The Hoops Project: An Introduction

I love college basketball.

It is truly the only sport that touches all 50 states and campuses big and small across America. The tournament in March unifies the country in a way that nothing else in sports can.

I also love New England. Born and raised in the region, I’ve gone around to all six of the states to see college hoops at some point in my first 28 years of life and want to take this journey all the way to the end.

Enter The Hoops Project. This is a project with no timeline. My goal is simply to see a game at every single four-year college in New England at some point in my life. As of this post, there are 116 such colleges and universities in New England and 119 venues (UConn, Providence, and Northeastern each utilize two)

From Fort Kent, Maine to Fairfield, Connecticut and up to Johnson, Vermont and everywhere in between, college hoops is a unifying factor in the region. There are rivalries big and small in arenas both spacious and cramped. I plan on getting to all of them.

Just on my own, I have already visited 31 of the arenas in my travels and even a few more that don’t regularly host a college program.

Throughout the rest of the offseason I will be posting about some of the places I’ve been, what makes them good venues for basketball, and why you should make a day to go see a game there.

Additionally, I’m looking for the best things to do in around campus. Whether that be a place to shop, eat (I am a sucker for a good sandwich recommendation), or spend an hour just walking around, I want to fully bake into these communities when I am there.

This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences with college basketball fans.

Behind the Scenes at the D3 Sweet 16

The first thing you notice about LeFrak Gym when you walk in is the smell of lacquered wood. This place is old and it creaks with the charm of a matchbox that would have stories if it could talk.

It’s here, at Amherst College, that this charming old box is hosting the Division III Men’s Sweet 16, and it has arguably the best pound-for-pound basketball in the country on its night.

Fifth-ranked Swarthmore is playing sixth-ranked Randolph-Macon and the night closes with host, and seventh-ranked, Amherst College hosting 14th-ranked Nichols College. A battle of the two best Division III programs in Massachusetts this year.

However, days like these don’t just happen. At the Division I level there are dozens of people working to make sure that the tournament goes off without a hitch. Press conference interviews are fully transcribed. Coaches and players and TV broadcasters all have managers and handlers to move them through the arena and the sea of people within it. On the court, teams have a slew of aids and trainers and other support staff to aid the team once the ball is tipped.

By comparison, Division III is low-fi, but it’s no less planned and executed. The Division I regionals are announced years in advance and are all at major national venues. The location of tonight’s games was only announced five days ago. In that time, travel had to be booked, hotels had to be secured, and all the trappings of a national tournament had to be put in place.

However, Craig Kaufman doesn’t have an army at his disposal. The Director of Athletic Communications here at Amherst is in charge of it all with an assist from his intern, Patrick McKearney.

“As soon as the call comes out on Sunday everybody sort of jumps into their roles,” Kaufman said as our voices echoed throughout the empty gym before the festivities. “People that do logistics, transport and hotels. People like contest management, tournament management, sports information. Everybody starts turning their wheels, and the gears of a championship start turning.”

Games are in 80 minutes but Kaufman is cool and collected as he and the facilities staff make the final prep before doors open. Amherst is no stranger to hosting these kinds of events. Just last week the women hosted a pod of first and second round matchups. The soccer and lacrosse teams regularly host NCAA tournament games, and the annual football game with Williams draws more than 8,000.

The key is making sure that everything is ready to go long in advance of game time and give the game the respect it deserves. Of the 448 Division III athletic programs in the country, these are four of the final 16 remaining in men’s basketball.

“I get a lot of satisfaction out of it, and I really enjoy it when it’s over,” Kaufman said with a chuckle. “I enjoy hosting. I think it’s really cool to put the experience together and make it as much of a D1 experience as we can. That’s my whole mentality of sports information in general; trying to give student-athletes as professional experience as possible. The same goes for the SIDs too. I want them to feel like they are at a big championship because they are. For what we do this is pretty much as big as it gets.”

It’s 4:07 pm and Allison Hudak is taping up guards. The athletic trainer for Swarthmore is making sure the guys are ready to go for their game that is less than an hour away. It’s what she’s done for more than a decade.

The athletic trainer’s job at times can be invisible. You prep the team before the game, work on any tweaks at halftime, and break it all down after the final horn. To make an appearance during a game means that something has gone wrong for a player.

“Part of what keeps me doing what I do is having a hand in being able to enable our student-athletes to do what they love to do,” Hudak said. “For them these are the goals they set out to achieve. To know they can do that, and do that successfully, and I’m able to provide some peace of mind validates what we do. It’s a lot of fun.”

However, for the team, the trainer is an integral asset. Not just someone trained to help soothe the aches and pains that come with sports, but a confidant and friend that, over time, learns every quirk  of the players on the team

“I think the best that we can do generally speaking just as people is be really good at communicating at what our needs are and doing our best to meet both sets of needs without compromising one or the other,” Hudak said. “And a lot of times as you get ot know the players you get to know their idiosyncrasies. You get to know the ways in which they communicate whether it’s verbally or non-verbally; sometimes you have to read between the lines to see something that’s going on a little bit deeper and ask the right questions.”

She describes her medical kit as something akin to a portable athletic training room. On an ideal night it never gets used.

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Allison Hudak’s training setup takes up a whole table on its own.

Bradley Jacks has been here before. Hell, he’s been to the mountaintop. Jacks was a reserve on Babson College’s 2017 national championship team. He put up points in the national final and was part of multiple tournament runs during his time in Wellesley.

Now Jacks is a first-year assistant coach for Randolph-Macon College and is back at LeFrak after so many battles he had against Amherst during his college days.

“I can relate to what these guys are going through day to day,” Jacks said. “You see things different through the coaches lens than you do as a player. I’m glad I’m with these guys. Being on this side you understand what they’re going through only being one year removed. I try to just help where I can and encourage them each day. You have to play hard. You have to bring it.”

Jacks played a key role in scouting for the Yellow Jackets this season and it has paid off. Jacks said he watches upward of 50 hours of film a week. He is trying to help guide Randolph-Macon, which is 27-3, to equal a program-best 28 wins in a season.

During Babson’s championship year Jacks and the Beavers played here in Amherst. They lost 99-97 in double overtime.

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Bradley (holding folder) giving advice to his team in the first half vs Swarthmore.

It’s 4:52 pm. The gym is about a third full. Hudak is prepping her trainer’s station and making sure water bottles are full. Jacks has changed from a team sweatsuit pregame to a shape blue suit with gold tie for the contest. Kaufman is hunkered down at the main table. Not only is he the lead media coordinator tonight, but he is also the official scorer.

The game tips right at 5 pm and the story begins. There’s a sizable Swarthmore contingent sitting across from their bench. Many are wearing garnet “Swat More” shirts. Randolph-Macon had a loud group of fans at the far end of the gym. One in particular can be heard echoing throughout after most whistles. Not often does a fan punch the ceiling during a basketball game.

 

It’s 5:17. Randolph-Macon has opened up a seven-point lead and seemingly can’t miss. Shots are falling from everywhere. It’s a good basketball here in Amherst.

It’s 5:22. Swarthmore’s George Visconti hits the deck hard. He covers his face in pain and his body tenses as well. Allison’s number gets called.

Out onto the court she goes to help the freshman.  The noise seeps into the wood and disappears for a moment. However, it ends well as she helps Visconti to his feet and guides him off as he leaves the floor under his own power. Onto the table he goes for concussion protocol and further examination.

Eventually he returns, albeit with a bandage over his left eye, and plays 31 minutes, scores eight points, and pulls down six rebounds. The noise reappears as Hudak returns to her post, a job well done.

“Big assist to Allison,” Swarthmore coach Landry Kosmalski said postgame.

Randolph-Macon led 41-33 at halftime

The smoothness of the evening is apparent. The people in charge of running the night have set everything in place so the machine doesn’t stop. Patrick handles the print and TV media while Craig helps keep the head table in order and works with the broadcasting crew.

All of this happens invisibly right in front of the crowd. Good logistics and organization should never be seen by anyone other than the people in charge of it. It should be seamless and smooth. Craig does it all with an expressionless face. The crowd is tense the way only spectators can be. Craig Kaufman is working.

It’s 6:00 pm. Jacks is sitting on the bench, stroking his chin gently. The Garnet are slowly feeling it and have cut the gap to four. 

It’s 6:29. Kaufman has quietly been making sure everything stays in order. Him and McKearney have been on top of everything media-related which has meant the game has run smoothly across the board. Jacks is still coaching although now RMC leads by only three. Hudak has been making sure the water bottles stay filled and everything is right on the Swarthmore bench. She has yet to return to the court. She likes it that way.

The game thunders to a climax. A contest that saw a combined 71 points in the first half won’t even crest 45 in the final 20 minutes.

Zac O’Dell drives the lane and lays it in with 90 seconds left to give Swarthmore a 55-54 lead with 90 seconds left. As people begin to trickle in for the next game the energy begins to grow. Jacks remains stoic on the bench.

Randolph-Macon responds with a three and gives Swarthmore the ball with 35 seconds to go and one last chance.

The Yellow Jackets try. They have no response.

 

Jacks is still stoic. Yes, he’s won a national title but he’s also felt deep stinging losses. He’s the last coach on the court for RMC. Buzz Anthony wraps his arm around teammate Corey Bays, who is in tears, and helps him off the floor. They’ll be back next year.

Hudak holds a good poker face. Kaufman is in his laptop making sure the stats are correct. The crowd is buzzing as the gears turn. Swarthmore 58, Randolph-Macon 57.

It’s 7:09. Hudak’s bag is packed and she is chatting with parents and fans of the team. The smiles flow like wine on New Year’s Eve. Victory tends to do that this time of year. The Garnet are in the Elite Eight.

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Nate Tenaglia

It’s 6:13. Nate Tenaglia sits on the front row of the bleachers with earbuds in. He keeps both hands around his phone lest he drop it. He and his Nichols College teammates are watching Swarthmore and the Yellow Jackets.

Tenaglia has had a hell of a road to get to this point. He will start tonight’s game for Nichols. The sophomore from Tewksbury, Massachusetts is arguably the greatest basketball player Tewksbury High has ever seen. A 1,000-point scorer who put in 38 points in his final high school game and helped lead them to great success.

But he’s most known for what happened in November. During a game at Fitchburg State, Tenaglia was on the receiving end of this elbow in a game that became a national story.

However, this season has been a good one for the sophomore. He has started 27 games and is averaging eight points, two rebounds, and nearly two steals a night. Tonight he will be asked to harness his manic energy in a powder keg of a gym against one of the perennial powerhouses of D3 basketball.

It’s 7:31. Tenaglia picks a steal and goes coast to coast before dumping it off to Matt Morrow for an easy layup. Nichols leads 2-0.

The building is electric. There’s arguably more Nichols fans than Amherst fans here. The Bison have connected with the student body in a way that is almost transcendent. In the conference final two weeks ago, on a neutral court, 3,000 people showed up to watch the Bison beat Gordon College. There are only 1,570 students at the school.

It’s 8:04. Nate only has two steals but he draws a foul while shooting a three and makes two shots. Amherst leads by a point.

It’s 8:07. We are tied at 24. The energy is building. Nichols star Marcos Echevarria is having a tough go of it. He is 15 points shy of 2,500 for his career but can’t find open space to shoot.

It’s hot in here. Actively hot. Not warm. Hot. It’s sub-freezing outside and you would never know it. This place is over capacity. People are standing behind the media table and camped out in corners or on riser steps. Wherever there is a spot with a view of the court there is a human occupying it. Craig Kaufman is in a black suit sitting between the benches with the Nichols students bearing down over his shoulder. 

It’s 8:10. Marcos hits a two at the horn. Tied at 26 at the half. There is no emotion from anyone. This is business, and it feels personal.

It’s 8:36. Tenaglia misses a rushed three. Things are grim for Nichols. Amherst leads by nine with 12 minutes to go.

It’s 8:40. Marcos hits a three. It is his 104th straight game hitting a three. That extends his NCAA record.

The sound fills your lungs when you breathe. No, this game isn’t on network TV. No, ESPN isn’t here. But this is the most important game in the universe right now. Nothing else matters except the events that transpire on this 94-foot long length of wood.

The attendance is announced as 1,900. It feels like 3,000. There are people five and six deep in the corners. There are Nichols students standing at the media table. 

It’s 8:41. Tenaglia gets in on the fun with a three of his own. The noise echoes in ribs. Amherst’s lead is down to five. Craig Kaufman still has his jacket on.

Nate Tenaglia isn’t an imposing person. Listed at 5’9 on the roster, his game is based on hustle, intelligence, and tenacity. He dives into jump ball situations and has to be restrained by teammates when he feels unjustly fouled. The energy he brings is contagious and borders on being too much. But he’s always harnessed it. That’s why he was a star in high school. That’s why he is a starter on one of the top teams in the country.

“He’s our backbone,” Nichols junior DeAnte Bruton said. “He’s our go-to guy. When we need a big play we depend on Nate. He doesn’t care. He’s so selfless as long as he brings the energy on defense. He’s just a warrior.”

Bradley Jacks and Randolph-Macon sit quietly in a corner of the end zone bleachers watching the game. In a room full of energy there is just malaise in this little corner.

It’s 8:51. The noise is incalculable. Tenaglia grabs a jump ball and calls for a timeout. He gets it. Bison lead 49-47 with 5:31 left.

Nichols extends the lead to seven before Marcos goes down from a hard fall and has to go through concussion protocol. Tenaglia leaves with a cramp. He works it out on the bench and then a little more while waiting to check back in. Nichols lead by seven.

Then Nichols lead by five. Then four. Then one. The Mammoths roar back to make it a one-point difference with 30 seconds left. Marcos makes a free throw. It’s 60-58.

Amherst has a chance. The ball pops loose.

It’s 9:12. Nate Tenaglia reaches into the scrum for a loose ball. A jump is called. Nichols possession. Marcos makes two shots right after. Nichols 62, Amherst 58. Final.

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Nate in victory.

The Nichols students pour out onto the court. One turns to the Amherst student section and says “Oh, is this your court? Is this your court?” He laughs as he gets no response.

It is their court, and they just got eliminated on it. The Bison advance to the first Elite Eight in program history. 

The PA announcer implores the crowd to leave the floor. Police officers flank the sidelines. No one wants to leave. No one wants this moment to end. No one in Nichols green & black wants this night to be over.

It’s 10:04. There’s eight people left in the gym. Hudak and Jacks are long gone. Tenaglia and his teammates were happily catching up with family and friends but are now gone too.

The facilities team is cleaning up. The Nichols SID is finishing his work. Another writer and I are filing. Craig Kaufman remains at the head table finishing his duties for the night. Tomorrow he will work a game featuring schools he doesn’t work for in a tournament that Amherst is no longer in.

The tournament stops for no one.

An Interview With Martin Stone

He’s a man of many names. Whether you know him as Martin Stone or Danny Burch, you know Martin Harris as a hard-hitting, talented wrestler that has made a name for himself both in the US and Europe, most notably in NXT.

I was able to catch up with Martin in February and had a wide-ranging interview detailing everything from his upbringing in London to his recent career renaissance.

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Photo by Harry Aaron/Courtesy of Limitless Wrestling

What got you into wrestling and when did you start?

I had always watched wrestling as a kid. I remember watching on a Saturday afternoon with my cousin around my nan’s house watching Superstars and Wrestling Challenge. I was blinded at that point in time because NWA was on about nine for an hour then challenge would start at 10 and Superstars would start at 11 or 12. That was my first experience with live wrestling: the massive, larger-than-life superheros I guess would be the best the term to use. That was my first introduction to pro wrestling.

What was your background? Where did you grow up? What was life like on the couch growing up watching all that wrestling?

I grew up in the East End of London, Bethnal Green. In the particular part of London that I grew up you either put on a pair of football boots or a pair of boxing gloves. From the age of six to the age of 17 I boxed. I was always being active as a kid. Loved watching wrestling, and as soon as wrestling was finished my cousin and I would jump up and down on each other trying to reenact what we just watched. Usually it was me getting my ass kicked.

I was still watching wrestling. I got away from it for a bit. I watched wrestling religiously up until Wrestlemania 9 and then I kind of lost track of it.  I got back into it, and the match that made me look at wrestling as having a lot more to it than what I used to think was just wrestling was when the Radicalz split. The match was Eddie and Benoit. This match, to this day, holds a special place in my heart.

I started looking online and found Dropkicks Wrestling Academy in Essex. I went to my first class and was hooked ever since.

How old were you when you went to your first wrestling class?

It was 2003, I was early 20s.

You watch wrestling religiously all the way through Wrestlemania 9. Hogan, Macho Man Ricky Steamboat. Then your wrestling style is so very different from what they did. How did you find yourself in the ring and find your wrestling style?

Obviously I trained in England so it was a very World of Sport style. Training in that particular style I started to look at who did this style. So then I started watching a lot of stuff of Japan, Fit Finlay, Mark Rocco, Martin Jones, Dave Taylor, William Regal, I started watching those guys religiously in the English style of wrestling. There’s so many great wrestlers that brought such an aggressive style that was nothing I’d ever seen before because I hadn’t been exposed to it. My wrestling was Hogan big booting people and leg dropping them in 15 minutes.

Then I started training and my trainer started giving me tapes, and then I’m being exposed to 60-minute matches, the round system, intricate holds and reversals. I was like ‘well, why can you not kind of mix the two’. You’re not going to see me go to the top rope and do a 450, all credit to the people that can do that, I ain’t that athletic. It was a case of strip away the stuff I know I’m not going to use. I still have a lot of fun now watching a lot of old school stuff and trying to pull it apart.

 

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Photo by Harry Aaron/Courtesy of Limitless Wrestling

You talk about mixing and mashing styles, you look at the rise of British Wrestling at places like Progress, ICW, the works…people think of guys like Zack and on the other side guys like Mark Andrews. You have guys like Zack, Pete Dunne, Tyler Bate get down on the mat and have these really good mat-based matches almost like fights. Do you think that British wrestling has grown as a result of going back to its roots, so to speak, or is this just a happy coincidence?

I have no idea what happened to British wrestling. I first reported for duty in developmental at FCW, in Tampa, in 2012. A huge show, with a big money backer, might have like 1,000 people. It was still an average show. I’m in developmental for two years, it doesn’t work out. I come home. I’m staring at a building filled with 1,500 people and this is a small show.

What happened here? It’s amazing what happened in a very short time frame. I’ll say all day long it’s the best scene in the world. You can’t beat the shows. You can’t beat the wrestlers that are out there. I don’t know why, but usually when there’s a boom for wrestling on TV then wrestling everywhere does good. It’s not the case. It’s not like the year 2000 again when you had Austin, Rocky, and HHH all on top. You had to watch every week and everywhere does good because of that.

Pete’s been wrestling since he was 15 or 16. Now he’s 24. He’s been wrestling a long time. The guys that are on top have put in a serious amount of wrestling. You learn on the mat first and you add stuff to do after that. The one advice I give to anyone that says they want to be a wrestler is find a place that teaches you the basics. If all else fails you’ll always have the basics to fall back on.

What was your career like up until you got that call [to report to FCW]? Where was your first couple of matches in England? How did you grow the Martin Stone character? How did that all kind of come about until you got that first call in 2012?

My very first show was a month after I trained. I wasn’t ready. I got thrown into the deep end. There were two coaches where I trained. One guy was a stickler for getting things right, everything has to be good. The other was there just to take the money. They used to argue all the time, and the coach that knew what he was talking about left. We were left with the guy that just wanted to make as much money as he could so he used to throw people in the deep end and contact promoters and say ‘yup, he’s great blah, blah, blah’, spin him a line, and the guy would show up and the promoter would be like ‘that’s not what the I asked for’.

I, unfortunately, was one of those people thrown into the deep end. It was a tag match. It was horrible. I shudder when I think about it. I told myself I’m not going to step back in that ring until I’m ready. I found the good coach and trained with him. Then we went out into the world.

I really cut my teeth working for a guy named called John Coppin who, unfortunately, passed away a couple of years ago. He really gave me a start. They weren’t great matches, but I was getting better every time.

Then my real breakout was in 2005 which was a promotion now known as Rev Pro but at the time was IPW:UK. They got in touch with me and said ‘how’d you feel about wrestling Samoa Joe?’ I was like damn, of course I will. They brought me in for a couple of shows to build me up then put me on with Joe.

At the time Joe was on his destruction of the TNA X Division. It went to a time-limit draw. That was the draw where Joe did so much for me in that match, made me look super strong, really put me over. That was the match people looked at me said ‘well, who’s this?’

Call after call started coming in. It got to the point I really started to find my feet in 2007. I really started to find out who I was.

I was working a fulltime job in a warehouse from 6 am-4 pm, hitting the gym, wrestling twice during the week and every weekend. That led up to 2009 I had my first tryout which was in Sheffield against Bram. The very first time I tried out I was in the ring with Bram. That was when Arn Anderson said I want to see you in April. I got signed in April of 2010 but then didn’t report until 2012 because when I got to Pittsburgh the first time I found out I had a torn ACL, torn meniscus, when I looked at the scan my knee looked like a shark bite. They said we can’t touch you until you’re fixed.

Do I curl up in a ball and headbutt a wall because my dream is gone or do I fight through it and get it done? Needless to say I got it fixed and went back in 2011, and in 2012 I jetted off to sunny Tampa.

Were you walking around on your knee with no idea it was beat up?

No idea. I remember falling down the stairs before I was wrestling. It swelled up a couple of days after that. Then it went down and I was fine. I didn’t have any of the slipout issues you would have with a torn ACL. I was wrestling on it. I was working on it. It would get stiff in the cold; it was a lot more serious than it was. The doctor that fixed said I shouldn’t be walking on it. Apparently because my quads were so strong because of deadlifting and squatting that they acted as an ACL to my knee.

It’s 2012. You’re at FCW. What was it like being in that developmental territory? Also you were there when it flipped to NXT so what was it like when you reported and what was the transition like?

It was pretty brutal. I thought I’d have a week to say my goodbyes to my family in England and stuff, and I got my visa on the Friday. I told the office I had my visa and they said you can start Monday. I literally had a day to say my goodbyes. At the time I was married to my first wife so it was all up in the air as far as what would happen. I was told ‘if you go I don’t know if I’m going to wait’ and this and that. I was like whatever, it is what it is. I packed my life in a carry-on case and a hand luggage bag.

I got to Tampa on Sunday at nine at night and started the following morning at nine. What it comes down to in developmental is if you can’t get better it’s your own fault. You’ve got Terry Taylor, Ricky Steamboat, Norman Smiley. As it transitioned you had Joey Mercury as well. Dream was there. Billy Gunn came in. Realistically if you can’t get better learning from people like that you’ve only got yourself to blame.

It was great. It was straight into the deep end. I did my first match the following week, which was well-received, against Brad Maddox. The second week I had a singles against Joel Redmond, who I reported with from England. Then I had two six-man tags, and Monday morning I re-blow out my knee during a training drill. Now I’m back to square one.

The looked at it and said it was a torn ACL and I’d be out for a year. I managed to shave the rehab down to six or seven months. I was in a position to rehab all day. I was with the trainer from 8 am to 3 pm Monday to Friday. I was like if I can’t be in the ring wrestling then I’m going to treat my rehab as if I’m in the ring wrestling. I did whatever I could to get back.

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Photo by Harry Aaron/Courtesy of Limitless Wrestling

Where did the name Danny Burch come from?

At the time you submitted 10 names and highlighted the ones that you wanted. That name got thrown together by four of the other names that I’d picked. I never actually came up with Danny Burch. They said ‘yep, we want to run with that’, and I was like ok. From that day forward I was Danny Burch.

What’s it like working in the performance center and Full Sail? I’ve seen old clips of FCW. Compared to what you have now FCW looked like it was in a warehouse compared to Full Sail.

The training center when I first started wrestling was in a judo school. Then when I started training properly, and we moved away and me and a group of friends got a ring, we were in a railway arch. There was nowhere to pee. It was real bare bones.

Getting to FCW was nice. It’s air conditioned. There’s toilets. There’s three rings. But then when we got to the performance center and there’s seven rings, a fully equipped strength and conditioning place. There was a room for promos where you would film yourself and come back and watch it. It was like wrestling heaven. If you can’t get better and thrive in that environment you’re doing something wrong.

Were you always on a per date contract? Were you properly signed? It seems like over the last year you’ve gotten back onto the indies.

I was fully under contract between 2012 and 2014. I got released April of 2014. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. I would put the blame on me. I’m not going to turn around and say I didn’t get my shot. For whatever reason it didn’t work out. It was very frustrating because I couldn’t find the Martin Stone that got me there. Being out injured really took a toll on my confidence. I forgot who I was. I couldn’t find where that was. It just got to a point I was so unhappy because I couldn’t perform how I wanted to. I couldn’t get the gears into place. I was so unhappy because something that I loved so much growing up I started to resent because I couldn’t find that spark again.

I got pulled into the office and they said they had to let me. It was mixed emotions. I was like ok, at least now I can go and try to find this guy back home, and if he’s not there I’m done. Or I can find this guy and see what happens in the future. It was one of those things where it sucked. It was horrible being told that’s it. I have no regrets from my time there for two years. Not many people can say ‘hey, I got hired by WWE and I moved to Florida and was getting paid a good wage each week.’

At the time I was in a singlet. When I went back on the indies that’s when I went to jeans with bleach thrown all over it.  Also I was really fat so it was a way of covering up. At that point in time, about three or four weeks before I was released, I met my now wife. I did long distance. I was doing the indies in England, going to Germany. I was a regular for Rev Pro. I was a regular for ICW. I was working all the smaller shows so I was really, really busy.

I was doing long distance with my wife, and December 2014 I said let’s see what happens, and I moved back to Orlando. It’s been a hard transition. The Florida wrestling scene is not the greatest in the world. There’s some places that work really, really hard to promote stuff. You’ve got RONIN. You’ve got a new place in Fest. You’ve got Ignite as well which try really hard. You’ve got FIP, which has been a mainstay in Florida for years. It’s not the greatest of wrestling scenes in the world so I was really struggling. I said if this is what wrestling is here then I’m done. If it wasn’t for a promotion in Atlanta called AWE I would have hung my boots up.

Clip from Martin Stone’s first match in Beyond Wrestling vs JT Dunn.

What was it about AWE that kept you going? Then how did you wind up coming to New England and connecting with Beyond?

I got text offers from a really good friend of mine, Aaron Epic. He was like ‘hey, do you fancy a road trip to Georgia?’ I was like go on, why not. I then check on Twitter and see I’m wrestling Jimmy Rave. I text Aaron and say ‘this is THE Jimmy Rave from Ring of Honor, right?’ He’s like yeah, he lives in Atlanta. I was like, this was one of the biggest names that I’ve worked since being in the States.

This is about a year [in America]. I was trying to work as much as I could, but some of the houses were 15, 20 people. The last show I did in England was ICW and there were 4,000 people there. Then my first match in States there was 30 people in the crowd. I was oh, whoops. I had kind of gone back to how I started.

It was about this time that I was done. I was in a real low place. I had a conversation with William Regal and I started doing extra work again. I would come in, work whoever, and that was it. I’ve been really lucky. My first match as an extra was Kevin Owens. Then I worked Apollo Crews in his debut. Then I had James Storm in his debut. Then they gave me a match with Tommaso Ciampa, and we beat the living snot out of each other. It was great. Ciampa is such an incredible talent.

Around about that time was when I decided to get in the best shape I could. I was getting to the point where I knew I could work, I knew I could talk. What’s the chink in the armor? The only thing left I can look at in the mirror is my physique. I’m going to get in the best shape I can. If nothing happens at least I threw everything on the table, and I can walk away, hold my head high, and look back and enjoy what I did.

I dropped 60 pounds, had that match with Ciampa [at AWE, and I was in love with wrestling again. It felt so great to be in love with what I first fell in love with again.

That then for me was when people really opened their eyes and said ‘Jesus Christ, Martin’s still got it.’ I was very lucky to be put in the position I’m in now where I had the feud with Oney [Lorcan] and tagging with him. I think it was the feud with Oney that opened up the door for Beyond.

You click with JT, now you’ve almost become this regular up here. What’s it been like for you doing Beyond, Limitless and growing into the New England scene?

The New England scene legitimately reminds me of home because even the worst talent there is so hungry to get better and learn. The promoters actually promote. They actually draw. The fans are amazing. It’s home. It really reminds me of home.

I work out of Florida now. Pretty much the only times I work in Florida are at the NXT live events. Most of my stuff is in New England. I started with Beyond. I recently worked Gresham which was one of the funnest matches I’ve had. I had the chance to work JT again at XWA. I worked John Morrison there. It’s an absolute hotbed of wrestling. For guys that are trying to break out and cut their teeth I’d say move to the New England area. There’s shows all the time, and they’re really good.

My first experience with Limitless was fantastic. It’s funny how I go into places in New England, and I’m never concerned if the crowd is going to be good. They’re always good. I absolutely love that place. I love Beyond. Beyond has done so much for me. They give me some absolute banging matches. I had an absolute phenomenal match with Matt Riddle. They got me Gresham, Flip Gordon, Zach. I’ve been lucky.

You’re 36. It seems like you’re in a good spot. What come next for the next five years of Martin Stone, Danny Burch or whatever I’m supposed to call you?

For me it’s just keep getting better, getting my name out there, having fun with it. The minute you stop having fun in a job like this is the minute to walk away.

Reinventing Maine: The Story of Limitless Wrestling

You’ve probably never been to Orono, Maine. Closer to the Canadian border than Portland, Orono is home to the University of Maine and not much more.

But amidst the trees next to the pizza shop, and across from the thrift store with the broken sign, sits American Legion Post 84. It was there in the dregs of the the viciously cold Maine winter of 2016 that a small independent wrestling company changed the scene in the Pine Tree State.

The show was Under Fire. The company was Limitless Wrestling. It was their third show ever. The main event was Chris Hero vs Zack Sabre Jr.

“It was a monumental thing to happen on our third show,” Limitless’ promoter Randy Carver said of Hero-Sabre. “We went from being a local Maine company to having a lot of fans across the US looking at this match, looking at this show. The buzz was totally there after that. It’s exactly what we needed. Definitely something that helped us start out on the right foot.”

Before Hero, before Sabre, and before Limitless, Randy Carver was a kid in La Grange, Maine. Growing up in a town with less than 800 people doesn’t offer many opportunities, but for Carver there was wrestling.

Carver is only 20 years old but has loved the sport since he was a kid. He traveled up and down the Northeast watching wrestling and realized pretty quickly that Maine wrestling didn’t measure up.

“Maine wrestling was just really really bad for a lot of years,” Carver said. “I grew up watching it and really the only guys we had were Eddie Edwards every now and then, [maybe] Matt Taven. But the actual overall cards on the show were not very good.”

After seeing companies like Beyond Wrestling, Ring of Honor, and Chikara do their thing Carver wanted into the business. So at age 15 he reached out to the local companies in Central Maine to see if they would give him a chance, and one, Independent Wrestling Entertainment, gave him a shot.

“I give a lot of credit to promotions like that because it’s a place where the opportunities are there for dudes off the street to earn a spot somehow,” Carver said. “I did ring crew for 4-5 months and an announcer no showed so I became an announcer. That’s what kicked off being in the business for me and over the next few years I was able to travel New England and make a bunch of connections.”

While still in high school Carver matured into a jack of all trades for IWE. He would help manage the company’s social media, and he anchored the backstage promo videos for YouTube. He continued his ring announcing duties.

More importantly, he got involved with booking and card building. Carver said that learning on the job and having to work in chaotic situations like when wrestlers cancelled a booking was invaluable experience for him.

Going into his senior year of high school Carver was itching to put on a show of his own and put his life on hold to do it.

“You just get to a point where I’m in my senior year of high school and I budgeted out [a show],” Carver said. “I didn’t want to wait on this. I knew what I wanted to do and it seemed ludicrous to wait longer to do something I knew I could get done. Senior year I basically put everything on the back burner and saved money so I could get it off the ground as soon as possible. We got lucky and turned a pretty good profit the first show.”

So on September 12, 2015 Carver ran his first wrestling show in Brewer, Maine: Stage One. Limitless Wrestling was born.

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Danger Kid (left) and Aidan Aggro (right) make their entrance as the Maine State Posse. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Courtesy of Limitless Wrestling)

 

Two strong shows got Limitless off the ground, and Under Fire was the night where everything blew up for Carver and his promotion. A lot of that can be attributed to Beyond Wrestling and its promoter Drew Cordeiro.

Cordeiro has built Beyond into one of the top independent companies in the country and can say that current NXT signings Donovan Dijak, Abbey Laith, and Oney Lorcan all got their big break in a Beyond ring. Carver was a fan of Beyond and he struck up a relationship with Cordeiro several years back.

“Randy used to come to the shows,” Cordeiro said. “When we did ur first ever studio taping that we some fans in for [Tournament for Tomorrow 2], he and his mom came. To have the chance to talk to Randy and his mom you could tell he was a passionate guy. Just in my brief interactions with him he seemed like someone that had a good head on his shoulders.”

Cordeiro helped coordinate travel for Hero and Sabre. The match was a success and since then it’s been a revolving door of top names coming to Limitless. JT Dunn has become a regular, as has AR Fox. Cody Rhodes, Super Crazy, and Rey Fenix have all wrestled there. Ricochet and Matt Sydal put on a classic earlier this year.

“I was extremely lucky to form a great working relationship with Drew Cordeiro from Beyond Wrestling early on,” Carver said. “That match wouldn’t have happened without Beyond Wrestling.”

But any company, given the right amount of money, can book the big names. Limitless has done the hard work of building local Maine and New England wrestlers into main-event caliber stars that put on big matches each and every show.

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Cody Rhodes. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Courtesy of Limitless Wrestling)

That very first night in that small room in Brewer both Ace Romero and Anthony Greene wrestled. Danger Kid and Adian Aggro helped build the ring. Romero was actually in the main event.

Now, this weekend Romero and Greene go one on one in the main event of Limitless’ second anniversary show, and Danger & Aggro, now part of the Maine State Posse, will wrestle in a trios match that features Joey Ryan.

The card will feature Dunn, Fox, Joey Janela, Jack Swagger and other stars from TV. But the headlining match is two locals, including the Maine-born Romero. That’s a testament to how much Carver has committed to building up the local wrestlers into bona fide stars that can pack a room of 500 fans.

“From the start it was building the homegrown talent and mixing in with the more well-known talent,” Romero said. “The big thing Randy wanted to was build his own talent from the ground up. He wanted us to get the opportunity we hadn’t gotten anywhere else. Now we’re main eventing the two year anniversary.”

Beyond the stars, Limitless has become a place for Brian Fury’s trainees to work and wrestle in big spots. Fury, the lead coach at the New England Pro Wrestling who has trained the likes of Dijak, Sasha Banks, Kofi Kingston, Greene and others, said that Limitless is a proving ground for anyone and everyone and loves seeing his trainees get a shot.

I love it when people I have trained succeed anywhere,” Fury said. “Limitless is great because they have a chance to test themselves against some of the best in the world to see how they matchup.”

The proof is in the pudding for Limitless as the anniversary show is expected to sell out and culminate the feud between Greene and Romero. It would be easy to look down the card and move a “bigger” match into the main event, like Jack Swagger vs AR Fox or Joey Janela vs JT Dunn, but the true big names are the ones tasked with closing the show.

It’s guys like Ace Romero, Anthony Greene, Maine State Posse those are the year one guys that built Limitless Wrestling,” Carver said. “I don’t see how we could abandon that. They’re all attractions, in my head. I say this to the locker room before shows, we’re building this together. It’s not just the names coming in for the first time like a Cody or a Ricochet, and it’s not just the locals that are here every night. Everyone who comes through is just as instrumental as building this as the next person.”

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Left to right: Anthony Greene, Brian Fury, and Ace Romero. (Photo by Harry Aaron/Courtesy of Limitless Wrestling)

Two years in and the sky is limitless for Randy Carver. His company has gone from running in front of 100 people in Central Maine to working in front of sellout crowds in the Portland area every show.

With a strong stable of local wrestlers, and a laundry list of international stars coming in to perform, Limitless Wrestling can go as high as Carver wants to take it.

“Randy’s hungry. He wanted to end the stereotype of Maine being a bad wrestling scene,” Romero said. “To do that he brought in top talent to mix with the local talent and put on the best show Maine has ever seen.

“I don’t know what comes next, but the work doesn’t stop. The work’s going to get harder. Everyone on the roster is hungry, and the fact that we’re getting 400, 500 people in attendance that’s something major for us. We don’t ever want to lose that. We’re ready for it.”