It's two hours before a wrestling match at the east-end Germania Club of Hamilton, and already, its stars are active.
Mike Oberegger, aka "Psycho Mike," is filming a promotional video in the darkened basement where he threatens another wrestler that he'll "kick your head clean off your shoulders." Upstairs, wrestlers wearing shorts and T-shirts bang around the ring, practicing the moves they'll make on each other before a screaming crowd that afternoon.
It's not the WWE, but for the performers and fans, Alpha-1 Wrestling is the next best thing.
Alpha-1 is owned by Hamilton resident Julian Micevski, a 22-year-old wrestler known as "All Ego" Ethan Page. Micevski was a Tae Kwon Do champion when he decided to emulate his childhood TV heroes and become a professional wrestler.
About 20 wrestlers perform each month at the Germania Club for Alpha-1. It draws about 250 people. The fans — and the wrestlers — are dedicated.
"Everyone wants to forget about how crappy their job is or that their girlfriends left them, so they come here," Micevski said. "For three hours, they can forget their problems."
Alpha-1's roster includes at least six Hamilton wrestlers. By day, they are welders, bankers, and mechanics. Micevski is a maintenance manager at Redeemer University.
They all became smitten with wrestling as children. And many want to make it to the WWE.
Creating the alter ego
Among them is Oberegger, 26, a Waterdown computer programmer. "Psycho Mike" is known for his crazy facial expressions and use of the word "anabolic."
Offstage, Oberegger is thoughtful about his persona.
"The character has allowed me to be myself," he said. "Usually, it's hard to break out of your shell. But once you're given a moniker and a certain position in the show, for me, I felt like I could get away."
A good wrestling character, Micevski said, is "yourself, but with the volume turned way up."
Micevski grew up on the Mountain watching The Rock and Macho Man Randy Savage. At 16, his friend invited him to Living Legends Wrestling Academy. Within a year, he was traveling to Chicago and Michigan for matches.
"He was training for the Olympics in Tae Kwon Do," said Micevski's dad George. "He came home one day and said he didn't want to do it anymore. He wanted to wrestle."
Micevski's first public non-club match was in Brantford for an audience of 10, but "it was still 10 people watching me rather than me watching them," he said.
The matches are staged. Micevski pens Alpha-1's storylines and usually decides who will win and lose — often to the chagrin of wrestlers who must lose multiple times in a row. There are heroes and villains. Rivalries continue throughout the season and culminate in one big event.
Micevski's current rival is Toronto wrestler Ashley Sixx. Psycho Mike is trying to take the Alpha Male championship from Josh Alexander of Syracuse, who's had it for two years.
Learning how to fall
But the athleticism is real. Matches require long minutes of acrobatics and mutual co-ordination between opponents.
Most wrestlers work out five times a week. Some pay such close attention to their physiques that they eat one meal a day leading up to a big show, Micevski said.
"I can pick any fast food venue and know how to just get chicken breasts or a salad with no dressing."
The wrestlers spread their arms and legs when they fall on their backs to distribute the weight. Whenever possible, they break their falls with their feet.
Sometimes, they put packets of fake blood under their wrists bands so they can be slashed open during the match. That trick is "universal," Micevski said.
But they still fall on steel and wood. Micevski wakes up every morning and "cracks my back in four places." Oberegger dislocated his shoulder. One wrestler broke his leg and still finished the match.
"There's a stigma about wrestling that it isn't difficult or dangerous," Oberegger said. "There's a kind of snarky attitude a few people have when they talk to me about it. So usually I avoid the topic."
But fans love the mixture of performance and physicality. Bernadette Johnstone travels from Toronto with eight friends for Alpha-1 shows.
"It's not just a gimmick. It is what it is," she said. "They have amazing storylines. They have amazing performers. When they get going, there's an energy in the room."
Alpha-1's next event is Intoxicated at 5 p.m. on July 8 at 77 King William St. It will hold a two-day King of Hearts tournament at the Germania Club on July 28 and 29 to benefit the Heart and Stroke Foundation.