Edmonton's Top Talent Wrestling Academy had its grand opening in April 2020, just as the first wave of pandemic restrictions hit. After years of online seminars and limited capacity runs that kept the school afloat, founder Justin Lawrick feels he's finally able to test the potential of his passion project.
"This is my first chance to really dig my feet into this and see exactly what I can do with the school," said Lawrick, who wrestles under the name Heavy Metal and applies nearly 20 years of experience to the school, where he is one of the head trainers alongside Michael Richard Blais.
Designed for an industry characterized by gymnastic bodybuilders and combat athletes who have acting chops, Top Talent's three-month programs are meant to give students the fundamental skills they need to perform safely – working the ropes, taking a fall, and such. It also helps them craft the in-ring presence and iconic characters that tend to distinguish successful careers from short ones. Lawrick feels this full-spectrum approach to training is missing in the province.
"This is a business," Lawrick asserted. "A lot of the people that come through here ... they want to make a living out of it. That's kind of what separates us from other schools. I can't think of really any other school in Alberta that teaches at the level that we do with the intent of pushing people out to, hopefully, succeed."
Along with cultivating local performers, Top Talent aims to bring an audience to them, hosting a live event on June 23 at Midway in Edmonton, featuring wrestlers from Mexico, the U.S., and across Canada.
The classes have drawn some "brand-new students that just watch wrestling on TV and want to check it out," but more often it's people with some professional background. While live events were on hold due to COVID restrictions, many turned to gyms like Top Talent to get much-needed time in the ring. Among them was Zoë Sager, a Prairie Wrestling Alliance titleholder who previously trained at two other schools before enrolling with Top Talent.
"We're putting our bodies in each other's hands," Sager said. "Training is definitely something that everyone needs, really any stage, to keep sharp and be able to know with confidence that you're not going to hurt who you're going to be in the ring with."
The risk of injury, even to seasoned pros, is enough to keep a lot of fans sitting ringside rather than throwing themselves into the sport. Removed from career aspirations, there is growing interest in wrestling as a form of "specialized fitness," akin to mixed martial arts or kickboxing offered by gyms that cater to people looking only for a novel full-body workout, Lawrick said.
Reaching the committed as well as the casually interested is something that drives the other aspect of Lawrick's project, which is hosting larger capacity events that have the type of production values viewers raised on Monday Night Raw might expect.
"I do love wrestling in Legions," Lawrick said, expressing his fondness for the bare-bones hall shows and community centres that are the bedrock of professional wrestling in Canada. "It's kind of underground, and I think that you can really find the market there. But my goal, specifically, is to find those casual people."
The June 23 show at Midway is Top Talent's debut attempt to carve out a market in the middle ground between the underground and the untouchable budgets of mainstream televised matches.
"If you can put 13,000 people in a stadium in our downtown core, there's no reason why we can't get 1,000 people to show up to a professional wrestling event that has that same type of quality production has that same calibre of talent," he said.