A man with a Mohawk named John tells him, “You’re gonna come in, bang, bang, boom. Splash it. Then a kick to the head.”
“No, I’m not going to let you kick me in the head,” Charette retorts as sweat drips from his tight buzz-cut down to his thick black beard. He pulls out his phone and checks Facebook.
Like Charette’s mind, the Professional Wrestling Academy, located in a half-vacant business complex off the side road of a side road in a town called Cheshire, Connecticut, is bustling. On the other side of the warehouse, a promotional video is being filmed for an upcoming YouTube release.
“Hey Hippie,” John calls out to a long-haired wrestler working the camera, “Don’t you trust my kick?”
“I guess?” Hippie replies.
“No, what’s going to happen is this: jab, chops, hit the ropes, boom, 1, 2, murder-line,” Charette asserts, emphasizing “murder-line” with a punching motion. Translation: he’ll let John win this time.
Spencer Charette has been wrestling for a couple years now under the name “Wrecking Ball” Legursky, traveling around the Northeast or to wherever the crowds seem to be. He dresses up in a navy blue work suit cut at the sleeves, a large logo embroidered on his back. John, who hasn’t had a match yet, listens carefully and then begins to tell Charette how much they’d love to have him out in Rhode Island, “You gotta come out there, man. I know a guy. You could kick my ass and they’d love you. I mean, a guy who is 6’4, and what? 395? 400 pounds? You’ve got something a lot of people don’t.”
John did not misspeak. Charette weighs in at a burly 400 – the equivalent of a small grand piano, a Welsh pony, or a 400 lb. bag of bricks. He’s so big he creates a breeze as he walks. Understandably, Charette and his opponents must move with precision. Earlier in the practice, a wrestler who goes by TKO had a misstep and found himself in the path of Wrecking Ball’s “roaring elbows.” He was knocked out for two minutes. Since then, he has been sitting in the corner, staring blankly into the distance. Pete, who co-owns PWA with his ex-wife, attends to TKO.
Pete asks him, “What day is it?” and TKO correctly responds, “Thursday.” He had gotten that question wrong earlier. Pete replies with a smile on his face, “Yup. November 19th, 1955. Doc Brown is here to take you back to the future.” TKO continues to stare blankly. “Don’t worry man, we all get our bells rung every now and then. It will all come back to you soon.”
“I lost my phone,” TKO says moments later.
Pete, who mainly wrestles as “Josef Von Schmidt,” has toured the world. Von Schmidt is a German nationalist whose poor sportsmanship and ambiguous support of the Third Reich gets him showered in boos. His head, with bleach-blonde hair on top and dark, leopard-like patches on the side, sits on a body that could sink a battleship. The events in which he has wrestled cover a wall of the warehouse with names like “Scars and Stripes,” “The Rise of Injustice,” and even a Christmas-themed “Deck the Halls.”
Pete is a hands-on instructor. In the ring with John, he swings his arm and smacks it into John’s neck. “That’s how you chop,” he says like a seasoned luchador. John staggers and begins to rub the red area of his neck. “I’m gonna feel that one for a while,” he says, grimacing.
“That’s what you get for kicking me in the head last week.”
Pete’s drills are exhausting. The six students somersault forwards then backwards, shoulder roll, hop onto and over the ropes, climb the turnbuckles, and dive onto the canvas floor repeatedly. Charette leads the class. When he shoulder rolls, the crash of his body echoes violently. As more rounds of the drills go by, Charette becomes increasingly fatigued. His black tank-top with “WRECKING BALL” printed on it becomes damp with sweat. Now, as he approaches the turnbuckles, he must take a few breaths and focus before he struggles to lift himself onto the thin ropes. At the top of the turnbuckle, still panting, he looks out for a moment.A decade ago, this is not exactly where Charette imagined he would be. “I thought I was going to be in the NFL,” he recalls. In high school, as an All-State offensive lineman, Charette led Southington High School to two Connecticut state championships, although he lost both times. He was recruited to play DII football at Southern Connecticut State University. While the dream of the NFL was unlikely, seemingly everyone around him made it there. Charette spent his practices blocking defensive tackle Carlif Taylor and defensive end Ike Igbinosun, who each got practice squad spots on the Dallas Cowboys and the Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively. He lined up alongside Jerome Cunningham, who has seen significant playing time this season as a tight end for the New York Giants. “We were really competitive,” he remembers, “And I feel like I held my own.” Charette’s career at SCSU was plagued by injuries. He started his freshman year playing with a broken bone in his foot and ended his senior year with a torn MCL, having three surgeries in between. Never being able to play a full season, Charette missed his chance.
His injuries, however, gave him two extra years of eligibility to play at SCSU, meaning he could go for a masters degree. “I didn’t know what I wanted to get a masters in,” he recalls, “I would always be one prerequisite class short there and one there, but I met the requirements for social work. It’s funny, it just happened by coincidence but I think it was a natural fit… You wouldn’t guess that social work is my day job, but people trust me. I try to be personable and a little silly. Above all, though, I am genuine.”
Charette, now 27 years old, sees social work as his “way of giving back to people who didn’t have a positive male role model.” He grew up with five older brothers, yet the one closest to him in age, Dennis, is 15 years older. Dennis – who works as a computer technician by day and racecar driver by night – was like another father figure to him. “Spencer was a bit unexpected,” Dennis explains, and with his parents’ aging and health issues, “it was definitely a different kind of relationship. I was very involved with Spencer. His father will always be his father, but I think he was more like a grandparent.” Dennis had to step in “to be the disciplinarian” and “be the person to take him to activities and have that catch outside.” Now, Dennis sees their relationship coming full circle. After being successful in the early 2000s, Dennis was ready to quit racing. “We lost a lot,” he recalls, “I was no longer as competitive because we didn’t have the finances to put the team together. But Spencer shed some light on how it’s something I enjoy and how I always preached to him, ‘Never give up.’ He shed the light back on me and I’m still competing.”
Charette’s social work career began at the Hamden Children’s Center, where he was a clinical therapist intern. Being a wrestler made Charette a hit with most of the kids, but one – who, for sake of confidentiality, will be named Jeremy – still seems to haunt him. After a few weeks of sessions, they had built a great rapport. One day, Jeremy told Charette that his mother was hitting him to discipline him. Charette had no choice but to report it to the Department of Child & Family Services. Soon after, Charette needed to have surgery to repair a foot he had tweaked while wrestling. The time-off proved costly. He ended up not being able to see Jeremy for nearly a month, all the while the DCFS was investigating his family. “His dad had left him and never made an effort to see him. He was pissed off about the DCF case and then I was another male figure who ‘walked out on him.’” Charette sighs and continues, “He acted out on me for 6 months. He’d say, ‘Get out of here! I don’t want to be here! I’ll fucking punch you in the face.’ He actually said that. There would be maybe a little glimmer of hope and then nothing, nothing, nothing.”
Charette works with adults now. The outpatient mental health center, which he has declined to name, is severely understaffed. His official title is “case manager,” but he works as a receptionist, therapist, and proctors urine tests. Along with that, he’s currently in charge of 85 cases. To Charette, it seems like “there are a million people,” all of whom seem to be confused on which room to go to. There are some bright moments. Last week, a 50-year-old man told him that he would have relapsed had Charette not helped him.TKO is still staring blankly into the distance, but Pete has walked back over to the promo filming. A debate has ensued about whether they should re-release the fight between Wrecking Ball Legursky versus Bull Dredd or another fight, which they keep referring to as “the steel cage match.” Charette excitedly suggests, “Do Wrecking Ball versus Dredd!”
Even though it was two years ago, that match means a lot to him. Charette had grown up watching Bull Dredd in the independent circuit and their fight for the Old School Heavyweight Title was billed as a student vs. teacher battle. For Charette, it was a culmination of his endless effort and losing, “My senior year (of high school) in wrestling, I lost in the state finals. In football, we lost in the state finals twice. In college, we never won the conference… I’ve been chasing the carrot on the stick for so long. I’ve been so close.” He reflects with nostalgia, “I know it’s predetermined in wrestling, but winning the title that night was an amazing feeling. There were 300-350 people, cheering ‘Wrecking Ball! Wrecking Ball!’ It was awesome.”
That night, Charette cut his hand on a piece of sheet rock between his thumb and pointer finger. With each punch and jab, blood would spray. The next day at Hamden Children’s Center, a kid who had attended the match approached him and asked, “Were you that guy wrestling last night? Because you got blood on my shoes.” Charette lets out an enormous laugh as he tells this story.
Blood loss and the other pains are just part of life for Charette. He practices at PWA about 2 to 3 days a week and goes to the gym on the other days. “Some weeks I have to go lighter because my body is a little beat up. It’s hard for me to recover. When my adrenaline is not going, there are a lot of aches and pains. Sometimes I can barely walk.”
Yet, Charette keeps wrestling. “It gives me purpose,” he says, taking a deep breath, “Sometimes I get depressed and down and I devalue myself… I’m worried about job security, the dating scene – I’m looking for the one and there aren’t a lot of keepers out there… When I wrestle, whether it’s in front of 5 people or 500 people, I get this rush from people chanting my name. It really picks me up.” Quitting would be against everything the Wrecking Ball – the blue collar hero who won’t go down until he is knocked unconscious – represents. To quit now would be to quit on Spencer Charette.
After practice, Charette sits outside in the cold night, still wearing a tank-top and shorts, as a light drizzle sprinkles his tattoo-covered arms. On his right outer bicep, there’s a graveyard, and beneath it, “What I have in my heart, I’ll take to my grave,” is written. On his inner bicep, there’s a portrait of Angus Young, the lead guitarist of ACDC. Charette respects the consistency of the band, “They’ve been around for forty plus years, and they haven’t changed their style. That takes integrity. They could have easily added a keyboard in the mid-80s.” Down on his forearm, there is a black cobblestone road – the “Highway to Hell.” “It’s like a metaphor for life,” Charette says, “Life is hell, and you’ve got to go through it.”
Charette goes back inside PWA as the rain picks up. TKO remembers that his name is Dave and that today is November 19th, 2015. The men filming the promo have left. “So, you’re gonna release Wrecking Ball versus Dredd?” Charette asks. Pete shakes his head no. Maybe someday.