At this moment, Brandon Thomas is at peace.
The instant before he emerges from behind a sparkling silver curtain as Pauly Thomaselli – the 28-year-old McHenry native’s professional wrestling alter-ego – Thomas will pause, close his eyes and exhale.
Flashes of green, red, yellow and purple strobe lights collide in the air. The guitar rifts that introduce The Smut Peddler’s “If You’re Gonna Be Dumb, You Gotta Be Tough” pump out of a ring-side speaker system connected to a laptop computer and throughout Fusion Arena – otherwise recognized as the empty store space inside the 5 Star Swap Mart in Villa Park.
“From Dee-troit City on the southwest side,” the ring announcer begins, drawing out every syllable. “The sure sign of a good time…Pau-ly…Thoma…selli.”
Thomas, who isn’t from Detroit but his alias identifies with it, waits a half-second and then emerges through the curtain, bent on destruction.
Professional wrestling is a dance. To be halfway believable, both combatants must work as one, adhering to a script carefully crafted together before the end result – predetermined hours, if not days, before – becomes reality.
It’s what comes in between the opening bell and the referee pounding the mat three times that Thomas has dedicated nearly the past decade of his life. But for Thomas, who won his first state wrestling championship in eighth grade and still ranks second on McHenry High School’s all-time pins leader list, this is what living feels like.
Thomas’ job begins as he makes his way through the 50 people in the crowd on a cold January night. He exchanges high-fives with some, jaw-jacks with others. Pauly Thomaselli is dressed in green and black hand-sewn tights and a mask that’s part of a
new storyline, with a heavy-duty tow chain thrown around his shoulders.
“I love to entertain people – not necessarily being the center of attention – I don’t need that, I don’t crave that. I get that rush,” Thomas said. “My high is going out there and popping a crowd and getting them to either love me or hate me.”
A crooked smile appears when you ask Thomas if he remembers his first professional wresting match. He’s sitting at a square dining room table inside a 620-square-foot apartment in McHenry two doors down from Just 4 Fun Roller Rink, where he’ll compete tonight as Premier Pro Wrestling’s heavyweight champion.
He traces an outline around a tank top, shaping one of the custom costumes a fellow wrestler will wear for tonight’s show. Thomas points to a piece of notebook paper – a work list he’ll tackle over the next four nights, working as late as 11:30 p.m. He’ll stay up all night before the match to complete the work if necessary.
Like that moment behind the curtain, sewing provides Thomas with serenity, interrupted only by the low hum from a 51-inch flatscreen TV. His costume creation comes after Thomas has completed a 12-hour shift at Aptar, a plastic pipe and pipe-fitting manufacturer, where he works as a material handler.
Thomas was 18 when he first stepped into the pro wrestling ring two days shy of his high school graduation. He was learning the ins and outs, and was scheduled to only be part of a Battle Royal for that night’s event in Oak Park. But when another wrestler’s injury created an opening for someone to be part of a new storyline, Thomas stepped in.
Almost 10 years later, Thomas remembers how nervous and unprepared he felt. Despite going over what seemed like a thousand details for his match in which he would send a former champion spiraling downward toward insanity, Thomas can’t shake the memory of that first match.
“It was breathtaking and amazing, “ Thomas said. “All of my friends were out partying, and I was wrestling my first professional match.”
On a PCW card that involved The Road Warriors and “Superfly” Jimmy Snuka – the first wrestlers he ever watched on TV – Thomas won his debut match in front of 1,100 fans for a $10 check.
He was hooked.
“It was like I was doing something real here,” Thomas said.
Learning professional wrestling in independent federations isn’t easy. Thomas was installing swimming pools when he graduated high school. He had every intention of becoming a plumber before planning to study to become an art teacher.
He drove a gravel truck for six years to make a living, spending his extra time traveling with his brother Vito and his “wrestling brother” Sal Tavakoli, who teamed with Brandon and Vito to form The Thomaselli Brothers. The three spent weekends driving from Chicago to Philadelphia, St. Louis or other destinations as far away as Canada. They’d pile into a car, wrestling anywhere from eight to 10 times a month, making just enough money to pay their bills before returning to their normal lives a few days later.
The constant travel was tough. Thomas was a natural physically, but being away from friends, family and his girlfriend started to grind on him, forcing him often to choose his wrestling endeavors over his personal life.
Being the newest addition to the group also meant Thomas had to pay his dues, setting up chairs and assembling the ring where he wrestling and picking up the longest and most undesirable driving shifts on the road.
“He had the [expletive] end of the job, and I’m sure that [ticked] him off from time to time,” said Tavakoli, who still introduces himself as Sal Thomaselli. “But it’s kind of how the hierarchy works.”
Brandon and Vito spent five weeks touring with the Insane Clown Posse hip hop duo, first wrestling as a warm-up act before transitioning to the role of back-up dancers for that night’s show. They formed a tag-team known as The Haters, winning the Juggalo Championship Wrestling tag-team titles three times, quickly emerging as heels, deepening Thomas’ understanding of how character development in professional wrestling works.
Thomas had always been the baby-faced good guy, while Vito had embraced the villain role. As The Haters, Thomas remembers walking to the ring in cities like Denver and Farmington, N.M., being pelted with bottles and debris – all of which quickly became part of the routine.
While he’d learn valuable lessons about the business from wrestling future WWE Champion CM Punk, Evan Bourne and current WWE United States champion Antonio Cesaro, it was Vito who made sure his brother – younger by 3½ years – was taken care of. Vito also saw what promoters who threw Thomas into matches against big-time competition believed he was capable of.
“He just got it right away,” Vito said.
Before long, Thomas earned a reputation as a hard worker whom promoters such as Randy Ricci never had to worry about. Ricci, who runs Premier Pro Wrestling and who has worked with nearly every pro wrestling outfit including WWE, was immediately impressed with Thomas. He worked hard, knew his place among veteran performers and never complained about what he was asked to do.
Word also spread that Thomas created tights and other wrestling gear. He started sewing after discovering how much he’d have to pay for others to make them.
His mother taught him how to load the machine, but he did the rest. He bought the Singer sewing machine that sits in his apartment next to stacked plastic bins full of fabrics he purchases online to keep costs down – part of a set-up he jokingly refers to as his own personal sweat shop.
Over the years, he’s made gear for wrestlers – independents and big-timers alike – creating a side business that helps supplement his income from the factory job. It’s part of a total package Ricci said sets Thomas apart.
At 5-foot-9, 215 pounds, Thomas doesn’t measure up to WWE standards Ricci defines as “a beauty contest” physically. But after meeting Thomas 11 years ago, Ricci knew when he decided to build a company, he would want Thomas involved.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys come up, and Pauly has an ‘it’ factor,” Ricci said. “I saw him doing two or three things that no one else can do and I said, ‘That kid’s special’ – I’ve got to book Pauly Thomaselli.”
There have been days, Thomas admits, when the business has become a grind. There have been nights when he went to bed, swearing he was done with wrestling, content to follow a more traditional life path.
But then there are other times, like that moment behind the curtain when Brandon Thomas is left in the cluttered storage room, when life as Pauly Thomaselli remains appealing. Thomas is now a respected teacher, passing on lessons learned on Wednesday nights at Ricci’s wrestling school in Mundelein to those breaking into the business.
Gone are the nights when he performed for $10 or $20. These days, he won’t leave his apartment for less than a dollar figure he asked not to be published. He and Vito finalized this week a deal to wrestle Feb. 16 in Detroit in a JCW/Insane Clown Posse promotion when The Haters will re-emerge almost two years after Vito last wrestled.
There are no definite timelines on how long it will last. April, the month he turns 29, will be Thomas’ 10-year anniversary. He promised himself a long time ago he’d quit if wrestling ever stopped being fun, and that he’d chase other pursuits if he hadn’t become a star in 10 years.
Ricci is convinced if he can get Thomas in front of the right people with either WWE or TNA promotions, Pauly Thomaselli could find his way to the big time. Brandon Thomas – the guy with the shoebox apartment and a girlfriend living an hour away in Beloit, Wis. – isn’t committing to anything.
“If I make it somewhere, great,” Thomas said. “But I’ve really had a good 10 years. I’ve made money wrestling, but it’s never paid my bills. It’s a hobby, yes, but it’s more of a passion, and I look at a business where there’s thousands of people and 50 real spots (in WWE).
“So the odds are really against you. And if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. ... But I don’t want to quit right now. I’m having too much fun.”