By KYLE HIGHTOWER
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Bodies crashing to the ground and being slung against the springy ropes of the ring. The slapping of skin as hulking men and women grapple and hurl blows at one another. The clink of free weights and the roar of broadcasters practicing to get it just right for the cameras.
Welcome to World Wrestling Entertainment's (WWE) Performance Center, a $2.5 million, 26,000-square foot facility that opened last month, replacing a much smaller and antiquated facility in Tampa. It's both a graduate school of sorts for the WWE's next generation of talent and a training and rehabilitation center for its top-tier pro wrestlers, called "Superstars" and "Divas."
"Most kids grow up and at least at some point in their lives want to be a fireman or a cop. I've always wanted to be a pro wrestler since I was a little kid," said 29-year-old Corey Graves, one of the 75 aspiring wrestlers based at the center.
The largest part of the facility is a vast space featuring seven wrestling rings that makes the new Orlando facility the largest training facility WWE has ever built.
Wrestler Xavier Woods, 26, said it's the kind of environment he always hoped to train in.
"When I first started, the guy that was training us rented out the back of a storage unit, just a tight little space with bugs and everything. It was like the lowest-level thing you could do," Woods said. "So to be in a place like this ... it's literally unreal."
Aspiring wrestlers currently in training range from former NFL players and Olympians to a former beauty pageant contestant. They signed contracts allowing them to work solely on becoming wrestlers.
"One hundred percent, this is their jobs," said Jane Geddes, WWE senior vice president of talent and development.
Geddes said the WWE built the center envisioning a place where up-and-comers could train alongside established professionals.
WWE is the major leagues of pro wrestling, with a half-billion dollars in annual revenue. Traditionally, it has been a magnet for young talent from smaller, independent wrestling operations. But those minor leagues are dwindling, and while the WWE does still hold some open tryouts, the performance center will be its main training ground for developing talent.
"This is where it starts for professional wrestlers now and this is where it will end -- in a good way -- as they look to move up to our main roster," Geddes said. "The timing was perfect for us to be able to move to the next level and create a facility like this."
Those who succeed will advance to WWE's "Raw" and "Smackdown" television broadcasts, as well as to pay-per-view shows, including "WrestleMania." In the meantime, they split training time with appearances in WWE's weekly "NXT" shows, which are filmed live in front of a crowd of 500 at nearby Full Sail University, a school with a heavy emphasis on entertainment production. The one-hour shows are broadcast in 100 countries.
While the performance center is mainly occupied by its "NXT" talent going through training, one of WWE's biggest stars, Paul "Big Show" Wight, was there recently to rehab from hip surgery.
WWE's old Tampa facility had only three wrestling rings and was located in a warehouse with no air conditioning. The new facility is triple the size. It has an area where television announcers hone their craft, a studio where wrestlers practice television promos, as well as lockers, weight rooms and rehabilitation facilities that are NFL and NBA caliber.
In many ways, developing wrestling characters is just as important as physical skill, as big, over-the-top personas like Hulk Hogan and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson are what sell the sport.
Everything the wrestlers do at the facility, from their development in the ring and in front of the camera during promo sessions, can be sent electronically back to WWE headquarters in Stamford, Conn.
There's no set period for how long a wrestler will spend at the performance center before moving up to the big time, but at the new training hub, wrestlers like Woods and Graves are confident they have what they need to succeed.
"Everything is right at our fingertips," Graves said. "You can actually feel a part of the big machine, which is really cool, because it can get frustrating when you think you're on your own. But now it's like, you're in it."
WWE Training Center an Incubator for Wrestling Talent