The stigma that pro wrestlers need to fit a certain physique has significantly changed over the last five to 10 years. In the late 1990s through the early 2000s, especially in the WWE, most of the top guys in wrestling were hulking athletes -- standing over 6 feet tall and topping over 275 pounds, most of it muscle.
But in the modern independent wrestling world, performers of all shapes and sizes are making a name for themselves -- and with the wide range of talent on display in the WWE right now, their hopes of one day making it to the grandest stage of them all are more realistic than ever.
These changes are great news for a lot of people, including a Saco, Maine, native by the name of Justin Romero who's making a name for himself in the New England area right now as Ace Romero.
Romero, one of the brightest prospects among a growing crop of agile big men, was only 4 years old when he discovered his love of wrestling, which was fostered by his father, and from that point on, he was a fan of WWE. The Undertaker quickly became his favorite wrestler, especially after his rivalry with Hulk Hogan. He enjoyed sports growing up, including football and lacrosse in high school, but it wasn't until a senior year English assignment when he had a career revelation.
One of Romero's teachers, Caryn Lasante, gave the class an essay assignment: "What do you want to do when you grow up?" Once he put pen to paper, he wrote that he wanted to be a professional wrestler -- but he did so with hesitation, as he was nervous he would be mocked for his career aspirations. He was the only one in his group of friends who had not grown out of love for wrestling.
As all of the students in his class read their papers aloud, Justin nervously waited; once it was his turn and he read out his unusual career goal, to his amazement, his teacher admitted she was a wrestling fan and assured him it was a great career goal.
The idea continued to simmer in his head, and as he considered how he wanted to pursue his dream, Romero's focus turned toward a local wrestling school he wanted to attend, the New England Pro Wrestling Academy. They had a yearly fantasy camp event, allowing anyone who attended to try out before they put down money for training.
Romero's mother was a single parent with three kids to support, which didn't allow her the time to bring him to the school while she was working to support the family. Fortunately for Justin, the school teacher that supported him at his moment of need was once again there to help him out. Lasante and her husband drove him to that first day of the camp.
Once Romero walked in the door, he realized how deep his love of wrestling really was. He took promo classes where he talked in front of a camera for the first time, learned how to fall properly in the ring, and learned a core set of wrestling moves and how to apply them. During his time at the school, one of the school trainers was Warbeard Hanson, an anchor of the heavyweight tag-team division in Ring of Honor and New Japan Pro Wresting as half of War Machine.
During the fantasy camp, Romero was declared the best student of the day, for which he was awarded three months of free training; he enjoyed the training so much that he stayed enrolled in the school for two years. At the end of those two years, his wrestling career hadn't grown as quickly as he had hoped, so as he tried to figure out the next step, Romero decided to move to Florida.
He was in Florida for almost five months before he realized just how much he had missed wrestling, and in a bit of fortuitous timing, Romero saw that the WWE was planning to open a training facility, under the Florida Championship Wrestling (FCW) banner, which allowed you to pay and train at this facility alongside some contracted WWE stars, with the hope of impressing them enough that you'd eventually be able to sign with WWE yourself.
Romero packed his car with his training gear, drove to Tampa where the training warehouse was located and froze. After he arrived, he had the realization that this was something he simply wasn't ready for -- and yet, he still had dreams of becoming a professional wrestler at the highest level. Romero found another local wrestling school, and for the next two years he worked on his craft during the day while doing overnight shifts at a local gas station.
It began to be a steady routine; he'd go to the gym in the morning, do his wrestling training in the afternoon, and then make the money he needed to pay for it all at night. Finally, at the age of 21 and four years of training later, Romero finally felt he was ready for his pro debut.
Ace Romero, as Justin decided to call himself, made his professional wrestling debut for Florida Underground Wrestling versus Steelhorse Vachon. He came up with the name Ace as a biker/brawler gimmick, and while that element faded away over time, the name stuck. While living in Florida, Ace wrestled frequently for FUW for a few years, along with a few other local independent promotions in the area.
With a little experience under his belt, the call of home brought Romero back up north to Maine. With an emerging independent wrestling scene in New England and throughout the Northeast United States, Romero started to get booked more and more often. His travels have taken him out to California, to wrestle for long-time wrestler and trainer Jesse Hernandez's Empire Wrestling Federation, but he has really built up a following and a reputation closer to home by competing for Limitless, Beyond Wrestling and CZW.
"I think Ace has surely become one of the most popular wrestlers in Limitless Wrestling this year," said Randy Carver Jr., who owns and promotes Limitless Wrestling out of Maine. "He's been around for its entirety, even headlining the first event."
Romero has had the opportunity to take on some of the biggest names in independent wrestling over the course of the last year, and Limitless was the site of some of his biggest matches to date.
"AR Fox was my first high profile opponent for Limitless Wrestling," Romero said. "These have been some of my best matches and have helped shape me into the wrestler I am now. Some of my other favorite opponents have been Sami Callihan, JT Dunn as an opponent and as tag-team partner, Anthony Greene, who's my best friend, and current WWE/NXT superstar Donovan Dijak."
Ace wrestles frequently for XWA in Rhode Island, and he continues to expand his horizons with his recent debut for WrestleJam in Connecticut.
"Ace is one of the hottest names on the scene today, with an incredible resume. To organize the best events, you call the best," promoter Michael Banks said.
Despite deciding he wasn't ready when he was in Florida, the WWE very much remains on Romero's radar. He would love to follow in the footsteps of guys like Dijak, who only recently signed with NXT, and one of his mentors, Oney Lorcan, with whom he trained once he moved back from Florida. Lorcan has been at the WWE's Performance Center for a few years after making his name on the independents as Biff Busick.
Romero is on the precipice of doing big things on a more visible stage, and that puts him in a position to pursue working for companies that will help him get the exposure and experience he'll need to reach his goals. He hopes that in the near future, he'll have the chance to work for all of the heavy hitters, including WrestleCircus, Pro Wrestling Guerrilla, EVOLVE, AAW and numerous other top promotions overseas.
It's a great time to be a big man in wrestling, especially one who can move. If all continues according to plan, his future is a bright one.
"If I'm in a crowd, and never seen this guy before, I'm expecting a typical big-man style throughout the match," Carver Jr. said. "With Ace Romero, that's not what you get at all."