Northern Nevada has a thriving wrestling scene based in a warehouse in Southeast Reno
It was a school night at Reno Wrestle Factory, and a trainee methodically hurled himself onto the ring floor, tailbone first. His instructor, a grizzled sort known as Luster the Legend, watched intently.
The coccyx crusher, a Univresity of Nevada, Reno student named Geoffrey Alcaraz, began to look as queasy as he did determined. A second later he took a breath, leapt back up and did the fly-thud-howl, technically known as a flip-bump, for the eighth or ninth time. Good grief.
The ring floor is steel topped with mere plywood and a gymnastics mat, for the record, and of course we’ve all heard that none of this wrestling-injury business is real—or not in the way it looks onstage, anyway.
Still, though. Ouch.
“It’s a show,” said RWF cofounder and instructor Adam Thornstowe, who tag-teams professionally with Alcaraz’s trainer, David Luster. “Sure, you can get hurt. But it’s a show.”
Task No. 1 with any newbie: “We teach you how to fall,” said Thornstowe. And fall they do.
Unlike other trainees at RWF, Alcaraz hasn’t yet taken a nickname. Thornstowe and Luster usually go by Reno Scum, though, and assumed the shared moniker long before it meant spandex, merch, livable income and regular travel.
Back in their 20s, they roused up mayhem in bars—not starting any fights, Thornstowe explained, but not exactly walking away from them, either—and the title stuck. (“It’s like Reno Scum’s a gang,” an onlooker once said, “but there’s only two of them.”)
Now they’re 30-somethings with wives, kids, day jobs and an all-consuming passion for performing and teaching their craft. They’ve parlayed the backyard wrestling of their youth into a professional training school, grappled before thousands and groomed students who’ve drawn the attention of big-league scouts at World Wrestling Entertainment. Their own company’s local shows, often at their warehouse space on Longley Lane, are nearing standing-room-only, and their calendar includes a regular slew of charity events and school fundraisers.Motley crew
The RWF group makes for great people-watching, too, which is probably the idea.
Luster’s mutton-chopped getup looks like that of a wild animal, for example, but he actually comes across as a little shy, at least in the context of an interview. Thornstowe is a burly guy who’s tattooed from the scalp down, with friendly eyes and a contagious smile.
“Big F’n Deal” Karl Fredericks, who’s currently in talks with the WWE, is a big ol’ handsome kid with an upbeat, employee-of-the-month vibe and a penchant for black and gold ring gear. Then there’s Cody Wilson, a.k.a. Jean Erick, a.k.a. a clean-shaven veteran with mixed martial arts experience who said wrestling is “legitimately more punishing than two tours in Afghanistan.”
A newcomer, Isaac “The Pit Bull” Wellman, is intimidating in the ring, with a buzz cut, deep yell and pouncing stance that all morph into unassuming politeness once he hops down to talk. That, and he’s always glad to see his fiancée, Cortney Hernandez, at practice and shows. (The Pit Bull’s mother attended a show, too, Hernandez said, but flew up in alarm whenever her boy seemed hurt. You can’t blame her.)
Styker Ngongoseke, better known as Chocolate Papi, is full of fun swagger and moonlights as a stripclub DJ, among other things. Don’t forget Wolfgang Danger, either —that’s the name on his birth certificate, folks—a fresh-faced North Dakota transplant and son of pro wrestler Nick Danger.
The list goes on, and most on it are students. There’s John Kendrick, for one, known as Joey Smoak or the Black Cat. A lithe, long-haired sort of creature, he’s apt to leap upon the guardrails and dangle like a feline, face calm and flat belly exposed.
RWF trainer Taylor Correa, or El Chupacabra, sports fangs, luchador gear and an enviable mane. Another instructor, Frank Lee Gorgeous (real name: Chris Nowicki), is your classic golden boy, and cofounder Steven Pienkoski’s shtick comes naturally, seeing as he’s around seven feet tall. You can call him Paul Isadora, or the Wrecking Ball.
Most have backgrounds in football, gymnastics or other sports, and were once awed little kids who watched pro wrestling on TV. Actually, television had much to with RWF’s genesis, too.Teenage dream
A young Thornstowe saw Luster and his ilk wrestle on Reno’s public-access channel back in high school, he recalled, “and I’m going, ‘These are the friends I’ve wanted my whole life.’” When he showed up to join, people did a double-take.
Thornstowe “had biceps,” Luster said, and just wasn’t built like your average teenager. He was in.
Then came something straight out of a movie: A professional promoter saw the grassroots group on public access, of all things, and contacted them. The backyard stars ponied up a few hundred dollars apiece to build a ring, and the rest is history. Thornstowe later dropped a gymnastics scholarship to the University of California, Berkeley to pursue his real goal.
“At some point, it wasn’t just a phase,” he’ll tell you with a chuckle. “I’ve been so gung-ho to do this that I’ve ruined a lot of things.”
More than 15 years and countless gigs later, Luster “is my work wife,” he joked. Their travel time is near constant, for that matter, with weekends away at shows in California, the Pacific Northwest and Las Vegas. They still play old punk music when they hit the ring in their tighties—GG Allin was once a standby, but now it’s Resilience—and appreciate crowds who know them well enough to yell, “Oi, oi, oi!” It happens a lot.
“Reno Scum’s never gonna be pretty like Karl,” Thornstowe added with a nod to his ever-successful protégé. “We look like a couple of prisoners. But people pay to watch us beat people up.”
He’s had his shot at higher-profile gigs, sure, and now Thornstowe would rather see students succeed. Not that his local shows are anything to scoff at.‘The best 10 bucks you’ll ever spend’
About an hour before the action was to start, an all-ages line of men, women and children formed outside the RWF’s bay doors, reconnecting and talking about story lines. Soon there were the entrance music, the flashy outfits, the heroes and villains and underdogs, the hollering, the skull-crunching flips and—inevitably—a bunch of giddy youngsters bantering with the wrestlers, who always humor them and sign autographs.
“I know this sounds cliché,” said devotee Jason McGill, who hasn’t missed a Reno show since he learned of RWF’s existence in 2015, “but it really is an experience like you wouldn’t believe.”
WWE stuff is one thing, McGill added. Shoot, he’s tuned in for that his whole life.
“I can honestly tell you, though, that I enjoy going to Reno Wrestle Factory shows more,” he said. “If you’ve got 10 bucks, it’s the best 10 bucks you’ll ever spend.”