ACE: The Experience, The Wrestling School, and Miss April's first MOMENT in Pro Wrestling
Over the past months, I’ve been doing some serious reflecting on the time breaking into the world of professional wrestling. Before I started to restructure my entire life on Christmas 2018, it would’ve most likely been with a negative slant. My entire twenties, in my mind, was an angsty time period, mixed with sadness of “never making it”. Now, with a new view, I look at that time...with wonder (Yes, I used the final line of The Wonder Years).
From 2007 to 2017, that time period was a building block for me beginning to stand on my own two feet. All the trials, tribulations, ups and downs, and lessons learned came from this time period for me. It taught me how to be a man, no matter how hard I went kicking and screaming into doing so.
That entire time period began in the ACE Wrestling Academy in Union City, NJ.
Thanks to my friend Ozzy “Pito” Soto, I discovered this wrestling school on 725 Sip St. At the time, Ed and Tom Scanlon, Ben “Dan Murdoch” Clark, Pito, and I were very interested in wanting to get into the pro wrestling business. I remember the Scanlons went down to Atlanta to tryout at the old WCW Power Plant with Mr. Hughes for a week, while Ben, Pito, and I first went to look at the IWF Wrestling School (if memory serves me right, we saw the young upstart Fred Sampson training on this day. Sampson would later become the highly influential Darren Young).
Not particularly sold on either school, we were still searching for the right place to go train. By early July 2007, we found a school of interest, thanks to Pito.
Pito, who was working maintenance at a prison in Central NJ, was in the middle of a lockdown in the facility. While waiting everything out, he had on his black ROH logo hat, which was always backwards. A corrections officer spotted Pito with the hat and started discussing pro wrestling. After a few minutes, Pito mentioned that he was looking for a wrestling school to start training at. The CO told him to look at the American Wrestling Alliance school in Union City, NJ.
That CO was Jersey All-Pro Wrestling booker Ray Sager.
Pito found the AWA Myspace page online, and made contact with the promoter. About a week later, the Scanlons, Pito, Ben, and I piled into Ben’s Dodge Neon and made the 45 minute drive up to Union City. The Turnpike to 16E, 16E to Kennedy Blvd, Kennedy Blvd to Sip Street, a terrible parallel parking job by Ben, and a minute walk to the stone apartment building. We walked up the staircase to the second floor and met with a stocky man with his hair tied back in a ponytail. He carried himself with a stoic presence, bordering on intimidating (at least to me), and together, we stepped inside the wrestling school to have a conversation about training at the school.
That man would be Mike Morgan, my mentor in the pro wrestling industry.
After looking around at the venue in awe, which was, to me, a modern version of the TBS studio Jim Crockett Promotions ran their television tapings out of in the 1980s, we starting talking to Mike about the curriculum that the school ran, prices for training, and stories about the history of the promotion. Midway through the convo, Mike received a text from the head trainer, who was just arriving at the building. Mike asked us if we would like to meet him. We absolutely agreed.
That man would be Jay Lethal, former ROH competitor and current TNA star “Black Machismo”, an incredible parody of the Macho Man Randy Savage.
An hour and a half later, our time with Jay and Mike influenced us greatly so much that, as a unit, we decided on our next path in life: we wanted to train at the AWA Academy with the best.
Pito, sadly, did not join us in our journey to pro wrestling, but the remaining four began in July. Ed, Tom, and Ben started training, learning how to professionally wrestle, and I began absorbing the behind-the-scenes aspect of the greatest industry in the world.
Over the next few years, twice a week (for me, at times once a week), we made the 45 minute to an hour trek to Union City. It really built a bonding experience for us four, as the hunger to make it in pro wrestling was second to none. We sacrificed a lot to learn and grow. We missed wedding receptions, birthdays, and other important moments for the dream.
Not only did our bond grow, but the relationships we made with the other students were even more impressive. Our friendships have been for the long haul, both in and out of the ring. Nonstop joking, ribbing, and discussions about wrestling made those days so much fun. It was also inspiring to see these guys push each other in between ropes to better themselves and help hone their skills.
The amount of talent in that room was unreal. Thomas “the Gate” Rodriguez and “the Magnificent” Giovanni Marranca were two kids on the opposite ends of Elizabeth, NJ, but found a friendship during the days of training and linked together as friends. “Too Hot” Steve Scott from Roselle was a goofy, fun loving guy on the exterior, but was a true student of independent wrestling on the interior, with a deep drive to show everyone that he was better than what others perceived of him. Killa S was, believe or not, a 14 year old high school freshman that got his mom’s permission to sign up for wrestling school, but had a swagger and vibe about him that made him a natural in between the ropes. Armando “Junior” Soba, when focused, might have been the most charismatic student of them all, with a pitbull type tenacity in the ring that could be aggressive. Even Sammy “Nathan Banner” Madriz had natural size and, when focused, could be a solid hand in between the ropes. Add in a few other guys like Jamie “JLo” Lopez and a guy named Anthony, who was nicknamed “Morrison” after Jim Morrison from the Doors, you had a diverse, unique crew of individuals and wrestlers.
Although I was not training to wrestle, I was forever grateful that the students never ostracized me from the group and, thanks to Jay, accepted me as one of their own. It was a strong knit crew and a complete loyalty to not just Jay, but Mike and the Academy as well. It was a well-oiled machine.
In September, AWA actually changed their name to American Championship Entertainment, thanks to the WWE utilizing their legal power and forcing Mike’s hand for a name change, as they owned the rights to the “AWA”. By the time December rolled around, Ed, Tom, Killa S, and Ben had their first matches, making those four of the five ACE Originals. It was a badge of honor for those “Lethal Experiments” to be the first class of a newly renamed wrestling organization.
Now, I just mentioned four out of the five. There was ONE more member of the training academy that has not been mentioned yet, and for good reason. This person was the biggest star of the wrestling school. This person was the best promo person out of the bunch. This person had the most IT FACTOR out of everyone.
And SHE was awesome. The biggest star that ever came from the ACE Wrestling Academy. A worldwide star. A trendsetter in wrestling and a rebel in life.
We knew her as Miss April; you know her as AJ Lee, WWE Superstar.
April Mendez, from when we knew her, was a gritty individual from Union City, NJ. Standing 5 foot nothing and weighing a shade over 100 pounds, April was the only woman that trained in the wrestling school. With Jay’s tutelage, she trained with all the guys and was treated as one of the boys. She worked very hard and gained a reputation with her toughness.
There have always been a few things about April that I 100% remember. I will always remember April, along with Alexa Thatcher (independent wrestler in the mid-2000s) and Ben’s friend Tia, in the small, dungy basement of Ben’s for the infamous Dan Murdoch Halloween Party in 2007, which was, to this day, the biggest sausage fest in the history of sausage fests. (The story link is HERE.) I remember for April’s birthday in 2008, the crew went out for dinner at the Five Star Diner around the corner from the ACE Arena and we celebrated her birthday with a custom made cake made by Thomas “the Gate”. I also remember watching the growth of April as an in-ring competitor for not just ACE, but Women Superstars Uncensored as well.
As the mainstream wrestling would come to know, April wound up leaving the independent circuit in 2009, ultimately signing with WWE into their developmental system, making it onto the original NXT television program, became Daniel Bryan’s girlfriend while he was World Heavyweight Champion, was made RAW General Manager on Episode 1000 of RAW by Mr. McMahon, held the Divas championship multiple times, trended worldwide with #GiveDivasAChance, which coincided with the beginning stages of the women’s wrestling revolution in 2014, and finally retiring in 2015, ending her run with a tag team win at WrestleMania 31. There were so many big moments within a six year span, culminating with a thriving marriage to the “best in the world” CM Punk, a best selling author with her autobiography “Crazy Is My Superpower”, and countless other business opportunities outside of the ring. A pretty successful career and life, don’t you think?
Obviously, there have been countless mainstream moments that April has had during her career that have resonated within the wrestling world. But in December 2007, there was her FIRST moment in wrestling that resonated with a die-hard, small but loyal ACE fan-base in the ACE Arena in Union City, NJ. It resonated with the ACE students and locker room. And, as a 22 year old nerdy cameraman with a photographic memory of obscure things in wrestling, it resonated with me.
It was the night where Miss April became a full-fledged babyface and helped Thomas “the Gate” Rodriguez win the American Championship Entertainment Web Television champion by beating William Wyeth, and subsequently took out Alexa Thatcher to the biggest reaction of the night.
At this time in ACE Pro Wrestling, William Wyeth was a member of the dastardly Hollywood Inc., a group formed by Alex Iz (now known as Alex Abrahantes in All Elite Wrestling), whose sole purpose was to break down the then-AWA and run the ship. Alongside “Hollywood” Joe Hardway, the Heavyweight champion, Style and Finesse of Rob Vegas and Mike Donovan, Tag Team champions,, Alexa Thatcher, the Women’s champ, Mike Lewis, the heel commentator, and Wyeth, the Web Television champ, Iz had ACE in the palm of his hands.
Sadly, by the time Ed, Tom, Ben, and I were allowed to start attending ACE events in September 2007, Iz had left the company. However, Hollywood Inc. had remained the order of the day in Union City. Hardway had become the new leader, and transformed himself into being a tremendous character on top of the ACE cards. But in the group, although the style (no pun) belonged to Vegas and Donovan, and the flash shined for Hardway, the evil, vile heart of the group had always belonged to Wyeth.
Just as Mike Morgan regained control of the company on camera, the reprehensible Will decided that he needed a little extra boost to further inflate his ego. He needed someone that would be submissive to him and do his evil bidding, whenever he saw fit. He needed the Miss Elizabeth for his “Macho Man”.
Will plucked April from the ACE Wrestling Academy and christened her Miss April.
The evil, brash Wyeth surprisingly meshed well with the meek, gentle April. From September onward, April would frequently accompany Wyeth to the ring for his matches. When Wyeth seemed as if he was in danger, April, sometimes seemingly against her will, would cause the distraction for his opponent, helping Will gain the victory and successfully secure another title defense.
By November 10, 2007, Wyeth was in serious danger. Thomas Rodriguez was hot on his tail. “The Gate”, which was an acronym for “Going Against The Enemy” had picked up several victories and was on a winning streak, which led management to awarding him with a Web Television championship match at the biggest event in ACE’s history, Rise 2 Power.
By the end of the match, Rodriguez had gone all in on Wyeth, nearly draining him of all of his energy with strikes, high flying moves, and his patented Lungblowers. Wyeth signalled for April to get on the apron, but she rebuffed. Wyeth and Rodriguez were continuing to fight, but when April ultimately followed orders, and went into the ring, the referee became distracted. Wyeth found his patented chain in his knee pad and walloped Rodriguez in the head, getting the three count. Wyeth immediately bailed, grabbing his championship belt and subsequently dragged April away from ringside. It looked as if the mental manipulation of Wyeth to April had reached new levels. Nothing was going to stop this hellish union by any means…
Until that fateful night in December.
During the final Action Zone taping of 2007, Wyeth began to celebrate his 365th day as Web Television champion. Confetti flying, terrible strutting, and April completely miserable, the unbearable champion was at his peak of heelness. During his “William Wyeth Celebration”, he started to berate April once again, really leveling her with some serious accusations and insults. Being on ring camera duty at ringside, I actually felt really uncomfortable.
Then, in a flash, Rodriguez, still fuming over his screwjob at Rise 2 Power, hit the ring and started leveling Wyeth with punches. Wyeth bailed to the floor, trying to get away. He wasn’t so lucky. Mike Morgan then hit the arena in a fury. The small, but fired up crowd in the ACE Arena got loud.
Mike then demanded Wyeth defend his championship right then and there against “the Gate”. Wyeth tried to back out, as he was in his blazer/t-shirt/very expensive Hollywood fabriced carpenter jeans, but Morgan refused. The Gate abided, grabbed Wyeth, tossed him in the ring, a referee followed suit, and the match began.
Gate pummeled Wyeth from the very onset, but Wyeth’s on-the-fly cheating kept him alive. Rodriguez was persistent though, and Wyeth was on his heels all throughout. At one point though, Wyeth gained the upper hand illegally and delivered a slingshot brainbuster, his coup-de-grace. Surprisingly, Thomas kicked out, stunning Wyeth. Will went for the end, digging into his jeans for his chain.
Then, it happened. Miss April hopped on the apron, distracting the referee. Wyeth, caught off guard, turned his attention to April, as did the referee. Gate dug into his knee pad and, unbeknownst to everyone, HAD A CHAIN OF HIS OWN! Gate LEVELED WYETH with a chain wrapped closed fist, threw the object to the arena floor, and made the cover. April hopped down, the referee turned around, counted three, and the reign of Wyeth had just ended. Thomas “the Gate” Rodriguez was the NEW ACE Web Television champion!
“The Gate” went into the crowd to celebrate with his family and fans, but inside the ring, the action had only just begun.
Wyeth and April got into a screaming match in the ring. After one too many screaming sessions, Miss April finally had enough. One slap to the face later, and the union was over. Miss April finally laid out William Wyeth!
Alexa Thatcher hit the ring to defend Wyeth and attempted to do a 2-on-1 assault on April, but “the Gate” made the save, bumping the former champion to the floor, and April did the same to the ACE Women’s champion. Thomas raised the hand of Miss April in the air with his right hand, while holding his Web Television title in his left. “The Gate” had his first championship in American Championship Entertainment.
But as much as it was Thomas’ night in-ring at ACE, it was April’s first MOMENT in her career. This moment, as very small as it might have seemed to the mainstream followers of her wrestling journey, was big for everyone in that building that night. It kick-started her rise on the independent circuit. Most importantly, it literally started at home, in Union City, NJ. The hometown hero had made her first impact in professional wrestling.
For me, the ACE Wrestling Academy was nothing more than home. The ACE Arena held so many memories for not just me, but for everyone affiliated with the promotion and school. From the hard work behind the scenes from Mike, Ken Carrera, Will (who I wish that he got way more credit than he got for the incredible job he did with production, creative, and much more that people don’t know about) and the late, great Mike Morgan, Jr, to the training with Jay, Azrieal, and the countless others that came through, to the young, hungry roster just chomping at the bit to make an impact, to the loyal fans that came through every event, it truly was a family atmosphere.
I’m blessed to have been there with my three friends, Ed, Tom, and Ben, on our journey to pro wrestling. I’m proud to have met Gate, Gio, Steve, Mando, and countless other friends that made a significant impact on my life. I’m honored to have cut my teeth there and started my unique journey in life. Most of all, I can always say “I knew her when” as it came to AJ Lee and her beginning legacy in the sport of kings.
ACE Pro Wrestling, the ACE Arena, and Mike Morgan made me who I am today, good, bad or indifferent. It will never be forgotten and deserves to be forever remembered.
725 Sip Street. Where it all began. The Hype is Real. #ACE4Life.