Inside the House of Truth

A tiny, one-room space in Center Line becomes a launching pad for the careers of professional wrestlers

There is a best way to fall.

That’s the first lesson Martin Krcic teaches at the House of Truth professional wrestling school, even though bumping — the right way to fall for professional wrestlers — is something he can no longer do.

It’s Memorial Day, the first day of a new 12-week session, and he’s sitting near the edge of the 18-by-18-foot ring that takes up most of the space in the one-room studio behind a tattoo shop in Center Line.

You wouldn’t know the school was there unless you went looking for it, but plenty of people do.

Inside, there’s a lingering scent of cigarettes, some weight-lifting equipment, and the small wooden desk where Krcic sometimes sits to watch students, a wrestling bell and hammer by his feet.

For the first hour of the first class Krcic sits just inside the ring, a cigarette in hand, a quickly filling ashtray on the canvas in front of him. The latest crop of hopefuls sit in folded metal chairs along the wall (in time, some of those chairs will make their way into the ring) talking about why they’re here — their dreams, their heroes, the costumed and renamed versions of themselves they’ve fantasized about and hope to become.

Soon they’ll be in the ring, warming up and taking their first “bumps,” but first Krcic tells them the rules of wrestling. He did not make them — many he doesn’t like — but they are the rules, and must be learned: No swearing. Never lean on the ropes. Say thank you to everyone, even a star who throws his gear at your feet and says “Carry my f—ing bag.” Especially then. Carry the bag. Thank that man. He might give you a job.

The House of Truth is not only where students learn wrestling moves, but it’s also where they come to become wrestlers. They learn that wrestling is a business as well as an art, and, most importantly, that it has little to do with wrestling. It’s about controlling emotions. It’s about asking people to suspend, for a moment, their sense of disbelief and become lost in a world of men (and women) that can only be dreamed about.

Krcic knows these things as well as anyone can. He’s been involved in professional wrestling for 18 years, first as a wrestler and now performing as a manager for Ring of Honor, one of the largest wrestling organizations behind World Wrestling Entertainment, where he is also a producer.

The House of Truth might be small and smoky, but it has become well known throughout the wrestling world. There aren’t that many reputable schools; this is one of them.

WWE stars like Jimmy Jacobs and Zach Gowen — a famous one-legged wrestler — learned their craft at the House of Truth, following the same rigorous schedule these students are about to face: four days a week, four hours a day — even on Memorial Day.

The day itself is a lesson. Krcic asks what night it is. No one says “Monday.” They just say “Raw,” talking about the weekly WWE show.

“Right,” Krcic says. “You think they’re at their house barbecuing with their families right now? I would love to be home with my family … but that’s just part of the sacrifice.”

Krcic is not rude when he speaks, only honest. They’ll have fun here, but this is not a place for fun. It’s a place to learn what being a professional means.

Meeting the New Crop

Among this session’s students is Jack Hall, who has had Gorham’s Disease — also known as vanishing bone disease — since he was 11 and broke his hip. Instead of healing, his bones disintegrate, and Hall, now 37, has a femur attached to his hip not with a ball and socket joint, but only muscle, sinew, and skin.

After a lifetime of being disabled, he’s ready to work a job that will take a greater toll on his body than all the jobs he’d been told he can’t do. Although supportive now, his family was hesitant in the past because of their concerns for his health, but he made his choice. Wrestling has been there for him, got him through the rough moments, and taught him that sometimes underdogs win. He also knows that WWE stars like Gowen came through this school.

He makes his way to the center of the ring with his idiosyncratic limp, as though someone hit him with one of those folded chairs. He takes the proper stance, feet flat, hips back. As instructed, he thrusts his injured hip forward, sending his feet out from under him as he falls backward toward the mat, chin tucked, arms to the sides to absorb some of the impact. He takes his bumps like everyone else — dutifully, painfully.

Some people have left 20 minutes into the first lesson. The fights might be fake; that doesn’t mean they don’t hurt.

There are five students today. In addition to Hall there is Jason Marginet, aka Jay Maynard, a former high school wrestler with a lumberjack’s beard whose experience on the mats will lend realism to his fighting in the ring — something promoters might appreciate in a world where they must compete for fans with mixed martial arts, a sport that shows what it looks like to get punched and kicked.

There’s Drake Grondzki, 17, who sat his parents down in his hometown of Rockford, Ill., to tell them what he wanted to do with his future. He’s living with his grandparents for the summer, an hour away from House of Truth, having struck a deal with the parents that he’d return and finish his senior year.

Also waiting to bump are Ren Jones and Xavier Walker, two guys from Flint who will become the tag team of Palmer Cruise and Carter Xavier.

It is not a large class, and by the end of 12 weeks, Krcic predicts it will be smaller. Some can handle the pain but not the knowledge. To have the secrets of wrestling revealed — not that it’s fake, but how it’s fake, ruins the illusion they’ve been losing themselves in since childhood.

“I tell the guys, too, there’s nothing wrong if it’s not for you. Every wrestling fan has like, a little dream of doing this someday,” Krcic says. “If it was easy, there would be no fans, and everybody would be wrestlers.

“It’s not easy.”

Krcic watches them bump, then interrupts. The technique is OK, but they’re not selling the move. They must learn to sell — to act — from day one.

The goal of a bump is to make the other guy look good. Krcic pretends to punch a veteran wrestler helping him, who makes a purposely poor performance of writhing in pain. It’s comical. He knows what bad wrestling looks like.

Then Krcic punches again — and for a moment he’s “Truth Martini,” the character he’s carefully honed over the years. He screams with his punch, “Ee-ah!” His assistant bumps, whipping to the ground faster than gravity could take him.

BANG! The sound is like heavy metal clanging on something even heavier. It’s enough to make you jump. You know the punch is fake, but he sure as hell took a fall.

During a break, Krcic talks about Truth Martini. Truth is a manager obsessed with having his wrestlers win. Truth’s story is that he was once a wrestler who broke his neck and feels robbed of his chance at being world champion. So now he lives vicariously through the successes and losses of his team — the House of Truth.

Like many good characters, Truth is an extension of Krcic. He, too, has his House of Truth team. The newest members are here, alongside some veterans. Others are out on the road, making a living.

Krcic, like his character, also felt — feels — robbed of what he could have been, but he succeeds each time a House of Truth graduate makes it to the Ring of Honor, WWE, or a local show, giving his school — and his understanding of wrestling — that much more credibility.

It is how he wins.

“I’ve got students right now in WWE,” he says. “F— ’em, but good for them.” He laughs. “It’s like, ‘You’re making millions. F— you! [But] I’m very proud of you.’ ”

He laughs again, because, of course Krcic is proud of his students. He takes their calls, texts, and emails day and night, helping them move forward to the dream they’ve all shared. Many have become dear friends. But the laughter only lasts so long.

As Krcic and those former students know, making it to the big show can be a long, hard road.

Krcic was supposed to be booed during his first WWE match. It was 2003, and it was a “dark match” — one of a handful of unfilmed preliminary matches that serve to test camera equipment and test up-and-coming wrestlers. Fans mostly do not know what dark matches are and often boo the unknown, unfamiliar wrestlers.

Krcic was not only in the night’s first dark match, but he was also slated to lose.

The fighting in professional wrestling is fake, but there’s a competition going on, one of performance and storytelling.

On that night Krcic was the “fighter with heart.” That was the story he sold the crowd until he went down, as scripted, and his opponent won.

Wrestling matches are a mix of choreography and improvisation. The best wrestlers know what the crowd wants, and when Krcic went down, he knew what to give them. He grabbed the bottom rope. The bell had rung, and yet there he was trying to stand again. The referee, catching on, tried to help. Krcic waved him off, grimacing. He grabbed the second rope. Again the ref tried to help. Krcic waved him off. He grabbed the third rope. He stood, facing the crowd, all but demanding their attention.

The fans stood. He turned 90 degrees to another quarter of the crowd, and they, too, stood. He kept turning until they were all cheering for a loser they didn’t know had really won.

Taking a Real Fall

There was a time Krcic thought he’d never even make it to a dark match. He’d been a fan since he saw his first match on TV. He knew they weren’t really fighting. “Even at 5 years old, you couldn’t insult my intelligence,” he says.

But he noticed other things.

“As soon as I laid eyes on it … I was like, ‘Wow look, there’s a good guy, and look, he’s the bad guy.’ ” He saw how the wrestlers worked the crowd.

He became a devoted fan — watching anything the TV antennae on his Hamtramck home would pick up. But he thought being “5’8 on a good day” was too small to participate.

At 22 years old, he went to his first live match, and noticed what seems obvious now — in person, all wrestlers weren’t as big as the announcers said.

He waited in the parking lot and approached one of the wrestlers, who told him if he wanted to make it, he had to go to school. A year later, he was living and training in Ohio.

After graduating, he was soon doing the acrobatic moves he’d dreamed about: front-flip corkscrews from the ropes ending in an elbow to his opponent.

Those first dark matches earned him a bit of respect and even a tentative job offer from the WWE. But when that never materialized, he returned to independent shows, perfecting his craft and honing his character: Truth Martini — a bad guy so bad he needed a bodyguard. The bodyguard was part of the act, and used for one of his flashiest moves. His opponent would throw him from the ring and into the bodyguard, who would break his fall while creating a great spectacle.

The move had become routine. Then, on May 13, 2005, in front of a crowd of 30 people, his bodyguard fell the wrong way. Krcic woke up in the hospital.

As he lay there waiting to tell a doctor he couldn’t move, his thoughts turned dark. This is how you become paralyzed. He wondered who would feed, clean, and change him.

“Call me weak, call me whatever … I felt like I was talking really to God, I said: ‘God, I’m not strong enough … to live the rest of my life this way.’ … As soon as I finished that sentence all the feeling came back in my body,” he says. “It was one of the worst days of my life, and it was one of the most incredible days of my life at the same time.”

Quitting wrestling was not an option — as a matter of passion and practicality. Krcic had no backup plan. With no insurance, he went home and healed badly (an X-ray later confirmed a broken neck).

His first time back in the ring he told his opponent while scripting the match that he was hurt, and he choreographed the fight so that he wouldn’t have to take any bumps. He did it at another match, and then for four years.

He got so good at it that at first people didn’t notice, and when they did, they couldn’t believe it. Here was a guy who had found a way to avoid the most common yet harmful move. He was invited to other schools to teach the art of avoiding the bump.

But wrestling was still taking a toll. Zach Gowen approached him after a match and pointed out the obvious — what Krcic had been denying since he broke his neck.

“He said, ‘You might have to give it up.’ And I said, ‘I know.’ ”

So Krcic quit. He called every promoter he knew, every place he was set to wrestle, and told them he was done.

Beyond his school, he didn’t know what he’d do. He only knew he wasn’t a wrestler anymore. Then one day a friend called and said there was an opening in a show for a position like a wrestler … but not quite. They needed someone who could cut promos on behalf of wrestlers who can perform in the ring, but can’t sell with words. They needed a manager.

He told them he’d try it.

Graduation Day

On the last day of class, Krcic’s students are ready. They’re all still here — and that almost never happens.

They’re not perfect, but they’re ready. They have the tools. They can bump, body slam, and sell.

For the past two weeks they’ve been scripting and performing full matches, getting critiques from Krcic and other veterans.

Marginet has his first match outside of school that weekend, and Xavier and Ren — dubbed “The Detroit Connection” by a promoter — will soon have their first tag team match. Grondzki is sitting out with a hurt back, a tough lesson on the kind of pain he’ll have to push through in the future.

Hall, realizing how much his bone disease is holding him back, is training to be a manager. The veterans tell him tonight that he’s cut his best promo yet.

Krcic takes his time with the final speech, reinforcing everything he’s taught them. He tells them he’s given them all the tools, but they must apply them. They must treat each match as though they’re fighting to be world champion — because they should always be fighting to be world champion.

But Krcic tells them something else. He tells his “kids” to be safe. He tells them there could come a time where the audience doesn’t come first.

“Sometimes you have to do safety first. F— the show. This is a man’s life. … And it’s happened,” he says. “It’s happened.”

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