DUNDALK, Md. - Jessika Heiser is like many students at Towson University.
She hates getting up for 8 a.m. classes, is studying hard to pursue her degree in electronic media and works a part-time job when she's not in school. But, unlike her most of her counterparts, Heiser is not working at a restaurant or at a store in the mall.
Heiser is a professional wrestler. The 22-year-old is less than three years into pursuing her dream of performing in front on thousands of fans who paid money to watch her put her body on the line on a nightly basis.
Heiser's love of wrestling began when she was 10 years old. Her original plans were to work behind the scenes but decided to step into the ring as a form of motivation to get into shape. Since her training began, Heiser – known in professional wrestling circles as Jessie Kaye – has lost more than 60 pounds.
"Getting into the ring is like a drug," Heiser said. "Once you get a taste of the reaction you get from the fans, it's hard to give it up."
Heiser paid more than $2,000 to pay for her training and has started to gain a following. While the top wrestlers in places like the WWE can make millions, Heiser said those starting off make "far, far less."
"It's more about gaining experience and getting booked than getting paid," Heiser said. "You really have to pay your dues, and even then there are no guarantees."
Paying your dues
Heiser's biggest exposure has been with Maryland Championship Wrestling (MCW), an independent wrestling organization, which hosts most of its cards at the new Green Room, a pool hall in Dundalk.
MCW has a reputation among wrestling fans as one of the better run independents in the region. Many former MCW wrestlers have gone on to perform for WWE or secondary national organizations like TNA and Ring of Honor.
Dan McDevitt owns MCW. The Middle River resident has been involved in the business for 20 years and wrestled for many years as Cpl. Punishment before settling down to build a career as a real estate agent.
McDevitt said he gets great pleasure in helping young up-and-coming wrestlers get their first break in the business. He stresses that he won't just let anyone step into his ring and works to put out a quality product for each card he books.
"I just didn't want to continue to put the wear and tear on my body and be run down and not be able to live a high quality of life as I get older," McDevitt said. "But, I love this business. I love interacting with the fans and teaching young wrestlers how to succeed in this business."
That will be the case for McDevitt on Saturday when MCW hosts the 13th annual Shane Shamrock Memorial Cup.
The Shamrock Cup is named in honor of the late Brian "Shane Shamrock" Howser, a popular wrestler in Maryland and MCW's "Lifetime Light Heavyweight Champion." He was just 23 when he was killed during an altercation with Anne Arundel County police in 1998.
The event is always a personal and emotional one for McDevitt, who broke into the business with Howser. The pair trained together and often traveled to various promotions in the early stages of their careers.
"For us, this is our Wrestlemania," said McDevitt, referring to the WWE's annual mega-card that has attracted as many as 93,000 fans. "The Shamrock Cup has the reputation as one of the top independent wrestling cards in the county. That's something we take pride in each year."
Nui Tofiga is one wrestler who is excited to be on Saturday's card. Tofiga, whose real name is Arthur Pittman was a college football player before breaking into the business more than a decade ago.
He said he enjoys performing and tries to give the fans their money's worth each time he steps into the ring. Tofiga added wrestling in front of a small crowd in a small building can be exhilarating because the fans are really into the action and the intimate nature of the building provides and electric atmosphere.
"With independent wrestling, you get to see us up close," Tofiga said. "You also get to interact with us and sometimes get feedback instantly. It's a bit more in your face and up close compared to the WWE, which can seem more distant. It's something any wrestling fan that has only seen it on TV should experience. Most will get hooked."
No pain, no gain
Tofiga and Heiser, who is also scheduled to wrestle Saturday, stress that pro wrestling isn't for everyone. There are promoters that will try to cheat you out of money and others that will advertise your appearance even though there was no agreement in place with them.
Then, there are some wrestlers that will go out of their way not to help others as they are more concerned about protecting their spot or making themselves look good at the expense of others.
"You learn a lot really fast," Heiser said. "It can be hard to trust a lot of people. At the same time, there are a lot of wrestlers that have gone out of their way to mentor me."
Then there are the injuries. While pro wrestling's results are predetermined, anyone in the business
will tell you it is not fake. Injuries are common throughout the business. Wrestlers have broken their backs, had themselves cut open and dealt with countless other injuries.
Tofiga can attest to that. The 6-foot-1, 300 pounder stepped wrong and partially tore his quadracep in his left leg last year while wrestling for Combat Zone Wrestling in Delaware. He missed several months of action and is just starting to work himself back into shape.
"This injury was easily the toughest thing to deal with outside of losing a family member," Tofiga said. "Surgery is not fun, nor is sitting around for six weeks post-surgery not able to bend your leg."
But, despite all the hardships, setbacks and long odds, many wrestlers say all of the sacrifices are worth it. Mike Brendli is one such wrestler that agrees with that statement.
The 30-year-old, who is set to wrestle in the Shamrock Cup, has traveled the world over the past decade. This includes 2005 to 2006 when he reached the pinnacle of the business and wrestled for the WWE. He was then known as "Mikey" and was one of five member of the Spirit Squad, a group of five wrestlers who had the gimmick of being male cheerleaders.
During that run Brendli, who now wrestles as Mike Mondo, was put into the ring with some of the genre's all-time greats, including Triple-H, Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels.
"I just tried to be a sponge during that time," said Brendli, who also currently competes in Ring of Honor. "I mean these are the guys I looked up to and wanted to be like. It was an unbelievable time."
Since leaving the WWE, Brendli has wrestled for independents across the country and throughout Japan and Mexico. He said he has enjoyed his experience and is constantly trying to hone his craft. He added that Maryland has a great reputation for having amazing wrestling fans and is looking forward to performing for MCW.
"You are going to get hurt and there are going to be setback and in the first few years you are going to lose more money than you will make," Brendli said. "But, if you can deal with that and understand that going in, you will be OK. This is an amazing business and I can't imagine doing anything else.
For more information about the Shamrock Cup and how to purchase tickets, visit marylandwrestling.com