Hundreds of aspiring superstars darken the doorways of wrestling schools around the world every year with aspirations of fame and fortune. However, while many schools can boast many years in operation, often times their track record reveals that their graduates may never have achieved the potential that they envisioned when slapping their money down to train. In many cases, as the business of professional wrestling declined on the independents in the 1990’s, many promoters saw the addition of a wrestling school to their portfolio as a means to offset losses at the box office for their wrestling shows. In addition, they could breed a regular influx of new talent for their own shows.
There are, however, a number of established and outstanding wrestling schools across North America and around the world whose trainers have earned distinction for helping to build the foundation upon which Hall of Fame careers have been developed. The following 20 wrestling schools and trainers are among the most respected of all time, demonstrating a track record of producing talent that has ascended to the upper echelon of professional wrestling and who are willing to give credit to the individuals that gave them their start on the road to stardom.
20. Ted Betley
While the number of pro wrestling schools in North America is a large one and the volume of talent that is produced domestically often becomes the focus, there is one school internationally that deserves to be recognized. Dubbed “The Snake Pit” in Wigan, England, the school was a breeding ground for wrestlers in the 1960s ad ’70s that developed a reputation for unleashing some of the most aggressive and technically sound wrestlers into the business. Under skilled grappler Ted Betley, the wrestling camp is responsible for producing The British Bulldogs – Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith, in separate classes. Others to get their start under Ted Betley include All Japan Pro Wrestling standout Johnny Smith, European star Steve Wright (the father of WCW’s Alex Wright) and countless others that went on to success both in Europe and around the world. Betley is commonly rumored to have trained globetrotter and current WWE agent, Fit Finlay, though those tales have been refuted.
19. Michelle Starr
While the Canadian Pacific is often considered to be geographically isolated from the pulse of the professional wrestling scene in North America, there is one trainer in the region that has been consistently producing top talent ever since he first began training in 1991. Starr, a native of California, where he received his introduction to the game through Red Bastien, Jesse Hernandez and Billy Anderson, approached training with a diverse ring background. Over the years, his students have appeared across Canada, England, the U.S., Japan and Korea. Among his most successful graduates include WWE Cruiserweight Classic competitors The Bollywood Boyz – Gurv & Harv Sihra – Shimmer’s Nicole Matthews, Ring of Honor’s Kyle O’Reilly, former NWA World women’s champion Madison, and internationally traveled Disco Fury. Among his more recent graduates was Bambi Hall, a Pro Wrestling Illustrated Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2012, and Matt Xstatic, who was recently recruited to travel to India to teach at Great Khali’s CWE Wrestling school.
18. Shawn Michaels
While heralded as “Mr. WrestleMania” for his show-stopping performances in the ring, many people often forget that after his initial retirement from the industry in 1998, Shawn Michaels returned home to San Antonio, Texas where he opened up his own wrestling school. While his time as a trainer was fairly short-lived, the success of the wrestlers to be produced from the camp cannot be under-stated. Most famously, future WWE World champion and SmackDown general manager Daniel Bryan is a product of the Michaels school. Other alumni include TNA’s Matt Bentley, former WWE and World tag team champions The Hooligans – Paul London & Bryan Kendrick.
Another graduate of the Michaels camp was the late Lance (Garrison) Cade, who would also ascend to tag team championship success under Vince McMahon’s banner. While some argument could be made that the trainer’s influence may have had a hand in helping each of these stars get a look, there’s no denying that it was their talent between the ropes that secured their success in the company.
17. The Malenko Wrestling School (Boris & Dean Malenko)
While Boris is commonly credited by his peers and colleagues as a trainer and mentor to emerging talent during his active ring career, including Bill Eadie, whom he helped to make the transition from a maniacal Mongol to the Masked Superstar, his training career didn’t begin in earnest until 1979. That’s when he opened his own school in Florida with his sons, Dean and Joe. The Malenko camp is responsible for a number of wrestlers that went on to national acclaim and championship success. Among the earliest was Paul Diamond, a former pro soccer player who would reign as AWA World tag team champion in 1988 and enjoy a run in the WWE as both Kato (masked) and Max Moon. Other graduates from the Malenko wrestling camp include Gangrel, Barry Horowitz, Norman Smiley, Molly Holly, Jamie Noble, The Gymini – Mike & Todd Shane – Chad Collyer and Kendo Kashin.
16. Ohio Valley Wrestling (Danny Davis/Rip Rogers)
As the official developmental territory for the WWE for several years, the Ohio Valley Wrestling circuit in Louisville, Kentucky was a destination for many top independent stars and newcomers with their eyes on a career under the employment of Vince McMahon. Whether taking their first unsteady steps between the ropes or spending time in OVW to finely hone their talent, the OVW system is responsible for preparing future stars including Randy Orton, Brock Lesnar, John Cena, The Bashams – Doug & Danny – Kelly Kelly, Rosa Mendes, Victoria, Shelton Benjamin, Charlie Haas and Bobby Lashley. While the direct ties to the WWE have been somewhat disconnected with the opening of the WWE Performance Center and the NXT brand, OVW continues to produce talent and give them their earliest opportunities between the ropes. Under trainers Danny Davis and Rip Rogers, both well-traveled veterans of the game, the future of wrestling is in good hands.
15. Can-Am Wrestling School (Scott D’Amore)
While Hamilton, Ontario was considered the epi-center for producing top wrestlers during the tenure of Jack Wentworth, that title may have shifted to Windsor, Ontario over the past generation and Scott D’Amore’s Can-Am Wrestling School. D’Amore, a well-travelled wrestler in his own right, has appeared for WCW, WWE, and TNA and has years of experience as a promoter as well with his Border City Wrestling promotion. D’Amore’s contributions to the business as a trainer are equally significant as the school lays claim to launching the careers of The Motor City Machine Guns – Chris Sabin & Alex Shelley – Petey Williams and Rhyno.
One of D’Amore’s most accomplished students who continues to be one of the industry’s greatest free agents, Tyson Dux, recently appeared in the WWE’s Cruiserweight Classic tournament. After a short hiatus, the Can-Am Wrestling School has recently re-launched, adding to its faculty and hoping to produce the next generation of wrestling superstars.
14. Fabulous Moolah
In wrestling history, very few wrestling schools have focused exclusively on training for women. If a female trainee was breaking into the business, she might find herself doing so as the lone lady among her male classmates. However, in the 1970s and ’80s, Lillian Ellison established one of two wrestling schools for women in the United States, based in Columbia, South Carolina. Moolah, who also reigned as Women’s champion at that time, had considerable influence over wrestling promoters and was able to ensure an active match schedule for her girls once they graduated from her program, for a fee, of course.
Many of the top women of the era were straight out of Moolah’s camp. Leilani Kai, Joyce Grable, Paula Kaye, Wendi Richter and Luna Vachon are among her top pupils. Moolah is also credited for the start of one of the most promising male stars of the late 80s and 90s – Del Wilkes. Wilkes would go on to his greatest fame as The Patriot.
13. The Monster Factory (Larry Sharpe)
When you look at some of the earliest wrestlers to emerge from Larry Sharpe’s wrestling camp and go on to success in the world of wrestling, you soon see why the Monster Factory was a most appropriate name for the school. The school was opened in 1983 by Larry Sharpe and former WWE World champion Buddy Rogers. The first star pupil to emerge from their program was Bam Bam Bigelow. Bigelow would later attest to the grueling conditions of the camp designed to deter those recruits that weren’t serious about their craft. Others credited to the camp’s honor roll include The Godfather, Raven, King Kong Bundy, Chris Candido, and D’Lo Brown. In the 1990’s, Danny Cage took over the training program offered by the school and the Monster Factory lays claim to giving Big Show his introduction to the sport. However, the largest athlete of his generation commonly credits the WCW Power Plant for his introduction to the ring.
12. Eddie Sharkey
While AWA promoter Verne Gagne may be recognized for his Minnesota-based wrestling camp, his long-time rival, Eddie Sharkey, is certainly no slouch in the training arena as well. In an interview for Minneapolis magazine City Pages, Sharkey admits that he has lost count of how many wrestlers have passed through his camp. Among them are wrestling Hall of Famers The Road Warriors – Animal and Hawk – Rick Rude, Barry Darsow, Jerry Lynn, X-Pac, Nord the Barbarian, Madusa Miceli, Jesse Ventura, Lenny Lane, Rick and Scott Steiner and even current era NXT star Austin Aries. Interestingly, Barry Darsow, who would train in the same camp as Michael Hegstrand (Hawk) and Joe Laurinaitis (Animal), would later go on to form a tag team that was considered by many to be a Road Warriors clone – Demolition.
Though a fierce rival with Verne Gagne stemming back to an altercation in the 1960s, many of Sharkey’s graduates would find work and a level of notoriety in Gagne’s AWA promotion as well as internationally.
11. Storm Wrestling Academy (Lance Storm)
You don’t have to look very far to find a ringing endorsement for the training program offered by Lance Storm which has already seen some of his graduates fast-tracked to opportunities with the WWE, TNA and other wrestling organizations. Following his retirement from the business due to injury, Lance opened the Storm Wrestling Academy in Calgary, Alberta and immediately attracted interest from aspiring hopefuls from around the world. Storm Wrestling Academy alumni currently making a name for themselves include the WWE’s Emma, Tyler Breeze, and recent TNA Knockout addition, Chelsea Green. Lance’s training camp was featured in season one of a reality TV series entitled World of Hurt, which was shot in 2010 in Calgary and showcased some of the top prospects in his camp at that time, some of which have gone on to international success outside of the WWE spotlight. After lengthy absences, Chris Jericho has been known to make a trip to Calgary to tune up at Lance’s school before returning to television.
10. Wild Samoan Training Centre (Afa Anoai)
It may seem incredibly odd to some fans that a wrestler who is best remembered as a savage brawler during his own ring career is, in fact, one of the most influential and successful trainers in professional wrestling. However, that is the case for Afa Anoa’i, whose Wild Samoan Training School has been responsible for the starts of many top stars. Afa is best known for launching the careers of Dave Batista, Billy Kidman and Chris Kanyon. Of course, as the purveyor of the family business, he is also responsible for the early teachings of his own family members to pursue the mat game. This includes Yokozuna, Roman Reigns, Tamina Snuka and he had a hand in breaking in nephew Samu as well. Afa has certainly contributed to WWE history in ways even greater than his own participation between the ropes and that’s reflected by the successes of his students in the history books.
9. Hart Brothers Wrestling Camp (Bruce & Ross Hart)
Whenever someone mentions “The Dungeon,” they immediately credit Stu Hart for whatever was created inside those walls in Calgary, Alberta. However, while Stu did spend decades helping to shape the careers of rising stars on the dingy mat in his basement, in the 1980s there was a shift and his sons followed in his footsteps to take over the family business. Bruce Hart, Stu’s second oldest son, took the helm of the training program and saw success with one of his first students out of the gate in Brian Pillman. Bruce and Ross are also responsible for Chris Benoit’s introduction to the industry, their brother Owen, and more during the latter part of the ’80s. While lesser known following the closure of the original Stampede territory, other wrestlers to get their start here include TNA X-Division champion Johnny Devine, the WWE’s Viktor of the Ascension, as well as third generation wrestlers Harry Smith and Natalya.
8. Johnny Rodz School of Wrestling
Paul Heyman is often credited as a visionary for his development of Extreme Championship Wrestling from just another independent promotion to a legitimate contender against the superpowers of WWE and WCW in the 1990s. However, if you try to create the magic of that time period in professional wrestling, ECW’s finest hour would look much different without the contributions of WWE Hall of Famer, Johnny Rodz. Rooted in Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, New York, Johnny Rodz has been carving out his own legacy in the sport as a premiere trainer and his students include Tazz, Tommy Dreamer, The Dudley Boyz and Bill DeMott. At 74 years old, Rodz still logs in at the gym for a 36-hour work week to forge the foundations for the next generation of talent. Taking a look at that list, how different does ECW (or even WWE) history look without the involvement of these wrestling superstars?
7. Sully’s Gym (Ron Hutchison)
A decade ago, Ron Hutchison wasn’t a household name. Known to wrestling fans in southern Ontario and the Maritimes where he spent the majority of his own in-ring career, the wrestling world at large was not familiar with him. That all changed when, as a trainer, his students started to emerge on the scene on a national level. In fact, two of Hutchison’s former students are already inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame. Based in a boxing gym in Toronto, Ontario, Ron Hutchison, along with colorful ring great – Sweet Daddy Siki – opened their wrestling school in the early 1990s. The wrestlers produced from their camp include Edge, Christian, Trish Stratus, Gail Kim, Joe Legend, Beth Phoenix, and Sinn Bodhi. Ron’s contributions to the business as a trainer have seen him honored in 2014 by the Cauliflower Alley Club with the first ever “Trainer’s Award” to recognize his greatest contribution to the sport.
6. Harley Race Wrestling Academy
Among his contemporaries, it is commonly acknowledged that Harley Race was among the toughest wrestlers of his generation. An eight-time NWA World champion, Race wanted to stay in the world of wrestling even after he retired and found himself back in Eldon, Missouri. He opened his own wrestling school and produced his own talent such as Trevor Murdoch, Ted DiBiase Jr. and Joe Hennig (aka Curtis Axel), who would go on to success with the WWE. Race’s reputation internationally in the wrestling world opened doors for a relationship with Pro Wrestling NOAH to partner on both training and scouting of talent. Annually, Race holds a week-long training camp to get a look at some of the best and brightest talent on the independents. This camp has resulted in Kenny Omega being signed to a developmental deal with the WWE and sent to Deep South Wresting, as well as Kyle Sebastian being discovered and sent to Japan for a three-month tour. Race has elevated other rising stars to brighter opportunities.
5. The Funking Conservatory (Dory Funk Jr.)
When you consider that Dory Funk Jr. wrestled his first professional match in 1963 and still climbs into the ring regularly as both a trainer and as a competitor after more than 50 years, it is truly astounding. The second generation wrestler from Amarillo, Texas has operated his Funking Conservatory training school for decades in Florida. Funk is credited with mentoring and training Ted DiBiase for the ring in the 1970s, but in more recent years has been credited with helping to launch the careers of dozens of Attitude Era superstars. In addition to his own students, Dory was sought out by the WWE prior to the development of their own training system to help hone the skills of incoming stars such as Kurt Angle, Edge, Christian, Jeff and Matt Hardy, Test, Val Venis, and Lita before they joined the WWE roster on a full-time basis. Dory’s love for the business is apparent in his continued efforts to help future stars get their start.
4. Killer Kowalski’s Pro Wrestling School
In the 1960s and ’70s, few wrestlers drew the ire of the fans wherever he appeared quite like Walter “Killer” Kowalski. One of the top villains in the American northeast battling the likes of Bruno Sammartino and other favorites of the era, he would go on to open a wrestling school in Massachusetts where he would mentor up-and-comers with eyes on success between the ropes. Kowalski’s top students read like a Who’s Who of the WWE over two generations and include John Studd, Triple H, Perry Saturn, A-Train and Chris Nowinski. Kowalski is also one of the premiere trainers to also have some successful female stars as well, including Chyna, Misty Blue Simmes and April Hunter. In addition to his school, Killer ran a small promotion under the banner of the IWF as a platform for his students to gain valuable experience in front of a crowd.
3. Les Thatcher
While he boasts a tremendous track record for producing talent and also honing the skills of stars on their way into the WWE, Les Thatcher may be one of the most under-rated coaches in professional wrestling. Based in Cincinnati, Ohio, Thatcher’s Heartland Wrestling Association served not only as a training school for wrestlers, but also provided many with the earliest opportunities to test their skills before a live crowd. Thatcher is a renaissance man in the business, having been a wrestler, promoter, broadcaster and trainer during a legendary career. Some of the standouts of Thatcher’s wrestling camp include Dean Ambrose, Nigel McGuinness, Pepper Parks, Matt Stryker and B.J. Whitmer. In recent years, Thatcher has also taken his teaching on the road, offering skills-testing seminars and providing a foundation for pro wrestling conditioning at seminars across the United States and Canada to help aspiring hopefuls get started on the right track.
2. The Dungeon (Stu Hart)
There can be little doubt that Calgary, Alberta is home to one of the most infamous wrestling schools in the history of professional wrestling. The basement of Stu Hart’s Calgary mansion, more commonly known as “The Dungeon,” was the starting point of many great ring careers – as well as a spot that deterred many from pursuing a career in the ring. Stu, an amateur that once had aspirations to compete in the Olympics, set up his basement with some weights and mats and used the space to train wrestlers. Among the stars to get their start with Stu include are WWE Hall of Famers “Superstar” Billy Graham and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine.
Of course, even after Stu’s sons Bruce and Ross took over most of the training, Stu would regularly find himself on the dungeon, mat schooling youngsters and demonstrating holds right up to the time of his death.
1. Verne Gagne
While Verne Gagne’s Hall of Fame career focuses primarily on his efforts as the founder and driving force behind the Minnesota-based American Wrestling Association, his contributions to the sport as a trainer may hold an even greater significance. Consider the number of world champions and future Hall of Famers alone that Gagne produced and his track record is truly staggering. The list of alumni from his camp includes WWE World champions Bob Backlund, The Iron Sheik, & Sgt. Slaughter; NWA World champions Ric Flair & Ricky Steamboat; and AWA World champions Dick the Bruiser & Curt Hennig. These champions are just the tip of the iceberg from one of the premiere wrestling camps of the 1960s and ’70s that produced dozens of wrestlers who went on to become household names. Gagne’s reputation as a no-nonsense trainer and credible amateur meant that a graduate of the Gagne camp was sure to find work in any territory.
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