Making It: Independent wrestling thrives in Northeast Ohio
Maker: John Thorne, Owner and Founder
Business: Absolute Intense Wrestling
For many, being 15 years old meant adolescent antics, homework and video games. When John Thorne was 15, he became an independent wrestling promoter.
Since then, Thorne has evolved from an amateur promoter to starting his own company, Absolute Intense Wrestling, which is now Cleveland's premier professional wrestling promotion organization. AIW produces several shows each month at venues across Northeast Ohio, attracting hundreds of loyal fans to each event.
"I found a phone number for a local wrestling promoter in Cleveland named JT Lightning. He didn't know I was 15 years old," said Thorne of his start in professional wrestling promotion. "I called the number, I said, 'Oh, I'd like to rent your wrestling ring.' He said, 'Sure. 300 bucks. And you got to put me on the show.' [He] didn't ask any questions, had no idea how how old I was."
JT Lightning's requirement that he participate in the show was odd, as at the time he was one of Cleveland's most famous independent wrestling stars. As a wrestler and promoter of his own company, Cleveland All-Pro Wrestling, JT Lightning had built a following and was training new wrestlers. Some of his trainees, like Johnny Gargano, would go on to international fame as wrestlers for World Wrestling Entertainment.
Boys to men
Thorne and his high school friends had no experience, just a love for the unique hybrid of sports and entertainment that is professional wrestling. When Lightning arrived at Thorne's initial show to set up his ring and perform, he didn't know what was waiting for him.
"We put on a wrestling show of completely untrained high school people in a wrestling ring. JT Lightning, when he arrived, he did not turn around and leave. He understood what we were trying to do," said Thorne.
Lightning is recognized by Thorne as the godfather of AIW, which Thorne would officially launch in 2005, at age 21. Lightning passed away from cancer in 2011, but his imprint on AIW continues. His student, Johnny Gargano, went on to wrestle for AIW and become the head instructor at their training school. Every year AIW holds their JT Lightning Invitational Tournament in his honor.
Thorne created the AIW wrestling school with the help of Johnny Gargano and his wife and fellow wrestler, Candice LeRae Gargano. It has become a pipeline that creates wrestlers for AIW shows.
"Since we started the wrestling school, it's become almost like a system, right? Like how it existed for so many years was we would just book wrestlers," said Thorne. "Like every wrestler is considered an independent contractor."
In 2010 when the WWE started their NXT brand, which focused on developing young, independent wrestlers for their major brands, it threatened to poach all of the best talent in the country.
"When NXT really started making a run at things and signing up everybody on the independents, we kind of realized that change was coming and we were going to have to do something," said Thorne.
The AIW school is now run by mainstay AIW wrestlers like Dominic Garrini and Derek Dillinger, who train their future colleagues in the corner of a gym in Brookpark.
"There's a lot of wrestling schools, there's a lot of wrestling promotions. There's not a lot of wrestling schools that feed into a wrestling promotion these days. And that is what. I think sets us apart from a lot of companies in the country right now," said Thorne.
The AIW school graduation reward is a major enticement for students to stay focused.
"So your graduation is you get a match on an AIW show. So we promise you at least one match, you know," said Thorne. "And some people really excel, and some people do not."
Playing with the big kids
Cleveland has fed professional wrestling for decades through several independent wrestling promotions. A "promotion" is a company or business that performs regular shows involving professional wrestling. No other promotion has achieved the staying power and fan loyalty of AIW.
The quality of the wrestling shows, the caliber of talent brought in for the shows and the AIW stable of wrestlers sets the promotion apart.
"We're always looking to kind of add a little bit more to the show, right? Because I understand that, some of these people that we're putting in matches, they are not household names because they're starting from scratch right here at the AIW academy," said Thorne.
To bolster the name recognition on shows, Thorne brings in an array of nationally and internationally recognized talent. Many are still working like Matt Cardona, a former WWE star who frequents AIW events, and Tom Lawlor, a former UFC star out of Las Vegas who comes to Cleveland regularly to work for AIW. Others are hall of famers and retirees who come to meet and greet with fans and sign the waves of memorabilia they bring.
There are also legends of the wrestling world who never actually wrestled themselves in the AIW system. Bill Alfonso, known as Fonsi to the AIW crowd, is one of wrestling's most recognizable and beloved characters. Alfonso spent decades as a referee and sometimes manager in nearly all of the major national wrestling promotions, including the WWE.
"I do comic-cons and wrestle-cons, and conventions and so on," said Alfonso. "This company, AIW, which is very cool, I've been here off and on for three years. We're drawing five, six, seven hundred people, entertaining them, it's very cool."
Recent AIW events also featured WWE Hall-of-Famers like Abdullah the Butcher, Larry Zbyszko, D-Von Dudley, as well as noted retirees like The Barbarian, Raven, and Carlito. They come to events and not only sign memorabilia for the fans, but sometimes participate in the show with the AIW wrestlers.
Thorne never intended to make Wrestling a business, he was just a fan trying to live his dream. He loves his work for one reason above all else.
"There's a rich history of Cleveland independent wrestling that's mainly Cleveland All-Pro wrestling and you know, the least I can do for what JT [Lightning] did for me is make sure people never forget him. And that's that's what we do. That's what we try to do every year. We try to honor him," said Thorne. "We want Cleveland to be a destination for for professional wrestling. And that's always our goal. And that's always why we do this."