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AREA TEEN DREAMS OF CAREER AS A PROFESSIONAL WRESTLER

His parents thought it was just a phase.

But Will Smith, a 19-year-old graduate of North Tonawanda High School, absolutely insisted. He was going to be a professional wrestler.

After years of watching and idolizing wrestlers from the World Wrestling Federation (now WWE) and World Championship Wrestling, he got word of a burgeoning wrestling league in New York State and decided to try out.

"I didn't really know anything besides what I'd watched on TV," Smith said of his audition three years ago for Empire State Wrestling, an independent wrestling organization that draws about 400 fans for monthly events around Niagara County. "It was intimidating because all eyes were on me."

Little did he know that two years later, hundreds more eyes would be on him as he won the ESW Heavyweight Championship Belt, which he held until August of this year. Since he started, his wrestling persona, "Mastiff," has been growing ever more popular among fans, giving Smith the confidence to pursue a career in wrestling -- he hopes with the WWE.

Smith's mom Catherine, in the embarrassing way that moms do, talked about her concern over her son's unorthodox career path.

"He wasn't the most athletic kid," she said, "So when we saw him do those moves, we were surprised. I can't believe he does some of the things he does (in the ring). We have to stay and make sure he can walk and talk afterward." If Smith wasn't athletic as a child, you wouldn't know it now. He is trim, well-built and can bounce around the ring with the agility of a seasoned gymnast. Fans and fellow wrestlers alike credit him with an intense determination to succeed, something that has kept him in the gym for two hours a day and convinced his parents that his drive to wrestle is much more than a phase.

"We've accepted the fact that this is really what he wants to do," Mrs. Smith said. "He eats, sleeps and breathes wrestling. Everything is wrestling."

But his parents' eventual acceptance of Will's desire to wrestle professionally wasn't unconditional. They convinced him to enroll at Niagara County Community College to study physical education so he'd have something to fall back on. Now, he says, they're getting used to the idea of a wrestling career, if not completely enthralled with it.

"My mom has that mother's intuition," Smith said. "She gets scared a lot." His parents attend shows regularly now, though sometimes Will tells his mother to stay home when he knows a match will be particularly violent. At a match a few months ago, Mrs. Smith shows up on the video, hiding behind her husband Michael in fear. She says Will gives her grey hair.

Matches often turn violent, with some wrestlers competing for the "Hardcore Championship Belt" actually drawing blood and hitting each other with metal chairs and even more painful implements. But Smith, who as Mastiff is a self-described "good guy," has left his hardcore days behind and now tends toward the traditional -- good execution and a desire to please the crowd smart enough to know that the results are planned out in advance.

"The hardest thing is to make the fans forget for that split second that it's predetermined," Smith said. "Then you've done your job."

Fellow wrestler Josh LeMay, who asked his wrestling identity not be revealed, said Smith made a great impression from the first day he saw him in the ring.

"I thought he had something really special that I could see," LeMay said of one of Smith's early matches. Since then, Smith has gained the respect of the wrestling establishment and dozens of fans to become one of the most popular of the league's roster of 25 wrestlers. "He's always stuck out in my mind as a great worker and a great athlete. He's very professional in the ring."

Whether it's his professionalism or athleticism that has propelled him this far, Smith has engineered an ideology he hopes will lead him into the big leagues.

"I kind of lean more toward the athleticism more than the showmanship and acting," Smith said. "But that's one of the hardest things to do is to try and relate to the fans and try to make them actually care."

Hard as it might be, Smith seems to have succeeded, according to ESW vice president and co-founder Dan Dobson, who said that one boy idolizes Mastiff an comes dressed in his trademark red pants to every ESW event. For a recent birthday, Dobson said, the boy's parents arranged for Mastiff and other ESW wrestlers to come to his house and staged an impromptu wrestling match in their back yard.

"The kid had the time of his life and I think that kid would sell his soul to the devil to not ever miss an ESW show," Dobson said.

But Smith might not be in ESW for long. Next summer, Smith plans to attend Ohio Valley Wrestling in Kentucky, a training school that bills itself as "the Harvard of professional wrestling" and is recruited heavily by WWE scouts. There, Smith will learn if he has what it takes to be a professional wrestler -- and pay tuition of up to $4,500, depending on how far he makes it in the school's three levels of training.

Though he said he's not nervous about it, he knows the outcome is uncertain.

"They look at you and they decide what they want to do with you. They're not going to tell you to do too much, but they're going to lay it down on you and you basically just have to go out there and make the best of it, have as much fun as you can," Smith said.

Dobson has faith in Smith's abilities, and says his determination from the start has convinced him that he's got what it takes for a successful career. "I think he's going to go really far if he really pushes it," Dobson said. "He really has paid his dues in this business, and he still has a long way to go." But if his past dedication is any indication, Smith will make every effort to get to the top, regardless of chance, circumstance and even his parents.

Just what Smith gets out of wrestling, what drives him to work so hard at it, he had a hard time putting into words. But after some thought, he finally found a response he could live with:

"For once, you're not you," Smith said. "You're a character that these people know and love to watch work in the ring. It's just something that I love to do."