To buddies at the gym, he’s just Colby Lopez, the guy they’ve known for years, but to hundreds of thousands of pro wrestling fans, he’s superstar Seth Rollins.
Next Sunday, Lopez — as Rollins — will take center stage at the iWireless Center to battle World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE, champion John Cena.
The dream he’s living started in the ticket line at the arena in Moline. In 2002, as Lopez waited for WWE SmackDown tickets outside of what was then The Mark of the Quad-Cities, he recalls emulating the moves of his idols, Hulk Hogan and Shawn Michaels.
The 28-year-old Buffalo native, who now has more than 616,000 followers on Twitter, has become famous for his own finishing moves and recently performed in his second WrestleMania, the longest-running professional wrestling event in history that airs every spring on pay-per-view.
“That’s the stuff you don’t even think about when you’re dreaming as a little boy,” Lopez said.
Following his WrestleMania debut, the Davenport West graduate moved back to the Quad-Cities in the spring of 2013. Hoping to get more involved in his hometown, Lopez teamed up with friends to organize a wrestling academy for aspiring professional wrestlers.
At the end of last month, the part-time Quad-Citian premiered the first session of The Black & The Brave Wrestling Academy.
A CrossFit-enthusiast himself, Lopez partnered with QC CrossFit in Moline, and friends from Scott County Wrestling to lead the 12-week crash course in professional wrestling.
“I wanted to use my little bit of fame to give back to the community and independent scene that brought me up,” Lopez said during a recent training session inside the gym at 3800 River Drive, Moline.
“It’s nice to travel the world, but big cities are hectic, so it’s beautiful to come home to a quiet spot where everybody knows everybody.”
Lopez’s international fame attracted applications from across the globe, including Australia, Ireland and Zambia, but the current squad includes wrestling fans, between 18 and 29 years old, from Iowa, Illinois, Ohio and Tennessee.
On the first day of training, nine inexperienced wrestlers arrived at the gym, but only six remain.
The academy's tuition costs $2,700, which includes full access to the CrossFit gym but does not include housing.
“It’s not for everybody. That’s for sure,” Lopez said. “They can quit at any time, but if they’ve gone this far, I hope they finish it out.”
The class meets Tuesday through Thursday every week until the end of November, and students spend almost five hours in the gym on those nights, participating in a CrossFit class before the wrestling training begins.
On Monday evenings, the crew watches WWE Raw and attends Scott County Wrestling shows every weekend.
The academy’s youngest member and sole Quad-Citian, 18-year-old Mike Conner, graduated from Bettendorf High School last spring and had planned to attend the University of Wisconsin-Platteville this fall.
The former honor roll student, who stands at 6 feet, 5 inches and 210 pounds, said his university plans are on hold while he focuses on wrestling and attends classes at Scott Community College.
“Ever since I was 7 years old, this has been my dream,” Conner said recently while setting up the academy’s ring. “I never thought I’d have the chance to do this, but Colby did, and now he’s giving us this opportunity. I hope I never have to use a fallback plan.”
Depending on the week, Lopez, who travels 250 to 300 days per year, arrives at the Quad-City International Airport on Wednesday morning, leads the class on Wednesday and Thursday nights and flies out again Friday or Saturday morning.
In the ring
During a recent training session, Lopez entered the ring and demonstrated the correct technique for a variety of beginner moves, including the “bump,” which wrestlers use when they run into an opponent in the ring to simulate a high-speed, head-on collision.
Scott County Wrestling head trainer Nick Morrill, also known as Marek Brave, directed the instruction with co-trainer Shane Alatorre, whose in-ring name is Shane Hollister.
Trainers taught the wrestlers to land on their shoulder blades and triceps to protect their head whenever they fall backward.
“Every time you’re in here, it’s match speed,” Lopez said. “When you make a mistake, that’s when you get injured.”
While practicing their “bumps,” the wrestlers partnered and threw each other against the ropes.
“I want you colliding like freight trains,” Morrill shouted. “If you bump before he hits you, it’s over. Wrestling is fake, and everybody knows it.”
As 25-year-old Kenikia Woods — the academy’s only female participant — hopped inside the ropes, Morrill declared everyone would be treated equally throughout the training.
“I don’t care if she’s a girl,” he said. “She’s learning just like you.”
Drenched in sweat after a workout, the Tennessee native said she was trying her hardest.
“It’s mostly a male business, so If I have to be treated like a guy to get there, then that’s fine,” Woods said.
Part show, part sport
Because the WWE doesn’t have an off-season, staying healthy remains one of the toughest challenges, Lopez said.
The 6-foot, 1-inch man with long, two-toned hair describes himself as part-body builder, when he’s conditioning for competition, and part-performance athlete, when he’s inside the ring.
“We’re basically like a traveling circus,” Lopez said. “But once you get into the ring, it’s a completely different animal.”
The academy includes character development training for the aspiring wrestlers.
“Wrestling is a sport, but it’s no different than a play or a movie. It’s just more physical,” Morrill said.
While most aspiring wrestlers ultimately want to perform on national television at WrestleMania, Morrill said that goal is not realistic for everyone, including himself.
“It’s more elite of a club than the NBA or the NFL,” said Morrill, adding wrestlers don’t necessarily have to make it to the WWE to make a living from professional wrestling.
Following the 12-week course, the top students in the academy will have the opportunity to wrestle on the Scott County Wrestling circuit.
"These kids are really dedicated, but with wrestling, it’s grueling,” Morrill said. “If you’re passionate about it, you can live out the three months and start living your dream."