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SUCCESSFUL YOUNG PRO WRESTLER REMEMBERS HIS FALLS ROOTS

Joe Dorgan was a kid with a dream who made it happen. Now he wants to reach out to help kids from his hometown do the same.

At 23, Dorgan, better known to fans of World Championship Wrestling as "Johnny Swinger," is the youngest wrestler under contract to the WCW.

The Niagara Falls native says he "never took a steroid in (his) life," just worked his heart out to achieve his lifelong dream of becoming a professional wrestler.

"I was told it was a million-to-one shot," he said recently during a phone interview from his Atlanta home.

"I did everything I could to narrow those odds down. It was a lot of hard work. Not too many guys make it to this level. It took me five years to get here."

Dorgan hopes to return to the Falls in October to help out when the Niagara Falls Wrestling Club holds a major fund-raiser.

The club is working to turn an abandoned former bowling alley on Ontario Avenue into a wrestling/community center, fund-raising director Cheryl Wagner said, and needs all the help it can get.

"We hope -- we will -- have gymnastics, a weight room, senior citizens' programs, a kitchen, a handicapped program," and educational components, Ms. Wagner said. "Our goal isn't just wrestling, but to unite the entire community.

"Ontario Avenue is a tough section -- there is a need in that area," she said. "We want to reunite the community, young and old side by side, not fearing each other. We want everybody in here."

And Joe Dorgan wants to help the group achieve those lofty dreams, just as he achieved his.

"If I can be there, I will be," he said, signing autographs and doing whatever else he can to help raise the necessary funds.

Dorgan got some help along the way to becoming a pro wrestler, starting with the YMCA membership his mother, Liz, provided at an early age.

"When he was about 10 he asked me for a membership," she recalled.

"He was just a scrawny little thing, and I told him he was too small to lift those weights. He said, 'Come on, Ma, some day I'm going to be a wrestler.' "

Dorgan worked out religiously at the Y, haunting the basement weight room for years until he entered Niagara Falls High School.

He continued to lift and build body mass until he peaked out at about 200 pounds on a 5-foot-10 frame.

After graduating from NFHS in 1993, he enrolled in the Sweet Daddy Siki School of Wrestling in Toronto.

"He told me my son would make it some day, that he was going to be on the road real fast," Liz Dorgan recalled.

Dorgan began traveling to shows throughout Canada, wrestling sometimes for $10 a night. On his first trip to Winnipeg, he earned $100 for two nights of work -- but spent $150 for the bus ride there.

"So I lost money," he said. But he gained experience. And he gained a reputation as a kid willing to do whatever it took to make it to the big time.

It wasn't long before people started taking notice.

Dorgan signed a two-year contract with WCW -- an offshoot of the Time Warner empire -- and started working with guys he had previously watched on TV.

"Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, Greg 'The Hammer' Valentine, these are guys I idolized," he said. "It was like a dream but now it was really happening. It still doesn't seem true."

Breaking into the business wasn't easy. Like the entertainment industry, wrestling can be very political, Dorgan said. If you don't have connections, you're looking at the long and winding road to stardom.

"I tried to find a way," Dorgan said. "I had a lot of talent and ability, but I needed a break to get a job."

The pro wrestling lifestyle isn't an easy one, either.

"You have to be ready to pick up and go on a moment's notice," he said. Dorgan works out for several hours each day, and he counts his blessings that he's so far avoided injury.

"I constantly have a sore back -- my girlfriend (North Tonawanda native Sue McDonald) will tell you that," he said. "Knees, shoulders, ankles, everything."

It's a tough racket. Dorgan has seen guys -- his friends -- blow out knees and even break their necks when their acrobatic routines go slightly wrong.

It doesn't take much when you're being tossed around like a rag doll or jackhammered head-first into the mat.

"There is so much damage that can happen," Dorgan said. "You train all those years and hope for the best. It's something you have to get into while you're young, so you don't have to do it when you're 40 or 45.

"Our top guys are all making a million-plus per year. A couple years of that and you won't need that retirement fund."

Although he doesn't plan to wrestle forever, Dorgan does hope to stay on in the sport, in one capacity or another -- as a producer or road agent or some such.

"Wrestling is a huge, huge business," he said. "It's a billion-dollar-a-year industry. There's a lot of money to be made if people are qualified."

Dorgan hopes that some of the 120 or so youngsters who currently belong to the Niagara Falls Wrestling Club may follow in his footsteps.

Professional wrestling is a far cry from amateur wrestling, he knows -- the pro version being less sport and more "acting, more entertainment" -- but the athleticism and hard work necessary are the same for each.

Dorgan is most proud of the fact that he got where he is without resorting to use of muscle-building, illegal steroids. When he returns to Niagara Falls, he plans to tell the kids just that.

"Stay off drugs and stay in school, and if you work hard you can do anything you want," is his message.

Liz Dorgan never wanted her son to wrestle.

"He was always a smart guy," she said of the soft-spoken kid voted "most shy" by his senior classmates -- Joe crossed out "shy" and penciled in "cool" instead.

"There's no insurance (in wrestling)," she said.

"I worry about him getting hurt. But I'm really happy for him. He took this very seriously all his life and stuck to his guns."

Liz Dorgan is mighty proud of the son she raised alone, sometimes working three jobs.

"He always told me, 'You take care of me now, and I'll take care of you later,' " she said.

"I was blessed with a good son. He just treats me so good. I feel so proud. He's my pride and joy."

To help the Niagara Falls Wrestling Club, call Cheryl Wagner at 297-8970.

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