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A Couple of wrestlers

By: Tim Connor

The moment is tense behind the curtain. Fans turn to one another and say they know who is coming out next. Iron Maiden music begins to play over the speakers. Everyone in the crowd gets excited as they now know who is coming out. Standing at almost six feet tall, a burly man in a blue singlet pushes aside the curtain. His demeanor is fierce and looks like a tiger ready to pounce. Fans try to interact with him as he greets them with high fives and hand slaps. His walk is slow and deliberate.  As he climbs into the ring he looks at the crowd and throws his arm in the air yelling at them the whole time. The crowd starts to get louder as they cheer this mountain of a man on.

That man is Matthew Manning, a semi-professional wrestler who works for Baltimore Elite Wrestling Alliance (BEWA) in Dundalk, Md. On any given Sunday, Manning will be in the ring entertaining adults and children alike.

“The entertainment value of putting on a good show is what I like most,” Manning said. “I feel as if one person leaves and says that was great or they were entertained then I feel like I did my job. I like when people get into it whether it’s cheering, booing or whatever they want to do.”

On this particular Sunday, Manning will be wrestling in a finals match of a 16-man tournament to see who will get a shot at the BEWA Championship belt. Manning is not new to wrestling and has won many belts over the course of his career.

“When the BEWA first started they had a title tournament and I was one of the men in it and I won the championship for the first time,” Manning said.

For those that do not watch wrestling much or at all, it is a great honor to become a world champion. When you are the champion you are the best wrestler in that company. They expect the champion to be the headliner of all their shows and to help put fans in the seats. That wrestler is the face of that company. He essentially carries that company on his back. It is a stressful job to say the least.

“Being the first ever BEWA champion brings alot of pressure on you,” Manning said. “You don’t realize what’s there. It felt great and knowing someone placed that much value and faith into your character to carry it you know, you can’t describe it. The feeling you get that he chose me and I’m the first champion, the first one.”

Manning talks about his character and that is one the biggest parts of wrestling. If you have no character, then there is no point even wrestling. Manning’s character is known as Rolland Havick. It is a play on words and many wrestlers do this.

“I’m the enforcer of one law. However, it’s not like the jail law. It’s my own law,” Manning said while trying to stay in character.

His character encompasses a reckless attitude, where he does whatever he wants and doesn’t care what people think.

Wrestlers are there to put on a show and entertain the fans. In wrestling lingo there are “face” and  “heel” characters. A face is someone who is the good guy type and the heel is the exact opposite. With larger promotions like the WWE it is easier to tell who is who in a match. In the smaller promotions like BEWA, the wrestlers have to show it more with their character. For example, Manning’s character is a face and he will interact with the fans and get them to cheer him on, while the heel will try to tick the fans off and are usually booed.

“You know being the good guy I’m like yeah shake my hand, shake my hand, and slap their hands,” Manning said. “You definitely get a vibe off of it. Good vibes; it keeps you driven. If it is a bad vibe then that makes you want to step it up and show them that I did something amazing in the ring.”

At 25-years-old Manning has been wrestling nearly all of his life. He grew up in Highlandtown in Southeast Baltimore in a rowhouse right next to Patterson Park.  The park would become his wrestling ring for his first couple of years. Backyard wrestling was big in the late 90s and people would literally wrestle in backyards or any place they could find. Sometimes these matches would be brutal and ugly as the wrestlers would use weapons like barbed wire, chairs and any other unique weapons they could get their hands on.

“I used to be known as a “yarder,” Manning said. “You know parks and the yards. That’s where it all started but, nothing extreme though because of the surroundings. I went out there and started wrestling in the parks and got better.”

One day in the park Manning and the other wrestlers had some unsuspecting visitors.

“This one time there was group of us in Patterson Park and we had sheetrock, trash cans and the whole nine yards going,” Manning said. “I’m guessing someone called the police thinking we were killing each other. The police roll up and we were like ‘oh crap.’ They circle us and then they get on the loud speaker and start calling out wrestling moves. Then they say we’re here to watch.  We kind of moved after that even though it was funny.”

After a few years of backyard wrestling, Manning and his fellow wrestlers found an actual ring to wrestle in. To a backyard wrestler this is a big deal.

“My body was hurting badly and then a ring became available,” Manning said. “When I got in the ring I literally smacked myself upside my head and said, ‘Why the hell was I doing this outside?’ This was amazing in here.”

Manning has slowly been working and saving money so he can attend professional wrestling school. From there he can get his professional license and join larger wrestling promotions and even earn some money doing it.

“Right now I am just having a lot of fun wrestling where I am,” Manning said.  “There is no real answer to know where this will take me. I follow the road day by day. You know one day I could be on top of the mountain and the next day, knock on wood it doesn’t happen, but I could have a bad injury that prevents me from doing it again.”

Another reason besides injury, Manning is so hesitant to move up is that he has a family to take care of. His fiancée Stacy McDowell and their son are what keep him busy most days when he is not in the ring.

Manning even got his fiancée to start wrestling in the BEWA promotion.

“Well I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Matthew,” McDowell said. “I didn’t even know people did this. I had no clue.”

Manning even helps his fiancé with her character, Sapphire, and with some of her training.

“He shows me moves when he can and then hopefully I remember them,” McDowell said. “Everything I know is because of him.”

McDowell has learned to love wrestling as much as her fiancé.  In a sport dominated by men it is harder for women to be taken seriously in wrestling. It is usually done as a ploy to get men to watch as women will dress in skimpy outfits, but over the years this has gotten better and more women are now wrestling. They are taken more seriously too.

“I think we have every right to be in there, just as much as the men and I think sometimes on certain levels, maybe even better than them,” McDowell said.

Back in the ring the match has already begun. This is the final match in the tournament and the winner will receive a title shot at the next show. McDowell is outside the ring cheering her man on.  Manning fights valiantly. He delivers forceful chops to his opponent’s chest. He whips his opponent into the ropes and clotheslines him to the mat. He looks at the crowd. He puts him arm into the air to signal what he hopes will be the end.  As his opponent gets to his feet Manning scoops him up into his arms and has him stomach to chest. Manning hooks his opponent’s head and throws him to the side as his opponent’s face crashes into the canvas in a move known as the “verdict.” Manning slowly crawls over and pins his opponent as the referee counts to three. Iron Maiden music again plays over the loudspeaker. With the last bit of energy from a brutal match his hand is raised into the air as the crowd erupts with cheering and applause. Manning has won the match and a title shot.

“I was shocked,” Manning said. “I didn’t expect to win. This is why I do what I do.”

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