VANCOUVER, BC — In the crazy, busy world of sports, it’s easy to overlook the amazing accomplishments of five young men who celebrated their milestone in a small kickboxing school in Surrey, British Columbia.

After all, independent pro wrestling doesn’t garner as much media attention as the Stanley Cup playoffs, the NBA Finals or new baseball records. And yet one might wonder which accomplishment is more worthy of such attention. The five students who celebrated their graduation from Extreme Canadian Championship Wrestling’s (ECCW) House of Pain Wrestling School on May 29, 2006, accomplished something few other athletes have: they became pro wrestlers.

The Class of 2006 from the House of Pain. Photos by Fred Johns

On paper perhaps, the achievement of these five kids isn’t as impressive as winning a Stanley Cup or shattering a long-standing record, but to them it’s a pretty big deal. Not only did they have to endure a solid year of intense physical training, they also had to win the respect of their trainers, wrestlers themselves, most of which are featured on ECCW’s weekly television show, Top Ranked Wrestling. And while it may look easy on TV, the other seven kids who dropped out of the training will tell a slightly different story.

For the five that remained, however, the night of May 29th could not have been sweeter. For the first time since their arduous training began a year ago, they were treated as equals, not greenhorns. And they were told — in front of a live audience — how incredible their accomplishment actually was and that they had earned the respect they had strived so hard to attain.

The five young men who graduated from the House of Pain are known as Sid Sylum, Kyle O’Reilly, El Phantasmo, The Volcano and ‘The Golden Lion’ Gurv Singh. (Real names: Sean Neligan, Kyle Greenwood, Riley Vigier, Dan Westbank and Giby Sihra.) The youngest is 18 and the oldest is 20. These are regular kids who have high school diplomas and work at other jobs. Sean and Kyle work as cooks at a local restaurant. They have busy work schedules, and coupled with a demanding training routine, including three to four practices a week, it leaves little time for the things most kids their age like to do. But ask them, and they’ll tell you it’s all worth it.

“I can’t even explain how it feels,” Sean Neligan said after the graduation show in Surrey. For him, and the other four students who received their graduation certificates, the night of the show was on par — if not more important than — the usual unforgettable nights in a young man’s life: graduation from high school, turning 19, and getting a driver’s license. “The certificate is nice,” Sean explained, “but it’s just a piece of paper. The respect we got from our trainers in the end… that’s worth a whole lot more.”

The respect was laid down in heavy doses from the trainers. Aaron Idol, himself a five-year veteran in ECCW, told the 50-or-so bodies in the audience how proud he was of the students. “You guys don’t get to see them at practice three hours a day, four days a week,” he informed them. “They come home sore every day, working their asses off just so they can get where they are right now. This is the culmination of all their hard work and it’s been my honour to work with these guys.”

Sean’s chest

The respect, however earned, did not come easy. In order to receive their graduation certificate, the five remaining students were forced to endure loud and painful chops from their trainers. Sean’s chest had what looked like a permanent handprint on it after the chops were done. It hurt, Sean admitted, but it made the night all that more memorable. “It shakes everything from your abdomen up,” he recalled. “It just rattles.”

As they prepared to take their chops in the middle of the ring, many of the students laughed nervously or tried to conceal their fear. But the expression on Kyle’s face told a different story. He knew it was going to hurt, but to him, this was perhaps the most crucial time during the whole training: if he could endure the chops and take the pain, he would have proven something not only to the trainers, but to himself.

“It was a very serious thing for me,” Kyle Greenwood recalled after the show. “It was such a defining moment. I just wanted to absorb it all. We have all bonded and become so close, more than the usual sports team.” He explained further that the experience of training to become a pro wrestler is like nothing else any other sport can prepare you for. “It’s so different. It’s like nothing I have ever experienced.”

Sean added that the sense of accomplishment was in many ways overwhelming. And not just because of the training either. (“One guy in our class only lasted one day,” he remembered.) But because it was the fulfillment of a dream — and in his eyes, a destiny. “When I was five years old, I wasn’t thinking of graduating high school or getting my driver’s license. I was thinking about this. About wrestling.”

Sean and Kyle both had very good matches on the graduation show. Sean squared off against a former ECCW Heavyweight champion in Sweet Daddy Devastation. He lost that match, but at the end of the grueling match, Sweet Daddy took the microphone and praised the young student’s efforts. “I was the best in this company at one point,” he said to him. “I was the Heavyweight Champion. And you held your own tonight. So I sure hope you want this.” The handprints on Sean’s chest were his answer.

Kyle Greenwood wrestled in the main event against Idol, in a match that many fans said was the most incredible thing they had seen in a long, long time. In the middle of it, an unfortunately placed kick gave Kyle a bloody nose. He rolled out of the ring in obvious pain, as the blood poured onto the floor. It was an unscripted moment that caught the audience’s breath. Kyle wiped the blood from his face and rolled back into the ring where he took more kicks from his trainer. The match would last another 20 minutes and somehow, the youngster found a second wind and was able to launch a counter-attack. After a series of near-falls, Kyle was able to capitalize on a misstep by Idol and pinned his shoulders to the mat to win the match. The crowd could not hold back their enthusiasm anymore.

Aaron Idol hugs Sean Neligan

After the match, Kyle was sore, but beaming. “That match was the most fun I have ever had,” he said. “It was such a dream come true to be able to wrestle Idol at my graduation show. I had such a great time tonight.” He shook his head in apparent amazement. “I am still overwhelmed by it.”

Idol felt the same way. “I couldn’t be more proud,” he said in a post-show interview, speaking not just of Kyle but all the students. Five years ago, it was his gradation show and he recalled something his trainer, Chance Beckett, had said. “Chance told us that 95% of wrestlers pretend to be wrestlers and 5% actually are wrestlers. Tonight,” he said, now speaking of his students, “those kids were being wrestlers. They weren’t pretending.”

The 2006 House of Pain Graduation Show is one that will not be forgotten. Not by the students; not by their families and friends who cheered them on as they came down to the ring; not by the trainers, some of whom teared up a bit as they handed the students their certificates before embracing them and their accomplishments. Their success now opens the door to a gateway of opportunity: ECCW’s TV deal offers them the chance of more exposure, of more matches.

For Aaron Idol, and the rest of the training team (Disco Fury, Scotty Mac, and Sweet Daddy Devastation), the way the kids wrestled on the graduation show says it all. They came a long way, and yes, they have a long way to go, but they are ready, standing on the edge of something amazing and wonderful — that only a lucky few ever get the privilege to experience. And they are doing just fine.

“For these kids to excel to the degree they have is incredible,” Aaron said, admitting that the students were farther along in one year of training then he had been in three. “These students are amazing. They are coming along so well.” He used Kyle’s performance that night as a reference point for the success of the entire graduating class. “Look at what Kyle accomplished,” Idol said. “He pinned Aaron Idol tonight and no one looked at it and scoffed at him pinning me.” He shook his head in amazement, not speaking about just one student anymore. “Kyle O’Reilly pinned Aaron Idol tonight and everyone cheered.”