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“Massive” Mike Mahoney Jr. knows plenty about paying his dues in the minor leagues of professional wrestling.

Early in Mahoney’s career, a promoter booked him to appear at a show in Freehold, N.J., as a pro-wrestling manager—a performer whose duty it is to escort main-event wrestlers to the ring, but not get physically involved in the action. It wasn’t the preferred role for Mahoney, a burly grappler, but he wasn’t in a position to turn it down.

Because Mahoney didn’t yet own a car, he rode public transportation over a six-hour journey ending with a trip on a New Jersey Transit bus. Once he arrived at the venue, a local armory, the promoter pulled a bait-and-switch, instructing Mahoney that he would be performing that evening first as a manager, then as a wrestler in a “Bunkhouse Stampede” match. Uh-oh.

A bunkhouse match is not your standard, choreographed professional-wrestling contest, where the object is to pin the opponent’s shoulders to the mat for a three-count. As the name implies, a Bunkhouse Stampede is far more dangerous: A group of 12 to 20 wrestlers enter the ring simultaneously, wearing street clothes and brandishing various weapons, such as belts, chains, and even the occasional VCR. The idea is to incapacitate your opponents long enough to toss them over the top rope to the arena floor. The match ends when one wrestler is left standing alone in the ring. With little pro-wrestling training and only a handful of matches under his belt, Mahoney knew right away that the situation could become ugly for him.

“I suffer from vertigo, so the minute I saw the weapons I told the wrestlers backstage not to hit me in the head with anything,” he remembers. In spite of his fellow wrestlers’ assurances that Mahoney’s head and neck would remain off limits, he wasn’t in the ring two minutes before being temporarily knocked unconscious by an unscripted, very real blow to the skull.

“I had my back turned, and some motherfucker waffles me in the back of the head with a legitimate frying pan,” he says. “After that, I was literally tasting the blue ring mat. I traveled six hours to perform in the ring for six minutes.”

Mahoney received $10 for his trials, an amount in keeping with the spirit of indie wrestling. He also got a less liquid bonus: “I did get to flirt with this one girl at ringside,” he recalls. “I even got her phone number.”

Not all of Mahoney’s outings feature encounters with cookware, but the backdrop is usually the same. From high-school gyms in Northern Virginia to obscure rec centers in northern New Jersey, there are few places in the mid-Atlantic region that Mahoney, a Marshall Heights native, hasn’t traveled to make his mark in the world of independent professional wrestling, a world of sparsely attended shows often sponsored by fly-by-night promoters.

Though somewhat small in stature, the 5-foot-6 grappler possesses a 210-pound physique worthy of his ring name, the result of the “five days a week, every week” Mahoney spends in the gym. “I love the sport of professional wrestling to the point that it’s sick,” he admits.

But unlike pro-wrestling superstars such as Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, who routinely sell out the MCI Center and perform before millions on pay-per-view television, Mahoney typically participates in matches at small-town VFW halls and Boys & Girls Clubs in front of no more than 100 fans. It’s a slap of reality that suits him just fine.

“For me or anyone like me who is into the sport of pro wrestling for the love of it, you don’t care how many fans show up,” he explains. “It’s always worth it. No matter who’s here—10, 20, 30, 40, 50 people—when I walk out from behind the curtain, I give them everything I have.”

For the better part of the past six years, Mahoney, 26, has been giving everything he has at various indie shows all over the Eastern Seaboard. In a typical month, he’ll perform at three or four such shows—often for less than it costs to fill a gas tank, sometimes for nothing more than experience. To pay his bills, he works in property management at a downtown real-estate firm.

Each ring appearance affords another opportunity to craft that killer hold or perfect the schtick that clicks with the motley midsection of America that goes nuts over professional wrestling. The goal, of course, is a shot at the sport’s Valhalla, Vincent K. McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE)—the biggest showbiz juggernaut the business has ever known.

Love it or hate it—and it’s clear that tens of millions of Americans do both—there’s no debating that professional wrestling’s unique blend of athleticism and performance art has deep roots in the greater Washington, D.C., area. Beginning in the 1950s, Vince McMahon Sr.—late father of the current WWE mogul—bankrolled area wrestling events, with such legendary figures as Gorilla Monsoon, Argentina Rocca, and “Nature Boy” Buddy Rogers as top attractions. McMahon’s son expanded the company (then known as the World Wrestling Federation) nationally in 1984, and today it is the largest and most successful pro-wrestling promotion in the world, raking in a staggering $350 million annually. Its top stars may earn in the high six figures. As a result, scoring a WWE contract remains the ultimate goal of nearly every aspiring pro wrestler.

A select few area grapplers have reached that pinnacle. The late John Minton, who resided in Burke, Va., headlined events for McMahon throughout the mid-’80s as the famed Big John Studd. Silver Spring native Julio Dinero (real name: Brian Wall) spent nearly a decade slogging in small local promotions before joining McMahon on the WWE’s short-lived Spanish-oriented wrestling television series, SuperAstros. Dinero now performs for the Nashville, Tenn.–based promotion NWA TNA (Total Nonstop Action)—a moderately successful steppingstone promotion to McMahon’s WWE—and appears on weekly pay-per-view events with another area wrestling prospect, George Mason University senior Sonjay Dutt (real name: Retesh Bhalla). Like virtually all of his pro-wrestling running mates, Bhalla has stated that his eventual dream is a spot on the WWE roster. But before any wrestler can contemplate a career with the WWE, or even securing his place with TNA, he has to start at the bottom, just like “Massive” Mike Mahoney. It’s a lesson Mahoney knows all too well.

“I’ve done everything that I can possibly think of” to make it in pro wrestling, says Mahoney, who resides in an apartment in Northeast. “I could scrub out Vince McMahon’s toilets if I have to. If I can get to that point in some form or fashion, I don’t care what I have to do, as long as my check has the WWE logo on it.”

Mahoney’s mother, Pearl Mahoney, has clear views on professional wrestling. “Me, I don’t like it,” she says. “They body-slam each other; they put each other in headlocks; they get hit with metal chairs. I don’t like it. I really don’t like it.”

Most nights when Mahoney wrestles, Pearl, a lifelong D.C. resident, is content to stay close to home in Northeast, where she lives alone with her two dogs, Pookie and Chaos. But twice a year, she’ll trek anywhere to watch her son do battle inside the ring: “He…knows that twice a year I come to show my support.” As for her impressions the first time she saw her son compete on a pro-wrestling event, Pearl recalls: “I was thrilled because he was participating in something he’d always wanted to do. But after about 40 minutes I said, ‘That’s it. I’m going home.’”

The wrestling bug bit the young Mahoney in the ’80s, a golden era for televised professional wrestling. Back then, several full-time promotions thrived in various parts of the country. The American Wrestling Alliance in the Midwest, the National Wrestling Alliance in the Carolinas, and McMahon’s group in the Northeast each beamed a homegrown brand of “sports entertainment” to audiences nationwide via regional independent cable and UHF networks. (The shows were a hit with network execs because they delivered monster ratings and cost the stations little, if any, money to produce.)

“Hulkamania” burst into the national arena in 1984—a remarkably successful, seemingly ubiquitous promotional blitz by Vince McMahon to brand pro wrestling around his company’s franchise player and eventual icon, a 6-foot-7 blond Adonis named Terry “Hulk Hogan” Bollea. Soon Hogan, along with archrivals “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, “Mr. Wonderful” Paul Orndorf, and “Dr. D” David Schultz, was infiltrating playgrounds and living rooms across America. The Mahoney household was no exception.

“It started off when Mike was, like, 7 years old,” says Pearl. “I was changing channels, and Mike made me stop at the wrestling.” She initially took her son’s fascination with the flamboyant entertainers in stride. But it wasn’t long before she found herself trying to steer her son from the headlocks and foot-stomping. “I tried to discourage it because I’m like, ‘It’s phony.’ I’d make him walk the dog or go out and play or something to get him away from that wrestling,” she says. “But it didn’t work. Oh no. He’s been with it ever since.”

As a preteen, Mahoney began choreographing his first “pro-wrestling” matches against family members—most often his younger, generally unwilling sister, Rita. By high school, his alter ego, Massive Mike, was blossoming. Almost instantly, the persona began making an impression upon classmates and teachers alike. “There was always a larger-than-life aura about him,” recalls Thomas Baldwin, Mahoney’s ninth-grade chemistry teacher at McKinley Tech and a 31-year veteran of the D.C. public schools. “He was giving me his autograph in high school, saying, ‘Here: You’ll need this someday.’”

Mahoney confirms the allegation. “Yeah, I talked about wrestling all day every day; I was signing autographs,” he responds. “It may sound vain, but wrestling was all I ever wanted to do. I don’t think I ever had too many [other] passions in life.”

His passion was his savior throughout much of his teenage period, often helping him escape real-life body slams in the halls of McKinley. “Anybody who went there in the ’90s knows McKinley Tech was one of the roughest schools in D.C.,” Mahoney says. “We literally had convicted murderers and all types of people who—let’s just say a lot of people who had trouble with the law went there. But the toughest of the guys, the bullies, they never bothered me. I was beat-down-free all through high school. They just figured I was crazy. I mean, why else would I want to become a professional wrestler?”

Will “the Worm” Dunham and two fellow pro-wrestling aficionados launched Inside the Squared Circle on local AM radio in 1989. The weekly program was a self-proclaimed “no-budget” mix of pro-wrestling-themed commentary, phone calls, and sophomoric skits. It enjoyed nearly a three-year run before being canceled because, as the story goes, the station’s management “could not understand why the program’s hosts would refer to listeners as ‘humanoids’”—an insiderish term popular with wrestling fans. The show re-emerged in a new medium on D.C. cable TV in the spring of 1993 and, despite cyclical fluctuations in pro wrestling’s popularity, has aired weekly in both the District and Montgomery County ever since.

“Probably the best thing about the show is that virtually everybody who is part of it is part of it because they were originally a viewer,” says Dunham, 41, from the basement of his Arlington home, which once a week doubles as the “spacious” Inside the Squared Circle studio. “Everyone who’s on the show now started as a viewer except for me.”

And so it went with Mahoney, who became a follower of the show as a high-schooler and eventually worked his way onto the air.

Since 1995, Mahoney has been a constant presence among Inside the Squared Circle’s revolving on-air cast, which has included pseudonymous personalities such as “Mike the Mole,” “Despicable Dave,” and “The X Man.” “[Mahoney] began as a viewer and a caller,” Dunham explains. “What we used to do when we were scouting people to join the staff was, if somebody was a caller and seemed to make sense and showed a sustained interest in the program, we occasionally would call them just to get to know them. Among those people we talked to who we didn’t think had a criminal record or some kind of a personality disorder, we would call them in to the show and gauge what their interest was.”

After the show’s producers determined Mahoney to be mentally sound, Massive Mike, the self-proclaimed “Bling-Bling King” began appearing on the air in August 1995 on a trial basis before settling in as a full-time color commentator three months later. Almost immediately after landing the gig, Mahoney posed for some 8-by-12 head shots and began bringing the photos to area wrestling shows on the off chance he might be recognized by local viewers. “He was, in essence, a wrestling fan signing autographs

for other wrestling fans,” one former colleague recalls.

As for Massive Mike’s fast-talking, larger-than-life on-air personality, Dunham notes that it’s “utterly indistinguishable” from the real Mike Mahoney. “Maybe at one point I would have said that Massive Mike was Mike Mahoney plus 20 percent,” he laughs. “But the 20 percent differential has evaporated; they’re the same person now completely.”

It was Massive Mike’s charisma—the “plus 20 percent”—that initially caught the eye of D.C.-area wrestling promoter Alex Arias. “Though many [promoters] have put up Web sites and spoken of running shows in D.C., nobody has actually done it except for us,” boasts Arias, who formed D.C.’s Capital City Wrestling (CCW) some three years ago and successfully promoted nearly a dozen shows last year. Shortly after he founded the company, Arias contacted Mahoney about getting involved with CCW after seeing the wrestler’s schtick on Inside the Squared Circle.

“I contacted him with the intention of talking with him about indie wrestling in general and his possible interest in commentating for CCW,” Arias says. “It became obvious quickly, however, that his enthusiasm and knowledge of pro wrestling was broader and deeper than I had expected, so he came on board all the way to help CCW get started in more ways than I can list. He was essential in many behind-the-scenes capacities, and we wouldn’t have been able to have moved forward without him.”

Mahoney’s worked not only inside CCW’s rings, but eventually behind the curtain as the group’s chief wrestling trainer, a nonpaying gig. It was an ironic twist for Mahoney, who never attended professional wrestling school himself—instead electing to learn the craft on the job.

“The great thing about Mike is that he knows what he knows, and he also knows what he doesn’t know,” says Arias. “His contributions to training our guys were limited to teaching the basics and the aspects of in-ring performance that he is strong at, with a heavy emphasis on safety and working with your partner effectively. Mike is old-school in that he is a believer in the style of wrestling that emphasizes character, story, and good in-ring psychology.”

“Psychology” is wrestling jargon for timing in-ring stunts to trigger maximum crowd response. Mahoney tries to establish a connection with the audience in part through tunes. The Cash Money Millionaires’ “Get Your Roll On” accompanies his arrival at the ring, and of course he also resorts to such time-tested ploys as trash-talking his opponent.

“When I come out, people immediately recognize that I’m all about having fun and interacting with the fans,” he says. “Pro wrestling’s more than just flashy moves off the top rope. I incorporate a lot of comedy in my matches.”

And even if hiphop, trash-talking, and comedy don’t take him to the WWE, Mahoney maintains that he’s already succeeded in his life’s one true mission. “I came to this realization just a few years ago,” Mahoney explains. “You know how people wonder why they’re put here on Earth? I think my reason for living is to entertain people and make them happy. And I think my love for wrestling was by design for the bigger cause in my life, which is to entertain.

“I don’t mind going hundreds of dollars in the hole doing this,” he continues. “Money has never been an issue for me. As long as I knew I was entertaining and that somebody was enjoying my performances, that’s my reward; that’s my high. [Pro wrestling’s] my life’s calling. I may not be in the WWE, but I know that for me just to be in the ring and do a show, I think I’ve made the most I can out of things. God forbid, if I go tomorrow, at least I can say that I did something on this earth that was worthwhile, and I think the Big Man knows that.”

Professional wrestling is a battle inside the ring between good and evil. For virtually his entire wrestling career, Massive Mike has performed the role of a “babyface”— wrestling shorthand for the good guy.

As a general rule, babyfaces are clean-cut golden boys; they clap hands with the fans, smile for the camera, and rarely, if ever, cheat in the ring. Their opponents—“heels”—insult the audience at every opportunity, sneer at the camera, and employ underhanded tactics constantly. All too often in the wrestling business, heels are portrayed by minorities.

It’s a wrestling tradition that Mahoney, an African-American, refuses to follow. “There’s too many stereotypes in wrestling,” he remarks. “Every minority—not just blacks, but minorities, period. If you’re black, you’re a heel; if you’re French, you’re a heel. I mean, why do we all have to be heels? I don’t want to play something I’m really not. Like you see some wrestlers, they wrestle as good guys, but they’re really bad people in real life. I don’t have to create a different persona when I go out there and wrestle. With me, what you see is what you get. I don’t want to have to fake anything to anybody.”

Though much of pro wrestling’s action is staged, a surprising number of pro wrestling’s in-ring personas reflect the performers’ true personalities. Massive Mike’s babyface character is no exception. “It’s not so much my motivation to play a babyface,” Mahoney explains. “It’s simply who I am.”

It’s a statement Mahoney backs up with his work outside the ring as a promoter of and mentor to young wrestlers. “There’s no advice I can give you that I haven’t been through myself,” Mahoney recently told students at D.C.’s SunRise Academy, a private Afrocentric school at Mount Vernon Square. “I’ve been to the point growing up when me and my family didn’t have a place to go. I’ve been to hell and back, but it taught me never to let anything bother you in life.”

In pushing his babyface values, Mahoney draws a contrast with the reckless lifestyle often associated with pro wrestling—a lifestyle that in recent years has claimed the lives of about a dozen high-profile wrestlers before age 40.

“My message is stay positive and stay healthy,” he says. “I don’t drink, and I don’t smoke. I never have. That keeps me ahead of the game, I think. There are too many negative stereotypes about black men—we’re up to no good, or we have potential but we don’t want to live it out. Well, I have potential, and I’m trying to live it out.”

In furtherance of his ideals, Mahoney is organizing “family-friendly” (i.e., no blood and no violence against women) cards for Maximum Championship Wrestling (MCW), a small independent federation he recently co-founded with friend Charles Stevenson. MCW presents a “positive” show, donates a percentage of each event’s proceeds to charity, and gives “kids something to do for two hours to keep them off the street,” Mahoney explains. It’s also a way to push local wrestling talent, including Mahoney—who initially wrestled as the group’s heavyweight champion—and Stevenson, MCW’s chief referee. The group puts on at least one show per month.

“I probably wouldn’t be in the wrestling business if I hadn’t met Mike,” says Stevenson. Aside from being Mahoney’s business partner, he’s also Mahoney’s protégé. Mahoney first met Stevenson and began training him to be a pro-wrestling referee a little over three years ago. (Although the matches are scripted, trained referees are necessary in the ring to count the pinfalls and also to send signals to the wrestlers to coordinate various aspects of the physical interaction.) At that time, Mahoney was already working as a trainer for CCW, which periodically offers free tryouts to the region’s would-be grapplers. Mahoney saw potential in Stevenson as a ref and maybe a wrestler, too, and after a year he began bringing him to area shows to gain in-ring experience.

“I didn’t know nothing about independent wrestling until Mike hooked me up,” says Stevenson, 30, who says that as a child growing up in the District he dreamed of one day breaking into the wrestling business. “He’s been a big role model—teaching me stuff about wrestling but also about life.”

The good works in real life, of course, don’t do any harm to Mahoney’s babyface image. Another advantage is his stature; he naturally elicits sympathy from the audience as the consummate underdog. It’s one of pro wrestling’s golden rules: Nobody likes to see a big guy picking on a little guy.

“The most important thing you can learn,” Mahoney says, “is how to ‘sell,’” wrestle-speak for the art of appearing to be injured by your opponent’s faux blows. “I patterned myself in the ring after smaller guys like Shawn Michaels and Ricky Morton, who broke pro wrestling’s size barrier by being able to sell better than just about anybody.”

Like his childhood heroes, who would often move audiences to tears before battling back to vanquish their much larger foes, Mahoney generally spends the bulk of his matches suffering one physical indignity after another at the hands of his opponents before finally mounting his comeback, typically capped off by his specialty finishing move—a devastating-looking kick to the face known as the “superkick.” It’s a 10- to 15-minute physical drama that keeps the fans on the edge of their seats.

“Getting a reaction out of the crowd is the biggest compliment I can get,” Mahoney says. “Like I said before, what I was put here for is to entertain. If I can take your worries away—just for a second—from your girlfriend, from your wife, your mortgage, your job, that means I did my job.”

Gooden Brothers VFW Post 9292 is located in Elkton, Va., population 1,935, just past the Log Cabin Barbeque Carry Out. It’s no Madison Square Garden, the primo venue where the WWE’s Wrestlemania XX recently drew in excess of 20,000 spectators. Tonight’s independent wrestling show has attracted some 19,900 fewer.

Many of them are Massive Mike followers. As soon as the beats of “Get Your Roll On,” begin to echo throughout the arena, the fans rise to their feet. Though the majority of them look as if they’d prefer Toby Keith or Martina McBride to hiphop, many nonetheless nod along to the music in anticipation of Mike’s entrance.

Almost immediately, he emerges from behind the locker-room curtain, his sculpted body evident underneath red-white-and-blue tights. He slaps hands with a dozen or so children standing in the front row before stepping inside the ring, climbing to the second rope, and leading the crowd through a series of hand motions in sync with the music. Massive Mike basks in the crowd’s applause for a moment before turning to face his foes.

Tonight’s match is a mixed-gender tag-team match pitting Massive Mike and a partner against a heel wrestler known as “West Coast Playa” C.A. Elliot and his voluptuous valet, Leah Kelly. As an added plot twist, Massive Mike’s partner, a cagey veteran heel known as Spencer Christian, is also one of Mike’s longtime rivals—making the match essentially three-on-one. It’s poor odds for Massive Mike—the lone babyface in the ring against three heels—but it’s ideal stagecraft.

Massive Mike opens the match against Elliot, while Kelly—who has virtually no professional-wrestling experience—stands provocatively on the ring apron inciting the crowd. The two “lock up” in the center of the ring, pushing each other back and forth in a test of strength. True to his name, Mike muscles Elliot to the mat—a feat that immediately prompts a middle-aged woman in the crowd to shout, “Knock him out, Massive Mike!”

Standing over his foe, Mike unloads with a barrage of punches and kicks to Elliot’s head, neck, and shoulders. The scripted violence evokes cries of delight from the Elkton fans, many of whom spontaneously break into a chant of “USA! USA!” in reference to Massive Mike’s patriotically colored attire. The wrestler acknowledges the crowd’s approval by laying in an additional kick to Elliot’s chest before tagging out to his heel partner, who is immediately greeted with boos.

Within moments, the crowd grows unruly. “Spencer, get Massive Mike back in there!” a grandmotherly woman screams at the top of her lungs. On the apron, Mike begins slapping the top of a turnbuckle with his hand, provoking the audience to begin clapping in unison. Christian obligingly tags him back in the ring.

Massive Mike charges at C.A. Elliot, who catches him in a headlock and drags him toward the ring ropes. Seconds later, Elliot drapes Mike’s leg over the bottom ring rope, jumps in the air, and seemingly lands on top of it with his full weight. Massive Mike winces in pain from the apparent blow, compelling many in the crowd to begin chanting, “Mike, Mike, Mike!” For several minutes, Elliot works over Mike’s knee with an array of holds and offensive maneuvers. Mike valiantly tries to stand up and fight back—an act of staged valor that brings the fans momentarily to their feet—but Elliot cuts him off by delivering another kick to the knee. Mike crumples to the ground, causing Elliot to turn his back to his foe and begin taunting the audience.

With Elliot’s attention diverted, Mike slowly pulls himself up by the ropes. Sensing that Massive Mike is about to mount a comeback, the fans in attendance cheer and rise to their feet. Finally, in a choreographed act of desperation, Mike lands a “flying clothesline,” a maneuver that involves leaping forward and clubbing the opponent across the neck with the inside of the forearm. He then tags his partner, who, unbeknownst to the audience, has been scripted to take the pinfall.

As Christian, Elliot, and Leah Kelly prepare for the match’s conclusion—a sequence wherein Elliot will trip Spencer Christian so that Leah can cradle him from behind and pin him—Mike lies on the apron, “hobbled” by his knee injury. All goes according to plan, and within moments the heel faction of C.E. Elliot and Leah Kelly is celebrating in victory while the crowd at Gooden Brothers VFW Post 9292 howls in disgust.

Despite his team’s loss, the fans in attendance remain impressed with Massive Mike’s “Oscar-winning” underdog performance. Many reach over the guardrail to clap his hand and offer Mike verbal support as he limps back to the locker room, still selling his knee injury. “He really could be a WWE star,” says one woman, identifying herself only as Pam from neighboring Harrisonburg, Va.

The accolades continue during intermission, as well, as nearly a dozen young fans approach Mike for autographs and ask if his knee will heal in time for next month’s wrestling card. Still in character, Mike grimaces, thanks them for their concern, and responds that he’ll likely live to wrestle another day. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.