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My 20-Minute Career as a Pro Wrestler: Training Day at Santino Bros in Bell Gardens

[dropcap size=big]M[/dropcap]y lungs are begging for every sip of air after only two laps down the alley when I begin climbing into a pro wrestling ring for the first time since in my childhood dreams.

Yet instead of The Rock, I'm The Block. Just 330 lbs of pure desk jockey about to attempt the front-flip type somersaults known in wrestling as "rolls" at Santino Bros. Wrestling Academy. I throw all my weight forward with every attempt at the front rolls, repeatedly slamming my head against the ring until I'm forced to take a short break from dizziness.

I jump back into the ring, still dazed to attempt the back roll, only to crash-land right on my back in an unsafe bump-like fashion. I instantly feel sharp pain as though someone is twisting my spine.

Only twenty minutes into my would-be wrestling career, I'd kicked my own ass into a tap-out at the Bell Gardens wrestling institution. “I know everybody wants to be a part of this, at some point has a passion for it, but it’s not for everybody,” head trainer Robby Phoenix told L.A. Taco.

Photo Courtesy of Santino Bros.
Photo Courtesy of Santino Bros.

[dropcap size=big]S[/dropcap]antino Bros. has developed a reputation for being a tough training ground that’s been pumping out popular indie-league wrestlers like Heather Monroe and Jake Atlas for the past ten years. Recently, it jumped into the WWE limelight, when Ronda Rousey began training with WWE superstar Brian Kendrick, who teaches a class at the school. After dominating UFC for the better part of four years, the Venice native has to learn how to wrestle just like everyone else.

“You really got to be some kind of stupid crazy to do this,” Phoenix explained. “Our bodies are getting into a 35 mph crash every single night as we bump and then we gotta get up and bump again. We knowingly do it, then we get up and do it three days a week. That’s for the students. I’m here six days a week.”

Joey Kaos & Jezebel Romo. Photo Courtesy of Santino Bros.

Driven by their love of the sport, founder Joseph “Joey Kaos” Muñoz stretches his wrestling career all the way back to 1994. His wife and co-owner Sylvia “Jezebel Romo” Muñoz and lead trainer Phoenix both have 18-plus years under their belt.

Joey Kaos & Jezebel Romo. Photo Courtesy of Santino Bros.

[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]ogether, with trainers like Kaos’ former tag team partner Mongol Santino, they built Santino Bros. into one of the most notable of the seven wrestling schools in the greater Los Angeles area. Their record in the indie circuit boasts the likes of Pacific Coast Wrestling tag team champion Brody King and the high flying Eli Everfly. WWE stars Sonya Deville and Zeda have trained there as well with the former training with Kendrick.

Kaos never thought he’d run a school, wrestling everywhere from Xtreme Pro Wrestling to World Wrestling Entertainment. Everything changed in April 2007, when mentor, friend, and wrestler Darren “Dynamite D” McMillan lost his a battle to cancer.

“He was on his deathbed so I just started talking to him about wrestling,” Kaos said. “One of the things he said that really stuck with me was, ‘That’s what you got to do. You gotta keep the dream alive. This is what we love to do.’”

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]n December 2007, pro wrestler Rico Dynamite and his roommate Johnny were running an unofficial wrestling school in their backyard in Norwalk when they asked Kaos to start teaching their students. By February 2008, Kaos was ready to start the academy to “keep the dream alive” in honor of Dynamite D. “I took it to heart,” Kaos explained.

Santino Bros. got its name from Munoz’s and Mongol’s old tag team the “Santino Brothers.” They had an excess of unused promotional material, allowing Kaos to save money on branding by using their old name.

From the start, their goal for the school was to be a legendary hardcore institution like the defunct Slammers in L.A. They moved to their current location, in a row of small warehouses in Bell Gardens, thanks to wife Romo’s customs fantasy wrestling experience business Lucha Girls.  The side hustle helped keep the school afloat until business exploded in 2014, when enrollment shot up to 24 students. They’ve been stable ever since.

And they’ve achieved their goal, earning their reputation as a hard-hitting school. You even have to sign a liability waiver when you join. While the theatrical elements of wrestling are coordinated, Kaos explained, the injuries are real. You could break your neck, get a concussion, seizures, a torn ACL, and if you can’t handle the cardio, you could hurt someone when you drop them from exhaustion.

“People say, ‘Oh people just go there to get their ass kicked,’” Romo told L.A. Taco. “It’s like no. Yeah you do pay us and yeah we do kick your ass but ultimately what do you learn? You learn how to be strong, you learn how to find that strength from within and find your passion.”

Robby Phoenix. Photo Courtesy of Santino Bros.
Robby Phoenix. Photo Courtesy of Santino Bros.

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]t’s Monday night at the academy. Students are fighting one another in the ring as though performing in a packed venue, yelling painfully with every coordinated strike, grimacing with every hold, bouncing off the ropes, and learning how to take a strike to the face and react as though you’d been knocked out.

Meanwhile, head trainer Robby Phoenix is pushing his beginning students on their cardio. One is dripping with sweat to the point he needs to change his shirt. Another looks like he’d rather be anywhere else in the universe. The slams on the thundering ring echoes as the Phoenix does his best impersonation of J.K. Simmons in Whiplash.

Photo Courtesy of Santino Bros.
Photo Courtesy of Santino Bros.

But by the end of the night, Phoenix has transformed from stone cold teacher to a father like lecturer, doing his best to motivate those still falling behind with his go-to line: “You either want it. Or you don’t.”

“The hardest part about it is putting in that work,” beginning student Cesar “Tony” Gonzalez told L.A. Taco. “I started here one month ago and already half of our class is gone.”

'I keep going back to it because I’m crazy stupid.'

[dropcap size=big]O[/dropcap]ut of the usual 80 students the school sees every year, only 12-15 usually make it through the full course. This is why they created the one-day tryout class. It’s for people like me — people who quickly learn they aren’t ready to live their childhood fantasy. 

“That’s what wrestling will do to you,” Kaos said. “We try to prepare you for it so it doesn’t mess you up in the head. Because it’s happened to me, why do I keep going back to it? Because I love it with a passion, I keep going back to it because I’m crazy stupid.”

According to Kaos, the pro wrestling dream is possible but it’s entirely up to students.

On the wall of the main dojo lies a wrestling version of The Code of The Sith which embodies the true philosophy of the school; “There is only passion. Through passion, I gain strength. Through strength, I gain power. Through power, I gain victory. Through victory, my chains are broken. The ring will free me.”

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