Pete Kaasa has wanted to be a wrestler for as long as he can remember.
Not merely a wrestler, but a professional wrestler.
Seventeen months ago the James Island native took his first major step in that direction when he began training at the Atlanta-based WWA4 pro wrestling facility.
Kaasa, whose daredevil style was compared by some company officials to that of TNA star AJ Styles, breezed through the school with flying colors.
He also developed a gimmick while there — a flashy character known as Pete Kaasanova — along with an impressive following.
But Kaasa realized that his ultimate goal — a spot in the big leagues of pro wrestling — would take more than a gimmick and a legion of supporters.
To that end, the 28-year-old took his talent, his hopes and his dreams to Ocala, Fla., home base for The Funking Conservatory, regarded as one of the finest wrestling schools in the country.
Former NWA world heavyweight champion Dory Funk Jr. and his wife, Marti, have run the facility since 1989 and have helped train some of the top stars in the business.
The list includes names like Kurt Angle, Edge, Christian, Jeff and Matt Hardy, Lita, Mickie James, Mark Henry, Chris Sabin, Christopher Daniels and Ted DiBiase.
Kaasa, a 2008 College of Charleston graduate, hopes to someday be mentioned among that elite group.
“It’s already been a dream come true. Training with the legendary Dory Funk Jr. has definitely been a huge highlight for me in my wrestling career,” says Kaasa. “To meet a man who has accomplished so much in the business I love and live for would be an honor in itself, but to actually receive his coaching is beyond words.”
The lofty praise is well-deserved. Kaasa’s teacher has an impeccable reputation in the wrestling profession.
Funk became the youngest NWA world champion in history when, at the age of 28, he won the NWA crown in 1969. His 4 1/2-year run as champ is considered one of the greatest title reigns ever.
His father, Dory Funk Sr., was a top star and West Texas promoter until his death in 1973 at the age of 54. His brother, Terry Funk, also held the NWA world title during the ‘70s.
Kaasa says Funk encourages his students and pushes them to get better. He also teaches them everything about the business and what it means to be a professional wrestler.
What has impressed Kaasa the most, he says, is Funk’s humility and laid-back nature.
“It amazes me to see how humble and kind he is. He makes every one of his wrestlers and students feel important, complimenting them after live shows, matches, promos and practice, while still maintaining his leadership role, giving suggestions and constructive criticism.”
Funk has been equally impressed with Kaasa’s skill set and innate talent.
“Pete is a fabulous athlete. His style of work reminds me of a young Dynamite Kid when I first met him many years ago,” says Funk.
“There’s no one sweeter than Pete. When he gets in the ring, he is amazing,” echoes Marti Funk. “He is a gym rat and looks fantastic. Pete is a very impressive athlete.”
Diverse background Kaasa, whose father Gary was a wrestling champ in the U.S. military in 1970 during the Vietnam War, brings a wide spectrum of athleticism to the table.
He has trained with wrestling All-Americans Marc Hoffer, Ryan Lang and NCAA national competitor/MMA fighter Chris McNally. He is well versed in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and submission wrestling, and captured first place in the South Carolina state championships and third in the Arnold Classics/Relson Gracie World’s BJJ Championships in Columbus, Ohio.
The following year he won first place in both the state competition and the Relson Gracie World’s BJJ Championships for the blue belt division, and placed fourth in the open submission grappling division.
“I saw amateur wrestling written all over him,” Funk says of his initial sessions with Kaasa. “I wondered where Pete’s natural wrestling skills came from. I knew he had to have grown up like me. My father used to get me in the garage and stretch me out a little.”
Kaasa’s athletic accomplishments, however, don’t stop there.
The solidly built, 190-pound workout fanatic also competed in gymnastics at an early age and is a championship-caliber surfer.
“He’s one of the finest gymnasts I have seen,” adds Funk.
School of hard knocks Students at Funk’s training camp go through a litany of drills and workouts, and put on a show without an audience on a weekly basis.
“We tell them to work the same as if they were in front of 16,000 people, millions on television or hundreds at The Funking Conservatory, or 15 if you’re wrestling in front of your teammates or just performing for an agent,” says Funk.
A bigger show is held monthly featuring various established wrestling stars working with the younger talent. Pro wrestling great and longtime WWE agent Jerry Brisco is scheduled to make a visit to the school next month, followed by a special appearance by hardcore icon Mick Foley in July.
Matches are held at the BANG! TV Soundstage where bouts are filmed, edited and used as training tools.
Training sessions include watching individual matches and promos from the previous day, and then having Funk critique the performances and offer suggestions.
There is, of course, the physical part of the program — warm-ups and drills to get the blood flowing, some light bumps, running through various spots and working on signature moves. A short match and promo typically wrap up the sessions.
Funk, who along with brother Terry was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2009, says he prides himself on the school’s strong safety program.
“We work very, very hard on safety with our kids. They don’t realize it, but you can get seriously hurt in professional wrestling. Our main objective is to see that these kids are taken care of and are safe in what they’re doing.”
Funk, noting the spate of concussion-related injuries in sports, says blows to the back of the head aren’t allowed.
“All (full-contact) sports are going through this, but concussions are a real problem. We don’t allow anybody dropping someone backwards to the back of their head. Safety is big for us.”
Funk, whose school is the official American training center for All Japan Pro Wrestling, also emphasizes performance and technique.
“We work real hard on techniques. We market our kids, but they also need to market themselves. Video is a big part of their training. Television is critical to wrestling.”
Kaasa says he also has learned from watching tapes of classic wrestlers and matches.
His coach’s series of near-mythical bouts with the late Jack Brisco during the early ‘70s is regarded as one of the greatest programs in wrestling history.
“Dory tells me to watch how these wrestling legends and pioneers can get a crowd into the match with simple wrestling holds and working them as they should be worked — an almost forgotten skill in wrestling today.”
Competitive business Kaasa realizes that taking it to the next level will require an extreme level of dedication.
“This is a very competitive business,” says Funk. “It’s fabulous what’s available today for the people who do make it. But it’s very competitive, and the people who are there want to stay there. They don’t want to be replaced.”
Those coveted spots, he says, are hard to come by.
“It’s also hard to come by a starring role in a movie. But that’s what they are. They are stars.”
Funk, however, is quick to point out that opportunities do exist for those who are talented and for those who want it badly enough and are willing to make sacrifices along the way.
“Guys working for WWE are making lots of money, as well as a few of them in TNA and some in Japan. But there are openings and they are available. There are a lot of guys playing college football who don’t make it to the pros. The opportunities are there (in the wrestling business), and the rewards are so big.”
Kaasa is one of a number of young, aspiring athletes currently training under Funk. The students come from a wide variety of backgrounds.
Shane Chung, the school’s Chinese champion, was valedictorian of his high school. Johnny Magnum, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, is regarded as the team spiritual leader;
Texas State University product Cory “Wild” Weston is a superb athlete who Funk says is a team leader.
Ben Hyman, who performs as Mighty Vesuvius, is a former hockey player who also works as a model.
Jeremy “Rock Star” Spillers is a Rod Stewart look-alike and tours with his band on the side. Brian “Hot Shot” Davis, says Funk, is a natural heel with a flair for the dramatic.
The group also includes a pair of talented ladies. Funk calls Claudia “The Claw” Reiff, a University of Miami grad, one of the best referees in the business as well as a skilled worker in the ring. Hollywood Heather has been an actress and athlete since the age of 3, and at six feet tall combines beauty and skill in the ring and on the mic.
A television product A number of things have changed about the wrestling business since Funk and his contemporaries rode roughshod through the territories during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Today’s version of pro wrestling is known as sports entertainment, with an emphasis placed on entertainment.
Aspiring young wrestlers are trained to project an appealing image as well as polish their mat skills.
No longer do pro wrestlers work six or seven matches a week, as Funk did for most of his career. The near-nightly performances in front of different crowds gave wrestlers of that era valuable training. And although demanding, there was no better way to learn the business.
“I had a blast,” says Funk, who began competing professionally in 1963. “I had an opportunity to work for 30 different promotions. All were different, but in some ways all the same. I had the opportunity to work with so many top wrestlers who were so gifted and knew to draw money and get over. I had the opportunity to learn from many of them. It was an awesome trip that I’m very grateful for.”
The money, says Funk, wasn’t bad for that era and, in many cases, more lucrative than those in other professional sports.
“There were more than 30 territories with at least 40 people in each one making a good living for their family. I go back and look at my records, pull out the old inflation calculator and find out that things were pretty good back then.”
As an NWA world champion, regarded as the gold standard in wrestling during that era, the lanky Texan felt like he was carrying a bigger banner than just the strap itself.
“I can’t forget the people who came before me. I felt like I was representing them also.”
There’s a much greater emphasis on the cosmetic side of the business today.
“Television has changed everything. Wrestling is a television product,“says Funk, who holds a degree in physical education and speech radio/television from the former West Texas State University where he also starred in football during the early ‘60s.
“That’s not to say people don’t work great matches now. Wrestlemania had some super matches. Triple H and Taker was a fabulous match. And so was John Cena and The Rock. In order to get there, you have to be in and out of television for three minutes. Our product is wrestling, and you have to sell it to the people.”
Many of today’s popular moves have been handed down from generation to generation.
“It’s a whole different style, but there’s some of the same stuff,” says Funk. “The side suplex that Pete’s been doing is a Jumbo Tsuruta move.”
Funk says his dad probably would have adapted to the new generation of wrestling.
“He did a lot of change between the 40s and 50s and was there when television began in professional wrestling. He came up with the steel cage on top of the steel cage and the Texas Death Match.”
“It was a fabulous business then and a fabulous business now,” adds Funk. “It’s different, but still so much of it’s the same. The business goes from the credible to the incredible and back to the credible. When you go too far with the incredible, you have to get back to the credible.”