From WWE Hall of Fame to Douglasville, Georgia - Rock-N-Roll Express legend Robert Gibson passes on knowledge and passion at his All Pro Championship Wrestling Academy
By Tim Collins
Photography by Joe Keith
I’ve always been a wrestling fan. Even as a kid, back in the late 1960’s I remember watching Big Time Wrestling on a black and white TV on Saturday mornings after I kicked my parents out of their bedroom, which housed the only TV in the house.
My children also took an interest in the sport during the era of Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Macho Man and others. Around that time, The Rock-N-Roll Express, a tag team, burst on to the scene, eventually winning eight championships in the WCW.
Douglasville resident Robert Gibson and his partner Ricky Morton, the duo that make up the Rock-N-Roll Express, now hold the record for the longest continuous tag team. Founded in 1982, they were inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame in March of this year, preceding WrestleMania.
Though the pair continues to extend their 35-year streak as tag-team partners, Robert’s other passion is training new wrestlers. In December of 2015 he opened All Pro Championship Wrestling Academy in Douglasville. Three days a week he works with adults and children who have a passion for wrestling and hope to someday join some of the stars Gibson has mentored.
As a trainer for the WWE he helped develop superstars like Kofi Kingston, Cody Rhodes, Jack Swagger, Dolff Ziegler, and Beth Phoenix. Current WWE stars like John Morrison occasionally pop in to get a few tips from Robert.
The school is humble looking on the outside, located in a small industrial park off Flat Rock Road in Douglasville. The inside seems unassuming as well, but then your eyes are drawn to the walls. They are virtually covered with wrestling magazine covers and other memorabilia featuring Gibson and the Rock –N-Roll Express. And one look at the WWE ring on Robert’s finger makes you realize you are in a special place, in the company of a wrestling legend.
In contrast to the larger than life personality of Robert Gibson, I was struck by the size of the ring. Much smaller than I had expected, I was told that it was a 17-foot ring, which is the norm for smaller arenas. Larger arenas often reach 20 feet, and mega events like Pay per Views are even larger.
I was also taken aback by how loud it is when wrestlers hit the mat, especially when they are a victim of a body slam or a move from the top rope. Under the mat is some padding, but it is maybe an inch of very hard foam. Beneath that lies plywood, thick enough to support a 250 or 300 pound man being driven to the mat by his opponent. Underneath the plywood lie several thick steel pipes.
To get a sense of how it feels to land on the mat, I tried punching it. The ensuing pain gave me an appreciation of how tough these modern day gladiators are. The ropes look padded, but when Robert said ”Try hitting these” with a big smile on his face, I knew “round two” of my pain was about to ensue. It’s actually a steel cable with a garden hose taped around it. Even the turnbuckle, which looks kind of “pillow-like” on TV, felt more like a baseball mitt covered by a thin fabric. Softness in a wrestling ring does not exist.
That being said, the youngsters in the first hour, and adults in the two-hour session were having the time of their lives. Despite an occasional wince of pain, when not “in character” there were plenty of smiles. This was a group of people that shared a passion and a dedication that was a powerful bonding force.
Even the four parents who were watching their kids fly around the ring and bounce off the mat were having a great time. They knew what this experience meant to their child and his development, and their kids were happy. And that atmosphere was contagious. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun, and was around so many happy souls.
All Pro Championship Wrestling Academy has training sessions three days a week. Younger students, ranging in age from 9 to 13, practice for an hour, followed by the adults (currently ranging in age from 18 to 24) for two hours.
As the four young boys were performing some pretty amazing moves, I asked the parents what brought them to the school. The consistent answer I got was that their child loved wrestling, and this is what they want to do with their lives. All of the kids there dream of one day being a WWE superstar, and they are truly dedicated to achieving that goal. They are serious, train hard, and understand that working with a former WWE Hall of Fame coach is a huge opportunity for them to become elite in their sport.
Parents also shared what this school has done for their child in other areas of their lives. Comments from parents included the words “builds confidence” and “teaches respect”. Many mentioned that their kids were doing better in school, because they love coming so much. When one of the kids got an F in a class, his parents took him out of wrestling for a month as a punishment. Since then, it has been all A’s and B’s, because, as mom says, “He’s not going to miss wrestling again.” It’s also tremendous exercise, and these kids were in excellent condition.
David Dysinger and Candy Hogue have been bringing their 12 year-old son Michael here since the school first opened at the end of 2015. He and Robert have become good friends over that time, and now David spends a good bit of time helping Robert make the school a success. Candy designs the flyers for the wrestling matches at the Armory.
David described what a difference coming to the school has made for Michael. “Since Michael has been coming here, he’s learned to be sure of himself. And he doesn’t get messed with at school any more.”
It is obvious to everyone there how much Robert loves working with the kids. I could hear the pride in his voice when he told me that most of these kids could not even do a forward roll when they started. Several parents made comments such as “he is so good with them” and “he’s an awesome teacher.” He had a big grin on his face most of the time, and David told me that’s pretty much a permanent fixture on his face when working with the youngsters.
As the hour long training session neared an end, Robert glanced into the ring and quipped, “They’d stay in that ring all day long if I would let them”. David added “You’ve got to pry them out of there”.
Half of the kids stayed to watch the seven adults ranging in age from 18 to 24, as they filed into the ring for their two-hour training session. They immediately began to crisscross the ring and practice moves on each other at lightning speed. Robert told me that they were doing rotations, and that they continue until they get them right. One could tell that they were having a great time, but that they were also very serious about what they were engaged in.
The speed and skill level on display was mind-boggling. Robert pointed at one of the taller wrestlers and said, “See that guy there – he’s only been here for about 5 weeks”. The one he was referring to seemed to be right at home in the ring, and it was obvious that he, like everyone else there, was focused on taking advantage of the opportunity to train here. “My ultimate goal is to make it to the WWE, and not only that, to be a champion”, he shared. “I am being trained by a Hall-of-Famer. He made it and he’s making all of us make it too”.
Suddenly, I heard a loud shriek coming from the ring, and witnessed something I was certainly not expecting. The only female wrestler Harlow O’Hara had just delivered a punishing blow to a huge male wrestler. He probably stood 6’5” and weighed in the neighborhood of 300 pounds. Then, to my amazement, she grabbed his arm in a hold and flipped him over her driving him to the mat with another scream and loud boom as he landed.
Harlow is actually a hairstylist in “real life”, but her dream is a career in wrestling. In addition to the three two-hour training sessions at the school, she also works out at an MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) gym, practices boxing, does circuit training and weight lifting. When asked what she likes most about wrestling she paused a few seconds and replied, “I think it is being able to have the confidence that you don’t usually have in real life. When I come out from behind the curtain, I get to be Harlow. It gives you an outlet. I also love to perform and make people happy.” Does she ever cheat, when the referee is distracted? “Depends on my mood”, she says with a laugh.
As other wrestlers left the ring for a water break, I asked each one why they were there. Every single one replied that they loved the sport, and they felt that being trained by Robert was a huge opportunity.
Many also relished the opportunity to compete. Once Robert feels that a particular wrestler is ready, they will occasionally be on the card at the National Guard Armory, where an All Pro Championship Wrestling event is held monthly. This month’s event will be held on September 16. They also compete in other regional events as they try to make a name for themselves in the world of wrestling.
As I prepared to leave, I struck up a conversation with Jordan. He’s a very promising looking 18 year old that drives from Conyers to Douglasville during rush hour three times a week to train here. One of his moves was a double flip off of the top rope. As Jordan was telling me how much he enjoyed training at the school, out of the corner of my eye a blur appeared followed by a very large “whack” on Jordan’s chest. I looked over and saw Robert laughing, then looked back at Jordan also laughing despite the obvious sting of what had just happened. It probably hurt way less than being slammed to the mat.
The night was full of so many unexpected experiences, and for a moment I thought, “I’d like to give this a try”. Then I remembered I’m 57 years old, and how hard the mat was. So that thought vanished pretty quickly. But I did want to share my experience, because there are some of our readers who will undoubtedly want to give it a try.