star William “The Messiah” Welch who has his thumbs cuts off during the violent break-in. XPW ceased operations in 2003 when Black and his wife (adult actress Lizzie Borden) were indicted for distributing obscene pornographic material.
A world of difference
Different cultures have different wrestling styles. Dux has wrestled around the world and witness how a country’s culture influences its industry.
Japan has the “fighting spirit”, where fans want to see underdogs come back for the victory. Mexico’s religious influence on the sport is more prominent. Matches aren’t just good guys versus bad guys, but saints versus devils.
England’s industry is more scientific and educational.
“In Canada, it’s a plethora. It’s everything rolled into one because that’s what Canada is,” Dux explained. “A bunch of different people from different places that have settled in this country…
“That’s why you have such a hybrid style when it comes to Canada.”
While training his students, Dux doesn’t rely on a bullying tactic other trainers have been known for. If a mistake is made, he prefers a stern discussion over a more aggressive punishment. Safety and trust are his most important keys of training.
“When somebody’s safety is on the line and then somebody messes up in an unprofessional manner, then there will be consequences,” He said. “There will be repercussions and they they’ll be talked to but that’s basically it. It’s all about the safety and trust of each other.”
When Smash Wrestling returns to the London Music Hall on January 28, Tyson Dux is scheduled to be part of the show. After all the bumps, bruises, cuts, and broken bones, one can only ask… so, is wrestling still fake?
“I always say it’s not fake, it’s just pre-planned,” Dux said with a laugh. “Everything that we do is very, very, VERY, much real.”